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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.

ghost of tsushima

November 21st, 2021

I recently hit a bit of a lull in my backlog: I’d made it through the recent games that had particularly caught my eye, and wasn’t sure what to do next. It had been a while since I’d done a random AAA game, so I decided to play Ghost of Tsushima: I don’t have a lot of experience playing open world games, what I’d heard about it made me think it was reasonably up my alley, and multiple coworkers really liked it.

And I’m glad I played it! In fact, it might be the only game that I’ve ever gotten a Platinum trophy on; that honestly says as much about the developer’s choices as to what to base trophies on (e.g. there wasn’t a New Game Plus trophy) as it does about the extent to which I was hooked on the game, but I do approve of a philosophy of trophy design that’s more along the lines of nudging you to dive into different areas of the game rather than asking you to be obsessive.

 

Mostly I liked the way the open-worldness played out. The world of Ghost of Tsushima is a very pleasant world to travel through: I enjoyed riding my horse, the landscapes felt natural, the settlements were tiny to small but pleasant.

And, as befits an open world game, there’s stuff to do everywhere: I’d figure out where the next mission was that I felt like doing, I’d plan out a route more or less in that direction that either passed through some question marks or else passed through an uncharted area of the map, and by the time I’d gotten to that mission, I’d probably have made friends with a fox, and I might have climbed a shrine or liberated a settlement or something. It’s always a good sign when I enjoy traveling in a game enough that I basically never use fast travel; the fast travel in Ghost of Tsushima is actually very well done, with some of the fastest loading times I’ve ever seen, but despite that I almost never used it.

And of course it helped that, in general, I enjoyed the side activities. The fox shrines were charming: I like the way the fox jumps when it sees you, and I was always happy if the fox wanted tummy rubs at the end. And the regular shrines were pleasant enough platforming puzzles. (This isn’t the sort of game where you can make it up the side of mountains by jumping on random rocks, instead there are explicitly marked areas with platforming affordances; a little silly, but I enjoyed it just fine.) The battles to free settlements were okay on an individual level but I wish the game had had a little fewer of them? The only activity that I thought was kind of bad was the haiku spots, because the poems there just weren’t very good (games, take writing seriously!), but at least those were short.

 

And I generally enjoyed the missions themselves, too. There are four basic kinds of missions: the primary plot; chains of side missions for five separate sidekick characters; one-off side missions; and missions where you’re following up on a legend. The last kind were pleasant enough excuses to travel from place to place, and each of them ended with a duel, leading to some of the harder battles in the game, which was a good change of pace. The one-off side missions had you travel a bit in a more geographically restricted area, and had you solving somebody’s problem and learn a bit more about what’s going on in that area. And the sidekick missions were a chain of missions leading to that sidekick’s primary goal, I liked learning more about the characters that way.

The main plot, though, wasn’t so great. I mean, the missions were fine as missions; it’s just that the main plot was also trying to tell a story about what it meant to be a samurai that I just wasn’t into. Basically, you have this uncle with a rigid code of samurai honor; but the game teaches you various techniques to use as it progresses, and many of those techniques go against your uncle’s code.

So the game builds up this narrative where you turn into “The Ghost”, causing more and more distance between you and your uncle. The problem is, though, that your uncle is going to say what he’s going to say no matter what you do. So there’s no talking with him about the matter; but also, early on, there was one mission where I assaulted an enemy encampment in exactly the way my uncle would prefer, and after that the cutscenes treated me like I’d done all sorts of backstabbing stuff. Which is fine in a way, it freed me up to actually do backstabbing stuff, I liked that as a change of pace; but then later on there’s one mission in particular where the game forced me to poison an entire encampment, which I didn’t particularly want to do, I agreed with my uncle that that was a bad idea, but I didn’t have a choice!

So it’s this weird combination where the game decides what sort of character you are narrative-wise but then the game gives you freedom of choice in your actions that don’t match the narrative. It wasn’t awful or anything, it was just a little off in how it fit together.

 

And then there’s the combat. You learn some number of moves for fighting with your sword, but also get access to a decent number of items that mostly work to support stealth-based combat but also can be used at times in a supporting role for sword-based combat. Also, you have access to bows, both for distance attacks and for shooting stuff in the environment to cause havoc.

That all adds up to combat that I enjoyed more than in most games. This isn’t the sort of game that requires hardcore fighting mastery, which is good, because in general that’s not what I’m into. (It does ask you to parry sometimes, but it’s okay if you don’t get your parries consistently right, situations where parries are important are telegraphed explicitly, and the parry window is pretty large.) But I did end up approaching battles in a few different ways; I didn’t use all the tools, but probably more of them than I would in most games?

Having said that, there was a bit too much combat for me. At first, I managed that by skipping most of the “this settlement needs to be liberated” markers on the map. But then I decided that I probably was going to try to get the achievements, so I started doing more of those, and then I realized that they also helped me uncover more of the map, giving me more access to the kinds of side quests I enjoyed a bit more. And the liberation missions ended up being fine; by the time I decided to stop avoiding them, I was good enough at combat (and/or had gotten enough tools and leveled up my gear enough) that they didn’t take me very long.

 

All in all, I enjoyed the time I spent with Ghost of Tsushima. Maybe if I’d played more open world games, more of it would have seemed excessively cliched to me, but I kind of feel like Ghost of Tsushima is some combination of being a relatively well done open-world game and of being a game that uses the genre in ways that are fairly well targeted to my tastes? Ultimately, it’s an open world game where I enjoy spending time in that world, and that’s a good combination.

unsubscribing from apple arcade

November 18th, 2021

If you like playing video games, you, up until fairly recently, had two choices of how to play them at home, a console or a PC. If you play them on console, then, basically, you can just stick in the game and it will work. But the downsides are that it will only work on that specific console model, so good luck being able to play that game in a decade; that the console manufacturer keeps very tight control over what games are even allowed on the console; and that the manufacturers only put out new console models every five years or so, so the hardware gets obsolete very quickly. Whereas, on a PC, all this is flipped: it’s up to you to find the magic incantation to get a game working on your specific machine (and even to keep the machine running at a basic level without viruses and what not), but Microsoft and fan communities do try pretty hard to make it possible to keep on playing your favorite games indefinitely, anybody can publish whatever game they want on a PC, and there’s an extremely competitive hardware market constantly making the machines better and driving down the price of the former bleeding edge.

Some of the details of what I’ve said above have actually improved over the last decade, but still, the broad picture holds. Or at least it holds for those two business models, but a third model is available, namely the smartphone ecosystem. And smartphones do a pretty good job of taking the benefits of both consoles and PCs: smartphone games are easy to install and get running, it’s closer to the PC side in terms of the ease of publishing games, and the hardware capabilities are actually growing at a faster rate than on a PC. (Though it’s much less clear to me what the longevity of smartphone games looks like: I don’t see why you shouldn’t be able to play a smartphone game on your new phone 15 years after you originally bought it, but in practice it’s not clear that it’s working out that way.)

In other words, yay for smartphones. (And for tablets, everything about phones applies to tablets as well.) The problem is that while what I wrote above is true enough from a capabilities point of view, the actual games on smartphones mostly aren’t what I want, for two reasons. One is the input model: these are devices that are natively controlled exclusively by touch, which just does not work well for the majority of games that I’ve historically enjoyed. And the other is the business model: app store prices quickly raced to zero, at which point companies switched to free to play plus microtransactions, which again is a very bad fit for most of the genres of games that I enjoy, and which also led to abusive practices by game developers. Maybe there’s a third issue, too, which is that there are a lot more phones than tablets in the world, and phone screens are quite small.

So: not at all what I wanted. Or at least mostly not what I wanted: the iPad is, in my view, the best platform for puzzle games and for card-based games. (I just wish companies would publish their roguelike deck builders on the iPad! It’s certainly my favorite platform for Slay the Spire.) And I do have some puzzle games that I spend a lot of time playing on my phone and tablet, possibly more time than I spend playing games on consoles! But it’s still the case that most games I play and am interested in playing are games that I play on consoles.

 

When Apple released the first version of Apple TV that supported apps, I felt like ingredients were there to solve those problems. It plugs into your TV just like a console does, and while it doesn’t come with a game controller, Apple did at least talk about using game controllers with the Apple TV starting pretty early on. Yes, the Apple TV came with an underpowered GPU, but Apple had already shown that their CPUs were improving incredibly quickly, so if they could do the same thing to GPUs and if they would just release a new Apple TV every year (or maybe every two years) with a new system on a chip, then the Apple TV would catch up to consoles within three or five years, and be better than traditional consoles in pretty much every aspect not very many years after that.

There weren’t a lot of game publishers supporting the Apple TV, though, and I heard a lot of bad things about the remote that came with the system, so I held off on buying one. And, as it went on, it seemed like Apple wasn’t actually interested in directly building the Apple TV up to being a game console competitor.

But then Apple announced Apple Arcade. Which, at the very least, was an attack on some of the downsides of the traditional smartphone business model, since microtransactions aren’t a thing in Apple Arcade. And all the games on the service are supposed to work on all of Apple’s platforms, so maybe it will start making the Apple TV more of a viable game platform? Or maybe not, because it’ll require games to work with touch controls because games on the service also have to work on touch-first platforms.

 

So I figured I’d give Apple Arcade a try. I still didn’t have an Apple TV, and I still didn’t want to get one (among other things because Apple wasn’t updating it like they were their other devices, so it was getting even more underpowered), but I could at least try things out on the iPad, and I could connect up a game controller to the iPad for games that would work better with one. And it looked like Apple was working with good developers; mostly good developers in the smartphone space, but still, I was happy to see those names.

And, well, it was okay? Some pleasant enough puzzle stuff, some other light narrative games that I enjoyed. To my surprise, most of the games worked well on my iPad Air 2, even though that machine was from 2014; that was a really good machine! But not all did, so I had an excuse that I’d been looking for anyways to upgrade my iPad.

I did end up getting a game controller, to play Sayonara Wild Heards, though that ended up being a bit of a warning sign: when I connected a controller to my iPad, the audio through my AirPods started getting interrupted constantly. Which you would think would be a pretty standard setup; either I’ve got some bad hardware somewhere, or Apple didn’t care enough about that combo to test and fix it. And that latter hypothesis would mean that Apple doesn’t actually care about game controllers, since they certainly care about AirPods.

 

A couple of times a year, I’d try out another batch of Apple Arcade games, and I’d have the same feeling: these games are fine, I’m not unhappy playing them, but I could come up with a hundred other games that I’d get as much out of and a couple dozen games that I’m more interested in playing than anything in the service.

And then Apple did release a new Apple TV model (without the apparently awful remote), so I figured I’d get one; it was time to upgrade our video streaming box anyways, and if I can try out games, so much the better. I’d been thinking I wanted to try The Pathless, so I gave that a shot.

And, again, it was okay? Pleasant enough to have played, but not great. But also it was specifically bad on the Apple TV: slightly little janky at the start, though that got better, but then when I got to the third or fourth boss fight, the framerate was like fighting a slideshow.

So, basically, Apple and the Apple Arcade developers don’t prioritize having their games run at all acceptably on one of the potential hardware pillars for the service. I mean, maybe that’s a bit strong, it’s a sample size of one game, but right now it looks to me like at least some of the potential console benefits aren’t there for the service: even on a service with a limited number of hand-selected games, there’s still either too little oversight or too many hardware variants for me to be confident that games work well across those hardware variants.

 

In retrospect, this is all completely unsurprising. Apple is an unusually consistent company: they have the same priorities year after year, and for things that aren’t their priorities, they might make noise about them every so often but they don’t put in the effort to make them consistently work.

And games are something that isn’t a priority for Apple. For example, they used to periodically make noise about improving gaming for the Mac, but nothing every came out of it. (They did regularly showcase games in product announcements, but those all felt like those were because Apple wanted a tech demo rather than because Apple institutionally cared about games.)

In multiple ways, Apple isn’t the company I would like it to be; I should accept that instead of getting sucked into spending time either leaning into wishful thinking and pretending that isn’t the case or getting frustrated by the fact that that isn’t the case.

 

Anyways, I’ve unsubscribed from Apple Arcade. Though I did think about that for a bit; Apple Arcade isn’t what I would most like it to be, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t value in what Apple Arcade actually is. Looking at the games on the service, though, Patterned is the only game that I’ll miss, and I won’t miss it five bucks a month.

Which leads to two other points. One is that, while I do like all-you-can-eat services, I have a strong preference for ones that are making stuff available that I can also buy individually (either from the service owner or from other sources); boo Apple Arcade, boo Netflix.

And the other is that Apple Arcade actually does a good job with games that play to the strengths of the iPhone / iPad; a few months back, they added versions of a lot of older games to their back catalog, and whoever was in charge of that had very good taste. So, if you didn’t already have those games, that selection of games probably would provide enough value to be worth the $5/month that Apple Arcade costs! But I’d already bought copies of most of those games, so it didn’t make a difference for me personally.

the pathless

October 24th, 2021

I’m always keeping my ears open for interesting Apple Arcade games, and I’d recently gotten an Apple TV, which made me more curious about console-style Apple Arcade games in particular. And I saw some positive mentions of The Pathless on Twitter and in podcasts, and at least some of the people involved in it had a thatgamecompany background; some of the mentions also mentioned that the game took inspiration from Shadow of the Colossus, which is certainly a plus for me. So I gave it a try.

And I’m glad I gave it a try; I spent a pleasant six or eight hours with the game. But also: while I can see where comparisons with Journey or Shadow of the Colossus come from, The Pathless doesn’t come particularly close to reaching the (very high!) bar that those two games set. And actually it turned me off of Apple Arcade as well; I’ll write a separate post about that one, and it mostly wasn’t the fault of The Pathless, it’s more that I’d been wondering for a while whether to cancel that subscription, and The Pathless didn’t convince me I shouldn’t.

 

(There will be light mechanical spoilers below for the first hour or so of the game. Nothing to worry about unless you’re super sensitive to spoilers, though.)

The environments in The Pathless are pretty good, I think? But they’re not great, and I can’t entirely figure out why I didn’t feel more positive about them. They’re laid out in a way that feels relatively natural (as in inspired by nature) to me, which I’m normally drawn to. And the environment is dotted with ruins, which are well done, I feel like I should enjoy that too?

It’s possible that the textures are a little flat for me. Having said that, Journey largely takes place in a desert, so clearly I don’t demand too much in the way of texture in my games? Maybe the actual issue is more of the opposite, that the environment is, in some sense, a little busy. There are these floating arrow targets all over the place in your environment; their main function is to provide a boost mechanic, enabling you to zip through the environments pretty quickly if you keep on shooting them. Which is fine, I guess, but I think at some level those targets made the world feel kind of busy to me.

And the ruins made the world feel slightly busy to me as well, I think. Because a ruin isn’t just a ruin (in The Pathless or in most video games): it’s generally a signpost for a secret. So, when seeing them, my brain doesn’t just say “oh, neat ruin”: instead, it says “where’s the secret in this ruin?” And, fairly soon, it moves on to “do I actually want to spend the time on getting the secret in this ruin?” Frequently the answer was yes, but sometimes (and increasingly frequently as I spent more time wit the game) the answer was no.

So, in both cases, the environment felt a little instrumentalized to me, in ways that created a barrier to my just enjoying the experience of being present in the world. Which is quite standard in video games, of course, this just felt like the kind of game that might have the potential to step back a little bit more than it actually does?

 

That “shoot targets to dash” mechanism is actually a little odd. Like, on one level, it turns out to be a pretty neat mechanism: dashing is fun, and it turns out that the mechanism can also be used to keep you in the air while you’re jumping, so once you get good at it, you can cover pretty large gaps in space as long as there are enough targets between where you start and where you land. And the game adds in some variants later on to make the mechanism more versatile, in particular a version that launches you vertically, so you can climb up quite a bit in places where there are chains of those.

The thing is, though: at the end of the introductory level of the game, you get a bird friend. And the bird friend can carry you while it flies! So there’s this other mechanism that lets you cross large horizontal gaps, and to climb vertically as well. And using the bird to cross gaps is an awful lot easier than chaining your arrow shots. (I feel like it was within reach for me to learn how to use the arrow mechanism reliably, but why should I bother to put in that effort?) It feels pretty weird to me to have two different mechanisms that solve the same problem; the game puts in a few puzzles where you’re not allowed to use the bird to cross gaps and climb, but that feels like retroactive justification to me.

That leaves the dash justification for the arrow targets; and dashing is fun. But still, why not let people just dash all of the time, if that’s what you want? It feels odd to litter the landscape with something that’s there to enable pervasive dashing, when you could just, you know, enable pervasive dashing. And what I actually want to do much of the time is to be flying over the landscape instead of dashing through it, but flying is slower; this leaves me with a tradeoff that I’m not sure brings me much value?

Honestly, it almost feels to me like the whole shooting-as-travel mechanism would work best as a speedrunning affordance. I feel like you could navigate most of the situations where I used my bird by dashing / arrow jumping instead, and that dashing / arrow jumping would be faster for people who are good at it. But, again, that’s a pretty weird affordance to stick into the game so pervasively.

 

That’s the arrow targets. Then there are the environmental puzzles: tasks that you (with the help of your bird friend) have to figure out and accomplish in order to get keys that let you light towers that are necessary to progress. Except that there are quite a bit more keys than that; if you gather all of them on one level, it looks like something should happen, but I don’t know what, and I wasn’t quite enjoying the game enough to go back to one of the earlier levels and get all the keys. (It didn’t help that there’s no fast travel between levels and that finishing the final boss and going through credits puts you at the start screen instead of leaving you in world.)

So the upshot is that there are a lot of puzzles to solve; and there are also puzzles that don’t involve the keys that are useful for powering up your bird friend. Each individual puzzle was pleasant enough, but halfway through the game, I kind of hit puzzle overload. I still mostly kept on solving them, so even on the final level I had more keys than were necessary just to get to the towers. But it was also the case that, for the last couple of levels, I was feeling like I might have been making the wrong choice by doing that. The puzzles just aren’t different enough from each other, and don’t particularly grow from level to level, so once I’ve seen each puzzle archetype four or five times, I’ve more or less gotten what I’m going to get out of that puzzle.

Again, though, none of this is unusual for video games! Games will ask me to defeat a given kind of enemy in combat a thousand times without batting an eye; but here I’m wondering whether I want to solve the puzzles that are similar but not identical ten times? I don’t know quite what it is about The Pathless that has me questioning that aspect of the game play, and I actually think that my questioning is mostly pointing at something positive about The Pathless, because most games don’t deserve that sort of interrogation. But, also, there are lots of games out there that keep me poking at them in fairly repetitive ways for two or three dozen hours without grumbling too much…

 

There are also boss battles at the end of each section. They’re fine, nothing to write home about? I do appreciate that there’s no fail state in them: if you run out of health, it just knocks you back again, you pick yourself up, and start over at the start of the current phase. But, in general, the different bosses are pretty similar, nothing special there; and, for whatever reason, one of the bosses for some reason had huge performance problems on the Apple TV, making that particular boss battle feel like a slide show.

I think the game wanted the boss creatures to be something more, to make you care about them via a “giant majestic beast” vibe. It didn’t work for me; I’m not entirely sure why. Actually, thinking about it a bit more, one of their other design choices might have worked against that: the bosses are wandering around the level while you’re gathering keys and lighting up towers, and if you get too close to them, you get put into a stealth puzzle mode where you have to avoid their gaze. So that meant that I was actively discouraged from appreciating their majesty in the run-up to the boss battle: I wanted to stay away from them, and even when I got close, I still wanted to avoid them. And the boss battles themselves took place at a fast enough pace to discourage me from drinking in the beasts’ potential majesty there as well.

 

Anyways, to sum it up: The Pathless is okay, a pleasant way to spend 5–10 hours. And there are things in its design that I enjoyed thinking about. But I can’t say that I’d actively recommend it.

chicory

October 3rd, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

fill-a-pix

September 26th, 2021

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

the great ace attorney chronicles

September 12th, 2021

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

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

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

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

super metroid

September 9th, 2021

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

friends at the table

August 29th, 2021

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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