A Second Set of Very Short Reviews With No Particular Purpose

Too Like the Lightning
It’s the philosophical parts of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, but as a book! Awesome! But it’s presented in the most insufferable writing style: needless archaicism. And its philosophy-behind-the-philosophy agrees with my mother, which doesn’t win it any favors.

Ergo Proxy
It’s also kind of like SMAC, but with masses of eye-shadow. If you can disregard the unlikable cast and clichĂ© aesthetics, it actually has some fairly interesting things to say about creating sentient servants. But it kind of mumbles them under its breath with frequent non-sequiturs. Overall, overrated.

Good fun in the vein of SpaceChem etc. Difficulty curve is a bit patchy to nonexistent at times. Looks kind of ugly but not in an offensive way. If you like build-a-machine games, this is one of the greats.

Making Money
I’m honestly not sure about this one. Nowhere near the greatness of Reaper Man, Hogfather, Night Watch, Small Gods etc, but still one of the better ones? Yeah, that’ll do. Kind of bothers me how all of Moist’s opposition just self-destructs without any real sense of him having to fight for it. Maybe that’s just his style.

DotA 7.00

The Slow Regard of Silent Things
Someone told Rothfuss they liked his, shall we say, open-minded attitude towards the categorization of words into nouns, adjectives etc, and he got a bit carried away with the heady feeling of praise. And a thesaurus. Also reduced Auri from a perfectly good side-character to “the yandere harem girl.” Still a pretty good read.

Flip Flappers
You deserve to watch this.

Path of Exile: Atlas of Worlds
Fantastic expansion. Can anyone stop this game from getting better before it’s too late? Find out in Act V, coming some time eventually.

Black Mirror S3
Not as ludicrously good as the first or second season, but still very good for TV. People are right to hype San Junipero. Pretty much every episode had enjoyable parts and made me think about something even if not always what I think I was supposed to be thinking about.

Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky FC
“Charming” is the word that springs immediately to mind. You can do a lot with characters that you introduce as flat archetypes and build on a little more with each scene they’re in, and the setting is well-realised enough. I lack the tactical-RPG experience against which to compare it, but the gameplay is usually pretty engaging, so can’t be that bad.

Hello Internet Podcast
Oh, okay, turns out CGPGrey is only a nice voice and somehow manages to have Wrong Opinions on every single other aspect of existence. Impressive, really, as it implies that there’s a Right Opinion Generator which he’s inexplicably inverting the outputs of. Would be much less terrible if Brady, who has quite a broad spectrum of partial knowledge, weren’t played as the Dumb Guy of the two. In essence, I don’t like thing.

Rick & Morty S1
Wow that got unfunny quickly. Brilliant ideas, but firmly lashed to the anchor of “status-quo-preserving sitcom.”

Perdido Street Station
Reminds me strongly of an acquaintance at university whose drawings of unsettling creatures would consistently feature leaking, oozing, etc. Imaginative, but deeply unpleasant to look at for too long. When most people want to say summer days are long, they don’t use implements of torture in their simile. On the whole: a great book.

A Second Set of Very Short Reviews With No Particular Purpose

GGG Design Philosophy – Points and Counterpoints

It’s a fairly common complaint, amongst both hardcore and softwcore players, that Path of Exile has no combat log that can be used to analyse the cause of a death after it happens. A point raised often in this thread is that “GGG doesn’t want to include a combat log, it would give players too much information.” The problems raised with players having too much information are:

  • The game would become too min-maxed, with players calculating how much survivability they need and getting exactly that much.
  • The presentation of the additional information might be overwhelming.
  • The game is supposed to be mysterious and difficult to understand.

I doubt the significance of these problems.

On the question of min-maxing, there are three realities to address. The first and most obvious is that most powerful hits from major bosses already have known approximate values. The idea that any information is actually being concealed here is laughable: the information is simply made less easily accessible. Second, the game simply doesn’t allow for such straightforward calculations. Between base damage variance, critical hits, overlapping AoEs, using defensive curses, being cursed, map modifiers, the various effects that can buff an enemy unexpectedly, and party-play buffs to enemies, as well as non-standard formulae for calculating the effect of armour and evasion, there are more than enough ways that players would be punished for trying to have only barely enough survivability. And third, the game is already a hugely complicated mess of mathematical min-maxing. That’s why people like it.

As to the question of presentation, I present that it is just that and no more. There’s little demand for ‘floating number’ style information – a combat log accessible after death would be quite sufficient. This might lead to a demand for always-accessible logs, which might in turn lead to third-party programs displaying numbers over the game (this sounds like it would be interacting with the game in memory, which I believe would violate the ToS and almost certainly be detectable). But even so, so what? If people want to debase the game, fine. They’re not gaining any unfair advantage by doing so (if anything, they’re disadvantaging themselves by obscuring the screen).

Lastly, there’s the philosophical point. We can break it into two parts:

  • Should a game have mysterious elements – information kept deliberately hidden from the player?
  • If so, is the manner in which a character dies an appropriate place for this?

On the former, I think a good case can be made either way. On the plus side, it can make a game more involving, letting players decide how deep down the rabbit hole they want to proceed. ARGs are the pinnacle of this: the entire game is the hiding of the information. Puzzle games somewhat less so, all the way down to straightforward board games like Chess or Go where the rules are laid out in their entirety from the very beginning. On the other hand, it is also fairly pointless. Consider the hiding of card rarities in early Magic history. This accomplished basically nothing except making the game harder to understand and creating booster packs where the rare card was a basic Mountain.

So maybe PoE should conceal certain information from the player. My contention is that this is not the right place to do it. Compare vendor recipes. These are pieces of information that are very well-suited to being concealed. A recipe, once discovered or learned, is permanently a part of the player’s ability to play the game. Not knowing a recipe may make a player less effective, but it does so “invisibly” – without the player being aware of what they don’t know until they learn it. And it’s predictable, both in the sense that a recipe can be shared easily across multiple players and experiments can be done to find hidden recipes. It’s practically the ideal example of a game developer hiding information from the player community in order to create fun experiences.

Now consider a character death in a hardcore league for comparison. Learning how much damage an attack deals is inexact and doesn’t permanently increase your skill – intuition won’t transfer well between characters with different survival strategies. For the same reason, the information transfers poorly. But most importantly, it’s really up-front and obvious when you don’t know why your character died. And it’s really frustrating. Learning that you could have been turning in your items differently for better rewards is a “kick yourself” moment. Learning that sometimes you’ll just die and the best way to avoid it is to just not do anything in the game because you can’t determine what is and isn’t dangerous might not cause immediate uninstallation, but it erodes a player’s desire to keep playing. After all, it’s not like there’s any practical difference between a game you play but don’t do anything in, and one you don’t play at all.

Overall, I don’t think there’s any good reason to not include combat logs on death in Path of Exile. The stated reasons either seem oblivious to the actual state of the game and the world – failing to account for the increased availability of information since the dawn of the ARPG genre – or philosophically tenuous, generically aimed at creating fun moments of discovery that simply don’t happen in the specific context in question.

GGG Design Philosophy – Points and Counterpoints

A Series Of Very Short Reviews Without Any Particular Theme

Almost all of these short stories feel too caught up in their own cleverness. Some, like Silver Fire, also seem to be struggling with the weight of a not-particularly-brilliant political message. Potentially worth reading but you can easily find better things to do.

Oh, they tried so hard. Really great serious near-future sci-fi, right up until the end where (spoilers) several character arcs derail badly and we’re left with a message of “don’t trust brown people, and keep women at home where they belong.” Yes, I am indirectly judging other people’s culture. Still recommended.

The Martian
At first I loved it, but the almost episodic storyline and weird, badly-done breaks to typical omniscient narrative perspective dragged it down. Combines both of the above in terms of originality and well-researched hard sci-fi, but lacks on the storytelling front. Flip a coin for it.

It’s exactly the right length. Definitely worth watching.

Nadia and the Secret of Blue Water
The great parts are truly great. The good parts are enjoyable. The bad parts are all too numerous. If you’ve watched every Ghibli movie twice and still need more in the same vein, give it a go, otherwise probably don’t bother.

9M9H9E9’s Narrative
When it’s weird and metaphorical, it’s good. When it’s literal, it’s still good but in a “good for a creepypasta or SCP entry” way rather than “just good literature” way. Arguably closer to an ARG than a story.

Ori and the Blind Forest
I guess if you’re really into Metroidvania games and basically only care about visual appeal, this one’s for you? But really, the two conflict too much – precision platforming doesn’t mix with pretty, hitbox-obscuring art-style. The best feature mechanically is letting you save anywhere by expending MP, except when the game decides to not allow that, which, you guessed it, is whenever things are most difficult and frustrating. The soundtrack’s good, I guess.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane
On the plus side, it is amazing on every level. On the minus side, Pratchett won’t be writing any more witches books, and Gaiman’s version is just a little short of that level of amazing while still being heartbreakingly reminiscent of it. Read this.

Log Horizon
Utterly charming, and a delight to see “taking the hypothetical seriously” done so well. It feels strange to say this, but it’s sorely let down by its aesthetic (or lack thereof). The visuals just come across as “cookie-cutter modern anime” where they could have done so much more. Still a must-see.

Persona 4
Several characters are good, but the game feels ludicrously bloated and has terrible pacing. The mechanical aspects are polished, but this is absolutely a guide-based game. At the very least, I think you’re supposed to play it twice and take notes on how to maximise your numbers rather than enjoying the plot which just seems wrong. Skip this one.

A Series Of Very Short Reviews Without Any Particular Theme

The Ten-Minute GG

Or, “World’s Most Delusionally Hopeful Support Tells Their Team To Not Give Up Yet, They Can Still Win If They Work Together :)”

I expect Brexit to happen, or at least be alarmingly close, for roughly the same reasons I expect a Trump presidency: it’s too stupid to avoid.

Consider DotA. In the game, when your team starts losing ground, there’s usually someone who gives up. They say something like “gg mid noob I afk jungle.” The Leave campaign reminds me strongly of this. Things aren’t going as well as they want, they’re not willing to coordinate on how to fix it, they sure as sugar don’t want to take the personal loss of abandoning the game outright and maybe ending up in low priority (this would be the equivalent of moving to a different country because you don’t like the one you’re in. A really awful different country where people only speak Russian swear-words and can’t last hit for beans).

Now, the quitters don’t always follow through on their promise, but even when they don’t, would you care to guess how often you win those games? It’s not very often. To be sure, DotA is a snowball game and it’s always hard to come back from a bad start, but it’s noticeably worse when morale is falling apart and people are bailing on even trying to help the team win.

This analogy is rather unfair. In DotA you are inherently, by the structure of the game, stuck trying to achieve the same goal as the rest of your team. But in the case of Brexit, the argument is that we’re not inherently on the same team and in fact don’t share the same goals. I’m not at all convinced that this is the case. It seems like the broad goals of the EU – peace in Europe, free trade and movement, the ability to compete with the likes of the US and China on things like space programs and particle physics research – are things we actually benefit from a lot. So insofar as we want these things, how is being the aggrieved carry player bitterly disappointed that his team aren’t as undeniably amazing as he is going to help us get them?

The arguments for leaving fall into roughly three categories: appeals to abstractions like Independence without any attachment to reality; arguing that immigrants are bad; and bleating that the Stay campaign are scawy fearmongerers who abuse their authority to manipulate public opinion, which is not in fact any kind of argument at all.

The argument around abstractions I find annoying. Arguing issues like, say, fishing quotas, is fine. Just trying to blend all of one side of those arguments together into a big glowy ball of positive affect with a name like Self-Governance is cheating. It doesn’t actually answer the question of any of the individual issues! “Oh but we have a right to self-govern.” No we don’t! Rights don’t exist! And even if they did, they’d relate to individuals, not groups! And if that particular right existed, you could use it to argue all the way to having Little Winchfield secede. Does any group of people (how large?) get to break off from anything any time they fancy? Gaaah.

The immigration argument I try and fail to sympathise with. I can’t seem to find any way to make it work without requiring that Brits be inherently more important to me than other humans, which they aren’t. The closest anything gets is that certain public institutions are close to breaking-point, and adding more people makes them less effective for everyone – so it’s not like an immigrant takes healthcare away from one Briton for a net change in supplied health of nothing, but rather reduces the availability of it for a hundred Britons, giving a net negative change. The problem with this is that no one saying it was previously arguing that we need to curtail all forms of population growth at all costs, and they still aren’t. This leads to the unpleasant conclusion that the people saying this don’t seriously believe it and are mostly about the nationalism. Insofar as it’s a good argument regardless of whether they believe it or not, my position is that we should try to build stronger institutions rather than trying to decide which people are and are not worthy of being allowed the use of them. If the latter appeals to you, why not just privatise everything? This would give us a very simple way to determine which people deserve to access British healthcare: the ones who can afford to. Interested?

Overall, the Leave position seems very weak, but my core reason for thinking so is that the people arguing for it remind me of people I hate playing a video game with, so my position is definitely biased.

The Ten-Minute GG

Dear Dinosaur,

So, a year late to the controversy party, I read “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” on the recommendation of Eneasz Brodski. But does this sound familiar: a tragic story about loss is presented using masterful language and receives great critical acclaim, from which follows a backlash from those who don’t consider it part of the medium it was being acclaimed in?

I can’t remember how long ago I ‘played’ Dear Esther, but it was fairly soon after it was first released as a kinda clunky mod rather than its own ‘game.’ I liked it a lot, almost entirely because of its haunting visual beauty (only gets better in the final release), great choice of soundtrack and delightful narration/writing. But note the absence of any actual video-game elements from it – apart from the random choice of narration fragments, you’d think it could be done just as well as a short animation.

In fact, Dear Esther only works when the player can treat it like a game even though it’s not. By expecting to be involved in the story in the way a game’s player is, you end up being exactly that. You have to believe that you are the story’s teller in the same way you can believe that you are Chell or DeWitt, and the absolutely minimal amount of control – just enough to walk around as you please – is necessary to achieve that.

Now compare If You Were…, which is not a SF/F story. But by believing it kinda-sorta-is, the reader can be persuaded to humour the narrator’s flights of fancy for just long enough for the author to throw out a BE SAD NOW, drop the mic and leave. As far as I know, though, If You Were… never sold itself as being SF/F, it just got a nomination for a Hugo from fans willing to push a boundary.

If You Were… is perhaps less genre-fiction than Dear Esther is a game. But the resemblance is nonetheless quite striking, especially when you take into account the reaction each received. It should come as no surprise that the “urgh who put this smug literary crap in my vidya” faction quickly allied with the “urgh who put this smug literary crap in my SF/F” faction.

Overall I liked Dear Esther a lot more. In particular, while both are well-written, Dear Esther impressed me a lot more with its focus on meter and pace. Also, it’s really pretty.

Dear Dinosaur,

Deconstructing Liking Things Wrong

So overall, the notion that you don’t need to spend a lot of time learning the background genre before touching the deconstructions doesn’t tend to go down too well. Nothing new there, of course. And also predictably, since I’m pretty much in the habit of only bothering with the exceptions, I’d like to go over some thoughts on the matter.

There are two arguments I consider worth paying any attention to out of the mass of them. Firstly, there’s “you won’t enjoy the deconstruction as much as if you knew what was going on.” Let’s take a closer look at this. Why exactly does knowing the background result in such amazingly better results? Well, for one, there are explicit references to other specific things. For instance, in Watchmen, there’s a distinct moment in the trailer where you’re supposed to notice how alike to Batman Night Owl is. This gives you a little thrill of “hey! I got that! I know what’s going on!” This is nice, except when you instead interpret on an intuitive level as a rip-off rather than a homage. But even on the positive side, it’s just not that great. Oh, you get to get more references? Woop-de-doo, good for you.

I think the deeper reason for getting more out of it is the subversiveness. After experiencing a sufficiently large quantity of a genre, you start to get very familiar with certain things it will do. By subverting those expectations, a good deconstruction can make you think about what’s going on. For instance, Evangelion has the main character go up against an enemy in a classic “chosen one realises his power” arrangement. And the result is, well. Deconstructive, to say the least. There are two problems though. Firstly, a lot of tropes are more universal than their genre. Yes, there’s stuff you’d only notice was strange if you were a mecha fan beforehand. There’s also a large middle ground of stuff you only need a passing familiarity with the genre to grasp – like the Evas’ biological nature. So overall, being a fan only gains you the subtlest stuff.

More importantly, though, look at what the familiarity-first argument is asking: it’s saying you should consume a certain genre to the point of predictability and even boredom just so you can get the thrill of taking it apart! If you enjoy a genre for its own sake, fine, but typically you’ll have already consumed a lot of it if you enjoy it (weirdly enough). A lot of the reason to watch only deconstructive pieces in a genre is because you don’t typically like the genre, but find that removing or subverting a lot of the ordinary elements of that genre makes it a lot more fun. For instance, FLCL removes pretty much the entire plot, runtime, visual continuity and budget. Ha, okay, but seriously: deconstructions also tend to be much shorter. Madoka runs up 6 hours; Cardcaptor Sakura about five times that (if you watch it “efficiently”). So why should you choke down litres of a genre you’re tepid about just to enjoy a sip of the subversiveness?

The second reasonable argument is “watching the deconstruction will damage your appreciation of the actual genre.” On the one hand: yes, maybe it will. But watching Garden of Words might damage your appreciation of all other animated works forever: it’s still worth doing because it’s amazing. And, well, I say maybe. I’ve read nearly all of Discworld and, you know what, regular fantasy fiction wasn’t destroyed for me. I still love it! I still like superhero stories after Watchmen, Kick-Ass and Worm. And I didn’t read comics as a kid: I loved the deconstructions first. Overall, I think I can declare this argument simply false. It’s worth noting that Madoka might be a special case: it’s known to be pretty brutally violent in a genre composed primarily of sunshine and rainbows. That might be sufficient to actually damage one’s later appreciation.

Speaking not just for myself, though, we again come to the problem that there might never have been any potential for later appreciation. If there wasn’t – if you were simply never going to like the standard-issue magical girl anime (and they are pretty standard-issue) – then there’s no harm in not bothering with them. And this brings up what I consider the strongest argument: seeing something taken apart on a grand level can be the most effective possible introduction to a genre. Even if you don’t end up wanting more, you get to see the most you possibly could have done. Ultimately, the choice may be between seeing a short, sharp, introspective look at a genre through the lens of experience, or not engaging with it at all because watching a huge quantity of ‘prerequisite’ just isn’t appealing. And I for one hope you choose to try out something new when given that choice.

Deconstructing Liking Things Wrong

The Search for Hidden Meaning: The Witness and The Northern Caves

Spoiler warning: I didn’t much like either of these things, and a lot of this post is going to be me saying mean things about them. If one or both are near to your heart, it would be sensible to skip past this. On the other hand, you could consider this a cross-recommendation if the things I disliked about one of them were things you liked. More importantly, this post will contain spoilers for both.

The Witness is Jonathon Blow’s second venture into video games, following hot on the heels of the widely-acclaimed Braid, where by “hot on the heels” we mean “after only seven years.” It is an island-exploration-puzzle game in the vein of Myst, but prettier. It has several serious problems as a game, which ultimately limited how much of its “lore” I could choke down. It’s possible that everything I will say about it will be invalidated by something I missed, but I’m willing to pass judgment based on the arc it seemed to be inscribing when I disgustquit.

The Northern Caves is Nostalgebraist’s second venture into online fiction, following hot on the heels of the widely-acclaimed Floornight, where by “hot on the heels” we mean “after a few months.” It is (probably?) a Lovecraftian horror story in the vein of The King in Yellow, but subtler. To break symmetry with Blow’s works, I could finish The Northern Caves but not Floornight. Probably the same caveats apply anyway.

In The Witness, you wake up with no memory on an island inhabited only by statues and maze puzzles. The maze puzzles are the only feature of the environment you can interact with in any way, and seem to have been meant for a mobile game before it became apparent that doing so wouldn’t be Deep enough. Actually, I tell a lie – you can also activate recordings of people reading various philosophical-sounding quotes about Reason, Faith, Space Travel, and so forth. Those, plus a bonus area that plays video clips on the same subject, are the “Lore” of The Witness. That and the Incomprehensible Mysteries – like the statues and ruins.

The great joke here is that the game talks to you about the search for meaning, and gives you puzzles whose solutions require you to find the meanings of the various symbols and hints – did I mention it never tells you how to solve puzzles? You just get increasingly difficult puzzles following different rules, so you can figure out the meanings. Unless you fail to realise that the puzzle you’re looking at is “above your level” in which case you can spend an arbitrary amount of time trying to guess the meaning of some new symbol or environmental symmetry that you’re supposed to learn elsewhere. Anyway, The Witness is a game full of puzzles for which you can find meaning, all arranged in an island to form a puzzle for which you can’t. And the last jest is that this is the meaning. Because it’s just like real life – you can find the rules with science easily enough, but you can’t know you’ve found the meaning even with faith. Ha ha!

And it seems like The Northern Caves has the same – well, it’s not a problem – it ticks me off for the same reasons, I guess. It’s a story about a group of fantasy-fiction nerds who get together to search for meaning in a baffling book; a search that ultimately drives at least the narrator slightly insane. There’s a symmetry between the reader trying to find the meaning in the web fiction and the characters trying to find the meaning in the book, not unlike the symmetry between the puzzles and the island. The player/character distinction is much looser than the reader/character one, though. This is important, however: the player/character in The Witness can solve the sub-puzzles, while the characters in The Northern Caves only think they’ve ‘solved’ the book, when actually sleep-deprivation, adderall and reading nonsense have broken them. Except, is that really so different? If the player were distinct from the character in the game, we could step back and say “no, they haven’t really solved anything – there’s nothing to solve – they’ve just lost it a little more.” But since they’re not distinct, there’s nowhere to step back to.

So I think my problem with the two works discussed here is simple: they mostly seem to be rude gestures at their audience. Like, “ha, the reason you’re so miserable after finishing this is that you wanted to find meaning in a meaningless world. If you hadn’t tried to do something so stupid, you’d be happy.” And for real life, maybe that’s right! But for fiction? No, I’m not okay with that. There’s a place for that, sure, but I don’t expect I’ll ever love it.

The Search for Hidden Meaning: The Witness and The Northern Caves