Saturday, October 21, 2017

Of Orcs and Men

In Peter Jackson's film "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," Gothmog (the commander of Sauron's army) declares, "The age of Men is over. The time of the Orc has come!"  Flush from his victory at Osgiliath, the statement would prove to be demonstrably false.  It does beg the question though, "what are orcs exactly and how do they differ from men?"  J.R.R. Tolkien spilt a lot of ink developing races of men, elves and dwarves, but despite being major antagonists orcs only get a vague backstory lacking in details.  According to the Silmarillion, Morgoth (the original big bad) brought orcs into being by capturing elves and through torture/mutilation infused them with malice for all living things including themselves.  It's important to note that Morgoth could not create life so orcs are a purely malignant form of that which they previously were.  It was a great way to create hero fodder, but as he elaborated on them further through a glimpse in a story here or a fragment of a letter there it became less and less clear as to what orcs were really supposed to be.

One of the more confusing aspects of orcs is the numerous ways they can be referred to.  "Goblin" is a synonymous term, as are "urco" and "orch" in their respective eleven dialects.  The dwarves use the word "rukhs," while the wild men call them "gorgûns."  In the Black Speech they are "uruk-hai," literally "orc-folk."  Physically, orcs are described by Tolkien as sallow-skinned, flat-nosed humanoids with slanted/squinty eyes.  Their stature varies from a hobbit to a full-grown human, but with short, thick, crooked legs and bent backs.  This, combined with descriptions of long arms and large hands give the impression that orcs are vaguely simian looking from a distance.  Unlike apes though they fashion their own crude arms/armor and even possess some equally crude healing arts...oh, and they sing.  As for languages, orcs speak a kind of cockney English in addition to a smattering of the Black Speech (which isn't actually their native tongue).

Tolkien suggested in correspondence a number of ideas about orcs; they were made out of slime and heat found in the earth, the were mindless beasts without the influence of a powerful master (such as Melkor, Sauron or Saruman), some were actually half-breeds that basically looked like ugly humans.  The problem with all these "theories" is none of them jive with facts already established in published works.  Couple that with the wording used (which bears more than a passing resemblance to the ways ethnic groups are ostracized or demonized) and things start smelling a bit fishy.  Was Tolkien racist?  It wouldn't surprise if that were true to some degree given how hard it is to find someone who is completely free of bigotry these days, let alone a century ago when Tolkien was in his formative years.  However, even if the answer is a resounding "yes" it only serves to muddle the mystery of orcs even more.

A big problem with much of the fantasy literature that came after Lord of the Rings is copycat authors not thinking very deeply about their influences and source material.  Monolith's Middle-earth video games are no exception.  By attempting to expand on what Tolkien created the pitfalls, plot holes, and problems not only carried over, but in some cases were amplified.  Of course, the well-worn fantasy trope of black versus white, light versus dark or unambiguously good versus irredeemably evil, is worth considering as well.  Remember that Tolkien saw Middle-earth as a precursor to our actual history, a time of myth and legend.  The concept being that divine influence faded over time, followed by magic and finally binary shades morality until things became the world we live in now (with it's various hues of grey); no more good elves, but no more bad orcs either...except that's not how it actually went down.  Again, in the Silmarillion, there are instances of elves doing awful things.  Some of the lesser entities in the pantheon who had a hand in bringing about Middle-earth were also flawed in the way Greco-Roman or Norse gods are.  This serves to only raise further doubts.  If the light did bad things, doesn't that mean the dark could have done some good?

Further adding to feelings of skepticism is the simple fact that we, the audience, don't get to witness (or even hear first-hand accounts of) the lives of orcs.  That said, they are clearly horrible, especially the way they treat each other, but then again how old are most orcs?  If they are derived from elves then they should be immortal, but the oldest one ever mentioned was Azog, who died at the age of 140.  Perhaps the vast majority of orcs are basically deranged children who rarely live long enough to grasp at the reins of maturity.  It appears that orcs, when left to their own devices can form self-sustaining collectives such as those found in the Misty Mountains, Moria, Mount Gundabad and Mount Gram.

Can orcs be redeemed?  Probably not, but since nobody has ever tried it's impossible to say one way or the other.  Maybe Monolith will explore this matter further in DLC for Shadow of War.  Until then though, I don't blame people for casting a critical eye on something that has never really added up.     

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Great War

In the immortal words of Jedi Master Yoda, "Wars not make one great."  It is an adage that has never been more true than during the First World War.  As far as military conflicts go, it was only surpassed in terms of death and destruction by World War 2.  Compared to WW1, the losses incurred in the Korean War or Vietnam War, at best equate to a single battle on the Eastern Front.  The Gulf War death toll probably would end up being an unnamed "skirmish," "raid," or simply chalked up to unavoidable attrition...and yet despite the sheer amount of bloodshed The Great War is often passed over by game developers in lieu of other armed conflicts.  The reason for this is, I think, very simple.  The opportunity for badass heroics were few and far between.  Casualties were so high that British Expeditionary Force in France burned through its initial strength of 120,000 highly trained soldiers after just three months of deployment.  As bad as that is it got worse with 57,470 killed or wounded in the opening day of the Battle of the Somme roughly two years later.  Many miles away from the front, Generals could hardly be called heroic either...even the few that tried to use innovative tactics still wracked up horrific losses with little to show for it.  Still, despite the demoralizing carnage there are some examples of video game developers that tried to make a game about the war to end all wars.

My first exposure to a World War 1 themed video game was the somewhat oddly sounding The Ancient Art of War in the Skies.  The third and final entry in the Ancient Art of War strategy game series by the now defunct MicroProse.  Essentially, the player took control of the air war while ground battles were handled automatically by the AI.  It was possible for the player to influence what was happening down below through bombing runs, but the aerial viewpoint provided to the player depicted trench warfare as two squiggly parallel lines that would flash and rumble with distant explosions and gunfire.  The trench lines shifted slowly this way leaving blasted, cratered terrain in their wake.  It wasn't a particularly good game, but it did come with a thick instruction manual that also included a lot of history about the actual conflict.  Ever since then I've taken a great deal of personal interest in the time period.

Over the years there have been many other attempts to adapt the air combat aspect of the First World War.  Aside from the one I just mentioned, they have been without exception flight-sims of varying quality.  Then, there are a couple of RTS games which conceptually sound like a deliberate exercise in frustration and futility.  Perhaps it's true to the spirit of The Great War, but it's not exactly fun to play (especially when numerous bugs and bad AI are factored in).  A couple of FPS titles have also come out over the years, the most recent of which - Battlefield 1 - deserves praise simply for showing that WW1 was truly a global conflict rather than focusing exclusively on the Western Front (which already tends to get the lion's share of attention).  One other title that happens to be my personal favorite is a little flash game called 1917.  It plays a bit like a tower defense game, but has enough polish and style to separate it from the pack.  On a side note there's also a rather odd indie horror game called 1916: Der Unbekannte Krieg that puts the player in the shoes of a German soldier who is being stalked by velociraptors in trenches too deep to climb out of.  In fact the whole objective of the game is to find a ladder so that the player can go over the top...with depressingly predictable results.  On the opposite end of the spectrum there is the light-hearted Toy Soldiers, which allows the player to take control of a variety of units that must repulse wave after wave of windup infantry, cavalry, vehicles, aircraft and even a Tsar Tank in all its impractical glory.

One final take on The Great War, I want to mention is a mod for Hearts of Iron 4 that begins with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand or four years prior depending on the player's choice.  I opted for the latter and decided to give the Ottoman Empire a try.  As fate would have it, I got caught up in the First Balkan War between myself and an alliance four lesser powers consisting of Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro.  After about an in-game year of fighting, I emerged the victor with Serbia and Bulgaria conquered while Greece and Montenegro sued for peace.  Imagine my surprise when 1914 rolled around, but The Great War didn't begin.  I guess it's hard for Russia to declare war on Serbia when it no longer exists.  A happy ending?...not likely given what a powder keg European politics were at the time, but as far as alternative history goes it's a more plausible turn of events than trenches becoming overrun with carnivorous dinosaurs.   

I feel like I forgot about something...

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Even Homer Nods

Some references in gaming are obvious and other times they're hard to spot.  A lot depends on being in the know, and what might seem obvious to one person may fly completely over the head of another.  Here's three things that took me a long time to notice.

The assorted shrine puzzles found in the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild come in a variety of forms.  One type that stands out though involves manipulating oversized glowing ball bearings.  Specifically, the challenge is to get them in shallow bowl-shaped depressions in order to trigger a particular mechanism.  Some require the use of pistons to knock them around, while others utilize motion controls to tilt the terrain (which causes the balls to roll a particular way).  The thing is these "marble mazes" are surprisingly similar to some of the toys Nintendo used to make before they got into the video game business.  I've heard a lot of people claim that Breath of the Wild is an example of Nintendo returning to its roots.  I think they're right even more so than they might realize.

It's no secret that the Wing Commander series is basically World War II in space.  Instead of the Empire of Japan though we have an alien race of anthropomorphic felines called the "Kilrathi."  I'm not sure why they went with cats...maybe because asian sometimes have a more slanted shape to their eyes than people of european descent?  Personality-wise I think the Vichy French in North Africa are a better fit, but I digress.  Slightly racist undertones aside, the space fighter craft found throughout the Wing Commander series look vaguely similar to modern jet fighters, but oftentimes use real WW2 combat airplanes as a template.  Missile systems aside, most medium fighters seem to be based on the Bf 109 or Mitsubishi Zero.  Meanwhile, heavy fighters (particularly the "Jalthi") feel like copies of the Bf 110 "Zerstörer."  Additionally, the Dralthi IV resembles the Heinkel He 100 prototype fighter.  Not to mention in one of the novelizations the Asjaka torpedo-bomber is a rather obvious stand-in for the B6N "Jill."  Granted, WW2 didn't feature neutron guns or tachyon cannons so the analogy isn't perfect, but then again, if we're talking accurate depictions of space warfare then Children of a Dead Earth has pretty much everything else beat.

There's a long running gag in Paradox Interactive games involving comet sightings.  It usually happens toward the start of a new game and has no real significance beyond what appears to be an auspicious beginning.  More recently though platypus sightings have become the à la mode.  Stellaris featured free DLC in the form of a mammalian race that looks suspiciously like a platypus.  Hearts of Iron IV also features an easter egg of sorts in that converting Australia into a fascist regime earns them the name "Empire of the Platypus."  Some players on the official forums bemoaned this for making the game seem silly, while simultaneously failing to realize that the whole idea of Australia adopting such a system of government is completely ludicrous to begin with.  When you think about it, the platypus is a weird animal; it lays eggs like a reptile, but has the feet and mouth of a duck attached to the body of a beaver.  Also, for some reason it has poisonous barbs in its appendages.  Because the platypus is such a bizarre and contradictory creature, it's not hard to imagine why a company called Paradox Interactive adopted this particular animal for their corporate logo. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Combat VR

I don't have a VR headset, nor do I plan on getting one anytime soon.  They're not cheap and I'm not rich.  Plus, the kind of hardware need to make an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive run to its fullest potential is on the pricy side.  Another major hangup is my lifestyle, which doesn't often allow for long uninterrupted sessions of gaming.  Perhaps the biggest reason of all though is the lack of killer apps.

Of course, what makes for a must-play game varies from person to person.  In my case it certainly isn't gallery shooters.  If anything I'd like to see more combat sims that take advantage of all the immersiveness VR has to offer.  Track IR (a somewhat similar technology) is currently supported by combat flight sims such as IL-2 Sturmovik, Rise of Flight, and War Thunder.  However, out of the three only War Thunder fully supports VR headsets.  IL-2 Sturmovik has partial support in that Battle of Stalingrad does, but Cliffs of Dover doesn't, while Rise of Flight completely lacks support for VR.  I suppose the choice is obvious then...go with Track IR, right?  Well...first off Track IR isn't cheap either, and second, it doesn't fully solve the tunnel vision problem that plagues pretty much any game that utilizes a cockpit POV.  Don't get me wrong, Track IR is a vast improvement over nothing at all, just not enough of a solution to this particular issue I have with a lot of hyper realistic combat simulators.

The problem isn't just VR related either.  A lot of games trying to emulate a particular historical theater of war are often lacking in crucial little details.  To clarify a bit, in all the aforementioned examples the aircraft are meticulously detailed.  The experience is also highly customizable in terms of control schemes, allowing for everything from flight sticks, throttles, and rudder pedals  to a mouse and keyboard setup.  It's all great stuff that sadly feels like it came at the expense of the environment outside the machine the player is in.  To illustrate my point, take a look at the trenches in Rise of Flight.  They're nothing more than flat textures.  The decks of ships traveling across the English Channel in Cliffs of Dover are bare even when they're returning from the evacuation of Dunkirk...and War Thunder...well...let's just say that the developer is determined to keep their game rate 'G' not matter the cost to realism.

I know this sort of layering of detail is resource intensive, both in terms of development and rendering, but the hardware and tools exist to make it possible.  I've been playing flight-sims since the 1985 DOS game Jet; and while VR seems to have a lot of potential in enhance the subgenre, I hope there's going to be more to these sort of games than vehicles with greater polygon counts and higher-res textures.