Good Guys With Guns

Check In: So, I’m moving. Again.

I’m only moving across town, what’s a difference of about four miles. But I like it here. And the new place is going to take an adjustment period much like this place did. Different adjustments, but adjustments. It’s going to be another adventure and I’m not big on adventures right now.

Still, it is going to be better for everyone involved in general. The boo (that is, my grandson) will be around more often. The teen will be closer to high school. We won’t have just one person that can fetch emergency groceries. We won’t be as distant from shopping or schooling or transit-to-San-Francisco. If everyone else is happier, I’ll feel happier as well. Much more so if my own lifestyle is more-or-less unchanged.

For now, that feels like a lot of ifs.

For now, I’m facing the process of moving. I’m facing the tedium, the toil, the exertion. For now it looks all overwhelming and scary.

So far it’s involved a lot of bureaucratic hoop-jumping and getting ducks in a row. So far, I’ve been angsting about the flaming hoops and errant ducks, which I wouldn’t have been able to do without my sweetheart. And I bet the boo is going to struggle with it when he’s older.

And so I’ve had a hard time focusing on matters like Korea, or the dissolution of civilization as we know it, the stuff I write about.

In Jon Snow’s early adventures*, he encounters Samwell Tarley on his way north to become one of the Night’s Watch. Sam is a self-proclaimed coward, and it is because of this cowardice, a tendency to be paralyzed in the face of danger, that he is rejected by his family and forced at swordpoint to join the Watch. In his adventures with Jon, Sam proves bright and resourceful and loyal. He’s not much good in combat but otherwise an okay guy and pretty useful to have around. Sam even becomes a POV character in the later books.

Right now, in the real world, another man is being disgraced of cowardice, School Resource Deputy Scot Peterson of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

During the Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting, within the few minutes that Nikolas Cruz was gunning down students and teachers in the school halls, Deputy Peterson stayed outside in a defensive position and did not move in to attack. And for doing so, a lot of public figures hate him and find him a shameful coward.

Generally, it is considered tactically unsound to rush a gunman without knowing exactly where he is. It’s accepted that in the circumstances, Cruz outgunned Peterson: Cruz’ rifle was higher powered and longer ranged than Peterson’s handgun. (Peterson is not a trained CQC specialist) And then modern police culture conditions our officers to Get Home Safely. Our law enforcement culture is catastrophically afraid of civilians with guns, and news stories are many in which police draw first and shoot early. Sometimes they shoot at shadows. Sometimes they brandish when there’s no clear and present danger (like at an unarmed driver in a moving car on a freeway).**

And yet, Peterson has been shamed widely by state officials, by elected representatives and by mainstream media for failing to rush into a dangerous situation which presented a high risk of resulting in his own death. Deputy Peterson was immediately suspended without pay for his cowardice, and he has since retired.

Maybe School Resource Deputy Scot Peterson deserves a bit of slack.

War historians might argue whether it is ten percent or fifteen percent or even twenty-five percent of the soldiers on a battlefield that cause ninety percent of enemy casualties, but we know it’s a small portion. (These days artillery and air strikes do most of the killing.) Our rigorous training for the US armed forces, particularly the United States Marine Corps (who are typically the front-line infantry in any conflict involving US units) does everything it can to prepare soldiers for front-line engagement with the enemy, to encourage our recruits to become relentless, unwavering killers. But to this day, we have no means to test a soldier for the willingness to move into open danger, and we have no means to test a soldier to be willing to kill another human being, even a thoroughly dehumanized enemy.

It wounds us to actually kill. Some say we have to kill our own spirit in order to take the lives of others.

And so a lot of our soldiers fail at that moment of reckoning, more than those who succeed, according to our records. So many of our green units are cowards on the field that we have long since excised from military law the crime of cowardice and pardoned those who were convicted of cowardice in WWI (posthumously. Most cowards were executed by firing squad.) In modern armies, we commonly just transfer non-killers to less-direct positions, such as artillery, or into the massive supply and communications infrastructure, where there’s room for plenty of non-killers and even some conscientious objectors.

This is to say Deputy Scot Peterson is not particularly unique as a someone who actually fears for his life and might hesitate to kill, even duty calls to shoot someone who direly needs to be shot, such as a rampaging gunman. The character for which he has been impugned is commonplace among all of us, and I dare say among our law enforcement officers.

It is a common thing for a human being to refuse to take the life of another. Generally, this is a good thing, as most human beings get along way better by not killing each other. It’s a good thing that taking life is a line hard to cross, that killing is a big deal.

It goes the other way, too. Those of us who are brave killers sometimes have difficulty not being too eager to kill in more peaceful times. Our generals have watched for what they call natural soldiers which is to say they fantasize about creating a clone-army of Audie Murphy, people who function calmly in combat conditions and kill the enemy without even an instant of empathy or consideration. These days we call Murphy’s condition the thousand yard stare, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

It’s an embarrassment of the good-guy-with-a-gun notion: When circumstances call for a good guy with a gun, most good guys are going to be less than eager to enter a kill-or-be-killed confrontation. And those who are eager might find killing too attractive a recourse outside such dire circumstances.

Good soldiers in wartime are often not good soldiers for peacetime, and while I can’t speak from experience or data, I suspect police officers good in a firefight may have difficulty with the day-to-day monotony outside of one and the non-lethal yet humbling misbehavior of high-school adolescents.

* Referring to George R. R. Martin’s magnum opus and great epic A Song of Ice and Fire, popularly known for the HBO series based on the books, Game of Thrones

** This is a development since the 1960s, before which police were known to serve lifetime careers having never brandished their firearm once outside the gun range. Federal agents (such as the FBI) didn’t even carry more than a service revolver, relying on local precincts for back-up until the latter half of the 20th century. The pretense was well known: shooting a fed would unleash a manhunt that could not be evaded, and would only end in The Chair or a bone-shredding ambush.

This all changed during the drug wars, what started as a war against cannabis and opium growers and distributors, and is now a larger industry than the drug trade itself. Between the corruption of the police and the ruthlessness of the drug industry, it created a change in attitude from To Protect And Serve in the 1950s to Get Home Safely in the 1990s, even though for most officers in most precincts the job is still not very dangerous at all. Still, as recently as the 2010s, high-profile investigators, prosecutors and police captains who might successfully collar a major drug lord can count on paranoid sleepless nights for the rest of their lives, considering how likely it is they will be cut very short.


Homefront: Norks

The Epic of Modern Korea: An Introduction and TL;DR

I’ve been playing and enjoying Homefront: The Revolution, a game about being a partisan in an occupied country. Curiously, the premise of the story is that North Korea successfully invades the United States. It’s an improbable scenario dipping into the threshold of absurd. It’s the sort of thing that begs exposition of how things came to happen this way in contrast to the history we know and love.

Last time I talked about the United States, and the difficulty of invading and occupying such a huge country with a huge, armed population. The other issue that runs against the grain of history is the notion that Korea could invade anyone (Beyond itself.) or even become an economic superpower, especially during or following Korea’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad (20th) Century.

My original intent was to write a single piece about Korea, and how awful the 1900s have been to it. But to understand Korea’s sorry state (The fall of the Joseon Dynasty and collapse of the Korean Empire, Occupation by Japan and Korea, divided now stuck in a perpetual and uneasy armistice), I delved into the 19th century, and found yet another tragic epic featuring the the westernization of the far east, the sunset of the Joseon Dynasty and the epic of Queen Min. It’s actually a pretty amazing tale featuring court intrigue, the finer points of royal protocol, gunboat diplomacy and even an actual assassination by a gang of ninjas.

That is to say this is going to take more than one post.

So Why the Heck North Korea?

Mostly so that the enemy can be called Norks in game, leading to the temptation to name in-game weapons Norkrist and Namdring. (Humor credit to Problem Machine. It’s his fault.)

Homefront TR is a reboot of Homefront 2011, and it was during development of the earlier title (and parallel media) that it was decided that North Korea was to become expansionist and invade the United States. Following the ideas (and the money) points to screenwriter John Milius (screenwriter of Apocalypse Now and director of Red Dawn). It was the Red Dawn remake of 2012 (in production as early as 2008) that presented the idea of a North Korea invasion of the US, on the pretense that it developed a strong open alliance with Putin’s Russia who provided the DPRK strong support. (China was considered and preferred as a more likely belligerent, but Hollywood didn’t want to get censored by Chinese officials. Really.) Milius wrote a novel Homefront: The Voice Of Freedom connected to his direction of Homefront 2011, so the DPRK Attacks! plot point likely began with Milius’ trying to demonstrate how he’d do a North Korean invasion.

Homefront 2011 positioned the change of history when Kim Jong-un took office as Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who was able to shut down the electrical grid (and most electrical devices) in the US.* In Homefront, DPRK’s nuclear program is more advanced than it currently is. And its (sizeable) military is in enough of a state of readiness that Kim Jong-un could consider his expansionist ambitions. Evidently, Kaos Studios got some experts including an ex-CIA (alleged, but I’ll assume it’s true) to affirm that the invasion scenario is plausible. And since the game’s release in 2011, the blogosphere has been alight with numerous articles about how it totally isn’t.

Homefront: The Revolution rebooted the whole Invasion America story, moving the schism from the historical timeline further back in time, but probably not far enough. A perfect storm of natural disasters drive Kim Il-sung to a moment of humility and reason to resign, and instate the far more moderate Lee Dong-won (not this or this Lee Dong-won).** That same disaster storm also affected matters in the United States, when Eisenhower freaked out over the successful launch and orbit of Sputnik 1. Ike passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 but could not successfully get a grant extended to Fairchild Semiconductor to further its development on the transistor. Instead, transistors were developed in North Korea by hobbyists, starting the digital revolution along the Ryesong River rather than in the fecund economy of California.

The fiction only continues to get stranger and more preposterous from here.

Beyond Killing Hitler

At this point, driven by a sense of fairness, I pondered how far back one would have to go in time to change the destiny of Korea. If I had a time machine and wanted to tweak a small intervention so that Korea could become an economic superpower, what would I change?


Some regions end up becoming the borderlands, the butt monkey for stronger empires around it. Despite our predispositions to think otherwise, it’s rarely about bad governance or unruly people, but just where resources ended up, where the defensible landmarks are. Places like Ukraine and Poland end up becoming the battlegrounds for everyone else, caught in strife and conflict between belligerent kings and proud emperors and haughty cæsars and the occasional führer.

And so it is with Korea, caught between Russia, China and Japan, all who all lusted after Korea’s diggity-dank harbors, each of them ever seeking to make the little peninsula territory its own pet satellite. And this pressure, fueled by enough rancor, fury and spite to make for a sweet RTS franchise, has defined the history of Korea.

So the tl;dr answer is that it was a trick question: we’d need more than one tweak, possibly more than a dozen to set Korea up. Or give them a Ring of Doom or something. Either way, the time-police are certainly going to get suspicious.

To illustrate why a single tweak isn’t enough, a dive into Korean history will soon follow, a saga taking place over about a century and a half, featuring drama and intrigue worthy of a multi-volume period epic and HBO series featuring vast amounts of nudity and large-scale battles. It even features an undead immortal despotic tyrant who controls his dominion from beyond the veil of death itself.

* A nuclear bomb detonated at high altitude would radiate a powerful electromagnetic pulse that would disrupt most electrical systems used in human society. The electromagnetic pulse was a property of nuclear explosions discovered in testing though never used in warfare. But both the US and USSR had to account for their rivals using high-altitude bursts in a nuclear exchange to disrupt the systems of their rivals. As a result most of our military electrical systems and a lot of our civilian systems are shielded (hence the giant metal cases that enclose our desktop computers). Such a burst would take out phones. It’d affect some motor vehicles, and might even cause some power outages. Still, a lot of our stuff is protected, at least enough to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike.

In Homefront: The Revolution the EMP was replaced with a software kill switch which is quite plausible in our current era, though it can be argued that the US military has been paranoid of remote-shutdown capabilities on their software driven systems and units since the fifties (we suspected the Soviets to be supremely clever and use all sorts of magitech to disable our defenses, electronic or otherwise). It’s because of this that we were slow to switch to digital communications (over radio and wired analog telephony), fly-by-wire (that’s power-steering for jet planes) and drones. Outside of the military, US agencies vacillate between OMG Haxxorz B Crashing R Planez! and thinking that their classified data is safe protected by decades old computer security. I’ll probably write another rant about all this sometime.

What’s telling in Homefront: TR is that the American terrorists (the resistance) have electronic chirpsticks that will temporarily take over enemy war bots (computer-driven vehicles with automated guns) and open electronic locks. The implication of this is that Korean app-driven devices aren’t particularly secure either, and terrorists of all walks are supremely clever.

** Kim Il-sung was neither a humble nor reasonable man, and it is rather uncharacteristic that he’d yield the regency of North Korea to anyone, let alone someone who wasn’t as staunch a communist as he was. I assume that his decision making was assisted by unspoken circumstances, say a blow to the head, a midnight reckoning involving spirits of empires past (and present and future). Or perhaps a secret society intervention involving a gun to his head and a knife to his testicles. Maybe Kim was dispatched and Mystique took his place long enough to affect a resignation and transfer of power. In 2018, if you can imagine the circumstances in which Donald J. Trump would resign from the presidency and willingly yield it to Hillary Clinton, it would take that degree of meddling and miracle-work.

Haunted By A Million Screams

Check In: Where last I left off, I was talking about the problematic alternative history of Homefront: The Revolution. I already talked about the difficulty of invading and occupying the United States, and since then I’ve been researching the history of Korea, and the unlikely notion that it might become an economic superpower, in lieu of California. And so it turns out that Korea has a rich, tempestuous history featuring spies and assassins and meddling by competing, neighboring powers that all want the Korean peninsula as their own. Things got turned up-to-eleven when nations from the west started bring in their own trade and religion, and lots of gunboats. Anyway, I’d been working on that at length. It’s still a work in progress when, well, when the Douglas High School shooting happened.

I will get back to the Korea thing.

Yesterday, Nikolas Cruz (still only a suspect), alumnus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School returned to his Alma-mater with an assault rifle (currently listed as an AR15-style) and killed seventeen victims. I can’t find any reports of wounded at the moment, and I hope that means there are no other casualties. Curiously, it’s been acknowledged as the anniversary of the Northern Illinois University shooting but not of Valentines Day, proper, nor the infamous Saint Valentines Day Massacre. Though were I to guess, only Valentines Day is likely to be of significance.

If it bleeds, it leads, the old saying goes. My morning scan of the Washington Post frontpage found the Douglas High School incident leading with a banner headline about a lack of new developments. Early in the articles are how this shooting compares with other shootings. It is the worst high-school shooting ever and the second-worst school shooting. Our press discusses it like it’s a sports event, new data on a leaderboard to inspire the ambitions of future rampage killers.

The headline of the hour is that we don’t yet know why Cruz decided to commit a shooting rampage, as if we can expect there to be a singular, clear reason a man goes amuck. His past behavior suggests he was already a prime candidate for suicide / rampage, waiting for a terrorist recruiter, say with an agenda such as making a white-supremacist statement, or an anti-abortion statement or maybe even an Islamist* one. But I’ve observed before ideological crusades are invariably incidental to what drives rampage killers (or suicide bombers, or lone-wolf assassins), and we really don’t need to give time-of-day to the specifics of the assailant’s battle cry, often spoon-fed to the guy by a skilled handler.

Generally, rampage killers are like suicides: They’ve led a sucky life and have hit a seemingly irrecoverable low and just want their own suffering to stop. Ours is a society in which we give few fucks about other peoples’ suffering and call such people cucks and snowflakes and crybabies. So why not take out a dozen or so unsympathetic bastards? This is the world we live in. These are the names we’re given. (Thanks, Genesis.)

Typically, those interested in the motives behind our killers are, rather, looking to affirm their own agendas. Once a monster is revealed, and people are desperate once again to understand and prevent such horror, it’s easy to find some aspect of the assailant’s life and fixate on that, whether it’s violent video games, or Satanic rock-&-roll or hobbyist interest in guns or whatever. We amplify it large, until someone is saying Dance Dance Revolution is turning our kids into killers.

And personally, I’m annoyed that it never comes down to any of the concerns I believe might push someone (e.g. might push me) over the edge: The cruelty with which we treat our employees kids neighbors fellow netizens everyone; The profound inequality in our society and the obstinance with which we deny it or only recognize part of the equation; The massacres quietly executed by the state in the name of national security; The antagonism our government, its departments and its agents express toward the public; the pronounced suffering of others we justify as necessary for our own well being. Heck, the daily embarrassing antics of Our Dear President that have made the US a joke on the world stage, and has embossed large the absurdity of our species.

The US has become the no fucks given state, and the occasional rampage killer gone amuck is one of the natural byproducts of our embrace of such a culture. There are plenty of things we could do towards reducing the incidents. I’ve recommended before we could take mental health seriously. We can give these raging suicides actual alternatives. But that involves actually caring, and for now we appear to be super committed to not doing any of that.

Look upon our works, ye mighty and dispair.

Addendum: Reported on February 20th and 21st, At least eighty Syrians were killed including 19 children in a series of attacks on the Eastern Ghouta region of rebel-held Syria, due to a run of attacks including air strikes and heavy bombardment by Syrian government, backed by Russian forces, which has been worth a single article on WaPo and is not covered at all by other mainstream news agencies. Meanwhile the Douglas High School shooting and its political aftermath continues to lead the news. Syrians are the people we thought of in terms of Skittles during the election. Our disinterest in the loss of Syrian lives, and our unwillingness to help (which we could by increasing the rate at which we welcome Syrian refugees into our nation) demonstrates brutally we don’t actually care about murder at all, only when it happens in our own backyard.

I am outraged and ashamed.

* Islamism (as best as I can grok it) is the goal of creating and expanding an Islamic state, something that frightens the crap out of us westerners, even when we can simultaneously believe spreading our own culture is a good thing. Here in the states we have American Exceptionalism, what is standard indoctrination fodder in US education systems. And yet it looks scary and pretentious to non-Americans or, really, to anyone who thinks about it for too long.

Most Islamists (by far) seek to expand the reach of Islam by seeking to serve their respective communities and serve as exemplary neighbors. We westerners may identify this tactic most with the Great Commission: Be a cool dude and when someone thinks you’re awesome, tell them it’s only because Jesus is your co-pilot. Here in the United States we associate American patriotism with gung-ho attitude and bringing extra meat for the barbecue. Islamists are typically looking to be good people, serve the community, and then blaming Islam for why they’re so nice.

But then there are the violent ones. Violent Islamists are uncommon and regarded as radical and extremist by ordinary Muslims. But since the 9/11 attacks (which was, according to their architect, a strike of retribution rather than an effort to extol the virtues of Islam) the people of the United States have been commonly wary of Muslims in general, and have presumed all Islamists to be radical and extremist.


Homefront: Invading America

When Homefront: The Revolution first came out, I wasn’t particularly interested in it because of the big dragon in the room. It’s time to talk about that.

When the original Homefront came out in 2011, it looked like an interesting game with a curious premise: The US had been successfully invaded by North Korea.

Wait, what?

This is not just extreme alternative history, but absurd alternative history.

Deer Of Teal Prancing Afield

Why such a premise is crazy takes a bit to explain, and granted not everyone wants to concern themselves with all the nitty. So here are the general points.

The United States of America is really hard to invade, and harder still to occupy. That’s what I talk about below.

Korea, presently divided into the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, has had a really bad 20th century. It’s unlikely that it’s going to reunite back into a single sovereign state. It’s unlikely that it’s going to become a major economic power anytime soon, and it’s unlikely that it’s going to wrest itself free of the political tensions between China, Russia and the United States. North Korea’s only military ambition at this point is to stay noticed by the global community in order to get humanitarian relief. Let alone invade someone. Let alone invade the United States.

Neither of these issues necessarily make Homefront: Revolution a bad game (nor the original 2011 Homefront, though I haven’t played it). To the contrary, play of Homefront: HR sells well the notion of a resistance campaign. The silliness of the invasion itself notwithstanding, the invading forces in the game are serious and formidable, and fighting them with guerilla tactics (id est, terrorism!) is interesting and fun.

Why we have this game (as opposed to what I think might be better choices) has most likely to do with a AAA game design best practice. Specifically, games have to be about America, about Americans, even about white guys. Games that don’t do this (so AAA development decision-makers believe) risk selling less well. This is why we sometimes get speculative games about invasions of the US and resistance against an improbable occupation, rather than stories of real places that had been invaded in which resistances actually formed. One such place being Korea. Twice!

A Dove House Filled With Doves and Pigeons

(Shudders Hell through all its regions.)

The US is big. Really big. It’s got a lot of people, and a lot of them have guns. This was a defining factor in both World War I and World War II, hence efforts by the Germans to dissuade the US from entering the European campaign in both conflicts. Before WWI, Germany incited Mexico to attack the US, and before WWII Germany encouraged Japan to do the same thing (though preferably not by surprise attack, thanks). Once the United States war machine started stamping out GIs and Tanks and shipping them to England, the European Axis was doomed.

I should clarify: By doomed I mean Germany was fated ultimately to surrender to the Allies. Hitler couldn’t understand this. He was an ideologue with Parkinson’s and not only believed in racial supremacy of the German people but believed it was a force multiplier that could compensate for vastly smaller numbers and shorter supply in contrast to the US and USSR. (This is to say, Hitler was bad at math.) But his generals knew it. Their best hope was to put up enough of a fight to secure a conditional surrender from the allies, maybe to keep some of their conquered gains, and at worst, not get hanged in the aftermath. They were even willing to stage a coup and overthrow Hitler (thereby shortening the war), but only if they could negotiate terms with the Allies. The Allies were having none of it. Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin agreed to only accept unconditional surrender from Germany, even if it meant prolonging the war and expending additional troops.

This is to say the US and USSR both had additional troops to expend. And how.

All of our Red Dawn scenarios involve the enemy securing a massive army by which to occupy the states. That’s hard to do. In the twenty-first century we have concerns because China could create such an army, and given they have a lot of disposable males. An excess of guys is often an excess of angry guys, so China might send them off to some war. Still, attacking the United States would involve a massive troop-transportation logistical nightmare. (Though a spectacular, glorious one, if successfully accomplished.)

North Korea, unlikely. Though a bizarre scenario in which China supplied North Korea an army as some sort of proxy attack would be… conjecturable.

A Dog starved at his Master’s Gate

(Predicts the ruin of the state.)

This is not to say the US is not impossible to invade, but the conditions need to be right. As Vizzini advised never get involved in a land war in Asia. Napoleon and Hitler both failed in their attempts to take Russia. And yet it can be done (and has been). It’s just a good idea to invade when Russia is facing its own political upheaval, which it often does. (Also, it’s a good idea to avoid winter and the mud season.)

So it is with the United States.

United we stand, but to differ from our pledge of allegiance, we are not indivisible. All states have radical secessionist extremists, but we differ more commonly among larger regional clusters. New England doesn’t like the Dixie states much. The feeling is mutual. And neither of them like West coast. And then the Midwest and Mountain states are even more fractured regarding culture, ideologies and priority interests. All these sectors have widely diverse politics, none of which are represented well by the two primary political parties that dominate elections. The seams where we are weakest are clear and evident. It is how the public has become so susceptible to foreign social-media propaganda campaigns. If current trends continue within the US, as wealth disparity increase, as we lean towards tribalism and our parties disregard their constituencies for corporate interests, the people will continue to become more open to desperate measures. This includes secession from the greater federal union.

Once the US fractures, the people will be distrustful and all the more ready to misbehave against the the new / revised administrations. The US people and armed forces might be too disorganized to put up much resistance from a foreign invader coming in in the guise of delivering humanitarian aid. It would be an expensive gamble, but hardly a futile one.

Probably not by North Korea, though. I’ll get to that.


Homefront: Bad Mother Brady

Brady from Homefront: The Revolution is not a very nice guy. He’s something like Animal Mother in Full Metal Jacket, a general dick all around, but we’re glad he’s on our side because he’s willing to lug the M60 around and only use it on the enemy. Brady is like a bull, the kind of guy who gets nicknamed Bull. He not only carries two full-sized primary weapons (and a crapload of ammo and field mods) but he also lugs around the big bolt-cutters for obstinate locks.

But Brady will knock you over if he’s going somewhere, and not even apologize. And not once has he acknowledged the nice safehouse watchman who greets him. Not once.

Problem Machine in his playthrough of Alpha Protocol noted the short-fuse timed-dialogue system, also the convention when he ran out of time that the game would choose a dialogue option for him. His interpretation of this system was to suggest Secret Agent Michael Thornton is impulsive and belligerent sometimes to the point of idiocy or absurdity. Problem Machine pondered to what degree this was an intentional design choice by the developers. But regardless of intent, the design choice informs how Agent Thornton plays out.

In Firewatch there’s a similar effect — this time undoubtedly intentional — with Henry’s short, stubby fingers and heavy build. For those used to playing third-person games (or first person games that include the hands and body — many don’t) Henry’s awkward build contrasts to the proportionate vetruvian build we see in other games. Henry is not merely an everyman that people can identify with, but a specific unexceptional guy, and the story is a personal one, exemplified also by the substantial prelude.

Brady is a silent Freeman, a blank personae in which players can position themselves. And in that light Brady’s badassery (his athletic prowess, his exceptional carrying capacity and ability to absorb damage) can be argued to just be power fantasy material. But there are other effects in the game, some perhaps derivative of old gaming conventions, that inform who he is. For instance, Looting is fun, or addictive at least. And it’s a common convention to pepper a level with lootable containers. But that informs the character of Brady: He is the sort of guy who will assume an invitation to hang out means he can raid your refrigerator, then your garage, then your box of electronics and take what he wants without asking.

Brady also has resting murder face. People keep expecting a fight from him. I’m not going to fuck you and I’m not going to fight you. So get lost. a resistance bomb-builder tells Brady.** Meanwhile I am simply trying to remember which safe house Brady’s woken up in, and where the exits are. Other resistance tell Brady he looks like he hasn’t slept. Others tell him to calm down: he’s safe here. And passersby in the streets keep suggesting something’s wrong with Brady, that is if they don’t infer from Brady’s presence that shit is about to go down in their neighborhood. (It usually is.)

Brady is also enthusiastic in his takedowns (that is, knife-kill animations). Very enthusiastic. Often his resistance sense will point out civilians being harassed by KPA peacekeepers, or a house about to be raided. The easiest solution is often to run up to the offending officer and drive Mr. Stabby into his eye. But then Brady gives the knife that extra bit of wiggle to assure the victim’s brains are good and scrambled.

Brady likes Mr. Stabby. He likes up close and personal. He’s glad for this occupation as it gives him cause to stab people without his buddies going all not cool, man!. If this were another time, if Philadelphia wasn’t full of oppressive soldiers that needed killing, if society was kinder and gentler, Brady probably wouldn’t fit in very well.

But as it is, Philadelphia is occupied by a cruel military by a callous, unsympathetic foreign interest. And as such, it is Brady’s day, today.

* The last time I noted that Brady was informed (online, not in game) to be Ethan Brady, and his / her shadow is overwhelmingly obfuscated by a blocky parka. It’s still possible to assume Brady is a woman for the most part, though I’ve now seen his facial hair through the camera lens of one of the remote-control cars used for sabotage. But if I want to pretend Brady is other than a white guy, it’s still easy to do. I’d have to work at it to break the illusion. (Oh yeah. There are RC cars with cameras and bombs. They’re pretty great.)

** Some Resistance express their gratitude that Brady’s here and in their zone. Others cheer him on for past exploits (taking a stronghold or singlehandedly taking out a tank). In contrast to all the get lost!, chill out and you got a problem? comments, I wonder if the gratefuls are hitting on Brady.


Homefront: Quiet Brady

Rise and shine, Dr. Freeman. Rise and Shine.*

When I start playing Homefront: The Revolution everything looks… familiar.

My name is Brady. Everyone calls me Brady. At some point I’ll find out online that I’m Ethan Brady, but for now I’m a voiceless everyman first-person hero. It’s not clear I’m a guy. As far as I know, I could easily be Cindy Brady (who’d be kinda old, but not out of the question. There’s actually a lot of Bradys). Granted, my shadow (in the rare moments I can look at it) is all blocky and masculine, but also obscured by loose trail clothes and heavy gear. Really, I’m okay with being just Brady.

I could be Dr. Gordon Freeman, frankly, who just never contradicted a guy who called me Brady. I am in a first-person shooter after all. I’m quiet, and I’m in a foreign-occupied city. But I’ll get to all that.

(Later, I hear, Mr. Ethan Brady gets a voice in one of the DLC campaigns, only to have his fellow resistance tell him to shut up.)

Brady has more game-informed talents than his MIT-alumnus predecessor. He carries three weapons: a primary weapon and a sidearm, and later, a heavy RPG. Brady can run indefinitely. Brady can also mantle up ledges and low roofs like Garrett from Thief, and he can slide like a baseball player.

Brady also can Judo Stab which is like Judo Chop but augmented with trusty Mr. Stabby. Brady’s takedowns look less like the practiced martial maneuvers of Agent 47 and more the berserk rage-stabbing technique of Violette Summer of Velvet Assassin. (Summer had a personal grudge against Nazis she was working through.)

Brady is also tough as nails (a common trait of first person heroes) and remembers to take his vitamins, or in this case, his health syrettes which were imported pretty directly from Far Cry 2. (Homefront TR uses the CryEngine, like Far Cry, but unlike Far Cry 2 which used the Dunia engine. Simple, really.)

Brady also has scavenger vision. It’s like Thief-vision from Deadly Shadows, in which lootable containers glint and remind him to look under sofa cushions. Brady’s career aspirations before the foreign occupation (that I’ll get to later) remain unknown. Since the occupation, he’s been a scavenger, scrounging stuff from garbage and abandoned junk. Most of it electronics cannibalized from broken devices to restore others to functionality. Other stuff is things people like: toys, clothes, wedding rings; trinkets from before our society was someone else’s bitch.

Then there’s materials used to craft terror weapons, specifically IEDs, molotovs, firecrackers (for distractions) and ECM Hacking Chirpers, just called hacks.

Oh yeah. Brady is a dyed-in-the-wool terrorist. To be fair, so was Dr. Freeman. And also in all fairness, the resistance is an organized front, targets the occupying enemy and seeks to avoid civilian casualties. Still, guerillas who fight the establishment are what we commonly call terrorists. Mind you, this establishment, much like the one of City 17 is very not-nice-at-all.

The place smacks quite a bit of City 17, actually.** Tall fences and brutal concrete delineate districts and zones. Helmeted peacekeepers in high-tech armor stand around or walk in patrols and otherwise corral a despondent public. Run-down tenement architecture is accented by ad-hoc foreign technological appliances forged in an unidentified alloy.

Surveillance drones scan passersby. But these drones don’t do the old flash-and-shutterclick. No, instead they bathe their targets with green laser light. When a scan is found wanting, the drone’s lasers turn red, and peace officers rapidly close in to arrest the objectionable subject. Brady will learn to loathe these drones, and their larger airship cousins that scan entire city blocks from the sky.

But this is not City 17. It’s Philadelphia. (According to game reviewers who’ve been there, it’s An effective rendering.) It’s 2025 and Philadelphia is under martial law, occupied by a high-tech foreign military force. Allegedly, they’re North Koreans, and the resistance calls them Norks. How they’re here is crazy. Why is complicated. Both are worthy of discussion on their own. But from where Brady watches, the occupation and the oppression are here. And happening right now.

That déjà vu starts to make sense: The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world, or so the G-man once said. But Gordon Freeman was a legend in his own time, possibly bigger than he was. Brady, in contrast, is a nobody. A resistance trainee who thought he might do something more with his life than selling crap. It’s a choice he soon regrets, as Brady gets captured and tortured before the day is done–twice.

Wake up and smell the ashes.

* The quote is actually Rise and shine, Mr. Freeman… though Gordon is an MIT alumnus with a PH.D. meaning the title Doctor is appropriate. Other characters refer to Freeman as Dr. Freeman, when not the more familiar Gordon, and the G-Man himself calls him Dr. Freeman in the game’s closing. Time, Dr. Freeman? Is it really that time again?

** Much like Half-Life 2 and its City 17 Train Depot, Homefront: TR is hazy white. Realistic rendered video games in the late aughts had a lot of brown and were called brown shooters. (tip: do NOT Google brown shooter. Just don’t.) Desaturated gritty / realistic games became a thing to which the industry responded with a generation (or two) of super-bright overly saturated games. White shooters which include Tom Clancy’s The Division and Homefront: TR aren’t all white, but sunny environments seen from shady places are white and hazy, as is everything when the sun is in the field of view. (And to be fair, The Division takes place in winter, NYC, which features a lot of fog and snow as well as sun.) If only we could call them Hazy-shade-of-winter shooters.

The scanner drones (sometimes simply Scanners) are one of my favorite game creatures. They’re not actually much of a threat to Gordon Freeman. A drone might obstruct a narrow path, such as a ladder. And a drone can dazzle Freeman with its photo-flash. But even if a drone gets a clear snapshot of Gordon, it doesn’t actually summon Combine units or point nearby units to Gordon’s location. Still they represent the high-security heavy-surveillance oppressiveness of City 17, and are a nod to the camera-happy surveillance quarter of the Soviet Union. (Amusingly Valentin Demchenko from Saratov, Russia has developed a working flying model of the Combine scanner drone.)

The KPA Seeker Drone is a bit more proactive, and will detect known members of the resistance, including Ethan Brady. KPA units are alerted and summoned to dispatch any resistance in the area while the drone continues to track movements of identified subjects. These drones make manifest all the horror raised by the drones of City 17.


Hitman: Thwarted

I’ve had it with Hitman: Absolution.

Over the course of the Christmas holiday and into January. I have, or rather I had been playing a lot of Absolution, and as such, this is yet another chapter in my gush-and-gripe run. But unlike other posts, I’ll be Spoiling some parts of the story. The thing is, these are story beats that drove me to disappointment and frustration, ultimately driving me to discontinue playing (albeit with three chapters to go). So this warrants a double warning. Firstly, here be spoilers. But secondly, given the story has problems, those who might be considering playing Hitman: Absolution might want to be spoiled anyway, to be spared the frustration I had to endure. BEWARE!

I quit Hitman: Absolution properly after the chapter Skurky’s Law, but in my murderous rampage to follow, I discovered the game plays better as a cover shooter than as a stealth game. To confirm this notion, I played through Operation Sledgehammer. The chapter that followed, One of a Kind is a short chapter on Agent 47 getting a new suit.* Early on in Blackwater Park I was able to dispatch all the exterior security guards with a stolen UMP at which point I realized I was too apathetic about continuing on.

So how did I get to this dire end? Begin at the beginning, I suppose…

Absolution begins with a grim mission. 47 is tasked with assassinating his own handler, Diana Burnwood (who assigned him missions and served as mission control through Blood Money). Burnwood has gone rogue and taken custody of an agency asset, a schoolgirl named Victoria. As this is a tutorial mission, 47 encounters a sequence of obstacles that allow him to try out all his tools, before shooting Burnwood while she’s taking a shower.

47 goes rogue and takes the asset, Victoria, hiding her away and disappearing into the Chicago streets.

The story from here, forward is a litany of cutscene failure and obstruction. 47’s completes level after level, only to be followed each time by a cutscene revealing he failed at his task after all. It’s a story of compounding frustration.

In chapter three, 47’s target is Blake Dexter, an arms dealer camped out at the top of the Terminus hotel. 47 sneaks through a couple platoons of hired irregulars to finally reach Dexter’s room …only to get bushwhacked in cutscene by Sanchez, the genetically-engineered ogre.

In chapter four, after Dexter teabags 47 a few times (proverbially, but still) before leaving an incapacitated 47 for dead in a hotel fire. 47 escapes but the Chicago Police Department, on high alert, is hot on 47’s tail. 47 is a master at disappearing into the night, or into a crowd. He does this several times, only to have the police reacquire him in-cutscene. Multiple times.

In chapter five, Dexter’s own lieutenants are hunting 47’s temp handler, Birdie, and 47 has to dispatch three of them in Chicago’s Chinatown during the new year fireworks celebration. 47 disposes of all three, but in cutscene Birdie is abducted anyway.

In chapter six, Birdie sings like a mockingbird and reveals to Dexter Victoria’s hiding place at the Rosewood Covenant. 47 is only steps ahead of Dexter’s team and takes Victoria down to the basement only for the elevator to shut down between floors. 47 leaves Victoria in the elevator to manage a company of Dexter’s masked nun-and-orphan-murdering marauders lead by a mercenary named Wade. 47 evades / dispatches the morass of goons. If 47 outmaneuvers Wade in the boss level (thereby avoiding getting teabagged by Wade) then Dexter’s son Lenny pops out of a cutscene to steal Victoria away.

47 tracks Lenny to Hope, North Carolina, in chapters seven, eight, nine and ten. He eliminates Lenny’s gang of fifty’s-era hooligans and then interrogates Lenny, who reveals he handed Victoria off to Sanchez the Ogre.

47 tracks Sanchez to the Dexter Industries factory grounds (Chapter 11), through underground testing labs (Chapter 12) and to the fight night cage match arena where Sanchez fights the Patriot. If 47 swaps out with the Patriot to find Sanchez himself (47 has the option to do otherwise) he learns that Sanchez gave Victoria to Skurky, Dexter’s lieutenant and sheriff of Hope. (Failure results in getting teabagged by Sanchez.) It’s not made clear how 47 gets on Skurky’s trail if he kills Sanchez another way.

After an interlude in Chapter 13 where the Sexy-Nun Assassination Squad from the Agency attacks 47 in a hotel (part three of which is probably the funnest level in the game), 47 tracks Sheriff Skurky in Chapter 14 from the Hope courthouse to the Hope jails, only to get (in cutscene) bushwhacked by Sheriff Skurky. In Chapter 15 the agency’s company of armored death agents comes to massacre the Hope Town Fair while looking for 47. 47 evades them only to be forced into a quick-draw shootout with Skurky. Skurky teabags 47 if he wins.

That’s as far as I got when I realized I had ceased having fun with the game a while back.

To be fair, this is the first Hitman game (and possibly the only one) in which a going rogue story took a downstage position to the mission/contracts structure. The Hitman paradigm is much better and more focused when there’s a clear kill-this-guy objective (and many possible approaches to doing it). But creating a sequence of missions in which each one is made subsequently moot by the end-level cutscene turned quickly into a tiresome chore. It went from frustration to dealbreaker at the point 47 got cut-scene captured a second time.

I felt thwarted. It was a lot of thwart. All the thwart of ever.

Also, this alone wouldn’t have bothered me enough to stop playing. I have other grievances about Absolution that exasperated the rage, a couple of which may be discussing in future rants: At some point it is worth discussing stealth mechanics, and I may also have to gripe about this strange propensity for game devs to shoehorn arena matches into games when they’re dubiously appropriate. (Though, being fair, Absolution‘s arena match was opt-in and not entirely inappropriate, just cliché.)

Still for now, I’m breaking from Hitman, made easier since Homefront: The Revolution is doing it for me. Especially surprising given that The Revolution was panned by reviewers. (It had a buggy release, and has been mostly patched since.)

* New suits, or more accurately new skins (a term derived from customizeable user interfaces for apps are a game feature I often enjoy. I’ve discussed before my joy of having a wardrobe in Saints Row, The Third, and seeing the numerous ways I could express the Boss’ character through fashion. At worst, unlockable skins allow me to choose an alternative when the default outfit is disagreeable. Tomb Raider Anniversary had only a limited selection, but I could dress Lara at very least in an outfit more appropriate to spelunking and adventures in the wild (id est, ones with pants — Lara Croft fans are commonly more interested in fanservice than field utility) In Absolution, 47 goes through a number of suits, some significantly more shabby than others, but the option to unlock suits with time and choose from the ones unlocked would both allow both avoiding disagreeable outfits (and enjoying preferable ones) and examining the full range of funeral-appropriate gentlemen’s attire.

It’s possible I missed this feature if it was available in the contracts section of the game.