October 8, 2020

Control Keys Redux

Filed under: arcade,digital,documentation,interfaces,life,linux,science,toys — mhoye @ 5:29 pm

A long overdue followup.

One of my favourite anecdotes in Kernighan’s “Unix, A History And A Memoir” is the observation that the reason early Unix commands are so often truncated – rm, mv, ls, and so on – was that the keyboards of the day were so terrible that they hurt to type on for any length of time.

I wish more people thought about keyboards. This is the primary interface to these devices we spend so much of our time on, and it baffles me that people just stick with whatever ten dollar keyboard came in the box. It makes as much sense to me a runner buying one-size-fits-all shoes.

There are a lot of people who do think about keyboards, of course, but even so what I’m aiming for isn’t part of that conversation, and often feels like lonely work. Most of the mechanical keyboard fetishists that I can find are in it for the aesthetics, assembling these switches and those keycaps, and while the results can be beautiful they aren’t structurally all that different, still not quite something truly built to be truly personal. Kailh bronze switches are made of joy, sure, but if my wrists are still contorting to use the keyboard, that fantastic popcorn keyspring texture isn’t going to be durably great for me.

I’ve had this plan in mind for a while now, and have finally gotten around to setting up a keyboard the way I’ve long intended to thanks to a friend who introduced me to Cardellini ball clamps and mounting plates. Those were the missing pieces I needed to set up the keyboard I’m typing this on now, a Kinesis Ergo Edge split mechanical keyboard.

Some minor gripes about this specific device include:

    • Manufacturers of split keyboards absolutely refuse, for reasons I cannot figure out, to allow the halves of the keyboard to overlap. I want the 6TGB line and 7YHN columns on both halves! I’d much rather have that than macros or illumination gimmicks.
    • The stands you can order for it, like the wrist rests in the box, are a waste of time. I’m using neither so it’s not a big deal, but seeing a nice product ship with cheap plastic greebling is always a shame.
    • The customization software that comes with it is… somewhat opaque. I’ll find a use for those macro keys, but for now meh. Remapping that ridiculous panic button thing in the upper left to “lock my screen” was straightforward enough, which was nice.
    • Keys on these split keyboards are never ortholinear – meaning, never in a regular old, non-offset grid, like you’d expect on a tool being used by people without diagonal fingers. Standard keyboard layouts make zero sense and haven’t in fifty years; we don’t need to genuflect to a layout forced on us by mechanical typewriter levers and haven’t since before Unix was invented! Get it together, manufacturers! But here we are.

But the nice things about it – the action on these delightfully clicky Cherry MX Blue switches,  the fact that most of the keys are in the right places, the split cable being elegantly tucked away – they outweigh all of the gripes, and so far I’m reasonably happy with the setup, but that’s not really because of what came in the box.

It’s because the setup is this:


Like I say, I’ve had this in mind for a while – an A shape hanging off the front of the desk, each half of the keyboard with a ball head sticking out the plates on the bottom and a third ball head sticking out of the standing desk at about belt level, bolted into the underside of my standing desk. All of it is held together with a surprisingly rigid three-way ball clamp – the film industry doesn’t like having lights or cameras just topple to the floor for no reason, funny story – and the result is a standing desk where I can type with my hands in a very relaxed, natural position all day, without craning my wrists or resting them awkwardly on anything. The key surface is all facing away from me, which takes some getting used to, but hooking my thumbs on the side of the spacebars gives me a good enough home key experience that my typing error rate is getting back down to the usual “merely poor” levels I’m long accustomed to.

It’s a good feeling so far, even if I’m making microadjustments all the time and sort of reteaching myself how to type. I’m starting to suspect that any computer-related ergonomics setup that preassumes a desk and chair is starting from a unrecoverable condition of sin; humans are shaped like neither of those things, and tools should be made to fit humans.

Update: A few people have asked me for a parts list. It is:


April 27, 2020

Side Scroller

Filed under: arcade,documentation,interfaces,linux,toys — mhoye @ 8:35 am

I’ve never met Ian Albert, but years ago he painstakingly scraped and pasted together a set of maps and backgrounds from a various oldschool games, an effort that’s helped me in a bunch of odd little ways over the years and for which I’m grateful. Of particular interest today are the original Super Mario Brothers maps; for the sake of this exercise, let’s start with world 1, level 1.

ImageMagick and FFMpeg are a pair of “classically-Linux” command-line tools, in terms of how insanely complex and opaque they appear until you’ve worked with them for a bit and can sort of see the logic of their approaches. Even then the documentation takes some getting used to – the man page should just say “don’t bother, go to the website” – and even then you’ve gotta kind of fumble your way towards competence if you want to use them day to day.

Well, maybe you don’t, but I sure do. In any case once you know they exist you muddle your way to doing a lot with them. In particular, “convert” from the ImageMagick tool suite lets you upscale some of those Mario-level gifs to PNGs, like so:

$> convert mario-1-1.gif -scale 300% mario-1-1.png

We’re doing this conversion because FFMpeg (apparently?) doesn’t like to pan over gifs as an input stream but is happy to do that with PNGs, and scaling it up gets you an image size better suited for modern screens. We’re admittedly scaling up and then compressing something that eventually gets upscaled again, which looks like it should bea waste of effort. I’ve tested it, though, and on this machine at least it looks like movie upscaling comes out a lot mushier than static image upscaling and this approach is quite a bit crisper.

In any case, then you run “file” on that resulting image to see how big it is:

$> file ./mario-1-1.png
./mario-1-1.png: PNG image data, 10152 x 672, 4-bit colormap, non-interlaced

Do a bit of loose math to figure out your frame width and subtract 16/9 * 672 – that is, the aspect ration of your monitor times the height of the image – from the length – to get the number you need to work with next – in my case rounding to 1200, it’s 8952.

That’s the number of frames you’re going to tell FFMpeg to pan across, like so:

$> ffmpeg -loop 1 -framerate 5 -i mario-1-1.png -vf crop=1200:672:n:0 -frames:v 8952 -pix_fmt yuv420p mario-1-1.mp4

Now, order of operations and operation context both matters in FFMpeg usage, which adds a degree of complexity to figuring out wtf you’re doing with it, but walking through that command:

the “-loop” option is specific to the image processing part of ffpmeg, and in turn specific to some image-processing formats, so “loop 1” might or might not error out saying “unrecognized option”, depending on where you put it in the command line and which image types you’re choosing to process, which is not super helpful. In this case, it works for .png input files, and it means “go through this set of input images once”. We’ll get back to “-framerate” in a moment.

“-i” is input the png of the mario level we made earlier. The rest of this command is where the proverbial action is.

“-vf” means “create a filtergraph”, which is FFMpeg-ese for “transform the set of input images you’ve decoded in the following way”. “The following” can get pretty crazy, as you might imagine, but fortunately for us this will be reasonably simple in intent, despite the somewhat daunting syntax.

In this case, it means “crop out a sub-image from the given input image, of with 1200 and height 672, starting at horizontal offset “n” and vertical offset 0. “n” in this case is implicitly provided by the “frames” part, as we iterate over the frames from zero to the value of “-frames:v”

The “-pix_fmt yuv420p” part – “pixel format”, is what that means – I don’t really understand, beyond the fact that FFMpeg can encode videos in way more formats than browsers can easily decode, and its’ default idea of “best” doesn’t work everywhere. This incantation seems to fix that, which isn’t particularly satisfying but is definitely part of the whole fumbling-towards-competence part I mentioned.

In any case, the “-framerate 5” part is the interesting bit. That’s there because about nine thousand frames – 8952 specifically – divided by the number of seconds in a 30 minute meeting is very close to five. Five frames per second is really slow, so the resulting output video is, as predicted by our basic arithmetic, a lazy 29 minutes and 50 seconds long:

… and that’s the story of how you make a videoconference background that scrolls slowly through a Mario level over the course of half an hour.

A few notes:

  • If you leave out the framerate option and just want to see it scroll by at a default 25 frames per second, the movie is five minutes and change, which is amusingly a few seconds longer than the best speedruns of the entire game.
  • That crop=1200:672:n:0 option elides a lot of possible complexity; there’s an entire mathematical-expression interpreter under the hood of of crop and all the other FFMPeg filters, so if you want a 1080p movie panning diagonally across some of the many classic and modern works of art that are available now from any number of places, you can roll your own with relative ease.
  • The temptation to edit these to say something like “Thank you, Mario! But Peach went to another meeting.” is strong; if I get around to that, the fonts are here or maybe here.
  • I really need to get out of the house more. I guess we all do?

Update: A friend points me at FFMprovisr:

“FFmpeg is a powerful tool for manipulating audiovisual files. Unfortunately, it also has a steep learning curve, especially for users unfamiliar with a command line interface. This app helps users through the command generation process so that more people can reap the benefits of FFmpeg.”

Thank you, Sumana!

February 5, 2020


Filed under: arcade,documentation,interfaces,life,microfiction,toys,weird — mhoye @ 11:17 am

Karl Germain once said that “Magic is the only honest profession. A magician promises to deceive you and he does.”

This is sort of a review of a game, I guess. It’s called Superliminal.

“Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts. The first part is called the pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you this object, and pledges to you its utter normality. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see that it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But, of course, it probably isn’t. The second act is called the turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act. The hardest part. The part we call the Prestige.”

— Cutter (Michael Caine), “The Prestige

You’ve probably heard David Foster Wallace’s speech to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005, the “This Is Water” speech.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water, this is water.”

It’s possibly the greatest College Graduation Speech of all time, both in its mastery of the form and the surgical precision of its own self-serving subversion of that same form. “This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories”, right after the parable-ish story. “I am not the wise old fish”, followed by an explanation of the whole point of the fish story. Over and over again, throughout, we’re shown the same sleight of hand:.

Tell your audiences that they’re too smart to want a certain thing and give it to them anyway. Remind everyone that they’re too hip for corny dad sermonizing and then double down on the corny dad sermonizing. This is a great way to write a commencement speech—not by avoiding platitudes, but by drawing an enchanted circle around yourself where the things we thought were platitudes can be revealed as dazzling truths. Where all of us can be consoled, if only for an instant, by the notion that the insight we lack has been here all along! Just hiding inside of our clichés.

I don’t think Harnette’s cynicism in that LitHub article, pointed at the pernicious consequences of Wallace’s “cult of sincerity” is the whole story. She’s not wrong, but there’s more: if you’ve got the right eyes to see it the outline of the Prestige is there, the empty space where the third act didn’t happen. The part where this long, drawn out paean, begging for sincerity and authenticity and “simple awareness” reveals itself for what it is, a cry for help from somebody whose inner monologue does not shut up or take its foot off the gas so much as a millimeter for anyone or any reason ever. A plea for a simplicity from somebody whose mind simply won’t, that nobody saw.

Because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know; you want to be fooled. I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a video game review is supposed to sound. But it’s just about capital-T Time to stop using this gag.

[ – Superliminal teaser trailer ]

I’ve played through Superliminal twice now, and I spent a lot of that time thinking about Wallace’s call for simple awareness as the game hammers on its tagline that perception is reality. I’ve got mixed feelings about it.

Superliminal opens in an obvious homage to both Portal and The Stanley Parable, guns on the mantle that never go off; in some ways it feels like the first Assassin’s Creed, an excellent tech demo that paved the way for the great AC2. It’s brilliant and frustrating, playing with the nature of constructed realities in ways that are sometimes trite, sometimes – the knife, the parking lot – unsettling and sometimes genuinely distressing. Like Portal it’s only a few hours long but they aren’t wasted hours, novel conceits and engaging mechanics flourishing through the iteration and conceptual degradation of the dreamscapes you traverse.

But I can’t shake the feeling like some part of the game is missing, that there’s a third act we haven’t been allowed to see.

As with Wallace’s Kenyon speech it’s the final conceit – in Superliminal, the psychologists’ summary – that ties the game together in a way that feels thematically complete, grandly inspirational and woefully unearned; where all of us can be empowered, if only for an instant, by the notion that the insight we lack has been here all along, if – perception being reality – we could only see it. And just like the Kenyon graduation speech, I can’t shake the sense that the same sleight-of-hand has happened: that what we’re not seeing, what we’re choosing not to see, is that this sincere inspirational anecdote isn’t really something meant to inspire us but something the author desperately wishes they could believe themselves, a rousing sermon from a preacher desperate to escape their own apostasy.

And how hard could that be, really? All you’ve got to do, after all, is wake up.

It’s a pretty good game. You should play it. I hope whoever made it gets the help they need.

November 24, 2019

Verso Polity

Filed under: arcade,digital,documentation,doom,interfaces — mhoye @ 12:53 am

I had to go looking for it to re-watch, because I was briefly exposed to it and couldn’t coherently ingest what I thought I’d seen. I do not ask you to believe, but I won’t give you a link. I cannot inflict this on you in good faith. All I can do is document what I saw.

It begins like this: Our carefully engineered everyman enters an aggressively debranded chain computer store. He has a vaguely north-England accent, an generic outfit stripped of any brand iconography or notable individuality, shoulder-length hair and something a more charitable man than I might refer to as a beard. He is meticulously anodyne, a golem animated from the gaming industry’s most embarrassing default settings and left with the appearance of a man whose inner monologue is the sound of a pizza pocket rotating in a microwave.

And none of that matters because he has no agency over his fate from this moment forward. He won’t even get to finish a sentence. In that sense he is the perfect customer, a walking madlib for the machine to fill in.

“Hi, I’m looking for” he says. Reginald – presumptive avatar of the corporation that paid for this ad – interrupts him immediately with the name of the product, a move so pitch-perfect it hurts. Did he want a printer? A cable? A hamburger? An escape from this narrow semiotic hell? We will never know and it could not matter less. Our everyman’s desires are irrelevant; Reginald is now in charge and physical reality immediately begins to flex and degrade around them as he repeats the product’s name like an invocation.

We are eight seconds into a two minute video and there is already a lot to unpack here.

Screens flashing unfamiliar scenes – presumably games, though nobody is there to play them – start to rotate around our protagonists, and the ceiling bends and shatters as they ascend together through this increasingly distorted reality. They have risen above their debranded chain-store origins. Surrounded by a chaff of whirling screens, their interaction is taking place in the reddened corona of a dying star.

Our everyman does not speak, conveying an incredulous disbelief which in fairness seems reasonable under the circumstances. The product being marketed is described as “electric air” as Reginald flies past our everyman to alight before a large and thoroughly uninspired logo.

We cut directly to what appears to be a young couple’s house, minimally if tastefully ornamented; the couple is on a couch playing video games together. Reginald, who I feel obligated to remind you is the company’s avatar in this video, is now a glowing red giant gazing in the window at this unsuspecting couple. The window is some eight feet tall; Reginald’s face takes up all of it. After mentioning a single presumably positive fact about the product Reginald reaches in through the window and – to the shocked screams of the young couple – destroys their home entertainment system.

We cut to see Reginald now holding the home in his hands; he immediately flings it over his shoulder with a smile as he extols more of the product’s virtues. We can hear the screams of the young couple and the crunch as the house hits the ground.

Reginald mentioned that the web service we’re selling here is odourless before sending a dog to find the product, assuring our everyman that the dog will fail. The dog walks through a wall and vanishes.

We are now at the 36 second mark of this adventure and if you haven’t buckled your semiotic seatbelts yet now’s the time.

A white plastic controller emerges, blob-like, from a white plastic table next to a coffee cup, a generic TV remote control and a cactus. As it congeals into the shape of a recognizably typical console controller, a finger pushes a central button and the screen transforms into a neon sign saying “4K 60FPS”. We cut immediately to a repeating, kaleidoscopic display of Reginald’s face, and the small print at the bottom of that image informs you that you won’t get 4K or 60FPS if you do not spend a lot of money while living in the right city. The phrases “four kay” and “sixty eff pee ess” are repeated. 43 seconds have elapsed.

Another young man, approximately sixteen years old and draped in his father’s suit like a double-breasted poncho appears and yells a product endorsement at our everyman, who cannot hear him over the deafening sound of a backing track that’s almost certainly called “dance_club-synth_beat-#4-fr33s0undz-cr3wz-chek-id3tags-4-bitcoin-addres.Mp3” It’s implied I can’t hear it either, because for some reason there are subtitles for this interaction? Shortly the young man transforms into a kayak on the floor of another living room, into which Reginald and our everyman embark for the next part of their journey.

There’s a window in this room as well, and whatever is outside is glowing a violent red; our heroes ignore this and exit into a fantasy land through a screen.

Reginald is, I think we can agree, doling out the symbolism with a shovel at this point. Here we are at the 52 second mark and it’s hard to believe that he was allowed to make this ad at all, because this is already way, way more than “a bit much”. Regardless, let’s press on.

Our heroes riding their ill-fitting-dad-suited kayak-kid hover through some standard game tropes and across a few different screen shapes in some of the least persuasive video editing in recent memory. These screens, we discover, are being held up in yet another living room by a faceless Nashville backup musician, a refugee from an PM-Dawn-themed rave, a disenchanted cybergoth girl and an electric scooter enthusiast respectively.

We cut now to our heroes drifting briefly in free fall in a typical movie-set space station. Reginald is now somehow wearing a space suit but our everyman is still in his street clothes; he doesn’t get that sort of special treatment, here in the vacuum of space. Kayak kid is gone but that’s probably for the best.

We’re assured that this new product “bends time and space” in some way that’s convenient, and then our everyman is dragged into a kaleidoscopic wormhole to the sound of dismayed screams.

One minute and sixteen seconds in, this kaleidoscopic wormhole extrudes itself into a golf cart that Reginald is driving past racks of servers with a badged and lab-coated employee next to him and our everyman in the back seat, alone with his worried expression. The employee says a few technical terms, and is cut off as we brake suddenly to find the aforementioned dog appearing in the middle of this otherwise infinite hall of glowing server racks. It has succeeded, and for a fraction of a second is acknowledged as a good dog.

Dog and everyman look equally traumatized by whatever is going on here and I cannot say I disagree because damn.

As usual though that doesn’t matter and we leave the dog immediately to hurtle further down the infinite racks of servers hallway while Reginald sings the virtues of having infinite racks of servers. Like dadsuit-kayak-boy, the dog is left to an indeterminate fate.

After flashing past a few fractions of a second of gameplay from a handful of games somebody who played games might recognize, we are at the one minute and forty-one second mark, and I thought things were off the rails before.

Reginald has now ascended back into this purple cloud space thing that reality had collapsed into back in the beginning of this odyssey, accompanied by our everyman, the scientist and for some reason the golf cart, all of which vanish momentarily. More screens swirl around lightning cascades from his outstretched hands, as he yells what is apparently this product’s slogan: “unthink the things you think are things”.

I promise you I am not making that up. That’s the punchline to this exercise.

There’s some more horrific awkwardness after that, but it doesn’t matter. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a commercial that was so obviously a joke made at the expense of the people paying for it, and this one really hits it out of the park. Either this happened on purpose or it happened by accident, and I’m not sure which is worse. On the bright side, given the size of the company we can be confident that people are making fun if it in deadpan conversations around the company literally thousands of times a day.

“Have you tried unthinking some things?” “Things I thought were things, you mean?” “Those are some things I think you could unthink.” “I’ll think about it.”

Don’t bother watching it.

April 9, 2019


Filed under: a/b,arcade,digital,documentation,interfaces,vendetta — mhoye @ 8:57 am

Tevis Thompson, games critic and author of the excellent Second Quest has posted a new article on the best and worst games of 2018, and as always his work is worth your time.

So the question is not: what is it? Or: is it good? The question is: why are you still playing? Why do you need another chaos box? Was the tropical island version not enough in 2012? Nor the Himalayan one in 2014? Did you really need the rural American flavor too? I know this isn’t your first rodeo. Chaos boxes were kinda novel and fun in the 2000s, but there’s nothing wild or crazy about them now, no matter how many grizzly bears named Cheeseburger you stuff in. Surely you have a higher standard for dipshittery in 2018. Besides, there are so many virtual ways to unwind and let off steam these days. So why are you still playing this?

I’ll tell you why: because you like high definition murder. You like it. It’s not an accident that the most violent shooters are always on the cutting edge of graphical fidelity. They know what you want. And as your stunted adult imagination knows, mouth gun sounds just won’t cut it anymore. You need 4K fire and blood, bodies twisting and breaking at 60 frames per second. You need local color to give just enough specificity and grit to make each shot really land, to make sure your deadened senses feel anything at all. You especially need a charismatic villain to see you, recognize your violence, say you’re just like him. And then, absolve you. Because both of you poor souls have no other way to be in this fallen world. Except that he’s a videogame character and you’re a person.

That’s part of his review of Far Cry 5, a game that only took second place on his list of the worst games of the year. He digs into the first, Red Dead Redemption 2, at much greater length.

Read the whole thing.

January 20, 2019

Super Mario Telemachy

Filed under: a/b,arcade,awesome,beauty,digital,documentation,future,interfaces — mhoye @ 10:29 pm
This way to art.

One thing I love about the Hyrule of Breath of the Wild is how totally unbothered it is by our hero’s presence in it. Cliffs you can’t climb, monsters you have no real shot at beating, characters wandering about who aren’t there as side-quest farmers or undifferentiated foils for your inevitable progress. Even the weather will inconvenience, injure or outright murder you if you walk out into it dressed wrong, and in large ways and small this mattered. I’d seen lighting strikes in the game before – and getting one-shotted by the rain after I missed the memo about not wearing metal out in a storm was startling enough, lemme tell you – but the first time I saw one hit water, saw a handful of stunned fish floating to the surface, that put my jaw on the floor. The rain that made this hill too slippery to climb gave that world the sense of a being a world, one that for all your power and fate and destiny just didn’t revolve around you.

Super Mario Odyssey is the precise, exact opposite of that, and at first I really didn’t get it. I couldn’t get into it.

It’s surprisingly hard to enjoy an entire world carefully and forgivingly tuned to precisely fit your exact capacities at all times, to the point that if you’ve done much platforming in your life there’s no real challenge to navigating Odyssey, much less risk. A “death” that costs you about six of the abundant, constantly replenished gold coins that litter the landscape hardly even counts as a setback – you’re likely to restart next to eight or ten of them! – so my first impressions were that it amounted to a hoarder’s brightly coloured to-do list. I decided to grind through it to see the New Donk City I’d been studiously avoiding spoilers for, hearing only that it was the best and weirdest part of the game, but it was definitely a grind.

But after watching my kids play it, and helping them through the parts they’ve been hung up on, I realized something: Odyssey is a bad single-player game because it’s not a single-player game, at least not a single adult player. It’s a children’s book, a children’s experience; it’s Mario Disneyland. And once I discovered the game I was actually supposed to be playing, the whole experience changed.

With fresh eyes and unskilled hands involved, this sprawling, tedious fan-service buffet becomes an entirely different thing, a chance to show my kids around a game world I grew up with. Even the 2D sidescroller diversions, eye-rollingly retro on their own, become a conversation. Most amazingly, to me at least, the two-player option – one player driving Mario, the other driving his ghost hat companion Cappy – stops looking like a silly gimmick and starts looking like a surprisingly good execution of a difficult idea I’ve wanted for a long time. Odyssey is the only game I’ve ever seen that has cooperative, same-couch multiplayer that’s accessible to people of wildly different skill levels. Another way to say that is, it’s a game I can play with my kids; not versus, not taking turns, but “with” for real, and it’s kind of great.

So, playing Odyssey alone by myself? Sure: unchallenging, rote and if we’re honest enough to admit it, a little sad. But with my kids’ playing it, playing along together? Definitely. Not only good but good fun, maybe even a meaningful experience. Sign me up.

June 8, 2017

I’m Walking, Yes Indeed

Filed under: arcade,awesome,digital,interfaces,toys — mhoye @ 10:00 pm

They’re called “walking simulators”, which I guess is a pejorative in some circles, but that certain type of game that’s only a little bit about the conventions of some gaming subgenre – puzzles, platforming, whatever – and mostly about exploration, narrative and atmosphere is one of my favorite things.

Over the last year or two, I suspect mostly thanks to the recent proliferation of free-to-use, high-quality game engines, excellent tutorials and the generally awesome state of consumer hardware, we’re currently in a golden age of this type of game.

One of the underappreciated things that blogging did for writing as a craft was free it from the constraints of the industries around it; you don’t need to fit your article to a wordcount or column-inch slot; you write as much or as little as you think your subject required, and click publish, and that’s OK. It was, and I think still is, generally underappreciated how liberating that has been.

Today the combination of Steam distribution, arbitrary pricing and free-to-use engines has done much the same thing for gaming. Some of the games I’ve listed here are less than half an hour long, others much longer; either way, they’re as long as they need to be, but no more. A stroll through a beautifully-illustrated story doesn’t need to be drawn out, diluted or compressed to fit a market niche precisely anymore, and I thought all of these were a good way to spend however much time they took up.

Plenty of well-deserved superlatives have already been deployed for The Stanley Parable, and it is absolutely worth your time. But two short games by its creators – the free Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist and the much longer The Beginner’s Guide are radically different, but both excellent. Dr. Langeskov is brief and polished enough to feel like a good joke; The Beginner’s Guide feels more like exploring the inside of a confession than a game, a unique and interesting experience; I enjoyed them both quite a bit.

Firewatch is, in narrative terms, kind of mechanical – despite its may accolades, you eventually get the sense that you’re turn the handle on the dialogue meat grinder and you know what’s coming out. But it’s still affecting, especially in its quieter moments, and the environment and ambience is unquestionably beautiful. it’s worth playing just to explore. I’d be happy to wander through Firewatch again just to see all the corners of the park I missed the first time around, and there’s a tourist mode in which you can find recordings that explore the production process that I enjoyed quite a bit more than I’d expected.

“Homesick” is very much the opposite of Firewatch, a solitary and mostly monochromatic struggle through environmental and psychological decay, set in a rotting institution in what we eventually learn is an abandoned industrial sacrifice zone. The story unfolds through unexpected puzzles and mechanisms, and ends up being as much a walkthrough of the experience of mental illness as of the environment. Homesick isn’t a difficult game to play, but it’s a difficult game to experience; I’m cautiously recommending it on those terms, and I don’t know of any game I can compare it to.

“Lifeless Planet” is a slow exploration of a marooned FTL expedition to an alien world discovering the abandoned ruins of a fifties-era Soviet settlement. It’s not graphically spectacular, but somehow there is something I found really great about the slow unfolding of it, the pacing and puzzles of this well, if obliquely, told story. I found myself enjoying it far more than I would have expected.

Another space-exploration type game, though (supposedly?) much more sophisticated, Event[0] was generally very well received – Procedurally generated dialog! An AI personality influenced by the player’s actions! – but I played through it and found it… strangely boring? I suspect my gameplay experience was sabotaged by my Canadianness here, because I went into it knowing that the AI would react to your tone and it turns out if you consistently remember your manners the machine does whatever you want. The prime antagonist of the game this ostensibly-secretive-and-maybe-malevolent AI, but if you say please and thank you it turns out to be about as menacing as a golden retriever. Maybe the only reason I found it boring is because I’m boring? Could be, I guess, but I bet there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

The most striking of the bunch, though, the one that’s really stuck with me and that I absolutely recommend, is Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, essentially an exploration of a small, inexplicably abandoned English village near an observatory in the aftermath of something Iain Banks once referred to as an “Outside-Context Problem”. It is all of interesting, beautiful and relentlessly human, investing you in not just the huge what-just-happened question but the lives and relationships of the people confronting it and trying to live through it. If walking simulators appeal to you – if exploring a story the way you’d explore an open-world game appeals to you – then I don’t want to tell you anything more about it so that you can experience it for yourself.

I’ve played a few other games I’m looking forward to telling you about – some of the best 2D-platformer and Sierra-like games ever made are being made right now – but that’s for another day. In the meantime, if you’ve got some other games that fit in to this genre that you love, I’d love to hear about them.

November 20, 2016

Memories And Palaces

Filed under: arcade,awesome,beauty,digital,interfaces,life,toys — mhoye @ 4:08 pm


This is an old memory, dredged out of the cellar by this Metafilter thread about a Sierra game: The Colonel’s Bequest.

Bequest was a charmingly understated member of the “[Subject] Quest” games lineage, largely forgotten I suspect for the sin of being a character-driven mystery with a female protagonist rather than a puzzles-and-princesses nature excursion. Teenage Me remembers enjoying it. Present-day Me does not remember Teenage Me as a paragon of good taste and sound judgement, true, but let’s put that aside for the moment.

When the Colonel’s Bequest came out, a friend and I in high school were very much into the Sierra games, but we got our selves thoroughly stuck on this one. To my memory this would have been during that magical late-in-the-school-year part of spring time when teachers have given up on the curriculum and would rather just show you old movies. My English teacher – a magnificent old crank, in that particular way that English teachers close to retirement can blossom into magnificent old cranks – decided he was going to show us old Vincent Price horror movies, because why not.

One of those he played for us was The House Of Usher, closely based on the similarly-named Poe story. It’s a classic-in-the-classic-sense horror film; an iconic product of it’s time, though that time hasn’t aged spectacularly well. Apparently the US National Film Registry regards it as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, though, and if you get a chance to watch it, dated as it seems, you’ll probably agree.

Until then my only exposure to Price had been “The Hilarous House Of Dr. Frightenstein” on PBS, reruns of Price well into his self-parody phase. Despite the fact that even then I could tell there was a joke going on I wasn’t getting, I could talk about that show at great and unreasonably enthusiastic length – its very possible The Professor had a formative influence on my eight-year-old self – but that is not what I am here to talk about.

What I’m here to talk about it how clearly I can remember that moment when the lights came on and both of us knew that we knew how to win the game. Because the architecture of the mansion and surrounding grounds in Bequest, blowing our tiny teenage minds, was very strongly influenced – straight-up cribbed, in some places – from the architecture of the eponymous House and its grounds in that movie. next time we played the game together we quickly found the hidden doors and switches exactly where they were in the movie, opening the way to the same secret passages; we moved quickly through to the conclusion of the game, and that was it.

I haven’t thought about that moment or that game in 25 years; it surprises me that this newfound ability we have to revisit the specific stimulus of our youth can feel like being ambushed by a choice between nostalgia and introspection. I can remember a few pivotal moments in my life like that, where can remember learning something, making a choice, and knowing that I was different person on the far side of it. There must have been a lot of them. Maybe this is one of them? I’ve had an interest in secret passages and video game architecture for a really long time; I wonder if that’s where it started.

Seems plausible.

September 14, 2016

Historical Precedent

Filed under: arcade,beauty,books,digital,documentation,interfaces,travel — mhoye @ 10:21 am


A while back in Architecture For Loners I wrote a bit about a how in-game architecture can fail a video game’s narrative if you’ve got the right eyes, the right incentives and maybe the right jetpack:

The environments, though… if you have the right eyes you can’t help but notice that built-for-a-shooter feeling that pervades the designed landscapes of that franchise. […] whether it’s a forcefield deployed pointlessly in a cave, an otherwise-empty room with one door and twenty or so alien warriors milling around inside waiting to no discernable purpose or an massive structure of dubious architectural merit built by an advanced alien species whose accomplishments include intergalactic teleporters but not doors, you never have a moment to shake off the sense that the world is built entirely around sight lines.

I’ve just come across two great posts about other games I wanted to share with you. The first is about Hidetaka Miyazaki’s “Bloodborne”, called “Understanding the sublime architecture of Bloodborne”:

Like director Hidetaka Miyazaki and company’s previous titles, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, Bloodborne involves the player in a sublime romance with pre-industrial European architecture. As broadly as mannerism can be described, then, it makes the most sense to place Bloodborne within this particular European lineage.

To get a grasp on what this means, we need to return to Michelangelo, who was as imaginative an architect as he was anything else, and there’s no better example of mannerist elements at play in his work than the Laurentian Library’s vestibule. At first glance, it may seem like an attractive but unremarkable room: essentially a cube with sparsely decorated walls and a staircase. A closer look reveals a number of oddities.

The second is a translated interview with Maria Elisa Navarro Morales, who was the architectural history consultant for the Ezio Auditore games in the Assassin’s Creed series, set between 1476 and 1503 in the Rome, Florence and Venice of Renaissance Italy:

I would have never imagined that the clothing could be so different between Florence and Venice. To document that I had to base a lot off of the paintings of that time period, studying them in great detail to detect the particular differences. For example, the cities had different laws about the kind of neckline women were allowed to wear. In Venice the laws were more lax, and that’s where the courtesan character shows up. None the less, the noblewomen weren’t allowed to go into the streets uncovered in Venice or in Florence. In Florence the men wore a unique hat, while in Venice they didn’t, etc.

Another thing was the hairstyles, that we studied through artists like Botticelli. For example, the ideal beauty in Venice was the blonde woman, so many women dyed their hair. Apart from those more general types of jobs, there was a questionnaire that the artists could fill out to ask me more specific things. All of that appeared in the game.

Both articles are wonderful and you should read them; if you enjoyed them, you’d probably also enjoy Darran Anderson’s “Imaginary Cities”, about which more later.

Let me take a moment to renew my call for a “tourist mode” in video games; I would pay good DLC money for an assisted-walkthrough mode in games like these, that took the time to talk in depth about the why, how, and historical background of their construction and design.

July 10, 2016

Witness Me

Filed under: arcade,beauty,digital,documentation,interfaces,toys,vendetta — mhoye @ 9:21 pm


Having recently forced myself to play through the ending-plus-the-real-ending of The Witness, I’m finding myself wondering if it was worth playing. I’m surprised to find myself thinking that it wasn’t.

As far as you can “spoil” something without a meaningful narrative (which is itself a spoiler, I suppose) then there are spoilers ahead, so make a decision here. I won’t be solving any of the puzzles for you, but that’s largely because at some point I lost interest in grinding them out myself.

Just to get this out of the way, The Witness is beautiful. It is very nice to look at.

Sadly, that’s almost all it is.

The creeping sense that you might be gazing into a beautiful, elaborate navel sets in early, and the thin edge of that wedge is the scattered voice-recorders. It doesn’t take long to notice their placement is very deliberate, and it’s not to tell you anything about this abandoned island, its strange statues and presumably-absent residents. Instead, their role is to constantly remind you that you have to look everywhere. At everything, from every angle, all the time, for reasons that never materialize.

Jonathan Blow – creator of The Witness – has said that he wants to make games for “people who read Gravity’s Rainbow“, and I think he’s succeeded at that provided we’re talking about people who read it, cranked out a disinterested B- essay for the compulsory 1st-year humanities credit that assigned it, and never looked back.

The other thing it doesn’t take long to notice is that the reveal of the central conceit and pivotal epiphany of The Witness is also the precise moment the joy of playing the game starts wobbling on the rails. First of all, however you come to that revelation – that the world is itself full of these circle-and-line puzzles – you have almost no say in the fact of coming to it; I hope you had that magic moment before you’d made it to the top of the mountain, because that’s where you get clubbed over the head with it. And second, that’s also the moment the game stops being an exploration and starts being a grind.

You’re not farming gold or breaking jars here, and that’s not nothing, but after you’ve seen a few of those world-puzzles every archway or semicircle you wander past or glance by the edge of the screen stops looking like a beautiful detail in a beautiful world and starts looking like a job.

And they are, of course, everywhere. The dirt path that ends in a curve, the cloud with the semicircular edge, the half-submerged pipe and its reflection, the whole island turns into one long brightly-colored to-do list. Climb something else to look at it or wander around it until the circle shows up, activate or trace whatever it is, and then… move on to the next one, because there’s definitely a next one. But there’s no story to advance, nothing gained beyond the sense that you’ve been spoon-fed a sense of cleverness. The minor epiphanies that pleasantly surprise you at the beginning of the game are silently haunting every twisted set of branches or curving shadow now, waiting for you to wander around this Ouija board of a world and invoke them for no particular reason.

The boss battles of this perspective-grinding exercise are sometimes clever, always pretty and invariably hollow. The perfect narrative void of this game screams at you in those moments; you’re standing where you can see the reflected fish or the harpy’s flowing hair or the two statues linking hands. “This moment would tell you so much”, the void says, “if there was anything to tell you at all. Go find more puzzles.”

Res ipsa loquitor, sed per se” is a line that came to mind, here – the thing speaks for itself, but only about itself. It’s a game that wants you to really understand the vital importance of paying careful attention to detail and perspective, and sets out to do that by giving you hundreds of nearly-identical problems and devoutly refusing to give you a reason to solve any of them.

It’s really hard to care how many levels a joke works on when you’re hearing it for the two hundredth time.

Anyway: the exact moment I tuned all the way out was partway down the inside of the mountain, when the Aperture Science aesthetic kicks in and of the randomly scattered recordings – hidden wherever they are without any reason or pattern beyond being hidden, obvs – plays you a long B.F. Skinner quote that cut more than a little too close to the bone. At that point I’d had just about enough of this B- essay that I could make a pretty good guess how it would end and didn’t care much if I was right or wrong. I pushed on, but the eye-rolling Witness-To-The-Hotel-California sequence didn’t change my opinion for the better.

I really wanted to love this game. I can kind of see the rough outlines of a lot of other games I’ve loved in it, but I suppose I never figured out where to stand to make it work.

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