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chicory

October 3rd, 2021

Chicory is, basically, a game in the style of a 2D Zelda but with almost all of the combat removed and with the game themed around coloring the world. (At the start of the game, all color has been drained from the world; you’ve got a paintbrush that you can use to paint colors back in.) These all sound like things that I like, and I did in fact end up rather enjoying Chicory, but it took me a while to get there.

It started off pleasantly enough; the initial theme is introduced, you’ve got a village to wander around and some people to talk to, and an initial task to accomplish. Which requires wandering around a forest a bit, discovering how some of the plants interact with your paintbrush, and doing a bit of puzzle solving that follows from that. Then you get to a boss battle (which does involve light combat, unlike the exploration parts), and you get a paint brush upgrade which allows you to reach other parts of the overworld along with a narrative push to go to those other parts.

And that’s all to the good. The only real disappointment there was the painting: at (almost) any given point, you only have four colors to choose from, and very little fine-grained control over your brush. So it’s hard to see the painting as a form of personal expression: it’s more like somebody gave you four buckets of paint and said “if you feel like it, you can slosh these buckets of paint over stuff”. Which just isn’t that rewarding.

The flip side, though, is that I’m actually not much of an artist. So if the game were to go in more on having me express myself through painting tools, I probably actually wouldn’t have enjoyed that? Or at least I wouldn’t have enjoyed that if I had to do it too much; in Chicory, there are a few places that nudge you to do some painting, maybe designing a logo for a store or maybe taking some classes in an art academy. And, in each of those locations, I basically enjoyed doing what I was asked to do (and some of the paintings I ended up with were kind of charming), but also, I only did the minimal amount that each location asked of me.

So, in some sense, I actually think the game made some pretty good choices there: supporting players like me (and, I suspect, like a lot of other potential players) that are a lot more into the narrative and puzzle solving aspects of the game than the creative aspects of the game. I still feel like there’s something missing there, that they didn’t get the tools quite right, but in practice, the painting was fine.

 

Anyways, after that first bit, the game continues pretty much like you’d expect. You fight a boss, you get a brush power; that gives you an ability to travel past obstacles that you couldn’t travel past before, and also enables new forms of environmental puzzles for you to solve. And, as you travel, you’ll see hints of future puzzles / obstacles that you expect will be unlocked by future brush powers, leading you to wonder a bit about the details of what’s coming. All good stuff; and I enjoyed the puzzles.

But also all a little samey, like I’ve seen this before? Not entirely: having no combat in the overworld is certainly unusual, and the various capabilities that the brush enables are different from, say, the traditional powerups in a Zelda game. So it’s not a pure retread or anything; but I can imagine a game being more novel.

Also, while I’m lightly complaining about things: I’m not so sure about the boss battle combat. I do support having a game that mostly avoids combat but does still include boss battles; one of the best video games of all time does exactly that. Unlike Shadow of the Colossus, though, Chicory has a style where you don’t want the boss battles to be too hard. And, in general, they aren’t, and if you do die, the game just plunks you right back at the current phase of the boss fight that you were at, so you don’t lose much, and if you die too many times, the game starts nudging you to take extra lives.

But also, the combat in the boss battles is all about simultaneously dodging enemy attacks with the left thumbstick while having you paint a moving enemy with your right thumbstick. So you have to pay attention to two different parts of the screen and use your two thumbsticks to control two different actions corresponding to those two parts of the screen. And in some sense that’s actually pretty hard, it’s asking you to something that’s rather more perceptually complicated than a game where you’re running around the boss and trying to figure when to whack it and when to dodge. It’s not as bad as it could be, because most of the time you can either be in a mental mode of “move my character to escape the enemy attacks” or in a mental mode of “move the paintbrush over to the boss so I can damage it”, so in practice most of the time you only have to worry about half of the potential complexity, but still, there is something complex there. And maybe that’s okay! It was just a little unexpected.

 

So, at my halfway point through Chicory, I was starting to get a little down on the game: it was pleasant enough, but I’d hoped for a little more than I was seeing.

But then I started getting impressed by the game, for a different reason. (And not one I was expecting going in.) The game, of course, has a plot: the world has a single brush wielder, you’ve suddenly gotten put into that role, and there’s something going wrong that you need to deal with, as manifested by the colors disappearing and these weird trees that are starting to crop up.

As part of this, the question of “why was I chosen as the brush wielder, and am I really up for the task?” arises; no big surprise there, except maybe for the slightly unusual wrinkle that your predecessor and even a couple of other earlier brush wielders are still around: they’ve handed over the brush but they’re not dead.

That latter bit turns out to go in ways that I for one didn’t really expect, though. It’s not, of course, shocking for a game that leads off with colors disappearing from the world to touch with themes of depression. But what was a little surprising, at least for me, is that the depression didn’t show up in the main character: the character you play certainly has their difficulties to deal with (generally related to the fact that they’ve been suddenly thrust into a role that they’re not particularly prepared for), but also, the adults around them have issues too.

So Chicory turns out to be a rather lovely game that, in part, has you grapple with the fact that adults and authority figures not only don’t have all the answers, they’re also real people who are going through stuff that can be pretty hard to deal with. And I think the game handles this pretty well: it looks at that from the point of view of an adolescent coming of age who realizes that the adults around them are people with problems, and it also looks at that from the point of view of adults who have problems, and who don’t have things magically figured out just because they’re older and in a position of authority. Chicory handles this all in a kind, nuanced way, not minimizing problems that people have or the effects of those problems but also not treating those problems as reflecting some sort of grand moral statement or anything.

(Except that the game does end with a surprising moral statement, and it’s a good one! So yay on Chicory for that, too.)

 

So, ultimately: good game. The basic mechanics are solid, so if you like 2D adventure games, you’ll probably like Chicory fine? And it turns out that there’s also something deeper going on; it wasn’t what I expected going in, but once I stopped focusing on what I was expected and started listening a little more to other aspects of the story, I liked what I found.

fill-a-pix

September 26th, 2021

Conceptis has a bunch of very good mobile puzzle apps; probably my favorite three puzzle types of theirs are Slitherlink, Nurikabe, and Fill-a-Pix, but most of them are good enough that I play the free puzzles every week, and I probably buy one paid puzzle packs of one type or another from Conceptis every week on average.

Looking at those three puzzle types, I guess it’s a pretty clear sign that I like puzzles where you build out the solution locally, with a sort of geometric / organic feel to them? And puzzles with a rhythm of watching the puzzle grow as you do fairly obvious (but pleasant!) stuff for a while, then stopping and thinking until you can find a non-obvious way to progress somewhere, and then going back to obvious mode. (Admittedly, that last sentence describes an awful lot of puzzle types!)

 

Anyways, I want to talk about Fill-a-Pix. Conceptis actually classifies their Fill-a-Pix puzzles into two buckets: Basic, which can be solved purely by directly applying the rules, and Advanced, which require you to apply techniques that are consequences of the rules rather than restatements of the rules. And their UI supports this distinction, allowing you to switch between single-cell control and 3×3-group-of-cells control, where the latter tries to apply the rules directly.

Fill-a-Pix is, I think, unique among their puzzle types in having Conceptis make that specific distinction; part of the strength of the puzzle is that Basic puzzles really are quite pleasant to fill out, and sometimes I actually do get stuck for a minute or so trying to find the next place to continue. At least I get stuck if I limit myself to the direct techniques that Basic uses; I like to do that because it’s a pleasant restriction and because it’s useful practice to be able to see the foundational deductions quickly.

The Advanced puzzles are quite a bit more interesting, though. As with pretty much all interesting puzzle types, there are theorems that you can prove from the rules; they’re of the form of “if you have a group of cells with certain numbers in some of them matching some constraints and with some of the cells known to be filled or empty, then you can prove that certain other cells much also be filled/empty”. In Fill-a-Pix, these theorems are all basically algebra combined with constraints on needing small positive integer solutions; some of them I found quickly, some of them I found a little later as I got over the hump of being able to do Advanced puzzles, but I can think of one kind of subtle theorem that I only discovered after a year or two of doing these puzzles. (And who knows, maybe there are other useful theorems waiting for me to discover them!)

 

I’ve now settled into doing Advanced 50×75 grid puzzles on my iPad; I enjoy solving them while listening to podcasts, and, at that size, a single puzzle will take me a while. Looking at the last few I’ve solved, about half of them took me less than an hour and about half of them took me more than an hour, and it’s not surprising for one puzzle to take two or three hours.

And one thing about puzzles of that size is how the locality of solving the puzzle plays out. On the one hand, you absolutely have to focus on local areas: there’s no way you can think about 3750 different possible squares all at once! So instead I’ll pick some area to start (generally a place where there are some 0’s or 9’s near each other, so I’ve got some known empty / filled squares to work with), and I’ll see what I can figure out there, growing the known area by applying the basic rules, by applying simple theorems, by applying more complicated theorems. And then, once I get stuck, I’ll pick another part of the puzzle to work on, and rinse and repeat. And hopefully the different areas that I’m figuring out will merge, and I’ll solve the whole thing.

 

The problem, though, is: what if the areas that you’ve solved don’t merge? What if you end up having five or six blobs in different places in the puzzle, with those blobs being potentially pretty large, but still in total only adding up to half or two thirds of the puzzle? At this point, with the puzzle size that I’m working with, I might still have 1500 unknown squares; that’s a lot.

And, making things worse, Fill-A-Pix hits a fairly steep wall when you fall back to a speculative search strategy. You can try picking a square that seems key in some way, setting it to either filled or empty depending on which one you think is less likely to be true, and then applying deductions from that, hoping that you get a contradiction. And yes, sometimes that works, but a lot of the time it won’t; so, when I’m in that situation, it can often take me quite a few guesses before I manage to actually make stable progress.

But even a succesful speculative search doesn’t necessarily get me out of hot water! Sure, I now know the status of one square; and generally I try out squares where I know that I’ll be able to figure out more stuff locally if I can just prove that a certain square is, say, filled. But if I’m really only two-thirds of the way through the puzzle, then those deductions will almost certainly peter out at some point, at which point I’ll be just as stuck as I was twenty minutes earlier.

 

Which brings me to the reason why I’m blogging about Fill-a-Pix, as opposed to one of the other puzzle types that I like: much more than other puzzle types, a key part of my problem solving strategy (at least with the 50×75 Advanced puzzles) is: think about things really hard! And, if you can’t figure out what to do next, think even harder!

Because it turns out that, if I think hard enough, I really can figure out what to do locally. But, to do that, I have dig pretty seriously into one specific part of the boundary between the known region and the unknown region. Are there any theorems that I can apply that I just missed? (Which is the most common case: I’ve trained my pattern recognition skills pretty well, but even so, I miss stuff.) Or can I zoom in on a specific area and combine a multi-step deduction from this side of that area with a multi-step deduction from the other side of the area and prove that one specific square in the middle has a given value?

That latter kind of deduction is harder to come up with; so I used to bail out before reaching that stage, and just move to a different part of the puzzle. But what I found was that I really wasn’t saving myself time by doing that: I’d still end up having to do hard work once I’d used up the easier work, and when I got to that stage, I’d have way too many places to consider. Whereas if I focus on smaller regions of the puzzle, I can get to know those regions pretty well, and that makes it easier for me to make leaps.

 

So, these days, I really try pretty hard to extend a known blob, instead of jumping to a different part of the map; and in fact I’ll usually extend one part of the boundary in one specific direction, so I have a very specific area that I’m working on. If I can’t do that, eventually I’ll go to the other end of that same boundary, and see if I can extend it in the other direction; and eventually I’ll even give up on that and jump to a different section of the puzzle. (But hopefully a section that’s not too far away, so I can have a hope of merging the new blob with the older blob.)

Once I get to that stage, though, I’ll work even harder to not have to jump to yet another place in the puzzle. Because what I’ve learned is that, if I’ve got two blobs of the puzzle that I’m working on, the chances are very high that I’ll be able to make progress on one of those blobs. And if I’ve got three blobs, then I almost certainly can figure out something in one of them. So I try to never get into a situation any more where I’ve got, say, six different blobs that I’m trying to grow; long before then, I’ll decide that I didn’t in retrospect think hard enough about one of my earlier sections, and I’ll go back to it.

 

It’s been a long time since I’ve been a professional mathematician, but, in a way, I think Fill-A-Pix reminds me of doing math? You’re trying to make progress and bring clarity to a situation; you’ve got a bucket of techniques that you can apply, and they’ll let you make deductions locally, but you don’t know in advance which deductions will be the correct / useful ones even locally. And, even if you do improve your understanding of the situation locally, you might continue to be at sea in trying to understand the larger situation that you’re tackling. But hopefully, if you think hard enough, you’ll break through.

At least, with Fill-A-Pix, you know that there is going to be a solution, though…

the great ace attorney chronicles

September 12th, 2021

I don’t have a ton to say about The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles: it’s a Phoenix Wright game, and it’s a quite good one. I think, mechanically, it’s probably the best of the series? The rough edges have been filed off (while still leaving you with plenty to figure out), the additions that they’ve kept from previous games are good ones, and the new stuff that’s been added is quite solid.

And it’s a solid cast of characters. A pleasant enough main character and assistant; Herlock Sholmes and his daughter give a nice comedy break (and also a rather good / amusing new mechanic); and of course there’s a prosecutor to win over.

Having said that: Phoenix and Edgeworth were really quite special, and Maya was pretty neat, too. And I don’t think that the characters and pairings in The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles quite reach that level?

Anyways: a solid entry in a solid series. It doesn’t quite put together the magic of the original trilogy, but very few games do; it’s as good as any game in the series since then, and better than most.

super metroid

September 9th, 2021

I never had an SNES, so I’ve played very few games that originally came out on that system. So, while I’ve played Metroid Prime and its sequels, and I’m almost positive I played Metroid Fusion and Metroid: Zero Mission, I never played Super Metroid.

Super Metroid kept on coming up in conversation, though, so I figured I should fill in that gap soon. And, conveniently, somebody then suggested it as our August VGHVI game, giving me a lovely nudge into playing it.

 

And it’s good! But also, more surprising than I expected? There were some ways that it was different than I’m used to that felt like a sign of its times: it had a hard time cramming all of what it wanted to do onto a controller, so the select button was way too crucial. Which worked particularly badly for me with the Switch controller layout (either with the pro controller or the joycons); I actually ended up just getting a Switch SNES controller, and the button positioning really did feel better there. But still, too few buttons.

And also one or two of the bosses felt a little bit gratuitously punishing; not awful; but I feel like more recent games would have made slightly different choices there?

 

But the more interesting difference was how often I felt a bit at sea, but in a mostly good way. My memory of the other Metroid games that I’ve played is that it was always fairly clear what to do next; there was always the question of whether or not you wanted to backtrack, but that was mostly a question of finding treats rather than new core abilities? (I’m honestly not sure, I could be misremembering that aspect.) And, also, I feel like most of the time I could backtrack if I wanted, or pushing forward felt fine, too.

With Super Metroid, though, I felt much more uncertain. It actually reminded me a lot more of Hollow Knight than of other Metroid games: I’d go into a new area, I’d push on for a bit, and then I’d start to feel like I wasn’t sure that I’d been wise to go forward as far as I had; and, in fact, maybe I couldn’t even make it back to prior areas, either because I was too low in health or because I’d gone down in a way that I didn’t yet know how to go up?

Either way, I’d press on (somewhat gingerly!), hoping that I’d uncover something that would change my fortunes. And, sure enough, I would; usually a power-up, but also possibly a new route back to an earlier area. And then I’d have the question: do I want to keep on going in the new area, or should I go back to earlier areas, hoping that I’d uncover something interesting with my new capabilities?

Surprisingly often, the latter turned out to be the right answer, giving me new powers that were either essential or very useful in dealing with what was ahead. But also, surprisingly often, I felt like the game would have been okay with just having me not notice where to get those power-ups, and to have me continue, making the game harder for myself without even realizing what I’d missed.

 

And, as the map grew larger, surprisingly often, it turned out to be really not obvious where to go next to make it past a hard gate. That uncertainty was again reminiscent of Hollow Knight; though I feel like, with Hollow Knight, there really was more choice as to which area to explore next once you got to where the game was really opening up.

I tried to play without a walkthrough (though I frequently looked at the manual, since I remember how important manuals were back then, and I’m quite glad I did!); I eventually gave up and looked at a walkthrough in a couple of places where I got stuck, but in general, I tried to live with uncertainty about what to do much more frequently than I do with most games these days.

 

All in all, I really appreciated the experience; I’m glad I went back and played the game, partly for historical reasons but in large part because I did quite enjoy it. The map and challenges are very well constructed, having you alternate between feeling uncertain and tentative versus feeling clever and powerful. And the uncertainty showed itself in a way that I don’t see so often these days, and that, to be honest, I don’t want to see most of the time; but with Super Metroid I had enough confidence in the game designers that I was willing to stick it out and was glad I did.

Having said that, though: Super Metroid is a game of its time. I’ve brought up Hollow Knight several times, and I think that, in some sense, Hollow Knight is a strictly better game across multiple dimensions. But of course Hollow Knight wouldn’t exist without Super Metroid as one of its predecessors; games are always learning from its past, and I bet that, if I’d played Super Metroid when it came out, I would have felt that it was similarly at the top of its genre. (So maybe it’s not so much a game of its time as a game that redefined its time…)

Or, going in another direction, Metroid Prime also improves over Super Metroid in multiple ways. That comparison feels a little less direct in some sense, because I feel like Metroid Prime isn’t trying to do quite the same sorts of things as Super Metroid, so I can’t say that Prime is a strict improvement over its predecessor.

At any rate, a game that’s had such influence and that still holds up on its own almost three decades later is one to celebrate.

friends at the table

August 29th, 2021

I listen to a handful of role playing game podcasts; almost all of them use Dungeons and Dragons as their system, but there’s one exception to that, Friends at the Table. For a while, I was slowly going through the Friends at the Table back catalog, but over the last half year or so, my pace of listening to episodes of the show has sped up quite a bit. And, in particular, their last two completed seasons as of when I’m writing this (Spring in Hieron and PARTIZAN) are, I think, kind of special?

And the way in which those seasons are special has to do with the fact that they’re not using D&D as their system. Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely enjoy listening to D&D-based podcasts! But Friends of the Table is doing something interesting that’s system-related.

 

Actually, let me start by extending the analogy: I also enjoy listening to audio drama podcasts. It’s great hearing a well-crafted, well-acted story. But, while I’m not going to say that D&D podcasts are better or worse in general than audio drama podcasts, there’s something different about them.

Part of that is the dice rolls: things could take a surprising turn for the worse, or for the better, at any moment. And that level of unpredictability brings a certain edge to things: each scenario is (hopefully) leveled out correctly at a probabilistic level, but that leaves lots of room for micro surprises!

But it’s not just that you don’t know what the dice will do: it’s that you don’t know what the players will do. You don’t know what approach they’ll take to solving problems (whether at the small scale or the medium scale); and you don’t know how they’ll act as people, interacting with others. Or rather, you’ll get a feel for how they interact with others, but it’s more improvisatory and with more of each player authoring their own character than you get from audio dramas.

 

Having said that, it’s still the case in a D&D campaign that the DM has a lot of control over the structure of encounters and the major beats. They’ve probably got a list of rooms in a location, with a list of creatures you’ll encounter in those rooms, items you’ll find there, and so forth.

And, also, the rules provide a lot of structure! This is structure that’s missing in audio dramas: on the one hand, in a D&D encounter, you don’t really know the details of how it’s going to work until you see how the dice behave, and you don’t even know what dice rolls are going to be made until the players take their actions. But the flip side is that, if a player decides to, say, cast a certain spell, then the structure of how that spell could play out is predermined. So there’s a certain sameness in D&D battles, where you’re seeing players pick from a menu of attacks and spells, the DM doing the same thing, and everybody waiting until hit points hit zero.

In contrast, in an audio drama, the actors cede much more of the authorship to, well, the author; and the author in turn has rather more freedom, without a rule book that they need to conform to.

 

Which brings me to the systems used at Friends at the Table. (The systems mostly fall into the buckets of “Powered by the Apocalypse” or “Forged in the Dark”.) Now, don’t get me wrong, clearly Austin (the Friends at the Table dungeon master) does a huge amount of prep work creating scenarios! (And the other players are involved in broad worldbuilding, too.) But, just as clearly, he doesn’t have a long list of rooms with enemies, hit points, items, and so forth that the players can encounter.

Instead, he’s got some ideas for scenes; and yes, those probably include specific enemies, and some idea of the difficulty of those enemies. And he’s also clearly thought enough about how those encounters might go that he’s sure that there are a few different ways to successfully navigate past them.

But it’s also frequently the case that players come up with ideas that Austin clearly hadn’t thought of in advance. And the systems he uses provide enough support to let them all navigate that: there will probably be some dice rolls (though not nearly as many as in a D&D battle!), the systems give the participants some guidance for the kinds of thing that those dice rolls might mean. And then the players and DM work together to figure out what the scene looks like, coming up with a dramatic narration that turns it into what you’d see if you were watching it on TV or reading about it on a book or something.

So it’s a really nice place in the design space. The system provides enough structure that it’s not pure improvisational acting, but, compared to D&D, it’s a lot closer to improv. (Not that I have anything against improv, that’s also a nice place in the design space!) And so entire scenes end up basically being collectively created, with the non-DM players having significant instance as to where those scenes will lead to next.

 

As I write this, the latest season that they’ve completed is PARTIZAN. (If you’re reading this in the far future, it’s the first season of PARTIZAN, the 2020 season.) At multiple points during the season, there are situations where the players come up with an idea for a situation that the DM clearly had not planned out in advance, sometimes a very big idea indeed. And you can see this play out live: Austin throws away whatever preconception and planning he had for how the rest of that mission would go, he figures out on the fly how to structure the rest of the mission in light of that, and the whole season changes as a result.

I came to Friends of the Table after it had already been running for several seasons, but I started listening from the beginning. And I’m happy with that choice (I’m kind of a completionist at heart), but it’s also the case that they’ve all gotten significantly better at understanding and taking advantage of that creative freedom as the years have gone on. (In particular, both of the first two seasons start off a little rough; both seasons end up great, but I wouldn’t blame people for giving up on either of those seasons after a few episodes.) And PARTIZAN in particular impressed me from the beginning, I really felt like they were firing on all cylinders from the drop.

So if this piques your interest, PARTIZAN would be a good place to start; it’s connected to some of the previous seasons, but only very very loosely, so you’ll be just fine without that prior context. Don’t do the Road to PARTIZAN bits, those are a different sort of thing (interesting at times, but not really what I’m talking about here); just start with episode 0 (if you like world building) or episode 1 (if you just want to get into the action).

Or, alternatively, if you’re willing to sit through a bit of a learning experience, just start at the beginning of the podcast feed, with Autumn in Hieron. There’s some good stuff even at the beginning, it gets better as each season goes on and from season to season, and it builds up well. I actually probably liked Spring in Hieron as much as PARTIZAN, I just can’t recommend it as well as a place to start from, because that season wouldn’t make as much sense and wouldn’t have as much impact for people who haven’t listened to prior Hieron seasons.

 

I’m finally caught up with the Friends at the Table back catalog; I’ve just started listening to some of the Patreon bonus content, but I’m also wondering what I should listen to next. I see a lot of D&D podcasts that get mentioned on my Twitter feed; are there other similarly good Powered by the Apocalypse / Forged in the Dark podcasts out there, or podcasts using other similarly loose systems? Or, for that matter, are there podcasts you recommend that go even further in an improv space, or otherwise explore interesting areas of the collaborative fiction design space?

ikenfell

July 18th, 2021

I hadn’t heard a lot about Ikenfell, but there was one person whom I follow on Twitter who repeatedly said very positive things about it, in a way that got me interested. So, when I hit a break in the higher priority games for me to play, I figured I’d give Ikenfell a try; it’s been ages since I’m played a 2d pixel-art RPG, I might as well see where the genre is at these days, and this one might be interesting?

At first, the main thing that struck me was that there’s an active attack / defense aspect to the combat. It’s reminiscent of Paper Mario in that regard; the feeling is a little different, because in Ikenfell every move feels different to react to in a way that Paper Mario doesn’t. And maybe Ikenfell asks for a little more precision than Paper Mario, I found myself failing to get the best result more often than I remember doing in Paper Mario games; but, the flip side was that reliable perfect execution wasn’t required, it seemed to go well enough as long as you basically did the right thing most of the time.

 

So that’s the mechanics; a pleasant change of pace. In terms of story, it’s about a magical school. My first reaction on hearing that, without thinking about it too much, was a positive one; I’ve enjoyed school stories in the past, I’ve enjoyed magical school stories in particular, and maybe that’ll make the story a little more localized than the sort of “save the world” plot that RPGs too often have? The flip side, though, is that these days I think differently about, say, Harry Potter than I used to; most of that is the author, of course, but some of that is the genre. (I still love Earthsea, though.)

Digging a bit more into my reaction to a school-based RPG: the parts of RPGs that make me feel the best are almost always the towns. They’re just so much more human and more humane than the overworld and the dungeons: that’s where you see people’s lives instead of just slaughtering monsters. And a school story feels like a way to lean into that aspect of RPGs.

The thing, is, though: as I played Ikenfell more, it actually takes the opposite approach. The school isn’t in session, so you don’t have crowds of students; and something has gone wrong, so monsters are everywhere. So, in fact, the town aspect of Ikenfell is minimal: I can actually only think of one location in the game where you just see people hanging out together, and that’s a place that you have to go out of your way to return to. (And it’s static, too, people’s reactions to you don’t change.)

So the game ends up being very heavily weighted towards dungeon crawls. As dungeon crawls go, they’re pleasant enough: you’re not going through some abstract lair, you’re going through a dorm or a library or a department’s building or something. So there’s a sense of place in each of them; it’s just a sense of place that is overlaid with monsters rather than humans.

 

So, if you’re looking for human interactions, you’re not going to get them from the environment; you’ll get them from the party, and from some of the NPCs that you fight. (And, that, unsurprisingly, often end up joining your party.) That part of the game, in a quiet way, turns out to be rather good, in my opinion the strongest aspect of the game.

You play a girl who is visiting the school to look for your sister. And as you’re trying to find her, you run into her friends. And a complex picture emerges: your sister isn’t an angel, she definitely has flaws, and she’s hurt the feelings of her friends. And she’s hurt the feelings of people who think of your sister as more of an enemy than as a friend.

And, as you hear about this, and also hear about the past interactions between the various people who make up your party, a more complex picture emerges, and one that is realistic and meaningful. People have reasons to have had their feelings hurt; but, also, people make mistakes, and the fact that you’ve hurt somebody’s feelings doesn’t mean that you’re inherently a horrible person, it means that you screwed up and have some learning to do? And it was pretty neat watching the game deal with these issues, watching characters process what’s happened to them (not all of which centers around your sister, incidentally: everybody has their own issues) and figure out how they want to deal with that going forward.

Also, for what it’s worth, if your personal friend group is the sort of friend group where it’s unusual for people to be straight and where it’s normal for people to use nonstandard pronouns, then you’ll find aspects of Ikenfell that make you feel at home.

 

So Ikenfell does well on the small scale. There’s still too much of the large scale in the game for my taste; it’s an RPG, though, so I don’t exactly blame it for having you more or less save the world and for having a bit of a chosen one aspect, but I could have done without that. (Though, given that it takes place at a school of magic, it would be hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be some amount of chosen one syndrome…)

The upshot: I’m glad I played Ikenfell. On the whole, it isn’t quite what I wanted, but it does one unusual thing rather well, and the active aspect of the RPG system is also a nice change of pace. And there were some good lines, and one or two piece of music that I rather liked? And one way in which it’s pleasantly nonstandard for an RPG is its length; I was done in two weeks, six or seven play sessions, which is quite a bit faster than most RPGs take me.

umurangi generation

July 11th, 2021

I don’t quite know what to make of Umurangi Generation. It’s stylish in a way that reminds me of Jet Set Radio; a rare occurrence, and one I quite appreciate. But, while it reminds me of Jet Set Radio both visually and philosophically, Umurangi Generation doesn’t control nearly as fluidly as Jet Set Radio. Which, on the one hand, is a completely unfair comparison: there’s no reason why a photography game should control as well as a skating game! But, on the other hand, Umurangi Generation does have you clambering around the environment; I wish that platforming was a little less clumsy?

And in terms of the basic gameplay: the hunting for stuff is pleasant enough, and gives you an excuse to look at the environments, which I appreciated. I didn’t particularly care about the different filter options and what not, but they’re optional, so their presence didn’t bother me at all. The different lenses had more of an effect, and I could have done without the telesopic-lens-only tasks, since it was kind of frustrating to have a picture that would be very straightforward to take if I could use a standard lens, but instead to have to find some angle from all the way across the level where I could instead accomplish it from a distance.

 

So that was my take a few levels in: stylish, with basically pleasant gameplay, I was glad to be playing the game but also wasn’t sold on it. I suppose I should put in a spoiler warning here, because I’m going to talk more about some of the stuff that unfolds in the world as you progress through levels.

Because the game certainly presents social themes: the presence of soldiers, the fact that those soldiers are from other countries (a U.N. force). And the fact that the game depicts some of the have nots of society, which is of course going to interact with a miltitary presence.

I was definitely getting more curious about this as the game went along: I was assuming that I’d see some sort of subtle commentary about how the military forces its way into situations, about imperialism and how it gets whitewashed through the United Nations, or something like that.

 

And maybe the game is commenting on that! But, the thing is: as far as I can tell (admittedly just from one playthrough without looking at the game super hard): the military is there to fight off Kaiju. And, well, if somehow Kaiju were appearing in the world, I feel like a military response is not an inappropriate way to react to that? And having that military response coordinated through the United Nations would probably be a good thing, too?

Now, I would still expect that military response in such a situation to lead to bad things, exacerbating existing inequalities and what not. And yay for Umurangi Generation for showing that. But it still didn’t feel right to me: if you’re going to talk about the negative effects of the military, then why start from a completely artificial / fantastical situation where at least the basic presence of military action is justified?

Like, the real world is full of situations where people are beating the drum of justified military action against an other that we can’t hope to understand; but, in the real world, that other is made up of people whom we actually can understand, who typically has some aspect of their motivation that ends up being uncomfortably familiar to us once we dig into into it. And even in those situations in real-world wars where, ultimately, I feel comfortable saying “yup, that side is the bad guys”, you can still ask how things got to that state.

And, to me, it seems like Umurangi Generation is cutting off that sort of questioning, by presenting a situation where the enemy really is an other that we can’t hope to understand. (Or maybe there are hints somehow that we can understand the Kaiju, that they’re a misunderstood antagonist? I didn’t see any such hints, though.)

I dunno, maybe I’m being too literal, and maybe both the Kaiju and the military are metaphors for something else: maybe the Kaiju is actually global warming, and the military is, um, some hypothetical actually-serious transnational response to global warming? I can’t come up with an interpretation along those lines that works for me, either.

 

Anyways: neat game, I’m glad that it exists, I’m glad that I played it. But, as much as I normally really like fantasy and science fiction, I wish Umurangi Generation leaned a little less in that direction? Or maybe I should have been paying closer attention, and/or should have been approaching it more metaphorically…

nier replicant

June 27th, 2021

At first, I rather enjoyed Nier Replicant. Lovely music, nice visual design (rather reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus), pleasant enough minute-to-minute gameplay, a pleasant enough mix of plot and quests. And, as it continued, I liked it more; Kainé’s outfit is ridiculous but I liked her character otherwise, and the quartet of your character, Kainé, Emil, and Weiss has a rather neat vibe of a sort that I’m not particularly used to seeing in games.

I was a little annoyed when my crops wilted because I wasn’t playing the game every day, but it turns out that the crop mechanic is basically completely optional; similarly, I wasn’t into grinding for weapons upgrades and for some of the quests, but the game was totally fine with me skipping that. (And I was happy to do the less-grindy quests.)

As I continued playing, I realized that those quests are a sign of how self-aware Nier Replicant is, and in dialogue with game history. You can see the latter in the ways in which it explicitly refers to other games: the mansion that’s clearly inspired by Resident Evil (the camera even changes), the nod to text adventures, the Zelda-ish dungeon, and it’s not so much that the game’s visual design in general is reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus but rather that the first overworld area that you get access to is specifically an homage to that game. (Down to even having lizards that you can capture there!)

 

The game’s world is surprisingly compact: three overworld areas that you can run across in a minute or so, avoiding fights if you want, a few cities of tractable sizes, and a few other areas of interest. And, despite the small size and gentle nature of the overworld areas, the game gives you two separate fast travel mechanisms that you can use to avoid them!

Which I was, to be honest, kind of taken aback by at first: would it hurt the game at all if those fast travel mechanisms were removed? But the flip side is: why make the player spend more time in the overworld areas than they want to? This is related to what I said earlier about the crop mechanics, the weapon upgrades, and the sidequests: Nier Replicant is very aware of the possibility of grinding, and is also aware that grinding both has its pleasure and that it’s conventional in games to an extent that’s far beyond the benefits that grinding provides for many players. Sometimes Nier pokes fun at that, sometimes Nier gives you optionality around that; either way, the awareness is appreciated.

 

So, on my first trip through Nier Replicant, my attitude was pretty positive: I like the way the game is aware of the context it’s working in, I like the visual and audio design, and the gameplay is pleasant enough. I don’t think it’s as stylish as a whole as Nier: Automata was, but that’s fine, it’s good for series to grow across iterations, and certainly there’s enough there that I was glad that the game got a remake.

Subsequent trips I didn’t enjoy so much, though. The second time through had its virtues: you get to see a bit of different context as to what’s going on with backstories? But it’s also the case that a lot of what you see is a version of “Are we the baddies?”, asking that question in a way that’s not particularly well done.

I mean, yes, video games shouldn’t be so willing to uncritically / triumphantly reach to mass slaughter as their solution to every problem. But, if you’re not going to reach for that, you need to support it: to give meaningful surrounding context for your actions, and to support that context mechanically. Nier Replicant doesn’t do that: instead, it just gives you the choice of a) mass slaughter or b) stopping playing. And that’s not helpful.

And, in general, it’s a gratuitously grim game. Even in the first playthrough, a lot of the main quests and side quests hinge on sacrificing people, with nothing deep going on that I could see, just a generic message of “everything is horrible!”. And, well, okay? If that’s what you want to say, up to you, a lot of people feel the same way. But that point of view doesn’t particularly impress me.

 

I made it through the second ending; and then on the third and fourth endings, I was just skipping cut scenes right and left. Fortunately, the game doesn’t make you put in too much extra time to see the extra endings. And at least ending E was doing something a different? (Endings C/D were pretty much a waste, though.)

Anyways, I’m not unhappy to have played Nier Replicant: there are definitely good things going on there. It’s been three and a half years since I’ve played Nier: Automata, but I’m fairly sure that Replicant is a worse game in multiple ways than Automata; though if my memory is correct, a lot of the flaws of the earlier game are present in the later game. (The endings not really pulling their weight; the excessive nihilism.)

But also both games are, in their own way, doing something special and distinctive; I’m certainly curious as to what Yoko Taro will be up to next…

signs of the sojourner

June 6th, 2021

I don’t have a lot to say about Signs of the Sojourner. Which is a little surprising, because it seemed provisionally up my alley: I like card mechanics, I like narrative games, I like experimental gameplay, and discussions in podcasts (e.g. in Eggplant) made it sound interesting?

Or at least I think of myself as a person that likes experimental gameplay: I’m certainly glad that games exist that try something new. But, honestly, a lot of the time games like that don’t click for me. And Signs of the Sojourner was in that latter camp, unfortunately.

Basically, there was enough to think about in your deck construction to keep me reasonably busy with that in my first playthrough, and the narrative aspects weren’t particularly forceful. So I ended the playthrough not really having gotten a lot out of the narrative; but also the card play, while not insubstantial, pretty clearly isn’t the point of the game at some level. So neither the narrative or the gameplay were enough of a pull to make me want to try going through the game a second time.

 

It’s also a slightly uncomfortable length: the game is clearly designed to be played multiple times, but it took me maybe 5 hours to play through? So, basically if I were going to give it a second run, that second run would take up most of my game playing time for that week; a large enough choice that the cost becomes real.

Which is a little silly now that I type it out: I’m going through Nier Replicant right now, and endings after the first one probably take a similar length, but I never considered stopping after ending A? Part of that is that I enjoyed my first pass through Nier Replicant more than my first pass through Signs of the Sojourner; but there’s also some sort of sunk cost-ish fallacy going on there, where I don’t treat an extra 5 hours on a game that I’ve already spent 25 hours on the same way I treat an extra 5 hours on a game that I’ve already spent 5 hours on.

Though, also: I have a pretty good idea that, with the second ending of Nier Replicant, I’m getting a different angle on a story that I’ve already seen a coherent presentation on, combined with gameplay that I already have a handle on (for better or for worse). And, given what I’ve seen from the game and from the developer, I’m willing to give that a try. Whereas with Signs of the Sojourner, it’s a little less clear what I’d get out of those next 5 hours. I don’t have confidence that there’s a picture of a world there that I want to spend 10 hours learning about; I don’t have confidence that the card gameplay is interesting enough for me to want to keep on going on there; and I’m not yet convinced that I like the meta-commentary that the gameplay makes (on communication and how its dynamics change as you proceed through life, based on the choices you make, basically) enough to want to spend more time there.

 

I dunno; I actually am genuinely happy to have gone through the game once? But I was also hoping that I’d get something out Signs of the Sojourner that was a little beyond what I experienced…

how to spend my days off

May 30th, 2021

As I mentioned a few weeks back, I’m now working part time. Which, of course, raises the question: what should I do on my off days?

The list of options that I’ve come up with:

  1. Goof off.
  2. Get more serious about Tai Chi and/or Nei Gong
  3. Spend more time improving my music skills.
  4. Spend more time learning Japanese.
  5. Start a programming project.
  6. Do useful stuff for the household.

 

Mostly goofing off would, I think, be the correct choice if I were doing this because I’m burnt out. Which I don’t think I mostly am, but I also think I probably am a little bit? And, also, I’ve been having somewhat serious energy level issues over the last year; I think it’s mostly because of allergy-induced sleep issues, but it means that I can’t count on having high-quality focus time on demand.

So I think that I definitely don’t want to stuff my off days full with plans (I already feel like my weekends are a little too planned out), and also I never want to feel guilty if, halfway through the day, I just don’t feel like I have the energy to do what I was hoping to do. Having said that, I also feel like, if I spend too much time goofing off, I’ll feel worse about things rather than better?

 

My Tai Chi is at a kind of interesting place: I’m getting better, but as my standards rise, I’m also seeing lots of areas where I’m not meeting those standards. And there are tons of forms that I could learn, too. I don’t think that I’m devoted enough to Tai Chi to really want to go all in with it, but I feel like spending more time there would help me from falling into a bit of a rut. (Ideally I’d find somebody to work on push hands with, instead of just doing solo forms, but I don’t have great ideas for how to do that during weekdays…)

And in terms of Nei Gong, my favorite bit of serendipity from the COVID times is that Damo Mitchell had an Internal Arts Academy for home self-study ready to launch right as COVID hit. I’ve been spending time on that pretty regularly (over lunch, and also the start/end of the workday), and I’ve been glad I have; as with Tai Chi, though, I’m also seeing that spending more time on that would be useful.(Assuming my energy levels are up for it; my sleep levels have interfered with this quite noticeably.) Also, I’m planning to start returning to the office soon, which will seriously cut down on my practice time, so I’ll have to spend more time in this area on my evenings or off days if I just want to keep my total weekly time allotment level.

 

Spending time on music (guitar, bass, and/or piano?) certainly feels like a good idea, all things being equal. Not a place that I’ve spent much time on recently; maybe when/if the next iteration of Rocksmith launches, that might give me a nudge in this direction.

My Japanese study had been seriously dwindling, but I made it over a hump in reading through Twelve Kingdoms, so recently I’d been pretty regularly making progress on that on weekends, reading it over / after lunch. So maybe I could extend that to other days off? I could even pick up a grammar book and try to sharpen my skills that way, too.

And I do have one idea for a programming project that sounds kind of interesting, and also some ideas about things about how to program that I’d like to work on. So maybe I could combine those.

Finally, there’s doing stuff for the household. Not a lot of things there, but to the extent that things come up, I should do more of them, given that I’ve got more time off than Liesl does. E.g. once things are a little less full at home, we’ll want to replace the bedroom carpets with hardwood floors; I should take the lead on talking to companies about that.

 

Given the lengths of the discussions above, it’s pretty clear where I’m leaning. I need to leave more time to recover and to work with low-energy days; so I definitely do not want to get the idea that I’m stuffing my days with projects. The programming project that I have in mind is big enough that it wouldn’t fit super comfortably with me taking only two days off a week; given that and the fact that I’m programming at work, that one is out. Spending time on music feels like a fine idea, but right now I don’t think I want to carve out time for that; I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes in a year or so, though. And I’m already enjoying reading Japanese over lunch on weekends, I might as well do that on other days off?

In terms of the Nei Gong stuff: Damo says that, if you want to get more serious about it, he finds that two-hour working sessions are a good length for his students, and ideally two of them in a day. I most reliably have energy at the start of the day, so I can try to put in a two-hour session then? And if I can do a second one in the afternoon, so much the better, but that feels optimistic; I do want to spend some time reviewing the first year Internal Arts Academy material, though, so hopefully at least I can find the time / energy to do that in the afternoon.

And I’m pretty sure I want to spend more time on Nei Gong than on Tai Chi, but also a non-zero amount of time on Tai Chi. So maybe 3–4 hours on Nei Gong and 1–2 hours on Tai Chi?

 

Though the downside there is that, if you take the high numbers there, it gets to 6 hours, which is uncomfortably close to an 8 hour working day. And I just don’t think that’ll be enough recovery time for me right now. Adding the lower end numbers feels more plausible, though? Especially since commute times and lunch times are time off, so 4 hours isn’t half the day, it’s only 40% of the time between 8am and 6pm.

There is also the question of what activities that fall in the broad category of “goofing off” leave me with more energy and/or feeling better about myself, and which ones leave me with less energy and/or feeling worse about myself. One goal is for me to never feel guilty during the days off about saying “I don’t have a lot of energy today so I just want to lie in bed listening to podcasts or sit at the TV playing a games”, but that also doesn’t mean that I’ll actually feel better about times when I do that, especially on days when I actually do have energy.

One variant of this that I’m considering is figuring out what leisure activities out of the house I would enjoy doing more than I currently do, in ways that would make me feel like my life is richer. Go out to eat more, spend more time hanging out in nature or local museums, stuff like that? That feels worth poking at. (One thing that’s been clear from COVID times: if I’m not taking the train to/from work, then going for at least one but hopefully two walks a days is important for my physical health.)

 

Anyways, that’s the plan: goof off a decent amount, do noticeable amount of Nei Gong and Tai Chi, maybe read a bit more Japanese than I had been. We’ll see how it goes…

yakuza kiwami 2

May 23rd, 2021

I’m continuing my slow journey through the Yakuza games, with Yakuza Kiwami 2 being this year’s stop. I’d actually played Yakuza 2 back when it came out (well, a year or two after it came out, but that’s close enough for me); reading through what I said back then, I like it more this time, though I’m glad I was a big Goro Majima fan a decade ago.

In particular, I like the settings of the games a lot more now than I did back then. Returning to Kamurocho and Sotenbori just feels like home; that kind of cross-game persistence is pretty special.

Related to that, I’ve pretty much given up on the idea that my play sessions with these games are in any way centered on the main plot. I mean, I’m not against the main plot, I’m glad it’s there, but the game is about a view of life in Kamurocho and Sotenburi; the side missions do a better job of showing that than the main plot does. It means that you have to free yourself of the idea that there’s any single timeline going on here, to avoid the cognative dissonance of pausing on urgent matters in the main plot to spend significant amounts of time helping random strangers, but that’s okay, by now I’ve liberated myself of the constraints of time. (And how could you possibly interpret the time scale of running a club in anything remotely consistent with the main plot?)

 

As to differences in the new edition: the club wasn’t there in the original, but I liked it in Yakuza 0 and I was glad to see it here. There’s something a little off for me about the pacing of that part of the gameplay, but still, I really was happy to see the club appear. I wasn’t as thrilled with the Majima Construction game, and I didn’t even quite finish all the missions there, but I did love the anthem

I don’t remember if you had all the Haruka requests in the original; I know you spent some time with her but I can’t remember how much? Those were hot and cold for me; Haruka is charming, and the random easy requests (eat food X at restaurant Y, buy item Z) were pleasant enough to fulfill. But then, with no warning, you’d randomly switch from that to a reqeust that you demonstrate some basic competence at a particular minigame, and those often took way too long.

I made it through all her Sotenbori requests (though I really didn’t enjoy the Virtual On one); but in Kamurocho, a lot more of the requests were minigame related, and I bailed fairly soon after realizing that. Though, before I bailed, I did finish the poker one, and my understanding of poker significantly increased over the course of that request, so I’m actually grateful for that one.

Oh, and the bouncer missions were new; I only did one of those, I’m not that into the combat in this series.

And I kept on expecting to visit one other location, but then the game ended and we hadn’t gone there? I assumed that was just my memory playing tricks on me, that it must have been a different game, but nope Shinseicho did exist but was cut in the remake. A pity, and I wonder what was going on there; if I had to guess, probably they had enough of a foundation of hi-res assets to give them a good leg up on the other parts of the game (and, of course, it’s not like they could have cut Kamurocho or Sotenbori!), but Shinseicho didn’t show up in any other games, so they would have had to do a lot of work from scratch, and there wasn’t enough meat there for Sega to be willing to make that investment?

 

The other thing that, honestly, kind of surprised me when replaying the game was the way a bit of an overt romance plot developed towards the end of the game. It’s not something I’d particularly noted on my first playthrough, but, having gone through Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami, I think of this series as being all about the Kiryu / Majima romance.

I mean, romance isn’t quite the right word, because (at least from Kiryu’s side), the game plays it in a way that, if you want, you can see Kiryu as simultaneously asexual and also having one true pairing. (It reminds me a lot of Phoenix Wright in that regard.) So it was a little jarring to see the Kiryu / Sayama pairing handled in a way that attacked both of those aspects of Kiryu’s presentation? Having said that, I liked Sayama quite a bit, in other contexts I can imagine becoming a fan of her, it was just a surprising interaction to see in this series.

 

And, by now, I am pretty firmly in the camp of thinking that Yakuza is a great series. Which makes it rather odd in that, every time I finish a game, I need to come up with a 1–4 rating, and I keep on writing down 3 as my rating for these games instead of 4, whereas my rating for the whole series would be pretty definitely a 4 right now?

Which comes back to what I was saying at the beginning: I love the series because it feels like home. Kamurocho and Sotenbori feel like home; Kiryu and Majima feel like family. But that doesn’t have anything to do with any individual game in the series: for me, the whole is greater than the individual parts, and while the individual parts are quite solid, the whole is really special for me?

Though, to be honest, I can also totally imagine that, a decade from now, after having finished the whole series, I’ll just start over again, that I’ll end up rerating every game as a 4. Right now, my memory of Yakuza 0 feels more like a 4 than a 3 to me…

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.