N-player co-op

This is a Constellation Games post. Spoilers for the chapters that have already gone out to subscribers.

From late in Chapter 14:

“I don’t need to learn English,” said Ashley through her chopped-up resampled vocalizer. “The translator is a benefit embraced by the median person and shunned only by snobs who want to show off their own erudition and enlightened attitudes.”

“Wow, I guess you feel pretty strongly about it?”

“That translation went on a lot longer than it should have,” said Ashley. “That was four words in Purchtrin. I don’t know what happened.”

A couple paragraphs earlier Ashley mentions that the idle work she’s doing when Ariel shows up is “part of the History of Life overlay.” This is a subtle thing, and easy to miss amid what Leonard calls “the Gift of the Magi-esque farce about the English lessons.” When some subset of the Constellation wants to achieve something, they form a loose asynchronous working group called a fluid overlay. Where does Ashley work? In some fluid overlays. Where did Ashley’s translator come from? A fluid overlay.

The overlays aren’t an allegory, but they are a device Leonard uses to comment on leaderless organization in real life, inspired (I suspect) by his career in open-source software. Of course, the last six months have seen another set of nonviolent, leaderless organizations leap into prominence to remind us that scarcity-based power structures fuck everybody. Remember back in the commentary for Chapter 3?

“You’ve seen the anarchists in Austin. They couldn’t hold a city park.” is one of those lines that shifts connotation dramatically between the time you write it and the time it’s published.

Whether you take the correspondence as timeliness or startling prediction, the popular criticisms of Occupy reveal the flaws in the overlay idea, which the Constellation presents as a sort of labor utopia. In Chapter 13, Ariel found flyers from the Raw Materials overlay begging humans for their garbage in Human Ring, where there were… almost no humans. The Constellation can do miracles, but sometimes those miracles lack direction.

Just as often, the overlays lack accountability. In Chapter 9, Ariel tried to find somebody to thank for the English-language CDBOEGOACC; when he asked who was in charge of creating it, Curic’s response was “that’s not a real question.” So who snuck that rant about language snobbery into Ashley’s translator? Here, have an achievement graph with ten million nodes.

The translation is a throwaway gag, but it’s also foreshadowing. Sometimes overlays work at cross purposes. Sometimes they’re hard to track down. The other foreshadow in Chapter 14 is the first appearance (and disappearance) of, yes, the long-promised shipping container. Curic’s part of the Constellation Shipping overlay, yet he or she is asking a human for ideas about where it might have gone.

In doing so, Curic presents a neat alien mirror to Krakowski and Fowler at the BEA. All of them are now using this unemployed video-game blogger from Austin as an asset, overtly or otherwise. How desperate do you have to be to turn to Ariel for intelligence? We’ll find out!

Wrong on the Internet

A year ago I wrote about zero tolerance, intolerance and Antjuanece Brown, the Portland teenager who was thrown in jail and labeled a felon for texting with her girlfriend. Antjuanece is out now and things seem to be better for her and Jolene; I hope they are.

Not much has changed, though: the last week saw California and Washington come dramatically closer to marriage equality even as Oregon still lags behind. In the same week, Canadian Safety Minister Vic Toews announced that anyone opposing an Internet surveillance bill there was “siding with child pornographers.” Easy targets remain easy targets.

That’s why there’s so much value in the work my friend Ben is doing at his blog Wrong on the Internet, and particularly in his latest entry:

“This is hard to deal with. I want to have the luxury of dehumanizing pedophiles and other rapists. I would like to pretend that I would never be like that, never do something like that. But I can’t. That informs a lot of my writing here.”

It’s difficult to read, a fact that has nothing to do with Ben’s considerable writing skill. At a certain point the mind flops down and demands that some things must be absolute, that you must be able to point at some set of Others and declare those are the bad guys. We’re wired for that behavior, deep in our instincts. The cognitive battle to remember the contrary is exhausting, and it never ends.

I’m not arguing for total moral relativity here: I’m arguing for vigilance, because the kind of dehumanization in which we regularly engage is a dangerous exploit for our brains. It’s one thing to say that some people do evil. But to strip the humanity from evildoers is to remove the horrible weight and substance of their acts. What if you were a survivor? What choices would you make if your survival had damaged you? “The answers are out there,” the man said, “but they will not improve your self-esteem.”

Straight By Fiat

I have this old favorite joke that almost no one else knows or gets, but I can’t stop thinking it’s funny, so I’m going to do my best to rid myself of it by the only method guaranteed to destroy humor: dissection.

Like many things stupid but great, and most things Devon Sawa, I would never have seen the 2002 comedy Slackers if not for its champion, my brother Ian. It’s a pretty slight movie and as teen comedies go it is not exactly shifting any paradigms, though it does feature some ringers in the cast, all of whom appear in the above clip. Yes, that’s Michael C. Maronna, Big Pete from Pete & Pete, playing a character (Jeff) whose sexuality is part of a slow-burning running gag throughout the movie. Here’s what makes it interesting: none of the jokes are homophobic. His friends know he’s gay and they’re fine with it. The target of the joke is repression, not sexual orientation, and it benefits greatly for that. (Note that this movie predates the genesis of Tobias Fünke by two years!)

Besides less-obvious targets, here are some things that I will always think are funny:

I don’t think the clip needs much context, but here it is just in case. Maronna, Sawa and Jason Segel are the scheming heroes, who have been milking the creepy Jason Schwartzman for money. Schwartzman comes to Maronna and Segel with evidence that Sawa has betrayed their confidence to his love interest (Jaime King). Upon seeing it, the guys are infuriated, and in a three-camera sitcom we would already know where this goes: they turn on Sawa together, then eventually they realize that Schwartzman is the real problem, kick him out and reunite. In fact, you can already see this playing out in Schwartzman’s head! Just before the clip begins, he sputters “he betrayed you! He stole my girl! He’s not our friend!” He’s transparency-oblivious character one.

Then Maronna starts his monologue, and it follows that scenario… for exactly five seconds, before veering off into his desperate fantasy of male bonding. He has rehearsed this speech, he has seen an opportunity, and now he siezes the moment to execute his pitch. He knows they will object–this sounds pretty gay!–but he has anticipated that, and before they can get a word in, addends that it is in fact not gay. Triumph. There is no way they can resist now.

In thirty seconds, Maronna covers all four of the humor angles listed above. The first three points are all basically about the tension between expectation and reality, which is also the root of all suffering, which in turn goes back to the old axiom that comedy is pain happening someone else. The magic of point four, commitment, is that he makes the other three completely implicit. Nobody hands him a straight line to set up the zinger. Nobody winks at the camera.* There’s a lot of trust in the audience here, and for me, at least, it pays off in a way that I’m still giggling at ten years later.

Okay, I think the frog is dead now. Mike Maronna is very talented and should get more work. This is all to explain why, whenever I express adulation bordering on the ecstatic for a male role model, I will make a sly face and add “but it’s not gay” after describing how I want to suck his cock.

* For a perfect example of how literally winking at the camera can undercut flawless commitment, see the last forty years of Dwight-and-Jim gags in The Office.

TETSUO MILK

This is a Constellation Games post, just so you don’t get too deep into it without realizing that. There are spoilers, but only for the chapters that have already gone out to subscribers.

In late 2001, I spent far too much time on the forums for my favorite webcomic, Checkerboard Nightmare. They were hosted on EZBoard, a free/paid service that allowed you to assign custom titles to forum members based on how often they’d posted. Kris Straub, the strip’s creator, innocently filled these in with names from the comic; one of the upper ranks was Doctor Hot, a gag character who had appeared in exactly one panel. I think I was the first one to hit that rank, which tells you a lot about my priorities in college.

I embraced Doctor Hot the way a defensive tackle embraces an unguarded quarterback, and so did the rest of the forumoids. There were even fan-created spinoff characters, including his nemesis Professor Cold and their lovechild Profoctor Hold, whose title I would eventually steal for Davey (did I mention the forums are where I first met Stephen Heintz?). Kris’s reactions wavered between resignation and outright fury, which was his response to everything on the forums, but still.

The point of the foregoing: this was my first encounter with what is now called a “fan favorite” character. A link on Checkerboard Nightmare also led me to crummy.com, which is how I started reading Leonard Richardson’s writing, which of course leads to Constellation Games and its breakout star, Tetsuo Milk.

Leonard likes Tetsuo Milk more than Kris liked Doctor Hot, because Tetsuo is a real character and also Constellation Games doesn’t have a forum to ruin everything, but you can still read a little exasperation into his chapter 11 commentary. Rachel put it to me the other day that Leonard likes to examine the emergence of agency in his characters; Ariel’s struggle to become an adult is the obvious Campbellian case, but we’re already seeing subtler examples, like Krakowski’s little independent assignment, or the way Dana (a friggin’ phone app) has started to assert her needs in a way that forces both Bai and Ariel to take significant action on her behalf.

But Tetsuo already has agency. Tetsuo has too much agency, which is how he’s able to (per Leonard) grab the plot and “run off in some weird direction.” He also has too much optimism, in contrast to Ariel (and uptight Jenny, and cautious Ashley, and fuck-the-system Curic); he’s the kind of person who actually does see every problem as an opportunity, which of course drives everyone around him crazy. The worst part is that he inhabits a postscarcity megacivilization with near-limitless resources, so he’s usually right.

Much as with the bad Doctor, I love Tetsuo Milk without reservation, and not just because he gets most of the good non sequiturs (“Hot!” would be a pretty good Tetsuo line). He’s the book’s mascot, and the recurring reminder that in spite of all the friction and pitfalls and broken partnerships, in the world of Constellation Games things do get better. Gifts fall from the sky. Refugees get rescued. You don’t even have to ask to walk on the moon.