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early impressions of cohost

November 19th, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

i was a teenage exocolonist

November 13th, 2022

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

covid and randomness

November 6th, 2022

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

Group randomness versus individual randomness

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

Hidden randomness

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

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

Rare events are hard to think about

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

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

Not believing in uncertainty

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

Experts

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

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

Long COVID

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

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

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

Analogies

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to worry about

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

tales of arise

October 9th, 2022

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

tunic and stray

September 25th, 2022

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

dicey dungeons

September 18th, 2022

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

citizen sleeper

August 28th, 2022

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

neo: the world ends with you

July 31st, 2022

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

hue

May 31st, 2022

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

another sight

May 30th, 2022

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

yoku’s island express

May 29th, 2022

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

elden ring

May 25th, 2022

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Concretely, some unusual aspects to its RPG system:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

exercising during zoom meetings

April 10th, 2022

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

forza horizon 5

April 3rd, 2022

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

psychonauts 2

March 27th, 2022

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

update on working part time

March 22nd, 2022

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

the forgotten city

March 13th, 2022

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

don’t let computers tell you what to do

March 6th, 2022

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

yakuza 3

February 13th, 2022

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

emptying out my podcast queue

February 8th, 2022

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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