Sunday, April 13, 2008

I deserved it

Kismet. Destiny. Inescapable fate, whether it's the thread of aViking's life as spun by the blind Norns, the store of a man's days as set down in the Book of Life... or the operational lifespan of a piece of electronics as determined by its warranty period. Hidden actuaries project these things out, and their voodoo math makes reality: a warranty is a death-spell, a terminator gene like the time-bomb killswitch coded into Blade Runner replicants...

... except, unlike Rutger Hauer, my iBook didn't get to have a dove flutter heavy-handedly skyward as it took its fatal plunge to the tile floor, less than a week after its AppleCare period elapsed. It's time was up; the power of warranty expiration basically shoved it out of my hands and into eternity.

And so. You know what happens now. Out of retirement, out of necessity, comes the old war-horse, the beaten-down ThinkPad that'd been put out to pasture (i.e. coffined in a banker's box and shoved in a closet) so many years ago. You pick it up, and... you know the feeling of exquiste delicacy you get when you pick up a really old cat? That's what it's like to handle my laptop.

A creaking, crashy bit-rotten install of goddamn Windows ME, the system restore discs long since lost in a seires of moves; no wi-fi capacity; a single functional i/o port (USB) and an unhinged monitor; some kind of deep, deep trouble that makes opening any web browser impossible so I have to type URLs directly into the address bar of an empty folder, force the desktop itself out onto a Web that's ten years beyond its comprehension... every minor hang, hiccup or crashlet requiring rebooting.

You've got to be a silver-lining type in these situations, channel a little Pollyanna for the sake of your own sanity. A half-dead, unreliable, breeze-fragile laptop from the Clinton years? Well, its lack of now-basic functionality will actually enhance my productivity! All my online time-wasters are dead to me -- even a whiff of an embedded YouTube video sends it to crashland, only the cleanest, simplest of sites come close to functioning properly,and the six-versions-ago Flash player eliminates the possibility of playing any of the browser games that've been eating up five or so hours out of evey day. The only thing on this machine that actually works realiably is WordPad, the stripped-down text editing program. There's nothing to do here but write, right?

You'd think so. But the truly dedicated -- maybe pathological? -- procrastinator, work-shirker and gaming addict will always find a way. And so, a way was found.

One of the cool/interesting things about pulling a years-ago machine out of closetbound dotage is that, if you're like me and didn't do any housekeeping before shoving it into the darkness, is that it's kind of like a time capsule. There's the last things you were working on, the last photos you uploaded, the last sites you visited. Memories, nostalgia... maybe a little bit of heartbreak. In my case, just past the old reviews (I'd forgotten how much I hated the Minority Report game) and sunny pics of distant girlfriends was an old, familiar doom: when last I used this machine, I still hadn't worn away the novelty of NES emulation.

So, there was the emulator -- NESter.exe, public beta 2, (c)2000 -- but... where were the ROMs? For some reason -- maybe in the poorly-thought-out disc-space-clearing frenzy that originally destroyed my web-browsing capacity -- I'd ditched my library of ripped Nintendo classics, the Bionic Commandos and Little Nemo the Dream Masters, and left myself with exactly two titles: Snake, Rattle and Roll and Phantom Fighter.

Now, these are both more-or-less terrible games. Phantom Fighter is a frustrating, repetetive, side-scrolling kung-fu adventure that's only interesting for its weird ancient-Chinese-vampire-hunter premise; Snake, Rattle and Roll is a mechanically interesting isometric action game rendered nearly unplayable by some of the most aggressively, purposely, sadistically aggravating music I've ever heard. But I took what getaway I could get: midnight of my first day of enforced "nothing to do but write" found me with my dust-crusted old gamepad in hand, grimly kicking the digital shit out of vampire after pink, hopping vampire.

Destiny... kismet. There are some things that simply must be; they're part of the Math of the Universe. A service plan expires, and a laptop must die. His laptop dead, the true vidiot (this term must make a comeback!) finds a way, any way, to snatch empty entertainment from the jaws of productivity.

The circle will not be broken.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Firday Freakout: The Price

It's Brian Adams on the phone it's Brian Adams on the phone it's Brian Adams on the phone it's Brian Adams on the phone it's Brian Adams on the phone it's Brian Adams

Dwarf Fortress, pt 2

Sweet southern springtime, the last late skiff of snow evaporated, the lawns lousy with more robins than a Teen Titans cosplay convention. I really ought not to be spending these golden-crisp sweaterweather days indoors, quasimodoed over a laptop, but… other worlds have other seasons and their attendant responsibilities. Besides, I’m parked here by the picture window, plenty of Vitamin D flooding in; I even get a bit of a social life, when I make eye contact with passers-by.

Maybe I should have shaved.

Or taken a shower.

Or at least changed out of my pajamas.

“I can smell you from here,” my lady calls from an adjoining room, and I know she’s not exaggerating. I can feel it on me, familiar as favorite socks: old-time Gamer Sweat, sour scent of The Zone, pheromone cloud biologically calculated to attract… who? Not the female of the species, for sure. Maybe it’s a primitive, cellular matchmaking service, XBox Life: caveman nerds would catch a whiff across the glaciers and know someone nearby was up for a few rounds of StoneThrow 10KBC

I’m still playing Dwarf Fortress, you see, and though you all come here for only the freshest videogame coverage I’m going to take a Mulligan on last week’s column – time, tide and deadlines forced me into it too early: I’d only logged twenty or so hours, and most of that in a series of pathetically stillborn Fortresses. I’ve since sunk another twenty into this most intricately geeky world-simulator and managed to see one noble outpost through two whole game years without collapse… and I’m still Holy Shitting every half hour or so, at the crazy crap that emerges from the simulation’s natural chaos.

But even with a whole workweek’s worth of time dropped into DF, I’m still scrambling up the lower slopes of the game’s craggy learning curve, the rest of the mountain rising before me. Dwarf Fortress is a pain in the ass to play, DOS-shell-style menus on top of submenus on top of sub-sub-menus detailing everything from, for example, the attributes of each individual morsel of food, to where each individual Dwarf sits at dinner, to how that Dwarf feels about her seating assignment and how those feelings affect the healing of her sprained wrist. And it’s all displayed via an indecipherable textlike GUI that looks like somebody’s dog ate the Rosetta Stone and barfed it up all over the Matrix.

Some tips for prospective Dwarven castellans. After grabbing the zip from Bay 12 Games, go immediately to the Dwarf Fortress wiki, devour as much of the newb material (esp. “Your first Fortress”) as possible -- and plan on keeping that window open for a week or so, even though DF’s omniscient God-brain snarls at sharing process time with other programs. And even with your hand held minute-to-minute by these thoughtful tutorials and walkthroughs you’re going to be frustrated – and, let’s be honest, kind of bored -- to the point of Fuck It and beyond… the only way to endure through this is to have a source of hope, a vision of what your manky, poorly-sited, starving cavern of losers could become, of what wonders Dwarf Fortress can offer the stalwart.

I personally recommend the Saga of Boatmurdered, a “succession game” in which multiple players guided (or tried, mostly in vain, to guide) the fortunes of the titular citadel, handing off the controls at the end of each game year and recording the events of their turns in-character. The writing is spotty as you’d expect from an ad-hoc rota of geeks, ranging from workmanlike to comedy gold, but without the example provided by their tale – complete with marauding elephants, genocidal lava traps, grand achievements, hubristic vanity projects and eventual mass insanity – I’d never have had the will to force my head into DF’s maddening depths.

So now I’ve finally got a thriving little outpost going, known to the Dwarves as Thikutostuk: “Booksneak”. Irrigation’s all figured out (only a single puppy drowned in the flooding, this time!), I’m mining a tidy little ore vein, got some lukewarm trade links established, and hopeful immigrants are filling out the population, bringing with them much-needed expertise – or, at least, strong backs and an Old World work ethic (also alcoholism). And speaking of filling out the population, I note that my engineer, Ilral Knifemachine, has been dallying with foredwarf Logem Relicsalves… might the pitter-patter of tiny (yet sturdy) feet soon echo through the halls of Booksneak?

Time – hours of precious, precious time – will tell, and damn me but I’m willing to put in those hours… because I’m more involved in Boooksneak than I have been in any videogame character in a long while. That’s the terrible secret of Dwarf Fortress: behind the savage wall of user-unfriendliness lies a world-simulator of constantly surprising complexity, and the extreme abstraction of the world’s presentation requires reactivation of imaginative capacity long lulled by the advance of graphics technology. More than any other sim game, Dwarf Fortress really lives, and lives inside you...

...which makes it pathetically tough to live outside it.

Dwarf Fortress, pt 1

From the journals of Solon Playfulcastle, Bossdwarf:

Arrived at fortress site early Month Granite. Mood best described as ‘hopefully wary’—the very defensible box canyon location is unfortunately too far above the treeline for anything to grow. The only available timber is from a meager stand of scraggly pine a few miles down the mountain, and from our own dismantled wagons.

There are no game animals around, and on the sterile schist of the canyon only an inedible lichen thrives. With luck, we’ll manage to get the brook dammed and a farm cavern dug and irrigated before we starve to death, or run out of booze.

Oh, and the oracle at the Dwarven Mining Co-op chose the name “Bustmystery” for this enterprise. Great.

A Mac OS port of Dwarf Fortress was recently released, an exciting piece of news; since the middle of 2006, I’d watched longingly through the glass as the various tribes of indie game geeks, hardcore roguelike mavens and other gaming masochists sung the praises and cursed the cruelty of Bay 12 Games’ fantasy base-building sim. At last, I’d have the chance to find out for myself how my fellow nerds were finding tragedy and triumph in those impenetrable screensful of multicolored letters, numbers and punctuation.

On the PlayThis Thing! blog, Greg Costikyan described Dwarf Fortress best when he called it a game from a parallel universe, a universe whose computers are just as powerful as ours but where the revolutions in graphics and user-interface design never happened, where games are powerful simulators displayed in ASCII text and controlled through cludgy shell menus and an arcane repertoire of hotkeys.

To someone from our world, where the wand-waving magic of the Wii is getting senior citizens addicted to virtual bowling and the fastest-growing sector of the games market is in “casual” games that require one mouseclick and two brain cells to play, Dwarf Fortress seems beyond daunting. But on the other side of the insane – sadistic, really – learning curve lies one of the most intricate, involving, entertaining and flat-out satisfying simulation games ever devised…
From the journals of Solon Playfulcastle, Bossdwarf:

Bad idea to schedule the construction of the whisky still and the bunkhouse before excavating the farm. I thought it would help morale, but nothing’s getting done; the big plan now is to give up on gem-mining and just export organic lichen liquor.

Hang on; I think I hear the head mason hauling himself out of bed. As much as I hate to get all hierarchical – this is supposed to be a progressive, collaborative enterprise – I think I’m going to have to lean on him to finish building those irrigation floodgates. The food situation is getting worse.

Dwarf Fortress amazes with is its ambition; developed by a single programmer, Tarn Adams (with design assist from his brother, Zach), the game is a world simulator on every level from the planetary – the world is built fractally, according to rules of geology, hydrology, biology and meteorology – to the visceral: the dwarves working on a Moria of their very own are resolved physically down to individual limbs and organs, and psychosocially to the level of fundamental needs and preferences.

The result is all the wonder of a living world, a game whose challenge and entertainment arise from the barely-predictable chaotic interaction of systems: accidentally digging into an underground aquifer floods a cavern, which kills a dog, which depresses its owner, who stops working, which holds up a fortification project, which means the goblins get in… ad infinitum, on every level, constantly. Eventually, the effects of countless butterfly wings push the whole system over one brink or another and the fortress fails spectacularly.

The Dwarf Fortress motto: “Losing is fun.” Not only is it fun to watch your little ant-farm world of dwarves finally succumb to goblinish or demonic invaders – or to depression, madness and mass murder/suicide – but there’s a whole other Adventure Mode to play, a straight-up roguelike dungeon crawler through which you can explore the ruins of your fortress, discovering its treasures and records, experiencing its rise and fall though the lens of dungeon archaeology.

While the industry encrusts itself into formal genres, cranking out trivial variations like a tavern Blues band barfing up cover after 12-bar cover, Dwarf Fortress comes on like underground punk rock: revolutionary, independent, free, uncompromising… and more than a little terrifying.
From the journals of Solon Playfulcastle, Bossdwarf:

We’re going home. Nothing will grow here, the irrigation system is fucked, we’re dismantling empty ale barrels (there are lots of them) for scrap lumber because nobody can go logging without getting mauled by bears… and now our chief engineer is possessed, or something.

Farewell, Bustmystery. And fuck you.