Everything it needed to be, but still not enough.

The first two Age of Empires games (from 1997 and 1999) are childhood classics that I played for a literal age. Particularly the second one. I’m uncertain on this, but if you added up all the hours I’ve spent playing Age of Empires II, I think you’d have a number equal to the hours I’ve spent playing Age of Empires II. The game was so satisfying, succeeding at everything it tried to do, with deep, economy-focused gameplay that took skill to master (the difference between a 1400 and 1600 ELO Age of Empires II player is just as large as in, say, chess) and visceral, kinetic battles.

The historic theme gave you context and a reason to care (“lead the Golden Horde against the Shah of Khwarazm” will always be cooler than “are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president?”, for some reason) and the graphics were great, winning me over from Blizzard’s Starcraft, which was also fun but must rank as one of the ugliest games ever made. Age of Empires II’s matches played out a lot slower than Starcraft’s, but they had a bigger, higher build. Games with lots of players on a giant-sized map took on a deliriously epic quality, lasting for hours and hours, with backstabbing, politics, mounting desperation as resources dwindled, heroic last stands, ended friendships, etc. Think of all the fun things you’ve done and rank them from 1 to 10. Unless “eight player Age of Empires II LAN party where everybody’s drunk” is on the list, the most you’ve experienced is a 9.

2002’s Age of Mythology was step backward. It had some cute stuff and a lot of polish, but the new 3D engine didn’t look good and Ensemble Studios had some questionable ideas, like making higher-tier units take up multiple population spaces, causing you to hit your population cap the moment you tried to do anything fun (or so it seemed). And it was the start of the epoch where games coddled you, and didn’t allow you to make mistakes. For example, you can’t delete your town center. Not that you’d really want to, but I still feel philosophically that if I want to delete my own buildings I should be allowed to. Age of Empires I and II had a libertarian “anything goes” ethos to game design. Age of Mythology was like being artificially confined at every turn.

I played Age of Empires III for a few hours and uninstalled it. I’d seen enough; the home cities, card system, and so forth just screamed “artificial complication”, and the idiot-proof game design had hit new levels, with villagers that collected infinite resources and never needed to be moved. All the depth was gone from the core gameplay loop, leaving the sense that the game was mostly just playing itself. The colonial theme was dull particularly next to the largeness of the last two games. In Age of Empires you take cavemen at the dawn of history, and create Rome, Egypt, and Carthage. In Age of Empires II you take illiterate barbarians and guide them into the Renaissance. In Age of Empires III you take 17th century settlers and turn them into 18th century settlers. Oh my God, I paid for the entire seat when I’ll only need the edge! The campaign was actually laughable: why am I fighting Illuminati cultists for the fountain of youth in an Age of Empires game?

In 2009, Microsoft disbanded Ensemble Studios for unclear reasons (the company hadn’t put a foot wrong commercially: even Age of Empires III had sold millions of copies), sat on the license for a while, then licensed it out to other studios (particularly Hidden Path Entertainment and Forgotten Empires), who all did various things that I call “the same game, but now on Steam”. These include Age of Empires II HD Edition, Age of Empires Definitive Edition, Age of Empires II Definitive Edition, and a number of add-ons and expansions such as Forgotten Empires. Each “improved” the game from a technical perspective, but none seemed really necessary, and they also had the effect of fracturing the already-dwindling community – Age of Empires II DE players can’t play with Age of Empires II HD players, and custom maps developed for Age of Empires II are not compatible with any later versions. I kept playing my CD-Rom version of The Conquerors for a long time.

And now there’s a sequel. A sequel that I wasn’t aware of until it launched. While I have an amazing ability to dodge million dollar ad campaigns, it’s also possible the game didn’t get a million-dollar ad campaign. Quiet launches are normally a bad sign (developers don’t want their game to get beaten up too much by reviewers) but this isn’t the case: Age of Empires II is decent and well thought out.

The game is basically a collection of all the series’ best ideas – which are 90% from and II, honestly – and puts them in one package, with some new gameplay improvements. It sticks closely to the series’ main concept – you have a town center, train villagers from the town center, use them to build houses and gather resources, etc – but there are little touches that are nice. As with previous Age games, you advance through multiple “ages”, each of which unlocks additional units and technologies. But where in previous games this would lock down your town center for several minutes (pumping the brakes on the game’s momentum), AoE4 lets you continue using your town center even while advancing. It’s a small touch but it makes the game a lot faster.

Advancing to a new age now requires construction of a “landmark” – you have your choice of several per age, which each offer unique buffs and perks. Chinese, for example, can choose to Castle with either a Astronomical Clocktower (“Acts as a Siege Workshop. Produces siege engines with +50% health.”) or Imperial Palace (“Possesses a large sight radius. Activate to view the location of enemy Villagers for 10 seconds.”). This is the exact same mechanic as Age of Mythology’s minor gods, but it’s not a bad idea.

The eight civilizations (English, French, Mongol, Rus, Holy Roman Empire, Chinese, Delhi Sultanate, Abbasids) are pretty different in how they play – it’s almost like learning eight different games. The Mongols get a kind of abusive Oovoo building that allows you to build two units at once – I have a feeling this will be patched soon.

Also, I’m glad they finally added “attack move”, 1995’s hottest new feature.

Beloved mainstays of the series all return, such as the trebuchets, relics, and Black Forest (an absolutely obnoxious map that every noob picks because you can hold off pushes forever with a few walls). The monks don’t go “wolololo”, but at least there are war elephants. God damn they’re big. They’re the size of buildings.

The minor changes above aside, it just doesn’t feel like a sequel. It’s just Age of Empires II rebooted for the 3rd or 4th time. I won solo against 2 hard AIs on my first game because of how close it was to AoE2, despite the fact that none of my old hotkeys worked.

The graphics are surprisingly drab. The 2D Age of Empires games only had 256 colors, but they worked hard to make every unit distinct with sharp color contrasts and animation cycles. Here, armies just blur into a blob of indecipherable 3D men. The graphics are just technically unimpressive in general. The recommended graphics card? A GeForce 970. There’s no map editor, because why would there be.

It’s clear why they’d draw so much inspiration from AoE2, as it’s the only game in the franchise that still has legs. But it doesn’t do anything to move a stale genre forward. AoM was flawed but at least tried some new things. AoE4 is super safe and takes no risks. They probably wore kneepads and padded helmets while programming it.

The game is fun, but only in a faceless and bland way. I still remember the AoE2’s William Wallace campaign, with that hilarious fake Scottish accent. It was great. AoE4’s learning mission is about a faceless tribe of settlers fighting faceless enemies, while a woman issues instructions in her best “your call is important to us” voice. It was just dull.

And while I hate to sound like a 2014 Youtuber ranting abouty ESS JAY DUBYAS ruining vidya games, there’s no gore, no references to genocide (the Mongols are described as a “a disciplined civilization, recognized for changing history in connecting the East to the West”), and nothing remotely edgy or offensive at all (I liked how AoK:TC let you literally research the Inquisition as a tech). This works against its historical aspect. There are female soldiers, too. Can’t wait for the upcoming DLC adding transgender people and furries and whatever.

I don’t know how long I’ll keep playing it for. It’s fine. But one of the many ways the world has changed since 2003 is that the real-time strategy genre has completely fallen dead. Out of curiousity, I went on Twitch and viewed the top-viewed RTS games.

Age of Empires IV. Mobile scam game. Mobile scam game. Starcraft. Hearts of Iron 4. Age of Empires II. Starcraft II (uhh?).  Mobile scam game…

The top 20th RTS game was Command and Conquer: Red Alert. A game from 1996. And if you take out the contemptuous mobile shovelware and mislabelled wargames, it would have been in the top 10. You know a genre’s in healthy shape when its 10th most viewed game is an MS-DOS title from the middle of the Clinton presidency.

The last viable branch of the genre is probably MOBA games such as DOTA and League of Legends, whose click-heavy isometric style is a clear artifact from the real-time strategy genre. I don’t know why the genre stopped selling, but it’s probably going to take more than another remake to bring it back. Age of Empires IV feels like a slickly missed opportunity. The title is bitterly ironic: this series (and genre) is indeed showing its age.

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There’s a behavior called “wound-collecting” where a person takes every slight, insult, and injustice they’ve experienced and builds an identity out of it. “Look at how much I’ve suffered. Look at how much worse I’ve had it than you.” Their victim status becomes their defining attribute, the thing that makes them special. They can’t let their hurt go: they become slumbering dragons atop a hoard of pain, admiring their scars, wishing they had more.

I remember reading a feminist’s blog post, titled (and capitalized) something like “why i hate men”. It was a long list of every bad thing a man had every done to her, ranging from serious sexual assault to a stranger calling her a rude word on The Bird Site, written with pornographic detail and (to me) barely-disguised relish. I felt bad for her; are wounds all you have?

Wound-collecting probably starts in pre-adolescence – infants learn that if they stub a toe, adults will crowd around them, fussing and cooing. The attention feels nice. Sometimes better than the stubbed toe felt bad. Enterprising infants might learn that if they scream and cry very loudly, they don’t need to stub their toe at all.

One of the great wound-collectors of our time is James Frey, whose tearjerking, heart-rending, and fake account of drug addiction got him on Oprah (here’s John Dolan taking a bolt-gun to A Million Little Pieces in one of his meanest and funniest reviews). Women are generally more prone to wound-collecting, but, as Frey proves, men can do it too. And children. And its.

Dave Pelzer was born to an insane alcoholic mother in 1960 and made a ward of the state in 1973. In the intervening twelve years, he experienced what fifth-grade teacher Steven E. Ziegler describes as “the third worse (sic) case of child abuse on record in the entire state of California.” …starved, stabbed, smashed face-first into mirrors, forced to eat the contents of his sibling’s diapers and a spoonful of ammonia, and burned over a gas stove…” Also, he probably got the middle seat in the family sedan and was never allowed to choose the pizza toppings. In adulthood, Pelzer made a career as a kind of rah-rah-you-can-do-it motivational speaker, anchored by the experiences in A Child Called ‘It’. I don’t know to what extent he fits the wound-collector profile. Perhaps he doesn’t at all. But at the very least he’s a wound-displayer, performing fetishistic accounts of child abuse for money.

Pelzer (or his publisher) describes A Child Called ‘It’ as an “inspirational story”: I must have missed the inspirational parts. Between stories of being locked in a garage for ten days without food and suffocated with bleach and clorox, Pelzer throws in some generic gloop (“I’m so blessed. The challenges of my past have made me immensely strong inside. […] Instead of dwelling on the past, I maintained the same focus that I had taught myself years ago in the garage, knowing the good Lord was always over my shoulder, giving me quiet encouragement and strength when I needed it most.”) that sounds as schmaltzy and fake as a Thomas Kinkade painting. The book – the real book – is marketed with the precision of a laser-guided bomb. It knows its audience of atrocity seekers very well: far better than they know themselves.

There’s a deceptive aspect to books like this; they’re not as they appear.  I’ll just say what I think: books like A Child Called ‘It’  sell millions of copies because they’re a safe, socially-acceptable way to read about a child being tortured. There’s a society hypocrisy here that’s seldom talked about: if you enjoy fictional child-torture stories you’re a depraved sicko who belongs on every government watchlist at once, but when that same story is packaged as “motivational lit” or “true crime” or “the news”, you can pretend your interest in it is wholesome, even virtuous. You’re becoming an Informed Person(tm). You’re learning about The Way The World Really Works(c).

Is this surprising? 1980s Evangelicals protested against heavy metal and Dungeons and Dragons while themselves propping up a huge Satanic Panic media industry (Michelle Remembers, Satan Seller, Hell’s Bells) that was a code-shifted version of the same thing. Michael Warnke sold millions of books with passages like “[the Satanists] took this little girl and they killed her by cutting her sexual organs out while she was still alive, and after she was dead they cut her chest open, took out her heart and cut it up in little pieces and took communion on it,” and Jack Chick distributed hundreds of millions of tracts like “Lisa”, often to the same people who wanted Black Sabbath gone from the airwaves. This is because Black Sabbath was entertainment, while the tales of Satanic witches were supposedly real, offering plausible deniability to their consumers – why wouldn’t a concerned citizen want to learn about the black masses and human sacrifice rituals happening in the nation’s schools? Prudes and moralists like porn, but more than that, they like excuses.

I use the word porn with care. I don’t mean people literally get a sexual thrill out of stories like Pelzer’s (though for certain readers, who knows?). But there’s an pornlike element to Pelzer all the same. He’s pure object: an archetype, a totem, a lightning rod into which we can discharge our anguish, horror, and outrage – seething lizard-brain emotions we can barely understand or control. It’s a small but vital detail, for example, that Pelzer is a child, hitting the switch on the reader’s maternal/paternal instincts. Nobody would give a shit about a book titled The Senior Citizen Called ‘It’, despite elder abuse being a real thing that happens. People are far more excited when the victim is an adorable little boy.

And the excitement around this book was real and terrifying to witness. In the late 90s people around me were moved to ecstasy by it. “Oh my god, this is awful! That poor boy!”, always spoken in the tones of a junkie sky-high on a 20 dollar bill. On Reddit and Goodreads there are people asking for other books like A Boy Called ‘It’. Horrible book! Traumatized me for years! Give me more. The demand for child abuse lit is insatiable, and although the books are presented as tales of salvation and hope this is a formality, like how porn films wrap up the high-definition sex inside a dumb story about Mia Malkova’s car breaking down. The real point is the suffering. The pain. People want to see it. All of it. And when it’s over, they want more. And worse. It’s a hole through the Earth that leads, not to China, but directly out into blackest space.

I haven’t talked about the book at all.

First, it’s not a book, it’s sublimated fantasies arranged in the shape of a book. It’s badly written: if Pelzer had tried to get famous off prose instead of child abuse he would currently be An AutoZone Manager Called ‘It’.  “For awhile Mother banned Father from the house, and the only time we saw him was when we drove to San Francisco to pick up his paycheck. One time, on our way to get the check, we drove through Golden Gate Park. Even though my anger was ever present, I flashed back to the good times when the park meant so much to the whole family. My brothers were also silent that day as we drove through the park. Everybody seemed to sense that somehow the park had lost its glamour, and that things would never be the same again. I think that perhaps my brothers felt the good times were over for them too.”  Grammatical issues aside (“awhile” instead of “a while”, singular “time” applied to a recurring event, etc), why is there so much repetition of detail? We’re told he goes to San Francisco to pick up a check, then we’re told again. We’re told he’s at the Golden Gate Park, then we’re told again. Every paragraph in the book is too long by 10 to 20 percent.  Its narrative is structured oddly, beginning where it should have ended (with Pelzer’s rescue by Mr Ziegler). A Child Called ‘It’ would otherwise have had a thrilling “how will he get out of this?” compulsion, but instead we already know how he got out, because he told us. Pelzer’s imagery is corny and seems right out of a 70s romance novel: rivers of tears go pouring and/or streaming down young Pelzer’s face so often that it could almost become a drinking game. His writing sucks all the air out of the room…but could that be an intended effect? To make the book seem rougher, realer, and more believable?

This brings us to the elephant in the room, hinted at several times.

A problem with wound-collecting is the temptation to exaggerate or outright invent wounds; to feather your nest with shards of broken blue glass and call them sapphires. As I read Pelzer’s sad tale a certain feeling came over me – the feeling you get when you’re in a foreign country and your taxi driver says he’s taking the scenic route.

Pelzer’s stories individually edge against the line of believability and cumulatively cross over: I don’t believe that his mother held him beneath freezing water for “hours” (hypothermia would have killed a starving ten year old in minutes). I’m curious about whether his lacerations and stabbings left him with scars, and if these have photographed to corroborate his tale. I impaled my finger on a thorn when I was ten and the mark is still there. I’m also curious as to whether his mother actually said things like this, which sounds like dialog from a very bad movie.

“Well, Mr Ziegler says I should be so proud of you for naming the school newspaper. He also claims that you are one of the top pupils in his class. Well, aren’t you special?” Suddenly, her voice turned ice cold and she jabbed her finger at my face and hissed, “Get one thing straight, you little son of a bitch! There is nothing you can do to impress me! Do you understand me? You are a nobody! An It! You are nonexistent! You are a bastard child! I hate you and I wish you were dead! Dead! Do you hear me? Dead!”

I can tolerate dull writing and exploitative subject matter, but I don’t like being conned or taken for a ride.  When I learned from Wikipedia that three of Pelzer’s brothers (and his grandmother) have cast doubt on his story, I was unsurprised but still disappointed.

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A great book. The best Dark Tower novel? Yes. The best Stephen King novel? Possibly. It has one of his best lines, anyway.

He thought: Very well. I am now a man with no food, with two less fingers and one less toe than I was born with; I am a gunslinger with shells which may not fire; I am sickening from a monster’s bite and have no medicine; I have a day’s water if I’m lucky; I may be able to walk perhaps a dozen miles if I press myself to the last extremity. I am, in short, a man on the edge of everything.

I don’t want to think or write about The Drawing of the Three: I want to re-read it. It’s coked-up and manic, bouncing off the walls like a kid in a small room. The plot moves unbelievably fast – only The Running Man is paced faster, and not by much. It’s ludicrously overstuffed with thrills: later Dark Towers can have a cosy, rambling feel; here the tension drawn so tight that each line seems ready to snap. You can almost cut your finger on the flat side of the page.

It picks up the tale from where The Gunslinger ended it: Roland (the last guardian in a dead or dying world modeled on our romantic image of the Wild West) has just damned his own soul in his quest for the mythic Dark Tower. Alone and friendless, he collapses from exhaustion on a beach, and is attacked (and mutilated) by a monster from the waves. Soon he’s becoming desperately and incurably sick – either his wound is infected, or the monster was venomous. He realizes that he might die before he ever finds the Tower, and attempts a series of “drawings” – rituals bringing other gunslingers (or equivalent gunslingers) from other universes into his world. He hopes they’ll either save his life or fulfill his quest for the Tower after he dies. All he knows about these supposed allies is a shred of biography. There’s a man in thrall of a demon (unknown to Roland) called “Heroin”, a woman who appears to have a split Jekyll-and-Hyde personality, and the personification of death itself.

Roland proves to be just as strong an anti-hero as he was in the book before. The drawings are little more than abductions. He will not take no for an answer, and he has no intention of allowing the proto-gunslingers (who, as chance would have it, all live in 20th century New York) to leave. He has good reasons for doing this – he believes the Tower will soon fall, spelling the end for the last pitiful dregs of creation, unless someone saves it. But it makes him as dark as the tower he’s chasing, and turns him into Clint Eastwood’s Angel Eyes, as menacing as he is heroic.

The Drawing of the Three isn’t perfect. The first third of the book spends a lot of time in Miami Vice territory, featuring cocaine smuggling and DEA agents and cartoonish gangster types: it’s fun but runs a little long. Eddie Dean’s backstory is also overdeveloped considering how uninteresting it turns out to be. The book also features a serial-killer yuppie character that seems ripped off from American Psycho (it’s not – The Drawing of the Three was published four years earlier): a great idea that King could have done more with. Detta Walker proves herself the book’s most inspired villain by the end, not Jack Mort.

But there are far more things that work. Huge swathes of the book are just “a guy walking alongside a beach”. Instead of dead zones in the plot, these become fraught with tension thanks to the ticking clock of Roland’s sickness (which also allow King to explore Roland’s backstory through fevered hallucinations of life before the world apocalyptically “moved on”). Roland was an almost unbelievably good gunfighter in the first book, effortlessly gunning down dozens of people, so King makes the few shootouts interesting by giving him unreliable ammunition (Roland unwisely allowed his shells to become wet by sleeping in wet sand, and many of the bullets he chambers in his revolvers misfire). This is great, effective storytelling, killing lots of birds with very few stones.

And there are hilarious moments too, particularly the parts where Roland (a man from another world who is as much an Arthurian knight as he is The Man With No Name): has to interact with foul-mouthed New Yorkers. This was a big part of what sunk the later books for me: it killed the atmosphere of King’s Lovecraftian Western “Mid-World” to have characters name-dropping Hollywood movies and baseball teams every few pages. But here, the lightness serves a purpose, cutting the dread to manageable levels, like the baby powder in Eddie’s heroin.

‘Well,’ Eddie said, ‘what was behind Door Number One wasn’t so hot, and what was behind Door Number Two was even worse, so now, instead of quitting like sane people, we’re going to go right on ahead and check out Door Number Three. The way things have been going, I think it’s likely to be something like Godzilla or Ghidra the Three-Headed Monster, but I’m an optimist. I’m still hoping for the stainless steel cookware.”

The Dark Tower, at its core, was King’s merging a Lord of the Rings-type epic fantasy quest with genre conceits of a Leone/Sturges/Peckinpah Western. The concept went off the rails for various reasons worth explaining at length, but it’s interesting that the best book in the series had the least time for leather-slapping cowboy cliches. The Drawing of the Three has no cattle rustlers, no dusty red canyons, no bars with batwing doors, one Mexican standoff, certainly no war-whooping Injuns or sniggering bandidos. Instead it’s a fantasy-horror story of a man and his magic, going to other worlds.

King often does his best work with very sparse plots. I’ve heard it said that videogames work not by letting you do things but by not letting you do things (Super Mario Bros would be no fun if Mario could fly, for example), and King has a similar property: he gains strength under restrictions. You can tell the story of Misery, Gerald’s Game, The Shining, in a single, reasonably short sentence. But just as very good sketches can suggest more detail than a photorealistic drawing, King’s threadbare stories never fail to gain largeness and life.

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