Sunday, 21 April 2013

Fellow Travellers

This post is going to discuss some plot points in BioShock Infinite. There will be spoilers, and while I will try to avoid major plot reveals, you should bear in mind that there may be some; if you can't abide 'em, then now's the time to stop reading.

On with the show!

One of the main political groups Booker discovers in Columbia is the Vox Populi, a rag-tag bunch of rebels in desperate need of guns. He agrees to help them, in exchange for a favor, an act that causes his companion Elizabeth some concern. Is helping the Vox Populi the right thing to do? Will they be just like the heroes of Les Miserables - a rather melancholy end for them, of course, but death in a good cause can only be heroic - and make things better for the people?

Which goes to show that French literature, no matter how masterful, can't be trusted when it comes to describing revolutions. As a general rule, successful revolts tend to go something like this:

A: These many, then, shall die; their names are prick'd.
O: Your brother, too, must die; consent you, Lepidus?
L: I do consent ...
O: Prick him down, Antony.
L: Upon condition Publius shall not live,
     Who is your sister's son, Mark Antony.
A: He shall not live; look, with a spot I damn him.
     But, Lepidus, go you to Caesar's house; 
     Fetch the will hither, and we shall determine
    How to cut off some charge in legacies.
L: What, shall I find you here?
O: Or in the Capitol.
exit L
A: This is a slight, unmeritable man,
     Meet to be sent on errands; is it fit,
     The three-fold world divided, he should stand,
     One of the three to share it?

This is what a successful revolt looks like, and has looked like ever since man first started building cities. An unsuccessful revolt looks something like this:

D: Shall no man else be touched, but only Caesar?
C: Decius, well urged: I think it is not meet,
     Mark Antony, so well beloved of Caesar,
     Should outlive Caesar: we shall find of him 
     A shrewd contriver; and, you know, his means,
     If he improve them, may well stretch so far
    As to annoy us all; which to prevent,
    Let Antony and Caesar fall together.
B: Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius, 
     To cut the head off and then hack the limbs,
     Like wrath in death and envy afterwards;
     For Antony is but a limb of Caesar:
     Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.

It is a pattern that repeats itself, time and again. When Richard of Gloucester finally has the throne of England in his grasp, after hard and bloody campaigning, his first act is to silence his brother's Woodeville relations, who are accused - whether accurately or not is impossible to say - of plotting against Richard's life. Shortly afterward, Richard's brother's children go conveniently missing, and the fate of the princes in the Tower has never been conclusively proved. Not long after that, Richard himself ends up dead at Bosworth field, only to have his bones excavated under a car park, of all things. The socialists who followed Marx and Lenin, and overthrew the Tsar, did so out of the highest motives; "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" is a noble sentiment, but soon snuffed out. Come the mid-1920s, many of those who follow Marxist ideals are under suspicion, in exile, or dead; when Stalin consolidates his power, the age of assassination and condemnation begins. "The French give a man rum before they lead him out to the guillotine," said Mikhail Koltsov, Stalin's man in Spain during the Civil War, "In these days we give him champagne." Koltsov was a man with few illusions; he too died, a victim of Stalin's bloodlust.

A rebellion that succeeds does so because it consolidates power quickly and decisively. Time and again, that has meant killing off your political enemies as quickly as possible. Even the United States, much more fortunate in this regard, has its Whiskey Rebellion, and victory for Washington and the rebels meant disaster for the Loyalists, tens of thousands of whom emigrated. But that is a rare example of a revolution that consolidates itself without excess bloodshed. Regrettably many rebel leaders more closely resemble Pol Pot than Washington and, as the CIA has sometimes learned to its cost, the rebels you support today may be your enemy tomorrow.

Even so, it is rare, in a modern fictional context, for rebels to be portrayed in a bad light. Instead it is almost axiomatic that the rebels are the good guys, and - particularly in a video game - if you join the rebels, you must be fighting on the side of the angels. It is very, very uncommon for that not to be the case, and even on the occasions when the rebels turn out to have feet of clay, they still get something like a noble exit. After all, the rebellion isn't to be blamed for the actions of a few bad apples, and if you can only kill the right people at the right time, justice will assuredly prevail. In BioShock context, the Vox Populi soon reveal themselves as being less heroic than the protagonists of Les Miserables, which is altogether a more realistic view of revolutions than video games normally give.

In an RPG context, particularly as relates to Trail of Cthulhu, what does this mean?

To begin with, the protagonists in your campaign may well believe - as Elizabeth initially believes, and as many intellectuals of the 1930s rationalize it - that revolution is the necessary first step that will lead to a utopia. There are any number of political revolts kicking off, or threatening to kick off, in the decade, many of them inspired by events in Russia. Spain's Civil War is the classic, the one that inspired Orwell first to fight, and later to create his seminal work of revolutionary fiction. Across Europe there are groups dedicated to the cause of working class revolution. Central and Southern America are still smouldering after a tumultuous nineteenth century, Ghandi is fasting and avoiding assassination in India, nationalism is bubbling away in Africa, while in America Roosevelt is dealing with unprecedented poverty by making an unprecedented move to the political Left. Everyone believes revolution is coming, and that the people they most dislike are "a bunch of mindless jerks who will be the first against the wall when the revolution comes." If you believe that revolution is a bad thing, then clearly you must be a member of the bourgeoisie, and therefore thoroughly deserve what's coming to you.

Next comes disillusion. As Orwell demonstrates, there is nothing more likely to induce a violent dislike of revolution than seeing one close up. There will be the pricking of lists, the poisonous umbrellas, torture, unjust imprisonment, and betrayal both of people and of the revolutionary ideal. Your former comrades quickly become your worst enemies; indeed, they have to, even if they would prefer otherwise, since to defend you means being denounced in turn. Or perhaps they have internalized the party message to such a degree that to think otherwise is beyond them.

"It would be impossible for me," wrote Orwell, "for instance, to debate the rights and wrongs of the Barcelona fighting with a Communist Party member, because no Communist - that is to say, no 'good' Communist - could admit that I have given a truthful account of the facts. If he followed his party line dutifully he would have to declare that I am lying or, at best, that I am hopelessly misled and that anyone who glanced at the Daily Worker headlines a thousand miles from the scene of events knows more of what was happening in Barcelona than I do."         

Fictions work best when they mirror reality. For that reason, the Vox Populi - and the revolt in general - in BioShock Infinite's Columbia will probably have a much greater effect on the video game playing audience than the hundred other rebellions their avatars may have joined in the past. In your RPG campaign, I would recommend you strive for something similar. In Trail, this could be reflected in something as simple as a Drive, Pillar of Sanity or Source of Stability. Perhaps this character genuinely believes in the worker's revolution, or their best friend and mentor is a champion of the downtrodden. Or, if the Keeper wants to go further, perhaps the game could be set in the context of an existing revolution, like Spain. Even in a less tumultuous setting, like Bookhounds of London, there's scope for revolutionary doings; the owner of a bookstore can easily be distributing political propaganda on the side, or attending meetings of a very dubious nature. No doubt the police, or the domestic intelligence services, would like a quiet word.    

The key thing to bear in mind is, in fiction, rebellions give players something to fight for. That's why video games use them so often; they're an excellent context for the ongoing action. But those games ignore the wider context of rebellion at their peril. "You just complicate the narrative," Booker is told, and that ought also to be true of your players. The revolution is by no means an unmixed blessing, and the protagonists may soon discover that what they thought they were fighting for is less substantial than, say, a castle in the clouds.

BioShock Infinite Review (ish)

As my next post is going to reference Irrational Games' BioShock Infinite, it occurred to me that I ought to post a brief explanation of the game, before I get down to brass tacks. Consider this a kind of review of the Xbox 360 edition, which I will keep as spoiler-lite as possible. I also ought to state at the start that, while I do post news articles and features for the Escapist, this mini-review is in no way associated with the Escapist.

Now, on with the show.

The year is 1912. You play as Booker De Witt, down-at-heels private inquiry agent, assigned one simple task: capture a girl named Elizabeth, and bring her back to your shadowy masters in New York. Except Elizabeth is held captive in Columbia, a floating city high above the clouds, ruled over by a self-proclaimed prophet and messiah figure, Comstock. Comstock relies on a combination of religion and mad science to keep his city afloat and his flock obedient; along the way you'll be mastering at least some of that mad science in order to achieve your objective. These Vigors, which allow you to hurl fireballs, electrocute enemies, blast them with water cannons or savage them with bloodthirsty crows, among many other powers, are your main means of keeping the enemy at bay. Lord knows you need 'em; the human opponents are reasonable at Medium difficulty, at least until end game when they start getting tough, but the mechanical Founders, Frankenstein monster-esque Handymen, Vigor-using crow fanatics and firemen all do their best to pound you flat.

The plot and setting are the two main draws here. Ken Levine's team have created something really special, in Columbia; unlike many another fictional world, you'll come to believe in this twisted utopia in the sky. There's such incredible intention to detail here, much of which has a deeper meaning that you'll only come to appreciate late game, as the plot threads start winding together. Characterization is also vital. This is one of the few first-person titles that gives the protagonist a voice, a decision which makes perfect sense, and Elizabeth - your target - is one of the best designed heroines in video game fiction. Her personality and abilities are both engaging and extremely useful. Expect to see plenty of Elizabeth and Booker cosplayers at conventions over the next few years! Special mention must be made of your two not-quite-allies, the Lutece twins, who you'll come to love and hate in equal measure. Again, perfect cosplay material for the right couple!

Game play is pretty standard shooter stuff, and if you played the original BioShock you'll already have a good idea what to expect from Vigors. You'll feel like a superhuman, blasting your way through the ordinary enemies, but don't get too cocky, or the Handyman will punish you! There's a great variety of powers here, and I strongly recommend experimentation. In my first play through, I concentrated exclusively on the powers you get early on - Possession, Murder of Crows, and Devil's Kiss - and while I enjoyed them, on my second game I deliberately concentrated on all the others. I soon found that, contrary to my initial assessment, the other Vigors - Charge and Undertow being my two favorites - are incredibly powerful, and well worth playing around with.

This is particularly so if you concentrate on getting the best kind of equipment. New to BioShock Infinite is Gear, special shirts, pants, boots and hats that give you extra boosts in combat. If you concentrate on a combat build that suits your style, you'll soon discover massive benefits. Take Charge, for example, a Vigor that allows you to run straight at the enemy, dealing massive damage. On it's own, it's pretty sweet, and perfect for taking down the heavy hitters. Combine that with gear that benefits a close-combat style, and you'll be clearing the room in no time. Towards the end, each Charge was smacking my main target, stunning all the others, making them vulnerable to damage for 5 seconds, and had a 40% chance of Possessing one of them, free of charge. Perfect for a donnybrook, particularly if you're facing off against half a dozen enemies or more.

Mind you, you do have to enjoy a donnybrook. There isn't a non-lethal way of dealing with foes, and the melee finishers in particular have set off some people's gore alarm. I didn't find that a problem, but then I enjoyed the original BioShock, which had exactly the same kind of play. 

I'm told there have been issues with the Xbox 360 version of the game. I can't speak to that, as I never encountered any of them, and by now some or all may have been fixed. It's worth checking before you buy.    

I should point out that this title features very linear game play. That should come as no surprise to veterans of the original BioShock, since linear game play was integral to the focus of the plot in that title, and also in this. However if you're looking for plenty of side quests and options, you may come away from this disappointed. Though there are some side quests, there aren't many, and - unlike a Dishonored-style sandbox - there's only one way to get from A to B, most of the time. You may also get a little sick of Press X To [fill in the blank]. However this title, like the previous, was put together with that style of play in mind ... and I really can't say more than that without giving away massive plot spoilers. You'll just have to trust me when I say that it works very well indeed.

Bottom line: if you like shooters, and enjoy an immersive game world with a cleverly designed plot, this is the title for you. If you're allergic to linear game play, and would prefer a non-lethal way of dealing with your enemies, best avoid. Expect to see this on Game of the Year lists, come December!

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Bookshelf: I, Phone

In this post, I'm going to be talking about a book I picked up at Eastercon: I, Phone, by David Wake. I have the paperback edition, but this is also available in eBook form via Kindle and Smashwords.The setting is the not-so-distant future, in which smart phones are considerably smarter, and more self-aware, than their owners. It kicks off with the hero of the piece, Jeeves, rated at 157 IQ or 2.5 Rossum, whichever you'd rather, recording and reporting on the murder of his owner, Alice Wooster, via his Black Box app. Except, as it turns out, she doesn't die; her attacker does, and when his bullet-riddled corpse is discovered with Alice the only logical suspect, Jeeves, good net-citizen that he is, promptly alerts the authorities. Thus begins the first of what will prove to be many escape attempts, as Alice and Jeeves do their damndest to get out of the clutches of the law, and the mysterious group who also seems to want them both dead. Incidentally, if anyone was wondering whether the naming of Jeeves and Wooster was a coincidence, I think you can stop wondering.

The plot thickens when Jeeves discovers that the mysterious group after Alice's blood happens to have something to do with the latest virtual reality technology, intended to upgrade everyone's VR goggles so that they have something pleasant to look at when they walk through London. Gone are the homeless and urban decay, replaced by pretty much whatever the user fancies. This narrative device also allows Jeeves some freedom of movement, since - as a creature of the internet - he can download himself into the virtual reality, becoming essentially independent of his physical constraints. This becomes very useful later in the plot, when Jeeves' physical form is captured by the mysterious agency, and he's forced to become a kind of techno-ghost, haunting his way through a virtual cityscape. His avatar might change from Cary Grant to a less homosexual Stephen Fry, according to the whims of his owner Alice, but Jeeves remains Jeeves throughout; the sensible one, the planner, the thinker, whose ultimate goal is to keep his owner out of harm's way. Even though, as his ethics programming dictates, he's the one who sometimes puts her in harm's way to begin with.

Consider this:


"Hello, Alice, it's still early," I say. "There is rain due later in the afternoon. Your appointments today are -"

"Jeeves, shut up!"

"Sorry, Miss."

"Why did you remove your battery?"

"I didn't. I can't."


"I don't have any arms."

I appear to be writing a contemporaneous natural language log, but the only App I have that would do that is the Black Box App, which is only activated in an emergency. I wonder why.

Alice is looking around the flat, desperately. I wonder why.

"Alice," I ask. "What's the matter?"

"There's a dead body in my bedroom."


She cradles me in her arms and carries me to the bedroom before thrusting me out as if she wants to take a photograph. Alice isn't wearing any clothes, so perhaps we've reached that inevitable day when she's run out of fresh laundry. The room is a mess. I already have a note to sort out the maid service, along with adjusting her exercise avatar, so maybe I ought to increase its level of urgency. That's strange, I only have two notes on file, which seems a very small number. However, rather than worry about that now, I focus on what Alice is trying to show me. True enough, there's a dead body in the bed. It's male, tall, looking up. He has a third eye in his forehead as if a camera lens has been inserted. He's been shot. I search around for his identity and emergency protocol, but there's no phone within wi-fi range. I'm at a loss.

Wake's strengths are in little moments like these, that capture the essence of the scene and also the characters in it. There are some brilliant scenes to be enjoyed here; my personal favorite came when Jeeves discovers a little colony of desperate souls, people who lost their smart phones and who now have no idea what to do with themselves. They sit, lost and alone, in cafes, trying to fiddle with invisible touch screens, playing games that nobody but them can see.

Where he sometimes falls short is the larger narrative. From the moment Jeeves becomes a virtual ghost, everything gets a bit muddy, and towards the end I couldn't help but think that the only reason Jeeves abandoned his casing was because Wake couldn't think how else to carry the plot along. A protagonist who can't move under his own power isn't much good to a writer. There's enough technobabble to carry the concept, but I began to wonder whether the concept was strictly necessary.

That, and Alice is underwritten. Jeeves' devotion to her may be programmed in, but the reader's devotion isn't, and after a time it becomes increasingly difficult to see why Jeeves is so attached to her. It doesn't help that she all but vanishes for significant portions of the plot, thus depriving her of spotlight time that might have made her more interesting.    

Those two caveats aside, I thoroughly enjoyed I, Phone. Science fiction isn't a genre I read much any more, and novels like this make me wonder why I don't, when there's stuff as good as this out there. It captures the best thing about fiction: it makes the world we live in suddenly seem magical, without using any ingredients other than the ones we're already familiar with. I first read this in a rush while Eastercon was still ongoing, and that should tell you something; that, at a time when there were a thousand and one other things to do, I couldn't put it down. It's rare when a book does that, and for that reason I'd recommend I, Phone to anyone with an interest in science fiction, smart phones, or the modern world. It's grand stuff!

Friday, 12 April 2013

Things That Must Be Done


The last two weeks have been a lot of fun. I went to the UK for a couple weeks, and was lucky enough to spend some time with Simon Rogers and the Pelgrane folks, before heading off to Eastercon. Eastercon, for those who don't know it, is a fantasy and science fiction event that takes place every year at Easter, hence the name, and its writer's track is phenomenal. I have to go back next year. I don't think I've seen that many fiction creators in one place before. I now have plenty of material for a few reviews, which I'll be posting shortly.

One quick digression on the subject of reviews: one author whose works I picked up there and have since read is Janine Ashbless, whose work includes mainly erotic fiction. I won't be reviewing her stuff, not because I didn't enjoy it or because of the subject matter, but because she's been a friend of mine for years, and I don't think I could fairly review a mate. That said, I can recommend whoever I want, and I definitely recommend her novel Heart Of Flame, particularly to those who like their Arabian Nights fantasy colored with a little Lovecraftian horror, by way of Robert E. Howard. The plot is straightforward enough: a beautiful princess has been captured by a djinn, and its up to our hero Rafiq, and his sorceress companion Taqla, to get her back. But first they need to find the answer to a simple riddle ... I wish I'd also had the foresight to pick up Named And Shamed, as Janine held a reading of it on the last day, and it sounds really interesting. The setting is alternate history present, with our heroine having to tread carefully around the scheming Good Folk. Tansy stole a poem that the old people really, really want back; but she hasn't got it any more. A man's life is at stake, and now Tansy has to decide how far she's prepared to go to return the fair folk's prize. Given that this is the sort of fiction that features BDSM as well as debauched dryads, "how far" is a phrase laden with meaning ...

Now, digression over. One thing Eastercon taught me is the necessity of getting things done. My writing's been doing really well, recently; I've had plenty of articles in the Escapist, and my Pelgrane work is going great guns. I have several pieces in with them right now, some of which should see the light of day before the end of the year. One of these has the working title Storm Of Steel, an anthology - print this time, not .pdf - which will include several of the Great War scenarios, an expanded rule set, and other good things. In fact, I talked with the YSDC folks about that while I was in Bradford, and there's an interview due out at Yog-Sothoth very soon, which - if you're a patron there - you'll be able to listen to. I'll also be re-starting my Bookshelf segment at YSDC, on a monthly basis.

So I have every reason to be pleased with how things are going, but it's not enough. I keep telling myself that I ought to work on something larger, and each time I try to get started, there's something that delays it. If I'm truthful, "delay" is - at least in part - a stand-in word for "procrastinate". There's no excuse for it, really, try as I might to find one. I've met plenty of authors in the past few weeks, and while all of them were excellent people, none of them did anything that I couldn't do myself. I need to get started, and the best time for that is now.

The working title is Witchfinder General. It's alternate history, set in 1980s America. There are eight months left in the year; time to get this show on the road, and if I haven't broken the back of this particular project before Christmas, I'll know the reason why. It won't be because other things got in the way. It will be because I let them get in the way. 

There are some things that must be done, and this is one of them.