[ Content | Sidebar ]

reducing my hours at work

May 13th, 2021

The company that I’ve been employed by for the last ten years went public last September, and the lockup of my shares expired in March. So that meant that one large source of leverage my employer had over me has disappeared, and the amount of money we had saved changed significantly; that change in leverage and savings, combined with the fact that 10 years is a long time, made me think that my default assumption should be that I should change something about my employment. Basically, if your context changes, then how you react to that context should also change.

Exactly what I should change, though, isn’t clear. Do I want to look for another job; if so, what would I want to get out of that other job? Do I want to retire; if so, do we have enough money saved up now to be able to retire? Is my default assumption wrong, and in fact my current job is the best place for me right now, even though the incentives have changed significantly? Or is there some significant change that I can make to my current job while sticking with my current employer?

 

Starting from the second option: I don’t think we have enough money saved up yet to be able to retire without a fair amount of worries while continuing to live in our current location and with our current lifestyle and obligations? I could be wrong, but it’s certainly not a slam dunk.

That alone doesn’t mean that we can’t retire right now: almost everywhere else in the country is cheaper to live in than the San Francisco Bay Area. And our lifestyle isn’t immutable: cutting down on extra spending in order to get more free time sounds like a plausibly good choice. (Though the flip side is that, if we were to retire, we might reasonably want to travel a bit more than we had been doing recently, so you can make a case that our expenses could go up!) I’m pretty sure there are places in the country where we could retire right now, so certainly retiring is in the solution space.

Also, I just turned 50 this year, and my body has reminded me periodically over the five years or so that it is past its warranty. Still, all things considered, I’m reasonably healthy now, as is Liesl; there’s definitely something to be said for making more space to enjoy that relative health while we still have it?

But I also don’t want to take it as given that I would enjoy not working more than I would enjoy working. Some people who retire and end up stagnating, going into physical and mental decline; also, I like thinking about stuff, and work is a good source of challenges in that regard. So, if I were to retire, I would want to think hard about what my days would look like, and how likely it is that I would enjoy that more than what I’m doing now.

 

Going down the other branch: let’s assume I stay employed. Do I want to stay with my current employer, or to go somewhere else? I like my current job and it continues to provide me with interesting challenges; I certainly don’t want to leave it just from a “grass is greener” point of view. Also, I like my coworkers, and I’ve been pleased at how many of them seem to be sticking around post-IPO; I don’t take that lightly.

The flip side is that, while there are aspects of developing software that my current job is unusually good at exploring, there are also aspects of developing software that I’m interested in that my current job isn’t as good at exploring. So I can imagine a job that let me explore either certain interpersonal aspects of software development or certain detailed technical aspects of programming in ways that my current job doesn’t give me as much scope for. Having said that, the areas that I might be interested in exploring also the sort of thing that, in my (admittedly limited) experience searching for jobs, can be hard to figure out from the outside, so I’d want to be a bit careful in changing jobs to try to explore those dimensions.

Also, it’s the case that the reward structures for significant numbers of jobs around here aren’t as interesting to me now as they would have been 10 or 20 years ago. In particular, the idea of joining a startup in hopes of getting a payoff a decade later is a lot less interesting to me at 50 than it was at 30 or 40. Which is fine, there are lots of public companies out there with more straightforward compensation plans; that would be a change, but this whole line of exploration is about what I want to change, so I shouldn’t assume that’s a downside.

 

Also, there’s the morality of the issue: when I get into the amount of money that I need to be able to even think of retiring at our current standard of living, I have to wonder, is keeping that money for ourselves at all a moral thing to do? I think you can make a pretty strong case that the answer there is no; but then, if you follow that reasoning, I guess the best behavior is to keep on working as long as possible for as high a salary as possible with as low living expenses as possible, giving the rest away?

And that’s definitely a coherent position. But the flip side is that a different part of me also thinks that it’s good for people to be able to retire! And, when people do retire, I think they should be able to do so without either taking a vow of poverty or constantly worrying that a bad stock market turn will wipe them out. And I also don’t think that there’s anything sacred about retiring at 65? Work has a lot to recommend it, but American culture spends too much time defining people’s value in terms of their work; I don’t like that.

I don’t know how to reconcile those two positions, though. So, for now, I’m saying that the second position is okay.

 

So: I don’t really know for sure if I would want to retire right now even if I could, and retiring would be a potentially risky experiment to run. But, if I don’t retire, it’s not at all clear to me that I would want to change jobs. Changing jobs is worth thinking about, and quite possibly actively exploring, but still, after going through the above thought processing, staying at my current job sounded more plausible than I expected.

Given that uncertainty, is there an experiment that I could run that would help me shed some light on the situation? The biggest question right now is whether I find not working to be an attractive enough idea that I’d be willing to significantly shrink expenses, whether through moving or other economizing. (Also, side note here that, while I’m writing this post as if it’s just about me, it’s really the needs of the whole family that are most important here: in particular, I would not make tradeoffs that Liesl wasn’t completely happy with.) And the obvious way to get information about that is to work less: maybe take several months off, maybe work part time.

I’ve thought about both of those options; maybe it’s risk aversion, but I decided I wanted to go down the “work part time” route. I don’t want to explore starting a different kind of career or anything, and I don’t think I’m burned out to an extent that I need a prolonged break: I just want to be able to relax a little more and spend a little more time on non-work interests. If I can switch to working three days a week instead of five days a week, I think that it’ll free up a meaningful amount of time, but it’ll also still leave me collecting enough salary that we won’t have to dip into savings, and it’ll leave connections in place at work that I value.

 

Of course, it’s one thing to say that you’d like to work three days a week, but it’s another thing to convince somebody to pay you to do that. This, though, is where having worked for the same company for 10 years comes in: it’s given me ample time to build up trust with them, and it means that I’ve got knowledge of their systems that are very different from what a new hire with similar technical abilities would have. So hopefully I should be able to work something out that leaves both my employer and myself happy enough with the situation?

Which is the way things have turned out: after talking it over with my boss and with HR, we’ve managed to work out a plan that meets my goals quite nicely. So, starting next week, I’m going to switch to working Monday / Tuesday / Thursday.

We’ll see how this goes, but I’m actually not seeing this as a particularly short-term experiment? Since coming to that decision, I feel like my worry level has reduced: it’s nice to feel that a break is coming up, but it’s also nice to feel that my finances are going to remain predictable. So I think it’s entirely plausible that I’ll actually remain in this state for several years; hopefully it will work out well for both my employer and myself, and we’ll be able to keep on going with this setup for a while.

the possibility space of company behavior

April 18th, 2021

This picture from Liz and Mollie showed up on my Twitter feed a few times recently:

And that reminded my of one of my favorite (?) BusinessTown posts:

Not because they’re pointing at the exact same thing, but because they’re both pointing at monocultures within how businesses (or at least tech business, or at least Silicon Valley tech startups) make choices. And it feels like there should be more room for experimentation there, that companies that actively explore niches in how they run their business should be able to get a competitive advantage?

 

Take hiring fresh grads an as example. I have nothing against the schools mentioned in the BusinessTown post; but I also feel like there are a lot of companies out there that are trying to hire from that list of schools. (Or from the same short list of big tech companies, when looking beyond fresh grads.)

And the outcome that I would expect out of that is that most companies that are trying to hire from that pool end up looking relatively undifferentiated to job applicants, at which point they have a hard time hiring good applicants from that pool. So they instead end up either not hiring at all or else hiring not particularly impressive applicants from that pool or else getting into a salary arms race with companies that have a lot more money available.

It feels to me like a better strategy would be to find a different pool to hire from, one that doesn’t have as many companies looking at it. And then, even if we accept for the sake of argument that the average quality of the second pool is lower than the average quality of the first pool, if we can choose between the best candidates from the second pool versus undistinguished candidates from the first pool, we should come out better, right? I feel like it’s a good play to take your chances trying to find the best CS grad from some not-particularly-prestigous-but-perfecly-fine state school over a middle-of-the-read CS grad from MIT.

 

And the same thing goes for the Liz and Mollie diagram, either when hiring employees or trying to retain them. Rather than just fighting with salary, job titles, and (for the retention case) inertia, why not pick one of the other dimensions and try to make your company really good along that dimension?

Sure, if you actively work on making your company an awesome place for whole humans to be, or at least for humans who care abnormally about one particular dimension of their lives, then you’ll lose out when trying to snag people who aren’t motivated by that dimension but who are motivated by money or company cachet or working on the trend of the day. But is your company one that has enough money or cachet or trendiness to win the battles along those dimensions? If not, I’d think you’re better off to pick an unpopular dimension to compete along, and compete there.

 

Which is easier said than done, to be sure. Like, on the one hand I don’t believe in whiteboard coding as a strong signal. But, on the other hand, I’ve spent enough time in situations where whiteboard coding feels like a natural question to ask that I can (I think!) tell when somebody is doing a good job at that. And maybe I can even tell that they’re doing a good job in ways that show some of the virtues that that person would have if we hire them. (I don’t think that whiteboard coding skill is necessarily completely irrelevant to ones’ contributions as an employee, just that it filters out lots of people who either are strong at different skills or who don’t perform well under that sort of artificial pressure.)

Whereas if we start selecting from pools that don’t tend to produce the sorts of people who do well on that particular metric, then that means that we have to start figuring out other ways to evaluate people, to find other dimensions along which people could excel. That way, we can find those people even if they don’t show up in more traditional metrics.

And that’s hard. I don’t really know how to do that; managers, recruiters, and HR people that I’ve worked with also haven’t shown themselves as particularly good at doing that. So there’s this selection / skills bias at that level, too: it’s not just that we have blind spots in the pools / skills that we look for, we have weak areas in our detection abilities, too.

 

There’s a similar issue with the sorts of measures that Liz and Mollie bring up. Companies will talk about their values statements, or the No Asshole Rule, or supporting work-life balance. But it’s hard to act in a way that’s motivated by values if those values cause your company to make hard decisions. It’s hard to kick out assholes who look productive and who aren’t really that bad, are they? It’s hard to figure out how to really let people disconnect from work when everybody says we should be doing DevOps and a few alerts a week is pretty good all things considered.

So I guess that a big part of the answer is: none of this stuff is free. Even if, ultimately, there’s a hiring strategy or a cultural strategy out there that will give better results than your current strategy at no extra steady state cost, there’s still the cost of finding and learning how to execute on that strategy; and that cost is real.

 

And probably another part of the answer is: while it sometimes feels to me that there are huge numbers of tech firms out there, enough that some of them should be stumbling on some of these better ideas, it’s also the case that I’ve actually spend my time in a small and incestuous subset of those tech companies (venture backed Silicon Valley ones, or ones that grew out into the public markets out of venture backing). And that pool might be too small to get this sort of experimentation. And also, it raises the question of whether these changes, even if potentially beneficial for employees of those companies, would be beneficial for the VC firms that fund them; those groups’ incentives aren’t particularly well aligned in general, which adds extra complexity to the optimization problem.

Which, in turn, points at a potential third answer to all of this: probably there are lots of companies out there doing the sorts of things that I’m talking about here, I’m just ignorant of them because of my parochial standpoint! That’s actually almost certainly the case, now that I type it out; something I should work on.

bowser’s fury

April 15th, 2021

When I first started playing Bowser’s Fury, I thought it had a chance to be my favorite Mario game since Super Mario 64. Now that I’m finished with the game (which didn’t take a long time, it’s pretty short), my feelings about it are a little more nuanced, and there were certainly parts of my experience with the game that weren’t unequivocally positive. But, having said that: Bowser’s Fury is a very good game, and I hope that the next mainline Mario game has more in common with Bowser’s Fury than not.

A lot of this is just personal preference: Super Mario 3D World (which Bowser’s Fury is packaged with) is also a very good game, it’s just a very good linear Mario game, and I don’t like those as much as I like the games that embed goals within a larger world. Bowser’s Fury is, in contrast, in the lineage that started with Super Mario 64 and whose most recent prior entry was Super Mario Odyssey; and I like wandering around worlds and poking my head in places.

Bowser’s Fury goes farther than its predecessors in that it’s a single open world; this is an improvement, and I hope that Bowser’s Fury is the seeds of an experiment that we’ll see in Nintendo’s next large-scale Mario games, rather than an experiment that they couldn’t figure out how to scale up and release on its own. I like wandering from place to place; I like having the whole world feel relatively coherent; and I’m glad that the series is stepping away from the desert world, lava world, etc. stereotypes. (Not that those stereotypes have disappeared in Bowser’s Fury, they’re still there in the smaller groupings of puzzles, they’re just reduced in intensity and forced to be coherent within a larger setting.)

Having said that, it’s probably not a coincidence that the larger setting is a water-based one. It’s the same design problem that Nintendo had when trying to open up the world a bit more after Ocarina of Time and move away from a hub-and-spoke model: Wind Waker was their solution, and there’s water everywhere there, too! Fully realized 3D worlds are hard, making them feel alive, making the in-between spots not feel barren; Breath of the Wild continues to be an amazing achievement in that regard. But open world games are figuring this out; hopefully Nintendo can come along with that tradition, and in the meantime, the world of Bowser’s Fury at least feels connected in a way that the world of Wind Waker didn’t.

 

So: open world Mario, yay. That’s a pretty straightforward evolution of where one branch of the series has been going, but it’s a good one.

The other thing Bowser’s Fury adds is, well, Bowser’s fury. Every few minutes, a huge Bowser shows up, spitting fire at you and temporarily adding some new blocks into the terrain for you to climb on. So you spend a while dodging that, or maybe trying to use the fire to get at some shines that are only accessible that way. And then, after a few minutes, he goes away, or if you get a shine, he goes away then.

And, to make matters weirder, you can sometimes turn into a giant Mario (or, to be specific, a giant cat Mario; one of my favorite weird aspects of Bowser’s Fury is its love for cats), and you have this big Kaiju fight. Which is kind of awesome?

 

For a while, this all worked really well for me: very solid 3D nonlinear Mario gameplay, the open world worked very well, the Bowser sections were nice punctuation.

But then the Bowser sections stopped being nice punctuation: I stopped seeing new stuff in those sections, and more and more I’d run into sections where I was halfway through figuring out a kind of tricky shine and Bowser would show up, and I’d have to spend a minute dodging him, potentially getting put back to the start of the path to get to that shine in the progress. That’s not a lot of fun.

To make matters worse, once I got around 45 shines into the game, Bowser stopped going away: I was stuck in permanent Bowser mode. So then I had to basically just ignore him while trying to get shines; and the shines at this point were, on average, quite a bit trickier than the ones at the start of the game. I spent a while getting frustrated by this; and then I decided that I just had to deal with it, figured out some shines that were probably going to be easier to get, and got them.

Which ended up actually being fine: getting 5 more shines wasn’t hard, and once I hit 50 shines, I got transitioned into a final boss fight mode. Which also was a little tricker than I would have liked, in ways that were fairly different from the rest of the game, but not in a way that was particularly out of line for a final fight.

 

After that, there were another 50 shines to get; and that was actually quite a bit of fun. And the experience was quite smooth: even thought it was half the shines in the game, and even though they were, in some sense, probably harder to get individually than the first 50 shines I’d gotten, the fact that I knew how the game worked meant that I could still get them pretty quickly.

The only annoying bit in the middle was when I accidentally triggered the endgame boss fight sequence again; but that actually ended up being kind of useful, because I figured out some new techniques to use, which meant that, when I hit 100 shines and saw the endgame yet again, with the difficulty ratched up that time, I wasn’t as frustrated as I would otherwise have been.

 

So, my top level reaction: Bowser’s Fury is a very good game, one that I fully recommend, and one that I hope is, in some sense, the future of the series. But it’s also got these Bowser sections, and I don’t see those as a new pattern that I want future games to follow: not just that they were actively frustrating at times, but also that they’re just not an archetypal template that you can build on.

But, even despite my frustration with the Bowser sections, I’m still kind of pro them? For one thing, the frustration always managed to stay on the acceptable side of things, and when I made it past frustrating bits, I could see some game design tensions that made those frustrations have benefits in retrospect. And, for another thing, I support games doing weird stuff that doesn’t land 100%; I’d much rather have that than a game that plays it safe everywhere. So I really like the model of a short game that’s packed in with another game that’s more of a headliner and that’s trying different stuff.

 

But also, thinking about what I liked so much about this game, and which Mario archetypes I like the most: I think I might actually prefer many things about the Paper Mario series?

Taking Paper Mario: The Origami King as an example, since it’s the one I’ve played most recently: sure, it’s not a single open world, but the areas in the game are quite large, larger than in Super Mario Odyssey (at least I’m fairly sure they are?). So there are multiple areas that are large enough to allow you to wander around, poking your head in different places, and be surprised. But also, the world of The Origami King is grounded and inhabited, while Bowser’s Fury still has an overly abstract world. (And I could say the same of all of Super Mario 64 except for the castle, or all of Odyssey except for the castle and New Donk City.)

Ultimately, I think, what I want isn’t any one of those. I like the grounded worlds and companions of the Paper Mario games; I like the way platforming is your main verb in the mainline 3D Mario games. (But I’m less convinced I want abstract platforming challenges to be your main source of rewards; but I also am slightly less of a fan of being repeatedly kicked out to a separate mode for combat, as in the Paper Mario games. I mean, it’s fine, it’s just not my ideal.)

And, more than anything, what I want is a Mario game that pulls this all together in a way that Breath of the Wild did: somehow giving you an open world without compromising in the slightest with either the living nature of every corner of the world or with the fundamental gameplay virtues of the series. This is, of course, a big ask, I continue to think that Breath of the Wild is one of the best and most impressive video games that has every been made.

 

But there are some really interesting seeds there in Bowser’s Fury. I’m not sure if it was always intended as a short experiment, or if it was the potential next big game in the series, but it didn’t hold together well enough for that. (And my feelings about the Bowser sections would probably be considerably more negative if this were a 40 hour game instead of a 10 hour game!) Either way, I’m glad we got to see it, and I’ll be curious what Nintendo learned from their experience making Bowser’s Fury.

super mario 3d world

March 28th, 2021

I never played Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U. I’ve historically been a big fan of the mainline Mario games, but I don’t like them quite as much as I used to, and in particular the more linear outings don’t grab me as much as the more open ones. I think they’re very well done for what they are, I’m just not sure how much I want what they are?

But when the game was rereleased on the Switch, along with a new game that, while short, was getting surprisingly good buzz, I figured I’d give Super Mario 3D World a try. And, well, it’s very well done for what it is, though I’m not sure how much I want what it is?

 

So yeah, there are linear levels, and they’re very good. Which I loved back in the NES days: going through Super Mario Bros. or Super Mario Bros. 3, enjoying the jumping, the wondering what would happen when I broke as many blocks as I could, enjoying watching my skill level increase. And, sure, I’d die periodically; but then I’d start over again, enjoying the fact that I was better than last time.

But it was one thing to play those games a few decades back; it’s another thing to play a game like that now. And, of course, Super Mario 3D World isn’t a game like that, any more than, say, Super Mario Galaxy was: if you run out of lives, you don’t get kicked back to the beginning, you’re just kicked out to the overworld where you can go right back to the level that you died on.

This is the right choice, but there’s the potential for something to be lost: the familiarity that comes with enforced repetition, the consequences of not having your skill level ramp up in parallel with the difficulty of the game’s levels. The game attacks the former by giving you four optional extras to find in each level; the game doesn’t really attack the latter, and in fact it backs off further, by giving you an invincibility powerup if you fail too many times at a given level.

Again, probably the right choice. And sure, it was fun while playing through the level to wonder where the green stars were, and to try to collect them if I did end up locating them. If I failed, I didn’t go back right after finishing that level to try to collect them, but I figured I’d probably give some of those a try later on? Still, part of my brain was preparing me to be disappointed: I figured the game as a whole would be kind of short (because of the lack of enforced repetition), that I’d try to make up for that by going back and trying to get more green stars, and that I ultimately wouldn’t find that super satisfying?

 

The thing is, the game just kept on going. I mean, it’s not the longest game in the world, we’re not talking traditional RPG length here or anything, but it’s long enough to be a satisfying length for an action game. Also, while Super Mario 3D World doesn’t have a lot of gates, some of the levels don’t open up until you’ve collected a certain number of green stars. I’d been collecting a decent number of green stars, so those gates didn’t affect me for a while, but when I got to the second half of the game, I first hit a couple of isolated levels that didn’t unlock for me, and then the final level of, I think, World 7 was locked, so I couldn’t progress further until I went back and collected more green stars.

Which was, actually, kind of nice: I’d been thinking that I’d go back and try to get more green stars once I’d finished the game, but having me hit a hard gate on that before the end actually worked a little better, I think, because of the enforced consequences. So I went back to the beginning, and started going through the levels again, getting all the green stars in each level. (And trying to get the stamps, but not worrying if I missed those.)

And that was a quite pleasant experience: it was nice to be in a more exploratory mode, it was nice to have isolated challenges to bang my head against for a bit, and it was nice to feel like I was more skilled than I had been the first time I tackled those levels.

So I got every green star in the first three worlds, and enjoyed doing that. And then I hit a level on the fourth world where I just couldn’t find one of the green stars? But, honestly, that was totally fine: I wasn’t in a “must find everything” mood, I already had the game pegged as one that I wasn’t going to 100%, and I had more than enough stars to make it through all of the levels where I’d hit gates before. So it was time to go back to a linear mode of engaging with the game.

 

Which is what I did: I went through the rest of the levels (not too many, just one more world after the gate that I’d been blocked on), I didn’t hit any more gates that I didn’t have enough stars for, and I enjoyed the challenges.

Like I said at the top: Super Mario 3D World is a very well done game. At the start of playing the game, that’s what I expected, but I also kind of expected that I wouldn’t enjoy it so much? At the end of the game, though, my feeling is rather more positive.

It’s not a 100% match for what I want, but there were more than enough points of consonance for me to enjoy my time, both from the point of view of the minute-to-minute gameplay and from the point of view of my broader arc with the game, switching back and for between straightforward linear modes, more challenging linear modes, more investigative modes, and isolated challenges.

So: yay Nintendo. They know how to make good games.

 

I was going to write about Bowser’s Fury here as well, but it turns out that I had a little more to say about 3D World than I thought. So I’ll put that one in a separate post.

spiritfarer

March 7th, 2021

Spiritfarer starts off with your character, Stella, taking over the role of Charon, ferrying the spirits of the dead. Though, right from the beginning, your behavior doesn’t feel like any prior conception of Charon that I had: instead of having you ferrying anonymous souls en masse, Spiritfarer has you ferrying a small number of individuals, and frequently they’re individuals whom Stella already had a prior connection with. And, in fact, you’re not ferrying them straight to the underworld: instead, you build each spirit their own room on your boat, furnish it according to their specifications, and act as a sort of hospice or halfway house or something, all the while doing various errands for them.

Which, I guess, is fine? If we pretend that the game had never used names like “Charon” and “Hades” to refer to people in the game, and instead just accepted that it’s a game about helping people who aren’t quite yet ready to die but who aren’t far away from that state, combined with a lightweight building / farming / task management sim, then I guess that’s a mixture worth trying?

But I can’t say I found that mixture to be a particularly successful one. On the one hand, there’s a theme here that’s unusually weighty for games, and occasional conversations that gesture at that theme. But, on the other hand, you spend most of your time just going from place to place, doing busywork of watering plants, cooking meals, and so forth, instead of engaging directly with that theme. And, on the third hand, you’re trying to make various video game progress markers advance: checking off tasks on your request list, expanding your ship so you can fit more buildings on it, and so forth. And those three hands didn’t work together particularly well, in my view.

 

To be sure, almost everything in video games could in some sense be described as “busywork” if you look at it from an appropriate angle. And, thematically, you could make a case that, in a game about preparing for death, the presence of mundane tasks is a virtue: life goes on, somebody has to keep putting food on the table, and both the dying and their caregivers have basic needs. But, in Spiritfarer, that didn’t all come together for me: while I was playing, the constant tasks felt too much like busywork; and, now that I’ve finished the game and am stepping back, I don’t see the game doing the work necessary to bring out and tie together the broader themes.

Take Stella, for example: the game connects her with Charon, but that analogy falls apart almost immediately. But if she’s taking up a role of a smaller-scale caregiver, then why has she taken up that role, for whom, and why for those people in particular?

Or, starting from the other end: maybe the game is supposed to be focused on the stories of the spirits that we’re ferrying along. But, if that’s the case, then I wish the game would lean into that! As is, it fails on the one hand because you spend so much of your time doing tasks that aren’t directly related to those stories, and it fails on the other hand because so much of those stories are only gestured at, instead of being told.

Many of the spirits are people Stella had prior contact with, and I suppose if I’d been taking notes on every single conversation, then I’d be able to start to piece together a larger picture. But, most of the time, when I’m engaging with a work of art, I want to have a more basic story at the surface level for me to interact with; the backstory should be there to provide richness to make the world feel more real, to give me something to dig into on repeated dives into the work of art, and so forth. Spiritfarer didn’t give me that basic level of story, it was all backstory, seeming instead to assume that I’d be motivated to figure out connections without that. And I just wasn’t.

 

Having said all that, there’s still something there in Spiritfarer; I was surprised to be feeling somewhat emotional the first time I dropped off a spirit at the Everdoor, that was a pretty unusual experience for a video game. But also, in retrospect I kind of wished I’d stopped playing at that point. I’d seen what the game was going to show me, the core gameplay loop isn’t good enough to stand on its own, and the story didn’t get any richer.

national greatness

February 28th, 2021

I spent a lot of 2020 being very frustrated with the United States. At the start of the year, the fact that we had Trump as president, that so many people remained quite happy with that, and that the Democratic party and electorate was coalescing around a candidate that seemed remarkably milquetoast. Then COVID arrived, and, as the year progressed, it turned out that the United States had perhaps the single worst response to the disease of any country in the world; certainly far far worse than many countries in Asia and Africa. (Though some European and North and South American countries gave us a run for the money at times.) And police brutality showed up yet again, making it clear that large swathes of our police think it’s fine for it to be open season on Black people.

At the end of the year, though, we came up with multiple remarkably effective COVID vaccines in an incredibly short period of time. Also, while I don’t want to minimize the huge amount of social and economic harm caused by the disease, it’s also the case that, if it had happened 10 or 20 years ago, the social and economic disruption would have been far worse; yay for Zoom and other internet companies. And I’ve actually been convinced that the United States’s welfare response to the pandemic wasn’t as bad as I thought: the $600 or $1400 or $2000 checks for everyone get the publicity, but our unemployment benefit changes have been substantial and have made a real difference.

 

Still, I ended up feeling pretty jaundiced overall. To be sure, that’s a pretty universal reaction to 2020, but I also feel like I’m fitting into a political stereotype of leftists being negative, saying that everything sucks, while the right talks about the US being greatest country ever.

But (in part due to Noah Smith, see for example posts linked to from this roundup), I’m coming around to thinking that being open to greatness, openly wanting and celebrating it, is kind of cool, even for leftists? Not that I necessarily particularly disagree with the leftist diagnosis of all the ways in which the US is screwed up: in fact, one of the side effects of 2020 is that I’m appreciating how deeply rooted that is, and how much of US screwed-up-ness comes out of a heritage of White supremacy. So I don’t want to pretend that we’re automatically great; but I want us to fix that, and I like the idea of fixing that in ways that move us towards a positive vision of greatness.

I also think that part of the political divide here relates to a difference between wanting to be the great and wanting to be better than everybody else. Sure, I live in the US, I want the US to be great; but if the whole world is great, that sounds even better?

 

Though, to be honest, while part of me wants the United States to be great, part of me wants the United States to not be, in certain ways, horrible. I mean, we’re not going to be great at everything, that’s not the way greatness works, but we should still maintain a certain baseline quality.

Concretely: as I said above, our COVID response last year was awful, at least in terms of preventing deaths. Our health insurance system is uniquely bad among industrialized countries, possibly even uniquely bad among all countries. Our levels of gun violence are similarly awful. In all of these situations, we as a nation have decided that we’re simply going to ignore solutions to problems that many or all other countries have solved. And I find that infuriating.

 

So, maybe I don’t actually care about national greatness, maybe what I want is to avoid national anti-greatness? But I’m also kind of coming around to an opinion that that’s a trap, and maybe even a trap that leftists are particularly vulnerable to.

As one example of this, take the vaccine rollout. Of course I want the vaccine rollout to be effective; but I also want it to be fair. And that means that we have to make sure that rich people or white people don’t get all the vaccines, that vulnerable people potentially get it at even higher proportions than richer people, given their lower access to health care.

But what this sometimes means in practice is that, instead of rolling out the vaccine at high speed in a fair way, we’d let fairness paralyze us, failing to distribute vaccine doses because we weren’t sure they were going to the right people. And, once you’re doing that, you’ve made a mistake somewhere, and a pretty serious one: yes, fairness is important, but vulnerable segments of the population aren’t going to be helped by letting the pandemic continue for months longer than it as to because we’re self-sabotaging vaccine distribution. So we need simultaneous pressure on speed and fairness.

Or, for another example, take housing policy. Historical preservation laws sound good to me, as do rent control laws: architectural heritage has real value, and we want to make sure people can actually affort to pay rent, especially people who have been living in a community and who aren’t making as much money as richer people moving into that community. And, similarly, people’s neighborhoods matter, so it’s a very human reaction to be nervous about change to neighborhoods, to want to make sure that new housing doesn’t change the neighborhood to something different.

But I’ve been living in the Bay Area for over two decades, and the housing policy here has been an abject failure: there’s nowhere near enough housing for people who already work here, let along for the volume of people who would want to work here if housing prices weren’t so high! So when I see people arguing for, say, solving this problem by requiring percentages of low-income units in new housing development, what I see is people who are perfectly happy for most people to have long commutes, but for the lucky few who have shorter commutes to be slightly less demographically biased towards rich people than the free market would allow. And that’s a lousy solution: what we should be lobbying for is copious housing as our first priority, so lots of people can have decent commutes without huge rents, and with forced support for low-income units as a tweak around the edges of a policy like that.

 

I’m rambling, I realize. But basically, the position that I’m coming around to is: let’s both try to make things great and to avoid horrible situations; and a country that really tried to be great would manage both of those at once, instead of working semi-effectively towards one of those while giving up on the other.

And, for me personally, I think I don’t spend enough time worrying about the greatness side of things; and I suspect that this is a bit of an ideological trap that I’m not the only person I know who is falling into.

Take, for example, the case of Elon Musk. I have a lot of reasons why I don’t like the guy: I think he says stupid things, I think he does actively harmful things, I think Tesla’s stock price is a product of mass delusion. But, also: SpaceX has started singlehandedly revitalizing the space program; that’s really cool! I doubt I’ll ever buy a Tesla, but they were at the forefront of making electric cars real, that’s both really cool and was an important step towards something very important! Hyperloop and The Boring Company still both sound ridiculous to me, but nonetheless: I think I need to spend a little less time reflexively reacting negatively towards Musk, and a little more time going “rockets, yay”.

 

Not saying any of you should say “rockets, yay” (though I do think you should think about embracing the side effect of “high speed rural internet access, yay”); but still, let’s not let the right’s embrace of the term “great” blind us to the facts that 1) strong positive visions of the future are valuable in multiple ways, and 2) the ways in which the United States either has or should work on greatness should be natural issues for us, not for them.

We should be great by doubling down on science and technology; we should be great by helping everybody in the country flourish. The Republican party is actively hostile to both sides of that; screw those guys, this should be our issue, and it should be a winning one.

the witness

February 7th, 2021

The Witness is the first game by Jonathan Blow that I’ve played. It ended up being basically what I’d expect from him, though, based on what I’d heard: good game, good puzzles, but with a somewhat annoying opinion about how to play leaking out in spots.

In case you haven’t heard the game’s basic idea: it’s an open world puzzle game where the puzzles involve drawing lines on grids. Well, maybe “open world” isn’t the right phrase — there aren’t fetch quests or anything — but the puzzles are sitting right out there in the world, and while there are local sections that are clearly linear, you also have almost complete freedom in the order in which to do the chunks of puzzles, you can (after the very opening) take a break on one chunk of puzzles to work on something else, and you can wander around the world for quite a while trying to figure out what to do next.

All of which worked well? At the start, there’s a fairly obvious path, which I appreciated, teaching you a few very heavily used puzzle concepts. After going through those, I fairly quickly wandered to the central hub area; and, honestly, here I was lost for a little while in a way that started to feel frustrating. But even that wasn’t so bad: I was running into puzzles that used concepts I didn’t know about and hadn’t been introduced to, so I figured that I’d probably eventually hit the start of a chain introducing me to one of those concepts, I was just somehow avoiding doing so?

And that theory was entirely correct, and honestly I think I mostly had bad luck that it took me so long to hit a chain: I kept on not wandering down the right paths, and I also didn’t notice any of the boats (even though I probably walked right past two of them), which would have shown me a map that would have been quite helpful in terms of orientation. So I think the game did a reasonable amount of signposting, I just got unlucky, and even so, I found a good next place to go just as I was starting to get annoyed. And that was ultimately all fine.

Also while doing that wandering around, I found a couple of these videos that the game hides away, giving excerpts of other works that Blow thinks are particularly relevant to The Witness. I can’t remember the details, but my memory is that one of them was a paean to continuing to bang your head against problems, that it’ll be worth it in the end? Which seems like a Jonathan Blow sort of thing, based on my prior expectation of him: videos going on for too long obliquely hammering home a point that I think has some virtue but is also significantly more prescriptive than I would like.

 

Anyways, once I got unstuck, I quite enjoyed my time with the game: good new mechanics, a very well staged series of puzzles exploring each new mechanic, and occasional times where I’d get stuck for a decent length of time but would make it through. Liesl was watching me play, and she often had useful suggestions; good to have multiple eyes / brains on puzzle games, I think.

Having said that, a few of the mechanics were pretty annoying: one that took me forever to even figure out what was going on, and while I did eventually figure it out, I also feel like, if I’d given up and looked in a walkthrough to figure out how to get started, my experience wouldn’t have been any worse? And that one and two others also had some annoying bits further on as well; though, to the game’s credit, the other two puzzle sequences that I’m thinking of in that regard were remarkably short, so the designers did a good job of throwing in unusual stuff but also not pushing it too far.

But I went through all of the sections, and enjoyed them. I didn’t try to be completionist: the environmental puzzles were a neat idea, but I didn’t go out of my way to try to track them all down or anything. And also there were some puzzles outside of the main sequences that were clearly harder: puzzles that required you to simultaneously use several different techniques that the game had taught you and/or puzzles that were at a higher difficulty level than the rest of the puzzles. I figured I’d do the main through-lines, then do the endgame sequence, and then try to come back and try out a few of those non-main-sequence puzzles, since I figured they were probably going to be harder than the endgame puzzles.

 

The endgame puzzles were pretty cool, but also included the one place where I did give up and look at a walkthrough. Which, I think, was the right choice for me, and actually I think you could make a case that that specific puzzle was a weak spot in the game’s design: I thought that the puzzle was advancing past what I’d seen before in a specific way, then I got frustrated when I couldn’t solve it based on the idea that I had in my head. And, when I looked the solution up, I actually had the right idea, but I didn’t go far enough, there was a second idea that I needed to come up with and throw into the mix as well. I don’t think the game had ever made me advance two steps at once in that way before, I think it would have been better if there had been a chain of puzzles leading me to the more advanced solution. And I’m actually still wondering what was going on there; I wonder if the designers tried but then couldn’t find a good puzzle that fit that missing intermediate step?

And then I made it to the credits, and got a screen where my only option was to start a new game. So, unless I was missing something (possible, I didn’t poke around much), I couldn’t just go back and try the puzzles that I’d been intentionally putting off?

To which my response was: well, fuck you too. I mean, it wouldn’t have been hard to get back to where I could have tried those puzzles, I could have started the game and in about five minutes I would have gone through the initial puzzles and then had a free line to the central area. But also, why would you design the game that way? Why throw away the state that the players had built up that way, and why do it without any signaling of that to players? Again, maybe I’m missing something, maybe there was a way to get back to my prior saved game, but it sure looked like a new game was my only choice.

 

So, ultimately, my attitude is: a very good game, with very well-designed puzzles. But also a little too opinionated, and a little too player-hostile. And also, while I suspect there’s quite a bit there in terms of hidden puzzles and what not if the game really clicks for you and you want to explore every nook and cranny, I also got the feeling that the game was doing that in a way that was in love with showing off its cleverness? It’s not the sort of feeling I get from, say, Breath of the Wild or Super Mario Odyssey: in those games, there’s stuff around every corner, but I feel like it’s there to make players happy, whereas, in The Witness, I feel like those extras are in large part there to make the designers happy.

Maybe that says more about me and my neuroses than about the game, though. (Edit: Thinking it over, I really do think there’s a good chance that that’s the case, that the last sentence in the previous paragraph was really more a reflection of me being in a bad mood than anything else.) Who knows; at any rate, I really am glad that I played The Witness, but I also am glad to be done with it.

final fantasy vii remake

January 31st, 2021

Final Fantasy VII Remake really hadn’t been on my radar before it launched. I had played the original, it’s actually the only Final Fantasy game I’ve finished and I do recall basically enjoying it; but I’ve only played it once, and it’s probably approaching two decades since I played it? (I never owned a PS1, but I played Final Fantasy VII fairly soon after I got a PS2.) But I was surprised how much I heard people enjoying the remake when listening to people talk about it on podcasts, and they way they were talking about it made me think there was something there that I’d like as well; and seeing a constant stream of art about the game from Jen Bartel continued to remind me that it existed. So, when I saw it on sale, I used that as an excuse to get a copy.

It took me a few months to actually get around to playing the game. But I was still glad to have bought it early: Liesl was looking for a game to play after she exhausted BioWare’s oeuvre (and I do mean exhausted, I think she did 8 full playthroughs of Dragon Age: Origins?), and, talking through options, she decided to try out Final Fantasy VII Remake. And she really enjoyed it (and she replayed several of the chapters multiple times to unlock different options), and nothing I saw while watching her changed my mind about wanting to play it.

 

And it really is a very solid game. I’m actually having a bit of a hard time putting my finger on why I enjoyed it so much, but I really did like it. Somehow the game manages to have an incredible amount of heart, in particular, though even there I can’t quite put my finger on why I feel that way. I like the characters, but I don’t like them that much? I like the way the city is crafted, but you spend an awful lot of time doing dungeon crawls instead, and the parts of the city that you get to spend time in are pretty small. The combat is okay, and leveling up primarily through your weapon and your materia is an interesting change compared to most RPGs, but honestly, most of the time, I just used equipment / weapon upgrades that let me maximize materia slots, filled up all those slots, and went through combat in a pretty mindless way.

I was going to say that maybe it’s the plot: not a plot I would have thought would really speak to me, but sometimes you get surprised. But I don’t think that’s the answer, either.

Ultimately, though, I think it’s all of that, combining in a way that gets at something more fundamental: that all worked together to get me to care. Partly the way the characters are written, partly the way the characters look (I can see why the game has inspired so much fan art!), partly what the characters are doing.

And partly the world that the characters inhabit, and the greater ties that you see there. Final Fantasy VII doesn’t quite carry off a city as a character the way that the Yakuza or Shenmue games do, but it comes pretty close; there’s a strong feeling that there’s much more going on in the city, we’re just seeing one slice of that experience.

 

That all comes together most strongly for me in the Wall Market part of the game. You’re still getting to know Aerith, uncovering surprises. And you’re realizing that Aerith does a very good job of bringing out the best in Cloud: not too long ago, he’d been presenting himself as a mercenary, just in it for the money, but now he’s focusing on helping Tifa, and so is Aerith, even though she doesn’t know Tifa, because that’s the kind of person she is. And that’s the kind of person she assumes everybody else is, which in turn makes Cloud more that kind of a person.

And here we also see the city itself come to the fore. Wall Market has a distinct character as a whole; but you’re also trying to get the favor of three separate key people in Wall Market, each with their own personality and their own light that they shine on interactions. And there’s a whole host of more minor characters you get to interact with: uncovering minor problems, carrying out favors for people, trying your hand at challenges.

This all added up to a very pleasant several hours of the game; the only down side of the Wall Market is that Tifa isn’t in your party, so you don’t get to see Aerith / Tifa interactions, but that comes next. (Well, there’s also the down side of the threat of sexual violence; I’m normally not a fan of that as a plot device, but here the prospect of that actually occurring is never taken seriously, so it didn’t bother me as much as it normally does.)

 

So I very much enjoyed Final Fantasy VII Remake as a standalone game. But of course, it’s not a standalone game, in two sense: one is that it’s a remake, and the second is that it’s only the first part of a remake.

I’m not the best person to talk about that: as I said above, my memories of the original Final Fantasy VII are pretty dim. So I don’t know what was expanded here that was only hinted at in the original, I don’t know what’s going on with those mysterious spectres that show up every so often, and I don’t know what, if anything, in the remake flat out contradicts stuff from the original. Liesl liked the remake enough that she’s thinking of playing the original soon, so maybe I’ll find out by watching her?

And, in terms of future games, I’m wondering how the team’s decision to invest so much time into certain sections of Midgar will manifest itself in the broader game. Are they going to do a traditional overworld, or will they turn that into corridor traveling like you spend so much time doing in the first part of the remake? Are all the towns going to get the same treatment as sections of Midgar did; if they do, will I care? How is party selection and leveling going to work once there are more party members and (presumably) fewer plot-driven reasons for the game to force a specific party on you?

Not something to worry about, though; especially since I don’t have any faith that future installments will come out any time soon. But that’s okay: the first part of the remake stands on its own, giving me a very satisfying experience.

guildlings, pilgrims, and root

December 27th, 2020

A roundup of a few shortish iPad games I played recently:

Guildlings

I was super impressed with Guildlings when I first played it. The only downside was that it was episodic, and only the first episode was out; I figured, though, that I’d have to wait maybe a couple of months and then I’d have more to play.

A year later, the developers finally released the next episode. Which is a really long time to wait if it’s only another three hours of content? But the release notes said “This massive expansion completes the current story arc”, so I figured that it was a longer episode that ended at a more satisfying place.

That turned out to totally not be the case: the second episode is just as short as the first episode, and ends at the end of a random location transition, it’s an even less satisfying ending than after the first episode. And this idea of waiting a year for three hours of content totally doesn’t work for me: I ended up having to replay the first episode because I’d forgotten the details of both the mechanics and the plot, and when I hit the end of the second episode, it mostly just felt like a waste of time.

No idea what happened here – did the team always plan to take a year between episodes, or did their funding or tools or something force them to drastically slow down their plans? At any rate, I think I’m done with the game; maybe if it ever finishes, then I’ll do the whole thing, but I’m not even sure about that.

Pilgrims

Pilgrims is a point-and-click adventure with a card-playing interface replacing the pointing and clicking. It’s a nice interface, made a little richer than normal with the existence of characters that join and leave your party that can interact with your inventory and environment in different ways; charming art, too. A pleasant way to spend two or three hours, a limited enough inventory and set of rooms that I didn’t ever get too stuck hunting for what to do next, and when I got done, I saw a bunch of achievements that I’d only gotten a third or a quarter of, so there are more routes through the game than I’d realized at the time.

Root

One of my board game playing coworkers suggested we play Root, so I got the iPad version and have played a few times with coworkers online and a few times against the app. It’s a four-faction asymmetric board game; I’ve never seen that level of asymmetric play before, and it’s quite well done. I’ve only tried three of the four factions out, but each of them feels quite different: they have some concepts in common, but each of them has a completely different core victory point engine. I don’t know that I’m going to end up going super deep into it, but definitely glad to have given it a try, and I do expect us to keep on playing it long enough for me to try out the fourth faction.

hades

December 24th, 2020

It’s a little bit hard for me to write about Hades: there’s been so much talking / writing about the game that I have a hard time writing without feeling that I’m constantly reacting to what other people think? I mean, it’s not like I’m ever in a vacuum, but here that feels a bit much.

Like, I enjoyed the game at the start, but I was also disappointed with it: people were talking about how much they loved it, how much they loved the characters and the plot development, and so forth, and I just didn’t see that. I’d spend an hour fighting through a dungeon, then I’d get back to the hall and see a few lines of dialogue that I hadn’t seen before, and then I’d be off to fight again. Which is fine, I appreciated having a bit of a pause between runs, that’s not something Roguelikes normally do (yay Boundaries? Or Alternating Repetition?), but I wouldn’t describe it as a particular triumph of narrative.

Eventually, though, the game’s narrative grew on me. In particular, I really liked how Hades’ behavior towards Zagreus changed, and how that was reflected in Zagreus: Hades acknowledging that he’d messed up and was too harsh, but Zagreus also realizing that there are deeper currents underneath Hades’ behavior that explained some of what’s going on there. And, of course, Persephone’s take on the situation as well. Very interesting on multiple layers: parents relating to children, parents relating to children becoming adults, children becoming adults getting a more nuanced understanding of parents’ behaviors, and parents’ relationship to each other as something independent of the child.

 

Then there’s the whole Roguelike thing. I don’t know that taxonomy is important, but one key virtue that I’m used to seeing in Roguelikes is the way in which they give a fixed set of rules, playing out in randomized ways, that give the player a ground to develop their understanding against. In Hades, though, the rules aren’t fixed: you get permanent powerups at the end of each run, and there’s also an optional God Mode that gives you a significant and increasing buff. It’s one thing to be playing around with a varying rule set (as the Pact of Punishment in Hades or the Ascension levels in Slay the Spire allow), but the sort of leveling up that Hades gives you feels more like a Role Playing Game mechanic than a Roguelike mechanic.

At one level, of course, it doesn’t matter: life is more interesting if games don’t stay neatly within genre boxes! But I’ve actually come around to the conclusion that Hades does in fact fit fairly neatly within the Roguelike box: setting God Mode aside as a sort of Easy mode that is very welcome to let more people experience the game and get further in the narrative, there is actually a fixed tapestry that you’re playing against, it’s just not your initial experience with Hades : instead, it’s Hades once you’ve filled out the mirror and acquired/leveled up all the keepsakes. (Which is maybe interesting from a narrative point of view, showing Zagreus growing up, coming into his adult powers, and starting to act like an adult and being treated more as such?)

 

Anyways, cool game. Nice playing around with the boons; nice having a feeling of balance in the boons, where I didn’t get the feeling that I had to have certain magic boons and combos of boons to succeed, or where, when a boon didn’t speak to me, as often as not that was a sign that I should broaden my playstyle. Though, don’t get me wrong, the runs where I do hit upon some sort of ridiculous combo are fun too! They’re just not at all necessary to succeed.

And, from a thematic point of view, I do love the idea of modeling the repeated runs in a Roguelike as a constant returning to the palace of Death. I mean, I’m totally fine with Roguelikes that don’t have a framing story as well, but if you’re going to have one, the one in Hades is quite good.

internet media and false familiarity

December 13th, 2020

One thing I see periodically on Twitter these days is people who are Twitter-popular but not full-on celebrities complaining about the responses that they get. Maybe it’s somebody providing the 20th identical answer to a question, maybe it’s getting dozens of bad joke responses, maybe it’s a respondent acting overly familiar, maybe it’s a respondent assuming that the original poster should care specifically about what that respondent says.

This sort of behavior is a pretty natural consequence of the way Twitter is designed: it gives you a way to let your friends know what you’re up to, to chat with them. That’s not the only way to use Twitter, but if you’re posting that way, then part of people’s brains are going to read you that way, and so as a result, as a reader of somebody’s feed, you can feel like you’ve got a personal connection with somebody who has never heard of you, who has no reason to care about you specifically.

Which, honestly, feels to me like a hard design problem to solve? So I don’t necessarily want to come down hard on either Twitter or overly familiar repliers for that situation. (Though there’s no excuse for being an asshole, don’t get me wrong, lots of repliers are toxic in ways that are amplified by a feeling of anonymity rather than a feeling of personal connection.) I’m sure that doesn’t make it fun to be on the receiving end of such behavior, though, and I’m thinking more about whether and how I reply now than I did three or five years ago.

 

And, now that I’m more sensitized to this question of false familiarity, I’m seeing it in other places, too, in podcasts, in particular. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good for the hosts in multi-person podcasts to have good chemistry, to enjoy talking to each other, and to care about each other. But when they start talking about their daily lives, there’s a human part of my brain that likes that, sensing human connection, before I realize that I actually don’t have any real connection to these people, and that, at a certain level, this whole thing is creepy!

Not that it’s necessarily me that’s being creepy, I don’t actually act like I know these people: it’s more a context that encourages a creepy feeling. And a context that many podcast hosts actively play into; now that I’m more aware of that, I respect those podcasts less.

The other behavior from podcast hosts that plays into this is when the hosts spend significant amounts of time talking about things they like that are outside of their scope of expertise. (Video game podcasts where the hosts also talk about their favorite movies, or whatever.) It’s nice to talk with friends about whatever we’re into, and I actually kind of appreciate hearing a bit about that sort of thing on Twitter: there’s some virtue in getting ambient art recommendations from non-experts. But at podcast discussion length, the calculus changes: just because I want to spend time listing to, say, programming experts talk about programming, that doesn’t mean that I want to spend significant amounts of my time listening those same people talk about other stuff.

And it certainly doesn’t mean that I want to listen to those people spend entire shows talking about stuff that they don’t know anything more about than I do or my friends do! That kind of thing is great for shooting the breeze with my coworkers about, but if you, say, look at the Relay FM show list, it’s a bizarre list of shows that are genuinely informative next to shows where those same people are talking about stuff that they don’t know anything more about than some random person on the internet. Not to pick on Relay FM, it’s just the first example that came to mind, and if they can get listeners and advertisers, then more power to them, I guess? But that sort of thing is starting to feel like an unhealthy way for me to spend my time.

 

Not that this sort of artificial familiarity is a brand new phenomenon: my whole life I’ve seen celebrity culture magazines in the checkout lines in supermarkets, and it’s the same sort of thing. It just plays out a little differently on the internet, with the immense scale and lack of barriers to entry that the internet brings: now micro-celebrities can pop up everywhere. And it’s also tied, I think, to the specific formats that have become popular on the internet, where celebrities and random people largely have access to the same tools; yay for democritization, but the flip side of that is that, if traditional celebrities, micro-celebrities, and your friends all show up in the same place on your computer, then it can worm into your brain in ways that maybe aren’t so great.

Anyways, the upshot is that, once I realized this, I’ve unsubscribed from a handful of podcasts, and gotten significantly choosier on which episodes of a handful of other podcasts I listen to, and the quality of my podcast listening has increased noticeably; yay. And it’s gotten me more actively appreciative of the good ones; yay for people actively working over years and decades to hone their craft.

And also, it makes me wish there were more actively scripted shows out there: don’t be just some person who is going on about what they think, instead take what you do seriously and lean into that. Of course, podcasts like that exist, and I listen to some of them; I should probably seek them out more.

eastshade

November 30th, 2020

I haven’t played many open world games, so I’m probably not the best person to talk about Eastshade, but the idea of an open-world game about painting without any combat at all sounded neat to me. And it is! I don’t love everything about it, but I am completely on board with the basic idea.

The main thing that I’m not on board with is the tone of the game’s quests. Early on, when you’ve talked to most of the people in the first town, your quest list looks something like this: 1) a list of paintings your mom asked you to paint; 2) a mysterious tower to investigate; 3) try to find out something about a person nobody has seen for a while; 4) find 10 feathers for somebody else to turn into writing quills; 5) deliver some food to the brother of one character that’s made out of something that he doesn’t like; 6) report a parent to the police.

So, basically: one overarching story quest, two quests to learn more about the world, and a fetch quest; that’s all great. That fifth quest, though: you’re not just delivering food the other person doesn’t like, you’re tricking the other person into eating something different than what he thinks it is, which really isn’t cool? The characters are brothers, and it’s presented as a sort of practical joke that they frequently play on each other, but still: I have my doubts.

That last quest, though, is horrible. There’s a single father raising a child; and yeah, the child is odd. But he’s not odd in a way that’s hurting anything, or that is a sign that he’s being hurt. (It might be a sign that he’s on the autistic spectrum, though.) Basically, the obvious reading is that the person asking you to report is a horrible person who is willing to use the power of the state against things that make her feel uncomfortable, even if that means ripping the family apart; this is a very delicate subject to handle, but Eastshade just throws it out there as some random side quest like any other one.

 

So yeah, there’s something tonally off about the quests in Eastshade: that last one is the most egregious, but there are other ones that felt off to me. And, while I’m in a grumbling mood, there were several quests in which I got stuck where, if I were in a situation like that in real life, I’d have an easy remedy: e.g. quests where I can’t remember where a person with a given name is, and where the game doesn’t give me any option to ask around after that person.

But the flip side is: there’s no combat, and there wasn’t a single time in the game where I thought “this game would be better if I were killing people in it”. (Though, to be fair, you do kill fish…) There weren’t even very many quests of the form “gather X items for a certain person” (in fact, the one in my list above might be the only one), and there also weren’t quests that were just using you as a delivery person. So there’s a lot of reason to like the quests in Eastshade: there’s definitely room for improvement, but it also shows that going without combat absolutely isn’t a problem, and there’s other fluff that the genre can get rid of.

And also: it’s a game about painting! Which is a neat idea, and a good fit for an open-world game: it works well with the desire to explore the world, giving you an excuse to look for different features of the terrain. And it works fine as a mechanism for the most basic quests, too: not every quest is going to be an elaborate multi-step main-plot-relevant affairs, and as filler, being asked to paint something is rather pleasant. (And Eastshade gives you some leeway in that, it’s not prescribing exactly where to paint.)

 

So yeah: more of this, please. Not necessarily something exactly like this identically, but more games that skip violence. And also more games that aren’t overstuffed: Eastshade is a pleasant enough world, and it would be fine if it were larger, but it’s fine the way it is, and I’m glad they stopped with the quests before they ran out of ideas.

paper mario: the origami king

November 22nd, 2020

Paper Mario: The Origami King is an odd game, and a refreshing one; Nintendo works within genres, but they don’t feel tied to genre conventions, or even series conventions, and so you’ll just run into decisions that seem totally out of left field, but that end up being unexpectedly interesting, and unusally positive. And we see that in The Origami King, both on a small scale and on a larger scale.

To me, the prototypical RPG divides its world into towns, overworld, and dungeons. Which has a certain refreshing familiarity to it, but the problem I always have with that is that I mostly enjoy the towns, and that overworlds in particular often feel like filler material. If I’m remembering correctly (it’s been a while!), earlier Paper Mario games stuck with that structure as well; in The Origami King, though, there’s quite a bit of leakage of town-like aspects into the overworld, often to the extent that there’s no real distinction between the two. (Though dungeons are still there, following a pleasantly strict formal rule of two dungeons in each region, one to give you a new power and a second to make progress fighting the big boss.)

To be sure, this isn’t new to The Origami King: I wrote about a similar town / overworld interpenetration in Okami, and watching my wife play through the Final Fantasy 7 remake, it looks like that game completely eliminates the town / overworld distinction. (No wonder, given the parts of the original Final Fantasy 7 that it’s remaking; I’m now genuinely curious how the subsequent games in the remake will handle the overworld.) This blurring does feel entirely in character for Nintendo, though: one hallmark of their games is that you’ll so frequently find something interesting around the next corner, which in turn lends itself to adding the lived-in virtues of towns to what would otherwise be overworld areas.

 

A much odder aspect of The Origami King, though, is the way the game handles combat. The Paper Mario series has always been unusual in that regard; Pat Holleman has some great analysis of this in his Patreon, but one top-level take is that, because the numbers involved in attacks all fit within a small range, the combat in the games (and how that combat changes as you level up) has always felt quite different from traditional JRPGs: there just isn’t the room in Paper Mario games for the traditional JRPG numeric growth curve as you and your enemies level up.

In fact, what ended up happening in previous Paper Mario games is that, most of the time, a reasonable goal is to exit most battles having taken zero net damage. And so the combat ends up having a bit of a puzzle feel, where you try to figure out the right combination of choice of battle tactics, execution on those tactics, and badge equipping to let you defeat all the enemies while taking no more damage than your badges allow you to heal for free.

 

Combat in the previous games had a bit of a puzzle feel; The Origami King goes all in on that, where every battle is a tile-shifting puzzle. So, boss battles aside, you can literally finish every battle without getting hit at all, if you can solve the tile-shifting puzzle within the time permitted. (And if you pick the correct tier of weapon.)

This is a very different skill from other Paper Mario games, or indeed from the vast majority of other games period! It was interesting watching reviewers of the game grapple with this fact, because several of them were people who are good at platforming, good at RPGs, but who weren’t good at this sort of spatial puzzle. Which raises interesting questions about what we expect from a reviewer: it would be odd, for example, to read a review in a gaming publication of a first-person shooter where the reviewer wasn’t good at and familiar with the genre. But The Origami King just doesn’t fit into those genre boxes, and I’m sure when reviewers were being assigned to the launch reviews, it wasn’t so clear to them just what sort of beast the game was, and what that meant in practice. Which means that we got a glimpse of a world of what it would look like without an assumption of expertise for reviewers; I kind of think that that would be a healthier world, because it would in turn mean that reviews would be accepting of a larger segment of the potential player population for games, and that in turn would both put pressure on games to potentially appeal to a broader population and would give more space for games to play around with? Though the flip side is that there’s something valuable about digging down deeply into genre conventions, to explore more of the potential depth there.

Because of its unexpected nature, The Origami King also has to provide affordances for players of different levels of tile shifting skill. Money is fairly plentiful in the game, and you can use money to buy time and to get other forms of help in puzzles. But also the game contains accessories, and one kind of accessory gives you extra health in battle; the way this is implemented, if you, say, have 50 max health, get 10 extra health in the battle, and enter the battle in full health, then you’ll fight at 60/60 health; as long as you don’t get hurt for more than 10 points, then you’ll end up still at 50 health after the battle. Or if you enter the battle at 40 health, then you’ll start the battle at 50 out of 60 health, and if you don’t get hurt in the battle, then you’ll exit at full health. What this means is that you don’t have to be perfect in every battle: as long as you can find the correct solution half the time, you’ll end up spending most of the game at full health.

 

The battles are the most unusual thing about the game, but otherwise it’s a really well done Mario RPG game. You can poke around all over the place, whacking things with your hammer, and are rewarded for doing so (by finding origami toads, by hitting invisible blocks); and there are optional affordances to make it easier to track down that stuff, if you so choose. So there’s a nice video game “watch the numbers go up” feel (where the numbers in question are percentages of different kinds of items to have found), without that feeling abusive in any way: it’s an interesting game of understanding your environment, with many off-ramps when you feel like you’re banging your head too much.

And it’s a funny game. Nothing to write home in terms of overall plot, but individual lines and scenes were good, so I was always happy to talk to people and find out what was happening next.

It’s also one of the few games recently that Liesl and I have both been playing at the same time. Which is testament to the quality of the game, and to the fact that being a weird game doesn’t necessarily shrink the potential player base. And it was nice to see somebody else discovering stuff, and to learn from them; as I said above, I do think the game provided enough affordances for poking around and finding stuff, but still, sometimes it was nice to have Liesl point out something I missed.

 

Anyways, very good game. Not necessarily going to go down as one of the all-time greats or anything, but it’s extremely solid, and also unusual in ways that I was glad to experience.

i love hue too

November 10th, 2020

I Love Hue Too is, of course, the sequel to I Love Hue. That was a puzzle game about color gradients that I ended up liking a surprising amount, so I was excited to see the sequel.

The sequel has the same color gradient matching gameplay as the original, but with one significant change: rather than trying to fill in a uniform grid (of squares, of hexagons, of triangles), you’re instead trying to order the colors in a space that’s tiled with two different shapes. Which is a neat change, it gives a bit more texture to the experience.

So I started out rather enjoying I Love Hue Too: the initial puzzles are quite easy, of course, but they’re pleasant to interact with. The problem, though, is with the harder puzzles: in the original game, as you progressed in the puzzles, it started getting really unclear exactly what was wrong, you just knew that something didn’t look right and maybe one specific boundary between tiles was a sign that things were misplaced, but it wasn’t so clear how to fix it. So you had to train yourself to be sensitive to those subtle differences and to feel out moves that would improve things, eventually resolving all of that uncertainty.

With I Love Hue Too, though, the feeling even for hard puzzles was quite different: the multiple shapes meant that your search space was significantly smaller. Concretely, one of the shapes would be less common than the other one, and often much less common; so, if you start by focusing on that shape, then instead of having subtle color differences between adjacent tiles, you have much more noticeable color differences between nearby tiles of that shape. So it was much easier to solve the rarer shape, and once you’d done that, filling in the other shape in the gaps wasn’t a real challenge.

To be sure, I didn’t end up going through all the puzzles in the game: I still haven’t gone through the last several batches of puzzles. But I’m quite sure that, by the time I’d played I Love Hue that much, it had turned into something rather interesting and intense; maybe I Love Hue Too will eventually start touching on that feeling with its very hardest puzzles, but maybe it never will, and it certainly won’t spend as much time there.

Anyways, it’s not a bad game by any means; it’s pleasant enough. And if what you want is just a chill way to relax, I Love Hue Too is just as good as I Love Hue, and maybe even better? But the original game went to an unexpectedly deep place; the sequel just isn’t the same in that regard…

good sudoku

November 8th, 2020

Good Sudoku is, of course, a Sudoku app, but one that takes a rather different angle from most Sudoku apps: it wants to expose the conceptually interesting parts of solving Sudoku puzzles, instead of having you spend time on surface rules.

Some of this is done via mechanical shortcuts. Typically, a part of solving a Sudoku puzzle involves marking what the potential legal moves are for a given cell, based on the basic Sudoku rules: only allowing the numbers that don’t already occur in the same row / column / house. (A “house” is the term for one of the 3×3 groups that a Sudoku puzzle is divided into.) This is a purely mechanical operation, and a boring one; Good Sudoku gives you a single button to press to carry out this task for the entire board.

Also, once you’ve entered a number into a cell, Good Sudoku (like most other Sudoku apps I’ve used) automatically removes that number from the set of potential solutions for all the other cells that it’s connected to. But Good Sudoku goes further: for cells in the same house as the cell where you entered the solution, if there’s now only one possible number for that second cell, then Good Sudoku will automatically enter the solution for that second cell as well. This leads to a pleasant cascading effect, where entering one solution sets off a chain of other solutions; the developers decided (correctly, I think) to restrict that chain to single houses instead of the entire board, but it’s a noticeable reduction in busywork.

 

That’s the ergonomics of interacting with the app, removing a layer of busywork. But there’s a deeper point to this as well: Sudoku has some interesting patterns buried within it, and those patterns are a lot easier to see if you’re not spending all of your time at surface-level implications of the rules. And Good Sudoku wants to help you see those deeper patterns.

To that end, Good Sudoku has a few ways to gradually teach you about new techniques. At a given puzzle difficulty level, Good Sudoku has an explicit set of techniques that suffice for solving any puzzle that the game will throw at you. At the easiest level, those techniques are very basic: if a cell shares a row / column / house with every number but one, then that remaining number must be the value of that cell. Or if every cell but one in a given row shares a column / house with a specific number, then that number must be the value of that remaining cell. But, as you work up the difficulty levels, the techniques get quite a bit more subtle: for example, a technique called “X-Wing” says that if, for a given number and for two specific rows, and if that number only appears in two specific columns on both rows (same columns in both rows), then that number can’t show up in any other cells in those columns.

That last example sounds complicated! But Good Sudoku uses a few methods to help you learn that technique. It lets you highlight which squares can possibly contain a number, so if you’re aware of the technique, you’ve got a chance of seeing when it’s applicable. If you can’t find any way to make progress, there’s a Hint button, which will point out a technique that will help with the current state of the puzzle: it gives a description of the technique, shows you the squares that are involved, and, when you’ve carried it out correctly, confirms that you’ve done the right thing.

Also, the game tries to figure out what techniques you’re applying just by observing your actions; and, if it notices that you’ve correctly applied X-Wing three times without requiring a hint, it will congratulate you on learning the technique. And, if you like traditional book learning, there’s a technique guide available as well.

 

I can’t recall seeing a game that does this kind of on-demand instruction, or that deduces the intent behind your actions in this way. Honestly, a lot of human teachers don’t provide this sort of on-demand just-in-time instruction: human teachers have a habit of focusing on scripted book learning too! But Good Sudoku carries it off, and it’s very effective: I was decent at solving Sudoku puzzles before, but I’m much better at them now. Honestly, even if you don’t care about puzzles at all, Good Sudoku is well worth playing if you have any interest in computer-aided learning.

 

So, that’s the core of what makes Good Sudoku interesting. Now I’m going to go in a more tangential direction, though, about the nature of puzzle games.

The basic premise of a Sudoku game is simple enough: you’ve got the rules for the game, you’ve got some numbers filled in, and you want to fill in the rest of the numbers to get to a legal solution. But, it turns out that there are actually three different things that the phrase “solve a puzzle” can mean. One is “find any legal solution to the puzzle”. A second is “prove that there is a unique legal solution to the puzzle”. And the third is “assume that there is a unique legal solution to the puzzle, and find that solution”.

Temperamentally, when solving a puzzle, I’m usually going down the second route: I’ve seen puzzle games that go the first route, and they annoy me a little. Certainly in the past, when solving Sudoku puzzles, I’ve taken the second route.

I was vaguely aware, though, that there are actually techniques to solve Sudoku puzzles that go down the third route. Good Sudoku generally stays away from requiring those techniques, but if you select the highest difficulty level, then it’ll start using a technique called Unique Rectangles / Avoidable Rectangles. (Actually, it’s a family of techniques, but never mind that for now.)

 

So, when I made it to that difficulty level, I ended up learning Unique Rectangles. Which, in turn raises two questions: what do I think about that technique from a philosophical / aesthetic point of view, and do I actually enjoy using the technique?

As mentioned above, I don’t really feel great about using Unique Rectangles philosophically. But, once I learned how to use them, it turned out that they were kind of fun! So that helped me get over my misgivings: not only did it unlock a different level of puzzle, I ended up enjoying solving them.

And there were actually some other techniques where those feelings were flipped. From an aesthetic point of view, I really like the Y-Wing technique: it leads to a nice pure form of a proof by contradiction. And if I can spot one in a puzzle, then that’s great, I really enjoy that.

But spotting it requires finding a certain configuration of three different cells each of which has two legal numbers in a certain configuration. And, if you’ve got lots of cells in the puzzle with two possible numbers, then finding a triple that leads to a Y-Wing can take a lot of searching. So it was pretty common for me to think I’d searched everywhere, to not find anything, then to give up and ask for a hint, and for the game to point out a Y-Wing that I missed.

 

So that’s one question that the game raised: what kinds of techniques do I want to use, either from a point of view of propriety or from a point of view of enjoyment? But I also noticed something else while playing the game: I’d use techniques that weren’t on the game’s list at all.

Consider this puzzle:

If you imagine entering a 6 in the blue cell, then the cell at the top of that column has to be a 2, the cell beneath it has to be a 1, and the cell to the right of that one has to be a 5. Whereas if you instead put an 8 in the blue cell, then the cell diagonally beneath it to the right has to be a 1, and the cell at the top of that column has to be a 5. That’s the same cell that we ended up at before, so we’ve shown that, whether we start from a 6 or an 8, we end up with a 5 in that one cell, so we can go fill that in.

This is a lot like a Y-Wing, it just involves an extra step along one of the paths. And Good Sudoku will never give you a puzzle that requires you do this kind of multi-step deduction: every technique in the game is of the form “if these cells satisfy these properties then these other cells either can’t have or must have this number”.

 

I went along with that for a long time: trying to use the official techniques until I got stuck, then asking for a hint. And then, usually, being annoyed at myself for missing something in my search, but sometimes I learned something, even beyond my initial exposure to new techniques. (In particular, I wouldn’t have understood the depth that’s hidden behind the terms “Unique Rectangle” and “Avoidable Rectangle” if I hadn’t seen multiple variants in hints.) So I’m glad that I took that approach.

But, at some point, I got tired of doing that. Good Sudoku lets you mark individual numbers on a cell in blue, so, for a lark, I picked a cell with only two choices that seemed kind of central, marked one of the choices with blue, and started following a chain of deductions, marking more numbers with blue. And, ten or fifteen marks later, I had the same number in two cells that could see each other, so I knew my initial choice was wrong; I filled in the other choice, and had the whole puzzle solved in short order.

It turns out that that wasn’t a fluke: pretty reliably, once I got to where I was stuck, I could make progress by trying something out and seeing how things went. And it was more fun than banging my head against pattern matching: I was able to succeed without asking for hints, and also I was spending more of my time doing something active instead of staring at things and hoping I’d see a pattern.

 

This is something I’ve seen in other puzzle forms that I enjoy: I spend most of my time just narrowing down possibilities by finding and applying patterns, but it’s honestly sometimes a bit of a disappointment if that’s all that I’m doing. There’s something pleasant about going as far as I can through that route, feeling stuck, and then saying “this area looks funny, let me try something out there” and breaking through that way.

That approach isn’t what Good Sudoku is focused on, though. I’m actually curious what a Sudoku game would be like that did focus on that sort of exploration of the possibility space: fewer tools for pattern matching, more tools for trying out a hypothesis, and backtracking if that hypothesis didn’t pan out? But Good Sudoku provides enough tools: having two colors to mark numbers with plus an undo button is really all you need.

And, of course, I don’t want every game to try to please you in every way. Good Sudoku is very good at the approach that it takes, teaching skills in a way that I’ve literally never seen in software before. That alone would be enough; the fact that it then pushed me beyond its limits to teach me something about aesthetics and possibilities is a bonus.

yakuza kiwami

October 4th, 2020

I probably should have written about Yakuza Kiwami more quickly after playing it, but honestly I don’t have much to say about it. The series has totally turned into comfort food to me: the familiar cast of characters, the familiar location, the familiar patterns of gameplay.

And the dance between Majima and Kiryu; I think that’s one of the things that was added in the remake? Honestly felt like a bit much at the start, and then a bit much in a different way at the end, but in the middle, I liked that quite a bit.

Which is a part of one thing that surprised me about the game in general: I was surprised about how much of the optional stuff (Majima Everywhere, the side stories, even some of the minigames) I spent time on.

 

Not sure how to compare Kiwami to Yakuza 0. Obviously they have huge amounts in common; I kind of miss Sotenbori (as a place, as playing Majima, as cabaret management), but there’s something to be said to just diving into Kamurocho. I liked Haruka as a character (and I think she shows up more in future games?); I’m a little sad how things turned out with Nishikiyama, but not necessarily sad in a bad way, the game earned at least some amount of the payoff there. It was kind of neat building your original fighting style back up, and also having an excuse to learn the other fighting styles in the meantime; I feel like that aspect of the game might have worked better here than in Yakuza 0? (At least once I realized that, yes, you really do have to change fighting styles, you can’t just stick with your original one: I had one very long miniboss battle before I realized that.)

Anyways: very good game, great series. I’d been thinking I’d play through the series at about a rate of one game per year, and that’s still my tentative plan, but I am getting more tempted to just mainline the series…

the app store

September 29th, 2020

I hope that the way Apple runs its App Store is finally coming to a head; certainly the tone of the discussion around Apple’s behavior has changed this summer, though who knows what will actually end up happening.

I also think it’s at least a somewhat subtle problem; so I’m writing down some notes on the different aspects I see of the situation, to try to better ground how I should think about it, before talking about possible improvements.

Considerations

Here’s a list of factors that go into how I think about the situation.

Computer security is important and hard

Obviously.

Sandboxing is an useful tool for improving security

I feel like apps on my phone are less likely to be malicious than apps on a computer, and sandboxing has a lot to do with that.

By ‘sandboxing’ I don’t just mean that different apps can’t see each other’s stuff, but that they also don’t have access by default to system services (contacts, photo libraries, sending notifications, etc.).

A lot of important security issues are social and/or go beyond the device

E.g. being able to trust your payment system has real value: being able to trust that you’re not going to get malicious charges, that you’ll be able to cancel recurring subscriptions when you want, etc.

Apple likes money

I don’t blame them, I like money too! (Also, full disclosure, I actually do have some amount of Apple stock, so I have a personal interest in Apple getting money.)

Apple feels entitled to money

From the outside, it looks like Apple feels like they deserve a share of any transaction that involves one of their products somehow. Makes me glad the Apple Car never showed up, I feel like Apple would want to take 30% of my paycheck if I used one to drive to work…

Apple likes control

Or maybe: Apple is nervous about app developers. They want Apple-provided aspects of their platforms to be more important to users than non-Apple-provided aspects.

User experience is important but not primary to Apple

Witness their continued refusal to allow Amazon to sell books in the Kindle App, or to allow Netflix to provide any sort of in-app indication as to how you get the login credentials that the app requires.

Apple wants control over content, not just safety

As Apple’s guidelines formerly stated:

We view apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.

That wording isn’t there any more, but the general restrictions remain. And Apple has used this to reject apps taking a serious look at real-world situations, including apps that comment on Apple itself.

Letting Apple control its stack has been a good thing

Apple has repeatedly made huge advances in how we interact with computing; their control over the software and hardware (down to the chip level!) has been a huge part in that.

Apple holds half of a duopoly on one of the most important classes of device that has ever existed

Once you’re in a billion pockets, the calculus changes for how people might reasonably want to restrict your behavior.

Developers can’t count on the rules

Apple changes not just the rules but their interpretation of the rules without notice, to the extent that entire business models for developers can be invalidated without warning.

What To Do?

I have no idea what Apple will actually do, or how Congress and the courts will decide to change or interpret antitrust law. But I’m going to talk about what I, personally, would like to have happen.

I really like feeling that apps on my phone are safe to install and use. And in general I have a pretty strong default belief that it’s good for companies to be able to make useful stuff and earn money off of that, even quite a lot of money.

But, ultimately, what matters is what’s good for society, not what’s good for an individual company; smart phones are hugely important devices in billions of people’s lives, their operating system is controlled by a duopoly. So I’d be surprised if the outcome that’s best for society is to let the manufacturers of those phones and phone operating systems do whatever they want.

 

I’m a developer; I don’t work on iOS software, but I very much appreciate being able to use good third-party software, and I want my fellow developers to be able to have a good living making that software! Most of my time on devices is spent with third-party software rather than OS-provided software, and I want more of that rather than less.

Also, as somebody who cares about art in general and video games in particular, the way Apple censors and infantilizes games on its platform feels wrong to me at a fairly fundamental level.

Reading through my list of considerations with that in mind, I want to keep sandboxing, and in general I’m happy to have Apple make money in areas where they’re competing. But I want them to have to compete, instead of setting up rules that give them an unfair advantage. (Especially when those rules lead to a worse user experience or when the rules change capriciously!) And I don’t want content restrictions on what kinds of subjects games (or other apps) can cover.

 

So: break app review into two parts. Keep the part of app review that’s directly tied to on-device security (sandboxing in particular), keep the operating system constraints that back those up. But get rid of app review for content, and get rid of app review for payment. Yes, there are real user benefits to using Apple’s payment platform, and I personally would choose to use apps that go with Apple’s system, all other things being equal. But all other things aren’t equal; so sometimes I pay for items in other ways on web pages, I can do it in apps too.

And, as part of this, allow users to download security-vetted apps from anywhere: other app stores, individual developers’ pages. Don’t put up a permissions dialogue with big scary language for this: just allow it, the goal here is to get a thriving app ecosystem.

And the other advantage of allowing multiple app stores is that, as far as I’m concerned, Apple can then put whatever additional restrictions it wants on apps through its own app store. And, honestly, I would like Apple to put more restrictions on what it allows in its app store! (Only once it’s allowed third-party app stores, to be clear.) Apple, please, have some self-respect as to what you allow in your app store: it’s full of scammy apps, of copycat apps, of apps that I’m sure many people at Apple aren’t proud of. So get rid of those, show the rest of us your vision for what a good third-party app is!

Apple will have to find a way to pay for the manual labor involved in security review, if there is any. And removing content restrictions while leaving in manual review can impose psychological costs on reviewers. I don’t want to go into details here but these both feel like tractable problems to me. And, of course, automate the security review as much as possible, and, as much as possible, enforce it via the OS rather than via review in the first place.

 

I’ve also heard people advocate for a “developer mode” that power users can put their devices in that loosens restrictions still further, even breaking down sandboxing. I’m mostly dubious of that as a solution to most of the issues I’ve talked about here, because I think something like that should be implemented in a way that scares users, which means that it won’t lead to thriving broad app markets. Though I’m more sympathetic to a developer mode for the iPad: I’d like for it to be a real development machine, and Apple hasn’t figured out how to do that within its current OS constraints.

But, seeing how home screen customization has taken off with the release of iOS 14, I’ve changed my mind: it’s important to let people do stuff with their devices that the OS developer didn’t intend. So yeah, let people use the devices that they bought as general purpose computer if that’s what they want!

 

But, for now, what I want is to allow widespread app distribution while keeping core security restrictions: that feels to me like a much healthier position to be in than our current state.

visual novel grab bag

August 23rd, 2020

A few short visual novels that I played recently between larger games:

Eliza

There’s some good stuff there, but it didn’t quite click for me. It’s about a woman who had a key role in what I think was a skunkworks project in a tech company, who left and disappeared for a few years, and who has re-emerged, poking at her former project in an unusual way. Which is an interesting premise; but ultimately I thought it didn’t come together.

I actually kind of wish Eliza had been a little less interactive, at least in one key way. The game leads up to a big choice where you have to decide from five significantly different ways you want the protagonist to respond. And, tracing back, the game had to make those five different ways feel plausible, which in turn meant that the designers had to leave the main character be a bit of a cipher? Whereas I felt that she was potentially pretty interesting, so I think I’d have preferred a game where I’d gotten to understand her better.

Or maybe it’s just that I didn’t like those final choices. Because those five choices consisted of three choices of the form “the protagonist will do what this or that NPC wants her to do”, one choice of the form “the protagonist will do thing X that she wants to do”, and one choice that was basically a shrug. The first three choices made very little sense to me: some of them made no sense whatsoever, and while I could imagine one of them making a sense if it was supported well, it wasn’t supported well. I wanted to make the choice where the protagonist did thing X that she wanted to do, but I wasn’t actually convinced at all that that specific path is what she wanted to go down. (I wish there had been three different choices of doing different things that she wanted to do and only one choice of her doing what somebody else wanted; if that had been the options, I suspect I would have found that one of the choices for her to act would have made sense.) So I ended up with the fifth choice; unsurprisingly, it wasn’t satisfying, either.

It did come with a good solitaire game, though. And the main character and setting were potentially pretty neat, and I liked the visual design and voice acting! Ah well…

Mutazione

Not sure if calling this a visual novel is quite right, to be honest, but it is a very narrative-heavy game. And it’s rather good: charming, but also meaningful? The protagonist is visiting her grandfather in a small island town; and it turns out that that’s a pretty good way to get at some real stuff around interpersonal relationships, around worries and pains and recovery. And the mixing in of supernatural stuff and the art style both worked for me, too. Quite glad that I played it.

Necrobarista

I started off kind of cool on this game: the writing was trying too hard, the first-person navigation during the interludes didn’t really work for me, and I don’t think I’ve ever had my iPad heat up before. But I turned around on the game in the second half; it’s a game about a group of misfits dealing with personal issues, and it works pretty well as that?

death stranding

August 3rd, 2020

So: Death Stranding. It’s actually the first Kojima game that I’ve played, or at least that I’ve finished: I dipped into the first Metal Gear Solid a while back, but it wasn’t really my thing, and I haven’t played any of his subsequent games.

It turns out, though, that I kind of like Kojima’s approach to world building, at least if Death Stranding is representative. Like, the basic world building doesn’t make sense, but that’s okay: it’s coherent and stylish enough? For a while, I actually was wondering if I was getting a Killer 7 vibe; ultimately, I decided that no, I wasn’t, but still, I respect a game that’s doing its own thing.

The way the game’s worldbuilding played into the combat was something that I wasn’t so into: I set the difficulty down to Easy fairly early on, and that was definitely the right choice. But the way the game’s worldbuilding played into the navigation and package delivery: that’s a completely different matter.

 

This isn’t an original observation, but: I started playing Death Stranding soon after COVID started, and it is shocking how well the two pair together. (I came to Death Stranding after Kentucky Route Zero, and I mixed in some Animal Crossing as well; I can’t imagine a more topical trio of games.) You’re playing as a character who doesn’t want to be touched, traveling through a mostly empty world to keep isolated outposts in connection by delivering packages and putting them online: yes, this is relevant.

But also: even setting COVID aside, Death Stranding turns out to be totally my thing. You spend a large portion of your game time traversing environments; the game treats this with respect, as something that’s a worthy activity on its own right.

I’ve played through so many RPGs that have you traveling from place to place, that constantly interrupt that traveling through battles, and where, if you skip those battles; you’ll find that upcoming required battles are somewhere between unpleasantly difficult and impossible. In a game like that, the priorities are clear: traversal is tertiary, battles are secondary, the leveling curve is primary. Whereas, in Death Stranding, most of the time, you’re just trying to get yourself and whatever stuff you’re carrying from A to B (possibly with the idea in mind of traveling to C after that): the game makes it clear that this is a worthy activity, even a primary activity on its own, one that the game actively leaves space for you to enjoy.

Challenges are present during your traversals, but they mostly take the form of the environment: making it through mountains or past bodies of water while carrying large amounts of cargo, trying to stay out of the rain. There are occasionally enemies: some are humans, some are supernatural creatures, and in general my feeling is that their presence mostly makes the game slightly worse; after turning the difficulty down to Easy, though, they were fine, and there was some benefit in terms of the occasional heightened edge that it gave to certain of your traversals. And the supernatural creatures tied in with the overall plot, and the game generally only seriously deployed them in a way that did help with the overall frame story; I’m less convinced that the human enemies added anything to the game, but, if you’re playing in Easy, it’s easy enough to beat up all the enemies in a region, after which they won’t respawn for many many hours, quite possibly not until you’ve left that region of the game.

 

The traversal isn’t an isolated activity, though, either in gameplay terms or philosophical terms. You’re traveling from place to place to help people, and to help rebuild a world. And that notion of a collective rebuilding effort is reflected in the gameplay as well.

In terms of rebuilding, the environments have places where roads are planned; if you deliver materials to them, then an auto-paver will come alive, and all of a sudden, you’ll have a nice smooth road cutting through some hills or even making a path around mountains; it makes things easier on foot, and makes it possible to haul large amounts of cargo by truck. And, for areas less amenable to roads, you’ll eventually unlock the ability to build ziplines to quickly take you from place to place, over ravines and up and down mountains; makes traveling hugely easier, and they’re fun as well! You can only have so many ziplines, but you can also place ropes and ladders to let you navigate particularly steep bits.

But it’s not just you doing this: the game’s world is a loosely shared world. So you’ll periodically get a notification that somebody else has delivered materials to one of the road’s auto-pavers; or you’ll come across zipline pylons that another characters has placed. The game does something interesting with the shared world nature: as far as I can tell, I don’t have access to all the structures that some fixed set of other players have placed, I only see a subset of their structures. But it’s enough to make a real difference: on an emotional level, it makes you feel like part of a group with a common goal, and on a practical level, it’s quite a bit easier to traverse a region once you’ve hooked it onto the game’s version of the internet and other players’ ropes and ladders and pylons pop into view.

 

So there’s something at the core of Death Stranding that I really like: it’s about an embodied world, about a collective world, about making things better in concrete ways. Yes, there’s this big overarching plot, and that plot is kind of remarkable in its own way. But there’s something more unusual and more powerful at its heart.

apple arcade games, round two

June 21st, 2020

My PS4 bricked itself during a system update a couple of months ago, so I needed to take a break from playing Death Stranding. Which was bad timing: Sony’s repair centers were closed because of COVID. (They reopened this past week, so hopefully I’ll get it repaired soon…) I decided the next large game I’d play would be the Switch version of Tokyo Mirage Sessions, but first I decided try out a few more Apple Arcade games.

Notes on the games I tried:

Sayonara Wild Hearts

I gave this one another try: I went through the whole thing again in the full album playthrough version, and also played through the first level or two a few times to get a gold medal. Still didn’t click for me: stylish, though.

Roundguard

I played it for a few hours, enough make it through the first boss once on the first character. I don’t yet have a feel for whether I think there’s something there: there’s an awful lot of randomness inherent to the second-to-second play of a Peggle-style game, and to me that seems fairly seriously at odds with the kind of potential control you’d want in a Roguelike? But maybe there’s more skill than is evident (I haven’t played the original Peggle much), or maybe they’ve designed the game in such a way that the randomness doesn’t matter as much as it seems, that you can manage it okay once you know when to spend your magic and how to best use your upgrades? I’m certainly willing to believe it’s the latter one, but ultimately I decided that, if I was going to spend time on a Roguelike, I should stick to Slay the Spire. (Which I’m playing a lot again, and which I like quite a bit more than I did when I first posted about it, I’ve gotten over the initial learning curve hump and I like what I see on the other side. Incidentally, they just released it on iOS, and I prefer the iPad interface over the Switch interface, but it’s great either place.)

Hexaflip

The only Apple Arcade game I’ve seen with a privacy policy when you launch it; I should have deleted it then, but I pressed on, and it’s an uninspired action puzzle game with a free to play energy mechanic only barely removed. By far the slimiest feeling game that I’ve played on the service.

Tangle Tower

A Phoenix Wright-ish detective game. Doesn’t have the same soul, and I was a little afraid that I’d miss stuff in the hunting and pecking through rooms and in the logic deduction, but it ended up having a decent system to support the player and help me not get stuck? Pleasant, even somewhat charming; happy to have spent three hours or so with it, not something that I would actively recommend, but if you’re already subscribed to Apple Arcade and have some time to kill, it’s not a bad choice? (I’m surprised they’re charging $20 for it on Steam, though.)

Manifold Garden

This one honestly probably deserves a post of its own. A 3D puzzle game that’s well worth playing: good core mechanics: you can change gravity so that any of the six directions of walls can be down, and sections of the world are like a 3D torus. Which takes a while to wrap your head around, but basically you can get to almost anywhere you want by combining those two facts. So you get used to the consequences of that for a few hours, and learn about a couple more mechanics and rules of engagement; and they do a very good job of dribbling out the learning, keeping me feeling smart most of the time, feeling frustrated some of the time, but always making it past my frustration. (I was very close to having to look things up in a walkthrough once or twice, but I didn’t.) And also the game didn’t outstay its welcome, and was divided up into sections that were well paced for making progress over an evening.

Also, the graphics style is super distinctive, in a way that worked for me; I certainly wouldn’t want every game to look like this, but the rectilinear nature, the symmetry of the six directions, and the repeating nature of the geometries added up to something honestly kind of special.

It’s playable with touchscreen controls, but they made one bad choice there (around the controls for dropping blocks) that was frustrating and kind of an unforced error. So most of the time I played it with an Xbox controller; and then I ran into a problem where using the controller interferes with Bluetooth audio through my AirPods. Which is a problem, since Apple removed the headphone jack on the current iPad Pros! So I’m annoyed at Apple both because of the wireless interference bug (I mean, maybe I’ve got a bad Xbox controller, but I doubt it) and because of the lack of headphone jack. Still, it’s a good enough game that I recommend giving it a try even if you have Apple Arcade but don’t have a controller; if I’d been in that position, I probably would have given up after an hour and a half, but I also still would have felt that that hour and a half was interesting and rewarding?

Spelldrifter

This game calls itself a Deck Building Tactical RPG, which sounds fun? But when I gave it a try it didn’t click for me. Part of that is that it didn’t match what I think of as a deck builder: when I went through the introduction (which was fairly lengthy, and included arcs for four separate characters), there wasn’t any deck building: your deck did increase in size, but in ways that were completely predetermined. Which maybe makes sense from a didactic point of view if you want to teach people how the mechanics work, but which wasn’t at all what I expected given the label.

It did seem to open up after the intro, giving me an option to construct a deck, but I guess it’s a game about selecting a complete deck instead of about gradually growing a deck? Presumably your card pool continues to change as you progress through the game, though.

I’m also not entirely convinced that card play and tactical RPG elements are a combination I particularly enjoy: I’m not sure but I suspect that I prefer games that focus more on one side or the other.

Anyways, I’m willing to believe that there’s something here, I don’t feel like I’ve given it a fair shake; but, as per the above, right now I’d rather spend my time on Slay the Spire.