Spin cycle

The presidential election has entered its final weeks of spin. Each side is convinced of the inevitability of victory and is busy pumping out propaganda to that effect. All I’m convinced of, though, is my need to take more naps and remain well rested. Normally a minor political junkie, I have actually grown a bit weary of the campaigns. I may simply be getting older and even more cynical than usual, but it seems as if I’ve seen this election before, with Romney not terribly different from McCain, and the president not terribly different from his 2008 self. Everything has a deja vu haze about it. Or perhaps I’m thinking about the 2000 debacle.


Well, was Dishonored up to snuff as the Thief-like game I was expected? I would say yes, with some qualifications. The designers built stealth into the game as more than an afterthought, though they did not use lighting to its fullest extent as it is done in the Thief games.

I would say the experience was more akin to Deus Ex than Thief, with the visuals more Bioshock than HL2, and the actual gameplay having some resemblance to the quieter sections of two recent Batman games, down to the little warning symbols above the heads of guards.

The line-of-sight teleportation offered by the Blink power is probably the game’s leading conceit, allowing for a certain tactical flexibility that I had not seen before. I played a very stealth-oriented game, mostly using Blink and time manipulation, rather than the more aggressive powers, and always choosing the non-lethal option (save for a bug or two that counted knockouts as deaths, I would have completed the entire game without killing anyone).

I plan to do a more aggressive replay, of course, but overall, though, I am not going to abandon my ongoing replay of Thief 2. I enjoy its far weaker protagonist a lot more. Corvo is simply too powerful to feel vulnerable, given his only limits are my inserted and wholly unnecessary conscience. Garrett is no supernatural  assassin, just a very cautious and skilled thief. One can only hope that Thief 4 will be as gorgeous and immersive, coupling better characterization with style.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM is an old and storied franchise in PC gaming that I had never experienced until the recent XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which is a very good game that might, with a little elbowing and shoving, rank as one of the best ever for the PC. I finished it recently on Normal difficulty – yes, I know, I am a wimp – and I have little but good things to say.

XCOM is a tactical turn-based game with a slightly less important strategic overlay. You command squads of 4-6 soldiers armed with the latest military/alien hybrid weaponry and armor, and fight against a variety of aliens bent on conquering the Earth. The aliens have UFOs that need shooting down so they can then be assaulted by boots on the ground; they also make terror attacks on cities and go on abduction runs. Eventually you have to hit the aliens where it hurts, in their bases and larger ships, and that takes research in the form of autopsies, interrogations, and reverse-engineering technologies. Eventually, with some pluck, luck, and judicious use of plasma-based weaponry, you can kick them off Earth for good.

Gameplay consists of the strategic overlay, where you decide what to research next, how to equip your soldiers, and where to respond next to the alien threat. Then it gets tactical and turn-based – you direct soldiers as they assault a crashed UFO, for example, making careful decisions about when to take cover and when to shoot. The enemies are tough and diverse, hard to take alive for interrogation, and appear out of the fog of war at unexpected locations and times. Even Normal difficulty was challenging.

The fun of the game comes in the tension that it creates between your delicate hairless monkey soldiers, who are (at least initially) outgunned, outclassed, and outnumbered, and the pesky aliens, who while not exactly scary, are formidable in combat. My personal favorite is the Chryssalid, a six-limbed running monster that turns its victims into zombies and eventually into new versions of itself. Death in the game is  serious – losing a veteran of many missions when you have so few soldiers total is disastrous – and reloading after it happens ruins the spirit of the game. The fight against the aliens is meant to be desperate and bleak, with each victory hard-fought.

I would have to place this game among my all-time favorites, though it was intense enough that I don’t think I’ll replay it for awhile. It took about thirty hours to finish, but I was deliberately slow in a game that largely allows you to set your own pace in responding to the invasion.

Debate #2

The President came out swinging so fast last night that he forgot to open with the customary thank you. As it turns out, it was an effective strategy.

Body language goes a long way to communicating a sense of energy, and the town hall format allowed him to move and gesture to great effect. He looked like a different man than the one who stood cautiously throughout the previous debate.

To be fair, the questions favored Obama, but Romney made two major gaffes that he can only blame himself for. The first was his “binders full of women” moment, which, to be charitable, was a weak answer to a very serious question, given his low polling with women voters. The second mistake was pressing Obama over the Libyan embassy attack, a most unpromising line of reasoning that quite frankly amounts to a rather thin gruel even if it was accurate (which by now it should be clear it is not).

Jumping the shark

PA doesn’t like Dishonored. Have they jumped the shark? I think that actually happened years and years ago when the strip became more than a strip – a business, cultural phenomenon, gaming expo, etc. They are artists but they are not arbiters of style. I’m glad they have retained the strip all this time, though, instead of it wasting away into a vestigial state whilst money is made by other ventures. Thankfully, it has certain quasi-Whovian qualities that enable it to remain consistently fresh.

White lies

A colleague of mine recently introduced me as a “rhetorican,” which I was pleased by. The word fits. At one time in graduate school I thought of myself as a compositionist, but I’ve grown away from that. Rhetcomp, too, seems too vague. Principally I think in rhetorical terms, so why not think of myself as a rhetorican?

Problem is not everyone knows what that is, or, rather, if they do, they do not necessarily know the full implications of the word.

There’s that perennial problem of describing what I do to people who are not academics familiar with my field. What do I do? I “teach English.” If I’m feeling more confident, I “teach Professional Writing,” a field that is no less nebulous, but not as suspicious –sounding as rhetoric. I might say I teach “composition,” or “writing and editing,” but that’s not true for every semester.

I would never say on the street that I “taught rhetoric.” That word is dangerous. I might as well say I’m a professional gambler or hustler, or perhaps a burglar or arsonist. Certainly, a sophist. I teach people how to lie and deceive, that says. I could sit there and explain how it doesn’t really mean that, but that takes time, and all the while my credibility is slipping. I “teach English,” though, and everyone can understand that more or less immediately, plugging in their own experiences for mine.


What struck me most about the debate last night was how it managed to be simultaneously filled with content and empty. Policy numbers were flying left and right, and yet very little was being said. I didn’t really get a sense of either candidate other than Romney’s new smiling hyper-aggressiveness and Obama’s caution.

It reminded me of a poker game. Romney played the guy that bets every hand, no matter what he has – a offensive, loose game, much like his tax policy of gambling that lowering tax rates will lead to higher returns.  Obama played the guy who sits and waits for the right cards -  a tight, defensive game, much like his fiscal policy of making strategic bets on certain industries. I would observe, keeping to the metaphor, that the first kind of game requires a much better player than the second.