Recent Work – 22 November 2015

It’s funny to see how my feelings have evolved toward StarCraft 2 over the years. When it came out, I was almost obnoxiously contrarian in my skepticism. I thought it was old-fashioned and frustrating, ignoring pretty much every innovation in RTS games that had occurred since Brood War. We were sharply critical of it on Three Moves Ahead at the time.

Cut to this week, in which I reviewed Legacy of the Void for IGN and absolutely loved it. Part of me is troubled by the inconsistency. It’s still the same game at heart, right, so have I just stopped questioning it on anything other than its own terms? Or does Legacy of the Void represent a successful evolution and expansion into something greater than existed before? I think it’s the latter, but part of me still worries that this review is as much about Stockholm Syndrome as it is about Legacy of the Void.

Outside of StarCraft, it’s been a busy time of late. We launched a Three Moves Ahead Patreon to help support the show and give us a little more time to work on it. Plus, I just had surgery on my left ankle to take care of a bone spur that was cutting into my Achilles tendon, so I’m back on crutches for the first time since I played high school football. I did a lot of work in the weeks leading up to it, knowing I’d be off the board for a while, so let’s take a look at the best stuff I’ve done lately.


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Recent Work — 7 September 2015

Don’t be fooled by the fairly short list of things that I’ve been working on of late. The last week was a marathon sprint through a bunch of upcoming stories, but you’ll have to wait a little bit longer to read them. However, my review of Eugen Systems’ Act of Aggression did go up on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, so you can go read that right now.

It’s tough to review a game like Act of Aggression, both because it’s an incredibly difficult game with which to come to grips, but also because I came to it with a ton of expectations and hopes based on the developer’s recent output. This happens a lot, but it’s always a difficult thing to correct for, because I am constantly asking whether I’m reacting based on what I’m seeing and experiencing, or based on the gap between that and what I expected to see.

With Act of Aggression, it took me a long time to start meeting the game on its own terms. That has its own dangers: knowing that my opinion might be shaded by disappointment, I probably err on the side of being forgiving. A lot of my friends, I think, are more frustrated by Act of Aggression than I am. Even so, it’s a game that I am continuing to play and learn long after the review has been filed. It doesn’t make itself easy to enjoy, but it does start paying off if you’re willing to put in the hours to tease apart its overall design and how it wants you to play it.

The same could be said for a lot of RTS games, which is why I’m increasingly worried about the genre as a whole. The problem is that RTS games are uniquely miserable when you’re not good at playing them. I remember, when  he was trying to get a Kickstarter project off the ground, Chris Taylor (who designed Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander) remarked that he felt like RTS developers were constantly misreading the audience. When stats are available, most people play RTS games for the campaign, or they skirmish against the AI. Few spend a lot of time playing ranked games on a ladder. Yet RTS developers, Taylor said, always looked at that trend  and said to the audience, “We hear you! Here’s your hardcore competitive RTS.”

I like RTS games, but this is a hard problem to solve. I think Eugen have come closer to solving it with earlier games than they have with Act of Aggression. That’s why it was so frustrating to see Act of Aggression be so defiantly old-fashioned and cryptic. This is the first Eugen game I’ve played where my friends started bailing on our multiplayer sessions after just one game. I stuck around because it was my job. But for most people, why is this a journey worth taking? RTS developers need to start offering better answers than a hand-wave in the direction of skill and mastery.


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Recent Work – 23 August 2015

Some people have asked me where the hell they can find all the stuff I’m working on and the answer is, or is supposed to be, this blog. But that only works if I update it.

I think one of the things this entire blog unwittingly demonstrates is what happens when you become a working writer and the job becomes less of a pastime and more of a career. Five years ago I saved every link to every article I published. But for the last couple years, I’ve been cranking out so much work that there scarcely seemed time to document it all, and I certainly stopped feeling like every story was a special snowflake the deserved to be memorialized. Especially when I was pulling gaming news shifts, and 1/4 of what I wrote was notes on trailers and patches.

That’s also a warning sign, of course. When you’re forgetting about half of what you’ve done within minutes of doing it, it’s probably time to shift gears. I’ve gotten away from news writing and am focusing more on feature work, which is both more interesting and pays better.

The downside is that a lot more of my life is spent transcribing now. There are services for this, of course, but unfortunately I find it’s in the act of transcribing that I really get a handle on an interview and how it should be used. I wish my brain worked differently, but there you have it. On the other hand, there is a sort of meditative pleasantness in transcription. It’s the writing equivalent of long-haul driving. You just point the car down the road and zone out while miles and miles of blacktop whiz past. With transcription, you just fly through the audio and at the end you’ve got 5,000 words of text to use for a 2,000 word article, and your job just got a lot easier.

Anyway, this is a sampling of what I’ve been up to lately. This isn’t quite everything I’ve done in the last month or so, but it’s close. These are all my major stories, as well as the podcasts I’ve done lately.

The big news is the launch of Esports Today, a podcast I co-host with Andrew Groen that’s aimed at people who like esports but struggle to follow them. When I got into esports coverage, it was a constant struggle to stay on top of  events, and it’s only gotten harder. There are more games to follow these days, but the coverage that’s aimed at esports fans tends to be a little too obsessed with inside-baseball. It’s pitched at people who don’t need to hear news because they already know all the news.

Esports Today gets away from that. We do a tight, half-hour show every week covering most of the major events and stories in professional gaming, with enough to context to get you up to speed and ready for the next event. It’s probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever worked on, thanks in large part to Andrew, the gang at Idle Thumbs, and our producer Michael Hermes.  I’d love it if you checked it out over at Esports.Today

Beyond that, I’m taking a sort-of, kind-of vacation at my friend Julian Murdoch’s. Just a week of living according to my own rhythms and enjoying things like quiet time, reading, and games with friends. It’s hard to get real breaks as a freelancer, but at least this once I’ve managed to get a few days off. Come Monday, I’m still on break, but the late nights and treating beer with chips and salsa like a meal replacement is going to end as I get back to the slightly healthier habits of my regular schedule and life in Cambridge.


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Book Review – Mark Thompson’s The White War

I never thought much about Italy’s experience in the First World War. What I knew about it was an offhand remark from the narrator of The Sun Also Rises, who was emasculated on “a joke front like the Italian”. I knew Erwin Rommel had first come to glory there, putting into practice the theories of warfare that would drive German success early in World War Two, at a time before those theories had even crystallized. And I knew that Italy performed in-line with jokes about its military incompetence..

But it turns out there is a remarkable and important story to be told about the Italian front. I only happened on it by chance in the remaindered section of the Harvard Bookstore, where I picked up a copy of Mark Thompson’s The White War for $5, after it had likely sat ignored on the history shelves in the same way that “history buffs” like me tend to ignore its subject matter.

In the main, Thompson’s book fulfills its most important obligation: it tells an interesting and unfamiliar story, and it tells it very well. The White War is stocked with scarcely believable characters, like the proto-Fascist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, who styled himself as the poet laureate of the Italian right and was basically allowed to treat the battlefield as a kind of muse-for-hire. One day he is seen giving pep talks to headquarters staff, the next he is flying over Austrian lines, dropping propaganda leaflets. The next time he pops up, he is arranging some kind of absurd raid to capture a distant castle and raise the Italian flag over its ramparts, thereby boosting morale across the entire front.

In a way, a character like D’Annunzio is laughable, and stereotypically Italian. Look at him bluster, look at his vainglory. Look at this failure.

But the horror of Thompson’s book is that millions of men and women were caught up in this joke, and at the mercy of the pure viciousness that lay behind the strutting vainglory. As the Italian raid on the Austrian castle fell apart at a river crossing, under heavy Austrian fire, stranded Italian troops began advancing toward the Austrians to surrender. D’Annunzio, watching from across the river, was disgusted by their “cowardice” and orders the artillery to execute a fire mission against the Italian “traitors”. And such was the poet’s power in this Italian army that the batteries did indeed open fire and on the victims of D’Annunzio’s own folly.

But all that pales next to the character of Luigi Cadorna, a general whose name I had never heard prior to this book.

Discovering Cadorna and his place in the annals of history’s worst commanders is like discovering there is an extra planet in the solar system that nobody ever mentions. He’s so profoundly awful, as a general and as a human being, that the mind reels.

In fact, The White War warms to its task as Thompson really begins dissecting Cadorna’s record, and shifts focus from the front lines to the rear echelons and headquarters. Cadorna revealed himself to be an ineffectual martinet in the opening stages of the war, as he squandered massive opportunities and then, for good measure, squandered immense numbers of lives trying to crack impregnable Austrian positions across the Alps. Yet he was so arrogant, and so coddled by an Italian government that feared his prestige, that he was neither shaken by his failures nor fearful of their consequences.

But as the war dragged on, Cadorna’s lack of accountability and belief in iron discipline began going to darker and darker places, and Thompson follows right along. Cadorna, so contemptuous of the soldiers he was charged with leading, became convinced that Italian setbacks were due to poor morale, poor discipline, and outright cowardice.

His solution, at first, was limited to trying to remake the Italian soldiery in his image: ascetic, hard-working, and fanatically dedicated to duty. Soldiers barely received any leave and, on the rare occasions their units were rotated off the front lines, they were sent not for R&R but for hard-labor behind the lines, lest they become soft. The theory was that soldiers should greet their return to the front with zeal and relief, and go about each day without a thought of home and peacetime pursuits.

But as years of hopeless slaughter took their toll (Thompson’s descriptions of combat along the varied and universally forbidding terrain of the Austro-Italian border are frequently jaw-dropping, like when he describes Italian “lines” where soldiers were living in tents anchored to cliff faces), the Italian troops became increasingly hopeless and their performance seemingly declined. There were more instances of indiscipline and routing.

Cadorna escalated matters, taking a “the beatings will continue until morale improves” approach, instituting an entirely extralegal regime of summary executions for all manner of infractions, to be pursued at the discretion of officers in the field. Courts martial, he decided, were too lenient for the weak, slovenly Italian army. He openly called it a policy of decimation.

The incidents Thompson brings to light are shocking. Cadorna is a real-life version of General Broulard in Paths of Glory, only far worse than even Stanley Kubrick could plausibly make out. Under his regime, subordinate commanders began looking for reasons to execute soldiers, so that they could demonstrate their fealty and zeal to the generalissimo’s vision.

In one gut-twisting example, Italy’s Ravenna Brigade “mutinies” when it discovers it is being sent back to the line after only a short respite. A few drunk soldiers fire guns in the air, and many soldiers refuse to go. Then the assistant division commander and brigade CO hear out the men’s grievances, summon military police to restore order, and pack the brigade on its way.

Except the division commander and eventually the corps commander get wind of the incident and began demanding executions. First a handful of men are shot and then, as each higher-ranking officer hears of the incident, ever more executions are demanded. In the end, Thompson writes, “29 men died to punish a minor rebellion in one battalion that lasted a few hours, causing no casualties.” (p. 265)

This is just one, unusually well-documented example, Thompson writes. The actual death toll for Cadorna’s summary executions goes as high as 750, if not higher.

Months later, in the autumn of 1917, Cadorna was stunned when a joint German-Austrian offensive hammered his lines at Caporetto and his army collapsed, with entire formations refusing to obey his order to fight to the death.

The Undertow of Progress

This would all make for a riveting account of a disastrous military campaign, but what elevates The White War is Thompson’s broader interest in Italian politics and culture. Cadorna as a general is a villain. But Cadorna’s absolute authority in Italy, his aimless brutality…. all these are harbingers of what is to come.

Over the course of The White War, Thompson shows the seeds of Fascism taking root in a soil rich with political, social, and cultural dysfunction. Italy, a young state in 1915, immediately began drifting toward militaristic hyper-nationalism and authoritarianism as soon as war was declared. The press was promptly muzzled, and happily went along with the policy of official censorship. Civilians were denounced and jailed for defeatism and lack of patriotism. Italy would not become formally fascist until 1924, but its slide in that direction started early in the war.

This had real consequences during the war and lent Italy’s ultimate victory a toxic legacy. There were always more delusions and excuses that enabled Cadorna’s mismanagement of the war. Socialist agitators sapped the soldiers of their will to fight. Italy’s allies weren’t helping enough. Unpatriotic politicians were shaking the army’s belief in itself every time they raised questions about the campaign. The soldiers were weak, lazy, ignorant who broke faith when victory was at hand. Each of these stories became a part of the right-wing’s founding myth of fascist Italy.

Cadorna himself was called “Il Duce” long before Mussolini (who lurks at the margins of his narrative, a minor player in the unfolding political drama, and not yet sure of his own beliefs). He was actively indulgent of suggestions that he be made dictator. Cocooned by a restricted press that parroted his own propaganda back at him, and a quiescent general staff that had been conditioned to flattery and mimicry, Cadorna became convinced of these “facts” that he’d helped invent.

Thompson also shows how Cadorna’s mindless credos, his oft-disproven and oft-repeated belief in the power of the offensive and the “irresistible spirit” of a good army, had their underpinnings in a widely-shared, somewhat incoherent set of beliefs called vitalism, which valued intuition personal character over intellect or material goods. In an insightful and important passage that helps explain the entire era, he writes:

“Vitalism appealed to the anti-intellectual bent of intellectuals who already doubted the rationalist rules of their game. Trapped in the vast dynamics of nationalism, imperialism, militarism, industrialisation and commerce, and by the theories of natural evolution, human history and the unconscious mind discovered by Darwin, Marx and Freud, what room was left for individual reason and moral will? How should men not succumb to the dark currents running below Progress (justly called ‘the political principle of the nineteenth century’), namely a gnawing sense of degeneration and impotence, merging fear of technology with fear of women? In hindsight, vitalism was a resistance movement, a late-romantic defence of the individual male and his solitary resources, a consolation after the ‘death of God’ in the mid-nineteenth century and before the birth of ‘human rights’ after 1945. For the vitalist vision is self-deifying, promising to restore mankind to his rightful place in the scheme of things, able to master all species and materials through mystical life-force.” (p. 229-230)

This is a passage that immediately helps crystallize a lot of the thinking that went into World War I, and even more of what came out of it. It’s fascinating that the Italian Front provides such a perfect window into the 20th century, in Thompson’s telling.

The ultimate tragedy of The White War, beyond all the lives lost, is that Thompson convincingly demonstrates that this incoherent mix of self-loathing and denial never really left Italy. Italy, a young country at the time of World War 1, was traumatized by its monumental failures against the Austrians. It promoted the idea that Italy itself was broken and needed to be fixed, and Fascism took advantage of that impulse when it sought to rehabilitate the war and sell it as a “founding myth” of Mussolini’s fledgling empire. When that was discredited, the self-doubt crept back into Italian politics.

In Thompson’s view, Italy is stuck with the memory of Caporetto, and the sudden disintegration of their army, their confidence, their view of themselves as a nation. In one form or another, the Italian front unleashed forces and beliefs that have twisted Italian politics ever since.

Flickering Lights

Last week my back gave out. In the space of a few minutes I went from a minor twinge in my lower back to significant pain. A few hours later I was in absolute agony, trapped in bed and unable to so much as lift my head or shift my legs.

At its worst, I wasn’t thinking about much of anything at all. I debated waiting and seeing how things unfolded, versus calling for an ambulance to take me to the emergency room. I contemplated the jar next to the bed, and whether I’d have to use it or whether I might manage to escape the bed long enough to make it to the bathroom. I looked at my ceiling and counted the screws in the old, sealed and painted-over light fixture. Two of them. Flatheads. I counted them again. They were still a pair of flathead screws. I started to fantasize about having a screwdriver and making them turn. About what a fixture would look like up there, and what I’d want it to be.

I turned the pages on my Nook, dimly aware of what I was reading. A Warhammer 40K novel about the crippled Inquisitor Gideon Ravenor. I thought about his character trapped in a chair, a mind roaming free but pinned to a ruined body. Then I’d think about how tired my arms were, holding the reader over my head. I’d plan my next move. Maybe I’d try and wriggle a few inches toward the wall, so I could get my head propped a bit. Not yet, it still hurt too much, but maybe in an hour.

Eventually things started to get better. A friend called, a physical therapist, and she told me what was probably going on and how to start fixing it. Some videos followed a few minutes later, showing me how to do things like get out of bed without screaming. She said I had to get out of bed: standing and moving was the only thing that was going to help. I mentioned that was going to be tough and got a glimpse of her professional side: understanding but also uninterested.

“Yeah, it’s going to suck. Get out of bed.”

She was right, of course. With MK’s help I was able to stand and start shuffling around the apartment. It hurt. A lot, and then a bit less. And then less after that. Enough that I could even start to joke about it.

I guess I’d say I was startled. Not by the injury, really. The truth is I probably should have seen this coming. I have lived in my office chair since September, pulling ever-longer days on oh-so-urgent work and professional play. I kept waking up with a stiff lower back, a pain that was in no way normal but became normal through habituation. My weight was slowly but steadily increasing, well beyond any numbers I was comfortable with.

But all of this was trouble for later. I needed to work, needed to make money. After that, I could address all the other things I was letting go to hell in my life. I never noticed that there was no “after”. That I was saving health, fitness, and rest for a time that would never arrive, because work never ends. So when my body finally shut me down, I wasn’t surprised. It was almost part of the plan.

But what did surprise me was how quickly my life reoriented itself around my health. How everything that had been important on Monday was irrelevant and forgotten by Wednesday night. Unlike anything else, it revealed how distorted my perspective has become over the last year. Work that I thought was urgent, too important to be delayed even an hour, was set aside indefinitely without a second thought. Editors that, in my head, I imagined as waiting impatiently for my next draft were the first people to tell me to forget about work and not to worry. In the space of 48 hours my overbooked and stressful life became simple and uncluttered.

Nobody wanted me to hurt myself. Nobody needed anything so badly that I should put it ahead of my well-being. All of that worry and stress that contributed to this injury proved to be my own creation. Everyone seemed to have a better sense of what my priorities should be than I did.

And as the agony of Tuesday and Wednesday fade into memory, I begin to worry I’ll forget the clarity brought on by a few days of near-paralysis and over a week of pain and discomfort. I worry I’ll forget what healing felt like, what it felt like to put my well-being first. I worry I’ll once again start telling myself that I can’t take a walk or a trip to the gym because it’s more important to publish a preview two hours earlier.

I guess I never really did take my health that seriously, in part because my chosen pursuits and occupation are all mental, not physical. Aches and pains would be nice to live without, but it’s not like I needed to be all that fit to do what I do. My always-limited time seemed like it was better invested in more work, play, and reading. Things that could translate to me being better and more effective at my job.

But having briefly lost my health, I finally see how everything hinges on the physical soundness that I took for granted and abused. There’s no life of the mind when you’re pissing into a jar and thinking, for the first and only time in your life, how nice a catheter would be. There’s no play when you can’t sit down and, even standing, your thoughts keep getting yanked toward the lances of pain shooting through your back and down into your hips.

It all just went away, briefly, like a brownout on an over-capacity powergrid. And as I lay there in the darkness, I realized I would have done anything to have the lights come back on, to have my life once again be about the things I can do, instead of the things I could not.

Go Bid the Soldiers Shoot

We finally retired my Falcon Northwest 2008 Fragbox due to a slowly failing motherboard. My pal Drew drew up some new specs that could recycled the parts that still worked, and I am now once again on a high-end gaming rig. But it was still a bittersweet moment as we retired the old machine, and I was moved to say a few words.

Moments later I sang “Danny Boy” and read some Yeats over the Jameson-soaked case. In memoriam:

The Fragbox FalconWumpus was activated on October 31st after its predecessor Broken Piece of Shit Fragbox failed after two weeks. The first game I played on it was SWAT 4. It was paid for with money from The Escapist and my blind faith that I could get enough work as a freelancer to justify the expense. Through its efforts and stability, running for almost four years with only two or three isolated blue-screens, I was able to focus on writing and gaming. Though gaming slowly left it behind, it never delivered less than adequate performance. It enjoyed a brief renaissance this last year after PC Gamer Editor-in-Chief Logan Decker helped with a major upgrade. Our love was renewed over maxed-out Crysis, but it was not to last. It spent its final days playing Max Payne 3 and Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, and watching StarCraft 2 streams with its family.

It is survived by a GeForce 560 card, a 750W power supply, two hard drives, a Falcon Northwest coffee mug and its freelance writer. It will be a missed.