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holedown

November 17th, 2018

Holedown is a lovely little ball-bouncing game. Blocks come up from the bottom of the screen; rather than being individual squares, though, they’re somewhat more irregularly shaped (think Tetris pieces, but with more variation); frequently with space between them, frequently right next to each other. You shoot a stream of balls down at them, and they bounce around; each block has a number on it, which goes down each time a ball hits a block, the number goes down 1, and if it hits zero, the block vanishes.

Blocks come in two different types: fixed ones and resting ones. Fixed ones only disappear if the count hits zero; resting ones can be destroyed the same way, but they also get destroyed if all of the fixed blocks they’re on top of (either directly or through a chain of resting blocks) get destroyed. So, if you can get your stream of balls to bounce halfway down the screen to where it hits a fixed block, then, by destroying that block, you might clear out a large chunk of the top half of the screen.

After that stream of balls stops bouncing around, the remaining blocks move up one; if they hit the top of the screen, your game is over. Also, the numbers on new blocks get higher, so they’re harder to destroy; counterbalancing that, the number of balls in your stream increases (more slowly than the numbers on the blocks, but quickly enough to make a difference), though if you play long enough, you’ll eventually hit a cap. (But the numbers on the blocks don’t get capped, so the game gets harder and harder at that point.)

 

That’s the basic idea (and a core idea that’s not unique to this game, it’s a mini-genre); and Holedown turns out to be a really well executed instance of this idea. The visuals are unassumingly charming; the sounds do a great job of giving a bouncy feel; the animations of blocks being hit or disappearing provide constant low-key fun. And there are other more subtle signs of care in the interactions: e.g. when you lift your finger from the screen to launch the shot, it’s almost always the case that your contact point with the screen changes as you lift it, but the game is very good at figuring out what the angle was from the contact point right before you started lifting and using that instead of the final contact point.

And the underlying systems are equally well thought out. Randomness is a key to doing games like this well: you want lots of randomness to provide variety, to increase the range of situations that you have to respond to. But you don’t want the randomness to feel unfair, like you hit a situation that nobody could deal with (at least until you hit the cap on the size of the stream of balls, because after that it’s only a matter of time before it gets too hard); and you want scope to get better by improving your skills at dealing with that randomness.

 

Some sources of randomness, and similar areas where you can increase your skill:

  • The irregular shape of the blocks.
  • The positioning of blocks in relationship to each other: are there spaces you can slip balls through, are there two blocks near each other with a space between them where you can get a ball bouncing back and forth repeatedly, is there a whole row of blocks with no gaps that you’ll have to drill away at, etc.
  • The two types of blocks, and the strategies that evolve from that: do you always want to target the top block (lower risk, but too low a reward to be right in general) or do you want to target the lower blocks (with an increased risk of getting your angles wrong, but with potential benefits of setting up massive cascade effects)?
  • The curved corners of the blocks, and the difficulty of prediction that arises from that. (According to a podcast interview with the developer, they’re not actually modeled as curves in the physics model, but there’s enough variation to be interesting; after listening to that, I was curious to see what it would feel like if the physics modeling matched the visuals, would that make it too hard to predict?)
  • The fact that, if you clear out too much of the top of the screen, then the screen will move up multiple rows at once, adding in risk to balance out the potential of big plays. (Including the risk that you don’t know what the shape will be of the new blocks that arrive: will they have lots of gaps or will they all be stuck in a row?)

 

That last point turns out, for me, to be the key to how I feel about the game in the long run. There are actually two different modes in the game: at first, you’re going through specific challenges (reach a certain depth, basically), with pretty serious constraints on the number of balls you can have in place, and with an added mechanic to let you learn level ups. So that’s fun as a teaching tool for the game, and fixed-scope challenges are certainly pleasant to overcome. But, after a few hours, you’ll make it through all of those challenges and earn all the level ups; at that point, you’re in an infinite mode, that always starts with 32-ball streams and where you can never get more than 99 balls. So, there, the challenge is whether you can make it up to 99 balls and then how long you can stay at that level.

And the mechanic of having the screen move up a bunch if you clear out too much is key to the infinite mode. Something like that is absolutely necessary to make the game interesting: otherwise you’d spend way too much time in a mode where only a couple of lines of blocks were present, because once enough blocks appeared, chances are that that would give you enough scope to bounce balls through a gap to reach underneath them and bounce around repeatedly, clearing things out. And that would be boring.

The flip side, though, is that encouraging conservative play, of not always trying to destroy as many balls as possible, is also a little boring. Of the two potential problems arising from how to handle screen movement mechanically, it’s the better problem to have, because it does give you an added option in how to play tactically and hence another opportunity for skill development. But still: so much of the game does such a great job of making it fun to have balls bounce around a lot that it’s a pity to see that worked against in this instance.

 

I’d assumed that the developer thought of the infinite mode as the core of the game and the earlier steps as tutorials, but, according to that podcast interview, that’s not the case: his goal was to make the experience of those fixed levels a very satisfying experience (which it is!), and the infinite mode is a bonus.

And this shows: the infinite mode is where the question above becomes important, and while the game’s solution is fine, I suspect there’s something lurking out there that could be a little better?

Also, the arc of a session in the infinite mode is not quite as good as it could be: there’s the initial wonder as to whether you’ll be able to survive at the start at all (which I usually can but which I fail at a not-insignificant portion of time), then there’s a fairly long period where you get more balls and where the game gets noticeably easier (I still die in this period sometimes, probably most of the time, but any individual portion of it is not going to be too bad), and then you hit the 99 ball cap and there’s a question of how long it will take to come up against a randomly generated hard-to-deal-with configuration that outstrips your skill.

And that’s a fine arc, though having the middle part be easier than the beginning is a little unusual; the problem is that the most rewarding part of that arc is where you’re at the 99 ball cap, and it takes a while (I haven’t measured, but I feel like 10–20 minutes? Certainly a long time for an arcadey game) to get there. So the learning cycle is curtailed, because you don’t get nudges to adjust your strategy / improve your skill in response to failure as frequently as I’d like. (And, also, individual sessions get a little long for a game that could otherwise be an iPhone play-in-spare-moments game.)

 

Anyways: very solid game at its core, with really good production values. It doesn’t quite reach evergreen status for me, but it’s very close indeed.

suffering, craving, and fairness

November 7th, 2018

There are a lot of annoying drivers on the road. People who drive too slowly, blocking your lane; people who drive at the exact same speed right next to each other, preventing anybody else from passing them; people who cut you off, muscling their way into your lane; people who tailgate (and, worse, people who tailgate, and then, when you move over, don’t actually pull ahead of you!); people who drive much faster than everybody else on the road, cutting in and out of different lanes.

Having said that, I don’t get annoyed at other drivers at much as I used to. Part of that is getting older and mellower; part of it, though, is that it doesn’t do me any good to get angry at other drivers. It doesn’t do me any good emotionally, and it also doesn’t do me any good as a driver.

So, these days, I try to see other drivers as context. There’s nothing I can do to affect their behavior; so I should just give up on worrying about that, and instead focus on understanding better what’s happening around me, to predict events, and to figure out how to put myself in the best situation I can given that context.

(It’s not actually true that there’s nothing I can do to affect other drivers’ behavior: mostly other drivers are doing their own thing, but my driving does affect theirs. But, again, trying to understand other drivers, including how they might react to me, is the most effective way to try to reach a good outcome.)

 

The first Noble Truth says that life is suffering, or at least that there’s a lot of suffering involved in life. The second Noble Truth says that craving is the origin of suffering; the third Noble Truth talks about the cessation of craving. And, finally, the fourth Noble Truth gives some pointers how to achieve that cessation.

It’s kind of a ridiculous example, but: to me, that driving example points at how I interpret those truths. It’s almost tautological, but the reason why I get annoyed when driving is that I wish other drivers would behave differently; if I can get over that and cause that craving to cease, then driving is fine. Or even interesting: getting over being annoyed at other drivers doesn’t mean that I have to be checked out. Instead, I can take the fourth truth’s advice to behave with the right mindfulness (or have the right intention and right action, or have the right concentration – take your choice!) then I can turn this into a positive experience.

 

The first truth says that aging is suffering, illness is suffering; unfortunately, I’ve seen more of that (some in myself, more in various family members) over the last few years than I would like. And it seems kind of callous to make an analogy between illness and the driving situation above, or to say that the suffering related to disease arises from craving: when I was in agony from problems with a disk in my back, I certainly had some cravings relevant to that situation, but the cravings weren’t the source of the pain!

But, of course, direct physical pain isn’t the only form of suffering that arises from disease: there’s the suffering of not knowing how your disease is going to play out and worrying about that, there’s the suffering of having a pretty good idea of how your disease is going to play out and worrying about that, there’s the suffering of fighting against medical bureaucracies, there’s the suffering of worrying about follow-on effects (on your family, on your job, on your finances), there’s the suffering of wishing you’d behaved differently in the past, there’s the suffering of being angry at the random chance that’s led you to this situation.

Not to minimize the seriousness and reasonableness of any of these worries: but you’ll be better off the less you focus on the worries, the closer you get to a clear-headed acknowledgement of the contingencies of the situation, and let that guide your actions and feelings. Which is a lot easier to type than to actually do, of course; again, the fourth truth gives guidance for that, but, well, it’s a long path. Sometimes I think I’m getting better (and I even feel like there are certain physical sensations in my head that correspond to this improvement, a sort of flatness in the upper rear portion of my brain); but I’m still more than capable of responding with annoyance and anger to situations, even though I can also recognize that that anger is actively getting in the way of my desire to steer those situations to certain outcomes.

 

One of the sources of suffering arising from illness is that it so rarely feels fair; and sometimes it seems to me that a focus on fairness is sweeping the country. You can, I think, even see this in language: I’ll now frequently hear people respond to a sentence with the single word “fair”, whereas I don’t think that was common ten or even five years ago.

The 2016 election certainly brought fairness to the fore: it seems like nobody in the country feels like they and groups that they’re part of are being treated fairly, and it showed just how starkly different people’s opinions are about what fairness means. Also, the erosion of norms bore on the question of fairness in another way: it’s painfully clear how much behavioral latitude the law and power structures allow, and the bad and even evil that can arise when people use that latitude to go far beyond what is fair.

But, as per the above, focusing on that fairness is craving that leads to suffering. Being unhappy that I (or some group that I identify with) am being treated unfairly isn’t going to change anything: it’s just a net increasing in suffering.

 

Except that, as the political example points out (and as the medical example points out as well, for that matter): suffering is a motivator. I said that being unhappy with unfairness isn’t going to change anything, but it’s also true that accepting unfairness also isn’t going to change anything. If you think that change in some area would be good, then change in the direction you seek is probably more likely to occur if you actually do something; so, to the extent that a lack of craving translates into passive acceptance, the lack of craving is less likely to correlate with good outcomes.

Does this mean that I think Buddhists are wrong in their analysis? Not necessarily, for a few reasons. One is that, over and over again, it feels to me like suffering linked to my response to situations doesn’t clearly lead to me changing my behavior in ways that have benefits further down the line; and I’ve seen not a few situations where that sort of suffering feels like it’s nudging me towards counterproductive behavior, e.g. towards a strategy of denial. And another is that this blog post hasn’t arisen from a deep study of Buddhism: the Buddhist bits here are based on some vague memories, a bit of googling, and a bit of Wikipedia reading. So I can’t imagine that Buddhism doesn’t have answers to these questions, and answers that are better thought out than I can produce in a bit of thinking and typing.

And, in particular, there’s some sort of analytical subtlety that I don’t yet have a grasp on. Above, I wrote “If you think that change in some area would be good”; when I originally typed that, though, it said something like “If you want change in some area”. But the word “want” feels inappropriately liked with craving; I wanted a phrasing that steps away from that linkage. Or, when I was thinking about this earlier, part of me was going to put the Buddhist point of view as leading towards just accepting whatever happens and not trying to change anything; maybe the word “trying” is wrong in that sentence, but you can always engage in a range of actions, and saying that the ones that are closest to the status quo are neutral ones while ones more distant from the status quo are linked to craving is, I think, analytically incorrect: I don’t see a priori why quieting down craving should push your actions in the direction of the status quo.

I don’t feel like I have a good analysis of this tension: the counterpoint is that it seems to me like taking an action is related to making a choice of what action to take is related to making an evaluation of which action is better is related to wanting a better outcome is related to craving. But I’m not convinced by every step in that chain; and I am convinced that too much craving can make it harder to reach good outcomes. I’m not sure if reducing craving is always the best approach, though, and I suspect that there are distinctions that I’m missing that would clarify this analysis.

Hard stuff: figuring out how to analyze it, but, most of all, figuring out how to calm down and step back.

limbo and inside

October 14th, 2018

I really was not expecting my initial reaction to Limbo to be how soothing it is. But there’s something about the game (its color palette, or rather palette of greys, in particular) that made it immediately feel calming to me, like walking through a quiet evening.

Limbo is not actually like walking through a quiet evening; oddly enough, though, that feeling of calmness more or less remained even as I started getting repeatedly impaled by a shadowy spider creature. I won’t say that I always felt calm during the game, but when I wasn’t, it was probably mostly the times when I was banging my head against puzzles? I was certainly surprised
how persistent the atmospheric feeling was.

 

Inside was not nearly as calming as Limbo: the perils of using actual colors. Though that wasn’t the only difference between the two games’s presentations, to be sure: in particular, I found the 3-D environments which you could only interact with in a 2-D manner to be slightly distracting? And being chased by dogs and people bothered me more than being attacked by mechanical spiders. The puzzles were just as good, though.

What actually struck me most about Inside was near the end, rather than the beginning: the part when you become a big fleshy blob rolling through the environments, smashing windows and in general causing chaos. That was surprisingly cathartic, and that catharsis is something that I miss in most games’ arcs. I’m used to games that bring the action to a fever pitch with a final boss fight, and then end almost immediately after that; but that doesn’t leave you enough time to wind down and enjoy your victory. With Inside, though, the capstone puzzle sequence is before you become a blob; and, after becoming a blob, you’re left with a noticeable amount of time (not a long period, but enough) to roll around, enjoy your new power, and only have a few isolated puzzles to deal with. A nice release of tension, leading to a relaxing end as you, uh, decompose on a hillside next to the water?

code animism

September 30th, 2018

I’ve been infatuated with The Nature of Order and KonMari for a while, in part for the same reason: their emphasis on direct perception. I spend a lot of time in my head, which leads to over-theorizing and over-analyzing; a question like “does this feel more alive?” or “does this bring me joy?” can cut through that sort of analysis, helping me avoid being misled by it.

Though it’s not the only thing that was attracting me to that question from The Nature of Order: it holds out (or at least I interpreted it as holding out) insight into the hidden nature of things. And, well, I have a soft spot for mysticism. It’s also why I loved mathematics: seeing hidden patterns that help explain isolated observations at a more fundamental level.

 

I read some Plato when I was younger, and was at least somewhat enamored by the theory of Forms. Not that I ever thought about it too seriously, but it had the same type of pull: an idea that there was some sort of deeper truth out there, if only we could see it. I still don’t think about Platonism too seriously, but these days, I think of Platonism as actively dangerous. (And I think of it as useless, for that matter, but that’s a separate discussion.)

The main reason why I think of it as dangerous is that, to the extent that many objects can be seen as imperfect images of a single pure Form, that supports active harm. I honestly can’t remember the details well enough to know if Plato supported the concept of a single Form of a human, but if so, the idea that there’s an ideal conceptual human that all actual humans could be compared against and found wanting to the extent that they match that Form is a horrible one. Even if Plato didn’t think that example of a Form would be valid, Wikipedia does assure me that there’s a single Form of the Good, which is almost as scary.

 

Both Alexander and Kondo avoid that problem (whether it’s a real problem in Plato or a perceived problem in my strawman version of Plato!), and do so in different ways. Alexander is constantly asking you to think about local situations: he’s constantly asking where the life is in specific situations, and what choices would further enhance that life or detract from it. So, in the context of building, the nature of its life might be affected by the landscape (the contours of the land, the trees that grow nearby, how sunlight hits the building site); it might be affected by surrounding buildings, and by the spaces between surrounding buildings; it might be affected by the people who will be using the new building, their needs, desires, and visions; and decisions at a later stage in building construction might be affected by decisions during an earlier stage. Alexander does have general rules for how life manifests itself and how you can evolve a context to increase its life, but the details of how that play out are extremely situational.

Kondo, in contrast, goes all-in on one specific aspect of non-universality: she asks what it means to you for something to bring joy. Again, she has some general principles (throwing away a whole bunch of stuff, recommendations for how to organize what remains), but her fundamental question is an extremely personal and individual one. So Alexander wants you to take everything into account, while Kondo wants you to take one person’s feelings into account; but neither of them wants you to focus on some sort of abstract representation of how things should be.

 

I read a handful of books on Shinto a few years back; and Alexander was part of the reason why. Because, if you take seriously the idea that it makes sense to talk about whether objects, buildings, and so forth are more or less alive, then that raises the question of whether or not it makes sense to think that there might be spirits of some sort in a lot more places than I’m used think of them as being. (Or maybe, in a lot more places than I’m culturally supported in thinking of them as being; in a lot of the spaces where I spend time, it seems a lot more socially acceptable to discount even the concept of consciousness than to, say, take the notion of a soul seriously, let alone to apply that concept to non-humans! But I digress.)

And if you’re going to ask that question, then it makes sense to try to learn a bit about situations where people have asked that question in the past; and Shinto is one such tradition that comes to mind. I can’t say that I got a whole lot out of those particular books, unfortunately, though I probably will reread one of them. In retrospect, I guess it’s not too surprising that reading books in English is probably not the best way to try to get real insight into Shinto…

 

I work professionally as a programmer. Alexander’s ideas on patterns have had some influence on programming (though not really in their full Pattern Language form); his ideas from The Nature of Order haven’t had significant influence on programming, as far as I’m aware. But it does seem to me like they should apply in some form, though the details will certainly play out differently in programming than in architecture.

I was going to say that one difference is that programming raises the possibility of writing code from a clean slate, while in architecture the site and surroundings are always there. And there’s something to that; but, when programming, your actions are always shaped by the context: the context of your tools (programming languages, hardware, etc.), the social context (potential users, your fellow programmers, etc.), and so forth.

Still, the abstract nature of programming does make it even more uncomfortable to take seriously Alexander’s notion of seeing life in objects than it is to take seriously that notion in, say, houses. I mean, from one point of view it’s not obvious why arrangements of atoms should be capable of being alive than arrangements of programming language tokens, but still: we’re used to the former and have lots of existence proofs. Though maybe the software case isn’t actually that far from the Turkish carpet case

 

I periodically see discussion about whether we like focusing on the word “craft” when discussing the creation of software. This is usually in response to the Software Craftsmanship movement; and there are obvious criticisms of that movement (starting with the second syllable of the second word), and more subtle ones. Sarah Mei in particular has thought a lot about this, here are two examples, and Jessica Kerr’s stunning Origins of Opera talk addresses the issue as well.

So, even though I’ve been drawn towards the notion of software as craft, those critiques make me realize that I should think more about what associations the term “craft” has, which of those associations I like, which I don’t, and what important aspects of software development are missing from those associations. (Maybe it’s time for AR⊗TA to reappear, to help broaden and question those associations!)

I think, ultimately, the association that I like is that craft says that details matter. And that’s important to me, and it probably says something about my temperament; though big abstract ideas matter to me as well, so who knows.

One nice thing about the Nature of Order approach (or the Pattern Language approach before it) is that it tells you to pay attention to all scales. So, yeah, the details matter, but the broad strokes matter, and the levels in between matter. And, as per The Process of Creating Life, this applies to the dynamics, not just to a static snapshot of the situation. And, to get an outcome that really takes into account the full context, you have to talk to people. A lot.

 

I’m meandering more than normal here: there’s something going on that could, I think, be important to me but that I haven’t spent enough of my life really diving into. And I suspect that there’s a pretty clear entry point for me: diving into the details of sections of code, listening to what those details are telling me and trying to get the code feel as right as possible. I don’t think that’s a general route into this concept that I’m groping at, and I think other people would have different entry points, at different scales and different interactions; hopefully I’d be somewhat aware of those scales as well, and hopefully as I got happier with the smaller scales I’d find it easier to listen to the larger scales.

Which, of course, raises the question: why am I not doing this already? And I am, a little; but not as much as I should be. Maybe that means that I should spend more time programming out of work; maybe that means I should change what I’m doing at work.

I guess it does make sense that this can be a little hard to navigate at work? If I just say “I want to understand the nature of code better”, it’s not clear why anybody’s response should be a particularly positive one. There might still be a path in there — I can phrase it as an attack on technical debt, for example — but a more obvious route would be to work this philosophy into programming that I’m doing at work for other reasons. (And, actually, maybe the problem is that I’m not doing quite enough programming these days: I’m staying an individual contributor, but individual contributions can come in lots of forms.)

Ultimately, honestly, what matters is whether or not I treat the idea seriously. If I do, nobody is going to tell me that I shouldn’t spend more time following my nose programming. And, if I don’t, this is just words.

hellblade: senua’s sacrifice

August 29th, 2018

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice got notice for its portrayal of psychosis: Senua, the protagonist, hears voices, and sees things that other people don’t. The developers apparently took this seriously, consulting with mental health professionals and integrating the symptoms and themes into the game.

This sort of treatment is, honestly, something that I’m temperamentally not particularly well set up to appreciate. Because there’s another interpretation for what Senua is hearing and seeing: that she’s in contact with the supernatural. And my default when confronted with the fantastical in art is to accept those fantastical elements at face value, even when they’re mixed in with non-fantastic elements. So, sure, I could treat Totoro as a story about two girls who are overwhelmed with worry about losing their mother and who hence retreat into their imagination; but not only do I instead assume that it’s portraying a world where giant smiling panda-like creatures and catbuses actually exist, it didn’t even cross my mind that another interpretation was possible until I heard people discuss such an interpretation on a podcast, a decade after I first watched the movie.

And the world of Hellblade is a lot more supernatural than that of Totoro: it’s thoroughly embedded in a context of Norse mythology, which means that gods, spirits, and supernatural creatures are entirely to be expected. Senua crosses over into the realm of one of the gods right at the beginning of the game; so my first inclination is (or at least would be if I hadn’t heard about the game in advance) would be to treat unusual experiences as standard parts of the in-game world.

 

There are in-game arguments to support mental health interpretations, though. Senua’s father was abusive; and she’s seen horrific amounts of death, from both disease and violence. And, whatever the interpretation of the visions, it’s an ability that Senua shared with her mother, and one that many of her townspeople were apparently not particularly comfortable with with either woman. So there were environmental factors that could have contributed to mental health problems; and for that matter sometimes people have mental health problems even without environmental factors coming into play.

If I were pinned down, I’d probably come down on an interpretation where Senua really is experiencing a divine world, where she has been having visions for years that were showing her parts of that world, but where she nonetheless has real mental health problems. (With the voices being good candidates for manifestations of those problems.) Which is an interpretation that makes me favorably inclined towards the game for a couple of reasons.

One is an issue of representation. I’ve had mental health problems in the past, lots of other people I know also have, so why shouldn’t those show up in games? And not just in games that are about mental health: just as it’s bad to have a game industry that defaults to male protagonists or white protagonists or straight protagonists, it’s bad for the industry to default to protagonists without mental health issues (or, for that matter, physical health issues). It’s bad because it limits who sees themselves represented; and it’s bad because that’s not the way life is, life is a lot richer than an artificially limited presentation is able to depict.

And the other reason is that, looked at through any sort of morality that isn’t framed in game conventions, games (or at least games based on violent combat) present a dystopian hellscape. They’re filled with constant slaughter; your protagonist is expected to treat this as something normal and even a source of pride (indeed, generally your protagonist’s self-conception is supposed to be a hero who is saving the world, or at least their local portion of it). If I ran into somebody acting like a video game protagonist in the real world, my reaction would be to back away first slowly and then (once out of sight) very quickly; and if I’d had first-hand experience of something like what game protagonists experience, then I’d probably be woken up screaming from PTSD for years to come. So yeah, there’s something to be said for the honesty of a game with a protagonists whose violent experiences have left a mark.

 

The representation argument also says that games with mentally ill protagonists shouldn’t always be (or always be analyzed, for that matter) as being about mental illness. And, fortunately, Hellblade does very well on that regard!

It’s partly a horror game; a genre that I don’t spend time on but that I respect in the abstract. (I’ve played the first and fourth Resident Evil games, Eternal Darkness, and, uh, not much else?) Hellblade has gotten me thinking that I should spend more time in that genre: I don’t particularly enjoy being scared, but the horror aspect of Hellblade meant that the flow of the game was less over-weighted towards mechanics, with the environment, the plot, the non-combat aspects of your enemies, and your heightened perception of the experience taking a larger role. And spending more time with games that accomplish that is all to the good.

Not that traditional mechanics weren’t there. There’s combat; I’m not a fighting devotee, it seemed okay mechanically? And, much more unusually for me, the fighting was okay quantity-wise as well: you weren’t constantly wading through enemies, but when you encountered them, they had reasons to be their, either for plot-based reasons or to scare you. And there were a couple of different puzzle mechanics; environmental puzzles, but puzzles that had you looking around and seeing shapes more than puzzles that had you finding keys to put into locks. Nice change of pace from environmental puzzles in other games; but also a nice change of pace within the game itself, with you (usually) being able to mostly temporarily retreat from wondering what’s coming around the corner to, instead, wondering if you’ll see a certain shape if you look around in the right way.

And I liked the plot, too: a woman fighting through the underworld to rescue her love (and a rather metal woman, at that, with her love’s skull attached to her belt!), weaving in struggles with the gods, references to her previous life and the struggles and joys she’d experienced therein, and periodic byte-sized lore dumps of Norse mythology that gave another lens on Senua’s story.

 

The game it didn’t overstay its welcome, either: it told the story that it wanted to tell, and then it was done. So: a well-executed story, with a couple of well-executed mechanics, in an interesting environment, with a protagonist having attributes that you don’t normally see, with an overlay of horror to heighten your attention on the experience. I’m impressed; I’d like to see more games that learn from how Hellblade selected and arranged elements into a rather lovely package.

switching away from apple music

August 16th, 2018

A year and a half back, I finally joined the modern world and signed up for a music streaming service. I did this for music discovery purposes: I wanted an easy way to try out artists and songs that I’d heard of but wasn’t familiar with, and I also wanted algorithm recommendations to point me at music that I hadn’t heard of or wouldn’t have thought to try myself.

The specific service that I signed up for was Apple Music; no particular deep thought there, I just picked it more-or-less randomly over Spotify. The main consequence of that choice was that it integrated with my existing music library, which seemed like a good thing?

 

There was one consequence of that integration that I was aware of and had mixed feelings about: that a song on my phone wouldn’t have the same bytes as the same song on my computer. Philosophically, that felt completely wrong to me: if I sign up for iCloud Photo Library, would Apple feel free to replace photos in my library with other photos that it felt were similar enough that I wouldn’t care? Of course not (at least for the master images), that’s ridiculous; so why treat music differently? Having said that, I’d heard that the matching was pretty good, and in practice I didn’t notice any differences, though that may be a side effect of me not seriously listening to classical music during the last few years.

There were two other consequences of signing up for Apple Music that I wasn’t expecting, though. One is that iTunes edited the original files on my computer; this feels to me not just wrong but actively irresponsible, with iTunes silently becoming unsuitable for archival purposes once you turn on Apple Music. (I believe it was only updating metadata, but that only barely excuses its behavior; and I could be wrong, maybe it was making larger modifications.) And the other is that, when transferring files, it did the matching at a per-song basis instead of a per-album basis, with the result that I could no longer reliably listen to entire albums on my phone, because some tracks would randomly be assigned to some other album. (This would even happen with albums that I bought off of iTunes: it split the 7 tracks off of Mamamoo’s Memory EP into 3 separate albums, and even assigned those albums to two different artists, both called MAMAMOO.)

 

My first reaction was to say “fine, iTunes isn’t suitable for archival purposes, but maybe I shouldn’t have trusted it for that anyways” and to start setting up a different archive system. The thing is, though, that a) that’s a pain, and b) that’s ridiculous. I mean, if I hired somebody to manage my library of books, and they decided to randomly replace physical copies of the books with other editions of the same books, to make marks in the books with information about how I was using them, and to randomly rip out chapters of those books and file them separately, would I keep on working with that person? No, of course not. (Though the first two parts of that behavior would actually be entirely reasonable if it were a public/institutional library; maybe that’s the mindset that the Apple Music folks have.)

So, as of a couple of weeks ago, I’m no longer subscribed to Apple Music and I am subscribed to Spotify. Which, in retrospect, is probably what I should have done to begin with: leveraging monopoly power is bad, and companies that are focused on one thing are good. It’s a little annoying having to train another service as to what sort of music I want to have recommended to me (and Spotify seems, if anything, even more willing to assume that I’m obsessed with K-Pop than Apple Music was, which is incorrect but nonetheless useful because I don’t have good other sources of K-Pop recommendations), but hopefully I’ll start getting broader recommendations after another few weeks.

 

One thing that this process has made me glad of, incidentally, is that I maintained a separate library, continuing to buy albums that I particularly liked even while subscribed to Apple Music. I just don’t trust streaming services to take over library management: I don’t trust current ones to be in business at all a decade from now, I don’t trust them to provide an export service for my saved library (it doesn’t look like Spotify has that functionality), and I don’t trust them to be able to always be able to provide their music catalogs at their current level. And their current catalogs aren’t complete, either, so Spotify in particular will never be a sole source of truth for my music library unless they provide a way to sideload music.

Of course, from a personal financial point of view, it doesn’t make much sense to continue to buy new albums that I like: I should probably just save them in a streaming service and maintain a text file with a list of band / album names as backup, or something. Or, alternatively, I could give up on the idea of a permanent saved library in the first place: embrace impermanence. And that might be what I would do if I were younger or poorer; but I’m not.

I am vaguely wondering if I should look at options other than iTunes for maintaining that library, though: after it started editing my music files, my trust in iTunes has dropped precipitously, and I am wondering if, in a couple of years, Apple will remove stored library computer/phone syncing support entirely, forcing you to use Apple Music for that purpose. So if any of you know of Mac software that can manage your music library better than iTunes can, I’d be curious to hear about it! No sense worrying about that too much right now, though.

kittens game

August 6th, 2018

I started playing Kittens Game because of a VGHVI symposium on incremental games. I’d played Paperclips a few times, but Kittens Game turned out to have quite a different rhythm.

To begin with, it’s slower paced, in fact quite a bit slower paced. Fairly soon I got to a situation where I could productively click in the game maybe once a minute, and where I had an interesting decision to make (as opposed to just clicking because a meter had filled up) closer to once an hour. And wow, having a game like that on my laptop really messed up my blogging: it’s way too easy to have my browser window peeking out behind my text editor, and to have the former distract me because I was constantly checking if I should click on something.

That was an interesting psychological experiment; it did actually have benefits in giving me a challenge in terms of managing my focus, and in experiencing a quite different rhythm of reward curve compared to what I’m normally used to. And, as I progressed through the reward curve, the overall rhythms of the game changed, too: as I would unlock technologies, I’d gain access to a new material at a very low production rate, then I’d gain access to abilities that would let me increase production, and then eventually (days, weeks later) that material would no longer feel like a major bottleneck, and a few weeks after that, my production would be up a hundredfoldfrom where it had been.

 

Normally, I don’t plays games with a guide, but Kittens Game is the sort of game that even I will look at the wiki of: if I’m only going to have an opportunity to advance in the tech tree once or twice an evening, then I’m going to want to at least have a fairly precise description of what the different options do. And, reading through the wiki (and occasional other advice posts), I’d come to mentions of resetting the game to speed things up; at first I assumed that I’d just stick things out, but eventually I realized that, no, the game really is designed under the assumption that you’re going to reset it periodically.

I still stuck it out longer than most people do on their first run, I suspect, but eventually I decided that it was going to take long enough for me to unlock the next technology that I wasn’t going to enjoy it: I’d enjoy the game more going back to the beginning just because the early technologies unlock a lot faster than the later ones. So I decided to reset and see what the bonuses for resetting felt like.

When resetting, the main benefit you get is something called “paragon”, that you (more or less) can’t get any other way. It increases your production rate somewhat (at least the first few times you reset, there’s a cap); it also increases your storage caps for the different materials (no caps on that one).

The production rate bonus is pretty obvious: things unlocked faster the second time than the first time. But the storage cap was more subtle, and ultimately more profound: over and over again when playing the game, you’d have a goal in mind to purchase, you’d need certain amounts of materials to be able to make that purchase, but you wouldn’t actually be able to store that much material. So you’d buy storage buildings to increase your storage before you could achieve your key goal. (And this would recurse: sometimes your key goal itself would be a storage building, so you’d have to buy worse storage buildings to increase capacity first!) So what the storage capacity increase meant was that you didn’t have to spend as much time buying buildings for storage capacity: you could spend more of your production on more substantial advancements. So, in other words, paragon actually increased your productivity in two separate ways, not just one.

 

Not all items had a storage cap, though: raw materials do, but manufactured materials (which you construct out of other materials) don’t. Which led to another kind of production boost (one that’s applicable even on your first run through the game): two buildings in the game let you increase the quantity of manufactured materials you get every time you construct them. So those buildings also give you a subtle production boost; and, because some of the manufactured materials are themselves constructed out of other manufactured materials, this boost actually can get magnified.

For example, there’s a good called “blueprints” that you can either acquire through trade (rarely, it only happens on 10% of trades), or by taking furs (a raw material) and then creating parchment, then turning the parchment into manuscripts, then the manuscripts into compendia, and finally the compendia into blueprints. At each phase, you need a large amount of the prior material to turn into the next material (sometimes 25 items, sometimes 50), so it takes a ludicrous number of furs to turn into a single blueprint; you’ll always acquire them through trade. But as your manufacturing bonus increases, that changes: if you get a 2x manufacturing bonus at each stage, then you can produce blueprints 16x as efficiently; if you have a 3x bonus, then you can produce them 81x as efficiently; if you have a 4x bonus, then you can produce them 256x as efficiently; and all of a sudden producing them directly instead of through trade starts seeming pretty reasonable.

 

So: lots of ways to increase your capability. Buildings (and kittens that arrive in your village!) can increase your production capacity directly (actually through two methods, but never mind that); paragon can give an additional direct production boost; paragon gives a storage boost that also increases the effectiveness of your production; and the manufacturing bonus means that, as you construct more of two special kinds of buildings (which is, of course, easier if your production caps are higher), your production of some kinds of goods can get much more efficient.

And, with all of that, on my second playthrough, I made it past the wall that I’d hit the first time; so I reached the moon and constructed mining facilities to get a new raw material, called unobtainium. With that, I managed to unlock the Metaphysics technology path, which lets you spend paragon to unlock permanent benefits (i.e. ones that persist across resets); and the most prominent early ones to buy make buildings cheaper. Each building’s price increases exponentially as you buy more of them; these first few metaphysics lower the the base of that exponent.

 

And, ultimately, that’s what Kittens Game is about: it’s a meditation on the nature of exponential growth. You want to build more buildings; the cost of those buildings starts out low but increases exponentially. For buildings made from raw materials, you’ll eventually hit a cap because of your storage; as you increase that cap, you can build more. And for buildings made from manufactured materials, you’ll hit a soft cap based on the amount of time you’re willing to wait. But if you can decrease the base of the exponent, you’ll make it farther; if you can increase your manufacturing capability, you’ll make it farther.

Eventually, you give up and reset; but by doing that, you’ll have improved some of these numbers, so you can make it faster next time. As your abilities improve, you’ll unlock new materials and production mechanisms that provide different spins on these mechanics.

And you do all of this at a quite slow place. Which might make it more boring, but somehow the slow place combines with the numerical austerity of the mechanics to force you to confront and appreciate how the numbers work. Of course, as your abilities increase across resets, the initial progress gets faster and faster; but the later materials and mechanisms slow you down in term, playing with time in different ways. So you’re always being forced to spend time with the game, seeing what there is to think about.

 

It’s a strange game. I spent months playing it, letting it work its way into my life more than I was completely comfortable with. But Kittens Game has a real purity to it, and in its own way it’s very well designed: the challenges flow into each other extremely well, constantly providing a new perspective on time and exponential growth.

mario + rabbids kingdom battle

July 29th, 2018

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is an extremely well done game that I feel like I should have enjoyed more than I did, even though I enjoyed it quite a bit. Or maybe “should have” isn’t the right phrase, but at least the question of why I didn’t enjoy it more feels worth interrogating?

It’s an extremely polished game: it’s made by Ubisoft, but they really did live up to the Mario license, I would totally believe that it could have been a Nintendo first-party game. Well, I would totally believe that except for the Rabbids part; but I like the Rabbids humor fine (honestly, I like it more than Mario’s generic nature), it’s nice to return to them again after not having played a game with them since the early days of the Wii.

As befits a Mario game, there are mild environmental puzzles everywhere. Chests to open, pipes to travel through, switches to flip, blocks to push; sometimes the chests are sitting there, sometimes you have to spend five or ten minutes experimenting with switches and what not to figure out how to manipulate the environment to get to them, sometimes you have to wait until you’ve made it to the end of the chapter of the game to get a new ability that will let you solve the puzzle.

But, of course, the core of the game is the battles. Which follow the XCOM formula, but with changes: the randomness is a little more restricted, you don’t have the same permadeath worries, and I think there are more combo possibilities? I could be wrong about the details of the differences, because I’ve only played a quarter of one XCOM game; I bounced off of that game, but the battles in Mario + Rabbids are much more like puzzles, which made them significantly more to my taste.

 

Ultimately, though, I guess even the Mario + Rabbids improvements on the XCOM battle formula still don’t turn them into my favorite type of puzzles? They don’t have the transparency of a pure puzzle game; they’re not super short; and they get more complex (and more likely to come in pairs) as the game goes on and within each chapter. I think that, if the game had been half the length, it would have been just right for me; as it was, though, the second half battles were a bit of a chore for me.

Fortunately, there were environmental puzzles to give punctuation between the battles; unfortunately, those didn’t quite click either. At first, they actually made the game feel nice and familiar, like a Mario game: there’s always a reason to look around the corner. But in a regular Mario game, the environmental goodies aren’t some separate thing: the core gameplay has you figuring out the environment, the goodies just give that investigation a bit of extra fun. In Mario + Rabbids, in contrast, the two are separate: even though the battle arenas are connected to the rest of the levels (you can walk through them once the battle is completed), they’re separate on a gameplay level, so you’re not going to be in the middle of a battle and then notice a chest or something. (It’s telling that the abilities that you unlock at the end of each chapter only affect the environmental puzzles, they don’t affect the battle gameplay at all.)

That doesn’t mean that I actively disliked the environmental puzzles: on the balance, I’m glad that they were there, and the more puzzly ones (as opposed to the “look around a corner and find a chest” ones) did give me something to think about. But still, there’s a disconnect there.

 

And, ultimately, the license is a double-edged sword. The Nintendo polish is great; and I actually did enjoy the Rabbids. But Mario has no personality, and the game’s insistence on centering him hurt it.

You have eight characters on your team (at least once you’ve unlocked them all), of which you can choose three to fight in any battle. But Mario has to be one of the three characters: this limits your ability to experiment, and if you happen to have three characters that you like more than Mario, then tough luck. Mario’s abilities are pretty solid, but I didn’t see any obvious mechanical reason why his presence was necessary for balance reasons: as far as I can tell, that was a mechanical choice made purely for brand reasons at the detriment of mechanics.

(Or maybe it’s a metaphor! Maybe Mario represents white masculinity and its insistence of inserting itself, even placing itself in the center of any conversation, no matter how boring or undesired it might be…)

 

Don’t get me wrong: good game, in fact a surprisingly good game. It’s just a good game that went on for long enough to make me think about how it could be better.

flipflop solitaire

July 10th, 2018

Some forms of solitaire are always straightforwardly winnable: they give you something soothing to do with your hands that keeps your brain lightly engaged. Most forms of solitaire aren’t: you have choices to make, but ultimately you’ll only win a fraction of the time, and while those forms give you choices that you can make to increase that fraction, they only give you so much control. And there are a few forms of solitaire where winning is, in practice, always possible, but where you not infrequently have to think quite a bit before finding a winning route.

I certainly don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of solitaire, but until recently, I was only aware of one example of that third class, namely FreeCell. And, no joke, I really do think FreeCell is one of the great games of all time. But with Flipflop Solitaire, we now have a second example.

Actually, Flipflop Solitaire is even better than that: depending on how you play it, it can fit into any of the above three categories. So it’s very adaptable: no matter your energy level or amount of free time, there’s a mode for you!

 

The way the game works is that you’re trying to play cards off to foundations, which are suited and which play up starting from aces. And, in the main playing area, you can play up or down by rank on a stack, no matter the suit (e.g. if you have a seven of clubs, you could play a six of spades on it, an eight of diamonds on it, and so forth); also, you can move a group of cards of the same suit all at once (so, in that example, you’d really rather play either a six or an eight of clubs). You can move any card to an open slot, but you have to dig to get to open slots, because every stack starts with six or so cards in it. And there’s also a draw pile you deal from when you run out of moves, and two faceup cards off to the side that you can play at any time.

So, basically, you try to dig down into stacks by moving cards from them to other stacks, creating more order as you go; and then, once you manage to empty out one of the stacks, your options expand, because you can move a sequence off the top of a stack to get at a buried card underneath, and potentially you can turn sequences upside down, or even do trickier stuff. Though there’s a limit in how much stacking you can do, because the game imposes a height limit of 20 cards on a single stack; at first, I assumed that was driven by user interface considerations, but now I suspect that the game would be a lot easier / more boring if you could build arbitrarily tall sequences, because you’d end up moving all of your cards into one huge stack.

 

Those are all familiar enough ideas, though this particular collection of rules is one that I haven’t seen before, and it turns out to work quite well. But there’s additional flexibility in the game, because it gives you different modes to play in: you don’t have to play with the standard four suits. In the most basic mode, in fact, all of the cards are in the same suit. (You still have 52 cards, you just have four aces of spaces, four twos of spades, and so forth.) And this gives you not only more flexibility for how to play cards up to the foundations, it also gives you many more opportunities to move groups of cards at once (because you can only do that if the cards have the same suit, which is easy if there is only one suit!); so, in practice, you can always win that mode in a straightforward but still moderately entertaining fashion.

Once you move to two suits, though, you have to be significantly more careful; still more so with three suits. (In the three-suit mode, you have two copies of every card in one suit, and only one copy of the other two suits.) And four suits is in turn a significant step up from the two and three suit modes; there’s even a five suit mode as well. In either of the latter two modes, you’ll be losing significantly more often than you’re winning, at least until you’re very experienced at the game. (I actually have a little over 50% win rate on the five suit mode now, but it’s taken me hundreds of plays to get there.)

 

That’s how the game spans the first two buckets in my classification. But there’s also an undo button; and, it turns out, the game is effectively always winnable with undo. (Whereas it isn’t without it, at least with the four and five suit versions: there’s too much hidden information at the start.) Importantly, though, even with that undo ability, the game can be very difficult at times: I’ve gone through something on the order of 700 rounds of the five-suit version, and it’s still not uncommon for me to find myself nowhere near finishing on my first attempt at a deal, then trying a different sequence of columns to focus on and making it pretty close on the third or fourth attempt, but then even with that having to try out subtly different choices of moves to try to somehow squeeze out one last bit of order out of the chaos, with me finally succeeding half an hour later.

And it even turns out that plays of the game often turn out to have surprisingly satisfying narrative plots! For example, say that you haven’t made it as far in building up foundations as you expect when approaching the end of the game, and you’ve made it to the top of most but not all the columns. So maybe you have one draw left (with five face-down cards), and maybe there are another five face-down cards divided across two of the columns on the board.

In that situation, there are probably some key low cards you’re missing: maybe one of the aces and a two or a three, or something. So then you’re nervous waiting to see which ones will appear when you draw; and, typically, when you draw, you actually will get one of those (since you’re close to uncovering all the face-down cards), plus one or two other cards that you can move around. So that’s exciting, because you’ll be able to make progress somehow; and probably that progress will let you reach one of the face-down cards on the board.

And then you have the next level of excitement: when you reveal that card, is it going to turn out to be something useful? What about when you reveal the card underneath it? But, usually, at some point, you’ll reveal a card that isn’t so useful; and, at that point, you’ll feel like you’re 90% stuck, but there’s still a little bit of moving you can do around the margins; and, sometimes, if you experiment enough, you’ll be able to make it over the hump and get to where you can play everything up to the foundations. But you never know when you’re going to get to that phase.

 

So, basically, getting close to the end turns out to lend itself well to narrative interpretation: you know there are a few key pieces you’re missing, you don’t know where they are so you’re always afraid things are going to fall apart, and it’s exciting either to get the key pieces (having the reward of successfully clearing several cards out) or to not get the key pieces (and having the reward of skillfully trying to dance around that problem).

But, as I said above, if you don’t want exciting narrative out of your card games, that’s fine, too: Flipflop Solitaire supports more soothing modes, too! Really, the game is a testament to what you can do out of randomness combined with well-chosen rule sets.

night in the woods

July 5th, 2018

It took me a little while to get into Night in the Woods. I liked the art style; I liked that it was telling a relationship-based, community-grounded story; I liked that it was a little quirky. But I wasn’t entirely sure about the basic mechanics: I kept on hitting the A button when next to an NPC, expecting to talk to that person, and I’d jump instead! So the game felt to me a little confused about what its primary verb should be, and I wasn’t even convinced that it should have any platforming at all.

More fundamentally: even if it was a good game, I wasn’t sure it was a good game for me. Night in the Woods is a much more situated game than most: rather than being all about the mechanics, or about a heroic fantasy that seeks universality by not actually mapping to the lives of any of its players, it is instead a game about a young adult who’s just come home after abruptly leaving college. Which is great, because the world needs more games that directly interrogate actual lives; but it happened to be the case that the life that was interrogating didn’t map particularly well to my current life, or even to my life when I was Mae’s age.

 

After playing through a bit more of Night in the Woods, though, I realized that there actually were characters in the game that I mapped to: Mae’s parents. Because I may not be a young adult whose college experience has gotten interrupted, but I am a parent of a young adult whose college experience has hit an unexpected roadblock. So I could see aspects of myself and my recent experience in Mae’s parents, I could think about how their reactions and actions relate to mine. And I could think about this in a context which didn’t center my own experiences but rather centered the experiences of the person who is most affected by that situation; this is probably healthy for me!

Also, I’m in general perfectly happy to experience art works that aren’t about people like me: different experiences are rewarding, it would be boring if we were all the same. And, as I played through more and more of Night in the Woods, I got more and more impressed by the story the game was telling.

 

At the beginning of the game, you don’t really have a lot to go on in terms of appreciating Mae. (Or at least I didn’t find a lot.) She seems neat enough, but ultimately she’s left college for no clear reason, she’s spending time hanging out with Gregg, a friend of hers who has a job but doesn’t seem to be doing a lot in general, and the two of them seem to get the most out of “doing crimes”. (Nothing seriously bad there, mostly just going places they’re not supposed to go.) There’s nothing particularly wrong with any of that (and Gregg’s job is a pretty crappy one in a setting where there don’t seem to be a lot of good options, so it’s not at all surprising that he’s not very motivated by it), but it’s presented in a way that I found easy to map to stereotypes of kids that don’t want to grow up and take responsibilities for their lives.

As the game progresses, though, it interrogates all of that in a rather well-done way. You learn more about what Mae’s been going through, enough to realize that there’s a good reason why she left college, that rather than being a situation of not wanting to grow up, she’s in a situation that’s dark enough that you wouldn’t want adults to have to deal with it, let alone people on the border between childhood and adulthood. And you learn that Gregg is constantly struggling with exactly this question of being responsible versus being a fuck-up, and that the former is actually super important to him.

There are two other key characters as well: Gregg’s boyfriend Angus and another friend Bea. Angus helps provide the context that gives a deeper insight into what Gregg is going through, and what sort of person he wants to be, and together they let the game explore mutual care and dependence; Bea provides a bit more of an outside view, and also helps the game talk about economic issues. This is a theme throughout the game: the town it takes place in is going downhill economically, with good union jobs vanishing; Mae’s parents are hanging on but it looks difficult, and Bea is somebody whom I can easily imagine chewing right through college but who, unlike Mae, didn’t have the opportunity to try.

 

Right from the beginning, the game has a unique, lovely, and somewhat surrealist visual style. (If only because all the people in the game look like animals instead of humans!) And, as you play through more of the game, you run into some really lovely dream sequences, where Mae wanders through an abstracted version of a section of the town, gradually unlocking musical motifs that get layered on top of each other.

This slightly surrealist nature isn’t just a sideshow, though: it feeds into the strength of the game. Because Mae is presented as somebody with mental illness, who is certainly having strange dreams but who is also seeing some strange things in real life. And, rather than coming down explicitly on the “weird stuff really is happening” side or the “Mae’s hallucinating things” side of the question, the game makes a much more interesting choice: Mae’s friends don’t particularly believe that what Mae is seeing is real, but that’s not what’s important to them. Mae is their friend, they’re going to support her, they don’t really know that what Mae is seeing isn’t real, and they’re on her side. So they too are going to leave the question ambiguous: they’ll go along with Mae as she tries to figure out what’s going on, whether that leads to a situation where Mae falls apart mentally and needs their support, a situation where what Mae is seeing actually does turn out to be real, or whether things ultimately remain ambiguous.

 

In the end, Night in the Woods manages to talk successfully about all sorts of really important questions. What it means to be friends; what it means to be in love; what it means to mess up in either of those contexts; what it means for those contexts to be strong enough that messing up isn’t anything. What it means to be in a dark place mentally, whether that’s caused by serious mental health issues, by structural issues in your environment, by one-off unfortunate events, or just because you’re in a bad mood right then. What it means to try to navigate the economy, what it means to take responsibility or to be an adult, the range of places that the tension between structural forces and individual choices can leave. And yes, what it means to have hope: with the help of your parents, your friends, your community, your religion, your inner strength.

And it does all of that with some pretty neat art and some rather lovely musical bits.

parable of the talents

June 26th, 2018

I’m in the middle of an Octavia Butler reread, and I recently reached the Parable books. Parable of the Sower was, of course, very good: a prompt to think about what it might look like for things to really fall apart, and a book that made me much more uncomfortable this time than it did the last time I read it. In particular, the book made it past my dislike of books that raise the moral question of “if things are going badly, isn’t it okay to kill people?” Because, so often, such settings feel like they’re set up to justify violence that the author (or the person doing the violence in real life) likes; not here.

But then I hit Parable of the Talents; oof. This is a book about a country falling apart, with a theocratic leader taking advantage of that to demonize people he doesn’t like, blame them for the problems, and kill them off or enslave them. Which was already feeling scarily close to home, and then I hit this paragraph:

I’m not sure how to talk about today. It was intended to be a quiet day of salvaging and plant collecting after yesterday’s uncomfortable Gathering and determined anniversary celebration. We have, it seems, a few people who think Jarret may be just what the country needs—apart from his religious nonsense. The thing is, you can’t separate Jarret from the “religious nonsense.” You take Jarret and you get beatings, burnings, tarrings and featherings. They’re a package. And there may be even nastier things in that package. Jarret’s supporters are more than a little seduced by Jarret’s talk of making America great again. He seems to be unhappy with certain other countries. We could wind up in a war. Nothing like a war to rally people around flag, country, and great leader.

Note the words “Jarret’s talk of making America great again”: it’s a MAGA reference, except that the book was published in 2000.

 

That paragraph is from before the presidential election in the book; and, of course, Jarret wins. Olamina, the book’s protagonist, has managed to build a settlement that avoids the worst parts of the chaos from the first book; but then Jarret’s goons sweep in with overwhelming military force and destroy it. They capture the adults, enslaving them and torturing them if they fall out of line; they kidnap the children and take them away. Olamina does actually eventually escape her enslavement, but her family ends up permanently destroyed: she doesn’t see her daughter again for decades, and by that time it’s far too late.

I read Parable of the Talents in the first week of June. And then, almost immediately after that, the border separations happened.

 

I think the moral here is: listen to Black people, especially Black women. Because it’s not simply luck that Butler happened across the “make America great again” phrase: as the 2016 election has made abundantly clear, there are an awful lot of people out there whose idea of a great America is one with straight white male Christians in charge, and everybody else subservient, removed, or killed. Some people’s response to the child separations at the border has been to say that this isn’t who we are, but MAGA says that this is exactly who America is: slavery showed that, Jim Crow and the KKK showed that, the Trail of Tears and separation of Native American children showed that.

And police violence shows that, and the incarceration rate of African Americans shows that. My first reaction was that Parable of the Talents showed an uncomfortably plausible near future, but it’s still an exaggeration; but after reflection I think you can make a case that it’s soft-pedaling the situation. Sure, in the book Olamina is imprisoned, but she and the others break out after a year (killing their guards, no less); whereas long before Trump came on the scene we’ve been locking up vast numbers of African Americans for decades without batting an eye. And the book presents Olamina’s imprisonment as something that’s done by a group that doesn’t have offical support and that is disavowed by the leaders of Jarret’s party when it becomes known; we can’t say that about the current prison system or the ICE.

 

I’m writing this on a day with maybe the worst group of Supreme Court decisions that I can remember, in terms of their flagrant disregard not just of morality but of the rule of law, decisions that don’t even pretend to follow any coherent system of reasoning or consistent precedent following. So the rule of law is falling apart at the highest levels of the judiciary; voting districts are gerrymandered in such a way as to make it extremely difficult for the Democratic party to win through the ballot (and this isn’t an outlier, this fits in perfectly with decades of systematic direct Republican attacks on democracy); and the ICE is sending every signal that it would be happy to act as the Gestapo.

George W. Bush was a horrible president. But we’ve seen Trump’s New Orleans: it’s Puerto Rico, it’s much much worse, and it’s gotten much much less coverage. Butler warned us in the end of the quote above about leaders whipping up wars after coming to power; we haven’t yet seen Trump’s 9/11 or his Iraq war, and plausible potential future scenarios are a lot worse than what we’re seeing right now. And, even without a war (or a 9/11 or a Reichstag Fire), the the Republican party’s assault on democracy and the ICE are going to get worse until they get stopped.

animal crossing: pocket camp

June 21st, 2018

I played the first Animal Crossing game literally every day for a year straight. Only about 15 minutes a day — I’d pick some weeds, dig for gyroids, check what was on sale, talk to the animals, maybe leave a message for Miranda or Liesl in their mailboxes, occasionally redecorate my house a bit — but I really appreciated the ritual of those 15 minutes.

It hasn’t been a year since Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp came out, and I’d be a little surprised if I were still playing it when it hit its one-year anniversary. But I’m still going after a little more than half a year.

A big part of that is that it gives me something to do while I’m, say, walking to and from the train station: it keeps my hands busy in a way that doesn’t interfere with podcast listening. (Though podcasts mean that I turn off the sounds and music from the game, even though they really are charming!) And it is certainly a mobile game, with many of the typical design choices that that entails. But it’s also an Animal Crossing game: there is some real heart there.

 

Part of being an Animal Crossing game is its slow pace: the game itself won’t give you much reason to play for long stretches at a time. So Pocket Camp is in an odd situation for a mobile game where, at least for series veterans, an energy mechanic doesn’t feel relevant: the series has always had an energy mechanic built in, with no way to pay to avoid it! With the somewhat weird result that Pocket Camp actually has less energy gating than prior games in the series: there’s something to do every three hours instead of every day.

And part of me appreciates that: it gives me something to on both my morning and evening commutes, but it’s also not going to be all-consuming in either commute, because I’ll run out of stuff to do. (At least externally-directed stuff to do, I can always spend time redecorating if I want, or just doing a lot of fishing and bug catching.) So it’s kind of a nice balance between having the game being there when I want a distraction but also explicitly stepping back, telling me not to spend all my time in it unless I’m finding something intrinsically rewarding.

Though that isn’t quite true, because one way in which Pocket Camp gives quite a bit less space than other games in the series is its treatment of events. Traditionally, events have been on holidays, and as a result, they felt special: they’re single days where the whole town celebrates, and they’re rare, so they’re a real punctuation from your daily life. Whereas in Pocket Camp, events are going on approximately two-thirds of the time, they last for a week or so at a time, and they reuse the same two or three mechanics; so events don’t feel special.

Which could, actually, be fine: maybe Pocket Camp’s events are simply a different type of mechanic from the main game’s holidays, maybe it’s better to analyze them as part of their regular gameplay. What I don’t like, though, is the way that the events give you an active encouragement to play the game every three hours: having the game available to play more than once a day is welcome, but having the game nudge me to play every few hours (if only by having me feel that I’ve missed something if I don’t get the time-limited event items) is a more significant step away from the space and calm nature of the original games.

 

Your interaction with other animals are different in Pocket Camp compared to earlier Animal Crossing games: more transactional, with animals explicitly asking for certain items (plants / animals) and giving you construction raw materials (including money) in return.

Which, on the one hand, does feel kind of impersonal. But I actually like it in some ways: my memory of the first Animal Crossing was that I was constantly being told to exchange letters with the animals, and entering the text of letters that the game couldn’t actually read and interpret had downsides.

So the way that I think about the transactions from a role-playing point of view is that you have a job: you’re not just friends with the other animals, you’re running a campsite. And part of that responsibility is that you’re, effectively, one of the shopkeepers. While the animals, in turn, have jobs in the outside world, so they have more easy access to other sorts of items. All of this gets cloaked in a weird gift economy, but I don’t necessarily see why I and the animals should have parallel roles in this game.

(And, incidentally: while the game mechanics are pretty minimal, focusing on being a shopkeeper does give you an excuse to pay attention to what mechanics there are. (Pro tip: each tree can store twice as much fruit as it looks like, because fruit on the ground doesn’t go away!) And paying attention to it over the course of months as the developers tweak the numbers did actually give me an appreciation for the effects of item drop rate choices that I haven’t gotten from other games.)

 

Though, don’t get me wrong, animals writing letters to each other definitely had its charm. There’s still some of that charm in Pocket Camp, though: the responses are canned, but there’s some amount of soul in the canning. And it’s up to you what stories you want to make up about animals that are actually staying in your camp: who stays, for how long, what triggers their leaving, and so forth.

For example, when animals reach level 20, they give you a picture: maybe what’s going on there is that the animals have to head back to their non-camp lives for a bit, so they’re giving you a picture to remember them by? Which, of course, gives you a narrative reason to kick them out of the camp and allow some other animal to come in and take their spot. (And level up and give you lots of extra material and so forth…)

Pocket Camp also has a friends mechanic; which mostly feels completely anonymous, having nothing to do with any sort of real friendship. (There’s no way of sending messages in game, though there’s a tiny amount of communication possible through minimal-bandwidth communication channels.) But Miranda was playing it as well for a while, so we could do things like show off our campsites and trailers to each other. And it actually can be pretty neat to see how random strangers decorate their campsites, too: there’s a lot of different choices you can make there. So it’s better to have that mechanic in the game than not: any sort of expressiveness is improved by a mechanic that allows you to have an audience.

 

All in all: not the best game in the series, certainly, and some of the mobile game design choices (most notably the recently-introduced cookie mechanic) have actively made it worse. But there’s still something there, I think.

And I miss weeding…

splatoon 2

June 3rd, 2018

I haven’t played shooters much since grad school, and these days I almost don’t play them at all. Part of that is that shooting isn’t a mechanic I’m particularly drawn to; part of that is that shooter games have moved more in a multiplayer direction, which means dealing with dramatic skill ranges, assholes, and no extrinsic narrative to compensate for those drawbacks.

But part of it is the guns: games in general are way too likely to be slaughterfests, and these days I just don’t feel great about playing with simulated guns in particular. Guns aren’t a complete dealbreaker for me or anything, but they are a reason to push me away from playing shooters; and, with my time as limited as it is, that push makes a difference.

 

The one exception to my shooter avoidance is Splatoon 2: I started playing the game right when it was released, and I still pick it up once every couple of weeks. And I’d thought of that as fitting into the above, showing that if a game matches my taste in enough ways, then that overcomes the gun objective. Splatoon 2 is bright and colorful and fashion-focused, it’s got a platformy respect for navigation instead of focusing exclusively on shooting, the multiplayer is designed in a way that makes it very difficult for other players to be assholes, and not only does killing (or “splatting”, as they call it) other players not directly affect your score in the multiplayer mode, in the primary multiplayer mode it’s not even particularly tightly related to your effectiveness.

Recently, though, I’d wondered if even that analysis is incorrect. Because, the more I think about it, the less I’m convinced that my categorization of Splatoon 2 as a gun game is even correct.

 

Your guns in Splatoon 2 don’t shoot bullets, they shoot paint: they’re squirt guns. I’d been thinking of it as obviously true that squirt guns are stand-ins for guns, but after thinking about it a bit more, I’m actually not at all sure that that’s correct. In particular if we do a thought experiment of a world without gunpowder, or at least without guns, would squirt guns still have been invented?

I kind of think that the answer is “yes”: playing with water is fun, adding water pressure into the mix expands the range of play possibilities, and doing that in a handheld format feels like it would eventually lead to something like squirt guns. Also, it’s not particularly clear to me that squirt guns are significantly more closely linked to regular guns than water balloons are to bombs; so maybe it’s partly a linguistic accident of history that I put squirt guns and lethal bullet guns in the same category? Which doesn’t mean that I should discount that categorization — categories affect our thinking no matter where they come from — but maybe I’d want to try to loosen the hold of that categorization on me?

 

So, if we run a thought experiment of what it would mean to design a squirt gun game without thinking of it as a gun game, then what might such a game look like? You’d get stuff wet! Maybe that would affect the properties of various objects in the world — e.g. sponges absorb water. If it’s in a multiplayer context, maybe you’d give points to people who had gotten the most stuff wet; so, maybe instead of squirting water, you’d squirt paint of different colors, so you could see what stuff has already gotten wet and who was the last person to squirt it.

You’d probably want to acknowledge the idea that, yes, people will squirt other people. That’s not necessarily going to be your primary mechanic, but maybe you could use it as a penalty box mechanism, where if you get too wet, you need to have a time out? There might be different multiplayer game modes — e.g. maybe in one, your score is based on painting all of the environment, while in another, your score might be based on painting certain specific subsets of the environment. (With a corollary that painting your opponents and sending them back to the penalty box is probably more important in the latter mode than the former, because of the localized battle for control.) You might throw in a mode which is all about painting your opponents; and, in single player modes, you might throw in more types of environmental objects that are activated in different ways by being painted.

 

That thought experiment is a pretty good description of Splatoon 2. There are some differences: they didn’t decide to include a multiplayer mode that was exclusively focused on splatting your enemies, for example. (Maybe that’s because they wanted to weaken the conceptual link between splatting and killing; maybe that’s because of the negative social interactions that scoring based on personal attacks could reinforce.) And there are a few other modes that they thought up beyond what’s in my sketch, including one purely co-op multiplayer. But it’s close enough to make me think my thought experiment is plausible: maybe I really shouldn’t think of Splatoon 2 as having much of anything to do with real-world guns after all.

And, of course, Splatoon 2 goes beyond my thought experiment in two significant ways. One is that it applies a platformer / traversal focus sensibility to the game design, and uses the paint of your color as a non-scoring mechanism as well: you can turn into a squid and travel quickly through paint (at the cost of not being able to use your paint gun), but only if that paint is of your color. And the other is that it goes in on the artistic sensibilities that are latent in the very fact that you’re painting the environment: stylish clothing is a very important theme in the game, as are music and architecture.

 

Anyways: Splatoon 2 is a great game. Full of life, full of spirit, full of art. Fun single player, and the multiplayer is the only multiplayer that I’ve spent much time playing in ages. I haven’t quite decided to spend the time to actually get good at it, but the fact that I’m enjoying the multiplayer enough to keep on coming back even though I’m not so good says something, too.

yakuza 0

May 23rd, 2018

The only Yakuza game I’d played before Yakuza 0 was Yakuza 2. And it had been eight years since I’d played Yakuza 2, so I didn’t remember it particularly well; just a vague memory was that it had some similarity with Shenmue but that I didn’t like it nearly as much.

Anyways, I started Yakuza 0; and yeah, it felt reminiscent of Shenmue but not as much to my taste, harder-edged in particular. But then a funny thing happened: I made it past the intro and was able to wander around town a bit, and the streets started to feel familiar. And, as the eight-year-old memories came back: this was the same part of Tokyo that I’d seen in Yakuza 2, and then a bit further on, the same part of Osaka.

This is something that I have a lot of respect for: my memory is that, while Yakuza 2 didn’t have areas that I liked as much as the ones in Shenmue, they were still treated with care, significantly more so than in most games. But returning to those exact same areas over multiple games (I now assume over the entire series?) is a whole new level of conviction: the series isn’t just following people’s lives, it’s following the lives of people who are embedded in a community, and treating that community, including the physical space, as worthy of ongoing care.

I’m sure there are other series that do the same thing, but I’m having a surprisingly hard time thinking of good examples. Different Zelda games, for example, hit the same notes, but different games in the series take place in what are effectively different worlds; the Mass Effect games return to the Citadel but you see different parts of the Citadel in different games, and most of your time is spent outside of the Citadel in environments you haven’t seen before; each Dragon Age game explores a different portion of the map.

 

This idea that the Yakuza games are about lives embedded in a community isn’t, of course, limited to the persistence of the physical space. It’s there in the main plot and the way it plays out, with Kiryu and Nishikiyama having family ties to each other and to Kazuma senior, with the Kazuma family being part of the Dojima family and the Tojo Clan, and with the other intertwined relationships that appear in the game and series. It’s there in the side missions and the minigames: these show the ongoing strands of life in Kamurocho and Sotenburi in ways that whichever protagonist you’re playing gets to touch on but that aren’t actively about him. And it’s there in the non-plot personal development threads, Majima’s cabaret club and Kiryu’s real estate business in particular, showing how the two of them might live and grow their lives if they weren’t embroiled in a huge internal gang war.

 

And, well, that’s a lot for one game to show. When I was playing the game, I felt like it was too much, and there’s no question that the game would be improved along some metrics if it tried to show less, or at least worked harder to have it all fit together.

Concretely, when I started playing Yakuza 0, I was happy to alternate between spending a fair amount of time hanging out and doing random stuff for an hour or two, and then spending the next hour or so moving ahead to the next chapter. And I assumed I’d be able to continue doing that.

But then the plot started to get urgent, with Majima having deadlines (with death backing up those deadlines!) a day away, so how would it make sense to put in multiple shifts in the cabaret club while all of that’s going on? And then all of a sudden I realized I was almost done with the plot and hadn’t even made it through a fifth of the cabaret club; so my choices were to either stop all plot activities and spend the next 5–10 hours of play time only doing cabaret club managing, or to miss out on large chunks of the cabaret club thread; those weren’t great choices! (And, of course, similarly for Kiryu; for the record, I did all of the cabaret club but very little of the real estate business.)

 

Looking back over the game, though: it’s certainly a game where the plot is important, but the plot is important in service to a larger vision. Maybe I should think about the game through a sort of Cubist lens: the game and series are depicting Kiryu’s life, Majima’s life, and the communities that those lives are embedded in, and it’s looking at all of that through various perspectives. The plot is one of those perspectives, but it’s only one of those perspectives; and the game simply isn’t trying to tie together all of those perspectives into a transparently coherent whole, it’s instead showing different perspectives and points of contact between those different perspectives without worrying too hard about global coherence.

So, in particular, it’s totally fine to be hard to, say, align Majima’s timelines of saving Makoto and running a cabaret club, or for Kiryu to pop over and do some pocket racing while a massive group of Yakuza are trying to hunt for him. Each of those activities is providing a real perspective on the broader context that the game is representing; and it’s totally fine that, if you focus on one of those perspectives, the other perspective starts to get fuzzy, doesn’t fit well.

 

I’m significantly more curious about the series now than I was after playing Yakuza 2. And hopefully I’ve learned something about how to appreciate the series that will serve me well when I next return to it…

celeste

April 10th, 2018

We discussed Celeste in a recent VGHVI Symposium; I was happy to have an excuse to give the game a try, since I’d been hearing good things about it.

And I’m glad I spent time with Celeste: good platforming, and the story had things to say that I’m not used to encountering in video games. Or maybe things to show: internal struggles, and relations between those struggles, other people, and the world.

Having said that, I stopped about two-thirds of the way through Celeste. The platforming was hard, but I basically enjoyed it in the isolated rooms; when there were enemies chasing me, though, I didn’t have time to think and plot my strategy, and when there were relatively open sections, the fact that my brain was in “focus narrowly on platforming puzzles” mode made it hard for me to enjoy the exploration.

 

Celeste does have an assist mode, and I considered finishing the game that way. But I decided instead to take a different cue from Celeste, learning from its hotel level.

In that level, Celeste passes through a hotel that’s a mess and that’s run by somebody who is in denial that the hotel is shutting down, and who instead insists on seeing Celeste as a hotel guest instead of as a traveler asking for directions. Another NPC (an occasional traveling companion) moves on past the hotel and encourages Celeste to do the same; Celeste however decides to play along with the hotel keeper, acting like a guest and even cleaning up the hotel.

And the result is that the hotel keeper ignores the help that Celeste is giving, and acts as if she’s betraying him when things turn bad. Ultimately, what’s going on is that the hotel keeper has his own issues: he’s dealing with his grief from the hotel failing, Celeste really can’t help with that, and it’s not her responsibility to help with that even if she could.

 

Which, I realized, is basically how I felt about the game: it has its own model for what it wants to be, and while I’m glad I dipped into that model, it’s not something I wanted to continue to immerse myself in. So I took the lesson of the hotel level as my cue, and moved on instead of continuing to struggle or instead of trying to adapt to the game’s model.

But I am glad of the hours that I spent with it.

vghvi discord

April 1st, 2018

I’ve been hearing mention of Discord for a little while, but it seemed like it was focused on chat in support of PC games, and I don’t play games on PC. (And, for that matter, I also don’t generally play the sort of games where chat while playing would be useful.) But then we used Discord to help coordinate the Rocksmith Backstage Pass stuff, so I signed up; and I’d been noticing the Discord link on Kittens Game, so I joined that Discord as well, and I got some useful tips and a better feel for the game. And then, after connecting my Patreon account, I got added to a few more.

I’m curious about Discord for another reason, though. Over the last year or so, I’ve felt increasingly uncomfortable with participating on Twitter or with having a Facebook account; I haven’t left either site, but doing that is definitely a possibility. But I do have connections with people on both places that I’ll miss if I leave; so it seems worthwhile exploring other possibilities for spaces to chat with people. Slack and Mastodon had been candidates, but Discord seems like a possibility too?

So I’ve taken one step in that direction, creating a VGHVI Discord channel. If you’re not familiar with the VGHVI, it’s the Video Games and Human Values Initiative; it was formed with grand potential plans, but these days it’s just six of us who get together once a month to play Minecraft (on a world that we’ve been working on persistently for over seven years now) and once a month to talk about a game in depth.

 

Now I have a channel for the six of us to maintain contact, even if I leave other social media platforms. (At least potentially, we’ll see how the experiment goes.) But I’d be quite happy if the VGHVI Discord expanded beyond us, to include more people from the gaming circles that I’ve spent time in over the last decade. So if you’re somebody I know from blogging or Twitter or something and want to talk about video games, or about human values, or something, let me know and I’ll invite you! The sort of game chatter that we’ve done over the last few years is generally some combination of discussing relationships between games and other aspects of human experience or else trying to understand the design of games; we’ll see how the chatter in the Discord develops.

oxenfree

March 20th, 2018

I wish I hadn’t taken almost two months to get around to writing about Oxenfree, because I’ve forgotten most thoughts I had about the game when I played it. I remember going into the game knowing basically nothing about it other than that some of the Spawn on Me folks really liked it; I was surprised to discover that it it was a 2D take on Life Is Strange mechanics. Not the time travel mechanic, but the general feel of controlling a person wandering around, interacting with a small group of other people, making choices that affect how those people feel about you, with something supernatural going on as a vehicle to give more weight to the experience.

Which, honestly, I would love to be a trend (and, for all I know, is in fact a trend): I’m all for there to be more games exploring interpersonal interactions instead of shooting, and doing that in 2D feels like it wouldn’t hurt the core of such games while significantly lowering barriers to entry / costs?

The flip side, though, is that, while I was happy to have played Oxenfree, it (clearly!) didn’t grab me. Not sure how much of that was the story it was telling, how much was the mechanics, how much was my tastes, how much was my mood at the time.

 

Or maybe I’m wrong in saying that such games wouldn’t lose anything being transported to 2D: maybe it doesn’t make sense to talk about the core of such games as divorced from presentation aspects? So maybe in fact there’s something important about being embodied in a way that a 3D game having you wander around a school (and other similarly contained areas) can emphasize but that a 2D game having you wander all over a mountainside has a harder time pulling off? Or maybe there’s something to the cinematic high production values approach and how I respond to them?

Typing that out, either of those hypotheses actually makes total sense. Still, I’d like to try out more games like this, whether in 2D or 3D. (And, to be sure, it’s not like those two games are the only examples, e.g. The Walking Dead also fits into the box I’m trying to describe.) And I certainly wouldn’t discourage other people from playing it: I’m happy to have played it, after all!

rocksmith jobs to be done

March 7th, 2018

It’s been a while since I’ve written about Rocksmith, but I’m still happily putting time in on the guitar every weekend; so I figured it was time for another post about the game. And, this, time, I wanted to talk about what sorts of things I might like out of the next evolution of Rocksmith.

Which, in turn, raises the question: why exactly do I play Rocksmith, what am I trying to get out of it? Or, if I take a Jobs to Be Done lens, what am I hiring the game to do? Because ideas for the game don’t make sense in a vacuum: there should always be some underlying goal that I have in mind when making any suggestion.

Though there’s no one answer for what I’m trying to get out of Rocksmith: I’m getting different things out of it at different times, and I’ve gotten different things out of it over the years as well. Which, to be sure, is a strength of the game: it can build on the same underlying capabilities to serve players in different ways, or to serve the same player in different ways at different times. (That latter point is one difference between Jobs to Be Done and the “Persona” concept that I see in UX design: focusing on the end goals rather than on the people. Not that Personas are bad, just slightly different.) But this lens is, I think, still useful as a way to focus on the effects of different design choices.

 

At any rate, here’s my list of jobs:

  • Improving your skill at a technical level: going from zero guitar experience to being able to play basic songs to tackling harder and harder stuff.
  • Enjoying the experience of moving through music: playing through a song that you like to listen to or that like how it feels on your fingers, then moving onto the next song, potentially going through dozens of songs in a single session.
  • Honing your performance: figuring out what it means to play a single song well, not just on a “did you get the notes right?” level but at a deeper musicality level.
  • Improvising: being able to jam with a band without specific notes to play, just a chord progression or a basic riff or something to build on.
  • Understanding the bones of the music: appreciating music theory and the theoretical underpinnings of composition.

I’m going to talk about each of those in the context of the game, how Rocksmith currently supports those modes of learning and how it might support them still better.

 

Improving your skill at a technical level

I didn’t start playing Rocksmith from zero knowledge: I had a tiny bit of guitar experience from messing around one summer in college a couple of decades back, and I played Rock Band 3’s Pro Guitar mode for a year or so before I started in on Rocksmith. (In fact, the Squier Rock Band 3 controller was the guitar that I used when first playing Rocksmith; Rocksmith quickly made me realize the problems with that, so I bought a much better guitar a few months later.) Rock Band 3 had a lot of problems when it comes to learning guitar, but it got me past the initial hand pain of barre chords, taught me how to move around a fretboard, and gave me a baseline skill level of pick usage (including alternating strumming).

Having said that, I am 100% positive that Rocksmith would have been a much better place to start. It would have taught me all of the above; I might have taken a little longer to focus on barre chords, but I’m not sure that that’s true or that that would have been a bad thing. (Rock Band 3’s controller also had some limitations that had serious conceptual musical downsides, but I don’t want to go into details here.) And Rocksmith comes with a nice set of lessons to introduce you to guitar techniques.

What really makes Rocksmith special in this regard, though, is the way it adapts songs to your level, and does that on a per-phrase granularity, with (typically) a dozen or more difficulty levels available for every single phrase. And, to be clear: this isn’t just a way in which Rocksmith is better than Rock Band 3 was, it’s a way in which Rocksmith is better than human teachers or printed music.

Because one key to learning of any sort is to constantly be going up against challenges that are within reach but beyond your comfort zone. (“Deliberate Practice”.) And arguably Rocksmith’s single most important didactic design decision is to do exactly that: it is constantly asking you to stretch your limits on every part of every song that you can’t yet reliably play all the notes on, but it stretches you in a way where the next goal always remains within reach.

A second key design decision in this regard is Riff Repeater mode: once you get to where the next step on a given phrase really is a significant challenge, then you’ll need to put in some effort to work on it; so Riff Repeater lets you play that phrase over and over again, with various knobs (speed, in particular) to help you work your fingers until they’re doing the right thing. (And to help your brain understand exactly where and how your fingers aren’t doing the right thing!)

 

You can make a huge amount of progress with the tools that Rocksmith currently has. Having said that, if I wanted Rocksmith to do better in this regard, it seems like there are two potential areas for improvement: detecting techniques more accurately and more broadly, and having a richer holistic understanding of the player’s skill level.

Rocksmith gives notation for a fairly wide range of techniques, but it doesn’t actually grade you on most of them, it restricts its grading to playing the right notes at the right time. Which, in general, is the right choice: most of the time, I don’t actually want the game to give me a grade as to how good my palm mutes are.

I do want it to grade me accurately on the notes, though. Which it does a pretty good job of, and it errs on the side of accepting what you play, which is also the right choice: it’s very frustrating to play the right thing and have the game tell you you’ve done something wrong.

But occasionally the game tells me I’ve done something wrong when I don’t realize what I’ve done wrong. A lot of the time, I can eventually figure it out: e.g. I have a habit of not always strumming through three-string power chords, and sometimes the game is correctly pointing that out! (Not that there’s a huge musical difference between two-string and three-string power chords, but I would like to have the pick control to reliably choose the one or the other.) Similarly, I occasionally get the rhythm a bit wrong on a section without realizing it (especially when a song has similar sections with varying rhythms). So, in both of those situations, I appreciate the game telling me I’ve made a mistake; I just wish that it could tell me what mistake I’ve made. (At least if I’m playing in Riff Repeater mode.)

But whenever I encounter those situations, I also don’t always trust the game. This comes up most frequently in bends: Rocksmith won’t reliably detect bends unless you pause at both the start and end of the bend to give it a clear signal on the pitch of the note. Which isn’t right musically; and it means that, if it says I’ve gotten a bend wrong, I don’t know if I was being sloppy about the ending pitch, if I was being sloppy about the start and started bending before I’d strummed at all, or if I was playing in a reasonable way that was just too fast for the game to detect.

 

The lessons are good to start with, but they have their problems as well. Sometimes playing through the lesson is frustrating, because it doesn’t want me to get past a section until I’ve 100%’d it; if I’m having trouble with that section because it’s too hard for me, that’s fine, but if I feel like I’m doing what it asks and it’s still showing failed notes, then that’s annoying, and it feels like it happens in the lessons more than it happens in regular playing. (I’m not sure if Rocksmith tries to detect techniques in the lessons that it doesn’t try to detect when playing songs? It feels that way…)

More broadly, the game doesn’t feel like it has any real concept of what techniques I’m good at, what I’m bad at, and how to help me with the latter. I’ve been playing the game for years, and just this morning, when I was playing through a song, the game had, as one of its recommended items, to play through the Chords 101 lesson; trust me, Rocksmith, I’m not going to get anything out of going through Chords 101 again.

The other tool the game has for technique improvement is the Guitarcade games. Probably I should spend more time on those; but what I find happening is that it asks me to do something faster and faster, I start failing, and (on many of the games) it feels like my failure has as much to do with slow detection (e.g. taking a while to decide that, yes, I have strummed the chord it asks for) or failed detection (harmonics, bends) than it has to do with my failures. Which is frustrating, and I react to that by staying away instead of trying to pay attention to the part of the grading the game is doing that really does reflect on me.

 

Ultimately, if I look at Rocksmith through this lens, I’d like the game to better understand what I’m good at technically and what I could use work on and to have it more frequently give useful, actionable advice on the latter.

The flip side, though: a lot of this is on me, and the tools are there for me to take control. Sometimes I don’t know what I need to get better at or how to do it, but a lot of the time, I know what I need to work on, I just need to put in the time; and Riff Repeater helps me do so. Or at least it helps me do so if I can map my technical difficulties to specific sections of songs; but usually I can, because if a technique doesn’t show up in a section of a song, then I’m not likely to care much about it!

 

Enjoying the experience of moving through music

This is the aspect of Rocksmith that I find most seductive: just diving into songs. Picking a song, or having the game pick it for me; playing through it once, maybe playing it a second time if I enjoyed it and I either want the experience of going through the song again the same way or the experience of trying a slightly more complex version now that I’ve gotten the phrases leveled up a bit.

I can easily spend a couple hours solid just doing this. And it’s clearly something that the devs care about: Rocksmith 2014 was better at this experience than the original Rocksmith, and the Remastered patch added on still more improvements.

 

What more would I want when approaching the game in this mood? Honestly, the basic flow is really good: I’ve got various ways to pick the collection of songs that I want to play, and then the game is happy to either let me go through the selected songs manually or to serve them up to me itself. In the latter mode, it can sometimes be a little hard to pause things if a song particularly catches my interest, but that’s only a very minor issue.

So, really, it feels like the major remaining issue is the number of songs that are available at all: the number of songs I have available in my actual library, and the number of songs that are potentially available but that I may or may not have purchased.

The first step there would be to remove that distinction: switch to a Spotify model where everything’s available as long as you pay a subscription fee. This is clearly the way the music industry is going; I imagine Rocksmith will switch to this at some point, I just hope all the licensors are on board.

But, as vast as the Rocksmith library is, it is nonetheless even more vastly smaller than the total library of guitar music! There are certainly incremental changes that I’d like (e.g. add in some complete albums), but, ultimately, that’s a problem that will need algorithmic solutions: growing the library by depending on manual notetracking is not going to scale.

 

I assume that, 20 years from now, there actually will be something algorithmic that can do a credible job of acting like Rocksmith for my entire music library, or for the entire world of streaming music. (People are already giving this a try; at some point I need to give Capo a spin to figure out how good it is…)

I don’t expect that product to be an evolved version of Rocksmith, though, because it would require a complete business model shift: this looks like a classic low-end disruption scenario to me, and that almost never turns out well for the incumbent. But that future is also far enough out that I don’t see any point in worrying about it now, anyways: if the Rocksmith folks wanted to worry about it, I’d tell them to try to make money by satisfying their existing customers, see if they can use Jobs to Be Done theory or something to set up a lateral move, and in the mean time explore automated technology somewhat themselves, as an internal tool to speed up the process of note tracking.

 

Hmm, that last sentence makes me wonder: maybe I’m wrong and automated song detection is a sustaining innovation instead of a disruptive innovation? I was going to say that I doubt it, because of the business model shift, but maybe I’m wrong about that, too: Rocksmith should be able to successfully shift gracefully from a “buy individual songs” model to a “pay a monthly fee to stream from a fixed library” model, I think. And shifting from the latter to a “pay a monthly fee to stream from almost anything” model, with most songs handled algorithmically but some popular ones handled with human intervention, might actually work just fine?

I guess the problem is competing against something like Capo that’s a one-time fee piggybacking on existing payments to a traditional music-listening streaming service, but that doesn’t sound so intractable. And maybe the existing business model would make the Rocksmith developers reluctant to really focus on getting good algorithmic note tracking. Not sure…

 

Honing your performance

Rocksmith does encourage you to learn all the notes in a song. It nudges you towards 100% in various ways: gradually leveling up sections of a song, changing the color of a section when the game is willing to show you all of the notes, a Score Attack mode which then pushes you towards going on longer and longer streaks without missing a single note, and Riff Repeater mode to support you in learning individual sections that are giving you trouble.

And, once you’ve shown you can play all of the notes in a section, Rocksmith then asks you to memorize the song, by switching into Master mode. Its implementation of Master mode in Learn a Song mode is a little iffy, honestly: sometimes it throws me into Master mode inappropriately (especially when there are multiple similar sections in a song), and sometimes it obstinately refuses to go into Master mode. But it’s still pretty useful as a tool, and more so as an aspiration: the point is to really learn the song. And Master mode is there in Score Attack as well, to test you more comprehensively: would you be comfortable playing the whole song in a band, without the notes in front of you?

Knowing (and being able to play) the notes is just the table stakes for being able to perform a song, though: there’s a big difference between being able to fumble your way through a song more or less correctly compared to getting something deeper out of the music. Here, Rocksmith’s tools are fewer, but it has some: the fact that it shows you accents and vibrato is a reminder that not all notes are created equal, that you should think about which ones are more important and how they work together.

 

Helping you develop the musicality of a piece is, of course, an extremely difficult task for software to undertake. Software can only grade what it can measure; and different interpretations of the same piece can be equally valid, and I wouldn’t want Rocksmith to judge me for every time I different from the interpretation of the recording I was following. I won’t swear that there’s not more that Rocksmith could (perhaps optionally) do — e.g. sometimes my chords are muddy, sometimes I play notes in a way that makes it clear that I’m just barely managing to get by, and perhaps Rocksmith could point that out? (Which, I think, it already tries to do with its suggestions of which sections to work on in Riff Repeater, but that could be more actionable.) But maybe this is an area where I don’t want Rocksmith to take the lead.

But I do want Rocksmith to support me when I’m thinking about how I want to perform a piece. Which, of course, I try to do when I’m playing, but it’s hard, especially if I don’t have the piece ingrained in my fingers. When I’m working on a piece on the piano, I’ll stop, think, experiment with fingerings and phrasings for a measure or a few notes, write down stuff on the score; if Rocksmith could let me do that, then that could be nice, but I don’t have any super concrete ideas how to do that beyond what’s already there in Riff Repeater.

Rocksmith does have a significant advantage over sheet music over a piano, though: it should be able to record what you’re doing easily enough. And, in fact, this is the one thing from the original Rocksmith that I miss in Rocksmith 2014: when you finished a piece in Rocksmith, it would play it back for you, letting you hear your performance, showing you the notes (even if you’d been in Master mode), and showing you which notes you missed.

And it was really eye-opening to hear just how bad I sounded on sections where I could just barely 100% them: I realized how much work I had to do beyond just improving my completion percentage. Even on sections where my fingers were more confident, though, listening to myself helped point out sections where I stumbled a bit or where I just might want to think more about how to approach a phrase; and it was extremely useful as a followup when I was playing in Master mode, as a learning tool for the sections that I’d thought I had memorized but, in retrospect, hadn’t. (Admittedly, Rocksmith 2014 has much better Master mode tools than the original Rocksmith, but even so, I think seeing the notes and seeing/hearing my mistakes after the fact would be useful.)

 

So that’s my main request for a future Rocksmith in terms of improving my musicality: some sort of Review mode. It would play back your performance; it would show you all of the notes in the song, even if you’d played in Master mode; it would show you your mistakes; it would let you drop into Riff Repeater in the middle of a piece to work on a section that doesn’t sound good.

If the Rocksmith developers had more ideas about how the game could give you suggestions about musicality, Review mode could be a place for that, too: it would be a context where you can think and talk about your performance after the fact, which removes issues of grading and real-time feedback. So if they have ideas about ways the game could give feedback that aren’t reliable enough for real-time scoring, and that do a better job of matching the player’s performance than the current rudimentary “here’s a lesson you should try” capability, then this could be a place for that. But that would all be a bonus: just being able to listen to your performance in a way that ties into existing Rocksmith capabilities would be enough.

 

Improvising

When I play guitar with my coworkers, we spend a lot of time doing jam sessions; it’s fun, I wish I were better at it! And of course Rocksmith 2014 took direct aim at this with Session Mode.

I don’t have a lot to say here, unfortunately: I’ve spent several hours with Session Mode, I’ve gone through all of the Session Mode missions, and I’m quite glad I did, but ultimately I only have so much time that I spend with Rocksmith each week, and I’ve been spending that time playing songs instead of improvising. Also, I don’t have much domain knowledge here; I don’t know that I’m significantly worse at improvising than my coworkers, but it’s not something that I’d feel comfortable doing in a more formal situation, either.

So, while I genuinely have a lot of respect for Session Mode, I don’t feel like I can say anything particularly productive about its strengths and weaknesses. I’m leaving in this section because I think that “be able to play in a jam session without being embarrassed” is an important Job to Be Done for Rocksmith; I’m glad the Rocksmith developers have been thinking about it, I hope they continue to do so. (And if I had more time to practice guitar, I’d definitely carve out time to spend in Session Mode!)

 

Understanding the bones of the music

Basically: what can Rocksmith teach you if you want to write your own songs, or just understand what the composers of the songs in the game might have been thinking?

This has significant overlap with the previous job, of course; maybe I should have combined them into a single entry. And Session Mode does have some tools that attack this directly: it focuses on both scales and chord progressions.

When playing through songs themselves, Rocksmith doesn’t help as much with the underlying musical structure; it gives you the names of chords, but that’s not really what’s important, what’s important is there those chords are in relationship to the underlying key.

Though actually two decisions that Rocksmith made in Learn a Song mode do help with this in a roundabout way: it lets you play whatever you want during blank spaces in the song (and doesn’t actively penalize you even if you’re experimenting when it tells you to play specific notes), and, when you’re playing a new song, you don’t generally get to see all the notes. The latter decision actively poses the question of what notes would make sense in this context; and the former lets you experiment with how to answer that question.

 

I’m vaguely curious what it would be like to play Rocksmith with it labeling chords with I / ii / IV / V instead of, say, E / F#m / A / B: that feels like it would help me train my ear to recognize the different chord progressions, which would in turn help me understand them better. But in general I don’t have a lot to say about this job, and of all the jobs I’ve listed here, this one feels like the most of a stretch; Rocksmith made the right choice to focus on improvisation over composition / music theory, I think.

Conclusion

If I had boil this down, what I most want is: 1) let me review my performance after playing; 2) do a better job of quickly and accurately detecting what notes I’m playing; and 3) keep the business model up to date so it continues to be worth supporting Rocksmith. And, of course, the developers probably have completely different ideas, either to help with the above jobs or for completely different jobs; Rocksmith 2014 certainly brought a lot of improvements that I wouldn’t have known to ask for. As long as I can keep on playing guitar, and can keep on getting better, I’ll be happy…

twist steps and refactoring

February 18th, 2018

One theme that constantly comes up in Tai Chi classes is keeping control over where your center of gravity. At any point in the form, you should know whether your weight should be completely over your right foot, completely over your left foot, somewhat on the right side, somewhat on the left side, etc. You can see an example of that in this stepping technique drill video by my teacher: he shifts back and forth from leg to leg, and pauses with all of his weight on his stationary leg while taking a step with the other leg. (Later on in the video, he even raises his moving leg to emphasize the single-leg position.)

That’s an isolated exercise, but there are several places in the form where you’re doing a similar sort of steps. And, a few months, ago, when my teacher was giving me pointers after watching me go through the form, he noted on one of those sections (Twist Steps) that I wasn’t shifting my weight properly, and suggested that, before moving my foot forward, I should sink into my weighted leg, to help ensure that I was positioning my weight properly.

I worked on that over the next week or two, and it felt like my technique got significantly better, and not just on that one part of the form: I could feel my body clicking into place on transitions in a way it hadn’t before. I wasn’t sloppily combining weight shifts with other movements (or at least I was less sloppy!): at each point, I knew where I was and what I was doing.

 

When I’m programming, I do test-driven development. Which means that I know what I’m doing at each point. Sometimes I’m writing a failing test, sometimes I’m getting that test to pass, sometimes I’m refactoring to improve the quality of my code. (And sometimes I’m thinking about what to do next!)

This clarity of state reminds me of practicing my form: I have some specific behavior change that I’m working on at any point (similar to knowing the next move in the form); I know whether I’m adding a red test or making it green (similar to knowing whether I’m moving my feet and what my weight is doing); and I pause periodically to refcator (similar to the weight sinking mentioned above, and to the exhaling and relaxation that I do in pauses in the form).

 

Of course, the Tai Chi form is an artificial practice: the moves have applications, but they’re quite different from how you act in other contexts. For example, when walking down the street, I don’t lift my left leg, move it over to my right leg to make sure I’m balanced on my right leg, then stick my left leg back out and put it on the ground without placing significant weight on it, and finally shift to my left leg while maintaining contact on the ground with both legs. Instead, I just move my left leg straight forward in a way where I’m somewhat off-balance for most of the movement. (Though, arguably, I’m less off-balance while walking normally now than I was a year ago: if I’m thinking about it, walking really does feel different now than it once did!) So why don’t I do the same thing while programming: treat test-driven development as a valuable exercise but not my normal mode of behavior?

When doing Twist Steps, my teacher says to think about the move as if you’re walking on thin ice: don’t put your weight down until you’re sure the ice will hold and that you won’t slip and fall. The thing is, while programming, you’re walking on ice a lot of the time: there’s almost always something that can go wrong if you’re not careful. If your code base is decent quality, most of the time it’ll be okay for a while if you march boldly ahead, but every so often, surprises will pop up, and you’ll fall flat on your ass in the good case, sink into icy water in the bad case.

So spend your time feeling out your territory while programming: that’s the red-green part of the TDD cycle, small steps guided by tests are what help you avoid slipping too often. But in programming, unlike when walking in the physical world, you’re directly affecting the territory that you’re navigating: you can make it more or less slippery as you walk around. So refactor constantly: that improves the quality of your surface.

And, if you’re doing that, then yes, you can walk faster! Which can tempt you to stop doing TDD; but, the better the quality of the code, the easier it is to add that next test that makes your movement safe. And, as with the form, if you practice mindfully over and over again, you have the potential of moving more quickly while maintaining discipline: you can stop and think if you want, but you can also move quickly without losing clarity.

super mario odyssey

February 8th, 2018

The obvious points of comparison for Super Mario Odyssey are the latest Zelda game and Super Mario 64. Breath of the Wild in particular pairs with Super Mario Odyssey as a statement game: they’re the most recent entries in Nintendo’s two most important franchises, working together to launch a hugely important console for Nintendo. And they share something new in their design: just as Breath of the Wild sprinkles shrines and Korok seeds all over its world, so too does Super Mario Odyssey manage to hide a remarkable number of moons within each of its levels.

That comparison, though, points out why, for me, Odyssey is no Breath of the Wild. Odyssey is a very good game, to be sure; but what I found most magical about Breath of the Wild is how natural the world felt. Not only did every hill and every tree feel like it was in the right place, but every time you came across a Korok, a shrine, a village, it seemed like that was exactly where it belonged.

In Super Mario Odyssey, however, the levels just don’t fit together the same way: they’re segmented instead of flowing, and the result is that each level felt to me like an agglomeration of puzzles and locations rather than a whole. I was going to say that they feel designed rather than organic, and that’s true, but that doesn’t quite get at the issue: overtly designed structures can have their own beauty as well, where every portion is there for a clear reason. But Odyssey doesn’t do that, either, or at least doesn’t do that across the scope of each of its levels: individual puzzles are well designed, but the fabric between them isn’t, or at least isn’t to the extent that Breath of the Wild managed.

 

Breath of the Wild is, of course, a very high bar, and for most games and most series, it would be a completely unfair comparison. But with a Mario game, it’s not an unfair comparison, and in fact the game showed why not at two separate times.

One is after the end of the main narrative arc of the game: you return to the Mushroom Kingdom setting, with a level based on Super Mario 64. And as soon as I landed there, I felt at home, at home the same way I felt in Breath of the Wild. You can make a case that that’s nostalgia, but I don’t think that’s all of what’s going on there, or even most of what’s going on. It’s a castle and a castle grounds, and the grounds are designed in a way that feels right to me in a way that most of the other levels didn’t, with hills and trees and paths and water just where they belonged. In most of the other levels, the locations of moons made sense because that’s where a Mario game would put a moon, but there was a tension between the parts of the levels that were there for platforming and the parts of the levels that were there as connective tissue; in the Mushroom Kingdom level, though, I didn’t get that separation.

The other reason why I felt at home in the Mushroom Kingdom level was the music, and the sound design more generally. Again, I’m sure that some of that is nostalgia, but I also again don’t think that that’s everything that was going on: the music in Super Mario 64 was a lot better than the music in Super Mario Odyssey. (Admittedly, this is an area where Breath of the Wild doesn’t do so well, either: Ocarina’s music was much better.) And a lot better not just in an abstract sense of preferring the earlier game’s tunes, but in a situated sense of being the right sounds at the right time.

 

There was actually one other level in Super Mario Odyssey that felt as good to me as the Mushroom Kingdom: New Donk City is a ridiculous name, but it’s a great level. It felt a little corridory to me when I was going through it initially, but once I made it past the boss fight and the sun came out, I really liked the level: full of people who had a reason to be there, full of buildings that made sense in that context, but the buildings also all served a second purpose as platforming navigational challenges and a third purpose as suitable settings for hiding isolated puzzles.

And, while I wasn’t actively impressed by most of the music in Super Mario Odyssey, I loved the song that caps off New Donk City. And I loved the set piece that that song fits into: organic puzzles are great, but artfully designed set pieces that combine theatre and gameplay into a virtuostic package can be special as well.

 

Don’t get me wrong: I thought Super Mario Odyssey was a very good game. I was happy to play it, I stuck around for quite a while in each level the first time after making it past that level’s boss fight and I spent a fair amount of time with the game past the end of the main story. It’s just a very good game that actively invites comparison to both Breath of the Wild and Super Mario 64; at its best, it even manages to come off evenly in those comparisons, but most of the time, I wanted a little more…