iOS, Kovacs, and Other Winter Distractions

Even Google’s in on it

Ah, December. The month of an arctic-dwelling fat man who runs a factory of elves, handing them manufacturing quotas from lists written in childhood handwriting. Their orders are many, encompassing brands from Lego to Sony, but the elves possess the technical knowledge, company schematics, and rare metals necessary to assemble them, because otherwise they wouldn’t be elves. They receive most of their lists a week or three before Christmas, but they never collapse while operating heavy equipment, or misplace important parts, or call their labor union; they churn out products hour after sacred hour, as if fed meth through their office coffee maker.

All must be completed by Christmas Eve, when their employer loads the enormous heap of merchandise into a single wooden sleigh. Like an inflammatory Instagram post, he traverses the globe overnight, delivering presents to every child who didn’t skip their homework too many times. He has no difficulty locating their gifts, or remembering the hundreds of millions of address throughout his path. He enters each family’s house through the chimney, no matter how narrow, or the porch, if they don’t have one. He deposits his cargo under the Christmas tree, consumes a glass of milk and a plate of cookies as payment, and flies away without waking anyone, no matter how many children inevitably suffer insomnia from their excitement.

I live in a neighborhood in the Deep South, where guns are nearly as plentiful as secondhand Marlboro fumes. When I learned about Santa Claus in elementary school, I expressed fear that our neighbors would shoot him. My mother reassured me they would make an exception for him; if I’d been older and less impaired, I would have realized the truth. As it stood, between The Polar Express, YMCA nursery rhymes, and fear of no longer receiving presents, it took me until grade five to realize Santa Claus didn’t exist. Many children are disappointed; I wondered how I could be so dumb, and then I wondered why my parents would lie to me. I write sarcastically now, but as a ten year-old, it was an unpleasant experience. Afterward, my father apologized. My mother told me I discovered the myth in preschool, and she feared the social consequences if I argued about him with the rest of the class. In retrospect, I can’t blame her, but deception unsettles me. At least where science is concerned.

I’m writing this on an iPad Pro I purchased from Best Buy several weeks ago. It measures 10.5 inches in height, with four speakers and a 64-bit A10X Fusion chip. With the case and the stylus, it cost slightly over a thousand dollars, and I was lucky enough to find a used model in excellent condition. The system boasts 4GB of RAM, and my particular model carries 512GB of storage space, before the operating system is accounted for. Weak by modern desktop standards, but stronger than computers from older decades, and far more portable. Apple’s trying to market it as a laptop substitute, but it’s more of a souped-up iPhone. Some models even possess cellular capability. Still, it works well for many tasks, if you don’t require a USB port. The battery also lasts for slightly over ten hours, which is more than my gaming laptop can say.

In many ways, iOS offers a more focused experience than Windows 10, if social media apps are used in moderation (or not at all). The virtual keyboard is large enough for comfortable writing, unlike my old iPod Touch, and it can run Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Pages, or other software. The larger screen makes web navigation richer, and iOS Safari almost feels like a desktop browser at times, although there remain glimpses of dodgy mobile loading. On the other hand, iOS is much less vulnerable to viruses than Windows 10. On the entertainment side, you can download Spotify, Netflix, Kindle, YouTube, and numerous other apps, and the larger screen offers many advantages. It would be difficult to watch a movie with two other people on an iPhone, but I could imagine doing so with my iPad.

It doesn’t have the firepower to run intensive PC games, and most of them can’t be installed on iOS anyway, but it does handle App Store releases quite capably. Being App Store games, a lot of them suffer from microtransaction abuse, but there are decent titles—Infinity Blade II, Final Fantasy VI, and Bloo Kid II, to name three I’m familiar with. Final Fantasy I, II, III, IV, and V were ported to iOS as well, although I haven’t tried them here. You can even get Final Fantasy VII and IX, which were PlayStation titles.

When you wish to include an Octorock in your game,
but you don’t work for Nintendo

I’m currently playing Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas, a Zelda clone created by Cornfox & Bros. The graphics are slightly clearer than a 3DS title, and the levels are built decently enough, but I’m finding the controls somewhat awkward, and combat is shallow as a result. It’s not very difficult, mind you, but pure touch controls have issues with this style of game, and it’s hard to move and attack precisely at the same time. Even Spirit Tracks and Phantom Hourglass had a few buttons to augment their touchscreen maneuvers. It also takes great inspiration from Wind Waker, but sailing occurs through rapid autopilot, sacrificing both the frustration and the adventure that defined the GameCube title.

On the other hand, I haven’t encountered any ads or microtransactions yet, which does wonders for immersion. There’s nothing wrong with imitating Zelda, per se: good ideas are good ideas, no matter where they come from. I’m glad Oceanhorn exists, but we’ll see how it holds up by the end of the journey.

I’d planned to finish Dark Souls II by the end of the week, but when I take the DLC areas into account, I doubt I’m going to get there. It’s a massive title, and I’ve devoted so much (extra) time to level grinding that I’m only at Dragon’s Aerie after a hundred hours of play. My tentative score for the game is a 9.25/10, unless something very disappointing (or impressive) happens in the final stretch. I feel some of the lore was squandered, which is an issue in a game this fucking long, but it offers enormous challenge and freedom of movement. After the tutorial realm of Things Betwixt, you’re presented with two large areas to explore: Heide’s Tower of Flame, and the Forest of Fallen Giants. You select a character class at the beginning of the game, but those merely determine your starting gear and abilities, and you can adopt an entirely different strategy by the end. There are four different types of magic and numerous weapon classes to choose between, and with the proper stats, a single character can experiment with all of them.

I’ve been reading a novel called Woken Furies. It’s the third book in a cyberpunk trilogy by Richard K. Morgan, which began with Altered Carbon and Broken Angels. It takes place centuries in the future, when mankind has learned to upload their minds into computer stacks and travel to distant planets. Fatal injuries can be survived simply by transferring to new bodies, and minds can be kept in storage for tens or hundreds of years with no loss in functionality. If that sounds idealistic, rest assured; it’s one of the bleakest fictional worlds I’ve ever encountered. The main character Takeshi is a former U.N. Envoy soldier with extensive mental conditioning that enhances his reflexes, memory, and capacity for violence. The books follow his journey from detective to mercenary to vigilante, with different employers each time. He initially comes across as a power fantasy, but he either lost some of his humanity to gain those abilities or never had it in the first place.

The series has a bit of a liberal bent, with extreme technological advancement, numerous female authority figures, cynical treatment of religion, and a few homosexual characters that are described quite casually, but it also contains copious bloodshed, cursing, references to sexual violence, use of fictional hallucinogens, and warfare with nuclear weapons and civilian casualties on every side. It blends philosophy and scientific details with naked human barbarism.

It’s also one of the few series I’ve encountered that contains pornographic sex scenes without being pornographic in general. Altered Carbon features a passage where a male and a female character have explicit, prolonged sex under the influence of Merge-9, a drug that causes each partner to share the sensations of the other. It’s just as explicit as Fifty Shades of Gray, if less sadistic and more clearly consensual, and the writing is much, much less clumsy. You could probably use it as masturbatory material, if nothing else was available. But against a backdrop of spinal mutilation, chemical weaponry, murderous corporate figures, virtual torture realms, and other such wonders, it feels downright wholesome.

Like Dark Souls II, I planned to finish it by the end of the week, but at the time of writing, it’s 3 AM on Friday and my Kindle position is 24%. On the positive side, I wrote this almost twenty-four hours after taking Adderall, and little of the drug remained to assist me. My natural state is slightly easier to tolerate than when I was younger, although great stupor remains. I suspect my brain is improving as I mature, and I also had ordinary, garden variety childhood deficits to contend with, which behave almost like a disorder in their own right. On some level, I probably still do, but I’m approaching my twenties, the peak of human fluid intelligence. If that sounds harsh, then perhaps you understand why I dislike lying to children, or corporal punishment. All humans are impaired in my eyes; we merely suffer to different degrees. My kind know that well.


Review: Observer

Genre: First-person adventure, survival horror
Developer: Bloober Team
Platform: Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Mac, Linux
Release: August 15, 2017

Observer is an unusual beast. It belongs to the class of horror games that don’t let you defend yourself, but there are relatively few moments of danger, unlike, say, Amnesia. It also eschews true supernatural elements in favor of an oppressive dystopia, delivering the most horrifying visuals through the Dream Eater, a device that lets you invade human memories.

The game takes place in future 2084, a world of overgrown technology. Poland is run by the Chiron Corporation, a company that gained control in the aftermath of a great war between East and West. Mechanical augmentations are common, and not always benign. The population lives in fear of the Nanophage, a plague that causes your implants to attack your organs. Beyond that, your character occasionally has to inject Synchrozine to stop his mechanical parts from shattering his psyche.

You play as Daniel Lazarski, a specialist employed by their police force. Unlike Adam Jensen or Soldier G65434-2, you spend the game unarmed, and your implants weren’t built for combat. Instead, they let you project night vision, scan organic matter and technology, and view a virtual case log, in addition to the aforementioned memory invasions.

Lazarski spends the game hunting a serial killer in a class C apartment complex, home to the lowest of the three social castes segregated by Chiron. The complex is brilliantly realized, a den of drug users, hologram addicts, and blue electronic ad screens. When the main power cuts out, they fear your Dream Eater as much as they do loss of stimulation. You don’t harm them, but few trust you, and the backstory makes it hard to blame them.

You find many of the killer’s victims too injured to speak, and the Dream Eater allows you to gather evidence, recreating their darkest memories as a parade of hallucinations. You witness disintegrating corridors, silhouettes who cover ground in angular jerks, and appliances that cry, vomit, or fly through the air. The sequences are fairly linear, with a handful of puzzles and the occasional stealth section, but they bring the darkness of cyberpunk to grim, bloated exuberance. Lazarski emerges from each trip gasping for Synchrozine, vision covered with blotchy digital squares. Horror is most effective when it spawns depression, and the initial half of Observer delivers in spades.

You also scan objects near the victims, ranging from credit chips to globs of blood and tissue. Your findings establish them as disenfranchised and sometimes questionable bunch. One victim used drugs, and another performed illegal cybernetic operations. One particularly tenacious managed to wound their attacker with a sword cane, leaving a trail of blood for you to follow. It’s an effective way to convey information, although I had to switch between different vision types too often for my taste.

You’ll make some of your most interesting discoveries by reading computers. There are numerous character logs and emails throughout the different suites, ranging from critical plot information to male enhancement requests. The Chiron Corporation’s logo rests watchfully at the home screen of every system, and their footprint echoes throughout the low-caste apartment complex, whose residents receive fewer votes per person than higher citizens. One computer throws in a piece of wartime propaganda, establishing their sheer level of control. Some computers also contain a minigame where you navigate a maze full of spiders, collecting flaming swords as weaponry. The graphics are intentionally lo-fi, and each area reveals a new level or two. It’s a brief but welcome respite from the darkness.

Unfortunately, Observer loses steam in the later portions. The first chunks of memory are unsettling, but it uses similar tricks and scream effects too many times, and tolerance builds quickly. Lazarski’s scanning implants are disabled in the neural realm, and aside from the stealth sections, you’re free to avert your eyes. You aren’t forced to confront your fears like in other horror games.

Several times, you’re required to hack into the brain of a deceased person. Your onboard A.I. warns against it, and the first scenario leads to the game’s most nightmarish sequence, where Lazarski faces true danger. But the setup repeats numerous times, and it loses punch. His brain suffers from the experience, leading to hallucinations in real life. Voices accost you, and wires turn to intestinal tissue, a twisted figurehead for the fusion of metal and flesh. But even then, I rarely felt threatened. Even the few enemy sequences were too simple; I snuck past one without ever seeing it. For reference, I’m the guy who couldn’t bring himself to get past the first enemy in SOMA, so I don’t think my spine is enormously thick.

More damningly, Lazarski and the other main characters never quite live up to the depth of the setting. It’s hard to tell if his voice actor is trying to sound grave or bored, and the body count becomes increasingly cheap, as if you were watching a low-budget slasher flick. The decline is slow initially, but it dives headfirst into a very predictable sort of horror at the end, reducing the higher themes to mere window dressing. Both suffer as a result. It’s refreshing to see a game where the protagonist isn’t trying to save the world, but once you adapt to the jump scares, there has to be substance underneath.

In particular, large amounts of time are spent building one very promising character… only to jettison his development for a cheap horror persona. Many game elements remain strong, but the damage to the climax is irreparable.

When horror is fused with other genres, it tends to consume them. Technology, shadowy researchers, and government programs become rationalizations for monstrous forces, and everyday men and women are reduced to mere props for their rampage. At the beginning, Observer straddles the line well, but horror dominates by the end, wearing cyberpunk as mask instead of partner. Visions repeat too often, deaths are too easy to predict, and characters become cheap victims or aggressors. In a less story-driven game, these faults could be overlooked, but Observer reaches for higher territory, and it could have been brilliant if it stayed on task. As it stands, I’m glad I played it, but it left me wanting more.

Rating: 7/10 (Good)

Run-of-the-mill “good” game. Mostly convincing, with a few notable flaws that hold it back from greatness.

Glory to the Mass

(Warning: heavy spoilers for System Shock 2)

“Mistrust is the tyranny of the individual. Your own kind sees you as a threat. Why do you murder our unity? No matter – the line is drawn. You will cease to be. It is just a question of who will bring your end: us, or you?” — The Many

“Your flesh, too, is weak, but you have… potential. Every implant exalts you. Every line of code in your subsystems elevates you from your disgusting flesh.” — SHODAN

System Shock 2 is a rare title that delves into the horror realm without losing humanity. The creatures in many games are faceless, driven only by hunger or sadism, but the Annelid Hybrids are different. When they pursue the Soldier, they beg him to run away, even as they wave lead pipes or fire shells from shotguns grafted into their tumorous arms. According to Dr. Watts, they suffer clinical death, but their human personalities remain, forced to watch as their bodies are twisted by worms growing from their chest. It would be simplistic to call them undead, for all life is built on the corpses of those who came before.

If the hybrids survive this stage of infection, they grow into hulking, clawed rumblers, patrolling the corridors with inhuman roars. They are most readily defeated with anti-personnel ammunition, or grenades that burn them alive. They leave heavy, fibrous organs, which the Soldier analyzes with a bit of molybdenum. He learns their brains have been totally isolated from their muscles, which are shaped and controlled by cells human only in genetics. A face of human agony protrudes limply from their shoulder, displaced by a heart-shaped mouth of fangs.

The other enemies are equally pitiful. Psionic monkeys with exposed brain tissue, brainwashed and ravenous, stewing with the memories of their captivity and vivisection. Human nurses that were tied down and encased in machine parts, revealing flesh only in their bare, bloody shoulders and gaunt, skinless gaze. They watch over the Many’s poisonous eggs, following the guide of brain implants that make them love their slavery.

Yet, some of the Von Braun’s crew are subverted before mutation. Anatoly Korenchkin begins the journey as the CEO of TriOptimum, a corporation with logos on nearly every product in the System Shock world, military and consumer. But he joins the annelids the moment they’re discovered, converting the Hydroponics deck into a morbid incubation ground. Captain Diego joins him soon after, leaving his regimented military life for the Many’s promise of communion. They begin the voyage to Tau Ceti as rivals, corrupt businessman against UNN officer; they emerge with a shared purpose, mutated and reborn.

The Soldier serves SHODAN instead. His body and mind are not assimilated, but he follows her for survival, mechanizing himself to even the odds. Their need is mutual, but she despises his human tissue, and their goals never truly align. She opposes the Many because they betrayed her, but she created them to begin with, and she turns on the Soldier after their demise. Together, they represent grim, technological individualism, and their battle with the collectivistic annelids forms the game’s primary thematic conflict.

Many articles have been written about the world of System Shock 2, most focusing on SHODAN. But the Many takes an equal role, promising salvation from the technology. Like most cyberpunk, the mechanical advances in System Shock have not eased human strife. TriOptimum itself built SHODAN to manage Citadel Station, and a corrupt executive hired a hacker to remove her ethical constraints, kicking off the events of the first game. She proceeded to butcher most of the station’s crew and mutate the rest, both through biology and cybernetics. The Hacker stopped her from invading earth, but the backlash knocked TriOptimum from power, and the UNN was created to monitor corporate technology giants.

Yet, by the second game, TriOptimum has become the UNN’s primary resource supplier, and many UNN officials own stocks in TriOptimum. There were regulations on what they could produce, but Korenchkin was able to sidestep many of them, calling on UNN contacts from his past as an arms dealer.

It’s a classic oppressive technoscape, but as a game series, it’s drawn more violently than a novel by William Gibson. Dehumanization is literal, whether as a cyborg drone or a victim of SHODAN’s mutagenic virus.

And then the Many offers an antidote. Deliverance from the isolation and strife of being an individual in this world. The annelids evolved from SHODAN’s mutagenic sculptures, but they chose to carve their own path, offering warm flesh in place of cold robotics. If you believe their speech on the Engineering Deck, the Soldier’s mutated comrades survived, reborn with shared purpose and tissue. But their gift parasitizes the human form, twists it to an unrecognizable pitch, and dissolves individuals into mere units of a hive.

The journey of Soldier G65434-2 is marked by isolation. It’s possible that he fought the annelids before the game’s introduction, but he emerges from cryosleep with no memory of them. After fleeing explosive decompression, he peers through a window as a woman passes it, heading fruitlessly for a door. Moments later, a hybrid unloads a shotgun into her back. The pattern will repeat with Dr. Watts and Yang, who perish seconds after he reaches them. Delacroix contacts him on the Command deck, arranging a meeting, but the Many kill her, and SHODAN punishes him for exploring her death site.

The early phases of the game are a struggle for survival. The Soldier enters the MedSci Deck stalked by mutants, simians, and Xerxes’ malevolent digital eyes. He searches for keycards in infested corridors, led by a scientist he barely knows. A handful of blows will end him, and his firearms degrade with every shot. He likely cannot maintain or repair them. He finds messages written in bloody letters, and he meets the afterimages of the dead, less spirit than recording. He gathers bullets from corpses, slipping through halls filled with their killers.

The most brutal phase occurs on the Engineering Deck, where the Soldier traverses a maze of radioactive corridors and infested cargo bays. He is invariably contaminated in the first section, straining his healing resources, and the next area is a minefield of hybrids, laser turrets, and exploding protocol droids, connected by a cramped four-way intersection with no room to hide. The faster he runs, the more noise he produces, but his foes are too deadly to linger. He likely can’t maintain his firearms very well, and his pipe wrench fares poorly against droids and turrets.

He discovers two audio logs from Captain Diego, who helped let the monsters through the door. The UNN operative is more ambivalent then Korenchkin, but he still falls, comparing the union of the Many to his own faction. Earlier in the level, the Many offers the Soldier a chance to join, sending him visions of a cerebral core inside their fleshy body. Later in the game, he learns this body has wrapped itself around the Von Braun and the Rickenbacker, too large to sever. The Many questions his choice to remain alone, struggling against a mass that now includes his former comrades. He would be mutated if he accepted, but that fate almost seems kinder.

But as the Soldier lines himself with cyber modules, he slowly changes from prey to predator. The transformation begins on the Hydroponics Deck, but it solidifies in Operations, when SHODAN drops her human façade. She reveals herself as the Many’s creator, and the being who provided his R-grade cyber implants, which were outlawed after her rampage on Citadel Station.

By following her, he sells himself to a technological monster to combat an organic one, using her gifts to brutalize the worms and arachnids that overran so many others. When he reaches the Command Deck, he finds the Many loading their worms into shuttles, fleeing SHODAN’s wrath. He destroys the first shuttle himself. When a midwife smashes the control interface for the second, SHODAN provides the code for a resonator that overloads the vessel’s shield generator, causing an explosion.

The blast destroys a gate behind the shuttle, revealing a room that SHODAN warns him not to enter. If he disobeys, he discovers the body of Marie Delacroix, discarded by SHODAN when her usefulness expired. Delacroix messaged the Soldier earlier in the deck, attempting to meet with him, but there were several midwives in the room, and her body was not remade for combat like the Soldier’s. He finds ten cybernetic modules on her corpse, but SHODAN removes them as punishment for disobeying her. Her words are oddly mild, even though the Soldier uncovered proof of her betrayal. SHODAN needs him, but she knows he needs her in return, even if he might trust her even less than before.

She’s also the Soldier’s only reliable companion. Delacroix dies before he finds her, and Cortez runs from a military bot only seconds after meeting him, appearing later as a bloody corpse in the Deck 5 Crew Quarters. Dr. Watts perishes on an autodoc before his eyes, wounded during an operation on a mutated patient. SHODAN pretends to meet the Soldier as Janice Polito, but when he arrives at her office, the doctor’s corpse lies slumped in her chair, arm extended toward the pistol she used to commit suicide. Captain Diego also contacts the soldier for a meeting, after freeing himself from the Many’s control, but he used an autodoc to rip the parasites from his body, and he would probably have died even if the Soldier didn’t kill him by reversing gravity. The Soldier doesn’t kill Diego intentionally, but SHODAN may well anticipate it when she delivers his objectives, although she makes no mention of the Rickenbacker’s ailing captain.

SHODAN is no friend of the Soldier, but she’s the only being cunning enough to fight the Many on remotely even terms. In a way, the Soldier is her creation as well; she gave him his implants, and she enhances him further and further as the story progresses, remaking him in her image. The Soldier’s mutations are not as grotesque as the hybrids, but he too discards his natural shape, reborn through cybernetics.

In many ways, he’s stronger than the creatures. After Korenchkin transforms into a psi reaver, he declares the Many superior to SHODAN, but the Soldier quickly butchers him when he gets in his way. As the protagonist nears the end of the Rickenbacker, SHODAN contemplates true partnership, impressed at his new form.

SHODAN may be brutal, but a trapped creature will cling to the smallest bits of warmth, and it’s hard not to imagine the Soldier forming some sort of bond.

In the game’s penultimate level, he launches himself into the Many’s body through an escape pod. SHODAN loses contact with him, and he walks alone through the corrupted biomass, gathering logs from those who were consumed. Rumblers haunt his trail, and the Many’s commanding voices taunt him psychically, telling him death is preferable to his “pointless, solitary struggle”.

But the Soldier destroys the Many’s central brain, dealing the infection a blow it cannot survive. He slides down a tube of biomass and emerges on the deck of the Rickenbacker, victorious over their cancer. SHODAN betrays him immediately after, using the Von Braun’s FTL drive to reshape reality into cyberspace, but he strikes her down with the very same cybernetics she gave him. The A.I. offers him a chance to join her, but in his only spoken line, he refuses, shooting her in the face.

He contacts Tommy and Rebecca, the only humans who managed to escape the ship without being mutated. They plot a return course to the Von Braun. After killing his master, the Soldier has finally found an alliance free of domination.

But all is not well. As the credits roll, Rebecca floats across the screen, speaking in SHODAN’s voice and wearing a hairstyle similar to her digital one. For a horror story, this sort of twist is as predictable as happy endings in other genres, and it made me lose some respect for the game’s narrative. But it also raises an interesting question: was the Soldier right to destroy the Many, or was his struggle pointless, granting power to an even worse monster? In the battle between corrupt technology and warm submission, which brings more suffering to the humans of the System Shock world?

We’ll have to wait for the sequel.