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alphabear 2

December 27th, 2018

So: Alphabear 2. It had been a while since the original Alphabear, I enjoyed it, so I might as well revisit it?

And the gameplay mechanics are the same, and are pleasant. The only difference I noticed there was my reaction to them: I was hoping I could play Alphabear 2 while wandering around and listening to podcasts, but it tickles the verbal part of my brain too much, so that didn’t work too well. (Which would have been the same with the original, of course, I guess I’d just played it more at home?)

 

But then there’s everything that surrounds the core gameplay. You go through this story mode, accumulating bears; there’s a gatcha mechanic to level them up and to collect new ones, and a separate school mechanic to level them up in a slow but more predictable way. And, at some point, I hit the wall on the story mode: my bears weren’t high enough level.

Which highlighted the absurdity of leveling mechanics: it’s not like I wasn’t playing well enough in some absolute sense, it’s just that my bears didn’t have high enough numbers to match the numbers on the curve they’d put for the story mode. And, of course, a battle between underlying numbers is something that’s there in pretty much every RPG; the differences here are that the curves are designed to make you wait a lot instead of make you feel better and better, and there’s not enough story and other variety to pull you along in the face of numerical annoyances.

 

The thing is, if all that I cared about was the mechanics, the game would be fine: there are more than enough non-story challenges in the game to keep me entertained if that had been what I’d wanted to spend time on? And it’s not like I gave up on the game immediately; but, ultimately, I don’t like the core mechanic enough to really immerse myself in it, and the leveling curve left a bad taste in my mouth.

Not a surprise; it’s what free-to-play games do, even ones that have a “pay to remove the ads” option: they’re not about one-time payments. And that generally leads to gameplay decisions that make me like the game a little less.

Though there’s the underlying issue here of how exposed the core mechanic is: I actually see that as a generally good thing, but it makes me appreciate games that have an even more solid core mechanic. Maybe Alphabear is that for some people, but for me, even setting aside the free-to-play issues, it turned out that I’d really rather fill those free moments by playing Flipflop Solitaire

ipad desires

December 24th, 2018

The iPad has been, in its own way, probably my favorite computing device ever since it came out: a sheet of paper that magically displays whatever you want it to. I’ve been on an iPad Air 2 for three years now; so it’s a reasonable time to think about buying a new one, and this year’s models looked really good!

Good enough to to think about them as a laptop replacement: the chip in it is more powerful than the chip in the laptop that I’m typing this on, and that laptop is way overpowered for how I use it. And I have both an iMac and a Macbook Pro at home; there were reasons why I ended up with that setup, but those reasons are mostly historical, and going forward either a Macbook Pro plus a monitor or else an iMac plus some sort of auxiliary device that can ssh or remote desktop into the iMac makes a lot more sense.

 

A lot of what I use the laptop for is stuff that I could already do as well or better on an iPad: reading blog posts, reading e-mail, etc. If I were doing serious programming at home on a regular basis, then that would be a reason to keep around a reasonably powerful laptop as my primary home device, but I don’t program at home all that often; I certainly want a machine available for times when I do that, but that’s one of the reasons why the iMac is there. But I do write blog posts; and I’m not in the habit of doing that on an iPad.

The thing is, though, I suspect that there are many ways in which I would prefer to write blog posts on an iPad: that’s a situation where I just want a sheet of paper to type in, and the iPad is great at being a sheet of paper! I’m writing this in a Byword window floating in the middle of an empty desktop (I hide all other apps while writing); having Byword fill up an iPad-sized screen sounds great.

 

So I brought along my iPad and a keyboard when I was on a recent trip; I used the iPad to write one blog post. (I used the iOS version of Byword, which I also turn out to rather like.) And there were a lot of things that I liked about that setup: in particular, the visual ergonomics were great. I also used the iPad for some other stuff that I normally use my laptop for, e.g. keeping the list of books I’m reading up to date (which involves sshing into a remote Linux server); the iPad was fine for that, and what problems I had were, I think, mostly problems with the keyboard I was using and/or the ssh client, they seemed eminently solvable.

The one issue I had was that I far prefer to use my iPad in portrait mode, and in particular portrait feels like a much better fit for writing than landscape: I don’t want to have to move my eyes much from side to side, whereas being able to see more lines at once seems like a fine idea. (There’s a reason why books are presented in portrait mode, after all!) And the keyboard that I was using felt noticeably more top-heavy in portrait mode than in landscape mode. And that was while I was using it at a table; but, when I’m at home, I type sitting in a chair in the den, hanging out with my family. That keyboard would have been really annoying to use in that situation.

That keyboard was one that I’d bought with a previous iPad model, so it wasn’t even a good fit for the iPad Air 2, and of course keyboard technology has changed over the years. So I did some poking around, to see if there were iPad keyboards that are actually stable in a lap, and to see if any of them are stable in portrait position. It looks like there are some that might work in my lap in landscape mode (including Apple’s keyboard case for their most recent iPad Pros); a few of the options (e.g. the Studio Neat Canopy) might be usable in portrait, but I sure couldn’t count on it. (I e-mailed the Studio Neat folks, their answer was maybe?) And so it’s easy to envision the iPad switch from something that’s my favorite computing device to something that I like less than a laptop because it doesn’t feel solid while I’m typing on it.

 

At which point I realized that I was being ridiculous. I don’t actually have a problem here that I’m solving: yes, I suspect that there’s a mythical future computing device that I would prefer for my evening at-home use over this laptop, but this laptop is just fine, in fact it’s considerable better than just fine! And yeah, the new iPads look great, they have amazing CPUs and their Apple Pencil support is a big step forward in this generation; but I don’t need a better CPU, and I don’t draw or do anything else that would make an Apple Pencil at all useful for me. I can imagine wanting to learn how to draw at some point in the future, but that time is not now.

And, also: the iPad Air 2 is a pretty great device as well! My first two iPads were the original model and the iPad 3; I really enjoyed both of them, but I was also quite ready to replace both of them when better models came around, they were noticeably slow and a little heavier than I would have liked. Whereas I don’t feel that way at all with the iPad Air 2, despite its age; every once in a while (when reading comics or PDFs), I wish that the screen were slightly larger, so that’s a real plus for the latest models, but that’s about the only concrete way in which I see the latest models making a real difference for me. And that’s definitely not a difference that’s worth a thousand dollars.

 

So, ultimately: I’m just getting pulled along by gadget lust, the desire for the latest shiny thing. And I shouldn’t let that blind me to the fact that I really like my current iPad and I actually also quite like my current laptop; I should just continue to enjoy using them!

And yeah, at some point my laptop and iPad break; and I’ll probably use that as an excuse to try out the iPad-for-work lifestyle. And, who knows, maybe one of these portrait-in-my-lap solutions will work; or, if not maybe Apple’s latest attempt will be good, or Brydge will continue to improve, and I’ll continue to type in landscape mode. And maybe I’ll even decide to start drawing or something?

But no need to rush out and buy the latest shiny gadget, even if I think it’s a quite good shiny gadget.

forza horizon 4

December 20th, 2018

I used to play driving games a fair amount: they were never my genre of choice or anything, but I found them soothing. I’d gotten out of the habit over the last few years, but I’d been hearing good things about various Forza games for a few years; so when I finished playing through Shenmue, I decided I’d follow up that game’s forklift racing by spending time with Forza Horizon 4.

At first, I kept on comparing Forza Horizon 4 to Burnout Paradise: open-world driving games that provide you with races as ways to get from point A to point B, that are happy to encourage you to explore the map (both on and off-road) in other ways, and that take care with the in-game radio stations. And, honestly, Forza didn’t do so well in that comparison: in particular, the more I played Burnout Paradise the more time I spent trying to build trick chains as I drove around, and while Forza Horizon 4 has a similar trick chain mechanic available to you, the game and its environments simply aren’t focused on tricks in the same way.

Not that trick chains are the only primary mechanic for Burnout Paradise: racing and crashing are key to the game as well, as is plain old exploration. Whereas racing, exploration, and tricks are all there in Forza Horizon 4, but there’s more of a priority order: it felt to me like the game is primarily about the racing, secondarily about the exploration (or maybe exploration and collecting), and the tricks are significantly lower in priority.

 

Which is fine! After all, if I want to play a racing game, then I might as well spend time actually, you know, racing. And a big part of what I like about racing games is focusing and getting better at both the mechanics and the tracks.

It turned out, though, that I was quite bad at the races. And, also, the AI opponents felt a little funny to me: they always all did a solid job of basically following the correct lines around corners (and, incidentally, I appreciated the game for showing those lines!); while I, not to put a too fine point on it, didn’t. So my AI opponents would end up fairly tightly clumped, I’d be way behind them, and whatever differences that were leading to some of the AI cars being at the front of the pack and some at the end felt qualitatively different from what was causing me to lag behind.

It started getting better with offroad races: following the line didn’t matter nearly as much there, so I wasn’t at nearly as much of a disadvantage. And, actually, I had an asymmetric advantage: if you approach tight curves close behind your opponents and you take an inside route at an overly high speed, then you’ll slide into your opponents, using them to brake and guide you around whe curve while knocking them out of the way, letting you pass several cars at once. A lot of me thinks the game should punish this strategy more, but for whatever reason it doesn’t, and the AI never adapts that strategy itself. At any rate, with that combination of looseness and intentional collisions, I switched over to usually winning offroad races.

 

Road races were still giving me more trouble; so I started replaying some three-lap races. That way, I could memorize the tracks and practice the same corners over and over again; and after an evening doing that, I switched from basically not knowing what how to corner effectively to frequently being able to hit corners well. And, correspondingly, I went from always coming in last or near last in road races to usually at least being in the middle of the pack and sometimes (rarely at that point, but then more and more often over the subsequent weeks) actually winning.

And, like I said above, one of the things I like about racing games is the focus that they engender. So I was starting to get that out of Forza.

 

There was still a ton of other things to do beyond the races. The world is pretty amazing, there’s stuff to explore everywhere, and the game does a good job of nudging you to look in different areas. And there are also story missions, which are a change of pace tonally and which give you driving challenges that feel a little different from the races.

And, as I mentioned above, there’s also the radio. Which I was actually a little bit disappointed in initially: the pop tracks didn’t grab me, and the classical selection was super boring. But eventually a few of the songs got their hooks into me as well, I was just a little slow to come along.

 

Forza Horizon 4 is, ultimately, a very good game. It feels maybe a little overpolished to me, and as much as an achievement that quality of open-world racing game is, I might actually be a little more in the mood for a track-based racing game? (Or maybe it’s the Burnout Paradise comparison lurking again: always hard if the comparison in my head is against one of the best games of its decade.) But I’m certainly glad to have spent the time with it that I did, and it’s also a reminder that racing a genre that I do enjoy, and that I haven’t spent enough time with over the last several years.

notes on silk-reeling exercises

December 16th, 2018

I’ve been learning Tai Chi for a little over three years now; and, as part of his classes, my teacher also teaches us Silk-Reeling Exercises. They’re not as flashy as the form, but I’ve gotten a lot out of them: both from how they feel on their own and how they help me isolate aspects of the form.

So I figured I’d write down some of the things I’ve been thinking about when I go through the exercises. I offer no warranty as to whether I’m actually approaching the exercises correctly: I’m actually a little nervous to be writing this just after reading Chen Xiaowang talk about how it can be harmful if you focus on the wrong thing! Hopefully if more advanced students read this, they’ll point out areas where I’m slipping up.

I’m not going to focus on individual exercises (with one exception); instead, I’m going to talk about aspects that are applicable across many of the exercises. And I’m going to list too much to actively keep in your head at any one time: what I’ve done is try to focus on one of these aspects for maybe a couple of months until I feel like I’ve got it at least partially internalized, at which point it goes into the background. (And then it pops out again when I notice that I’m getting that aspect wrong!) And, as I start internalizing more aspects, I start uncovering new ones to think about; I’m all ears for suggestions for other things I should be thinking about next during the exercises.

 

Tense and Relax

Most of the time, in a given exercise, you get tenser in one part of the exercise and you relax in another part. For example, when doing Elbow Rotation, you tense when your elbows are going up and out, and relax when they’re going down and in; a similar thing happens with the Hand Maneuvers.

Tense doesn’t mean stiff; relaxed doesn’t mean floppy. It’s more about how your energy is extending and then settling. (Or gathering?) Though I guess there are some places where relaxing has a somewhat different tenor: e.g. letting your arms fall as you relax them during Chest and Abdomen Folding, or paying attention to how your arms shift if you keep your shoulders relaxed during Spine Stretch?

A related concept: opening and closing. Especially during the first few exercises, you’re opening and closing your chest as you tense and relax.

Align Your Knees with Your Feet

Your knees should basically always be pointing in the same direction as your feet. This is very important to reduce the chance of knee problems: if you don’t do this you’ll put extra strain on your knees as forces are going in the wrong direction.

So sneak a look down every once in a while: if you’re rotating to the left, for example, make sure that your right knee is still lined up with your right foot, that it’s not starting to lean left. The way you generally accomplish this is to make sure that your kua stays open; I’ll talk about that more in a bit.

Turn Your Waist

When you turn your waist, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to turn your hips. Some turning of your hips is fine, though usually your hips turn less than your waist; but if the turning makes it as far down as your knees, then that’s bad: your knees will go out of alignment.

So be conscious of whether you’re turning your waist, your hips, or your knees; in particular, when doing Waist Turning with Punching, focus on turning your waist rather than your hips.

Sink into Your Kua

Your kua is where your thigh meets your hip; and, basically, whenever you move your legs without moving your feet, think about whether you should sink into the kua on the side that you’re moving towards.

In particular, if you feel a twinge in your knees, that could be a sign that you’re sinking into your knees rather than into your kua. (It could, of course, also be a sign that your knees are out of alignment!) I used to do this a lot during Knee Rotation; my knees feel a lot better now that I’m sinking into my kua more. And sinking into your kua has benefits other than reducing knee strain, to be sure: I’ll talk about that a little more below.

Loose Connection between Top and Bottom

The above items all point at the connection between the top and bottom of your body. Say, for example, that you’re doing Shoulder Rotation. It’s not going to be isolated to your shoulder: you’re going to want to open and close your chest as you turn, tensing and relaxing. And, as you open, your torso will want to turn and move back on the side where you’re moving your shoulder; this is good!

But you don’t want that to translate directly into turning all the way down your body: your knees should remain stable, and you also want to keep your torso upright, instead of tilting it. So, if you want to keep your torso upright as you move your shoulder and chest back, then you’ll have to move your hips back to stay underneath your torso; you do this by sinking into your kua on your back leg. And you’re turning your torso while doing this; most of the turning should be absorbed by your waist, with your hips only turning by a relatively small angle.

When doing upper-body movements like this, I think of my hips as traveling on a track between having my weight on my left leg and on my right leg; my torso is going up in a line from my hips (as opposed to being tilted), turning significantly more, and my thighs are acting like shock absorbers, with the kua doing most of the work. So the two halves of my body are connected, but the motion changes from more circular on the top to more linear on the bottom: there’s still some amount of spiral motion everywhere, but its character changes.

Dantian Movement

When doing the various silk reeling exercises, I found it interesting to pay attention to what my dantian was doing. I wasn’t so much using my dantian to guide the rest of my body as seeing how movements in the rest of my body were reflected in my dantian.

For example, when doing Shoulder Rotations, listen to your dantian, and think about how it moves differently when you’re only rotating one shoulder versus when you’re rotating both shoulders on the same side versus how you’re rotating both shoulders alternating.

Ground Connection

You always want to feel connected with the ground; and, when you start paying attention to this, it can be surprisingly visceral. And you want to maintain this connection when shifting your weight from one foot to the other: it’s very easy to loose the connection and get uproooted when doing that. Especially if the weight shift corresponds to a movement that’s rotating upwards: e.g. when shifting weight during Shoulder Rotation, it’s easy to get uprooted when your shoulder rotates along the top, whereas it’s much easier to maintain a ground connection during the bottom half of the rotation.

I think the key to maintaining the ground connection in those circumstances is peng energy: with peng, you’re expanding upwards, but you’re also sinking while doing so, inflating in both directions. So if you can sink into your front foot and actively push from that foot, then you can maintain the ground connection while rotating up and back. I’m not sure what all is going on, though; but, fortunately, the ground connection is a visceral enough feeling that you can use it as feedback when experimenting.

(It’s hard to pay continuous attention to, though! Like I said at the beginning, I’m usually only actively focusing on one of the aspects that I’ve listed here at any given time, the others are more in the back of my mind.)

Energy Flow

This is a concept that I don’t feel like I understand at all well yet: it’s the main thing that I’m trying to experiment with and get a feel for right now. The initial experience that made me think there’s something here that I should pay attention to happened this summer: I’d done a six-hour workshop on Sunday, and then the next Tuesday, when I was doing the Silk-Reeling Exercises, it felt to me like there was some sort of flow actively moving around in my body, almost like something was sloshing around inside of me. (I think it showed up most strongly when doing the double-shoulder Shoulder Rotations; I like that exercise!)

I haven’t actually felt the flow that strongly since then; this is probably a sign that I’m not doing intensive Tai Chi practice frequently enough! But I do now feel weaker versions of it if I’m listening.

There’s also more static feelings of energy. I’ve been feeling tingling in my fingers when doing Tai Chi for a couple of years now; over the last few months, as I’ve been focusing more on relaxing and opening up my kua, I’m feeling sustained warmth between my dantian and kua. I’m actually not sure if these are all manifestations of the same form of energy or not; there’s a lot I need to figure out.

 

The above aspects are applicable to pretty much all of the Silk-Reeling Exercises: I might use individual exercises as examples, but the concepts are general. But I did want to put in an exhortation to do one of the exercises, namely:

Dantian Rotation

Earlier this year, I decided that I’d do some Dantian Rotations while waiting for the train on the way into work. (Or, if I got to the train station a little late, I’d do them when I got off of the train.) So I started off by doing 15 rotations every morning, and pretty soon I bumped it up to 20 rotations every morning.

And I think it made a big difference to my Tai Chi practice; and, for me, doing 15 or 20 rotations in a single session is qualitatively completely different from doing 6 rotations. (These days I’m actually doing three separate groups of 25 rotations at different times of the day, but that’s not having a big step change: the big change was starting to do 15 a day in a single session.)

Concretely, what happened was, after doing this for a bit, I’d start to feel sensations moving across other parts of my body. When doing the sideways vertical circles at the start, for example, I’d feel movement across my shoulders, and I’d even feel movement across the back of my skull. If I’m paying attention, I can feel those sensations a little bit when doing 6 rotations, but it’s a lot easier to feel them if I’m doing 15 or 20 rotations.

And I noticed my form changing in subtle ways, too: I don’t know for sure that this is related to my doing Dantian Rotations, but I’m pretty sure it is. Concretely, at the end of Grab and Tuck in the Robe, you’re supposed to turn in your left foot a little bit at the end, and when doing Dantian Change, you’re supposed to turn in your right foot a little bit at the end.

That had felt pretty academic to me, but, all of a sudden, my feet started doing that on their own: when moving my arm across the top of my body like that, it became the most natural thing in the world to have my opposite foot move in a way that weakly echoed my arm’s movement. I don’t really understand what’s going on here, but I’m pretty sure that repeatedly doing Dantian Rotations helped me feel connections between movements in the center of my body and movements in outer parts of my body, and that in turn is causing more of my body to move in concert with each other.

So I would recommend giving that a try: find a time in the day when you regularly have a five minute gap, and spend it doing Dantian Rotations. Don’t worry about doing Dantian Rotations perfectly: it’s actually one of the Silk-Reeling Exercises that I’m still most unsure of the best way to do it. But I was getting benefits from it even during a time when (in retrospect) I’m pretty sure I was getting some of the details of it wrong.

 

I hope people find this interesting, maybe even useful; if I’m saying things that are confusing, please let me know and I’ll try to clarify! And I’m quite sure that there are things that I’m saying here that aren’t quite right, and that there are other aspects of Silk-Reeling Exercises that I should be paying attention to that I’m not thinking of; I’d love to hear more ideas along these lines.

apple watch first impressions

December 3rd, 2018

I didn’t have any interest in the Apple Watch when it first came out: I don’t get a lot of notifications on my phone, so I’m not going to buy a device just to shift them to my wrist, and I don’t have any desire in having a device that nags me to exercise more. (Not that I’m against exercising, but I can make my own decisions in that regard.)

Since Miranda went off to college, though, I’m getting (and sending) more text messages; and it sounded like Apple had done a particularly good job in general with their latest model of the watch? (Even some of the health improvements sounded like they might be useful.) So I got one; 44mm aluminum non-cellular.

And I like it! It’s not a transformational device, I certainly get more out of my phone and my iPad, but I’m glad I got it, and I’ve enjoyed it in ways that I didn’t expect.

 

An example of something that surprised me: using it to control what I’m listening to. Yes, it’s trivial to do that with my phone, the controls are almost always right there on my lock screen. But I spend too much time with my phone in my pocket; and, if I take it out to fiddle with it to control audio, I have a bad habit of continuing to look at my phone. Whereas, with my watch I don’t have that temptation.

And also: the volume controls are better on the watch! Turning a knob is a better user interface for volume control than a pair of buttons, and it also allows for finer control gradations. (I’m not sure why Apple uses as large volume jumps on phone button presses as it does, but it’s annoying.) And the knob feels good, too. So there’s a Marie Kondo thing going on here: to my surprise, using the digital crown as a volume knob does actually bring me joy in its own tiny way.

 

As to what I expected to get out of it: I do prefer using the watch for notifications. Part of that is not having to pull my phone out of my pocket; probably more important is that the notifications are silent but I notice them significantly more reliably than I notice my phone when it’s in silent mode. And, as an unexpected bonus: the handwriting detection works much better than I expected, so if I want to respond to a text message with a single word (which is a not-all-that-uncommon use case), I can do that from my watch without pulling out my phone.

And then there’s the health stuff. As expected, I don’t care about the move / exercise rings, but I wasn’t surprised to find that the stand rings is actually mildly useful. For a while, the nagging about the move / exercise rings was annoying, but it turns out that there’s a good amount of control over the exercise notifications, so I could turn off the notifications telling me to go for a walk to close my rings while still leaving on the stand notifications.

At first I was mostly bemused by the way it treats the exercise ring: one feature of this watch is that it’s supposed to detect workouts, but it almost never does that for me, even though I’ll spend an hour or two praticing Tai Chi and I go on decent length walks multiple times a day.

But then I visited Miranda and went up and down hills, and all of a sudden it was noticing that I was going on walks; and, actually, I was also noticing that that was feeling different from my walks at home, even though my walks at home are much longer. So the watch is in fact pointing out that I’m not doing much in the way of aerobic exercise: I’m moving a lot, and Tai Chi actually does get me sweating, but there is something that’s missing.

So maybe I should change that a bit? E.g. when I’m walking with Widget, I probably just want to go at whatever pace works for both of us; but when I’m walking to the train station in the morning, why not walk faster? I’m not going to take up jogging — I tried that for several years a decade or so back, and it just didn’t work for me — but I probably am missing something by always walking slowly, even if I do spend an hour or two a day doing that walking.

 

On a similar note to the stand reminders, the watch also periodically reminds me to spend a minute relaxing and focusing on my breath. And I like that, it’s something that I actually do want to spend a little more time doing; it’s probably more useful to me than the stand reminders? The timing of the reminders is a little random, they’re not particularly likely to show up right when I have a moment to relax, but still, I appreciate the prompt.

I’ve started using the watch to set timers, and I prefer that over setting timers on my phone. It’s particularly useful when doing standing meditation: I want a 20 minute timer so I’ve got a concrete goal, but I also don’t want a sound jarring me out of it; a vibration on my wrist works nicely for that. For a while, I was setting the timers by just raising my wrist to my mouth and saying “set a timer for 20 minutes”, but that doesn’t work super reliably; it was neat when it did work, though!

I’ve installed the watch apps for most of the phone apps that I have that come with watch apps, but they don’t add much. The Castro one is fine, but the only reason I use it is because it comes up automatically; the default playback controls would be fine if that app didn’t exist at all. The Streaks app is quite unreliable, so I’ve stopped using it: streak completions just don’t reliably make it from my watch to my phone.

I was going to call out the Duo app, but it’s not a separate app, it looks like it’s just a fancy way of showing Duo notifications on the watch; whatever it is, though, I definitely like being able to approve 2FA requests from my wrist instead of having to pull out my phone! And, continuing with authentication, I also like being able to log into computers just by sitting down in front of them with my watch on; one of the computers I use regularly has touch ID, which is similar and a little faster / more reliable, but the other ones don’t. (Though I’m not 100% at peace with the security model of watch unlocks; I haven’t thought about it super hard, though…)

 

I was thinking I’d play around with different bands, but the first one I bought was the Hibiscus Sport Loop, and I really liked it, so I stuck with it. It’s been getting dingy, though; I should look up the washing instructions, but that’s also a reminder that I should branch out and have a little bit of fun?

I’ve been wearing the White Sport Loop that came with the watch for the last two days, and I liked both the look and feel of that a lot more than I expected; I should put it in the rotation, and maybe get a more colorful Sport Loop? And I’ll probably get one of the metal ones, too; the last time I had a regular watch, it had a metal link bracelet, and I remember liking the feel of that, so I’m thinking I’ll probably get one of Apple’s Link Bracelets?

Which is a pretty expensive, but I’m liking the watch enough that I assume I’ll be wearing it and upgraded models indefinitely? And Apple has now kept watch band compatability through one size transition, so it should last for years. Not completely sure, though: it’s a lot of money, maybe I should explore third-party options, or just go with the Milanese? Or maybe I should explore third-party options just to be able to switch things up, no need to wear the same band every day…

ipad game roundup

November 26th, 2018

Some iPad games I played recently:

Paperbark

A lovely art style, and lovely sound design. And I like the idea of having a world that appears as you walk around in it. The gameplay beyond that concept didn’t grab me, though. (Or, for that matter, the learning aspects: it’s an openly didactic game.) And, similarly, the art didn’t quite come together, despite the beauty of the approach.

Florence

I wish I’d blogged about this sooner after playing it: it’s a slice of life story with interaction used in effective ways, and that’s a design space that I should probably spend more time thinking about and exploring. And I suspect that I had a thought or two about it after playing, though nothing too deep; that was two and a half months ago, though. At any rate: definitely my favorite of the four games here, and the only one that I actively recommend.

Donut County

You’d think that more games would have imitated Katamari Damacy’s mechanics, but this is the only one that I’m aware of. And the main thing that I learned from Donut County is how fragile the Katamari magic is: Donut County seems close in many ways, but adds up to something much less.

Rymdkapsel

This game caught my eye when it first came out but I never got around to playing it back then; but I recently learned that it was by the same developer as Holedown, so I tried it out when I was on a trip earlier this month. Alas, continuing the theme of this post: Rymdkapsel is no Holedown. Holedown had slight timing issues, but those were around the fringes: with Rymdkapsel, though, you spend a full hour making just a few dozen decisions. I suspect that there would actually be a pretty interesting learning curve here if the game were just sped up five or ten times, but it’s not, and the presentation, as lovely as it is in its own way, isn’t enough to make up for that.

goals and deliberate practice

November 23rd, 2018

I read Peak a few months back: it talks about using deliberate practice to develop expertise. Basically, you have to put in your time, but you also have to be putting in your time in the right way: always stretching yourself, instead of coasting (making things too easy) or flailing (making things too hard). Or, for that matter, instead of doing something that’s difficult but not difficult in a way that is most useful for the learning goal at hand. (The book ultimately also tells to you find a coach who knows what they’re doing…)

On the one hand, books like this are a useful reminder: I feel like I can usually tell when I’m stretching myself and when I’m not, and that’s an important distinction to keep in mind. But, on the other hand, there are some assumptions potentially lurking there that I’m not entirely comfortable with.

 

A lot of these discussions talk about what you need to do is to be great at something. And that might be important if you think you’re pursuing your vocation (though it might be overrated even then!), but, most of the time, when I’m learning something, being great at it isn’t my goal.

Take Tai Chi, for example. I’ve been learning it over the last three years, I am taking it seriously, and I am trying to get better. But my goal isn’t to become a Tai Chi master: not now, not even over the next decade or two. I have a full time job, I have a family, I have other interests; I don’t even practice Tai Chi every day (though I can imagine that changing; and actually there are some isolated exercises I do every day now), and on days when I do practice, I only practice for an hour or two.

If I really wanted to become an expert, it feels to me that treating it basically like a full-time job would be table stakes. And I’m not doing that, or coming anywhere near doing that: I’m trying to get better, but, well, not I’m not trying all that hard! Which is fine, it’s a conscious choice; but also, even though I’m reading a book about expertise, I don’t actually have to try to become an expert in everything, or even everything that I try to practice deliberately.

 

But, stepping back further, I don’t always have to practice deliberately! For this one, I’ll use guitar as the example: I do put in a few hours of guitar practice a week, and I would like to get better at it. (Though, as with Tai Chi, I’m not coming anywhere near putting in the hours and effort necessary to become an expert.)

Sometimes I do try to deliberately practice guitar. But I also just enjoy playing, and I enjoy interactively listening to music. And that’s okay, too? It is, again, probably good not to be under any illusion: yes, I would improve faster at guitar if I practiced differently. But that’s not necessarily the metric that’s important to me: it’s okay to enjoy things, too!

 

On that last note, one thing I actually have noticed is that, when I buckle down and focus on playing a small section of a song on guitar, I enjoy the process a lot more than I expect. So, even if I’m just trying to enjoy myself, deliberate practice can still be worth it? That’s also related to something that I’ve noticed about doing Tai Chi: I like how the concentration that it induces feels in my brain.

I dunno. I mean, the idea of deliberate practice is definitely important. I just don’t like the narrative that links it too closely to becoming an expert…

holedown

November 17th, 2018

Holedown is a lovely little ball-bouncing game. Blocks come up from the bottom of the screen; rather than being individual squares, though, they’re somewhat more irregularly shaped (think Tetris pieces, but with more variation); frequently with space between them, frequently right next to each other. You shoot a stream of balls down at them, and they bounce around; each block has a number on it, which goes down each time a ball hits a block, the number goes down 1, and if it hits zero, the block vanishes.

Blocks come in two different types: fixed ones and resting ones. Fixed ones only disappear if the count hits zero; resting ones can be destroyed the same way, but they also get destroyed if all of the fixed blocks they’re on top of (either directly or through a chain of resting blocks) get destroyed. So, if you can get your stream of balls to bounce halfway down the screen to where it hits a fixed block, then, by destroying that block, you might clear out a large chunk of the top half of the screen.

After that stream of balls stops bouncing around, the remaining blocks move up one; if they hit the top of the screen, your game is over. Also, the numbers on new blocks get higher, so they’re harder to destroy; counterbalancing that, the number of balls in your stream increases (more slowly than the numbers on the blocks, but quickly enough to make a difference), though if you play long enough, you’ll eventually hit a cap. (But the numbers on the blocks don’t get capped, so the game gets harder and harder at that point.)

 

That’s the basic idea (and a core idea that’s not unique to this game, it’s a mini-genre); and Holedown turns out to be a really well executed instance of this idea. The visuals are unassumingly charming; the sounds do a great job of giving a bouncy feel; the animations of blocks being hit or disappearing provide constant low-key fun. And there are other more subtle signs of care in the interactions: e.g. when you lift your finger from the screen to launch the shot, it’s almost always the case that your contact point with the screen changes as you lift it, but the game is very good at figuring out what the angle was from the contact point right before you started lifting and using that instead of the final contact point.

And the underlying systems are equally well thought out. Randomness is a key to doing games like this well: you want lots of randomness to provide variety, to increase the range of situations that you have to respond to. But you don’t want the randomness to feel unfair, like you hit a situation that nobody could deal with (at least until you hit the cap on the size of the stream of balls, because after that it’s only a matter of time before it gets too hard); and you want scope to get better by improving your skills at dealing with that randomness.

 

Some sources of randomness, and similar areas where you can increase your skill:

  • The irregular shape of the blocks.
  • The positioning of blocks in relationship to each other: are there spaces you can slip balls through, are there two blocks near each other with a space between them where you can get a ball bouncing back and forth repeatedly, is there a whole row of blocks with no gaps that you’ll have to drill away at, etc.
  • The two types of blocks, and the strategies that evolve from that: do you always want to target the top block (lower risk, but too low a reward to be right in general) or do you want to target the lower blocks (with an increased risk of getting your angles wrong, but with potential benefits of setting up massive cascade effects)?
  • The curved corners of the blocks, and the difficulty of prediction that arises from that. (According to a podcast interview with the developer, they’re not actually modeled as curves in the physics model, but there’s enough variation to be interesting; after listening to that, I was curious to see what it would feel like if the physics modeling matched the visuals, would that make it too hard to predict?)
  • The fact that, if you clear out too much of the top of the screen, then the screen will move up multiple rows at once, adding in risk to balance out the potential of big plays. (Including the risk that you don’t know what the shape will be of the new blocks that arrive: will they have lots of gaps or will they all be stuck in a row?)

 

That last point turns out, for me, to be the key to how I feel about the game in the long run. There are actually two different modes in the game: at first, you’re going through specific challenges (reach a certain depth, basically), with pretty serious constraints on the number of balls you can have in place, and with an added mechanic to let you learn level ups. So that’s fun as a teaching tool for the game, and fixed-scope challenges are certainly pleasant to overcome. But, after a few hours, you’ll make it through all of those challenges and earn all the level ups; at that point, you’re in an infinite mode, that always starts with 32-ball streams and where you can never get more than 99 balls. So, there, the challenge is whether you can make it up to 99 balls and then how long you can stay at that level.

And the mechanic of having the screen move up a bunch if you clear out too much is key to the infinite mode. Something like that is absolutely necessary to make the game interesting: otherwise you’d spend way too much time in a mode where only a couple of lines of blocks were present, because once enough blocks appeared, chances are that that would give you enough scope to bounce balls through a gap to reach underneath them and bounce around repeatedly, clearing things out. And that would be boring.

The flip side, though, is that encouraging conservative play, of not always trying to destroy as many balls as possible, is also a little boring. Of the two potential problems arising from how to handle screen movement mechanically, it’s the better problem to have, because it does give you an added option in how to play tactically and hence another opportunity for skill development. But still: so much of the game does such a great job of making it fun to have balls bounce around a lot that it’s a pity to see that worked against in this instance.

 

I’d assumed that the developer thought of the infinite mode as the core of the game and the earlier steps as tutorials, but, according to that podcast interview, that’s not the case: his goal was to make the experience of those fixed levels a very satisfying experience (which it is!), and the infinite mode is a bonus.

And this shows: the infinite mode is where the question above becomes important, and while the game’s solution is fine, I suspect there’s something lurking out there that could be a little better?

Also, the arc of a session in the infinite mode is not quite as good as it could be: there’s the initial wonder as to whether you’ll be able to survive at the start at all (which I usually can but which I fail at a not-insignificant portion of time), then there’s a fairly long period where you get more balls and where the game gets noticeably easier (I still die in this period sometimes, probably most of the time, but any individual portion of it is not going to be too bad), and then you hit the 99 ball cap and there’s a question of how long it will take to come up against a randomly generated hard-to-deal-with configuration that outstrips your skill.

And that’s a fine arc, though having the middle part be easier than the beginning is a little unusual; the problem is that the most rewarding part of that arc is where you’re at the 99 ball cap, and it takes a while (I haven’t measured, but I feel like 10–20 minutes? Certainly a long time for an arcadey game) to get there. So the learning cycle is curtailed, because you don’t get nudges to adjust your strategy / improve your skill in response to failure as frequently as I’d like. (And, also, individual sessions get a little long for a game that could otherwise be an iPhone play-in-spare-moments game.)

 

Anyways: very solid game at its core, with really good production values. It doesn’t quite reach evergreen status for me, but it’s very close indeed.

suffering, craving, and fairness

November 7th, 2018

There are a lot of annoying drivers on the road. People who drive too slowly, blocking your lane; people who drive at the exact same speed right next to each other, preventing anybody else from passing them; people who cut you off, muscling their way into your lane; people who tailgate (and, worse, people who tailgate, and then, when you move over, don’t actually pull ahead of you!); people who drive much faster than everybody else on the road, cutting in and out of different lanes.

Having said that, I don’t get annoyed at other drivers at much as I used to. Part of that is getting older and mellower; part of it, though, is that it doesn’t do me any good to get angry at other drivers. It doesn’t do me any good emotionally, and it also doesn’t do me any good as a driver.

So, these days, I try to see other drivers as context. There’s nothing I can do to affect their behavior; so I should just give up on worrying about that, and instead focus on understanding better what’s happening around me, to predict events, and to figure out how to put myself in the best situation I can given that context.

(It’s not actually true that there’s nothing I can do to affect other drivers’ behavior: mostly other drivers are doing their own thing, but my driving does affect theirs. But, again, trying to understand other drivers, including how they might react to me, is the most effective way to try to reach a good outcome.)

 

The first Noble Truth says that life is suffering, or at least that there’s a lot of suffering involved in life. The second Noble Truth says that craving is the origin of suffering; the third Noble Truth talks about the cessation of craving. And, finally, the fourth Noble Truth gives some pointers how to achieve that cessation.

It’s kind of a ridiculous example, but: to me, that driving example points at how I interpret those truths. It’s almost tautological, but the reason why I get annoyed when driving is that I wish other drivers would behave differently; if I can get over that and cause that craving to cease, then driving is fine. Or even interesting: getting over being annoyed at other drivers doesn’t mean that I have to be checked out. Instead, I can take the fourth truth’s advice to behave with the right mindfulness (or have the right intention and right action, or have the right concentration – take your choice!) then I can turn this into a positive experience.

 

The first truth says that aging is suffering, illness is suffering; unfortunately, I’ve seen more of that (some in myself, more in various family members) over the last few years than I would like. And it seems kind of callous to make an analogy between illness and the driving situation above, or to say that the suffering related to disease arises from craving: when I was in agony from problems with a disk in my back, I certainly had some cravings relevant to that situation, but the cravings weren’t the source of the pain!

But, of course, direct physical pain isn’t the only form of suffering that arises from disease: there’s the suffering of not knowing how your disease is going to play out and worrying about that, there’s the suffering of having a pretty good idea of how your disease is going to play out and worrying about that, there’s the suffering of fighting against medical bureaucracies, there’s the suffering of worrying about follow-on effects (on your family, on your job, on your finances), there’s the suffering of wishing you’d behaved differently in the past, there’s the suffering of being angry at the random chance that’s led you to this situation.

Not to minimize the seriousness and reasonableness of any of these worries: but you’ll be better off the less you focus on the worries, the closer you get to a clear-headed acknowledgement of the contingencies of the situation, and let that guide your actions and feelings. Which is a lot easier to type than to actually do, of course; again, the fourth truth gives guidance for that, but, well, it’s a long path. Sometimes I think I’m getting better (and I even feel like there are certain physical sensations in my head that correspond to this improvement, a sort of flatness in the upper rear portion of my brain); but I’m still more than capable of responding with annoyance and anger to situations, even though I can also recognize that that anger is actively getting in the way of my desire to steer those situations to certain outcomes.

 

One of the sources of suffering arising from illness is that it so rarely feels fair; and sometimes it seems to me that a focus on fairness is sweeping the country. You can, I think, even see this in language: I’ll now frequently hear people respond to a sentence with the single word “fair”, whereas I don’t think that was common ten or even five years ago.

The 2016 election certainly brought fairness to the fore: it seems like nobody in the country feels like they and groups that they’re part of are being treated fairly, and it showed just how starkly different people’s opinions are about what fairness means. Also, the erosion of norms bore on the question of fairness in another way: it’s painfully clear how much behavioral latitude the law and power structures allow, and the bad and even evil that can arise when people use that latitude to go far beyond what is fair.

But, as per the above, focusing on that fairness is craving that leads to suffering. Being unhappy that I (or some group that I identify with) am being treated unfairly isn’t going to change anything: it’s just a net increasing in suffering.

 

Except that, as the political example points out (and as the medical example points out as well, for that matter): suffering is a motivator. I said that being unhappy with unfairness isn’t going to change anything, but it’s also true that accepting unfairness also isn’t going to change anything. If you think that change in some area would be good, then change in the direction you seek is probably more likely to occur if you actually do something; so, to the extent that a lack of craving translates into passive acceptance, the lack of craving is less likely to correlate with good outcomes.

Does this mean that I think Buddhists are wrong in their analysis? Not necessarily, for a few reasons. One is that, over and over again, it feels to me like suffering linked to my response to situations doesn’t clearly lead to me changing my behavior in ways that have benefits further down the line; and I’ve seen not a few situations where that sort of suffering feels like it’s nudging me towards counterproductive behavior, e.g. towards a strategy of denial. And another is that this blog post hasn’t arisen from a deep study of Buddhism: the Buddhist bits here are based on some vague memories, a bit of googling, and a bit of Wikipedia reading. So I can’t imagine that Buddhism doesn’t have answers to these questions, and answers that are better thought out than I can produce in a bit of thinking and typing.

And, in particular, there’s some sort of analytical subtlety that I don’t yet have a grasp on. Above, I wrote “If you think that change in some area would be good”; when I originally typed that, though, it said something like “If you want change in some area”. But the word “want” feels inappropriately liked with craving; I wanted a phrasing that steps away from that linkage. Or, when I was thinking about this earlier, part of me was going to put the Buddhist point of view as leading towards just accepting whatever happens and not trying to change anything; maybe the word “trying” is wrong in that sentence, but you can always engage in a range of actions, and saying that the ones that are closest to the status quo are neutral ones while ones more distant from the status quo are linked to craving is, I think, analytically incorrect: I don’t see a priori why quieting down craving should push your actions in the direction of the status quo.

I don’t feel like I have a good analysis of this tension: the counterpoint is that it seems to me like taking an action is related to making a choice of what action to take is related to making an evaluation of which action is better is related to wanting a better outcome is related to craving. But I’m not convinced by every step in that chain; and I am convinced that too much craving can make it harder to reach good outcomes. I’m not sure if reducing craving is always the best approach, though, and I suspect that there are distinctions that I’m missing that would clarify this analysis.

Hard stuff: figuring out how to analyze it, but, most of all, figuring out how to calm down and step back.

limbo and inside

October 14th, 2018

I really was not expecting my initial reaction to Limbo to be how soothing it is. But there’s something about the game (its color palette, or rather palette of greys, in particular) that made it immediately feel calming to me, like walking through a quiet evening.

Limbo is not actually like walking through a quiet evening; oddly enough, though, that feeling of calmness more or less remained even as I started getting repeatedly impaled by a shadowy spider creature. I won’t say that I always felt calm during the game, but when I wasn’t, it was probably mostly the times when I was banging my head against puzzles? I was certainly surprised
how persistent the atmospheric feeling was.

 

Inside was not nearly as calming as Limbo: the perils of using actual colors. Though that wasn’t the only difference between the two games’s presentations, to be sure: in particular, I found the 3-D environments which you could only interact with in a 2-D manner to be slightly distracting? And being chased by dogs and people bothered me more than being attacked by mechanical spiders. The puzzles were just as good, though.

What actually struck me most about Inside was near the end, rather than the beginning: the part when you become a big fleshy blob rolling through the environments, smashing windows and in general causing chaos. That was surprisingly cathartic, and that catharsis is something that I miss in most games’ arcs. I’m used to games that bring the action to a fever pitch with a final boss fight, and then end almost immediately after that; but that doesn’t leave you enough time to wind down and enjoy your victory. With Inside, though, the capstone puzzle sequence is before you become a blob; and, after becoming a blob, you’re left with a noticeable amount of time (not a long period, but enough) to roll around, enjoy your new power, and only have a few isolated puzzles to deal with. A nice release of tension, leading to a relaxing end as you, uh, decompose on a hillside next to the water?

code animism

September 30th, 2018

I’ve been infatuated with The Nature of Order and KonMari for a while, in part for the same reason: their emphasis on direct perception. I spend a lot of time in my head, which leads to over-theorizing and over-analyzing; a question like “does this feel more alive?” or “does this bring me joy?” can cut through that sort of analysis, helping me avoid being misled by it.

Though it’s not the only thing that was attracting me to that question from The Nature of Order: it holds out (or at least I interpreted it as holding out) insight into the hidden nature of things. And, well, I have a soft spot for mysticism. It’s also why I loved mathematics: seeing hidden patterns that help explain isolated observations at a more fundamental level.

 

I read some Plato when I was younger, and was at least somewhat enamored by the theory of Forms. Not that I ever thought about it too seriously, but it had the same type of pull: an idea that there was some sort of deeper truth out there, if only we could see it. I still don’t think about Platonism too seriously, but these days, I think of Platonism as actively dangerous. (And I think of it as useless, for that matter, but that’s a separate discussion.)

The main reason why I think of it as dangerous is that, to the extent that many objects can be seen as imperfect images of a single pure Form, that supports active harm. I honestly can’t remember the details well enough to know if Plato supported the concept of a single Form of a human, but if so, the idea that there’s an ideal conceptual human that all actual humans could be compared against and found wanting to the extent that they match that Form is a horrible one. Even if Plato didn’t think that example of a Form would be valid, Wikipedia does assure me that there’s a single Form of the Good, which is almost as scary.

 

Both Alexander and Kondo avoid that problem (whether it’s a real problem in Plato or a perceived problem in my strawman version of Plato!), and do so in different ways. Alexander is constantly asking you to think about local situations: he’s constantly asking where the life is in specific situations, and what choices would further enhance that life or detract from it. So, in the context of building, the nature of its life might be affected by the landscape (the contours of the land, the trees that grow nearby, how sunlight hits the building site); it might be affected by surrounding buildings, and by the spaces between surrounding buildings; it might be affected by the people who will be using the new building, their needs, desires, and visions; and decisions at a later stage in building construction might be affected by decisions during an earlier stage. Alexander does have general rules for how life manifests itself and how you can evolve a context to increase its life, but the details of how that play out are extremely situational.

Kondo, in contrast, goes all-in on one specific aspect of non-universality: she asks what it means to you for something to bring joy. Again, she has some general principles (throwing away a whole bunch of stuff, recommendations for how to organize what remains), but her fundamental question is an extremely personal and individual one. So Alexander wants you to take everything into account, while Kondo wants you to take one person’s feelings into account; but neither of them wants you to focus on some sort of abstract representation of how things should be.

 

I read a handful of books on Shinto a few years back; and Alexander was part of the reason why. Because, if you take seriously the idea that it makes sense to talk about whether objects, buildings, and so forth are more or less alive, then that raises the question of whether or not it makes sense to think that there might be spirits of some sort in a lot more places than I’m used think of them as being. (Or maybe, in a lot more places than I’m culturally supported in thinking of them as being; in a lot of the spaces where I spend time, it seems a lot more socially acceptable to discount even the concept of consciousness than to, say, take the notion of a soul seriously, let alone to apply that concept to non-humans! But I digress.)

And if you’re going to ask that question, then it makes sense to try to learn a bit about situations where people have asked that question in the past; and Shinto is one such tradition that comes to mind. I can’t say that I got a whole lot out of those particular books, unfortunately, though I probably will reread one of them. In retrospect, I guess it’s not too surprising that reading books in English is probably not the best way to try to get real insight into Shinto…

 

I work professionally as a programmer. Alexander’s ideas on patterns have had some influence on programming (though not really in their full Pattern Language form); his ideas from The Nature of Order haven’t had significant influence on programming, as far as I’m aware. But it does seem to me like they should apply in some form, though the details will certainly play out differently in programming than in architecture.

I was going to say that one difference is that programming raises the possibility of writing code from a clean slate, while in architecture the site and surroundings are always there. And there’s something to that; but, when programming, your actions are always shaped by the context: the context of your tools (programming languages, hardware, etc.), the social context (potential users, your fellow programmers, etc.), and so forth.

Still, the abstract nature of programming does make it even more uncomfortable to take seriously Alexander’s notion of seeing life in objects than it is to take seriously that notion in, say, houses. I mean, from one point of view it’s not obvious why arrangements of atoms should be capable of being alive than arrangements of programming language tokens, but still: we’re used to the former and have lots of existence proofs. Though maybe the software case isn’t actually that far from the Turkish carpet case

 

I periodically see discussion about whether we like focusing on the word “craft” when discussing the creation of software. This is usually in response to the Software Craftsmanship movement; and there are obvious criticisms of that movement (starting with the second syllable of the second word), and more subtle ones. Sarah Mei in particular has thought a lot about this, here are two examples, and Jessica Kerr’s stunning Origins of Opera talk addresses the issue as well.

So, even though I’ve been drawn towards the notion of software as craft, those critiques make me realize that I should think more about what associations the term “craft” has, which of those associations I like, which I don’t, and what important aspects of software development are missing from those associations. (Maybe it’s time for AR⊗TA to reappear, to help broaden and question those associations!)

I think, ultimately, the association that I like is that craft says that details matter. And that’s important to me, and it probably says something about my temperament; though big abstract ideas matter to me as well, so who knows.

One nice thing about the Nature of Order approach (or the Pattern Language approach before it) is that it tells you to pay attention to all scales. So, yeah, the details matter, but the broad strokes matter, and the levels in between matter. And, as per The Process of Creating Life, this applies to the dynamics, not just to a static snapshot of the situation. And, to get an outcome that really takes into account the full context, you have to talk to people. A lot.

 

I’m meandering more than normal here: there’s something going on that could, I think, be important to me but that I haven’t spent enough of my life really diving into. And I suspect that there’s a pretty clear entry point for me: diving into the details of sections of code, listening to what those details are telling me and trying to get the code feel as right as possible. I don’t think that’s a general route into this concept that I’m groping at, and I think other people would have different entry points, at different scales and different interactions; hopefully I’d be somewhat aware of those scales as well, and hopefully as I got happier with the smaller scales I’d find it easier to listen to the larger scales.

Which, of course, raises the question: why am I not doing this already? And I am, a little; but not as much as I should be. Maybe that means that I should spend more time programming out of work; maybe that means I should change what I’m doing at work.

I guess it does make sense that this can be a little hard to navigate at work? If I just say “I want to understand the nature of code better”, it’s not clear why anybody’s response should be a particularly positive one. There might still be a path in there — I can phrase it as an attack on technical debt, for example — but a more obvious route would be to work this philosophy into programming that I’m doing at work for other reasons. (And, actually, maybe the problem is that I’m not doing quite enough programming these days: I’m staying an individual contributor, but individual contributions can come in lots of forms.)

Ultimately, honestly, what matters is whether or not I treat the idea seriously. If I do, nobody is going to tell me that I shouldn’t spend more time following my nose programming. And, if I don’t, this is just words.

hellblade: senua’s sacrifice

August 29th, 2018

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice got notice for its portrayal of psychosis: Senua, the protagonist, hears voices, and sees things that other people don’t. The developers apparently took this seriously, consulting with mental health professionals and integrating the symptoms and themes into the game.

This sort of treatment is, honestly, something that I’m temperamentally not particularly well set up to appreciate. Because there’s another interpretation for what Senua is hearing and seeing: that she’s in contact with the supernatural. And my default when confronted with the fantastical in art is to accept those fantastical elements at face value, even when they’re mixed in with non-fantastic elements. So, sure, I could treat Totoro as a story about two girls who are overwhelmed with worry about losing their mother and who hence retreat into their imagination; but not only do I instead assume that it’s portraying a world where giant smiling panda-like creatures and catbuses actually exist, it didn’t even cross my mind that another interpretation was possible until I heard people discuss such an interpretation on a podcast, a decade after I first watched the movie.

And the world of Hellblade is a lot more supernatural than that of Totoro: it’s thoroughly embedded in a context of Norse mythology, which means that gods, spirits, and supernatural creatures are entirely to be expected. Senua crosses over into the realm of one of the gods right at the beginning of the game; so my first inclination is (or at least would be if I hadn’t heard about the game in advance) would be to treat unusual experiences as standard parts of the in-game world.

 

There are in-game arguments to support mental health interpretations, though. Senua’s father was abusive; and she’s seen horrific amounts of death, from both disease and violence. And, whatever the interpretation of the visions, it’s an ability that Senua shared with her mother, and one that many of her townspeople were apparently not particularly comfortable with with either woman. So there were environmental factors that could have contributed to mental health problems; and for that matter sometimes people have mental health problems even without environmental factors coming into play.

If I were pinned down, I’d probably come down on an interpretation where Senua really is experiencing a divine world, where she has been having visions for years that were showing her parts of that world, but where she nonetheless has real mental health problems. (With the voices being good candidates for manifestations of those problems.) Which is an interpretation that makes me favorably inclined towards the game for a couple of reasons.

One is an issue of representation. I’ve had mental health problems in the past, lots of other people I know also have, so why shouldn’t those show up in games? And not just in games that are about mental health: just as it’s bad to have a game industry that defaults to male protagonists or white protagonists or straight protagonists, it’s bad for the industry to default to protagonists without mental health issues (or, for that matter, physical health issues). It’s bad because it limits who sees themselves represented; and it’s bad because that’s not the way life is, life is a lot richer than an artificially limited presentation is able to depict.

And the other reason is that, looked at through any sort of morality that isn’t framed in game conventions, games (or at least games based on violent combat) present a dystopian hellscape. They’re filled with constant slaughter; your protagonist is expected to treat this as something normal and even a source of pride (indeed, generally your protagonist’s self-conception is supposed to be a hero who is saving the world, or at least their local portion of it). If I ran into somebody acting like a video game protagonist in the real world, my reaction would be to back away first slowly and then (once out of sight) very quickly; and if I’d had first-hand experience of something like what game protagonists experience, then I’d probably be woken up screaming from PTSD for years to come. So yeah, there’s something to be said for the honesty of a game with a protagonists whose violent experiences have left a mark.

 

The representation argument also says that games with mentally ill protagonists shouldn’t always be (or always be analyzed, for that matter) as being about mental illness. And, fortunately, Hellblade does very well on that regard!

It’s partly a horror game; a genre that I don’t spend time on but that I respect in the abstract. (I’ve played the first and fourth Resident Evil games, Eternal Darkness, and, uh, not much else?) Hellblade has gotten me thinking that I should spend more time in that genre: I don’t particularly enjoy being scared, but the horror aspect of Hellblade meant that the flow of the game was less over-weighted towards mechanics, with the environment, the plot, the non-combat aspects of your enemies, and your heightened perception of the experience taking a larger role. And spending more time with games that accomplish that is all to the good.

Not that traditional mechanics weren’t there. There’s combat; I’m not a fighting devotee, it seemed okay mechanically? And, much more unusually for me, the fighting was okay quantity-wise as well: you weren’t constantly wading through enemies, but when you encountered them, they had reasons to be their, either for plot-based reasons or to scare you. And there were a couple of different puzzle mechanics; environmental puzzles, but puzzles that had you looking around and seeing shapes more than puzzles that had you finding keys to put into locks. Nice change of pace from environmental puzzles in other games; but also a nice change of pace within the game itself, with you (usually) being able to mostly temporarily retreat from wondering what’s coming around the corner to, instead, wondering if you’ll see a certain shape if you look around in the right way.

And I liked the plot, too: a woman fighting through the underworld to rescue her love (and a rather metal woman, at that, with her love’s skull attached to her belt!), weaving in struggles with the gods, references to her previous life and the struggles and joys she’d experienced therein, and periodic byte-sized lore dumps of Norse mythology that gave another lens on Senua’s story.

 

The game it didn’t overstay its welcome, either: it told the story that it wanted to tell, and then it was done. So: a well-executed story, with a couple of well-executed mechanics, in an interesting environment, with a protagonist having attributes that you don’t normally see, with an overlay of horror to heighten your attention on the experience. I’m impressed; I’d like to see more games that learn from how Hellblade selected and arranged elements into a rather lovely package.

switching away from apple music

August 16th, 2018

A year and a half back, I finally joined the modern world and signed up for a music streaming service. I did this for music discovery purposes: I wanted an easy way to try out artists and songs that I’d heard of but wasn’t familiar with, and I also wanted algorithm recommendations to point me at music that I hadn’t heard of or wouldn’t have thought to try myself.

The specific service that I signed up for was Apple Music; no particular deep thought there, I just picked it more-or-less randomly over Spotify. The main consequence of that choice was that it integrated with my existing music library, which seemed like a good thing?

 

There was one consequence of that integration that I was aware of and had mixed feelings about: that a song on my phone wouldn’t have the same bytes as the same song on my computer. Philosophically, that felt completely wrong to me: if I sign up for iCloud Photo Library, would Apple feel free to replace photos in my library with other photos that it felt were similar enough that I wouldn’t care? Of course not (at least for the master images), that’s ridiculous; so why treat music differently? Having said that, I’d heard that the matching was pretty good, and in practice I didn’t notice any differences, though that may be a side effect of me not seriously listening to classical music during the last few years.

There were two other consequences of signing up for Apple Music that I wasn’t expecting, though. One is that iTunes edited the original files on my computer; this feels to me not just wrong but actively irresponsible, with iTunes silently becoming unsuitable for archival purposes once you turn on Apple Music. (I believe it was only updating metadata, but that only barely excuses its behavior; and I could be wrong, maybe it was making larger modifications.) And the other is that, when transferring files, it did the matching at a per-song basis instead of a per-album basis, with the result that I could no longer reliably listen to entire albums on my phone, because some tracks would randomly be assigned to some other album. (This would even happen with albums that I bought off of iTunes: it split the 7 tracks off of Mamamoo’s Memory EP into 3 separate albums, and even assigned those albums to two different artists, both called MAMAMOO.)

 

My first reaction was to say “fine, iTunes isn’t suitable for archival purposes, but maybe I shouldn’t have trusted it for that anyways” and to start setting up a different archive system. The thing is, though, that a) that’s a pain, and b) that’s ridiculous. I mean, if I hired somebody to manage my library of books, and they decided to randomly replace physical copies of the books with other editions of the same books, to make marks in the books with information about how I was using them, and to randomly rip out chapters of those books and file them separately, would I keep on working with that person? No, of course not. (Though the first two parts of that behavior would actually be entirely reasonable if it were a public/institutional library; maybe that’s the mindset that the Apple Music folks have.)

So, as of a couple of weeks ago, I’m no longer subscribed to Apple Music and I am subscribed to Spotify. Which, in retrospect, is probably what I should have done to begin with: leveraging monopoly power is bad, and companies that are focused on one thing are good. It’s a little annoying having to train another service as to what sort of music I want to have recommended to me (and Spotify seems, if anything, even more willing to assume that I’m obsessed with K-Pop than Apple Music was, which is incorrect but nonetheless useful because I don’t have good other sources of K-Pop recommendations), but hopefully I’ll start getting broader recommendations after another few weeks.

 

One thing that this process has made me glad of, incidentally, is that I maintained a separate library, continuing to buy albums that I particularly liked even while subscribed to Apple Music. I just don’t trust streaming services to take over library management: I don’t trust current ones to be in business at all a decade from now, I don’t trust them to provide an export service for my saved library (it doesn’t look like Spotify has that functionality), and I don’t trust them to be able to always be able to provide their music catalogs at their current level. And their current catalogs aren’t complete, either, so Spotify in particular will never be a sole source of truth for my music library unless they provide a way to sideload music.

Of course, from a personal financial point of view, it doesn’t make much sense to continue to buy new albums that I like: I should probably just save them in a streaming service and maintain a text file with a list of band / album names as backup, or something. Or, alternatively, I could give up on the idea of a permanent saved library in the first place: embrace impermanence. And that might be what I would do if I were younger or poorer; but I’m not.

I am vaguely wondering if I should look at options other than iTunes for maintaining that library, though: after it started editing my music files, my trust in iTunes has dropped precipitously, and I am wondering if, in a couple of years, Apple will remove stored library computer/phone syncing support entirely, forcing you to use Apple Music for that purpose. So if any of you know of Mac software that can manage your music library better than iTunes can, I’d be curious to hear about it! No sense worrying about that too much right now, though.

kittens game

August 6th, 2018

I started playing Kittens Game because of a VGHVI symposium on incremental games. I’d played Paperclips a few times, but Kittens Game turned out to have quite a different rhythm.

To begin with, it’s slower paced, in fact quite a bit slower paced. Fairly soon I got to a situation where I could productively click in the game maybe once a minute, and where I had an interesting decision to make (as opposed to just clicking because a meter had filled up) closer to once an hour. And wow, having a game like that on my laptop really messed up my blogging: it’s way too easy to have my browser window peeking out behind my text editor, and to have the former distract me because I was constantly checking if I should click on something.

That was an interesting psychological experiment; it did actually have benefits in giving me a challenge in terms of managing my focus, and in experiencing a quite different rhythm of reward curve compared to what I’m normally used to. And, as I progressed through the reward curve, the overall rhythms of the game changed, too: as I would unlock technologies, I’d gain access to a new material at a very low production rate, then I’d gain access to abilities that would let me increase production, and then eventually (days, weeks later) that material would no longer feel like a major bottleneck, and a few weeks after that, my production would be up a hundredfoldfrom where it had been.

 

Normally, I don’t plays games with a guide, but Kittens Game is the sort of game that even I will look at the wiki of: if I’m only going to have an opportunity to advance in the tech tree once or twice an evening, then I’m going to want to at least have a fairly precise description of what the different options do. And, reading through the wiki (and occasional other advice posts), I’d come to mentions of resetting the game to speed things up; at first I assumed that I’d just stick things out, but eventually I realized that, no, the game really is designed under the assumption that you’re going to reset it periodically.

I still stuck it out longer than most people do on their first run, I suspect, but eventually I decided that it was going to take long enough for me to unlock the next technology that I wasn’t going to enjoy it: I’d enjoy the game more going back to the beginning just because the early technologies unlock a lot faster than the later ones. So I decided to reset and see what the bonuses for resetting felt like.

When resetting, the main benefit you get is something called “paragon”, that you (more or less) can’t get any other way. It increases your production rate somewhat (at least the first few times you reset, there’s a cap); it also increases your storage caps for the different materials (no caps on that one).

The production rate bonus is pretty obvious: things unlocked faster the second time than the first time. But the storage cap was more subtle, and ultimately more profound: over and over again when playing the game, you’d have a goal in mind to purchase, you’d need certain amounts of materials to be able to make that purchase, but you wouldn’t actually be able to store that much material. So you’d buy storage buildings to increase your storage before you could achieve your key goal. (And this would recurse: sometimes your key goal itself would be a storage building, so you’d have to buy worse storage buildings to increase capacity first!) So what the storage capacity increase meant was that you didn’t have to spend as much time buying buildings for storage capacity: you could spend more of your production on more substantial advancements. So, in other words, paragon actually increased your productivity in two separate ways, not just one.

 

Not all items had a storage cap, though: raw materials do, but manufactured materials (which you construct out of other materials) don’t. Which led to another kind of production boost (one that’s applicable even on your first run through the game): two buildings in the game let you increase the quantity of manufactured materials you get every time you construct them. So those buildings also give you a subtle production boost; and, because some of the manufactured materials are themselves constructed out of other manufactured materials, this boost actually can get magnified.

For example, there’s a good called “blueprints” that you can either acquire through trade (rarely, it only happens on 10% of trades), or by taking furs (a raw material) and then creating parchment, then turning the parchment into manuscripts, then the manuscripts into compendia, and finally the compendia into blueprints. At each phase, you need a large amount of the prior material to turn into the next material (sometimes 25 items, sometimes 50), so it takes a ludicrous number of furs to turn into a single blueprint; you’ll always acquire them through trade. But as your manufacturing bonus increases, that changes: if you get a 2x manufacturing bonus at each stage, then you can produce blueprints 16x as efficiently; if you have a 3x bonus, then you can produce them 81x as efficiently; if you have a 4x bonus, then you can produce them 256x as efficiently; and all of a sudden producing them directly instead of through trade starts seeming pretty reasonable.

 

So: lots of ways to increase your capability. Buildings (and kittens that arrive in your village!) can increase your production capacity directly (actually through two methods, but never mind that); paragon can give an additional direct production boost; paragon gives a storage boost that also increases the effectiveness of your production; and the manufacturing bonus means that, as you construct more of two special kinds of buildings (which is, of course, easier if your production caps are higher), your production of some kinds of goods can get much more efficient.

And, with all of that, on my second playthrough, I made it past the wall that I’d hit the first time; so I reached the moon and constructed mining facilities to get a new raw material, called unobtainium. With that, I managed to unlock the Metaphysics technology path, which lets you spend paragon to unlock permanent benefits (i.e. ones that persist across resets); and the most prominent early ones to buy make buildings cheaper. Each building’s price increases exponentially as you buy more of them; these first few metaphysics lower the the base of that exponent.

 

And, ultimately, that’s what Kittens Game is about: it’s a meditation on the nature of exponential growth. You want to build more buildings; the cost of those buildings starts out low but increases exponentially. For buildings made from raw materials, you’ll eventually hit a cap because of your storage; as you increase that cap, you can build more. And for buildings made from manufactured materials, you’ll hit a soft cap based on the amount of time you’re willing to wait. But if you can decrease the base of the exponent, you’ll make it farther; if you can increase your manufacturing capability, you’ll make it farther.

Eventually, you give up and reset; but by doing that, you’ll have improved some of these numbers, so you can make it faster next time. As your abilities improve, you’ll unlock new materials and production mechanisms that provide different spins on these mechanics.

And you do all of this at a quite slow place. Which might make it more boring, but somehow the slow place combines with the numerical austerity of the mechanics to force you to confront and appreciate how the numbers work. Of course, as your abilities increase across resets, the initial progress gets faster and faster; but the later materials and mechanisms slow you down in term, playing with time in different ways. So you’re always being forced to spend time with the game, seeing what there is to think about.

 

It’s a strange game. I spent months playing it, letting it work its way into my life more than I was completely comfortable with. But Kittens Game has a real purity to it, and in its own way it’s very well designed: the challenges flow into each other extremely well, constantly providing a new perspective on time and exponential growth.

mario + rabbids kingdom battle

July 29th, 2018

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is an extremely well done game that I feel like I should have enjoyed more than I did, even though I enjoyed it quite a bit. Or maybe “should have” isn’t the right phrase, but at least the question of why I didn’t enjoy it more feels worth interrogating?

It’s an extremely polished game: it’s made by Ubisoft, but they really did live up to the Mario license, I would totally believe that it could have been a Nintendo first-party game. Well, I would totally believe that except for the Rabbids part; but I like the Rabbids humor fine (honestly, I like it more than Mario’s generic nature), it’s nice to return to them again after not having played a game with them since the early days of the Wii.

As befits a Mario game, there are mild environmental puzzles everywhere. Chests to open, pipes to travel through, switches to flip, blocks to push; sometimes the chests are sitting there, sometimes you have to spend five or ten minutes experimenting with switches and what not to figure out how to manipulate the environment to get to them, sometimes you have to wait until you’ve made it to the end of the chapter of the game to get a new ability that will let you solve the puzzle.

But, of course, the core of the game is the battles. Which follow the XCOM formula, but with changes: the randomness is a little more restricted, you don’t have the same permadeath worries, and I think there are more combo possibilities? I could be wrong about the details of the differences, because I’ve only played a quarter of one XCOM game; I bounced off of that game, but the battles in Mario + Rabbids are much more like puzzles, which made them significantly more to my taste.

 

Ultimately, though, I guess even the Mario + Rabbids improvements on the XCOM battle formula still don’t turn them into my favorite type of puzzles? They don’t have the transparency of a pure puzzle game; they’re not super short; and they get more complex (and more likely to come in pairs) as the game goes on and within each chapter. I think that, if the game had been half the length, it would have been just right for me; as it was, though, the second half battles were a bit of a chore for me.

Fortunately, there were environmental puzzles to give punctuation between the battles; unfortunately, those didn’t quite click either. At first, they actually made the game feel nice and familiar, like a Mario game: there’s always a reason to look around the corner. But in a regular Mario game, the environmental goodies aren’t some separate thing: the core gameplay has you figuring out the environment, the goodies just give that investigation a bit of extra fun. In Mario + Rabbids, in contrast, the two are separate: even though the battle arenas are connected to the rest of the levels (you can walk through them once the battle is completed), they’re separate on a gameplay level, so you’re not going to be in the middle of a battle and then notice a chest or something. (It’s telling that the abilities that you unlock at the end of each chapter only affect the environmental puzzles, they don’t affect the battle gameplay at all.)

That doesn’t mean that I actively disliked the environmental puzzles: on the balance, I’m glad that they were there, and the more puzzly ones (as opposed to the “look around a corner and find a chest” ones) did give me something to think about. But still, there’s a disconnect there.

 

And, ultimately, the license is a double-edged sword. The Nintendo polish is great; and I actually did enjoy the Rabbids. But Mario has no personality, and the game’s insistence on centering him hurt it.

You have eight characters on your team (at least once you’ve unlocked them all), of which you can choose three to fight in any battle. But Mario has to be one of the three characters: this limits your ability to experiment, and if you happen to have three characters that you like more than Mario, then tough luck. Mario’s abilities are pretty solid, but I didn’t see any obvious mechanical reason why his presence was necessary for balance reasons: as far as I can tell, that was a mechanical choice made purely for brand reasons at the detriment of mechanics.

(Or maybe it’s a metaphor! Maybe Mario represents white masculinity and its insistence of inserting itself, even placing itself in the center of any conversation, no matter how boring or undesired it might be…)

 

Don’t get me wrong: good game, in fact a surprisingly good game. It’s just a good game that went on for long enough to make me think about how it could be better.

flipflop solitaire

July 10th, 2018

Some forms of solitaire are always straightforwardly winnable: they give you something soothing to do with your hands that keeps your brain lightly engaged. Most forms of solitaire aren’t: you have choices to make, but ultimately you’ll only win a fraction of the time, and while those forms give you choices that you can make to increase that fraction, they only give you so much control. And there are a few forms of solitaire where winning is, in practice, always possible, but where you not infrequently have to think quite a bit before finding a winning route.

I certainly don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of solitaire, but until recently, I was only aware of one example of that third class, namely FreeCell. And, no joke, I really do think FreeCell is one of the great games of all time. But with Flipflop Solitaire, we now have a second example.

Actually, Flipflop Solitaire is even better than that: depending on how you play it, it can fit into any of the above three categories. So it’s very adaptable: no matter your energy level or amount of free time, there’s a mode for you!

 

The way the game works is that you’re trying to play cards off to foundations, which are suited and which play up starting from aces. And, in the main playing area, you can play up or down by rank on a stack, no matter the suit (e.g. if you have a seven of clubs, you could play a six of spades on it, an eight of diamonds on it, and so forth); also, you can move a group of cards of the same suit all at once (so, in that example, you’d really rather play either a six or an eight of clubs). You can move any card to an open slot, but you have to dig to get to open slots, because every stack starts with six or so cards in it. And there’s also a draw pile you deal from when you run out of moves, and two faceup cards off to the side that you can play at any time.

So, basically, you try to dig down into stacks by moving cards from them to other stacks, creating more order as you go; and then, once you manage to empty out one of the stacks, your options expand, because you can move a sequence off the top of a stack to get at a buried card underneath, and potentially you can turn sequences upside down, or even do trickier stuff. Though there’s a limit in how much stacking you can do, because the game imposes a height limit of 20 cards on a single stack; at first, I assumed that was driven by user interface considerations, but now I suspect that the game would be a lot easier / more boring if you could build arbitrarily tall sequences, because you’d end up moving all of your cards into one huge stack.

 

Those are all familiar enough ideas, though this particular collection of rules is one that I haven’t seen before, and it turns out to work quite well. But there’s additional flexibility in the game, because it gives you different modes to play in: you don’t have to play with the standard four suits. In the most basic mode, in fact, all of the cards are in the same suit. (You still have 52 cards, you just have four aces of spaces, four twos of spades, and so forth.) And this gives you not only more flexibility for how to play cards up to the foundations, it also gives you many more opportunities to move groups of cards at once (because you can only do that if the cards have the same suit, which is easy if there is only one suit!); so, in practice, you can always win that mode in a straightforward but still moderately entertaining fashion.

Once you move to two suits, though, you have to be significantly more careful; still more so with three suits. (In the three-suit mode, you have two copies of every card in one suit, and only one copy of the other two suits.) And four suits is in turn a significant step up from the two and three suit modes; there’s even a five suit mode as well. In either of the latter two modes, you’ll be losing significantly more often than you’re winning, at least until you’re very experienced at the game. (I actually have a little over 50% win rate on the five suit mode now, but it’s taken me hundreds of plays to get there.)

 

That’s how the game spans the first two buckets in my classification. But there’s also an undo button; and, it turns out, the game is effectively always winnable with undo. (Whereas it isn’t without it, at least with the four and five suit versions: there’s too much hidden information at the start.) Importantly, though, even with that undo ability, the game can be very difficult at times: I’ve gone through something on the order of 700 rounds of the five-suit version, and it’s still not uncommon for me to find myself nowhere near finishing on my first attempt at a deal, then trying a different sequence of columns to focus on and making it pretty close on the third or fourth attempt, but then even with that having to try out subtly different choices of moves to try to somehow squeeze out one last bit of order out of the chaos, with me finally succeeding half an hour later.

And it even turns out that plays of the game often turn out to have surprisingly satisfying narrative plots! For example, say that you haven’t made it as far in building up foundations as you expect when approaching the end of the game, and you’ve made it to the top of most but not all the columns. So maybe you have one draw left (with five face-down cards), and maybe there are another five face-down cards divided across two of the columns on the board.

In that situation, there are probably some key low cards you’re missing: maybe one of the aces and a two or a three, or something. So then you’re nervous waiting to see which ones will appear when you draw; and, typically, when you draw, you actually will get one of those (since you’re close to uncovering all the face-down cards), plus one or two other cards that you can move around. So that’s exciting, because you’ll be able to make progress somehow; and probably that progress will let you reach one of the face-down cards on the board.

And then you have the next level of excitement: when you reveal that card, is it going to turn out to be something useful? What about when you reveal the card underneath it? But, usually, at some point, you’ll reveal a card that isn’t so useful; and, at that point, you’ll feel like you’re 90% stuck, but there’s still a little bit of moving you can do around the margins; and, sometimes, if you experiment enough, you’ll be able to make it over the hump and get to where you can play everything up to the foundations. But you never know when you’re going to get to that phase.

 

So, basically, getting close to the end turns out to lend itself well to narrative interpretation: you know there are a few key pieces you’re missing, you don’t know where they are so you’re always afraid things are going to fall apart, and it’s exciting either to get the key pieces (having the reward of successfully clearing several cards out) or to not get the key pieces (and having the reward of skillfully trying to dance around that problem).

But, as I said above, if you don’t want exciting narrative out of your card games, that’s fine, too: Flipflop Solitaire supports more soothing modes, too! Really, the game is a testament to what you can do out of randomness combined with well-chosen rule sets.

night in the woods

July 5th, 2018

It took me a little while to get into Night in the Woods. I liked the art style; I liked that it was telling a relationship-based, community-grounded story; I liked that it was a little quirky. But I wasn’t entirely sure about the basic mechanics: I kept on hitting the A button when next to an NPC, expecting to talk to that person, and I’d jump instead! So the game felt to me a little confused about what its primary verb should be, and I wasn’t even convinced that it should have any platforming at all.

More fundamentally: even if it was a good game, I wasn’t sure it was a good game for me. Night in the Woods is a much more situated game than most: rather than being all about the mechanics, or about a heroic fantasy that seeks universality by not actually mapping to the lives of any of its players, it is instead a game about a young adult who’s just come home after abruptly leaving college. Which is great, because the world needs more games that directly interrogate actual lives; but it happened to be the case that the life that was interrogating didn’t map particularly well to my current life, or even to my life when I was Mae’s age.

 

After playing through a bit more of Night in the Woods, though, I realized that there actually were characters in the game that I mapped to: Mae’s parents. Because I may not be a young adult whose college experience has gotten interrupted, but I am a parent of a young adult whose college experience has hit an unexpected roadblock. So I could see aspects of myself and my recent experience in Mae’s parents, I could think about how their reactions and actions relate to mine. And I could think about this in a context which didn’t center my own experiences but rather centered the experiences of the person who is most affected by that situation; this is probably healthy for me!

Also, I’m in general perfectly happy to experience art works that aren’t about people like me: different experiences are rewarding, it would be boring if we were all the same. And, as I played through more and more of Night in the Woods, I got more and more impressed by the story the game was telling.

 

At the beginning of the game, you don’t really have a lot to go on in terms of appreciating Mae. (Or at least I didn’t find a lot.) She seems neat enough, but ultimately she’s left college for no clear reason, she’s spending time hanging out with Gregg, a friend of hers who has a job but doesn’t seem to be doing a lot in general, and the two of them seem to get the most out of “doing crimes”. (Nothing seriously bad there, mostly just going places they’re not supposed to go.) There’s nothing particularly wrong with any of that (and Gregg’s job is a pretty crappy one in a setting where there don’t seem to be a lot of good options, so it’s not at all surprising that he’s not very motivated by it), but it’s presented in a way that I found easy to map to stereotypes of kids that don’t want to grow up and take responsibilities for their lives.

As the game progresses, though, it interrogates all of that in a rather well-done way. You learn more about what Mae’s been going through, enough to realize that there’s a good reason why she left college, that rather than being a situation of not wanting to grow up, she’s in a situation that’s dark enough that you wouldn’t want adults to have to deal with it, let alone people on the border between childhood and adulthood. And you learn that Gregg is constantly struggling with exactly this question of being responsible versus being a fuck-up, and that the former is actually super important to him.

There are two other key characters as well: Gregg’s boyfriend Angus and another friend Bea. Angus helps provide the context that gives a deeper insight into what Gregg is going through, and what sort of person he wants to be, and together they let the game explore mutual care and dependence; Bea provides a bit more of an outside view, and also helps the game talk about economic issues. This is a theme throughout the game: the town it takes place in is going downhill economically, with good union jobs vanishing; Mae’s parents are hanging on but it looks difficult, and Bea is somebody whom I can easily imagine chewing right through college but who, unlike Mae, didn’t have the opportunity to try.

 

Right from the beginning, the game has a unique, lovely, and somewhat surrealist visual style. (If only because all the people in the game look like animals instead of humans!) And, as you play through more of the game, you run into some really lovely dream sequences, where Mae wanders through an abstracted version of a section of the town, gradually unlocking musical motifs that get layered on top of each other.

This slightly surrealist nature isn’t just a sideshow, though: it feeds into the strength of the game. Because Mae is presented as somebody with mental illness, who is certainly having strange dreams but who is also seeing some strange things in real life. And, rather than coming down explicitly on the “weird stuff really is happening” side or the “Mae’s hallucinating things” side of the question, the game makes a much more interesting choice: Mae’s friends don’t particularly believe that what Mae is seeing is real, but that’s not what’s important to them. Mae is their friend, they’re going to support her, they don’t really know that what Mae is seeing isn’t real, and they’re on her side. So they too are going to leave the question ambiguous: they’ll go along with Mae as she tries to figure out what’s going on, whether that leads to a situation where Mae falls apart mentally and needs their support, a situation where what Mae is seeing actually does turn out to be real, or whether things ultimately remain ambiguous.

 

In the end, Night in the Woods manages to talk successfully about all sorts of really important questions. What it means to be friends; what it means to be in love; what it means to mess up in either of those contexts; what it means for those contexts to be strong enough that messing up isn’t anything. What it means to be in a dark place mentally, whether that’s caused by serious mental health issues, by structural issues in your environment, by one-off unfortunate events, or just because you’re in a bad mood right then. What it means to try to navigate the economy, what it means to take responsibility or to be an adult, the range of places that the tension between structural forces and individual choices can leave. And yes, what it means to have hope: with the help of your parents, your friends, your community, your religion, your inner strength.

And it does all of that with some pretty neat art and some rather lovely musical bits.

parable of the talents

June 26th, 2018

I’m in the middle of an Octavia Butler reread, and I recently reached the Parable books. Parable of the Sower was, of course, very good: a prompt to think about what it might look like for things to really fall apart, and a book that made me much more uncomfortable this time than it did the last time I read it. In particular, the book made it past my dislike of books that raise the moral question of “if things are going badly, isn’t it okay to kill people?” Because, so often, such settings feel like they’re set up to justify violence that the author (or the person doing the violence in real life) likes; not here.

But then I hit Parable of the Talents; oof. This is a book about a country falling apart, with a theocratic leader taking advantage of that to demonize people he doesn’t like, blame them for the problems, and kill them off or enslave them. Which was already feeling scarily close to home, and then I hit this paragraph:

I’m not sure how to talk about today. It was intended to be a quiet day of salvaging and plant collecting after yesterday’s uncomfortable Gathering and determined anniversary celebration. We have, it seems, a few people who think Jarret may be just what the country needs—apart from his religious nonsense. The thing is, you can’t separate Jarret from the “religious nonsense.” You take Jarret and you get beatings, burnings, tarrings and featherings. They’re a package. And there may be even nastier things in that package. Jarret’s supporters are more than a little seduced by Jarret’s talk of making America great again. He seems to be unhappy with certain other countries. We could wind up in a war. Nothing like a war to rally people around flag, country, and great leader.

Note the words “Jarret’s talk of making America great again”: it’s a MAGA reference, except that the book was published in 2000.

 

That paragraph is from before the presidential election in the book; and, of course, Jarret wins. Olamina, the book’s protagonist, has managed to build a settlement that avoids the worst parts of the chaos from the first book; but then Jarret’s goons sweep in with overwhelming military force and destroy it. They capture the adults, enslaving them and torturing them if they fall out of line; they kidnap the children and take them away. Olamina does actually eventually escape her enslavement, but her family ends up permanently destroyed: she doesn’t see her daughter again for decades, and by that time it’s far too late.

I read Parable of the Talents in the first week of June. And then, almost immediately after that, the border separations happened.

 

I think the moral here is: listen to Black people, especially Black women. Because it’s not simply luck that Butler happened across the “make America great again” phrase: as the 2016 election has made abundantly clear, there are an awful lot of people out there whose idea of a great America is one with straight white male Christians in charge, and everybody else subservient, removed, or killed. Some people’s response to the child separations at the border has been to say that this isn’t who we are, but MAGA says that this is exactly who America is: slavery showed that, Jim Crow and the KKK showed that, the Trail of Tears and separation of Native American children showed that.

And police violence shows that, and the incarceration rate of African Americans shows that. My first reaction was that Parable of the Talents showed an uncomfortably plausible near future, but it’s still an exaggeration; but after reflection I think you can make a case that it’s soft-pedaling the situation. Sure, in the book Olamina is imprisoned, but she and the others break out after a year (killing their guards, no less); whereas long before Trump came on the scene we’ve been locking up vast numbers of African Americans for decades without batting an eye. And the book presents Olamina’s imprisonment as something that’s done by a group that doesn’t have offical support and that is disavowed by the leaders of Jarret’s party when it becomes known; we can’t say that about the current prison system or the ICE.

 

I’m writing this on a day with maybe the worst group of Supreme Court decisions that I can remember, in terms of their flagrant disregard not just of morality but of the rule of law, decisions that don’t even pretend to follow any coherent system of reasoning or consistent precedent following. So the rule of law is falling apart at the highest levels of the judiciary; voting districts are gerrymandered in such a way as to make it extremely difficult for the Democratic party to win through the ballot (and this isn’t an outlier, this fits in perfectly with decades of systematic direct Republican attacks on democracy); and the ICE is sending every signal that it would be happy to act as the Gestapo.

George W. Bush was a horrible president. But we’ve seen Trump’s New Orleans: it’s Puerto Rico, it’s much much worse, and it’s gotten much much less coverage. Butler warned us in the end of the quote above about leaders whipping up wars after coming to power; we haven’t yet seen Trump’s 9/11 or his Iraq war, and plausible potential future scenarios are a lot worse than what we’re seeing right now. And, even without a war (or a 9/11 or a Reichstag Fire), the the Republican party’s assault on democracy and the ICE are going to get worse until they get stopped.

animal crossing: pocket camp

June 21st, 2018

I played the first Animal Crossing game literally every day for a year straight. Only about 15 minutes a day — I’d pick some weeds, dig for gyroids, check what was on sale, talk to the animals, maybe leave a message for Miranda or Liesl in their mailboxes, occasionally redecorate my house a bit — but I really appreciated the ritual of those 15 minutes.

It hasn’t been a year since Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp came out, and I’d be a little surprised if I were still playing it when it hit its one-year anniversary. But I’m still going after a little more than half a year.

A big part of that is that it gives me something to do while I’m, say, walking to and from the train station: it keeps my hands busy in a way that doesn’t interfere with podcast listening. (Though podcasts mean that I turn off the sounds and music from the game, even though they really are charming!) And it is certainly a mobile game, with many of the typical design choices that that entails. But it’s also an Animal Crossing game: there is some real heart there.

 

Part of being an Animal Crossing game is its slow pace: the game itself won’t give you much reason to play for long stretches at a time. So Pocket Camp is in an odd situation for a mobile game where, at least for series veterans, an energy mechanic doesn’t feel relevant: the series has always had an energy mechanic built in, with no way to pay to avoid it! With the somewhat weird result that Pocket Camp actually has less energy gating than prior games in the series: there’s something to do every three hours instead of every day.

And part of me appreciates that: it gives me something to on both my morning and evening commutes, but it’s also not going to be all-consuming in either commute, because I’ll run out of stuff to do. (At least externally-directed stuff to do, I can always spend time redecorating if I want, or just doing a lot of fishing and bug catching.) So it’s kind of a nice balance between having the game being there when I want a distraction but also explicitly stepping back, telling me not to spend all my time in it unless I’m finding something intrinsically rewarding.

Though that isn’t quite true, because one way in which Pocket Camp gives quite a bit less space than other games in the series is its treatment of events. Traditionally, events have been on holidays, and as a result, they felt special: they’re single days where the whole town celebrates, and they’re rare, so they’re a real punctuation from your daily life. Whereas in Pocket Camp, events are going on approximately two-thirds of the time, they last for a week or so at a time, and they reuse the same two or three mechanics; so events don’t feel special.

Which could, actually, be fine: maybe Pocket Camp’s events are simply a different type of mechanic from the main game’s holidays, maybe it’s better to analyze them as part of their regular gameplay. What I don’t like, though, is the way that the events give you an active encouragement to play the game every three hours: having the game available to play more than once a day is welcome, but having the game nudge me to play every few hours (if only by having me feel that I’ve missed something if I don’t get the time-limited event items) is a more significant step away from the space and calm nature of the original games.

 

Your interaction with other animals are different in Pocket Camp compared to earlier Animal Crossing games: more transactional, with animals explicitly asking for certain items (plants / animals) and giving you construction raw materials (including money) in return.

Which, on the one hand, does feel kind of impersonal. But I actually like it in some ways: my memory of the first Animal Crossing was that I was constantly being told to exchange letters with the animals, and entering the text of letters that the game couldn’t actually read and interpret had downsides.

So the way that I think about the transactions from a role-playing point of view is that you have a job: you’re not just friends with the other animals, you’re running a campsite. And part of that responsibility is that you’re, effectively, one of the shopkeepers. While the animals, in turn, have jobs in the outside world, so they have more easy access to other sorts of items. All of this gets cloaked in a weird gift economy, but I don’t necessarily see why I and the animals should have parallel roles in this game.

(And, incidentally: while the game mechanics are pretty minimal, focusing on being a shopkeeper does give you an excuse to pay attention to what mechanics there are. (Pro tip: each tree can store twice as much fruit as it looks like, because fruit on the ground doesn’t go away!) And paying attention to it over the course of months as the developers tweak the numbers did actually give me an appreciation for the effects of item drop rate choices that I haven’t gotten from other games.)

 

Though, don’t get me wrong, animals writing letters to each other definitely had its charm. There’s still some of that charm in Pocket Camp, though: the responses are canned, but there’s some amount of soul in the canning. And it’s up to you what stories you want to make up about animals that are actually staying in your camp: who stays, for how long, what triggers their leaving, and so forth.

For example, when animals reach level 20, they give you a picture: maybe what’s going on there is that the animals have to head back to their non-camp lives for a bit, so they’re giving you a picture to remember them by? Which, of course, gives you a narrative reason to kick them out of the camp and allow some other animal to come in and take their spot. (And level up and give you lots of extra material and so forth…)

Pocket Camp also has a friends mechanic; which mostly feels completely anonymous, having nothing to do with any sort of real friendship. (There’s no way of sending messages in game, though there’s a tiny amount of communication possible through minimal-bandwidth communication channels.) But Miranda was playing it as well for a while, so we could do things like show off our campsites and trailers to each other. And it actually can be pretty neat to see how random strangers decorate their campsites, too: there’s a lot of different choices you can make there. So it’s better to have that mechanic in the game than not: any sort of expressiveness is improved by a mechanic that allows you to have an audience.

 

All in all: not the best game in the series, certainly, and some of the mobile game design choices (most notably the recently-introduced cookie mechanic) have actively made it worse. But there’s still something there, I think.

And I miss weeding…

splatoon 2

June 3rd, 2018

I haven’t played shooters much since grad school, and these days I almost don’t play them at all. Part of that is that shooting isn’t a mechanic I’m particularly drawn to; part of that is that shooter games have moved more in a multiplayer direction, which means dealing with dramatic skill ranges, assholes, and no extrinsic narrative to compensate for those drawbacks.

But part of it is the guns: games in general are way too likely to be slaughterfests, and these days I just don’t feel great about playing with simulated guns in particular. Guns aren’t a complete dealbreaker for me or anything, but they are a reason to push me away from playing shooters; and, with my time as limited as it is, that push makes a difference.

 

The one exception to my shooter avoidance is Splatoon 2: I started playing the game right when it was released, and I still pick it up once every couple of weeks. And I’d thought of that as fitting into the above, showing that if a game matches my taste in enough ways, then that overcomes the gun objective. Splatoon 2 is bright and colorful and fashion-focused, it’s got a platformy respect for navigation instead of focusing exclusively on shooting, the multiplayer is designed in a way that makes it very difficult for other players to be assholes, and not only does killing (or “splatting”, as they call it) other players not directly affect your score in the multiplayer mode, in the primary multiplayer mode it’s not even particularly tightly related to your effectiveness.

Recently, though, I’d wondered if even that analysis is incorrect. Because, the more I think about it, the less I’m convinced that my categorization of Splatoon 2 as a gun game is even correct.

 

Your guns in Splatoon 2 don’t shoot bullets, they shoot paint: they’re squirt guns. I’d been thinking of it as obviously true that squirt guns are stand-ins for guns, but after thinking about it a bit more, I’m actually not at all sure that that’s correct. In particular if we do a thought experiment of a world without gunpowder, or at least without guns, would squirt guns still have been invented?

I kind of think that the answer is “yes”: playing with water is fun, adding water pressure into the mix expands the range of play possibilities, and doing that in a handheld format feels like it would eventually lead to something like squirt guns. Also, it’s not particularly clear to me that squirt guns are significantly more closely linked to regular guns than water balloons are to bombs; so maybe it’s partly a linguistic accident of history that I put squirt guns and lethal bullet guns in the same category? Which doesn’t mean that I should discount that categorization — categories affect our thinking no matter where they come from — but maybe I’d want to try to loosen the hold of that categorization on me?

 

So, if we run a thought experiment of what it would mean to design a squirt gun game without thinking of it as a gun game, then what might such a game look like? You’d get stuff wet! Maybe that would affect the properties of various objects in the world — e.g. sponges absorb water. If it’s in a multiplayer context, maybe you’d give points to people who had gotten the most stuff wet; so, maybe instead of squirting water, you’d squirt paint of different colors, so you could see what stuff has already gotten wet and who was the last person to squirt it.

You’d probably want to acknowledge the idea that, yes, people will squirt other people. That’s not necessarily going to be your primary mechanic, but maybe you could use it as a penalty box mechanism, where if you get too wet, you need to have a time out? There might be different multiplayer game modes — e.g. maybe in one, your score is based on painting all of the environment, while in another, your score might be based on painting certain specific subsets of the environment. (With a corollary that painting your opponents and sending them back to the penalty box is probably more important in the latter mode than the former, because of the localized battle for control.) You might throw in a mode which is all about painting your opponents; and, in single player modes, you might throw in more types of environmental objects that are activated in different ways by being painted.

 

That thought experiment is a pretty good description of Splatoon 2. There are some differences: they didn’t decide to include a multiplayer mode that was exclusively focused on splatting your enemies, for example. (Maybe that’s because they wanted to weaken the conceptual link between splatting and killing; maybe that’s because of the negative social interactions that scoring based on personal attacks could reinforce.) And there are a few other modes that they thought up beyond what’s in my sketch, including one purely co-op multiplayer. But it’s close enough to make me think my thought experiment is plausible: maybe I really shouldn’t think of Splatoon 2 as having much of anything to do with real-world guns after all.

And, of course, Splatoon 2 goes beyond my thought experiment in two significant ways. One is that it applies a platformer / traversal focus sensibility to the game design, and uses the paint of your color as a non-scoring mechanism as well: you can turn into a squid and travel quickly through paint (at the cost of not being able to use your paint gun), but only if that paint is of your color. And the other is that it goes in on the artistic sensibilities that are latent in the very fact that you’re painting the environment: stylish clothing is a very important theme in the game, as are music and architecture.

 

Anyways: Splatoon 2 is a great game. Full of life, full of spirit, full of art. Fun single player, and the multiplayer is the only multiplayer that I’ve spent much time playing in ages. I haven’t quite decided to spend the time to actually get good at it, but the fact that I’m enjoying the multiplayer enough to keep on coming back even though I’m not so good says something, too.