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yakuza 4

March 19th, 2023

When playing Yakuza games, I’d started to wonder how they’d keep the series going both from a narrative point of view and a mechanical point of view. Kiryu was trying to stay out of the Tojo Clan, but something would come up that would threaten the entire clan that only Kiryu could deal with, so he’d get pulled back in, and that would be the hook for another game; was the series really going to keep up those crises for game after game?

With Yakuza 4, they’re giving one potential answer: you start off controlling a character who is new to the series, rather than Kiryu, and in fact spend a while with that character. You’re still in Kamurocho (which I fully approve of, to be clear), but the character you’re playing isn’t even a Yakuza member.

He does have interactions with Yakuza members, to be sure; and, soon enough, one thread of interactions with them gets more and more important, getting closer to Tojo clan business. (Current business, but also relating to an event from decades back.)

And then we change point of view characters, to somebody else with a different perspective on that same event and to the current repercussions. The game ends up having four point-of-view characters; you spend significant time with each of them, and then all four end up working together in the last part.


And yes, the last of those characters is Kiryu; and yes, what is going on does end up affecting the core of the Tojo Clan. So the game hasn’t given up on all of its narrative formula; but it is at least trying to avoid doing more of the same.

Which is, to some extent, refreshing? It’s ultimately, a problem that series have: when a series does something interesting that grabs you, then there’s pressure to do more of the same. But it’s hard to keep things fresh as the series progresses; and games can get mechanically stale and/or write themselves into narrative corners by doing that. (And this problem isn’t unique to games, books also have a habit of going stale as sales successes lead to series getting extended.)


So the upshot is: I enjoyed playing Yakuza 4, and I was glad that it was doing something different. But it also didn’t have the same spark earlier games in the series had; yay for not retreading the same narrative ground, doing that wouldn’t have been any better, but making a different choice doesn’t mean that the series will be able to recapture the magic.

Also, the game was really weirdly balanced; on normal difficulty, I found the normal enemy encounters even more boring than normal in this series, but I found the boss battles frustratingly difficult for the first half of the game; eventually I got enough better that the boss battles were just somewhat-more-than-normally annoying instead of excessively so, but still, it felt off. Which wouldn’t have been so bad, except for one decision the game made that I do not understand at all: for whatever reason, the game doesn’t let you change the difficulty level without starting your entire playthrough over. (If you lose in a battle enough times, the game will offer to lower the difficulty for you, but then the difficulty level will go right back up after a battle; I’m glad it at least does that, but that’s not nearly enough.)


Two games left for me to play in the main franchise; I’m curious how those games will handle their narrative.

choosing a mastodon server

March 12th, 2023

One more thing that I was thinking about when switching away from Twitter: what Mastodon server should I choose? And what are the criteria I should use to make that decision?


My first question: do I care about the local timeline of the server in question? Mastodon lets you watch a firehose of all the posts on a given server; if I pick a server that’s targeted enough to my interests, maybe I’d enjoy that.

My answer to whether or not I care is “no”. On Discord servers that I’m on, I generally don’t enjoy the random chatter; Mastodon posts are different from Discord chatter, but still, that kind of thing isn’t something that I’m particularly looking for? Also, if I ever change my mind about this, I can always look at local timelines for a given server through the web interface, or create an account there if I really want to look at it through a client.


A related question: do I want to pick a server because it feels like a cool place to have as my address? I do notice when I see gamedev.place or mathstodon.xyz addresses, after all.

The problem with that is that I have multiple fairly strong interests; and I get new interests not that infrequently. So would I want to be on a server associated with video games, or with programming (and, if so, one specifically with agile or with some other aspect of programming), or one reflecting my developing interest in Tai Chi and other internal arts, or one that reflects the fact that I used to be a mathematician, or that I currently live in the Bay Area?

So no: even though I do like those addresses, I don’t want to pick one.


What about moderation? Moderation is important, different servers have better or worse moderation policies, and different servers do a better or worse job of interpreting their policies.

Honestly, I don’t really know how to start analyzing this one. I don’t have a well-formed opinion about what’s important to look for, or what policies are subtly important in either good or bad ways. And I’ve heard a few stories about Mastodon moderation that make me nervous about site owners retaliating against people they don’t like, or removing posts that make them uncomfortable even though they’re saying important things.

All of this pushes me towards servers that are large and generic: that feels like a way to have a relatively professional moderation team with relatively standard practices? I’m not saying that there aren’t problems with standard moderation practices, but fortunately I have historically been out of the fire of problems in that area. And figuring out what site would have better policies and practices for enforcing those policies feels like a noticeable amount of work.


Finally: do I even want a shared server at all? Maybe I want to run my own server; or, if I’m not up for that, pay somebody else to run that for me.

For me personally, the answer is that a personal server would obviously be better in many ways. The way Mastodon address has a username and a domain is just like the way an email address has a username and a domain; I switched away from using somebody else’s domain for my email and web presence to using my own domain a couple of decades ago, and the reasons why that would be preferable apply just as well to Mastodon as they do to email.

The problem is that, for email, there are a bunch of providers who will run the server for me at a reasonable rate; for Mastodon, the ecosystem isn’t so well developed. I thought about running my own server, but I’m hesitant to do that for a couple of reasons: it’s not clear to me that it would fit within the memory/cpu of the server that’s running this blog and my other random projects, and also the more stuff that I run there, the more exposed I am to security vulnerabilities. (Not that I have any reason to believe Mastodon is particularly insecure, but still: it’s software, vulnerabilities will be discovered.) I could mitigate that by running it on a different server and restricting the access between that server and my main server, but that costs money, and takes time to administer.

ALternatively, I could pay somebody else to run a Mastodon instance for me. When I first heard about that, the numbers I heard made me think that those services cost about $20/month; that would would be fine if it were important to me but it seems like a bit much otherwise for now? Looking at masto.host pricing, though, I could probably do just fine on the $6/month or the $9/month plan, so actually this option is more viable than I thought. (Assuming that I trust masto.host to do a good job of running instances and to stay in business…)

So, honestly, maybe I will go that route. And it also wouldn’t shock me if, in two years or five years or whatever, Google ended up including something compatible with Mastodon within Google Workspace; it seems like something that would be noticeably more efficient to run if you could amortize the work across a ton of different users, after all.


At any rate, I decided to make the most boring choice and just sign up for a mastodon.social account. I was already leaning that way and then I discovered that I’d signed up for an account with them back in 2016; I’d completely forgotten about that, but my account was still there, just waiting for me to use it.

So I’ve been active as @davidcarlton@mastodon.social for the last four and a half months; and I’ve been very happy with that choice. Hopefully at some point over the next five years I’ll switch away and have an address that ends in bactrian.org, but this has been fine for now.

crank and the barnacle goose experiment

March 5th, 2023

I saw a bunch of people positively mentioning The Barnacle Goose Experiment on Twitter at the end of last year, so I gave it a try. I ran into a game breaking bug, so I stopped playing while waiting for that bug to be fixed; but playing it did remind me that I like clicker games. And somebody pointed me at Crank while I was waiting, so I gave that a try.


And it’s okay? Good enough that I was glad to have played it; there’s the loop that I like, of starting with one resource that requires clicking, then improving and automating the production of it, then being able to produce other resources, and looping through that repeatedly, all the while balancing different kinds of efficiency improvements.

And Crank also has its own bit of special sauce: you’re traveling through space, exploring solar systems and fighting enemies.

Having said that, it’s not great. There weren’t all that many different loops of stuff to do, and I ran out of interesting decisions while I still had a good amount of exploring to do in the star map. And the exploring in the star map isn’t all that interesting: it’s nice as an ingredient of the game, but if it’s the only thing you have to do, it gets boring.

I’m still happy to have played Crank: it was pleasant enough for most of my time with the game, and it didn’t take me all that long to make it through the whole game. And it is a genre that I enjoy, after all, so even a game that doesn’t show me anything unexpected in the genre is still fun.


The Barnacle Goose Experiment (which I did finish, once the aforementioned bug was fixed) is quite a bit more unusual. You start off with your base material that you can get via clicking (three of them instead of one of them, this time); and then you create more items by mixing your existing items. So it has a much, much wider range of resources than most clicker games, but also a much, much smaller set of production loops for the individual resources.

Each resource can be made from other resources via recipes (generally multiple recipes), and also many resources automatically produce other resources (I can’t remember if this is a real example or not, but stuff like cats automatically produce hair periodically). And also there are locations that speed up the production of some classes of resources, and there’s a mechanism that lets you speed up the different types of automatic production.

Typing that up, it sounds like a decent amount of loops? But, when I played it, honestly the location mechanism and the speed up mechanism just didn’t matter. I think what’s going on there is that it’s just not the sort of game where you need exponential growth of resources: it’s not like you start off using 10 of a resource to make an item, then 100 of that resource, then 1000 of that resource. Instead, the recipes all take (I think) at most four of any given resource, and by far the common case is that they take one or two of the resources that are part of the recipe, and a recipe typically requires two to four resources in total.


So Barnacle Goose is really about the loop of discovering a recipe that leads to a new resource, then trying to find as many recipes as you can that use that new resource, seeing what resources are produced by those recipes, and repeating. There’s other stuff in there (items to wear, music you can play, letters you can read), but that’s the core of it.

Which, unlike Crank, really is a new take on the genre. (Or at least new to me, I don’t claim to have an exhaustive knowledge of the genre!) But, it turns out, I didn’t find this amount of breadth to be as satisfying as having a smaller number of well-designed loops that get your hands dirty with exponential growth. I’m happy to have played it, though, it was pleasant enough and it’s always good to see something new.


Ultimately, I think the lesson here is that what I really want is more Kittens Game. So I’ve started it over again from scratch (and I’m trying out the app version instead of the in-browser version); hopefully I’ll manage to avoid having it be a constant tax on my attention for the next year…

(And maybe the other lesson here is that I should try experimenting with one of these games myself? If anybody has a good theme idea for a clicker game, let me know!)


February 20th, 2023

I wish I had more to say about NORCO. I could blame that on me being almost three months behind on my blogging but, honestly, it isn’t that: I just don’t usually have that much to say about games if I can’t find a mechanical hook as an entry point. And, mechanically, NORCO is a standard point-and-click adventure game; they do a solid job of that aspect of the game, but just in a table stakes way. (And, for what it’s worth, in a way that didn’t interfere with enjoying the story, at least for me: there are puzzle aspects here but they’re pretty light.)

So, really, it’s the aesthetics: the visuals, the story, the vibes. The visuals are lo-fi art that’s done quite well. I was going to say that it’s not in a nostalgic pixel art way, but, thinking about it more, I’m honestly not sure: I just didn’t play enough games from the heyday of point-and-click adventures to have a feel for the art style back then, so for all I know NORCO’s art style is actually pretty similar? I dunno; it works for me.

In terms of the story: it’s a story of people that are on the down-and-out side of an economy that’s producing a larger spread between winners and losers, set in a near-future SF context with a magical realism slant. The economic aspects don’t resonate as directly with me as they do with many people, but it’s clearly a story that fits in our times; and I do like SF that comes from an unusual angle.

And it feels like a game that’s unusually well grounded. I’ve never been to Louisiana, so I don’t actually know what areas near New Orleans feel like, how industrial decay plays out there. But the game felt true to me: not just that it’s telling a story of our times, but it’s telling a story of our times in that specific location, of how economic changes would manifest there.


So: I’m pretty confident in saying that NORCO is a good game, and I’ll recommend it to anybody who likes narrative games. I just wish I were better at writing about this sort of thing.

(If I really wanted to get better at that, I’d get into a routine of writing about every book I finish, not just every game I finish…)

what i got out of twitter

February 18th, 2023

One problem with being unusually behind on my list of blog posts to write is that, sometimes, events in the world overtake my posts before I actually write them. I normally solve this problem by not writing about events in the world in the first place; but, a few months back (when Elon Musk bought Twitter), I thought it would be useful to write a post saying what I was getting out of Twitter, to help organize my thoughts about whether to go somewhere else and, if so, where that would be. But then he started kicking journalists off the service, and that got me switching my posting to Mastodon; and then he stopped allowing third party clients, and that got me to stop reading Twitter entirely. So here I am, not having even looked at my Twitter timeline for I don’t know how many weeks, and I still haven’t written this post.

But Twitter was a weird / amorphous enough place that maybe that’s still interesting, or at least still useful to me somehow, to think about what I was getting out of that weirdness? I’m not sure, but at any rate, some thoughts on the matter.


Some of what I got out of Twitter was keeping track of what friends were up to. Some of those friends are relatively close friends; not many of them, both because I honestly just don’t have very many close friends at all, but also because a fair number of those close friends aren’t / weren’t on Twitter. A decent number of them are people that I met through games blogging a decade and a half ago; and a decent (but smaller) number of them are current or former coworkers. And there are probably a few that don’t fall into any of those categories.

And then there’s the converse of that: Twitter was a space for me to post things that friends of mine might be pleased to see, but that people who aren’t my friends wouldn’t particularly care about. Stuff like vacation pictures, or a mention of something that I liked in a book that I’m reading.


Then, moving out a circle: there are people who are involved with an area that I’m interested in but whom I’m not friends with in any sense. (Most of these people have no reason to know that I exist.) The boundaries between this and late 200x game blogger circle are somewhat blurry, some of the games people I follow fit better into this category; and I follow some amount of software developers that fit into this category, too. Typing this up, it’s actually weird that I didn’t end up following many (any?) Tai Chi / Internal Arts people on Twitter; if I were still on Twitter, I’d probably look for them, but Twitter is probably also a medium that just doesn’t fit well with that area of interest.

In a related vein there are the public intellectuals I follow: people who say things that are interesting to learn / think about, but who don’t write in an area that I’ve got a specific interest in. (Other than the area of “politics”, but that’s a pretty generic one: yes, I live in a society.) E.g. some Atlantic columnists fell into this category, or when the war on Ukraine started, I saw a couple of people get retweeted into my timeline who seemed pretty well-informed / informative, so I followed them.


The last broad group of people that I followed on Twitter are those who are more on the artistic side. It took me a while to start following visual artists on Twitter, but I finally did maybe four years ago, and doing so was a good choice: I was happy to be regularly seeing art that I liked. And, it turns out, that you don’t have to follow very many visual artists on Twitter to get a large effect in that regard, because they retweet each other All The Freaking Time: you can follow two people whose art you like and see stuff (a decent proportion of which will be to your taste) from like fifty different artists every week.

I also follow some number of podcasters and authors; they fit into this category, too. (They don’t retweet other folks nearly as often as the visual artists do; which is just as well because I don’t need a constant massive stream of podcast / book recommendations!)

And then there’s cute stuff: We Rate Dogs in particular, Buitengebieden is also pretty nice.


So that’s the taxonomy of whom I follow on Twitter. Which is also pretty closely related to the question of what I was getting out of Twitter: each of those categories can be thought of as one way to answer to that question.

And the answers were pretty good! People are sometimes cynical about Twitter and the internet in general, and I am in fact one of those people, but honestly: I’m pretty sure that Twitter, overall, was a strong positive for me. (Until it, at least from my point of view, basically fell apart.) But there were definitely ways in which my experience with Twitter wasn’t great.

Broadly speaking: I think Twitter overemphasizes negative feelings, it overemphasizes cultural divisions, and it especially overemphasizes the intersection between those two. (Look at this horrible thing that a member of an outgroup is doing!) It’s not that I want to completely live within a bubble or anything: bad things exist, and sometimes it’s useful for me to learn about bad things that I wasn’t previously aware of. But also: the internet is global, and part of that means that random bad stuff from anywhere in the world (and certainly anywhere in the US) can just show up in my feed. Having compassion for all beings is good, but I don’t actually think it’s healthy to have negative news from all over the country to be put in my face disproportionately?

And I also don’t think it’s healthy for me to see so many negative messages about culture war outgroups. It’s not that I disagree with the messages that are being signaled to me here: if you pick a random culture war flashpoint, you can probably imagine what side I’ll come down on that, and you’ll not only probably be right about what I think, it’ll also probably be the case that my opinion about that is pretty strong, and I’m not actually particularly open to changing it. But I also don’t know what’s being helped by having that feeling be constantly reinforced: I think it would be much healthier to have those feelings be relatively rarely actively reinforced, and for me to find common points of humanity / agreement with people on whom I have strong disagreements on specific issues.


It’s not like I seek out that sort of negative content, so how did it show up in my feed? A little bit of it is from the “public intellectual” class that I mentioned above: one danger of people embracing the public intellectual lifestyle is that they sometimes start to opine on all sorts of random stuff, and also that they sometimes start picking fights with other public intellectuals. And I really just do not care about that or like seeing that: if you’ve got something to say yourself, then say that, but the fact that somebody has interesting things to say on a fairly frequent basis does not give me any interest in their random beefs, or in their opinions about some topic of they day that’s outside their area of expertise.

But that’s only a small portion of the problem; by far the largest problem was retweets, especially quote tweets. It’s really easy to see something stupid or bad come across your Twitter timeline, usually with somebody else commenting negatively on it, and to then pass that on; a decent number of people that I follow (including people from most of the classes I mention above) like to pass things like that on. And it was bad, it did not help my experience on Twitter.


So that’s what I liked out of Twitter, and also a bit about what I disliked. And it also goes a decent ways towards explaining why I left Twitter when I did. I wasn’t one of the people who left as soon as Musk took over: for a while, I had a “wait and see” attitude, trying to figure out what he’d do and what effect that would have on my experience with the site. But when he banned a bunch of journalists, it started to be clear how the experience would be negative: I couldn’t count on a whole class of people that I was interesting in to actually still be present on Twitter, and also enough other people had had enough at that point that quite a few of my friends and members of subgroups that I was interested in jumped ship to Mastodon at the same time. So Mastodon got better while Twitter got worse, and it was pretty clear to me which side of that divide I would enjoy more; so I stopped posting on Twitter and started posting on Mastodon.

Even after that, though, I was still reading Twitter. But then Musk kicked third party clients off the service, which meant that it was impossible for me to see just the tweets from people that I was actively interested in: instead, if I wanted to keep on reading Twitter, I had to deal with an experience that was very strongly shaped by Twitter’s idea of what I should see. And, as I said above, Twitter promotes a bad and harmful idea of what to see; I have zero desire to see that. (And that’s setting aside the significant more basic usability deficiencies of Twitter’s app compared to apps like Tweetbot.) So I’ve completely stopped reading Twitter: I don’t pull up the app for nostalgia or anything to try to see what’s still there, the idea of doing that doesn’t even come to mind.


With Twitter no longer a serious option, though, the next question is where to get the benefits that I listed above? For friend stuff, I can actually imagine a different universe where I started using Facebook for that; but Facebook’s algorithm is as bad as Twitter’s (albeit in different ways), and in particular Facebook actively works against my goal of letting me reliably see what my friends are saying. So it’s a nonstarter.

I can also imagine a world where I spent more time interacting with friends through group text, or other chat-like spaces. And I do exchange text messages regularly with some of my family members, and there is one Discord and one Signal group that I’m part of that fit into that category as well. Maybe I should seek out this kind of thing more? Though one caution for me there is the volume of messages – I’m a member of about ten different Discords, and I have notifications disabled for almost all of them, because informal group spaces sometimes lead to a lot of chattiness, and I just don’t care about chattiness from people that I have no social ties with other than that we’re both a fan of some specific thing.

Fortunately, enough of my friends moved to Mastodon that it does a decent job of checking “ambient friend chatter” checkbox. (Both in terms of chatter I see and that I produce.)


Moving out a circle: the specific groups that I’m interested in (games stuff, programming stuff) have also largely decided that moving to Mastodon is a good thing. For more general public intellectual stuff, my experience is more mixed: some of them have moved, some of them haven’t, and some of them do automated cross posting, which isn’t a great reading experience. I can see why people who are explicitly looking for a broader audience would still have Twitter as their primary home; I wish they wouldn’t, but if they’re depending on a general audience for subscriber numbers, then they kind of have to be where that audience is, I guess. And if they like fighting with other people on Twitter, then, honestly, it’s probably healthy for me to not be following them any more! Though there is one specific public intellectual I can think of who did move to Mastodon, and who liked to make fun of random people saying stupid stuff on Twitter but who basically doesn’t do that at all on Mastodon; so the environment here does make a difference.

Really, though: my preferred way of reading what people in this category have to say isn’t through Twitter or Mastodon at all. Sometimes their short thoughts are interesting, but in a lot of cases the main effect of seeing their short stuff is feeling like I’ve got a parasocial relationship with them; that’s not healthy, I’d rather stay away from that. What I mostly want is their more thought-out stuff; and, for that, blogs are a much better format! (And hey, I never stopped writing on my blog, and it’s not like I’ve ever stopped using a feed reader, either. Blogs are good, y’all.) I’ve actually been really happy seeing Substack show up: it’s been nice how Substack has revitalized that kind of writing, and if it helps some people make a living, I’m all for that, too. (Incidentally, Substack blogs do come with RSS feeds, so if you want to read them but don’t want them to show up in your mailbox, you can (usually) do that.)

I do think that Mastodon is currently a little less good for me in terms of discovering new people to read. Mostly I prefer not having quote-retweets, but it can sometimes be useful to see somebody riffing in a positive way off of the posts of somebody else whom I don’t follow. Plain boosts/retweets give some of that, though; probably the real issue here is that just not enough people have moved to Mastodon yet.


The last category, of art stuff and cute stuff, is the category that I miss the most. Last time I checked, none of the visual artists I followed on Twitter have made it to Mastodon, which is unfortunate, and my feed is less cheerful as a result. And We Rate Dogs is one of the accounts that I miss the most here. (Buitengebieden made it over, at least.) I think probably the answer there is that I should get back into the habit of checking Instagram, because most of the artists I followed on Twitter also post there? Not my favorite site, though. And I should probably consider subscribing to more of their Patreons, too. Even if I do that, though, I’ll still miss the large volume of retweets that I’d see of other artists’ work; sigh.


Anyways: if you’re thinking of making the move to Mastodon, then please consider this a nudge to do so! I like it quite a lot here: there are more than enough people to make it a fairly lively place, and there’s a lot less gratuitous negativity that shows up in my feed. (And, once I moved over, I realized that a huge fraction of the boosts of culture war news articles that I was seeing came from exactly two people that I followed; I ended up unfollowing one of them and turning off boosts from the other one, and that solved that problem quite nicely.) There are definitely friends from Twitter whom I miss; I hope more of you will show up here.

marvel snap

January 29th, 2023

I don’t have a lot to say about Marvel Snap. It’s well done; it’s got an honest monetization strategy, where money gives you cosmetic stuff and unlocks the possibility to earn some cards in the current season. (And that earning is done in a deterministic way, it’s not a random draw.) Or at least that’s the way the monetization strategy worked when I was playing it; with games like that, you can never tell how it will change!

You build a deck to play with (like Magic or Netrunner or Hearthstone), but in Marvel Snap, the deck is only 12 cards, and a game (usually) only lasts 7 rounds and takes maybe five minutes; I appreciate how nice and tight that is. So you build your deck around one or two synergies; and then the randomness in the play comes from drawing, from your opponent, and from the environment.

And it’s fun? I played for a while, coming up with a couple of decks with synergies that I wanted to play with. And there were clearly more synergies available: I couldn’t build a deck that did anything great with destroying cards, but I’m pretty sure that, as I unlocked more cards, a deck built around that would be playable. (And I appreciated the game nudging me to try that out through its challenge system.)

I didn’t keep going, though it’s not hard to imagine an alternate world where I did. I don’t care about the theming (I didn’t mind it, it just didn’t do anything for me), and I didn’t dig deep enough to find combos that really surprised / pleased me, or to feel like I had a great sense of how to respond to randomness. And, if I wanted to go deeper, I’d probably want to spend money to get the paid cards for each season; the amount of money that a season past cost seemed fair (I’ve certainly spent enough money on Netrunner cards), but I wasn’t enjoying the game enough to want to go deeper. Still, the time I spent with it was pleasant enough.

pushing forward

January 22nd, 2023

Ever since I started doing Tai Chi and Nei Gong, I noticed ways in which parts of my body were farther forward than they probably should be; and this keeps on happening to me! So I figured I’d make a list of parts of my body where this has occurred; partly for my amusement, but maybe other people will find that some of these same things are happening to them.


My head

When teaching us Wu Ji, my Tai Chi teacher told us to raise the crown of our head; and, when doing that, my head would move back as well. So, at least from the point of view of that exercise, my head was normally too far forward. When thinking about that and watching other people, I noticed that, wow, a lot of people, myself included, really do have our heads hunched forward. (While staring at computer screens, while looking down at phones while walking, but also just in general.) And I also saw a few people who seemed to naturally not have their heads so far forward, and whose necks seemed like they were just going up on their own; those people certainly looked more graceful to me, and their head position felt healthier as well.

It took me a while to retrain my head and neck, though. But, once I started doing the Nei Gong version of Wu Ji more (which has a similar instruction around your head positioning), my head positioning did get better: I have a distinct memory of one time when I was working on relaxing my pelvis while sitting into my Kua, and that set up a stretch along my spine that was actually pretty strong in my neck, and all of a sudden my neck got yanked back a bunch. I won’t swear that my head was in an ideal position after that (in fact I’m pretty sure it wasn’t), but it did improve the situation.

(Since it will come up again, and it’s not a term that non-internal-arts folks are necessarily aware of: your Kua is the crease between your hips and your legs. And Tai Chi and Nei Gong both make a point of having you sink into your Kua when lowering your body, instead of directly using on your knees / thighs / buttocks.)

My shoulders

When I was having back issues, I learned about the Gokhale Method, and it helped a bunch. She talks about your head and neck positioning, but she also notes that the hunch of your head extends down into your shoulders as well, so for many of us, our shoulders and arms are too far forward.

She recommends a specific version of shoulder rolls to retrain your shoulders to hang in a better location; and, after trying that for maybe a couple of weeks, my shoulders really did get retrained to sit further back. Which was pretty neat, I’m not used to having such a simple exercise have such a clear effect so quickly. If you want to try this one out yourself, I gave more details in an earlier blog post.

My knees

Sometimes, when doing Tai Chi or Silk Reeling, my knees (especially my right knee) feels uncomfortable. Which is probably in part a sign that my knees aren’t 100% in great shape; they’re not doing horribly or anything, but they’re a little bit vulnerable to being overstressed.

My Tai Chi teacher talks a lot about knees, and how getting your positioning wrong can lead to knee problems. A big part of what he talks about is the direction in which your knees are pointing (they should generally be pointing in the same direction as your feet, even when you’re turning your torso away from your feet); that took me a bit of time to be aware of, but I thought I was getting reasonably good at it.

But, paying more attention to what was associated with my knee pain: when I was sinking down, I was sometimes sinking forward into my knees. For example, the Silk Reeling set we do has a “knee rotation” exercise, and in that one, I was often leaning into my knee when rotating it. And that was making my knee hurt.

So what I should actually do is sink into my Kua during that exercise and similar movements, keeping my weight squarely over my feet instead of sending it forward into my knees. When I started doing that, my knees felt a lot better.

In some ways, that actually made me feel glad that my knees were a little iffy: it’s not bad enough to be disabling in any way, and it helps me by giving me a warning sign for some kinds of posture problems.

My torso

When I saw myself in videos of my Tai Chi class last year, I noticed that I seemed to be standing kind of high. So I decided to work on going lower; it went fine for a while, but then my right knee started to feel pretty uncomfortable.

That might just be a sign that my body isn’t strong enough to go that low; but as noted above, knee pain can be a sign of posture problems. So I thought about my posture more.

And, when I thought about it, I realized that, when sinking down, I was also angling my torso forward. (In retrospect, my teacher had been warning me about this sometimes.) I think what was going on there was a bit of a subconscious interplay of fears and desires: on the one hand, I wasn’t sure that my legs and knees were up for sinking down low, so part of my brain resisted that idea. But also I wanted to go down low, and another part of my brain measured how low I was by how low my head was. So that meant that, when lowering myself, I’d subcounsciously tilt my torso forward: that would get my head low, so I’d feel like I was sinking, but my legs didn’t have to sink as much.

This was, of course, counterproductive: both because I was fooling myself and because, by tilting forward, it would put more pressure on the front of my body, which would in turn make my knees hurt! Once I realized I was doing that, I stopped leaning forward so much and experimented with lowering my legs more using my Kua; and, sure enough, I could go lower without making my knees hurt too much.

Though, even after realizing that, I had to keep on experiment with it. Partly I needed to train myself to be aware of when I was subconsiously leaning forward; but also I needed to be more aware of how the lines of force were transmitting gravity down my legs. It’s a little hard to describe, but it’s possible to move things so those lines of force mostly bypass your knees; when I did that, I could go lower while still feeling stable in my knees.

My eyes

At some point, when meditating, I realized that my eyes were pulled forward: when I relaxed them, they would move physically back in my eye sockets. Not clearly useful behavior even when my eyes are open, though I suspect it affects how my eyes focus. But at any rate it seems pretty pointless when my eyes are closed.

My shoulders, again

A few months back, I went to a Nei Gong workshop, and we spent a significant amount of time on stretching out our arms and shoulders, in a way that focused on the fascia in particular. At the end of that workshop, my shoulders felt more open; and I realized that the natural resting position of my shoulders (at least if I relaxed them) was a bit farther back then it had been! So, while the Gokhale shoulder rolls got my shoulders closer to the right position, there was clearly still room for improvement there.

My head, again

A month or two back, I realized that, if I relax my neck, my head will float up and back and my neck will expand upwards. I like the resulting head positioning, and certainly having an expanded neck is good, so I’m trying to do this whenever I think of it, to retrain my head and neck to the right position.

This raises two questions: how long has it been the case that this will happen if I relax my neck, and (assuming that it hasn’t always been the case), what have I done to cause my neck to react this way? I don’t know what the answer is to the first of those questions; but if it’s a relatively recent development, then maybe the answer to the second is the acupuncture treatments that I’ve been taking (my doctor mentioned my neck as being a problem area when I started acupuncture, and has more recently said that it has loosened up), maybe it’s some of the specific Nei Gong exercises I’ve done over the last few months, maybe it’s both.

Good outcome, at any rate, and one that encourages me to find more ways to relax and open up space in different parts of my body.

My torso, again

I was working recently on getting my liquid center of gravity at the right height while doing the Nei Gong version of Wu Ji. Sometimes it got stuck at around my diaphragm, but I could make it past there by relaxing my muscles. After doing that, it almost made it to the right level, but it usually ended up just a little bit high, more like navel hight rather than Dantian height.

After playing with that a bit, I realized that the very bottom of the front of my torso was tense in a way that seemed related, but it was harder to relax. And, experimenting more, that tenseness came from me leaning slightly too far forward; if I dialed my tilt back, the tenseness went away and the liquid center of gravity went to the right place.

Nice to have that dialed in; I already knew that I wanted to lean forward a little bit to remove tension from my lower back, but I hadn’t previously noticed that subtle tension from leaning forward. The window where I don’t get tension in either direction is actually pretty small, but it’s easy enough to find now that I’m aware of it.

That doesn’t mean that I’ve solved all of the problems I have around tilting in Wu Ji, though: I still have a habit of locking my torso and legs together more than I should, and it also can take me a while to get my weight descending to my Yongquan in a way that feels properly rooted. I can usually get it to feel good eventually, but it takes me a while; maybe I should come back to this post in a couple of months and add a section on my legs…

Final thoughts

Clearly, there’s something going on that makes me stretch my body parts too far forward; and, based on the number of entries here, I expect to continue finding new examples of this over the coming years! I wonder if almost everybody has this problem, or if some people get pulled back too much, or if lots of people are nicely centered.

If I wanted to do armchair psychologizing, I would say something about how this is a sign that I’m not properly rooted in the present, that I spend too much time trying to focus on the future. And maybe that’s even true? I do feel more stable and relaxed when I correct the issues mentioned here; most of that feeling is physical, of course, but I think it has a mental effect as well.

overton windows and scope

January 15th, 2023

Over the last half decade, there was a lot of argument about what sort of speech is acceptable on Twitter. And not just acceptable in terms of “a good idea” versus “a bad idea”, but in terms of whether or not a given type of speech should be banned from Twitter.

Some of the speech that Twitter doesn’t allow is pretty clearly beyond the pale, of course. But some of the speech that was being argued about was around topics that were areas of current mainstream political discourse. So, basically, people were trying to shift the Overton Window in realtime, to impose their view on what is desirable more broadly.

And there’s nothing wrong with that in general, of course! There are lots of situations where we want to to be around speech we like and not be around speech we don’t like. And Twitter is a private company; legally, they’re generally in the clear setting the ground rules for permitted speech on the site. (At least in the US, I think, for almost all areas of speech.) But it’s also a very large, relatively open space; given that it’s a place that hundreds of millions of people participated in, I don’t think free speech considerations are out of the question?


Ken White posted a recent article categorizing discussions like this. In his analysis, this isn’t a case of Free Speech Rights, but is a case of Free Space Culture, I think. And discussions about what sort of speech is good is a discussion about Speech Decency, but those aren’t the discussions I’m talking about here.

The thing is, though, I kind of feel like the fact that it’s even a discussion about Free Speech Culture is a bug? We’re talking about a large space where a few unlected people can make decisions that affect hundreds of millions; sometimes that’s necessary, but it’s not great that things have gotten that far?

So what I really want is for these discussions to mostly happen in smaller spaces. That way, the argument can be about Speech Decency instead, and a group of people can decide together about what kind of speech they want in a given public space.


There was a good Lawfare Podcast about decentralized social media a few months back; it got me optimistic that maybe Mastodon would be structurally better in this regard? At least it makes it possible for those smaller scale discussions to happen. I don’t really know how I expect it to work in practice, though: for one thing, I don’t really know how I expect federation to interplay with local moderation, and, for another thing, some Mastodon instances are pretty large. (I’m on mastodon.social not because their moderation policies spoke to me but because I didn’t want to think hard about which server to use.)

Interesting time, at any rate; I’m glad that we’re experimenting with something different.


December 18th, 2022

I more or less ignored Bayonetta when it first came out. It seemed like it was all about superfluous sexualization: lots of ogling of body parts, special moves that removes the protagonist’s clothes because apparenly her clothes are made out of her hair and of course how could a special move not involve spinning your hair all over the place? At any rate, that didn’t seem to add up to a game worth paying attention to.

Over the years, though, I’d periodically hear about Bayonetta in contexts that were rather more favorable than I expected, and actually I’d hear it brought up more frequently by women than by men. It is unquentionable sexual, but maybe a game that is written from a point of view of fantasizing about being dominated by a sexy librarian who doesn’t take any crap could actually be kind of good, if done right?

Chatter about Bayonetta (and its sequel) popped up again when the third game was getting closer to release. And I was looking for something lightweight to spend some time with; so, what the heck, let’s give the sexy dominatrix librarian game a try.


And it turns out that the sexy dominatrix librarian game is good! It’s stylish, and while the game does not shy on the tits and ass, it also puts Bayonetta fairly strongly in control of most interactions, in a way that meant that I didn’t have to feel dirty watching it. And some of the scenes where she isn’t as in control are ones where all of a sudden she’s having to deal with a small child; those are rather charming! So I liked watching the game, and I liked the cut scenes.

As to the action, from my point of view the action was fine, but also this kind of gameplay isn’t my thing, so I’m not a great judge of it? It was a bit much for me on Normal, so I dropped down to Easy; that was the right choice, but also it was a whole bunch easier, I wish there had been something in the middle. I can’t really tell if the gameplay is good or not; it was clear that, if I wanted to get better, I’d need to improve my skill at reading the opponents and dodging, so there was something that I could have worked on if I’d felt inclined to do so, so that’s something at least.

When reading descriptions of the game / series, I see them talk about the game’s combos; honestly, that felt odd to me as a selling point, because there are basically only two buttons to hit? So, yes, if you do mixes of those two buttons of different lengths and/or interleaved in different ways, then you’ll get different moves; but it wasn’t obvious to me that each of those different moves was strong in a different tactical context, or if the as game giving variety that didn’t matter, or if some of the combos were clearly broadly superior to other of them. So I enjoyed the combat fine, and it was visually stylish, but I just don’t know to what extent there’s actual depth there.


The upshot: I’m glad I gave Bayonetta a try, it was a pleasant change of pace, and now I’ve got a little more context when I hear people talk about it. And it was a good length; I enjoyed the time I spent with it, and it didn’t drag out that time. I’m not planning to play other games in the series, and that’s fine too, it was entirely satisfying as a self-contained unit.

switched from twitter to mastodon

December 16th, 2022

A heads up to folks that I’ve stopped using Twitter (or at least stopped posting on Twitter, for now I’m still reading it) and I’ve started using Mastodon. I’ll give more details in a later post, but I figured I should at least get an announcement out. I’m at @davidcarlton@mastodon.social if you want to follow me there.

For what it’s worth, I’m already finding more than enough people to follow on Mastodon to make my timeline feel like a live place. I wish more artists were there, I miss seeing pretty pictures in my timeline, but hopefully they’ll come over; and I’m glad not to see lots of quote tweets asking me to be offended by what some random person that I’ve never heard of has done. So it’s a good place to be now, and I expect it to get better.

return to monkey island

December 11th, 2022

I never played any of the original Monkey Island games. I played lots of text adventures growing up, but I wasn’t playing games much during the heyday of graphical adventures, and so I basically missed that entire side of the genre. Over the years since then, though, I’ve heard people I respect bring up the Monkey Island games periodically, enough that I vaguely felt that not having played those was a gap in my background; but they never actually made it to the top of my stack.

When Return to Monkey Island came out, I heard several people say quite positive things about in on podcasts. So I figured that it was time to fill in that gap; I’d try the newest game, and if I liked it enough, maybe I’d go back and play the earlier games?


I liked Return to Monkey Island. It was quite well done, it kept me entertained, I didn’t get stuck. But also, it didn’t grab me? I’m honestly not sure what was going on there: was it too targeted at fans of the series, is the genre just not for me (which, if so, makes me wonder if I would have liked the genre in the 90s), do I like the genre okay but mostly when it’s telling a different type of story, do I just have different gaming tastes from the Triple Click folks and I should stop paying attenion to their game recommendations?

If I had to guess, probably bits of each of those. And, don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret having played the game! I enjoyed my time with it, and I also appreciated that it didn’t overstay its welcome. But I also don’t have much to say about it…

finishing our netflix dvd queue

December 4th, 2022

We’ve finally finished our Netflix DVD queue. Which probably sounds strange to most of you reading this, because Netflix’s DVD service has felt like a historical artifact for years now; but we were actually subscribed to it until a month ago.

And, for most of that time, subscribing was the right thing, I think? When consuming media, I try to be intentional, not just watching / reading / playing / listening to something because it’s there; and most evenings our TV is occupied by one or the other of us playing video games, so we don’t watch movies or TV much. So that means that we’re not generally in the sort of browsing mindset that streaming (or flipping through cable channels) enables.

Also, to be honest, Liesl and I are good at getting a little bit paralyzed when deciding what to watch. So having a queue, and having a queue where only the top two items of that queue are accessible to us, is arguably an advantage, and at any rate works fine.


That means that, when Netflix streaming became a thing, their DVD service was still useful to us, so we kept on using it. Netflix was the only serious streaming service at that time, so their catalog was pretty good, but their DVD catalog was also quite good. And I didn’t have to look hard to find movies, especially older movies, that just weren’t available on streaming: from the point of view of watching what we wanted to watch instead of what was easy to get, the DVD service was better.

Since then, many aspects of the above have changed. Part of what changed was that everybody decided to have their own streaming service; so Netflix’s streaming catalog got a lot less comprehensive. Of course, Netflix started producing their own shows and movies, but we almost never felt like a Netflix show should be the next TV show that we should start watching, so that didn’t matter to us.

On the flip side, though, Netflix’s DVD service started to get worse. They still bought DVDs of new movies pretty reliably; but I started to notice that they didn’t get DVDs of new TV shows as they had in the past. I don’t know what changed there: whether it was the streaming side of the company influencing the DVD side, whether their previous purchasing had depended on agreements with publishers that those publishers were no longer willing to make, or whether the amount / composition of DVD customers had changed enough so it wasn’t profitable any more for them to buy DVDs of those shows? Annoying, whatever the reason was.


Things bumbled along like that for a while. I’d be a little annoyed that I couldn’t get some stuff (mostly TV shows but also some movies), but it wasn’t that big deal. I’d watch the number of streaming services multiply, and I’d continue to not want to deal with that.

But then, over the last couple of years, things changed. Our queue actually started to decrease; I’m not sure how much of that was a behavior change on our side and how much was more movies not being available through the service. Also, quality problems started appearing: more and more frequently, we’d get movies from Netflix and they’d stutter or skip over parts of scenes.

And then at some point (I have no idea what prompted me to do this) I happened to search iTunes for Fred Astaire movies, and realized that there were a bunch available for sale there that I hadn’t seen. So clearly my mental model of older movies not being as available in digital formats as they are in physical formats was out of date; if anything, the opposite was probably true now.


We kept on burning down the queue; and, when I ran across new movies that I was interested in, I’d save a note about them somewhere else. And, last month, we finally made it through the queue.

I’m still not convinced that I want to lean on streaming services for movies, though. It’s a pain to search through them to find whatever specific movie I want; and having a bunch of subscriptions is expensive. We rarely watch more than one movie a week, and sometimes we watch movies that we already have; given that, rental costs would be $20 a month, so just defaulting to renting from iTunes is plausibly the most cost-effective approach, and certainly the simplest. (The calculus changes for TV shows, though; so we’re ending up being subscribed to whatever streaming service has whatever TV show we’re currently watching, and unsubscribing once we’re done.)

So that’s where we are: still trying to be intentional about what we watch (and I’m maintaining a list in a task manager), mostly watching either movies through iTunes or movies we already own. I’m mostly getting ideas of movies to add to the list through mentions of them on Twitter, though that has obvious problems these days. And TV shows we’re generally watching through streaming, and that is more annoying than I would like.

early impressions of cohost

November 19th, 2022

(Because this post is about cohost, I typed it up there; here’s the link to it on cohost.)

I’ve been signed up for cohost for about four weeks now; what’s surprised me the most is how unlike Twitter it feels. And I don’t mean that in terms of me following a much smaller number of people, and those people generally not posting much: I mean that my feed looks completely different.

For example, people will write long posts, posts that, to me, fit in the category of “blog post”. (Like this one; I am planning to copy it to my blog as well, though I’m writing it using the cohost tools.) Twitter doesn’t allow you to do that in a single post (unless you screenshot text); and of course people do twitter threads instead, but visually that looks like a lot of small things instead of one big thing. People do post lots of pictures both on cohost and on Twitter, but on cohost the pictures take up more vertical space than they do on Twitter, generally. And cohost handles retweets quite differently from Twitter: the retweeted post is there in full (so it takes up more space), and cohost doesn’t seem to do the same sort of retweet deduplication that Twitter does, so I’ll see the same post taking up a bunch of space on cohost. So the upshot is that the average post on cohost takes up a much larger portion of my screen than a tweet on Twitter is allowed to at all, and the sizes of posts are much more varied on cohost than on Twitter.

Also, cohost doesn’t infinite scroll, and there’s no iOS app. So I have to scroll down and click the next page button (possibly more than once) to get to where I last was; right now, the traffic is low, but if I were following more people on cohost and they were posting more, then it would take a noticeable amount of time for me to get back to my previous location.

So, if my current cohost experience holds, it feels to me like cohost won’t work for one of the things that I like most about Twitter: that I can reliably see little snippets that my friends post about what they’re thinking / doing. I’m afraid that those small messages would get drowned out by the large physical size of most of the posts here, possibly to the extent that I’d even inadvertently miss them entirely while scrolling; and also I will probably miss them because of the difficulty of getting to my last scroll position. And even if I didn’t end up missing them, they would feel out of place. (Unless, of course, a lot more people decide to use cohost like Twitter, which is entirely possible!) (And yes, I know that the Twitter web site and official app love using an algorithmic timeline; my view of what Twitter is is very much mediated by the experience of old Twitter or of Twitter as viewed through third-party clients.)

This feels like a solvable problem, if the cohost folks actually see it as a problem: they could show smaller snippets of blog-like posts, they could shrink image previews, they could change the way they handle retweets, and that would not only make the physical size of posts be more homogeneous, it would mean that it would be much more reasonable, I think, to have 100 posts on a page, making the scroll position issue more tractable.

Having said that, there’s also no reason why cohost should be like Twitter in that way – cohost can be its own thing, and differences are awesome! (E.g. for all I know what I’m proposing would really mess with cohost’s desire to let people do custom CSS for their posts.) Or, to the extent that cohost is like some other site, maybe it’s more like Tumblr than it is like Twitter; that’s fine too.

It does feel weird to me that cohost seems to encourage blog-like behavior but doesn’t provide ways to let other people reliably read those blog posts, either by having them show up in cohost itself in a way that’s hard to miss or by providing RSS feeds. (Which I don’t think cohost has, I looked through the head portion of the HTML of a random user’s page here and I didn’t see any RSS link.)

i was a teenage exocolonist

November 13th, 2022

I’m definitely glad to have played I Was a Teenage Exocolonist, but I don’t have a ton of big things to say about it? We’ll see how this post turns out, maybe I’ll discover something by the end. (Update: the more I typed, the more impressed I was with the game.) It’s a narrative game, but not quite in any genre that I’m familiar enough to put a finger on it. You’re, well, a teenage exocolonist: on a ship that crash-landed on a planet, and you’re all trying to survive. And you’ve got choices as to how you help to survive, with twelve different skills that you can be working on; but it’s not doing that in a Role-Playing Game sense, where those numbers directly affect dice rolls or something. Instead, those skills give you occasional perks as you progress them and serve as a gate for various activities.

Your time in a single playthrough of the game is limited (you have one turn per month and the game ends when you turn twenty), so you won’t be able to max out all the different skills. And, even if you could, those are just numbers: what matters instead is seeing through the different narrative bits. Whom you’re friends with (and whom you date, but the game doesn’t give a particularly large weight to dating over other forms of friendship); which activities in the colony you spend your time on. All of those lead to chains of narrative events; so you want to replay the game, and the game supports that by putting in a time loop mechanism where you remember bits of information from previous lives, allowing you to bypass some of the gates.

And then there’s a card game mechanism. When you choose what activity to engage in each month, you don’t just get narrative and have stats go up: instead, you need to play cards to pass a score gate. Those cards come from a deck that you build; and, not infrequently, your actions will give you a new card in addition to stat boosts. So it’s a deckbuilder; reminiscent of Signs of the Sojourner in that aspect. But I enjoyed I Was a Teenage Exocolonist quite a bit more than Signs of the Sojourner, pretty much in every aspect: I liked the narrative more, I liked the card play and card collecting more, and I went through several (5, maybe?) lives in Exocolonist whereas I only went through Sojourner once.


Which raises the question of exactly what Exocolonist did to get me to replay it multiple times. At a base level, I liked the stories and the interactions; and I wanted to see more of them. And I think the game did a pretty good job of leaving me wanting more: in a single playthrough, you might make it all the way through a quarter of the job-related stories? So you’ve seen a noticeable fraction in that first playthrough, but there’s clearly quite a bit more to see, and exploring different jobs gives you a straightforward goal as to what you’ll do differently in your second playthrough compared to your first one.

The second playthrough isn’t completely different from the first playthrough, though: you’ll do some jobs in both of them (I ended up doing a significant chunk of the explorer jobs in every one of my playthroughs, in particular), but you’ll see enough new stuff to justify the choice of a second playthrough. And you’ll start seeing the effects of the memories of your previous life; and you’ll also start getting a better idea of what the possibilities out there are in future playthroughs.

Also, you’ll get a better sense of the game’s systems. One of its strengths, I think, is that there are relatively few hidden variables? So you can track not just your progress along the skill tracks, but your friendship level with other characters, the status of the colony, and even numbers that talk about the status of some of the NPCs’ goals. This information isn’t forced on you, but you’ll find that it’s there as you poke around the UI as you continue to play through the game.

That all helps you get a sense of possible subtler goals as you continue to loop through the game. And I was pleasantly surprised in other ways as I looped through the game: e.g. there was one character whom I had written off as being a jerk in my first playthrough, but when I decided to lean into being a friend with her in a later playthrough, I ended up rather liking her and her character arc. (There’s one character whom I couldn’t stand befriending enough to figure out if he turns out well; the game does send enough signals to make me think he probably never will turn out well, and I respect the game for that too!)

There are also affordances for helping you loop through the game more quickly (skipping dialogue you’ve seen, skipping the card play); alternatively, there’s also an option to make the card play harder if you like it but feel like it’s getting stale. I didn’t take advantage of either of those options, but I’m glad they both existed.

And there are multiple bigger goals that you can only start thinking about once you’ve looped through a few times. There was one that I succeeded at and was glad I did; there was another one that I didn’t quite manage in my final loop, but I decided it wasn’t quite important enough for me to want to loop through it again; but the game had guided me enough that I knew what to do there, at least. There was one goal that remained more mysterious; I eventually looked it up in a walkthrough, and I don’t know that I ever would have figured that one out on my own, I feel like the game could have made that one a little easier / better signposted? But that’s fine, it’s not a huge deal, I’m quite happy with what I did get out of my playthroughs.


So: a quietly well done game. Nice narrative (and I also enjoyed the social / political concerns behind the narrative), nice card play to give you something else to think about as you play. And, I think, an exceptionally well done looping design, to support exploring a range of the narrative branches. I never felt like the game was dragging; I played it for as long as I felt like playing it, I stopped when I didn’t feel like playing it any more, and the time I spent with it was rewarding.

covid and randomness

November 6th, 2022

One thing that watching our response to COVID brought home to me is that dealing with randomness is really hard, in lots of different ways. Some ways in which that played out:

Group randomness versus individual randomness

There are lots of actions that you can take that make a difference in terms of your chance of getting sick or of dying from COVID at an individual level; and there are also lots of actions that we can decide to take as a society that affect its spread at a group level. Since COVID is a transmissible disease, almost all of the individual measures affect the group, too, but the effects are very different. And it feels to me like, at least in the United States, people seem to gravitate towards one mode of analysis or the other, with conservatives preferring to focus on the individual level and liberals preferring to focus on the group level.

Hidden randomness

A lot of COVID-related randomness is in principle measureable but, in practice, not actually measured. Sometimes, we have good measures: e.g. vaccine trials give fairly reliable numbers for drug effectiveness. But even those numbers aren’t dependable in a fixed way over time: different COVID strains change effectiveness numbers, and vaccine effectiveness degrades over time even without a change in strain. And how do we take future strains into account?

But a lot of random effects are much harder to measure. There are a lot of people trying to figure out the risks of harms that are directly caused by COVID, but what about the potential harms to children from having to spend time at home instead of having to play together, the harms to grandparents who couldn’t touch their children and grandchildren for a year or two, the harms to parents who were expected to both work and look after their kids and their kids’ schooling, the harms to people that come from having their worlds constrict? Having those problems be hard to measure doesn’t mean that they aren’t real and important.

Rare events are hard to think about

I think humans are not very good at distinguishing between types of low probability rare events. You should, in general, react very differently to something that has a one out of a hundred chance of happening and something that has a one in a million chance of happening, but those both feel like they belong in a “very rare” bucket.

Also, our media environment, especially our social media environment, makes it very easy for anecdotes to spread, spreading the perception of bad events; so not only is it hard to react appropriately to a probability, we’re getting bad probability signals in the first place!

Not believing in uncertainty

I think that, at a gut level, many people don’t believe in uncertainty, at least when it comes to themselves. (They’re the main character of the story, after all, so everything involving them is plotted out and will turn out well, or at least turn out badly in a dramatically appropriate way.) Sometimes this involves overestimating certainty in something: this random COVID cure will definitely work. And sometimes this involves discounting things that are probable but not certain: vaccines don’t prevent COVID 100% of the time, so therefore they’re useless. And, of course, frequently those two go together: the patient who refuses to take vaccines, then gets very sick and goes to the hospital, and then demands treatment from a drug that they are sure will work, because that’s the way the story in their head is written.


In general, I like trusting experts; but COVID has shown the limitations of that, with the CDC, FDA, and for that matter my local doctor’s office behaving badly. They emphasized the importance of washing hands and underemphasized (and still continue to underemphasize!) the importance of masks and ventilation, and their discussion of distancing was sorely lacking in nuance. And, even though we now have an amazing ability to develop vaccines, the approval process means that COVID strains run through the population months before vaccines for them are improved: the disease’s OODA loop is faster than the OODA loop for the approval process.

Of course, some people got the masking and ventilation question right early on: e.g. I was pretty convinced by Zeynep Tufekci that masking and ventilation are important, and she was in fact correct in that. But I absolutely don’t want to take from that the idea that, if you read a range of people’s opinions on COVID-related subjects, think about them, and come to the conclusions that make sense to you, then you’ll end up in a good place: that also describes a bunch of people who ended up being convinced that a deworming drug was a great cure, or for that matter that vaccines are harmful instead of helpful. (And, for those of you who, like me, are convinced that Ivermectin is a bad COVID treatment, what is that belief based on? I was surprised when I read a discussion of studies of its effectiveness.)


I find it particularly hard to reason about Long COVID. It clearly exists, and it can be very serious. But also I’ve run across a few reports of studies that claim that the rate of symptoms of Long COVID isn’t as high as I would have expected compared to the base rate. And a big part of that is because the base rate is higher than I would have thought. Which makes me wonder: for what other diseases X is Long X also a thing?

And I don’t have a feeling at all for how the prevelance of Long COVID is affected by vaccination. Vaccination doesn’t completely prevent Long COVID, but that’s not a surprise, it doesn’t completely prevent anything. My default assumption is that vaccination makes Long COVID less serious, but I don’t have any concrete data to back that feeling up.

At least the medical establishment is acknowledging that Long COVID is real. And, if it turns out that there are lots of other similar syndromes out there that the medical establishment has been underplaying, hopefully people suffering from those will get better treatment now.


I’m spending a lot of time talking about uncertainty in the context of COVID, but of course nothing about our life is certain. So we do what feels right to us in a given context, and whatever happens happens.

The problem with COVID is that it’s new, so for a long time I didn’t know what felt right! At first, it was at least clear that COVID was unusually serious, so holing up and going to significant lengths to try to avoid getting affected seemed like the right way to react. But, after vaccines became available and effective, it wasn’t so clear that treating COVID as exceptionally serious continued to be the right thing to do.

What I really wanted was an analogy with something familiar: if I can accurately say “COVID is like X” then I can behave around COVID like I would behave around X, and I’d feel comfortable enough with that choice. The obvious choice for X is the flu; but is COVID for vaccinated people about like the flu? And, to be clear, I don’t see this as meaning that I don’t have to worry about COVID: one year I came down with the flu, had it turn into pneumonia, and was unable to work for about a month and recovering for a while after that. This is much worse than what happened to me when I came down with COVID, and I strongly suspect that, if this had happened a hundred years ago, I would have died as a result.

It feels like the answer is: vaccinated COVID and the flu probably are comparable? In terms of chances of dying or serious illness, I think they’re in the same ballpark, which is serious enough to not treat them lightly but also for me to not hole up trying to avoid them. The main thing that makes me unsure there is Long COVID: how much do I, as a vaccinated person, have to worry about it? And, for that matter, is Long Flu a thing as well that we just hadn’t recognized? Beats me.

Of course, not everybody is in my situation. For the elderly, COVID is quite a bit more dangerous than it is for me; but that’s true for the flu, too, so probably the flu is still an okay analogy? And presumably immunocompromised people have to worry more about the flu than I do as well, so maybe the analogy holds there too? I’m not sure about any of this, though.

Also, this analogy, assuming that we accept it, cuts both ways. If COVID is like the flu, and if COVID has gotten us to change our behavior, maybe it should also have us be more careful around the flu? I think this is probably true for me: in retrospect, I probably went out in public too much in the past when I had the sniffles, and I also probably didn’t do as much as I should have to protect myself from others when I wasn’t sick. So quite possibly, a decade from now, I’ll still be wearing a mask when I’m taking the train during the winter; I’ll certainly be wearing a mask most of the time when I feel like I’m probably sick but feel like I need to get some shopping done.

What to worry about

There’s one more way in which my behavior relating to COVID has been changing recently: what I worry about or get angry about. When COVID first came on the scene, I spent a decent amount of time developing and having opinions about what we, as a society, should do to try to reduce the effects of COVID. And I’m not going to say that that was a bad idea back then: COVID was new, important, and dangerous, and it wasn’t at all clear how we would react to it or how that would play out, so it’s natural to spend time thinking about that.

But it’s two and a half years later now. I could spend time continuing to have a strong opinion about, say, whether we should still require masks for people riding transportation; but is it helpful for me to develop and maintain an opinion about that?

The conclusion that I’m coming to is: no, it’s not helpful, it’s actually probably harmful. Because, concretely, what would I be trying to accomplish by feeding those opinions? Coming back to what I said at the top of this post: there are choices that matter at an individual level, and choices that matter at a group level. And I’m not in a position to affect the group level choices; so would I be trying to get out of spending time thinking about them?

If it’s just intellectual curiosity, then I’m all for that, but there are a lot of things to be curious about and I could probably find a better focus for my curiosity. In particular, if developing a strong opinion about correct group choices is just going to lead me to be angry when we make the wrong choice, then that’s probably harmful for me. Also, at least in the US, right now beliefs about the correct approach towards COVID feel way too strongly tied to political group membership; I don’t think that’s healthy, I’d rather sidestep that by not participating.

So I’m still thinking about how I should respond to COVID as an individual (when to mask, when to get vaccinated), because that is something that I have control over. But I’m trying not to spend much time worrying about whether the country as a whole is making the right choices in how we open up, because I don’t have control over that.


This chain of reasoning generalizes; and, to some extent I think those generalizations are pointing in a useful direction. It feels to me like lots of us spend a lot of time worrying about things that we can’t control, and at times fixating on catastrophic situations; that worrying is not healthy, we should do less of it!

But also, this distinction between individual choices and group choices is an artificial one. Groups are made up of individuals; so sometimes general public opinion matters, and sometimes individuals are in a position where they make decisions that affect groups.

Which leads us to the flip side: being at least somewhat informed about matters that affect society broadly is a good idea, I think? I don’t have much patience for the idea that a single vote is unlikely to matter so you shouldn’t pay attention to politics.

So if you want to be one of those people who makes individual decisions that has an outsized effect, then more power to you. But if you’re doing that, then please take that desire seriously. Of course, part of taking something seriously is digging into the pros and cons of various approaches to the issue in question. But also a big part of it is to dig into what actions would actually be effective towards getting us closer to your preferred position.

Just convincing yourself that position P is the best one isn’t going to do squat towards your desired end; and telling people who disagree with you that they’re wrong and bad people is also not effective. Exactly what is going to be effective is a very difficult question to figure out; but if you really want to make a difference, then that’s what you’re signing up for.


Anyways, that’s where I’m at: I’m chosing to behave as if COVID is kind of like the flu, I don’t know how accurate that is, but I also don’t think it’s helpful for me to spend time worrying about whether I’ve gotten it right, and I certainly don’t think it’s helpful for me to spend time worrying about whether the country as a whole has gotten that right.

tales of arise

October 9th, 2022

A few months back, I was looking for a game to play to take me out of a gaming funk. I ended up playing NEO TWEWY; and, in fact, playing it did make me happy. Which surprised me a bit: there’s a part of me that expects JRPGs to be some combination of too much of a grind, badly balanced, and/or have too many obscure secrets for me to enjoy them? But I think that feeling is out of date, or at least it doesn’t represent the best of modern JRPGs. Final Fantasy VII Remake is one of my favorite games over the last few years; Nier: Automata is still lodged in my brain; and then there’s the Persona series and Tokyo Mirage Sessions.

Putting those together: I like it if a game is stylish and has striking environments, has characters that I care about, and has combat that doesn’t particularly strain me but that does give me something to do without overwhelming me with either repetitiveness or resource exhaustion. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the games above are action RPGs rather than turn based.) And, if a game can put all that together, I’ll be happy to go along with it, enjoying the story and environments and poking my nose into side quests that the game throws at me while following the lure of having numbers go up.


It’s still an open question to me how many games are out there that are in my sweet spot. Several of the games mentioned above are extremely well thought of, as some of the best games of their respective years, so maybe what’s really going on is that I like games that lots of other people like! Though I don’t hear many people talking about NEO TWEWY or Tokyo Mirage Sessions, so there’s probably something about the JRPG genre (or a subset of it) that appeals to me specifically. And appeals in a specific way: these aren’t just games that I enjoy, they’re all games that make me feel happy. At any rate: something worth digging into.

So, after reading some discussions of recent JRPGs, I decided to give Tales of Arise a try. I haven’t played any other games in the series, but it’s been around for a while, so presumably the series does some things well? I remembered hearing good things about Tales of Arise when it came out last year, including that it had action combat somewhat reminiscent of Final Fantasy VII Remake, so that’s a good sign. And I do have a few friends who mention it occasionally in quite positive ways on Twitter, which is also a plus.


Indeed, playing Tales of Arise did turn out to be a good choice. I enjoyed it, playing it did in fact make me happy, and Liesl was interested enough that she’s started playing it as well.

Mechanically, I enjoped the combat fine; the one odd thing there is that I kept on unlocking new moves for characters but I rarely switched out the move set for the character I was playing (the main exception being when I was fighting bosses and minibosses, to match their elemental resistances / weaknesses), and keeping the same move set turned out not to be a problem. In games where numbers go up, I expect newer stuff to have higher numbers than older stuff in ways that makes you want to switch to newer stuff; in Tales of Arise that’s certainly the case for weapons and armor, but your moves don’t have numbers associated to them (aside from the usage count), and, based on my experience, you don’t actually have to switch them out? Not sure what’s going on there.

On a bit of a side note, I was worried that the game might not be balanced well, given that there’s a deluxe edition that makes the leveling curve a bit more favorable to the player. I actually ended up buying the deluxe edition, because it was on sale when I bought the game while the standard edition wasn’t, so it was cheaper than the standard edition, but I didn’t turn on the leveling curve changes, and my leveling still went well. Standard monsters were never a problem, mini bosses and full bosses were tough, and when fighting those latter categories of enemies, I would end up dipping noticeably into my stash of rare / expensive healing items but not actually running out; this is the level of tension that I want. And I never had to grind: I generally fought every enemy the first time I went through an area and ran past most enemies in subsequent trips through that area, and that went fine.


So Tales of Arise did a good job of avoiding pitfalls that would make me unhappy: like most JRPGs, you spend a lot of time in combat, but I basically enjoyed the combat in the game, so I was happy enough to spend an hour going through a dungeon. But, of course, my goal isn’t just to not be unhappy when playing a game, it’s to be happy. (Or potentially actively interested or curious, there are a range of positive emotions that are all good things for a game to invoke!) Which, for a JRPG, usually comes down to the characters and their interactions, with the environments and worldbuilding also playing a significant role.

And I just liked spending time with the characters in Tales of Arise. I don’t think there’s anything stunning or deep going on there: if I watched more anime, I could probably point to dozens of examples of characters and interactions that are similar to those in this game? But patterns of interactions turn into tropes because they work well; so yeah, it turns out that I’m entirely happy to see a relationship between a main character and a tsundere companion play out; to see a group of people from different backgrounds be shoved together, be initially at odds, and then to grow to understand and care about each other; and so forth.

In terms of world building and plot, Tales of Arise has a pretty standard setup of a group of people fighting against an overwhelming enemy. I thought the game did a slightly more thoughtful job of that than most games: it did at least acknowledge the fact that, if you’re fighting a politically dominant group that’s larger than just a few people then, even after the battle is over, you’ll still have to live together, and that’s an important problem with no obvious solution. But still, it’s mostly a game where you are the good guys fighting against the bad guys; that’s okay.


One surprise about how plot and character development occurred in the game was how it was delivered. There were standard cut scenes, of course, but most of it was delivered in the form of skits. Which are apparently a thing that the Tales series does, it was just new to me.

Basically, you’d be walking along, and then you’d see a prompt appearing on the screen mentioning a topic to discuss. And if you press the right bumper at that point, the game would switch to going through a series of comic book panels where some of your party members talk about a topic: maybe something related to the environment you’re going through, maybe something related to an event that’s just happened or a goal that you’re moving towards, maybe just something that’s on their mind for whatever reason.

And I really like this mechanism! Primarily, I think, because it’s grounded in conversation. So, even if the topic for a skit is doing broader world building or plot propulsion, the skit is always pairing that world building with showing you what these characters think and where they’re coming from, how they interact with each other. And that means that you see how they and their relationships change and grow as a result.

Also, some of the skits are really well done. I think my favorites are ones that show up in the owl forest: there’s an owl king and queen there who speak to you at length when you bring owls back to them. The thing is, they don’t actually speak in a human language, they just hoot at you; but the game then gives you these skits where the two main characters play the role of the owl king and queen, imagining what they think the owls might be saying.

Which turns into this delightful interaction where, on the one hand what the characters are saying is a plausible guess as to what the owl king and queen are saying; but also it always ends up representing things that the two humans feel, that maybe they’re a little annoyed about. So you have these two characters who aren’t great at communicating (in fact, one of whom is noticeably bad at communicating), finding a way to talk to each other and make progress in getting out their feelings; and the game even foregrounds this by having the other characters looking at those two and making comments that explicitly point out the fact that there’s something going on here between those two that isn’t just trying to figure out what the owls are saying. It’s funny, it’s charming, it’s a little emotionally moving, I was happy every time it happened.

So: skits are good. They’re much more grounded in everyday human interactions than standard cut scenes are; BioWare party banter is another point of comparison, but I think those lean a little more in the other direction, doing a good job of showing human interaction but generally in a way that’s not so connected to other things that are going on in the game. Don’t get we wrong, I love a good cut scene and BioWare party banner is great (I should really replay Dragon Age II), but the skits in Tales of Arise hit a sweet spot between those two options that I’m glad to see.

And to see over and over again: I saw more than 300 of them over the course of the game! I don’t want to minimize the work that goes in to drawing the pictures in the skits, they’re more expensive to produce than party banter, but still, yay for effective mechanisms in games that aren’t as expensive to produce as full cut scenes or richly detailed 3D environments.


So: yay for Tales of Arise, and clearly I should continue to play more JRPGs! Probably including more Tales games, it does seem like I haven’t been paying enough attention to that series.

tunic and stray

September 25th, 2022

I’m behind in my blogging, so I’m going to cover Tunic and Stray in a single post. Because I have the same thing to say about both games: each of them starts from a conceit that is compelling enough for me to have been drawn into the game, but neither of them manages to expand that into a satisfying game.


For Tunic, the goal is to make you feel nostalgic for early Zelda games. Part of how the game carries this off is very good visual design and solid level design; but what really sets Tunic apart is the way that you find pieces of the manual scattered throughout the game world.

Whenever I played a game in the 80s and 90s, I would always read through the game’s manual, and I really enjoyed that aspect of games; I very much appreciated Tunic bringing that back. And the game dives into the experience of poring through a game manual: the manuals gradually teach you basic controls, they show you important information about where to go and what to do to collect the key plot macguffins, and they have various other clues hidden in them about how to solve (and even the existence of) the game’s hidden, optional puzzles. I spent a lot of time in the game going through the manual and wondering what would be in the pages that I hadn’t yet found; I enjoyed that time.

Unfortunately, as strong as the above is, it’s not enough to make a game. When I started the game, I thought the enemy encounters were fine; but, when I got into the middle third of the game, I stopped enjoying the combat, and I also found that the combat got significantly harder, enough so that I ended up dropping down into no-fail mode. I’ve never finished the original Zelda, so it’s possible that the combat in that game was similarly difficult, but I’ve played and finished a bunch of other Zelda games and never had that experience; it just felt to me like that aspect of the game wasn’t designed and balanced particularly well.

Also, the ending of the game didn’t work for me. I’m okay with games having multiple endings, and with needing to do more work to get a good ending. But, in Tunic, the bad ending is pretty bad, and if you want to get the good ending, you have to either be an obsessive puzzle solver or else just put in answers from a walkthrough. I actually am a mostly completionist person and I like puzzle solving, so I naturally did most of what the game wanted me to do to get the good ending, but the combat had soured me enough on the game that I had no desire to track down the last bits just to get a good ending. And, honestly the last couple of puzzles were tricky enough when I did look at a walkthrough that I’m not at all sure I would have solved them even if I’d been more motivated.

So, basically, instead of having a bad ending for people who just rush through and a good ending for people who do a fair amount of completing side missions and what not, or alternatively having a normal, satisfying ending combined with a completionist ending for obsessive people (and maybe people who are doing a new game plus), Tunic had a bad ending for normal people and a good ending for obsessive people. Which didn’t leave me feeling great coming out of the game, and didn’t remind me in any way of Zelda games.

On a more minor point: I didn’t particularly like the music, and it didn’t feel nostalgic in any way? A matter of taste, of course, but, if we’re talking about Zelda nostalgia, then music is an important part of that.

Don’t get me wrong, though: I actually still recommend playing Tunic. Because it really does have a compelling vision, and it carries off that vision well enough that I really enjoyed the first several hours I spent with the game. But, once I’d gotten the initial trio of plot items and moved into the middle of the game, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much; so, if you do play it, be prepared to do some combination of having a bit of a slog, dropping down into no-fail mode, and/or not finishing the game.


For Stray, the compelling idea is: you are a cat. So, you walk around like a cat, jump onto things like a cat, scratch objects like a cat, knock objects off of high places like a cat. And that’s great: it’s fun to play around with being a cat, and it looks very good.

The problem with Stray is that they didn’t do a great job of building that mechanic into a full game. The game starts off by having you navigate unfamiliar territory, and the designers decided that they needed to give you some sort of challenge to propel you through that section and to have you not mind being force down a corridor; so they give you a flood of enemies chasing after you or appearing in front of you for you to avoid. Then the game quiets down and turns into a town-based section; I enjoyed that more, though I’m not sure the NPC interactions were great? But the idea of having a town with layers of buildings stacked vertically worked well with the cat theme: you get to jump up along ledges / signs / railings / etc. to reach the higher levels, which is good cat-centric navigation. (I do wish the jump point detection had been a bit more forgiving, though.)

But then the game went back to the corridor-with-enemies-design (and, this time, you’re a cat with a gun!), then another less satisfying town, then a more satisfying town, then a stealth section. So, basically, the game alternated sections where you’re navigating an interesting lived-in environment with sections where you’re moving along a corridor trying to avoid enemies designed in a not-particularly-cat-focused way; pleasant enough that I kept going, but nothing that made me think that Stray was really good as a game rather than as a concept.

And there’s an overarching plot about a ruined world, and people (a cat and a bunch of robots specifically) navigating that and trying to understand bits of the pre-calamity world. Which could have worked well, and there are parts of that aspect of the game that I did like? But Stray didn’t really carry that off in a convincing way, either; and the way the game callously discarded key NPCs that you met as the plot moved along didn’t sit right with me.


Comparing the two games: the core concept in Tunic shines quite a bit brighter than that in Stray, but Tunic is also a lot rougher around the edges. (I wasn’t thrilled with the gameplay in Stray in parts, but I was never worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish it.) Two interesting experiments, and I’m glad to have spent time with both of them; I just wish both had been built out in a way that had let their respective core concepts shine.

dicey dungeons

September 18th, 2022

Dicey Dungeons first caught my eye because it was a Terry Cavanagh game; ever since he released Super Hexagon, he’s been somebody whose work I am curious about. Though, to be sure, Dicey Dungeons seemed quite different from Super Hexagon! It’s clearly dice-focused; and the game blurb says that it’s a deckbuilding roguelike. All of those properties are things that I’m open to, and am willing to believe that I’d enjoy; so when Dicey Dungeons got released on iPad, I gave it a try.

And, yeah, there are lots of dice in the game! And I also can’t argue with the characterization of the game as a roguelike; having said that, though, Dicey Dungeons doesn’t have the sorts of virtues that I expect from a roguelike.


As you’d expect from a deckbuilding roguelike, you’re traveling through floors, each of which contains a graph whose nodes are either fights or ways of improving your character. But the navigation part just isn’t that interesting: because of the way leveling up works in Dicey Dungeons, you’re strongly encouraged to fight every battle on each floor, and you don’t encounter situations where navigating to node X precludes you from also navigating to node Y.

So, basically, you’ll do all the fighting, and get all the power-ups; the only real navigation choice, then, is when to grab health refills, and honestly that’s not a particularly interesting choice.

This isn’t to say that all the roguelike virtues are missing. The combat is pleasant enough, and there’s both enough variation in monster encounters and in the availability and choice of moves to keep me interested in the game across multiple runs. But if you come into Dicey Dungeons hoping for the kind of depth that you find in, say, Slay the Spire, you won’t find it, and part of why you won’t find it is that some entire classes of level variation were removed.


That’s the roguelike part of the description; as for the deckbuilding part, my take on that is simpler: Dicey Dungeons isn’t a deckbuilder. You start with access to a limited set of moves, you get access to more as the game goes on (with both randomness and choice playing a role in what you gain access to), and, for each battle, you have to pick a small subset of those moves to be available for you during your battle. The loadout in each battle is static, and all of the moves are available for use each turn.

There’s no shuffling, no randomness of your hand each turn leading to hopes for a draw to give you the card / combo you want, no confronting an overly large deck that you want to prune down, no having to make hard cohices about whether your deck would be better if you were to add one of the offered cards or if you were to skip both of them. I simply do not understand why the store description of the game uses the term “deckbuilding”.


So: Dicey Dungeons isn’t what I expected coming into it. Which is fine, I like lots of different genres, and the way it leans into dice is new to me. I enjoyed learning about the systems of the game by going through the dungeon while playing the first class (Warrior); I enjoyed trying out the next class (Thief), being surprised at how difficult I found it, and eventually coming to grips with the way the Thief move set played out.

Dicey Dungeons has six classes; and each class comes with six episodes. So the first episode shows you the basic idea for that class, giving you a feel for what moves you’ll start with, what moves you’ll encounter as you progress, what sorts of combos you’ll try to put together. And then the subsequent episodes play around with that: sometimes in a simpler way (the same thing but harder), sometimes with a different but related set of moves available to you, sometimes changing the underlying rules of that character and even of the game.

When I tried out the first two characters, I assumed that a different character simply meant a different move set, with more variation in move sets appearing as you change characters than is present across the different episodes for a given character. But, in fact, the differences between characters can be much more profound than that. Above, I said that Dicey Dungeons isn’t a deckbuilder; except that, for one of the characters, the game actually more or less is a deckbuilder! So it’s not just your move set that changes across classes: the fundamental rules of the game change as you try out the different classes.


Ultimately, that variation what makes Dicey Dungeons interesting and special. It’s an exploration of a design space, with major variations appearing as you change classes and minor but still significant changes appearing as you try the different episodes within a class.

And those variations really can be significant: for example, I said above that Dicey Dungeons is missing a certain class of interesting choices that I would expect while navigating the room graph of a roguelike; but there’s one episode where your health decreases instead of increasing as you level up, and with that change, all of a sudden you don’t necessarily want to fight every enemy in every floor, and you have interesting choices as to what parts of a floor you want to interact with and what parts you want to bypass.


So: neat game. It’s basically a theme and variations: you start with a stripped down roguelike with a character that has moves mediated by dice, and with a given set of enemies and attributes of your and your enemies’ moves. (E.g. the existence of a certain set of damage types: fire damage, ice damage, electricity damage, etc.)

And the game makes a bunch of changes to that theme: what if we tweaked aspect X? What if we did a complete overhaul of aspect Y? What if we brought in an entire new system?

But, underneath those variations, the theme is always there, bringing coherence to the different variations, and providing baseline expectations that the game uses to surprise and delight you during those variations.

citizen sleeper

August 28th, 2022

I’ve been listening to a lot of role-playing game podcasts recently that use rolls of six-sided dice to help advance their narrative. So, when I heard that Citizen Sleeper was using some of those ideas in a video game format, I was curious to see how that would work out. I’m used to video games that are inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, and games that depart from the D&D template by adding in more direct control of your action; I am not used to games that continue to lean into dice but that take inspiration from a more recent generation of tabletop RPGs.

To be sure, Citizen Sleeper isn’t (to my limited knowledge!) based on any specific existing RPG system. I’m used to tabletop RPGs where characters are progressing along the plot, decide what action to take to advance and help form that plot, and then roll dice in response to that. In Citizen Sleeper, however, there are multiple directions in which you can choose to act, partly corresponding to different potential plot directions to act in and partly to support yourself, by earning money and keeping your health from collapsing, and you can interleave actions in all of those directions. So the narrative possibilities are much more of a broad mesh rather than localized decisions of how a singular tip of the plot progresses.

Concretely, Citizen Sleeper has you roll a collection of dice at the start of each day. You then decide which actions to allocate those dice to, where by “action” I mean “do a bit of work in area X of the station”, generally with higher numbers going to ones that are more critical to your health and/or whatever plot thread you’re most interested in. Each time you allocate a die, the game then rolls another die behind the scenes to determine how that action turns out, with the probability table for that hidden role based on the quality of the die that you devoted to the task and the inherent risk-level of the task. So on days when you roll a bunch of fives and sixes, you might spend time taking on high-risk tasks; but when you’ve got a bunch of low numbers, you’ll spend time doing safer basic maintenance. (It’s a little more nuanced than that, because there’s one kind of action that prefers low numbers, but that’s the basic idea.)


At that level of description, Citizen Sleeper feels more like a worker placement than a role-playing game; the RPG elements comes in through the text descriptions that the game gives you in response to the outcomes of your actions, and the ways those actions turn into plot threads. So you might start by working a job to make a little money, then the owner of that business asks you to do more stuff as they start to trust you, then a bit of a mystery might pop up in that plot thread asking you to accomplish a task somewhere else on the station, and so forth.

This is also, in part, mediated through the notion of “clocks” that are common these days in tabletop RPGs: maybe you need to advance a clock by six ticks to gain somebody’s trust, and a good roll of the dice will advance it by three ticks whereas a bad roll will only advance it by one. Or maybe something bad will happen when a clock reaches ten ticks, with one tick happening every day; and it’s up to you to find a way to cancel that clock before it expires.

Those plot threads are one way in which the role-playing happens; but the core mechanics also lend to role-playing through the mechanics of your daily life. Because you start off rolling five dice; sure, it’s not great if you role five dice and you don’t get as many good actions as you’d like, but you’ll almost always get at least one five or six, and even at the worst, you can still take five actions, you might just want to weight them towards low-risk actions.

But, as the days progress, your body deteriorates; so, a few days later, you’re rolling four dice, then three dice, then two dice. And it does not feel great to only have two dice to roll, to be getting increasingly desparate to dig yourself out of a hole, and then those two dice happen to be a one and a three! Do you play it safe while watching your powers drain away, hoping the next day will be better, or do you take a risk hoping that you’ll be able to turn things around?


My first hour or two were spent navigating those issues. How do I deal with my body deteriorating? At first, I was just trying to find any way to deal with the deterioration before my body fell apart completely and I didn’t have any dice to spend; then, once I’d done it once, could I repeat that regularly?

And I was also trying to navigate some of the negative clocks. If I just had to make a good enough living to be able to afford my medicine, I would have been able to navigate the dice just fine, but my character was also being hunted, so I had to spend some of my time trying to resolve that issue.

My health and threats were I had to spend my time on, but there were also items that I wanted to spend time on. Some people had helped me when I arrived at my station; I wanted to learn more about them and help them. And there were parts of the station that I hadn’t poked at at all, so that was something else I wanted to spend time on. A lower priority than basic survival, but still.


At this point, I was happy enough to be playing Citizen Sleeper, but I also felt like something was lacking. If I’d been going through the same experiences in a traditional modern video game RPG, it would have been a very different experience, and one which I suspected I would have enjoyed more. The interactions and plot scenes would have been fully fleshed out; I would have been navigating through a 3D environment of a space station, instead of just clicking on nodes to travel to and see some text.

And, in that hypothetical alternate version, it might have taken me five hours to get to the same point that I’d reached in Citizen Sleeper after an hour or two. Some of that would have been richer environmental interactions and plot scenes; some of that would have been actions that could fairly be described as filler. But I often enjoy filler as long as it’s not overwhelming: when playing NEO TWEWY I spent a lot more time on the battles than I had to, and I’m going through Tales of Arise now and I’m still quite happy to fight all the enemies in any overworld or dungeon section, at least the first time through that area.


The thing is, though: that hypothetical more fully fleshed out version would have taken, what, a thousand times as many person-hours to produce as Citizen Sleeper? I’m not sure what the exact multiplier is, but I can’t imagine the difference is less than a hundred-fold. So what I should really be asking is: given the resource budget of this hypothetical AAA RPG covering similar material as Citizen Sleeper, would I prefer to have that game, or a hundred games like Citizen Sleeper, or ten games using a similar engine as Citizen Sleeper but with ten times the complexity of the story, or with twenty five games that are similar to Citizen Sleeper but with visual stylings more like a visual novel instead of plain text, or what?

Honestly, I would be sad to see the AAA RPG be replaced exclusively with cheaper work: when those work well, they’re glorious. Though, even there I do think games are usually spending money on the wrong thing: I wish the Dragon Age team had been putting out a game like Dragon Age II every couple of years instead of taking rather longer than that making Dragon Age Inquisition and then having their next game stuck indefinitely.

And also we’ve done one version of the above experiment, with I don’t know how many thousands of Twine games produced. And I’ve played some Twine games that I thought were neat? But, strictly from the lens of my personal enjoyment, if I added up the enjoyment I’ve gotten from all the Twine games I’ve played (which, to be clear, is more in the range of dozens than thousands), it wouldn’t add up to the amount of enjoyment I’ve gotten from, well, almost any random game that I’ve played over the last year.

Having said that, my thought was that I really would love it if there were a hundred different games done with the Citizen Sleeper engine; I wouldn’t play them all, but I bet some would catch people’s eyes, and I’d love to give those ones a try. Yay for exploring different parts of the design space, including games at different scales.


But: the above is all fantasy. It’s fantasy in one obvious way, that I’m hypothesizing what future games with a similar engine and rules might be like and how much effort they might cost to make. And it’s also fantasy in another way: the above represents what I was thinking about Citizen Sleeper after my first hour or two with the game! And, while Citizen Sleeper isn’t a long game, it’s certainly more than two hours long.

And, as I pulled on the threads that I’d encountered in the start of the game, those threads turned out to be quite a bit longer than I expected. I was worried about some clocks ending; but, as I scrambled to resolve those clocks, the actions and interactions that I took to get out of the way of those clocks didn’t end the problem, they just revealed that the problem was deeper than I’d realized. And sometimes the clocks did expire, but that turned out to not be the end of the game (at least in those instances): that also set up a new set of interactions (and, of course, clocks) and revealed more about the world.

Also, some of these clocks were obvious how to resolve: do some specific action with a good outcome more than a certain number of times. For those clocks, the challenge was just to manage my dice so that I could do those actions frequently enough, while also leaving me enough actions free to make money to pay for my food and medicine.

But there were other clocks where I didn’t even know what to do next to solve them. After avoiding that problem for a bit, I decided to start spreading out where I worked, and in particular to start spending actions in sections of the station where the text basically said that I needed to get people to trust me there before I could really spend time there. And when I did that, I did indeed get access to actions which would let me make progress on those clocks; but I also opened up both entirely new plotlines and saw hints of resources and mechanics that I hadn’t been aware of before. (Why are multiple people wanting me to provide them with mushrooms?)

So, by the time I was four hours into the game, I realized that, actually, Citizen Sleeper was a significantly bigger game than I’d been thinking. There are more areas in the station than I realized (and I still hadn’t opened it all up by that point), the plot threads are longer than I’d realized, there are more unrelated plot threads than I’d realized (and I didn’t even know which ones were related and which ones weren’t!), and there was noticeably more going on in the game’s economy than I realized.


By this point, I was getting my feet under myself. I wasn’t worried about my health: it was something I had to deal with, but I’d be able to manage that while pushing along on one or maybe two plot threads. I still had one or two threats to deal with, but I was pretty confident that I’d navigate those without too much trouble, and I was looking forward to seeing how they turned out. And I felt like I had enough space to sometimes dip into side plot threads without feeling like I was putting myself too much at risk.

And, finally, my experience of the game morphed one more time. Part of this was me resolving all of the active threats; and part of this was my character’s abilities improving, to the extent that my character could remain at full health (and getting five dice) every turn instead of having their health degrade from five dice down to three dice over the course of ten turns or so, and then restoring them to full health after that.

That’s how my experience changed mechanically, but what was more interesting to me was how the fact of those mechanical changes actively helped with the feeling of role playing in the game. I started out as a character very much on the fringes, who was scrambling not just to survive but to make any kind of sense of what was going on. Then I felt like I had a lifeline, but I could lose hold of it at any moment. Next, though, I started to feel like I actually belonged on the station: not everybody agreed with that, but I had enough friends and enough of a knowledge of how things worked that it started to feel like I was really making a life there. And, finally, at the end, I felt secure and happy.

That was my emotional experience (or my interpretation of my character’s emotional experience) playing the game; but it was also supported and reflected in my mechanical experience with the game. I was going to append “despite the simplicity of that mechanical experience”, but honestly, I’ve played so many RPGs where the main mechanical experience while playing the game is that all the numbers keep on going up (your opponents’ as well as your own). And that sort of game leads to a flatness of experience, even over the course of fifty or a hundred hours playing a game; whereas, in Citizen Sleeper, the difference of “I just hope I can do something before I lose my last dice” to “I’m pretty sure I can prevent myself from going lower than three dice” to “I’m always at five dice”, while the challenges I encounter don’t scale in the same way, is a completely different feeling.


As you progress through these plot threads, you realize that some of the plot threads will provide an ending for the game if you make a certain choice. I stared approaching the end of one of those threads maybe halfway through my playthrough of the game, and I was struck by two things: one is that it involved some people that I cared about enough that I was pretty sure that this is the ending that I wanted, but the other is that I didn’t want to end the game yet, I wanted to explore more of what the game had for me.

The game was fine with me putting off that ending; I’d stopped pulling on that thread before any potentially terminal clocks were ticking. Which maybe didn’t make a ton of narrative sense, and I was really exploring mostly out of a traditional gamer desire to see content, to do all the side stories in an RPG before finishing the plot.

But, as I did more of those side stories, I realized that there was something else going on for me narratively: my character was feeling more and more at home on the station, I was making a home there.

Which, I realized, was at tension with the ending that I was thinking I wanted to choose: that ending involved leaving the station with some sort of people. And that, in turn, was a very human sort of tension, of story: I had a community where I felt at home, with a bunch of individual people in it that I cared about. But, also, there were these two specific people who were my family. And, ultimately, my family mattered more: if I had to move so I could be with them, then I’d be sad to leave my home, but my family was what was more important to my character.

Which made the last hour or two I spent playing the game a completely different experience than almost any other game I’ve played. Sure, I was spending some time pushing along whatever my current side story was; but I had five dice to spend, and I couldn’t spend them all on that! So I’d think “whom would my character want to spend time with, knowing that, in a few weeks, they’re probably leaving the station forever?”; and I’d end up working jobs in a given place not because I needed money but because I wanted to spend time with people there, or because they just fit into the rhythm of my daily life on the station.


So, returning to my fantasy from an hour or two into the game: yes, Citizen Sleeper was probably made with less than a hundredth the resources of the game I’m currently playing; and I really do like the spectacle of that latter game, I don’t want to give that sort of thing up, even though I’d also like to see a lot more experiments using resource levels like Citizen Sleeper in doing. But, also, Citizen Sleeper ended up showing me something that I’m not seeing in those AAA spectacles: somehow, with its stripped down systems (and I still don’t know if it’s despite the fact they were stripped down or because they were stripped down!), Citizen Sleeper still managed to hit on an aspect of being human that I am just not used to seeing in games.

neo: the world ends with you

July 31st, 2022

When NEO: The World Ends with You was released, I was surprised at its existence and not particularly interested in the game. I’d played the original The World Ends with You back when it came out almost a decade and a half ago; my memory was that it was a stylish game, with an odd control scheme that wasn’t completely unworkable but also wasn’t anything you’d want to build on, and that the control scheme depended on the specifics of how input worked on the DS. So I wasn’t unhappy to have played through the original and was glad that weird games like that exist, but it certainly wasn’t the sort of game that I would expect to get a sequel. And even when it did get a sequel, I didn’t have fond enough memories of the original game to make me actually want to play the sequel.

Occasionally, though, I would hear the sequel come up in podcasts in a way that made me pay attention. Not in a way that made me think that everybody would want to play the game; but, for some people, it seemed like it could be a pretty important game for them? So there was something there; it still wasn’t clear to me if I was the sort of person that the sequel would really click with, but at least it seemed like a worthwhile experiment, a game that was poking at an unusual bit of the design space and doing a good job of that.

I still didn’t rush out and play NEO TWEWY immediately, but I did at least add it to my backlog. It stayed there for a while, and actually didn’t sink out of sight as quickly as I expected it to: something about it was tickling away at me. But then I was in a gaming funk after bouncing off of Elden Ring; as I’d go down my backlog, and see game after game that I was afraid would remind me of Elden Ring in one way or another. But then I came down to NEO TWEWY, and it seemed like a good antidote: it seemed like it would have a plausible chance of being joyful in a way that would make me feel better, I’d enjoy the style, and wandering around a fictionalized Shibuya has been known to make me very happy.


And, indeed, it was a pleasant change of place. Good style, good music, pleasant story, yay Shibuya, and it didn’t require too much brainpower. Though, having said that, there was enough to its combat that I didn’t mind playing through it, and in fact I did a decent amount of optional battling.

The combat in the sequel is quite a bit more normal than the combat in the original game, but it was still odd enough to make me feel like it belonged in the same series. You’re constantly coming across pins, and you equip each party member with a pin that determines the character’s combat capabilities.

The pins also determine the button assignment for combat: each pin is associated with a button (square, triangle, R1, etc.). So the details of what each button does is constantly changing, and in fact which buttons you’re using at all is constantly changing. I’d find myself, for example, occasionally mashing away at the triangle button before remembering that I didn’t actually have any triangle pins equipped and that I’d been completely ignoring my R2 pin.

Also, some pins respond to single button presses while others want you to press and hold a button; and each pin can only be used a certain number of times before needing to take a few seconds to recharge. That, combined with a combo mechanic, means that you have to think a bit about when you want to be pressing a button and when to hold off. And each pin levels up for a bit but then maxes out, so you’re contantly swapping out pins, meaning that the rhythm of what you’re doing changes.

None of this is rocket science, and honestly I was just mashing away at buttons a lot of the time. (Well, mashing away until my pins needed to recharge, and then I’d wander around dodging for a while, and then when my pins came back online, I’d resume my mashing.) But still, the combat definitely was a change of pace, there were some enemy types that required a bit more thought (and attention paid to dodging), and the pin collection and leveling up was a sort of low-pressure collectathon that I enjoy.


So: definitely a good choice of game for me to play. A quite pleasant game on its own merits, and it also worked quite well to help me create some distance from Elden Ring, the two games really don’t have very much in common.

And then, somewhat to my surprise, the plot started to grow on me. In the beginning, it was just a set of relatively undistinguished JRPG protagonists; maybe if I’d actually remembered the people from the original TWEWY, I might have cared a bit more about one or two of them, but probably not? And they were placed in pleasant but unremarkable plot about forming a team to rack up points in a game where, at the end of the week, the team with the lowest number of points was killed.

While I didn’t care much about the characters, I will say that, right from the beginning, I was glad that the game was located in Shibuya. Familiar locations, and then a little bit of a surprise when I went to areas of Shibuya that weren’t in Tokyo Mirage Sessions or Persona 5. (I hope that I make it back to Tokyo soon enough that I’ll still have some memories of the geography as presented in this game!)

And that, I think, provided a hook for me to start caring about the plot of the game. Because it turns out that it’s not just your protagonist and their team that are fighting for their lives: the people in charge of the game are in fact trying to destroy all of Shibuya. And that gets the protagonist and their team fighting for something larger than themselves; and it turns out that some, and then a lot, of the people who are running the game aren’t super comfortable with what’s going on either.

So, in the second and especially the third week, the plot morphs from focusing on localized concerns to unfolding and developing a growing web of social interconnections. Social interconnections between people who had been fighting each other, and who are still trying to figure out if they can trust each other, but who are starting to realize that, yes, they can and should be fighting together for something larger than themselves. And also they’re realizing that they care about each other quite a bit as well.

On that note, I like how the way the city is represented as a web of connections, and that all the people you meet and have significant encounters with also get represented as a network on a level up screen: this reinforcing of that metaphor worked well for me.


It all came together in a quite satisfying way in the end. Over the top battles in a way that is entirely traditional in a JRPG, but the stakes felt like they were earned. There’s a second ending that I didn’t feel like grinding to reach, because, reading through a guide, it really did seem like a lot of grinding, but I was tempted; heck, as they kept on talking about bits from the original, I was even tempted to replay remake of the first TWEWY. (I haven’t, and I don’t think I will, but maybe?)

And: yay for joy, yay for art, yay for caring. These are important parts of my life; it makes me happy to play a game that they are important parts of as well.