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tunic and stray

September 25th, 2022

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

dicey dungeons

September 18th, 2022

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

citizen sleeper

August 28th, 2022

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

neo: the world ends with you

July 31st, 2022

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

hue

May 31st, 2022

As I mentioned in my last post, I’d been at a bit of a loss of what to play, and had ended up grabbing Another Sight from the list of Xbox free games; actually, in April, there were two free games that caught my eye, with Hue being the other one.

Hue is a puzzle game involving changing colors; so there are boxes of different colors, and by changing the color of the background to match the color of a given box, you could make that box disappear, letting you pass through it. Honestly, the puzzles from the intro video didn’t look that great, it always seemed pretty obvious what sort of color manipulation you’d want to do in any given context, but it was a mechanism that I’d never seen before. So I figured I’d give it a try; it was a short game, so I wasn’t signing up for anything huge.

 

And, when I started the game I wasn’t super impressed. A lot of the initial puzzles were, unsurprisingly, very straightforward; and some of the ones that weren’t straightforward involved a bit more physical dexterity than I want in my puzzle games, in the form of having you jump and then change colors while in midair. (Time slows down significantly when you change colors, but honestly I wish the game would just freeze time entirely in that situation.) And it seemed like the game would be adding in more and more colors, but could the designers really make better puzzles when working with 6 or 8 colors than with 3?

Still, it was at least pleasant enough (aside from the jumping bits), and you could see some hints at less obvious puzzle mechanics. For example, you’d be asked to figure out how to arrange boxes in the right order to make a series of jumps, taking into account the fact that you can push boxes through each other by temporarily making one of them invisible. So I kept on going.

 

And the puzzles did indeed get better. You got a new color each time you finished a chunk of the game, and, at least for a while, adding new colors did help. And they did manage to do more than you’d expect with the initial mechanics, and each chunk of the world would generally add in a new mechanic to play with.

For example, one of the early additions was pressure-sensitive switches. You’d need to put a box on them to activate them; but if that box became invisible then it would stop pressing the switch. So you’d have to take into account the colors near whatever part of the level the switch would effect, and use that to figure out which color box to put on the switch. And later they added in lasers; they’d kill you, but only if they weren’t invisible, but the lasers could also activate a different kind of switch, and the lasers would be blocked by boxes as long as the boxes were visible. So you might want to have boxes in place for you to be able to traverse an area, but then you’d make the boxes invisible so a laser could flip a switch. And I also liked the floating boxes held up by balloons, where the boxes and the balloons were colored differently so you could disable the two parts independently.

Note also that all of these new additions to the puzles could interact with each other. Maybe the door that you’d open through a pressure sensitive switch might block a laser when it was closed, or a laser might be at a height where it would be blocked by a floating box but not when the box wasn’t being held up by balloons.

 

So, as the game went on, I would frequently have to spend a while thinking through a level, experimenting with different approaches for the segments of the level. And Liesl started watching me play, so when I hit a tricky level, the two of us would spend time talking things over, making suggestions and seeing how they played out.

Good game; and it didn’t overstay its welcome, either. I was definitely happy to have played through it, and I think it helped me start to get out of the funk I was in, too. A pleasant coincidence that it showed up for free, but it certainly would have been worth paying for.

another sight

May 30th, 2022

I was, honestly, feeling a little burned out on games after giving up on Elden Ring; and too many of the games that I’d noted as potential games to play next had enough mechanical overlap with Elden Ring that now in particular wasn’t the time for them. While I was wondering what to do about that, the list of free Xbox Games with Gold for April came out, and a couple of the games listed there looked like potential palate cleansers. I normally try to avoid having my game choices affected by what happens to available for free, but this felt like a time to make an exception, a way of bringing a bit more randomness into my game selection when I could use that.

So I gave Another Sight a try. It seemed to be a two-character platformer with some steampunk going on, where one of the characters has vision problems; hopefully there’s something in that combination, or at least in some of the individual elements?

 

When I first started playing Another Sight, the main things that struck me were negative: the animation wasn’t particularly good, the platforming wasn’t well tuned. But, honestly, maybe that’s a good sign? You can make a case that I spend too much time playing games that are polished in ways that doesn’t correlate with aspects of game design that I care about more; I should break out of that, and, as part of breaking out of that, I should accept that games like that aren’t necessarily going to do well along traditional aspects of game polish.

So I pushed along, hoping that I’d find a spark of soul in the game that would make things click for me. But, unfortunately, that never happened. I didn’t find anything in the game that I thought was actively good; and in most aspects of the game, it was easier to point at something actively bad than actively good.

The character’s vision problems, for example, never gave me the feel of seriously grappling with the experience of navigating a world in low vision. Sure, the world would look a little dark when you controlled that character; but all that that meant was that you’d switch over to controlling the cat, and then you’d get to see what the space looked like. After doing that, you’d switch back to the human and go to where you need to go. Maybe there’s potentially something interesting in her not being able to jump to platforms that she can’t see; except they added a mechanic where she can see them if there’s a noise nearby. Which does give you a game mechanic (get the cat there, have the cat meow, and the girl can jump), and I could imagine a game where that was a meaningful metaphor for getting assistance from others, but Another Sight isn’t that game: instead, the girl more or less just says in cut scenes “my vision has gone bad, I don’t know why, but somehow I can see sound, and I don’t know why that is”, without putting any of this into any larger context.

The game mixes in various historical characters; not uncommon in a steampunk setting? But it doesn’t add anything here, it just feels like the game is trying to pull on unearned cultural capital. (You like Monet, right? How about Tesla?) The game tries to link that with the design of the worlds; this linkage isn’t particularly successful. I think actually the visual design of the worlds is pleasant; but not in a way that gets at anything deep, either on its own or in terms of connection with the story and characters.

Or I mentioned above that the platforming wasn’t great; that could be okay in a platformer that’s more about figuring out puzzles as opposed to one that’s about precise jumping, and indeed Another Sight does lean on the puzzles. So the controls are fine given the task at hand; and the puzzles are fine, but not great. But then the game decides to start working in stealth sections; rarely a good idea, and the stealth sections here are particularly bad, with the rules for how enemies respond to your actions being much more obscure than I would like.

 

So: not a good game. I actually did finish it, because it was so short, and ultimately most of the time the puzzles were okay. And it was at least a change of pace? But not a particularly successful experiment. Or at least not particularly successful in isolation; if we judge the entire portfolio of random short games I was playing at the time, then the portfolio as a whole actually comes out well. So maybe the lesson here is: increase variance, and just deal with the fact that will lead to low points as well as high points.

yoku’s island express

May 29th, 2022

Yoku’s Island Express is a pinball-themed Metroidvania. Which is not a sentence that I ever expected to write, but here it is; and that combination works well? You’re a ball rolling through the game’s environment (well, I guess technically you’re a bug rolling the ball); and periodically you get to parts of the world that looks kind of like a pinball table. And, for those sections, instead of rolling the ball, you switch to controlling flippers.

If you’re looking for an elaborate pinball game, this isn’t it: the pinball is very forgiving (there’s essentially no penalty for losing your ball), and the pinball sections are much smaller than real-world pinball tables. You do have to be able to hit various locations on the screen with your ball, but you can try over and over again; and there’s a little bit of the sort of “light up these five things” challenges that you see on pinball tables. But, really, the pinball is there to put some friction into the world, to give you something to do as you go through it.

Which is fine, even good. After all, if I were playing a traditional Metroidvania, there would be enemies scattered all over the place; and those enemies wouldn’t be serious challenges, they’d just be there to give you something to do as you move around. (Well, that plus to teach you the basic skills you need for the boss battles.) From the point of view of how it affects the rhythm of the game, I think I might actually prefer the slightly larger scope of the pinball challenges compared to constant smaller enemies? And the pinball sections also work in some light puzzle solving, which is pleasant.

 

Since it’s a Metroidvania, you also have upgrades. Not as many in a traditional Metroidvania, and they’re generally not focused on your pinball capabilities. Instead, they’re focused on other aspects of traversal, serving to unlock areas of the environment via your movement capabilities rather than by colored doors that you can shoot with a weapon. Which is fine, even good; I guess one downside of pinball as the theming is that there are fewer ways to tweak that part of the gameplay by additions to the player’s capabilities, whereas a combat-focused game would have more options in that regard? But Yoku doesn’t force that issue: it is what it is, and the gradual unlocking of areas works just fine. (As does the puzzle solving that crops up in various ways.)

And there are some aspects that work surprisingly well. The fast travel system, in particular, is done via a few chains of cannons that shoot your ball from one cannon to the next to the next, and it’s one of the best fast travel systems I’ve ever seen in a game. Most fast travel systems make you feel disconnected from the world and erase the fact of travel; the worst ones have significant load times, but I don’t actually enjoy ones without load times either. But in Yoku, you see yourself moving through the world, through an entirely natural mechanism; and, sure, that means that it takes time when going from one end of the chain to the other, but you also see how much of the world you’re going through, so that time feels like the right amount of time? And you see all sorts of stuff while you’re going through the world, including bits that might tempt you to explore something in the middle of the chain; and that’s fine, you don’t have to go from one end of the line to the other end, you can get off at one of the stations along the way and poke around.

 

I’m not going to say that Yoku’s Island Express is the future of Metroidvanias, or even that it’s the birth of a new sub-genre, I expect this to be a one-off idea. But it’s a pleasant bit of experimentation, that experimentation works, and that experimentation has unexpected strong points. And the game doesn’t overstay its welcome, either: it took me a week to play, so it was probably around 6 hours long, maybe 8?

More stuff like this; a quite pleasant palate cleanser after some of the longer games I’d played before that.

elden ring

May 25th, 2022

(Wow, this ended up a little long; my apologies in advance for that! So odd that a post about Elden Ring turned out to be excessively long, quite idiosyncratic, and reader-hostile…)

 

Back in 2009, there was a fair amount of discussion in video game blogs about Demon’s Souls. More than enough to get me curious, but also, I couldn’t see how the game would fit into my life? No pause button, a long distance between save points; I get my game play time in spurts, and sometimes I’d need to pay attention to a dog (or, back then, a child). So I need games to work with the rest of my life, instead of assuming that I’m going to devote arbitrary blocks of time to them.

That, plus the length of the game and some other user-unfriendly aspects (other players can just come into to your game and kill you?) made me stay away. But I was still curious; it was apparently a game based on difficulty where people who like to think about games and who aren’t any better at action games than I am were finding it worth their while.

And then Dark Souls came out, and the buzz expanded. And its sequels, and Bloodborne. A lot of people I respect really like these games; and I was more or less convinced that, if they fit into my life, I’d probably get something out of them as well. But I still wasn’t sure that they actually would fit into my life: I continued to get the feeling that they were somewhere between player-indifferent and player-hostile.

 

The basic sense that I got was that people felt that FromSoftware’s games were hard but fair, in a way that made them good teachers. You had to put in the time, but if you did put in the time, what seemed like impossible obstacles would become manageable, and they’d be manageable as a result of you becoming more skilled. And the other virtue that I saw mentioned repeatedly was the sense of mystery in the world: it wouldn’t explain itself, and it was up to you to notice things and piece information together. (Or, alternatively, to not do that!)

The negatives were still there, though: it sounded like, ultimately, the games didn’t respect players’ time, in ways that felt gratuitously bad to me. (Though a lot of people seemed to actively like the multiplayer: people can come into your world to help you, not just to hurt you. And you could leave each people messages as well?) And also there was this whole “corpse run” mechanic, where, if you died, you’d lose progress unless you could make it back to the spot where you died; I honestly didn’t have a feel as to whether I would find that mechanic valuable or whether it would feel to me like punishment for the sake of punishment.

 

Then Elden Ring came out. I’d assumed that it would be yet another game generating a huge amount of buzz that I wasn’t going to be playing, but then some of that buzz talked about ways in which the game was more accessible than its predecessors. In particular, this Washington Post article by Gene Park made me think that Elden Ring might be a FromSoftware game that I’d actually enjoy grappling with. Plus, game consoles are good at letting you pause these days, even when games themselves don’t have that functionality built in; the latest Xbox consoles will happily save the full in-memory state of multiple games for you. So I gave it a try.

 

The good news: Elden Ring was indeed accessible enough that I spent a good amount of time with it, maybe 40 hours or so? But, ultimately, it turned out not to be the game for me. I continued to find the game more or less constantly stressful, and I’m not even sure I’d made it even a third of the way through the game, so I didn’t look forward to the thought of spending months more with it. So Elden Ring turned out to be the rare game that I started but didn’t finish.

In terms of the benefits that I’d had in mind: I can see what people mean by them? But I’m not convinced that Elden Ring is doing anything uniquely good along either the teaching or mystery dimensions; I’ll talk more about that below, but, honestly, one of my main takeaways from playing Elden Ring is that Hollow Knight is a very good game. And the drawbacks that I mentioned above were real; I’m not as afraid of them now as I was before, but it’s also the case that there were a couple of ways in which those drawbacks were worse than I expected.

The main thing that I hadn’t really gotten until I played it is what a weird game Elden Ring is. Yes, you can put the game into the action RPG box if you want, but the way the RPG mechanics play out in Elden Ring (and, I believe, in most other FromSoftware games) is very different than in any other RPG that I’ve played. And so, to me, it feels like the deciding factor as to whether or not somebody would like FromSoftware’s games isn’t so much whether you want to learn and don’t mind being challenged in that process; it’s whether or not this one specific genre appeals to you.

 

Concretely, some unusual aspects to its RPG system:

  • Classes are only starting points / suggestions for directions to go in, everybody has access to the same set of potential capabilities.
  • Your level goes much higher than in other RPGs that I’m used to, but all that going up a level does is let you raise one stat of your choice by one point.
  • There are lots of secondary stats (e.g. poison resistance) that derive off of your main stats; the game is pleasantly explicit about what secondary stats will be affected by a stat raise.
  • You don’t get a standard drip of weapons that are slightly better than your previous weapon and that you switch to once you find it: instead, you’ll find an abnormally wide range of weapons (many of which are unique) in any region of the map. But you might not be able to use the better ones when you find them, because of the next point.
  • The ability to use a specific weapon is gated by your stats. (Usually dexterity and strength, but occasionally faith or intelligence.)
  • Weapon strength isn’t (just) a number: each weapon also gets stronger based on some of your stats. (Usually dexterity and strength, but sometimes faith or intelligence.) And some weapons scale more strongly than others.
  • Weapons have a leveling path as well, and leveling them up requires a not-super-frequent type of item.
  • You gain the ability to cast spells (of which there are two broad types) by equipping a specific kind of weapon (again, two types, one for each type of spell); the classes that you would expect to cast spells start with an appropriate weapon, but anybody can use one if you want.
  • You learn spells by finding scrolls for them in the world. (And then paying money, but that’s not a big deal.)
  • You gain spell slots by finding / buying a rare item in the world. But also the in-game controls make it a pain to switch spells if you have too many spell slots, so in practice you probably don’t want to have massive numbers of spells assigned to slots! You can change the assignment of spells at save points.
  • If you die, you lose all your experience/money unless you can make it back to the location where you died.

This all gives the game a somewhat unusual feel, especially in the area of weapon usage. You’ll have access to an unusually large number of weapons; but you won’t be able to use most of them (especially if you’re going in the direction of a magic-based build, as I was). So, when chosing a weapon, you’ll have to think about which weapons you either can currently use or will be able to use by upping your stats a reasonable amount in a direction you would naturally want raise your stats; which weapons scale along whatever attribute are most important to you (e.g. I wanted to look for faith-scaled weapons, which are relatively rare); which weapons have secondary characteristics that you’re interested in (e.g. lots of people like inflicting “bleed” on their opponents, which only some weapons can do by default, though there is a mechanism to add that sort of attribute to other weapons); and which weapons have timing attributes and the like that fit your playstyle (do you want to quickly stab people, or take big slow swings, or do distance attacks with a bow).

And then, as you find weapons that are interesting, you want to level them up. And you won’t be able to level up huge numbers of weapons, and in fact I think I only did any leveling at all on four weapons during the time I spent with the game? (My starter melee and spell weapons, and then replacement melee and spell weapons that I switched to maybe 20 hours later.) I could have leveled up more weapons, and at least when starting out, it’s fine to experiment with weapons with them unleveled up, but my understanding is that, later on in the game, it gets to be pretty important to use leveled up weapons.

 

With that as prologue, how does the game provide these hypothesized learning and mystery benefits? The existence of the above list of characteristics shows one way in which both qualities apply: the game behaves in an unexpected way, and it gives you enough information for you to realize that there’s something unexpected going on, but it’s pretty hard to figure out exactly what is going on.

This is simultaneously a mystery and an invitation to learn. I grappled with these systems, trying to understand how they worked and how I could use them. I came up with hypotheses, and tried them out; sometimes I made progress, other times I felt like I was missing something.

And then I wanted to fill in the gaps. Sometimes, stuff that I’d heard on podcasts or read on Twitter started to make sense, guiding me at least towards good questions to think about and frequently pointing me towards answers. Other times, I’d end up going to the wiki or other articles online; maybe I was looking for explanations of mechanics, or I might be looking for lists of weapons with certain characteristics.

Normally, when a game has me looking at wikis and walkthroughs to understand it, I see that as a sign of the failure of the support of the game for learning: it’s just throwing walls at me. But, for Elden Ring, I don’t feel that way. I (mostly) didn’t go to the wiki because I was banging my head against a wall and wanted somebody to tell me what to do; I went to the wiki because I had a hypothesis about an aspect of the game, and wanted to go deeper into that aspect. Which is really good, pedagogically: sure, there’s something neat about pedagogy where you figure everything out on your own, but you can make it a lot farther a lot more quickly if you first engage with questions enough to have a feel for their contours and a motivation to learn for, and you then get appropriate nudges from people with more expertise than you. And Elden Ring, I think, does well in that vein?

 

That’s the systems of the game, but the game also tries to teach you how fight. FromSoftware’s games get a lot of commentary about the way that they put you up against bosses that initially seem too tough; but, as you fight them over and over again, you learn their patterns and you learn when to step back and not get greedy. And then, eventually, you win.

And that’s true, and I think Elden Ring did a pretty good job with that? With the caveat that, as an open world game, there are side dungeon bosses that you’ll encounter at an unpredictable time, so you really might not be able to deal with them when you first encounter them; that’s fine, and even on those I learned something from trying.

There’s also a more subtle way in which the game forced me to learn. Because there wasn’t a constant drip of new weapons and spells (or at least of new weapons that it made sense for me to use), I had to learn to make do with what I had. And that forced me to go deeper into the initial weapons and systems than I normally would; I can’t think of another game where I’ve gone as long with my initial loadout as I did with Elden Ring. Sure, it got frustrating, but I learned from the effort; and right when that frustration was starting to be too much, I came across a couple of new spells and a new weapon that let me broaden up my approaches and take on enemies that I wouldn’t have been able to defeat before then.

Having said that: if Elden Ring really were focused on teaching you the game’s combat systems, it would have made different choices. I’ll talk about that below, but the short version is that the game is player-hostile in ways that work against player learning.

There’s also the question of how the leveling up system affects the game’s approach to learning. Because if you can just grind to make it pass a tricky bit, then you don’t really have to learn; but also different people learn at different rates and reach different points in their learning, so without some sort of release valve, people might give up when otherwise they could have learned and enjoyed the learning process. I think Elden Ring makes reasonable tradeoffs in that regard, but I’m also not convinced that those tradeoffs are exceptionally good in any way.

 

Turning to mystery; as I said before, I feel like the game does a good job of introducing the mystery of systems. I’m less convinced that it does as good a job of mystery when it comes to mystery of world layout, though.

The plus side is that there are surprises everywhere you go; the down side, though, is that some of those surprises are kind of important. Before I talked about how it’s good to go to a wiki to improve your understanding of a system once you’ve started getting a feel of its importance. What’s less good, though, is going to a wiki to make sure you don’t miss any secrets in a given area because one of those secrets could be a weapon or spell that significantly transforms your play experience.

There’s also the mystery of the world’s lore: who are these mysterious figures you encounter, why are they here, what is their relationship with each other? Honestly, I just did not care about any of that; I bet if I’d made it farther in the game, I would have cared a little more, but not a lot more.

I’m not exactly going to fault the game for that; but the narrative aspect of the game felt to me like what Mass Effect would have been like if it had only had the Codex but not the actual plot? The Mass Effect Codex is impressive in its own way, but I would never say that the game would be more effective in a plot-less Codex-heavy version because somehow that would make me appreciate the mystery more: instead, it would just be a game with a much much worse narrative. And that’s the same way I feel about Elden Ring: if you care about the building of a rich, alive world, then Elden Ring is not the game for you.

 

Earlier, I said that I’d gotten the impression that FromSoftware’s games are player hostile, but that Elden Ring was less problematic in that regard. And it probably is less problematic than its predecessors, but it’s not great.

Right at the start of the game, there’s a combat tutorial. And it’s an important combat tutorial: the mechanics discussed there are both very important for doing well in the game’s combat and very hard to discover on your own.

But the tutorial is, or at least was, also very easy to miss! I missed it on my first time through; I’m enough of a completionist that, a couple of hours later, I decided to go back to the start of the game just to see if there are any hidden items or something that I hadn’t found, and I realized I missed the single most important tutorial in the entire game. FromSoftware did eventually patch the game to make the tutorial much harder to miss, and I suppose it’s possible that the developers dramatically underestimated how easy it to miss the tutorial, or maybe only a very small percentage of players missed it and I was just one of those? But, to me, it felt to me like the developers were making a joke at the expense of the players who most need help with the game; if that is the case, then ouch.

 

Or, for another example, take the lack of the pause button. It turns out that you can pause the game; it’s just that, to do so, you have to press the menu button, then select a menu item, then hit the help button, then select “Menu Explanation”. And in that scenario, unlike (I think?) every other scenario when the menu is open, the game will actually be paused?

Which is ridiculous. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there is a legitimately subtle UX problem here: I think designing your inerface so the game doesn’t let you swap your loadout while it’s paused is defensible. But the ability to pause a game is very important for people whose lives aren’t devoted 100% of the time to whatever game they’re playing; the solution Elden Ring came up with is a bad one.

On that note, remember above where I said “game consoles are good at letting you pause these days, even when games themselves don’t have that functionality built in; the Xbox Series X will happily save the full in-memory state of multiple games for you”. Yes, game consoles are good at that; but Elden Ring won’t let you use any of that functionality, it’ll kick you back to the load screen if you return to the game after putting your console to sleep, and it’ll even present you with a nag message saying that you should have exited the game yourself instead of using the completely standard functionality to put the console to sleep!

I’m pretty sure that this is caused by the developers’ desire to support multiplayer combat; I personally have zero desire to ever engage in those systems, so given a choice between having certain corner cases in them work well versus having my console’s suspend functionality working, I’d choose the latter every time. I’m not saying the multiplayer features shouldn’t exist, but they really aren’t features for me. And there are definitely better ways of balancing these tradeoffs than what Elden Ring chose.

 

Then there’s the corpse run mechanic. I’ve been trying to be on the fence about that one, but ultimately, I haven’t been able to come up with a defense of it that works for me.

It does add a sense of tension to the game; that is true, and when writing about Hollow Knight, I talked about how that leads to some of the same feeling that I get from playing horror games; not something I want to feel in most of the games I play, but good to experience every once in a while?

But it was also the case with Hollow Knight that, as I got used to an area, I had a much more pleasant time navigating through that area. Which, I suppose, is kind of true in Elden Ring, but it didn’t feel that way: if I was going through an area that I was familiar with, I was just fast traveling through it to get back to an area that would inolve challenging combat again. Whereas Hollow Knight had different kinds of puzzles in it, so I’d be trying to make sense of an area in ways that didn’t foreground the loss of progress on death.

So, ultimately, I just felt tense almost all the time I was playing Elden Ring. That’s, honestly, what got me to stop playing the game: I’d spent 40 hours playing the game and feeling tense, and I asked myself if I wanted to spend another 100 hours playing the game and feeling tense? And my gut feeling was no, and I couldn’t come up with anything that I’d expect to get out of the next 100 hours that would make up for that problem.

 

That overemphasis on tenseness is the main issue that I have with corpse runs. But Elden Ring’s corpse runs are also gratuitously punitive in a way that isn’t required by the mechanic. To be specific, if you’re fighting a boss in Elden Ring, then your corpse gets placed inside of a walled-off corpse arena; so, if you want to get it back, you gave to go back to fight the boss again. (Whereas in Hollow Knight, you can always retrieve your corpse without triggering the boss fight.)

My current point of view of that choice is that it brings zero benefits; it’s player-hostile for the sake of player hostility. And it’s a particularly bad choice in an open world game that’s full of dungeons with bosses whose levels might not match your own; I don’t mind bouncing off a challenge that is beyond me right now, but why would I want a game to punish me for taking on that challenge?

That’s especially bad if we look at the game through a learning lens. Because the corpse run encourages a risk-adverse playstyle: every time I feel like there might be a challenge coming up, I have to ask myself whether taking on that challenge is worth the risk of losing progress that I’ve made so far? And Elden Ring, in its corpse run mechanics and in its significant variations in difficulty, pushes you in the direction of not taking on the challenge; but if your goal is to learn, then the other direction is (usually) the right choice.

The upshot is that I’m still open to games with a corpse run mechanic, but I don’t yet see enough active benefits of them to make me think that they’re a particularly good idea; and I do not like the specifics of how Elden Ring implemented that mechanic.

 

Then there’s the experience I had after defeating Godrick. He drops a Great Rune, and you’re that, to use it, you have to activate it at a certain location. And the game points at where the location should be, at the end of a certain bridge.

Great: I’m playing in this open world, I’ll find the bridge, and go along it and find a tower at the end. The problem is that, when I went back out into the world and looked at the bridge, it turned out that the bridge was broken into pieces: so you can’t walk along it. Which isn’t necessarily a problem, maybe there’s a way to climb up the last bridge pillar or something? But no, that didn’t seem to be the case.

So, instead of being a perhaps pleasant puzzle about understanding the environment, the game is asking me to find a magic teleporter somewhere to get to the place I have to be. And that’s a pretty crappy form of puzzle, because the game could literally put the teleporter anywhere in the world.

Having said that, if the game isn’t going to put the teleporter at a random location, maybe it’ll put it at the start of the bridge? So that meant I went back to Godrick’s castle to try to find where the bridge met it.

Which could be a pleasant puzzle, but again, not in Elden Ring. Because the geometry of the castle is such that, at least to me, it was pretty hard to relate what I could see outside the castle to specific locations inside the castle; and the castle is swarming with enemies, so I can’t exactly move from place to place while staring at the environment to try to figure it out. Also, I thought I’d gone through all of the obvious passages except for one that seemed too hard for me; but the castle has lots of random roofs that you can jump down on, so maybe one of those was the magic path to take me to where I wanted to go?

Figuring out whether either of those was the case would have taken me more hours than I wanted to spend on this puzzle, so I looked it up in a walkthrough. And, actually, both answers were correct. The hard path did in fact lead to the teleporter; and I tried it repeatedly, and I failed repeatedly, because it’s the single most unfair combat encounter I experienced in the entire game. There are long-range enemies that attack you from both the front and back; you can’t take out the enemies, but you also can’t jump out of the way when they attack you because it’s impossible to see both of them at the same time. And while I could survive being hit once, I couldn’t survive a second hit.

A different walkthrough pointed me at a path over the roofs; I tried it a few times, but it seemed complicated, and the enemies there happened to be a type that I wasn’t great at. I could have made it through that path, but the walkthrough didn’t make it completely clear whether that would actually lead me to the teleporter without dying, and by this point I’d reached my tolerance for that castle and that puzzle; something to return to later in the game after I’d taken a breather and leveled up more.

I’m not going to say this specific puzzle was anything horrible. But I’m also not going to say that it was a good puzzle, or that it was tough but fair: it was an unispired puzzle even if I hadn’t had trouble with it, and it also felt unfairly tough in a way that the boss fight with Godrick and the path through the castle getting to Godrick didn’t feel to me.

Or at least it was unfairly tough for me; maybe the real lesson there was that I should have been putting more of my upgrades into increasing my hit points, because, for all I know, if I could have survived two of those long distance attacks, I would have made it through that gauntlet relatively easily? I dunno; if so, it points at how the game’s lack of guiderails while leveling up can cause problems.

 

Returning yet another time to the learning and mystery benefits that I hypothesized at the start of this post: yes, they are something that Elden Ring is doing enough to be real benefits of the game. But also, I feel like other games do that better.

For example, I’ve mentioned Hollow Knight a couple of times; and, from my point of view, Hollow Knight does at least as well on those criteria as Elden Ring? It has a similarly mysterious ruined world; you certainly get atmospheric benefits from that, and I imagine that, if you’re the sort of person who likes to piece together lore from clues, you’ll find stuff in that game to sink your teeth into. And, in terms of guiding you along your learning of how to interact with the game’s world and systems, I learned a lot more effectively from Hollow Knight than I learned from Elden Ring. Both games were challenging, but Hollow Knight did a significantly better way of structuring those challenges in a way that helped me learn.

Or, to go in a different direction, after playing Elden Ring, I’m also more impressed with The Witness. Again, similar levels of mystery that I didn’t feel like grappling with. But, in terms of learning, The Witness does an honestly kind of amazing job of presenting you with initially impenetrable puzzles, and taking you though the thought processes necessary to interpret and then solve them. I’m not sure I can think of a game that does a better job of teaching via encounter instruction.

Of course, I’m sure that there are tons of people out there that would bounce off of The Witness quite a bit faster than I bounced off of Elden Ring. Which is kind of my point: I think what’s really distinctive about Elden Ring and about FromSoftware’s games in general is their genre. And if that genre clicks for you, then probably the games are amazing. But if that genre is one that you’re at odds with, then enjoying the games is an uphill battle. The genre isn’t one I’m inherently actively against, I’ve enjoyed enough other action RPGs that I could imagine enjoying this sort of odd variant of it, but that oddity is something of a barrier, and the player hostility is quite a bit more of one.

 

Before I started Elden Ring, I’d been playing Forza Horizon 5. Which is a quite open-ended game, so it’s hard to know when to stop playing it; honestly, at the time, I felt like I would normally probably play it for a week longer, but I felt like jumping into Elden Ring? But when I finished Elden Ring, I didn’t quite know what to do next, so I went back to Forza Horizon 5.

I’d already gone through all of the different races and story events once in Forza Horizon 5. But I felt like I hadn’t spent as much time with the game’s systems as I’d like: to put it bluntly, I just was not very good at making it around tight corners, and that kind of bothered me.

So I decided to spend some time working on that. Concretely, I’d pick a three-lap road race, I’d go through it a few times at a difficulty level that felt comfortably challenging to me so I could get a feel for the lap and to make sure that I could beat it on that level, and then I’d up the difficulty level.

And sometimes I would end up going through the same track at a given difficulty level for two hours and still not be able to beat it. But that didn’t bother me: I was getting more familiar with how the track worked, I’d learn which corners my instincts worked well on, which corners I just was not very good at, and which corners I’d feel like I should be able to do well at but something about them would repeatedly surprise me. And I’d use that to manage my focus through the track, I’d note down what worked well and what didn’t (often saying out loud how I felt about each corner), and I’d try to match up my gut feeling with objective markers (my lap time, or how the distance to the car ahead of me had changed after the corner compared to before it). Occasionally on a really tough corner I’d even rewind over and over again (Forza lets you go back in time if you want to undo a crash or a bad turn or something), trying out different approaches until I came up with something that worked.

 

My experience with Forza sounds exactly like what I’d said above:

The basic sense that I got was that people felt that FromSoftware’s games were hard but fair, in a way that made them good teachers. You had to put in the time, but if you did put in the time, what seemed like impossible obstacles would become manageable, and they’d be manageable as a result of you becoming more skilled.

But Forza does this process significantly better than Elden Ring does. For a given challenge, Forza has better tools for allowing you to isolate and practice individual components of that challenge, and better tools for enabling you to scale the challenge to match (and let you expand) your curent skill threshold. And Forza also, I think, does better in this regard than Hollow Knight, though I think you could make a case that The Witness does a comparably good job to Forza at helping the player learn.

Also, note that some of the tools that Forza Horizon 5 provided to me to help me learn (difficulty levels, the ability to rewind) can be used for other reasons, and in fact can be used for the opposite reason: if you don’t care about learning and just want a pleasant time driving and winning races, then you can bump down the difficulty and rewind whenever you get into a pickle and you’ll be able to sail smoothly through the game.

 

A few weeks back, I ran into a Twitter thread by C Thi Nguyen about a section of a philosophy class that he teaches called “Are Grades Bullshit?”. And, partway down the thread, he talks about the effects of removing grades from his classes, with this result:

Which, I think, is part of what’s going on with Elden Ring? It’s not so much that FromSoftware games do an exceptional job of teaching you to play; it’s more that, like classes with high-stakes grades, FromSoftware games do a decent job of teaching you how to play and then tell you that they won’t let you interact with the game at all unless you do it under their terms. Whereas Forza Horizon 5 takes more of the ungraded class approach: you have access to even more powerful learning tools, but it’s up to the player to choose how to engage with those learning tools; and not seriously engaging at all is one option (and as option that Forza actively supports).

This is actually kind of personal to me, because it’s directly related to one of the reasons why I was quite happy to leave academia. I was teaching intro math classes to groups of students that included large numbers of pre-meds who were only taking the course because of degree requirements. It wasn’t at all clear to me that they needed to learn what I was teaching at all; and, if there was something useful for them in the material, I’m positive that I wasn’t doing the best job of bringing out what would be useful to them and they weren’t doing the best job of approaching the material in that way.

So, from my point of view, it would have been entirely reasonable for most of those students to have chosen not to be in those courses; and, for the people who remained, the nature of the course probably would have changed significantly. But we were all working in a context where that was basically impossible.

And, actually, I think this analogy paints Elden Ring in a somewhat unfair light. Because, ultimately, I could choose whether or not to engage with FromSoftware’s games! Earlier, I chose by not engaging at all, whereas with Elden Ring, I chose by starting to engage, deciding it wasn’t my thing, and then stopping. I still wish the game had been doing something a little different in various ways; but there’s also something to be said for a teacher who says “I’m teaching this specific thing in this specific ways; if that’s what you want, then great, whereas if that’s not what you want, then that’s also great”. It’s just that, if you’re the second kind of teacher, please think hard about what restrictions you are putting in place for what reason.

 

I guess I’ve rambled my way to this conclusion: learning is good, and Elden Ring has some pretty interesting systems to poke at and learn about, if those systems are of interest to you. But also: respecting learners is good, and respecting players is good; Elden Ring definitely has room for improvement on that front. And my current belief is that the main good thing that FromSoftware is doing is that they’re working within an unusual system that’s rich enough to lead to interesting surprises as you interact with it.

exercising during zoom meetings

April 10th, 2022

Back in the pre-pandemic days, I basically had three options as to how to pay attention in meetings. One was to close my laptop, and actively participate. The second was to leave my laptop open, and try to not be distracted by stuff on there too much. And the third was to leave my laptop closed but to look at my phone beneath the table.

The first is, of course, the best option if my goal is to pay attention; but if I wasn’t actively participating, it wasn’t particularly easy. The second didn’t work very well; way too easy to switch over to Slack or email or whatever and then realize that I had no idea what had happened in the meeting for the last five minutes. The third option, honestly, worked better than the second, as long as I was doing something like playing a puzzle game or reviewing Japanese vocabulary. (If I’m reading Twitter, then it’s just as bad as the second option.) I won’t say that the third option is a great choice, and I probably did it too often, but it’s not bad for meetings that are mostly informational but where the information is important enough for me to want to attend the meeting.

 

In Zoom times, though, this changes. Having your laptop closed isn’t really an option: that’s where the Zoom screen is! So it’s way too easy to slip between option 1 and option 2. I try to use turning my camera on as a signal to myself that I’m trying to be following option 1; not sure if that helps or not.

But one surprise to me has been that there’s a fourth option, and it’s actually a good one. Early on in the pandemic, I realized that, if I didn’t move around more, my body would get actively unhappy. One solution to that problem was to get in the habit of going on a walk at some point during the day (and, actually, I can imagine taking Zoom calls on walks working well, I just don’t have experience with that), but another one was to go through the set of Silk Reeling Exercises that I’ve learned in my Tai Chi course. You can think of these as a set of stretches; that’s not really quite accurate, but it’s good enough for purposes of this post, and the details of what they are doesn’t matter.

At any rate, I started doing those exercises during meetings that I really did want to pay attention to but where I wasn’t actively participating enough to make it easy to avoid being distracted. My back was noticeably happier once I started doing them, but also, it had the huge advantage of keeping me physically away from my laptop / iPad.

And it turns out to work really well as a means to help me focus. Yes, I am paying attention to what my body is doing as part of the Silk Reeling Exercises, my body isn’t on complete autopilot there. But I’m not paying a ton of attention to those exercises, and the parts of my brain that are paying attention to my body are different enough from the parts of my brain that are paying attention to the meeting that the latter still work quite well. In particular, the verbal parts of my brain only have one thing to pay attention to; and it probably also helps that I slip fairly easily into a semi-meditative mindset when doing the Silk Reeling Exercises, which helps me focus on whatever is going on, including the meeting that I’m listening to.

 

So: try exercising during meetings! Honestly, part of me thinks I should turn my camera on while I’m doing this, just to normalize it among my coworkers. I’m actually not a big fan of working from home, but this is one part of working from home that works well; it’s a lot harder to surreptitiously exercise during a meeting if you’re in a meeting room with a bunch of other people…

forza horizon 5

April 3rd, 2022

So: Forza Horizon 5. It’s really good? But it’s also really good in a certain sort of very polished way that’s really good in basically the exact same way that Forza Horizon 4 was; and, honestly, when talking about Forza Horizon 5, I don’t have much to add to what I said about its predecessor.

Like, it’s still fun driving all over a really lovely world! (In Mexico, this time.) It seems like there’s a decent amount to sink your teeth into in the racing; I certainly don’t feel like I topped out there. There are pleasant enough hooks to encourage you to explore the various nooks and crannies of the world. There are story-related series of missions; that might have been a little more in depth in the new game than it was in the fourth game, I’m not sure? The radio was good, there were several songs that I was quite happy to listen to. There’s a constant collection buzz, but not in a way that felt oppressive. (I’m not a fan of the slot machine mechanism, but I also never felt at all like I was missing out by not spending money on the game beyond the initial purchase price.)

 

Really, the question for me was when I would stop playing. I decided to call it quits after doing every race in the game once; Elden Ring had just come out and I wanted to see what that game was about. Honestly, though, while I won’t say that I made the wrong choice there, it’s also the case that not only might I stop playing Elden Ring soon, I might actually go back to Forza Horizon 5 and see if I can rank up a tier or two against the AI opponents?

One thing that people talk about as a virtue of FromSoftware games is how they force you to pay attention to how you’re playing and what your enemies are doing and, as a result, enable you to develop your skills in the game. But, the thing is, if skill development is what you want, Forza Horizon 5 is perfectly happy to have you play the same track over and over again, going up against better and better AI opponents, helping you get better and better at navigating the performance envelope of your car. And I think that’s a form of skill that I’m more interested in exploring than the combat skill that Elden Ring wants me to explore; and I also think Forza Horizon’s pedagogy is more to my taste, and quite possibly in some sense strictly better?

 

I dunno; not committing to that one way or the other right now. But, at the very least, I did enjoy the month I spent with Forza Horizon 5.

psychonauts 2

March 27th, 2022

I played the original Psychonauts a few years after it came out, as part of the Vintage Game Club. I honestly didn’t remember much about it, other than a vague memory that I was happy enough to have played it but wasn’t as impressed by it as some people are; I wrote about it at the time, if you want to know more.

But I heard some people saying pretty strongly positive things about Psychonauts 2, enough to get me curious about the sequel. It took me a little while to get around to playing it, but when somebody suggested it for the February VGHVI discussion, I was happy to have an excuse to give it a try.

And it’s really good! My first reaction was just that it’s a very well done 3D platformer, in a way that felt refreshing. When I played the original Psychonauts, I was suffering from 3D platformer overload to some extent, but I’ve recovered since then. So I wasn’t bringing baggage to the genre; and I also suspect that Psychonauts 2 does a better job as a platformer than the original did?

 

So, at a basic level: I enjoyed wandering around the worlds, I enjoyed poking my nose in places, and I even enjoyed collecting stuff. It’s hard to strike the balance correctly in platformer collect-a-thons, but I think Psychonauts 2 did a good job: you don’t have to go out of your way much to get the majority of the collectibles, and the levels are interesting enough that I was happy to have an excuse to stick my nose in various places.

And the plot certainly helped keep me going as well. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of other games out there whose plots pull me along more; but, as platformers go, this was a good one. And the plot also informed the level design, in ways that went in truly fabulous directions. Psychonauts 2 takes a much wider range of inspiration than the traditional platformer notion of fire level / ice level / desert level / etc.: instead, the concepts are things like 60s/70s psychedelic band, or an animatronic amusement park ride about the history of a central european country and the fall and eventual rise of its leader.

 

So: a game I’m glad to play, and actually even a game that I enjoyed enough to 100% all the collectibles and other achievements. (I looked up a couple of things in a guide, but not many; the game did a good job both of making it easy enough for you to find things just by poking around and of giving you tools to help you find the last missing bits.) I’m not sure it’s going to be a game that sticks with me in perpituity, but it’s doing a very solid job at being a 3D platformer, and the level theming really is unusually good for the genre.

update on working part time

March 22nd, 2022

I’ve been working part time (three days a week) for most of a year, so I figure that it’s about time for an update.

My top-level take: definitely the right choice. I’m glad I’m not working full time (whether at my current employer or a different employer); but also I’m glad that I’m working a noticeable amount. Part of that is, of course, for financial reasons (or financial reasons coupled with the fact that I don’t really want to think about moving to a cheaper part of the country right now); but that aside, I’m actively glad I’m working.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I would stay working at my current company if I didn’t feel appreciated there, and that appreciation definitely includes pay; but my job is interesting, I feel like I’m still useful there. And I like having human contact at work (and I hope that the amount of human contact will increase as lockdown continues to thaw); I’m an introvert, but even so, staying at home all day got to be a bit much after the first year or so. And I actually even like my commute, because it gets me walking and out in the world more than I otherwise would, and riding the train noticeably increases the number of books I’m finishing.

 

So, yay for working a few days a week. But also, yay for having a couple more days a week off.

The off days were, honestly, disappointing at the start. I’d thought about how I wanted to spend my time off, and I started executing on that plan; but I just did not have the energy to do that. Basically, I was tired all the time; if I was lucky, I’d be able to get in a two-hour Nei Gong session, plus a bit of Tai Chi, but even that felt like pushing things. So I’d have a day off but I’d only feel like maybe three hours of that day is quality time, whereas the rest of the time I’d be lying around the house feeling sleepy, and mostly just listening to podcasts and doing puzzle games. Nothing wrong with podcasts and puzzle games, but still, not how I wanted to spend my time.

The main problem was dust mites. I’ve got a pretty strong dust allergy, and being at home was making that worse: too many carpets, and also I would respond to being tired by lying down in bed which would in turn exacerbate the allergies. The allergies were less severe on days when I was going into the office (which I started doing as soon as I was vaccinated); so I actually felt better on my days when I was working. And, honestly, there’s a lot of stuff that I do at work that requires a little less active concentration than doing Nei Gong does; sometimes I have to be focused for long stretches at work, but a decent amount of my work involves having meetings and poking at stuff in ways that don’t require the same amount of concentration.

Also, it’s possible that some of what was going on was the beginnings of burnout symptoms? Partly because of that possibility, I tried not to beat myself up; if my body and mind need to recover, then they need to recover. But, whatever the cause, not great, not what I’d hoped for.

 

It started getting better, though. I honestly can’t remember if I did any further dust allergy remediations on the at-home days that summer, but I have had a list of remediations since then that I’ve been chipping away at. For whatever reason, at any rate, it got to a situation where I didn’t feel as tired in the mornings; I wasn’t necessarily actually getting off my ass and doing stuff for most of the morning, but I was in a shape where I was physically capable of doing more, I was just being lazy.

So, once I realized that, I cut down on the puzzle games and switched to puzzles that didn’t take multiple hours to finish, to increase the frequency with which I had a natural time to switch; and, doing that, I did manage to get a second Nei Gong session (usually more like one hour instead of two hours, but that’s fine) in the morning. (Or rather “morning”: before lunch, but sometimes that meant that lunch was at 2pm.)

Didn’t happen every Wednesday / Friday, but it meant that on good days off, I actually was sticking pretty close to my plan from before: about three hours of Nei Gong a day, about an hour of Tai Chi a day.

 

Speaking of which: the extra time really is making a difference in both my Nei Gong and my Tai Chi. On the Tai Chi side, it’s pretty straightforward: the number of forms I’m learning is piling up, and I’m continuing to learn new ones, and for that to go well, I need to be able to review them all once a week and, for the ones where I want to actively improve, I need to be able to do them multiple times. Which was not going to happen when I was only practicing outside of class on Sunday afternoons; but now I do have enough time for that.

And, in terms of the Nei Gong, doing two-hour sessions a couple of times a week does seem to make a difference. It’s hard to say confidently what the effects are: I know things are different, but I’m further along in the course, so I would expect things to be different even without the change in routine. But my abdomen does feel buzzy after the long sessions in a way that it doesn’t after shorter sessions; also, it’s good to have more scope to push my physical limits (e.g. doing a moderately physically strenous form of standing meditation for an hour), and it lets me work in more of my the exercises that I’d previously learned.

 

In addition to the above, I was trying to chip away at something else on most days off. Sometimes that was just getting an allergy shot (which happens every other week); but we also had, and actually continue to have, an abnormal amount of stuff going on in the house. For example, one of the planned dust mite mitigations was to get the carpet ripped out of our bedroom (and hallway and stairs while we were at it); so maybe I’d spend time researching contractors or flooring stores, or I’d drive out to a store, or something. Not a huge amount of work, but if you keep on pushing on stuff like that, it will actually eventually happen.

(It turned out that, unfortunately, replacing the carpets didn’t actually help out a ton with allergies, possibly not at all; we’d been being good about vacuuming, and I guess that had helped enough. But the new floors look really good (and that picture understates it, there’s a ton of light that comes in during the morning, making the floor and room glow), and that makes a big difference: it puts me in a mental space where I’m actively happy to spend time doing Nei Gong in our bedroom, it makes the room into a nourishing space where stuff happens. Also, the new floor makes a nice stable base to stand / sit on too, which helps.)

I also stuck with the plan of reading a bit of Japanese over lunch (or right after lunch) on my days off. That got stuck for a while, but then I realized that sitting down to read Japanese felt like a project, whereas if the goal I set was just to reading two pages a day, then that actually didn’t take very much time, maybe half an hour or even a little less. And if I do that four days a week (I do it on weekends too) then I end up making noticeable progress on the Japanese book I’m currently reading every week.

And there have been some other little routines that have developed. In particular, Widget now gets to go to the park on Wednesdays, instead of just Saturdays and Sundays; that makes him happy, and I like it too.

 

So I’m getting an amount of stuff done that I’m happy with. There’s still tuning to do: I’m spending maybe 5 hours a day doing stuff that feels productive, and that feels about right, but I’m not that thrilled with what I’m doing during the other hours during the day? Honestly, I wish I were spending more time playing video games: I didn’t want to spend all day playing video games, but I would kind of like to play them a little bit more than I currently do, and that feels like a better use of my time than puzzle games? (Elden Ring might force my hand there, it could literally take me half a year to finish if I play it at my regular rate.)

And we did just get the piano tuned, and presumably Rocksmith+ will get released at some point, so probably playing music will make it back into my life at some point.

 

Anyways: stuff to tweak, but I’m glad with how things have been going, and the slope is positive as well.

the forgotten city

March 13th, 2022

The Forgotten City hadn’t been on my radar until I heard a couple of end-of-year podcasts make a plug for it; seemed up my alley, I figured I should give it a try. And I’m glad I did!

Partly because it’s a puzzle game in a format that I’m not used to and that I enjoy. It’s basically a detective game: you’re wandering around a town, talking to people, learning what problems people have and working to solve them. And, of course, those smaller puzzles are all placed in the context of a frame puzzle, or rather two frame puzzles: one overt one and the general puzzle of where this city and its unique rules came from.

And it’s really well done! They put this in the context of a time loop story; that means that you don’t have to worry about messing up, if you do something that precludes a possibility that you want, you can always do that on another loop. The time loop also informs the frame stories of what’s going on: in this city, if one person sins, everybody dies, and that’s what triggers the loop. So you get to poke at the question of what “sin” means in this context, while having the loop also serve to support your investigations.

 

Of course, time loops aren’t great if you spend lots of time either replaying stuff that you know how to do or waiting for things to happen; that was the big reason why I bounced off of Outer Wilds. The designers of The Forgotten City were clearly very conscious of that possibility, and they worked around it in a couple of ways.

At a basic level, you simply don’t have to loop all that often. The game doesn’t contain much in the way of a clockwork mechanisms, so you don’t spend time waiting for the right events to occur; and most of the time you’re doing stuff that isn’t likely to trigger the loop, either. So you spend most of your time poking around and making progress in your investigations; it’s reassuring to have the loop as an escape hatch, but it doesn’t get in your way.

That doesn’t solve the problem of having to redo actions at the start of the loop. The Forbidden City solves that in the most shameless way possible; I won’t go into details because it’s kind of charming to see how the developers solved that issue, but it’s great to see a game whose developers are clearly prioritizing player experience over some sort of narrative purity, and who do that while having a bit of fun with the gaminess of the situation.

 

So, basically, what you end up with is a game that has the parts of adventure games / RPGs where you’re wandering around a town, poking your nose in places, and talking to people. And, of course, that leads to side quests, but not too many of them, and they’re not the sorts of by-the-numbers fetch quests and what not that RPGs frequently have too many of. (There’s one section of the game that has a bit of combat, but that’s not something that you have to worry about in the majority of your time with the game.)

The premise of the game works well, and leads to a nice set of puzzles. And the game respects your time, both by providing time-saving affordances, as I mentioned above, and also by simply not being very long. (I don’t think I spent as long as ten hours on it, more like six or eight.)

More games like this one, please; sure, I like big theatrical games, but I also like games that know what they’re doing, do it well, and don’t waste your time in the process.

don’t let computers tell you what to do

March 6th, 2022

A few months back, some friends of mine and I talked about the game Zombies, Run! in our game discussion group. It’s a game designed to get help you exercise by playing a zombie story as you go for a walk / run; it tracks your movement as you go, and can use that to feed back into the game.

One of the options in Zombies, Run! is to have the came occasionally activate chase sequences, where you’re supposed to speed up; if you don’t do that, then you’ll lose some resources in the game. The first several times I played the game, I was walking our dog, so I didn’t have the ability to be able to break into a jog on demand; but, as I was thinking about it, I realized that I probably wouldn’t have enabled that option anyways.

Basically, I’ve gotten more and more suspicious of doing things because a computer tells me that it would be a good idea. There are two reasons why I’m suspicious of doing things because a computer tells me to: one is that the goals of the designers of the software may not match my own goals (and may, in fact, actively go against my goals); the second is that I don’t necessarily trust software to be good at a lot of things.

 

As an example of the former of those: earlier today, I’d looked up a video on Youtube. And, as happens so frequently, I looked at the video controls, noticed that Youtube had decided to turn autoplay back on, and I turned it off. Youtube’s product managers have decided that they really want me to keep on watching videos on their site, and they feel strongly enough about this that they repeatedly override my explicitly stated preference to the contrary; that is a bad decision.

Fortunately, the algorithmic “break into a run” mode in Zombies, Run! isn’t that sort of hostile action; instead, it (I am fairly sure) falls into the second category that I’m suspicious about. Designing an exercise program to help people get significant benefits from running is a skill; Zombies, Run! did nothing whatsoever to convince me that that mode would lead to a coherent exercise program. And, indeed, that it would be helpful rather than harmful: if I wanted to make running part of my exercise program, what are the odds that the specific amount of running that Zombies, Run! would be a better amount of running than what I could come up with on my own just by listening to my body, let alone what I could come up with by doing some research or getting coaching from somebody who knows what they’re doing?

 

I realize that the title of this post is way too broad. There are lots of situations where computers are actively helpful, and that’s great. We just have to turn around my two criteria above: I like it when computers are working with me instead of against me and are working in ways where they bring value that they’re particularly suited to.

For example, I work on server software, and we want those servers to be running well as much of the time as possible. And having software (our own software in large part!) help us with that goal is great: computers can constantly measure a huge number of data points, and let on-calls know if those data points are in a range where a human should take a look. Or if I’m driving somewhere that I’m not used to going to, I’ll put the address into a mapping application on my phone, and let my phone give me driving directions; computers are good at that too. And at least some of you are reading this blog post because, years ago, you told Feedly that you wanted it to automatically watch my blog, detect when I put up a new post, and let you know that.

 

I start to get a lot more suspicious about recommendations from computers that come from more opaque algorithms, though. Is the computer making a recommendation because A) it has an informed opinion about what I’m looking for, B) it actually wants to meet my goals as well as possible, and C) it has a good idea how to do so? There are a lot of ways that that could fail, but in particular I just do not trust that point B is going to be the case in a lot of opaque algorithmic situations: there’s a lot of financial incentive for companies to sell algorithmic responses, and there’s also a lot of financial incentive for companies to get me spending more time using their software than I originally intended.

This doesn’t mean that I stay completely away from opaque algorithmic recommendation systems. Web search is essential; I do what I can to avoid / be aware of situations where search engine are acting for another’s benefit, but ultimately I still use search engines. Once a week, I listen to Spotify’s Release Radar playlist; learning about new music (whether by musicians that are new to me or new releases from musicians that I already know of and like) is importat to me, and while the algorithm generatic that playlist has a very narrow view of what kind of music to recommend to me, Spotify’s algorithms have pointed me to more than enough music that I really like and wouldn’t have discovered otherwise that I still use them. (At least Release Radar; it’s been months since Discover Weekly has pointed at me at something interesting, so I’ve stopped listening to that one.)

But, in the Spotify case, I’m hiring the algorithm for a very specific job; once it’s done that job, I switch away from that algorithm. Concretely, once it’s pointed me at a song that I liked, I switch over to much less opaque methods of investigation: listen to the whole album the song is from (if the song is from an album, which is far from guaranteed these days), and, if that goes well, I go through the rest of that artist’s back catalog. (Usually also buying some of the artist’s albums as part of that process, partly because I like supporting musicians and partly because I don’t trust music streaming services to be a permanent storage space for my music collection, or indeed to be a storage space where I can trust an album I added there today to still be there next month!)

 

That last example actually points me at one way in which the Zombies, Run! mode in question could be useful: I don’t trust it to provide an exercise program, but maybe it could be useful from a discovery point of view? I did try out that mode once with the question in mind as to whether I should add running into my routine; my feeling was that spending some time running was a good idea, but not a good enough idea for me to carve out time in my day to spend on that instead of one of the many other activities that are competing for my time.

Anyways: computers can be useful. But computers also do not deserve the benefit of doubt that they are 1) providing high-quality advice that is 2) working for you instead of for somebody else. And that second point in particular is something that I feel that I need to be aware of more and more.

yakuza 3

February 13th, 2022

I’m playing through the Yakuza series at a rate of about once a year; so now I’m up to Yakuza 3.

Which is the first entry in the series that I’ve played in over a decade that’s not either a prequel or a from-the-ground remake. It’s a port of a PS3 game, so it looks fine; it’s just maybe not quite as over the top as Yakuza 0 and the Kiwami games in terms of all the things you can do other than the main plot? Don’t get me wrong, there are still tons of side missions, plenty of restaurants to go to, and what not; just not the same sort of elaborate minigames to go along with that.

There is a cabaret to run, but it was hard to figure out and didn’t seem like it was nearly as extensive as what I’d gotten used to from Yakuza 0, so I didn’t explore it much. And the leveling up system was pretty bare bones: you have a bit of choice as to the order in which you perform your upgrades, but in practice they show up in groups of four where you have a pretty strong motivation to finish that group before moving to the next group. So there’s really not much of a skill tree here, it feels a lot more like static unlocks based on a global character level.

Still: very much what I expect a Yakuza game to be. With the twist that, while you do of course spend lots of time in Kamurocho, in Yakuza 3 your second location is Okinawa rather then Sotenbori.

 

And that’s not just a change in location: it’s a change in tone. Kiryu is trying to get out of the Yakuza life, so he’s running an orphanage; he does, of course, end up running into local Yakuza groups, but the first one he runs into is so hapless that he ends up getting dragged into them as a sort of father / big brother figure, instead of the grittiness that we expect from Yakuza plots.

A much more traditional Yakuza plot does surface, of course. And, for that matter, the Yakuza games have always had a family aspect to them: we met Haruka in the original game in the series, and Kiryu’s been acting as a father to her ever since. (And I like how Yakuza 3 treats her!) So I don’t want to present Yakuza 3 as a break from the rest of the series; but the weighting of the various aspects are different. And the increased weighting of Kiryu-as-dad is something I appreciate.

 

Glad I played it, I’m definitely going to keep on chipping away at the series. It does feel a little odd jumping back in time from a game design point of view while moving ahead along other dimensions of the series; I won’t say that I think the Kiwami games were a mistake, but there are downsides to that approach as well? But Yakuza 3 is very solid in its own right.

emptying out my podcast queue

February 8th, 2022

As I mentioned a few months back, I’ve been spending a lot of my podcast listening time going through Friends at the Table, first their regular episodes and then their Patreon stuff. And now I’m done with those shows as well, or at least all of those shows that I’m interested in listening to.

Which meant that I hit the podcast version of Inbox Zero. So, of course, my initial reaction was that I should find another series to fill that gap. (Coupled with a thought that I should just start Friends at the Table over at the beginning! Which I decided against fairly quickly, though I can imagine doing that a few years from now.)

 

Thinking about it, though, I didn’t feel like I’ve been budgeting my listening time correctly. I listen to podcasts while walking or driving (and sometimes while relaxing at home and doing puzzles or what not); I listen to music some of the time while working.

But that music listening is basically a combination of Spotify’s algorithmic recommendations combined with full albums from artists that I’ve learned about through those recommendations; I’ve got a pretty big backlog of albums to listen to as a result, and I’m honestly not sure whether the backlog grows or shrinks during an average week. (It would help if I didn’t have so many meetings…)

And what this means is that I spend very little time listening to music that I’m already familiar with. And that’s not great? Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I’m learning about new music, that’s important to me. But there’s a lot of other music out there that’s important to me too. And in particular it’s kind of depressing how rarely I listen to classical music these days; Spotify does occasionally toss that my way, but not very frequently.

 

So I should make time to listen to familiar music as well. I could switch some of the new music time over to familiar music, but given that I’ve just cleared up some significant free time on the podcast side of things, that feels like a more natural place to make time?

And it’s not like there were a bunch of podcasts that I was really wishing I could find time to listen to. I’ve been enjoying Rogue Runners enough that I think I’ll go and find the other podcast that those folks have done, but that’s not urgent; I’ll probably do that the next time Rogue Runners hits a season break.

 

So I’ve been spending more time listening to familiar music. Not a ton, I’m still listening to podcasts most of the time when I’m commuting or walking Widget, but some. And it definitely feels like the right choice: returning to old friends, spending more time listening to something that feels substantial in a way that many of the podcasts that I listen to don’t.

And what this is also making me realize is that I feel like I should be spending more time playing music. When I decided to take more time off, one thought I had was that I should spend some of that extra time playing music; ultimately, though, I decided that Nei Gong and Tai Chi were enough of a priority that I didn’t want to work in music time. And that was the right choice, and continues to be a fine choice. But I think soon I should work in more music playing time.

So: time to get the piano tuned. (Especially now that Omicron is dying down and we’ve made it past our major house projects.) And when Rocksmith+ gets released, I will be very happy to pick up my guitar and bass again.

a short hike

February 3rd, 2022

I’m behind on my blogging, so I would say that I wish that I’d written about A Short Hike sooner, so that I could remember what I had to say about it. But, honestly, I feel like I didn’t have much to say about the game even right after I finished it?

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a charming game, and I’m very glad that I played it. I didn’t spend much time with it, but that’s because it’s a game that doesn’t overstay its welcome: this is refreshing and good.

 

Basically: you’re taking a hike up a mountain in the middle of an island. And, depending on your route, you might run into people to talk to, things to do, tasks to complete. And, if you want, you can dig into those tasks; if you don’t want to do that, though, that’s fine too! And there’s some amount of money to collect in the environment, that you might want to collect to help you buy some feathers that improve your ability to navigate through your environment.

Which could, potentially, turn into an open world quest grind. But A Short Hike avoids that, for a couple of reasons. One is that the whole game has a charming tone, so it’s pleasant to talk to people, and the quests are nice little activities. The second is that there’s not a ton of extrinsic motivation layered into the game: in general, if you don’t feel like talking to somebody, or doing an activity that they suggest, it’s totally fine to skip that, the game didn’t feel to me like it was pressuring me to complete everything. And the third thing is that the game is well named in that it’s quite short; I think I probably spent less than two hours on the game, so the new game honeymoon period never wore off.

 

So I went on a hike; I did a fair amount of sticking my nose in places, so I’m pretty sure I saw most of the island, but I don’t think I saw all of it? And I did most of the activities / tasks that I came across, but not all of them: if I wasn’t in the mood for something, I didn’t do it. And then I made it to the top of the mountain, and was happy to be there; and, after wandering down the mountain, I decided that I’d had a good time with the game, and stopped.

A pleasant way to spend an evening; yay for games like that.

disco elysium

January 31st, 2022

I think the thing that struck me the most about Disco Elysium is that it’s, in some sense, an RPG without combat, and it shows that RPGs without combat work fine? You’ve got your stats, your leveling up, your equipment, your quests, your skill challenges; but the skill challenges are much less frequent than the skill challenges in the vast majority of RPGs, and are done by rolling dice instead of a spatially-based combat system.

I’m actually not entirely sure what I think about that last aspect of the game, and I’ll talk more about some downsides of Disco Elysium’s choice of using dice rolling and the specific way in which they implemented that below. But, from my point of view, the dramatically decreased volume of skill challenges is all to the good: constantly fighting the same sorts of battles in the same way is very rarely interesting, and while it does provide a certain comfort factor while playing, I just don’t see it as particularly rewarding at a fundamental level. In contrast, in Disco Elysium, every skill challenge has a clear narrative hook, and is interesting both in the failure case and in the success case; at the least, it’s an interesting difference in how games are designed, but it’s also a difference with significant strengths.

 

Stepping back a bit, or at least sideways: the narrative is very unusual for RPGs that I play. I’m so used to RPGs having a “you are the god-chosen hero” conceipt that is, in turn, used to justify horrific levels of violence on your part; as per the above, the horrific levels of violence are missing, but while you are claimed to be a strikingly effective detective, it sure doesn’t feel that way in your lived narrative.

And the narrative concerns are just different from what I’m used to in video games? Part of that is how much of how much of what’s going on is happening at a personal level; Disco Elysium certainly isn’t unique in that regard, but it’s not the norm. Part of that is both the explicit politics and the section of the political spectrum that the game takes seriously: many more questions around economic concerns in particular than I’m used to.

And also, the authors of the game are just having fun playing around with certain kinds of ideas. As I said above, you’re not presented as being a uniquely exceptional person in your play; but, at the same time, your character is explicitly playing around with the idea of “what if I actually were awesome in this specific dimension?”. (Maybe I’m really good at singing; only one way to find out!) And those dimensions aren’t traditional gameplay dimensions, they’re more along aesthetic dimensions; and neither the game or the character are really taking super seriously the idea that you actually are awesome in that direction, they’re having fun playing around with that possibility instead. But they’re also not completely discounting the possibility of being awesome: you’re explicitly a blank slate, and part of that is being able to treat as a real possibility that you actually are surprisingly awesome in some particular way.

(Incidentally, speaking of aesthetic awesomeness: the visual art style is very unusual and quite well done. More of this sort of visual experimentation, please.)

 

So there’s a lot that’s unusual about the game, and a lot that I really liked about those unusual choices. Having said that, it’s also the case that, a little over halfway through the game, I ran into a pretty rough patch.

Basically, I got a situation where, on the quests that I was aware of, I knew of some skill checks that would help me make progress; but for each of those skill checks, either I’d failed at them recently enough that the skill checks were locked, or else the skill check was at a low enough success probability that I didn’t want to try them. (I feel like I did do save reloading to make it past skill check failures in a couple of places, but in general I tried to avoid that.)

I didn’t feel like I was really blocked there: my guess was that, if I poked around, I’d find more ways to make progress, either in the quests I already knew about or in discovering new quests. But the problem with that was that the game was literally taking 90 seconds or more every time I did an area transition.

So if I wanted to, say, poke around in a building, then it would be 90 seconds to enter the building, 90 seconds to get out of the entry area of the building, 90 seconds to get to another floor of the building, and so forth; if you then add up the need to retrace my steps, it would easily take over 5 minutes and sometimes close to 10 minutes to explore a single building. Which is bad but workable if you’re exploring a building that’s new to you or that you’re going through for a specific reason, because you’re spending 5 minutes in transitions and 5 minutes going through dialogues and learning new things, that’s acceptable. But if you’re going into a building just because you think there’s something in the world you need to explore but don’t know where it is, and if you have to do that for five separate buildings, then pretty easily it can add up to spending half an hour where you haven’t seen anything new and where 25 minutes of that half hour is spent in loading screens.

This specific issue did get somewhat better (30 second transitions instead of 90 second transitions) after some random console update forced me to relaunch the game; I guess something had built up in memory in a bad way or something? Still, it really brought home to me the importance of that sort of quality of life issue.

 

But there’s also an issue there other than the quality of life issue. Unless I’m missing something, it really is possible to get into a soft locked state in Disco Elysium in a way that isn’t possible in traditional RPGs, and also in a way that different from the way you can get locked if you, say, can’t figure out puzzles in a point-and-click adventure game.

Because, in a traditional RPG, if a key battle is too hard for you, there’s almost always a way to grind for experience; not the best experience, and I wish RPGs had a lot less grinding, but at least it lets you make it past a bad spot / lack of skill. In Disco Elysium, in contrast, there’s no way to grind: unless I’m missing something, there is simply a limited pool of XP available in the game. And if you combine this with randomized dice rolls to make it past skill check puzzle gates plus the fact that those skill checks then get locked until you level up the skill in question (or get more relevant information through a dialogue tree or something), that means that, if you’re unlucky, you haven’t been keeping a reserve of skill points that you can use to level up in an emergency, and you’ve exhausted all of the ways to get XP that you know of, then your choices are either: 1) save scum; 2) look up a walkthrough; or 3) exhaustively search the entire map hoping you can find enough XP to bring you up a level. (And then hoping that the dice do better next time!)

This isn’t a great set of choices. Of those three, I would normally prefer the exhaustive search; but, as noted, the exhaustive search was particularly unpleasant for me; eventually, I gave up the search and did a mixture of the other two approaches to get past the worst of this. I’m not going to say that I’ve got a better alternative that avoids this soft lock possibility entirely, because I can see how design constraints led to those choices, and if the developers had made different choices, it would be a quite different game and a much less interesting one. Still, it meant that I wasn’t having much fun with the game for an evening or two.

 

I was also surprised by the game’s Thought Cabinet. When leveling up, instead of leveling up one of your (many!) stats, you can equip thoughts that you’ve unlocked; these require some research time, during which they generally have a negative side effect, but once the research is completed, they give you some sort of bonus. (Though perhaps one that still combines with negative aspects.)

Which is good: it gives a bit of flavor to the game, and the process of unlocking them also responds to the flavor that you bring to the game in terms of how you respond to various prompts. And it’s kind of interesting to have a way to use your skill points where you don’t know in advance what’s going to come out of that choice: it’s a pretty different feel from choosing which ability to unlock in a traditional RPG.

I was a little taken aback to realize that, to get rid of one of these thoughts, you also have to spend a skill point to get rid of it. When playing the game, that felt needlessly punitive to me: skill points aren’t that cheap to come by (with real consequences to that scarcity, as I discussed above), so having to spend two skill points to try out and then reject a thought felt like it discouraged experimentation in a way that I didn’t like?

Typing this up, though, I realize that the above analysis is incorrect: the point that you spend to equip the thought isn’t actually to equip that thought, it’s to open up a slot in your thought cabinet. And, if you get rid of the thought, the slot remains open. (At least I’m pretty sure it does; skimming the wiki gives that impression.) So you’re not back to where you started after spending the second skill point: you can immediately equip another thought for free.

And that choice feels right to me. If you could unequip thoughts for free, then you’d switch between thoughts like you can switch between items of clothing, to get whatever local benefits you want. That would be okay, I guess, but it would reduce the metaphorical impact of the thoughts, it would mean that the mechanical effect of thoughts was too similar to the mechanical effect of clothing, and it would encourage (or at least support) a completionist style of play where you try out as many thoughts as possible in a single playthrough.

Whereas, if there’s a cost to change your thoughts, then that feeds into a way of thinking about the game where you’re using the thoughts to shape your character or express something about the character. So your character is likely to stick with thoughts once they have them, unless a specific thought comes with a strong negative consequence; and while I expected to be frustrated when I hit the cap of thoughts that I could store at once in my thought cabinet, in practice when I hit that I was approaching the endgame anyways, and was happy to move on. So the developers sized things out nicely: putting in a constraint, but not in a way that really grated, just in a way that expressed what they want out of the game.

(Incidentally, while I don’t have any immediate plans to replay the game, I am hoping that Liesl decides to give it a try. That would let me see what some of the other thoughts look like, and to also get an appreciation for how the game feels if you choose a different set of starter stats.)

 

Anyways: very good game, other than the load times. I’m glad it’s exploring a different part of the mechanical game space than I’m used to; I’m glad it’s exploring a different part of the narrative game space than I’m used to; and the visual style is a bonus. It’s refreshing to see a game that is doing its own thing, and carrying that off in a well-thought-out fashion.

relaxing your shoulders

December 29th, 2021

Over the last year or so, I feel like I’ve gotten significantly better at relaxing my shoulders while doing Nei Gong or Tai Chi. And some of the steps in that process have surprised me, so I figured I’d write some notes about it here. (Actually, to some extent the fact that it’s a process at all surprised me a little! Just relax your shoulders, how hard can that be?)

So here are some notes on the steps that I’ve gone through. As you’ll see, most of these steps aren’t actually directly about relaxing your shoulders: instead, they’re about changing your body positioning so that you’ll get the most out of relaxing your shoulders.

 

Step 1: Gokhale Shoulder Rolls

This is a technique for proper shoulder positioning that I learned from the Gokhale Method. The problem that this is trying to solve is that, if you’re like me and have spent lots of time sitting at a computer, you’ve probably gotten used to hunching forward a bit, with the result that your shoulders are too far forward; this isn’t great positioning, especially when you’re trying to relax your shoulders.

You might think that you would want your arms to hang down from your shoulders in a position that’s in the middle of your torso, but that’s not actually the case. The majority of your rib cage is in front of your spine: the back of your rib cage attaches to the back of your spine, with your rib cage sticking out quite a bit in front of your spine. In contrast, you want your shoulders to be quite close to your spine; they’ll attach slightly in front of your spine, but it should still be the case that the majority of your rib cage is in front of your shoulders. And this means that your upper arms should hang down along the back half of your torso.

One indirect check on your positioning is to let your arms hang loosely by your side, in whatever position feels natural to you. Then look at your hands: are the palms of your hands mostly pointing towards your body, or are your palms either pointing back or at a 45 degree angle towards the back? If they’re mostly pointing towards your body, then there’s a good chance that your shoulders are positioned correctly; if your palms have a significant tilt towards the back, then there’s a good chance that your shoulders are too far forward.

 

The obvious fixes for this (e.g. pulling your shoulders straight back) turn out not to work very well: they might get the positioning right in the short term, but they don’t work to retrain your body. The technique that I’ve found that works for me is from the Gokhale Method; it goes as follows:

Pick one shoulder, and do the following:

  1. Move the shoulder forward a bit.
  2. Move the shoulder up a bit.
  3. Move the shoulder back a fair amount.
  4. Let the shoulder slide down from that position.

Then repeat that on the other side.

 

Note that you’re not repeatedly rolling your shoulder here: you do it once on each side, and let your shoulder stay where it ends up. Also, don’t do both shoulders at the same time: for whatever reason, it works significantly better if you do each shoulder separately. You can do this while sitting or standing, it works fine either way. Here’s a PDF, video, and blog post from Gokhale discussing this.

When working on this exercise, do it several times a day (but just once per side each time), whenever you think of doing it. I got my shoulders pretty well retrained after doing that for a couple of weeks.

 

Once you’ve retrained your shoulders, you’ll find that you have to adjust other aspects of your body to maintain that positioning. For example, when typing at a keyboard, if you don’t change your desk layout, you’ll probably end up with your arms stretched forward somewhat, which in turn will tug your shoulders forward. What you want instead is to have your upper arms hanging down from the proper position; not necessarily straight down, but not tilted forward enough to put any tug on your shoulder. Then, bend your arms to almost 90 degrees at the elbows, so your hands can end up in a good typing position. The result is that your shoulders will be a little farther back than they had been in the past and your elbows will be quite a bit further back and lower than they had been in the past; so you’ll end up needing to sit closer to your keyboard, with the keyboard in a lower position than it had been in the past.

Also, I should say that it’s okay for your shoulders to sometimes go forward: they should do that when there’s a specific reason to do so, like when you’re pushing something in front of you. (E.g. while performing a move with Ji energy during Tai Chi.) The goal is to retrain your default shoulder position, not to restrict your total range of shoulder movement.

 

Step 2: Reposition Your Head

Next, work on repositioning your head. Again, if you’re like me and had gotten used to hunching forward a bit, then your head and next are also probably too far forward, not just your shoulders. So you want to retrain that, for two reasons.

The first reason is that your head is heavy. So, if your head is too far forward, then it’ll drag the rest of your body forward, and in particular will drag your shoulders forward. And, if you fight against that with your shoulders, then your shoulders will be tense. Either way, they won’t be relaxed and in the correct location.

The second reason is that our goal is actually not to relax all of our body at once, because if you do that, you’ll collapse onto the floor! The best way to relax as much of your body as possible is to try to fix one or a few points of your body in space, and have the rest of your body hang down off of those points.

And your skull works well as an anchor point. If you can keep your head in place, even lightly stretching it up, then that enables you to relax your spine and torso, letting them hang down off of your skull. In particular, if you want to stretch out your spine, thinking of it as a chain with the skull providing an anchor at one end and the pelvis providing a weight at the other end can be very useful. (I won’t go into detail about that here, but relaxing your pelvis is also worth working on.)

 

So you want your skull to be lightly tugged upward, and also to be further back than you probably normally have it. The point where you want upward pressure to come from is above where your spine meets your skull, which is in the back half of your skull; not all the way at the back, but you should try to raise your head from a point above the ears.

I don’t find it so useful to try to directly move my skull to the correct position. Instead, I start by sliding my skull back; if I do that, I feel a bit like it’s moving along tracks, and that those tracks curve upward as they go back, until they’re going mostly up rather than back. So I move my skull along that curve.

As part of doing this, it feels a bit like I’m tucking my chin. You definitely don’t want to bend your head forward, and actively tuck your chin in that way, but your chin will feel like it’s not jutting out as much, and the back of your jaw will be further back along your neck.

Unlike the first step, this isn’t something where you retrain your body and then the new positioning clicks into place after a week or two. My default head positioning has definitely changed somewhat, but I still don’t think that my default positioning is the healthiest one. Maybe that’s a sign that I haven’t found the right exercise yet to help with this process; or maybe that’s a sign that there’s more muscle building and retraining work necessary for this step, which makes it a longer process?

 

Step 3: Shoulder Blade Circles

Honestly, I’d been thinking of my shoulder blades as a relatively static part of my body. But they’re not: you want your shoulder blades to sink as well when you sink your shoulders.

Also, you want your shoulder blades positioned correctly. There’s a good chance that they were dragged forward along with your shoulders and neck; if so, they’re probably too far to the sides of your back, with the center edge of your shoulder blades jutting away from your back. Instead, what you want is for them to be relatively flat on your back, running along the back of your rib cage, without a sharp edge along the inner edge of your shoulder blades.

Your shoulder blade positioning will be changing on an ongoing basis as you work on relaxing your shoulders, but to help get that process started, you should free up your shoulder blades by doing shoulder blade circles. These are like regular shoulder circles (as opposed to the Gokhale variant from above), but centered further down on your back. So do regular circles, moving both shoulders together, first up, then back, then down, then forward. But have the point around which you’re doing the circling be lower down than with traditional shoulder circles: you want to be primarily moving your shoulder blades, with the shoulders only moving as a side effect.

While you’re doing this, have your attention localized on your shoulder blades, to increase your awareness of what’s going on there.

 

Don’t start on this exercise until you’ve done the Gokhale shoulder rolls enough to have mostly reset your shoulders to hang from your sides.

There’s no fixed number of shoulder rolls to do here; maybe 5 or 10 at a time? You can also do the rolls in the other direction if you want, but if you do it in both directions, end with the version that I’ve listed, because that version helps your shoulders go back.

There’s not a particular end goal with this exercise; just do it a couple of times a day for a week or so. And even after that week, it’s a good idea to do this before standing meditation exercises.

 

Step 4: Relax Your Shoulders

With all of that out of the way, we get to the point of this post: relax your shoulders! Unlike the previous steps, I don’t have specific exercises to recommend here: I assume that, if you care enough about this topic to have read this far, you probably already know exercises where it’s relevant. (Wu Ji, Zhan Zhuang, individual bits of Tai Chi forms, even seated meditation.)

During any of these, you want to relax your shoulders. So, certainly, do that. But you should do a few other things in combination with that. First, make sure your head and neck are positioned as in Step 2 above, so that your relaxed shoulders are hanging from the base of your skull. Second, relax the front of your chest as well: in particular, if you relax the point in the front of your chest right above the notch at the top of your rib cage, then that will help relax the entire upper half of your torso. (This point is known as Tian Tu.) Third, relax your shoulder blades; Step 3 will have freed them up a bit, and has also given you practice putting your awareness in your shoulder blades, which should help you notice whether they’re relaxed or not. If you do all of this then, when you relax your shoulders, you’ll get a strong feeling that your shoulders are sliding out to the sides as they go down; this is good.

 

You should also, counterintuitively, feel your arms rising as you relax your shoulders. If you’re doing an exercise where your arms are hanging down, this rising motion be hard to feel, but you should feel your elbows being pushed out to the sides in that situation. The rise will be more apparent if you’re in a position with your arms raised; by relaxing more and letting your shoulders sink, it’ll become easier to keep your arms up, and you’ll feel energy going out along your arms.

This last paragraph is why I’ve brought up your shoulder blades. As far as I can tell, what’s going on there is that your shoulder assembly is like a pulley system, with the ball and socket of your shoulder as the pivot point, your shoulder blades on one side on one side of the pivot point, and your arm on the other side. So when your shoulder blade sinks, it acts as a counterweight for your arm, and the more your shoulder blade goes down, the more your arm goes up.

Because of this, the effects on your arms of relaxing your shoulders are particularly noticeable in positions like Zhan Zhuang where your arms are high up. If you don’t relax your shoulders, then you’ll not only be depending solely on your muscles to hold up your arms, but your muscles will be holding up the whole arm / shoulder blade assembly. Whereas if you relax your shoulders, then the balls of your arms will sink down into the sockets (which already provides some support), your shoulder blades will be sinking so you won’t spend energy holding them up, and your shoulder blades will actively help raise your arms. I’m sure I have more work to do at improving my Zhan Zhuang (it’s not a posture I spend much time on), so there must be many subtleties there that I’m missing, but this change has made it less painful for me.

 

Another thing that I’ve noticed over the last year or two is the ways in which my back aches after a long session of standing meditation. I’m used to certain kinds of pain along my lower spine that is a sign that I’ve stressed my back in an unfortunate way, but this is something different: the pain is higher up and noticeably off of my spine, centered around the bottom of my shoulder blades, and it feels different in character from lower back pain.

I’m fairly sure that what’s going on there is that, as I’ve been relaxing my shoulder blades and letting them sink more, it’s been putting pressure on soft tissues of my back that are around and below my shoulder blades. So my working theory is that that particular pain is a good sign, that it’s a sign that my body is adapting; and in practice that pain hasn’t been a problem, it goes away after a day or two and never causes serious discomfort. And also I haven’t been noticing it as much recently, which presumably means that my body has been adapting.

 

It’s been a journey, and I’m quite sure that I’ve got more to learn here. But I’m glad at what I’ve been learning about my body so far.

beast breaker

November 28th, 2021

The trailer for Beast Breaker looked charming, though I couldn’t quite figure out how much gameplay there was: was it really doing enough with Peggle-style mechanics to support a game? Were there enough adventure game trappings to make me care? Still, I heard a few people talk about it positively, including some expressing pleased surprise with how varied the mechanics were, that I decided to give it a shot as a breather between longer games.

And, for the first couple of hours, I was glad I did. Even the first weapon had some aspects that made it different from pure bouncy Peggle gameplay, having you chose between different moves with different characteristics and tactical uses. And the second weapon was completely different (and much less bouncy!) than the first one. And then I came across variants of those weapons, with different move sets that suggested a different approach to combat. There was also a little home base and characters that lived there, which suggested that, though it didn’t seem to be a full-blown adventure game, there should at least be pleasant narrative bits popping up.

 

For a while, it more less kept going like that: a third weapon type, more weapon variants. And monsters got a little harder, which made me think more about some of the mechanics that I hadn’t previously explored. There were even hints that I’d be heading out into a broader world that might lead to something interesting narratively?

But then it stopped getting better. I stopped getting new weapon types; I did sometimes unlock new variants of existing weapon types, but they were often very minor variants indeed. The plot bits got farther apart, and when they did show up, they weren’t very interesting.

And I also found that I wasn’t actually enjoying the gameplay all that much. Probably the weapon that felt the most fun was the initial weapon type, where you were bouncing all over the place, with a pleasant sort of randomness. But randomness comes with downsides as well as upsides, and as the monsters got harder, the downsides started to actually matter.

 

I kept on going for a couple more hours, but ultimately, I decided it was time for me to stop. I really had enjoyed the start of the game, but that enjoyment was more tied to the novelty of the combat and the initial charm of the game rather than the depth of the combat and the heart of the game. I won’t necessarily say that Beast Breaker is a bad game, but there’s not a lot more there than it looks like up front, and for me, that wasn’t enough to keep me going with it.