Don’t Forget About Puerto Rico

(img courtesy of ABCNEWS)

Hurricane Maria hit the island of Puerto Rico just over 100 days ago, as I write this on December 30th, 2017. It was a monumental catastrophe for over 3 million Americans. As of today, about 1/3 of those Americans (over one million people) are still without power, and estimates are that the power will not be fully restored until May. The Rhodium Group notes that this is already the biggest blackout in U.S. history.

The links above are direct links to ones that appear in Alexia Campbell’s Vox article on the current state of Puerto Rico. Campbell also notes that many people have fled the island, probably for good, and FEMA is overwhelmed by the response that is still needed to help the island. Here’s a chart that she posted from FEMA about their efforts:

So, FEMA is engaging in massive relief efforts, but it’s still not enough. The mayor of San Juan continues to criticize President Trump’s response to the crisis:

“He has failed the moral imperative that any leader of the free world should hold at the highest level,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said about the recovery efforts.

“All he needs to do is simple: do his job. I think the world has seen a commander in chief unable to command,” she said.

—-Newsweek, Dec. 28th, 2017

This criticism from Cruz has been pretty consistent since the disaster began, but to be fair to Trump, FEMA has remained on the island, despite his claims that he might have to pull aid because of the costs. I’m not sure what the upside to Trump’s threats was meant to be, but it has left residents on the island unsure of their future, which can’t be helpful.

In any case, Americans need to remain aware of the disaster that continues on the island. As that same Newsweek article notes, the official death toll is 66 persons, but the reality is probably over one thousand. Since the island is still in emergency mode, getting accurate numbers is difficult. However, the people on the island report much higher death numbers than the official stat.

Whatever the numbers, imagine for a moment being without power for over 3 months. Most Americans begin to panic if power is lost for a couple of days. Three months is practically unthinkable.

Beyond the problems on the island (though they should be the focus), the mainland U.S. is feeling the costs of the crisis as well. Campbell notes in her article that Florida could see a jump of nearly 100k new people from migration away from the island. Puerto Rico also supplies about 10 percent of the prescription drugs used in the U.S., and that manufacturing is obviously way down.

Instead of helping, some members of Congress seem to want to punish the island for criticizing the President’s response to the crisis. Despite criticism of early forms of the tax reform bill, which contains pointless taxes on goods made on the island, the final compromise bill still contained these taxes, which seems like kicking the territory while it is most vulnerable. Remember that this is a U.S. territory, not a foreign nation trying to sell goods to the U.S. As noted in the latter article, Puerto Rico has no representation in Congress. If they did, the bill would not have passed in its current state. I seem to recall some Americans complaining about taxation without representation at one point in our history, but apparently those concerns are a thing of the past.

In any case, as you read this, Americans are continuing to suffer in Puerto Rico. It’s a forgotten crisis that is far from over. If everyone reading this donated even a small amount to relief efforts, it would help, if only a little. As we enjoy our holidays, free from worries about clean water and electricity, we should all remember those who are doing without these basic modern necessities. This is the time of year when we try to remember our common humanity; when we are told to love our neighbors as ourselves. Puerto Ricans are not neighbors. They are family, and we should support them both because of that and because they are humans in desperate need.

Winter Steam Sale 2017-2018: What to get!

Ok, it’s that most wonderful time of the year once again….the Winter Steam Sale! So many games will be on sale. Your backlog is begging for nutrients. Here’s how to fill it! I’m going to look at games at different price points. Each will be followed by a brief description of the game and why you might like it. Hopefully, this will help you sift through all the options out there. A quick reminder though: Steam Sales can vary day to day. I’m focusing on the sales as I see them on day one. Some of these will be the same throughout, but sometimes there are daily deals. Keep an eye out!

 

Under $10—these are the true value games…the ones that cost less than a lunch. Note that some of these games are only worth buying at this price point, while others are worth the full price. You are just getting a great value here!

Stardew Valley– A life sim game, where you catch fish or cook or become a blacksmith. It’s cute and popular.

Alien: Isolation– Survival horror in the Aliens universe. Unnerving….

Hollow Knight– Dead Cells is my GOTY, but this metroidvania game deserves love too. Just fantastic!

West of Loathing– handrawn RPG set in the old west…FUNNY stuff. This is always cheap, but is now cheaper!

Planet Coaster – technically a little above $10, but close enough. It’s a planet of rollercoasters!

 

Under $20—Do I have to note that these are above $10, or they would be in the previous category? These are games that are mostly a year or more old, and thus starting to fall in price anyway. But now you can get them even cheaper! Some of these games may have started off relatively inexpensive.

Prey– As noted in my best of the year article, this has echoes of System Shock. It’s a FPS in space, with a unique transformation feature. This is a good deal on it, too!

Battle Brothers– Cool turn based strategy game. You move bobbleheads (err…tokens) around in a medieval setting. This is about ten dollars cheaper than normal.

Fallout 4- It’s Fallout 4. If you don’t have it yet, you know if you’ve been waiting for this price point.

Book of Demons– This one is normally 20 dollars, but is 33% off right now. It’s still in development, but has a great 2d style of art, and use of cards in dungeons and such. There’s a demo, if you want to try it first!

Witcher III: GOTY Edition– One of the best open world RPGs of all time. Get this one.

 

Under $30—These are newer games (mostly) that tend to cost a lot at full price. However, the sale makes them much more affordable. If you can wait until the Summer Sale, these could go into the $20 or less category, but let’s face it, we need games to play during the long, cold nights!

Wolfenstein 2: the New Colossus– Kill Nazis in the face!

Southpark: Fractured but Whole– the sequel to the other SP RPG; this one has super heroes and was received a little less favorably than the first one.

The Evil Within 2– Survival Horror. Slick production.

 

Over $30—A discount is a discount, right? These are all newer games, or games that hold their value for some reason. Frankly, I rarely buy games at this price anymore, at least for the PC. If I’m willing to wait a few months, they will almost always drop below this price point. However, there are some exceptions to this rule! And here they are:

Middle Earth: Shadow of War– The sequel to Shadows of Mordor, which introduced a fantastic Nemesis system where the bad guys get tougher as they beat you and you want revenge. More of the same, but that’s OK.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins– It’s 30% off, but still more than I would pay for it, even though I like this series.

 

These are some of the best games in the Steam Sale. If I missed one of your favorites, let me know, and I’ll add it for others to see!

2017 Game of the Year (and other games you should play!)

Ok, this one is a two part blog that will look at what I think are the games of the year for 2017, and then in part 2, the games I think you should get from the upcoming Steam Sale (which starts December 21st).

Let’s start with the best games of this year. I should note that I have not played all the games that came out this year, or even all of the top rated games. So this is my personal list. A couple of these games came out very recently and thus haven’t gotten much playing time from me yet. I plan to rectify that over the holidays, though!

Let’s start with these late comers. First up, is Dominions 5. Dominions 5 just came out at the end of November. It’s the fifth installment in Illwinter’s long running series of massive 4X strategy games. I’m a HUGE fan of this series. The graphics are from the 90s (maybe even the 80s!). Get over it. They aren’t going to modernize them, apparently. But this is one of the deepest games you can get, which means it also has a bit of a learning curve. If you’ve played previous games in the series, it will feel very familiar. The tweaks are great, though, with battles being fixed to allow for better fairness among attackers and defenders. Simultaneous movement makes the battles faster and changes your strategies. You still only control the basic orders of your troops, however, and not the details. With so many units, that’s a good thing.

Those new to the series will discover a ton of nations to choose from. You play as a Pretender god, trying to become the one true god of the realm. You choose from all sorts of attributes, traits, magic systems, etc. as you customize your Pretender. Your troops receive blessings based on these choices, and some gods will stay at home researching magics and helping armies from afar, while others will be your biggest shock troop, wading into the enemy in the midst of your armies. There are benefits to both approaches; so take time to tinker with them.

Steam says that I played Dominions 4 for 238 hours. I must have liked it a lot!

The second late comer is Etrian Odyssey 5, for the 3DS. To be honest, my personal 3DS time this year was dominated by Shin Megami Tensei IV, which is kind of a Pokemon on demonic steroids. It’s fantastic, but it didn’t come out this year. Etrian Odyssey is a series of dungeon crawlers from Japan that is reminiscent of the old Eye of the Beholder or Wizardry games from decades ago. You assemble a small party from different class choices and explore a brutally difficult world. Leveling up gives you the chance to customize each character and develop the strengths you want them to have.

The dungeons include gathering of resources too, which means you need farming teams that will help your main combat team get better items. Each iteration of the series has added new elements, such as overland exploration, airships, ocean sailing, etc. This particular version may have the best music of the series; so play it with the sound on when possible. If you are new to the series, IV is worth playing first, but you would be fine jumping right into this installment.

Want a light-hearted game instead, one that you can jump into easily and find yourself laughing until the end? Try West of Loathing. This sequel to Kingdom of Loathing is completely irreverent. It’s all stick figures with cool hats (really cool hats!) taming the old west, or something. Play it!

Before my pick, here are some games I think I would love, but I didn’t get to play just yet. The first is Prey. This has serious System Shock vibes, and SS2 is one of my all time favorite games. I’m looking forward to playing it! Horizon: Zero Dawn is on the PS4, which I don’t yet own, but it’s supposed to be a great time, what with fighting robot dinosaurs and such! Divinity: Original Sin 2 is the sequel to a great game, where you can use objects in the world to create cool terrain effects. This one is supposed to improve the original in every way!

But my game of the year is still in Early Access on Steam. As a result, it’s not eligible for most GOTY lists. Luckily, I have no editors and no rules stopping me from saying that Dead Cells is the best game I played this year. I LOVE IT!!!!!

Dead Cells is a metroidvania rogue-like game, where each run gives you the chance to earn powerups in the game that will help you get a bit further on your next run. The controls are perfect, to the point where you pretty much have to blame yourself when you die. It’s hard, but not frustratingly so. And it’s quirky in all the right ways. A recent patch has completely changed the gameplay in several ways; so keep in mind that this game is not yet finalized. But it’s very playable (obviously), and TONS of fun. Go get it right now (or wait for the upcoming Steam Sale!). You will get a LOT of gameplay out of it. Perfect for short or long gaming sessions. I’ve put in over 50 hours of Dead Cells this year, according to Steam, and I’ve loved every minute of it!

So that’s my GOTY list. Next article I’ll discuss what you should get in the Steam Sale. Hint: Get Dead Cells, already!

Hmmm…Cutting Medicare and Social Security Is Next? Who Could See This Coming??

I’ll be honest. I really did think that Republican legislators would at least continue to pretend that tax reforms were just about trying to improve the economy…for a BIT longer. I mean, I knew what was really happening. The tax reform bills that are currently in the process of being passed (still possible they won’t be, but don’t count on it) are a bad idea on their own, as I noted previously. Many have wondered why it is being rushed through without proper vetting. Part of the answer has to do with budget reconciliation, the process by which it is being passed (in order to avoid being filibustered by Democrats). But there is also some urgency to get it into this coming year’s tax code, in order to set up a run at getting rid of social security and Medicare.

But don’t take my word for it.

Paul Ryan has just admitted that the next move is to reform “Entitlements”. I use scare quotes there for a reason. When you label programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security ‘entitlements’, they sound undeserved. You could label them as ‘rights’, or as ‘safety nets’, or as ‘positive liberties’. Each of these labels would be accurate and basically neutral in approach. Perhaps ‘rights’ would imply a bit of necessity that isn’t warranted, due to confusion people have between natural rights (e.g. self defense) vs. political rights (e.g. public libraries). Still, one can argue about what rights people should have. ‘Entitlements’ sounds like someone is getting away with something sneaky. In this case, though, that someone is the GOP.

Trump was elected in part under the premise that he was not going to get rid of social security or Medicare. Many of his voters love these programs, which they absolutely see as earned by a lifetime of working for this country. I agree with them. However, the Baby Boomer generation is reaching a point where they will drain both programs at an alarming rate. They outnumber the generations that follow them, which will lead to a huge surge in spending money on people who are no longer part of the work force. In this sense, Ryan has a point. We have to look at options on how to solve this problem.

But this is where the trick was played. By lowering taxes first, Congress will create a deficit of well over $1trillion. In other words, the government will be spending more than it is bringing in during each fiscal year. This increases national debt, and the deficit has long been a concern of conservative politicians, or least that’s what they claim. So one might wonder why they would pass a bill that raises the deficit by this dramatic of an amount.

The answer is simple. They can then justify spending cuts in order to ‘balance the budget’. Of course, the budget will be completely unbalanced due to their own tax cuts. The real goal all along was to slash government programs. They couldn’t do this first, however, because people would complain. Instead, they will fabricate a budget crisis (which might have happened anyway, as I noted, since we do have an increasing number of elderly citizens) by exacerbating the deficit to the point where something must be done. They will then claim that they must, reluctantly, cut spending to “entitlements” in order to prevent the government from going bankrupt. The alternative is government shutdown, which no one wants.

It’s not a particularly clever strategy, but it will work nonetheless, because most Americans don’t pay much attention to politics. I mean they hear about the scandals, and if it is from the side they didn’t elect, they will express grave concern or some version of ‘politicians are all terrible!’. If it is on their own side, they will question the accusers enough to remain satisfied that their politicians are still the lesser of two evils, and at least they aren’t the other side!

What they will not notice is that Congress played them in a long game of switcheroo (or insert your favorite word for a scam that uses misdirection as a key component).

I’m not the only one seeing this, of course. I started working on this article on December 6th or 7th. Here’s an article from the 8th from the New Yorker observing the same thing. Anyone who has paid attention to the goals of people like Paul Ryan have known that this is coming. It’s been Ryan’s dream to eliminate the welfare state. Again, on one level, I get it. You don’t want people dependent on handouts. However, both statistically and anecdotally, this doesn’t happen as often as some think. We have studies on abuses of welfare, since it’s kind of a big political issue. Families in the system aren’t outspending those who aren’t, despite the myth that welfare somehow affords people a good life. Food Stamps are heavily monitored, despite the focus on stories where someone dares to buy lobster with them or something.

There are counters to the points made above. Here’s one from Forbes, for example, arguing that there’s a lot of abuse of the system. When you look at the arguments, though, they focus on cases where disability benefits were awarded with “insufficient or incomplete” evidence. That doesn’t mean the person didn’t need the benefits. It means the courts didn’t gather enough evidence first. The article also focuses on how few of these beneficiaries return to work, finding the low number alarming. Given that disability benefits often require 2 to 4 years of being turned down, appealing, being turned down again, and appealing again, many of the people who are awarded benefits have disabilities that have prevented them from working for years. They aren’t likely to return to work, because they aren’t able to do so. Unless the writer has a reason to believe these recipients could have gone back to work but didn’t, the argument seems misleading at best.

Anecdotally, I’ve known many people who have tried to receive disability, and the process is time consuming and dehumanizing. It is meant to incentivize you to give up on the process. Having to prove over and over that you are disabled leaves people feeling pretty worthless once the process is completed.

However, I realize that I’m not likely to change minds on this particular issue. You either support safety nets for our society or you don’t (or only do in extreme cases). The point here is that Congress is trying to remove those safety nets, and they are doing it by cutting government income first, so that they can justify cutting the programs.

I often point out that we should not try to create analogies between national spending and household spending. It leads to a lot of misleading distortions. That said, let’s imagine how you would tackle a problem like growing debt in your own life. You know you will have to either increase income or decrease spending. In this sense, the basic analogy between government and households is sufficient for our purposes (not perfect, but close enough to get the point). Which would you do first? What Congress has opted to do is decrease income, first, and then decrease spending later. Note that decreasing income was never one of the options you would have considered. It doesn’t make any sense, UNLESS you are trying to force yourself to decrease your spending by creating a shortfall in income.

That’s basically what is happening here, but the goal is to slash programs that one side of our political system doesn’t like, and has never liked. That’s fine, if they were transparent about the process. But these same politicians promised their voters that they were not going to cut social security. So, watch what happens next!

Nostalgia- Poisoning the Well of Every Remake

Thanks to websites like Kickstarter and Fig , video game developers are able to crowdfund projects that full scale publishers are less likely to support. As a result, we are experiencing something of a retro gaming revival, as older properties are finally developing sequels (e.g. Psychonauts , Wasteland, and maybe even Starflight (cross your fingers, damnit!!)). At the same time, some developers have tried to recreate the glories of the past by starting new intellectual properties that are spiritual successors of a sort. Pillars of Eternity, which I’ve written about before, and Torment: Tides of Numenera are good examples of this trend. Both of these games recall the famous Bioware/Black Isle Infinity Engine games, such as the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale series. Tides of Numenera even borrows the name of one of these games, Planescape: Torment. This was a direct attempt to tie the newer game to one of the most beloved games of all time among PC gamers who enjoy RPGs.

These sequels, direct or spiritual, have met with mixed responses, both commercially and critically. Pillars of Eternity has been enough of a success that a sequel was kickstarted in the last year, one which I have contributed to thanks to my enjoyment of the first game in the series. It relies on a new world, and even a new engine, but both are heavily inspired by the Infinity Engine games, with their isometric viewpoints, control of an entire party of characters, pausable, real-time combat, and world building.

However, one of the problems that game developers encounter when trying to appeal to nostalgia is that we tend to remember all the great parts of these older games, but gloss over the flaws. A great example of this is with Planescape’s recent revival (of a sort) in Tides of Numenera. The original Planescape was a bit of an odd duck in the Infinity Engine games. You play an immortal, though you have no idea why you are immortal. In fact, you wake up in a morgue with amnesia. A large part of the game is simply trying to remember who you are and what you were trying to do. Your memories come back in flashes, often tied to your attributes. The game is perhaps the only one in the Dungeons and Dragons system to make the attributes of Charisma and Intelligence useful, regardless of the class you play (in fact, you can multi-class as a fighter, mage, and thief in this game).

But what made Planescape a classic was the writing. It was very good, not just for a video game, but in general. The lead designer and writer, Chris Avellone, has a degree in English and has studied philosophy. This background allowed him to explore ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology in a setting that involved a city that sits among all the dimensions of the D&D world. So, the denizens of the main city in the game come from planes of order, chaos, logic, and sensuality. The game had an entire faction built around the notion of empiricism, where we learn by experience, that focused on being able to absorb the experiences that others have had.

The result was a game that played like a choose your own adventure, complete with lots and lots of reading. By most accounts, the combat was sub-par. The graphics were average, and the Infinity Engine was already becoming a bit long in the tooth at the time. In other words, the world building is what made this game so amazing, and people who played it in their late teens through mid twenties were treated to a deep exploration of the human condition, often offering philosophical ideas that they had never yet experienced. It was a work of art in this way.

It was also a lot of reading. I replayed the game recently, and it’s bogged down in reading. Certain parts of the game, such as a sequence where you walk through a tomb full of traps, are downright rage inducing.

Enter Torment: Tides of Numenera. In an attempt to capture what made Planescape so great, Torment developers assured Kickstarters that there would be lots of reading and excellent worldbuilding. The reviews confirm both, but the response has been much more mixed than it was with Planescape. Perhaps this can be attributed to lesser writing, an inferior setting, awkward implementation. But at least some of it is the nostalgia problem. We really can’t go back again and experience a game like this for the first time.

Interestingly, we can go back and play the original, and some people will have glimpses of the amazing experiences they once enjoyed, a bit like the Sensate crystals in Planescape. It’s not the real thing, but it’s a taste of something primal and satisfying. Unfortunately, this is not the same thing, and the newer game will often suffer by comparison to a memory that is largely constructed (or perhaps deconstructed, distilled down into only its positive elements, cleaned up of the negative aspects that surely must have frustrated us at the time).

So, should developers risk this nostalgia backlash? I’m not sure I can answer that question. It probably depends on sales. Even if gamers do not praise the newer version in the same way as the old, it could be financially rewarding. Of course, Planescape itself did not sell particularly well in its day, especially compared to the other Infinity Engine games. Some of the best games of all time were financial disasters (Freespace 2 is the most egregious example—that game deserved so much more!).

One thing I can say, though, with reasonable certainty is that there is no way to really recapture an experience like that. When I was a teenager I would play strategy roleplaying games for 8 hours or more, having my meals as I played, and taking breaks just to go to the bathroom. I’ve seen the sun rise after playing a game all night. Not only do I no longer have that kind of time, I would see it as a waste. Beyond the ways in which our own phenomenological selves have changed, games themselves have developed, with better UIs (usually!), graphics, etc. We have expectations that didn’t exist when the original games were created, forcing developers to choose between modern expectations and nostalgic demands for accurate re-creations. The best of these reboots (e.g. Divinity: Original Sin) remake the engine completely, often forsaking nostalgia altogether, but using the license itself to create interest. The worst leave fans feeling the bitter pains of age, as they realize that memories are best when left alone.