September 21, 2011

It’s The Little Details

Filed under: academic,arcade,awesome,digital,documentation,interfaces,toys — mhoye @ 1:15 pm

I’m really interested in video games as narrative, and the possibilities virtual spaces open up to be examined through the lenses and terminologies of the various schools of literary criticism that are content to call anything that hits them in the eyes a text. There’s a lot of ground in that field to cover, and some of the best games are happy to give you a glimpse of the scope of the worlds they’re embedded in and the forces that shape them, a larger sense of who the protagonists are, and hint at the broad brushstrokes and hidden grammars of a story you’re barely a part of.

Portal 2 is great for this.

If you’re paying really close attention, there’s a few interesting discontinuities in Portal 2. Some of them are… maybe more obvious than they should be. The low-hanging fruit come when you’re fighting through Wheatley’s tests in the latter third of the game. When you first meet back up with her halfway up Test Shaft 9 Glados tells you that she “literally doesn’t have the energy to lie to you”; she later on she reverses herself on the claim that she didn’t stockpile test chambers when she’s called on it. Another one that might just be a continuity error comes up when you emerge from the last of the Test Shaft 9’s pumping rooms; the walls below are marked “1982”, but stepping through the door leads you to a vitrification order dated 1961. Continuity seems pretty clear, at that point, so, maybe this is nothing?

But maybe it’s something, or a hint at something. Because at the very bottom of the mine, in the doorway out of the fifties-era Aperture Science offices where the first picture of Cave and his runner-up contractor-of-the-year awards are, the sliding door is apparently controlled by a little white device, with little square lights. And if you look closely, you’ll see it inscribed with, not the 50’s era Aperture Science logo as you’d expect, but with the most recent lens-blade Aperture Science logo, the one we all know and love.
There’s no hint that I can find anywhere else in the narrative that this has any right to be there but there it is, and the implications for the story, both main- and back-, are pretty large.

I do like me some understanding a good story so self, I said to myself, why not just ask?

So I sent some email to Chet Faliszek asking him: is it there on purpose, or is that an oversight?

And I got some email back just now from Erik Wolpaw and Mr. Faliszek saying:


As you probably know, the answer to that seemingly innocent question would necessarily include partial answers to several even bigger questions. Nice try, though. Glad you liked the game!


I don’t know that I expected anything else, but there it is, and my slow-clap processor is running pretty hot right now. Whatever it means to the story, there’s functioning, modern-era Aperture Science technology deployed at the very, very bottom of Test Shaft 9, making a sliding door work.

September 16, 2011

To My Someday Daughter

Filed under: arcade,awesome,future,interfaces,life,parenting — mhoye @ 9:35 pm

Geordie Tate writes:

“As you learn more, you’ll understand more, in the same way that a budding engineer might gradually grow to understand a complex blueprint. If your first instinct when you hear the word “feminist” is to say “those man-haters want equality, but they still want me to pay for everything, hurf durf!” then you currently have as accurate an understanding of feminism as a confectioner would have of a Titan II missile schematic. You know those congressmen who say that Grand Theft Auto IV is a “crime simulator” that is “training new felons?” That’s you, and feminism.

“I know you can do better.”

… as part of a much, much longer and quite excellent post. Read the whole thing.

August 24, 2011

This Is A Triumph

Some of you may be wondering why I’ve been grinning like an idiot since noon, so I’ll tell you.

I had an idea today, and it seemed like a decent one so I emailed it to Gabe Newell.

Sir –

My daughter, who is all of two and a half years old, has asked me if I can get her an Aperture Science Turret for Christmas. I told her that Santa wasn’t likely to bring her a turret, but I would see if we could get her a companion cube, and she seems OK with that.

I thought that it would be perfect, though, if there were kids’-sized shirts in the Valve store commemorating Aperture Science’s “Bring Your Daughter To Work” day. There don’t seem to be, though, and I thought I should bring that oversight to your attention.

Thanks for everything,

— Mike Hoye

An hour later I got an email from Arsenio Navarro, in charge of Valve’s merchandising, which read in part:

Hello Mike,

Thank you for your email – and excellent t-shirt idea.
We will correct this oversight and offer a design at the Valve Store. […]



I haven’t been that giddy about something in my inbox since I got an email from Don Knuth. I’m sure that most of you are aware that Valve Software, and Gabe Newell in particular, are 100% awesome. But for those of you who were not, let me assure you: that is the case.

August 4, 2011

Global Portaling System

Filed under: arcade,digital,interfaces,lunacy,toys,travel — mhoye @ 12:25 pm

Everyday I'm Bustlin'

This came to me the other day when a friend of mine was talking about some acquaintances of theirs who’d driven across Africa, including through the Sudan: some people in some places really, really need a GPS that talks to them like the Fact Sphere from Portal 2.

“The situation you are in is very dangerous. Turn left in 200 meters.”

“Proceed straight for 500 meters. The likelihood of you dying within the next two kilometers is 87.61%. You are about to get me killed. If you proceed along this route, we will both die because of your negligence. The Fact Sphere is not defective. Its facts are wholly accurate, and very interesting.”

“The route you have chosen spans three kilometers of elevation and two war zones. This is a bad plan. You will fail. Violently. Turn right in 100 meters. If you continue on this road at this speed, you will be dead soon.”

“The situation is hopeless. Take the next right turn. You could stand to lose a few pounds.”

April 7, 2011

Where The Puck Is Going

Filed under: a/b,arcade,digital,future,interfaces,toys,vendetta,want — mhoye @ 3:11 pm

The Door

I alluded to some fictional future tech the other day, specifically ARM-powered Macbook Airs. My reasonings, let me show you them.

  • With OSX 10.6, Apple announced Grand Central Dispatch, a framework for managing multithreaded programs across multiple cores, which they released, surprisingly, under the Apache open-source license. This gives programmers who take advantage of it an easy way to take good advantage of multi-core processors without the usual agonies of threading. You might not think this is a huge deal when we’re talking the usual two- or four-core processors on most modern machines, but
  • Apple is one of the very few licensees of Imagination Technology’s SGX543MP2-16 ARM chips. In terms of performance, the cutting edge there is not quite as fast as your current Atoms, but there’s sixteen general-purpose GPU cores in those chips, plus a pair of 3D GPUs and 2d and crypto acceleration thrown in for kicks.
  • One of the neatest thing about these chips is that you can actually power down individual cores to save power, and fast enough that you can do it between frames of playing video. Relatedly, this is something PA Semi was also very good at before Apple bought them – aggressive power management on ARM-based systems. In terms of pure processing power ARM is not as fast as the best processors that Intel has to offer but in per-watt terms x86 doesn’t even come close. That plus 16 cores plus GCD is going to be a hard act to follow for anyone in the portable space stuck in Intel-land.
  • Microsoft has asked Intel to produce a 16-core Atom chip, it was reported earlier this year, despite the fact that they’re pushing towards ARM as well.

… and Apple has their annual World Wide Developer Conference coming up in June. My predictions are as follows:

  • Apple’s next generation of laptop hardware will run ARM chips, likely starting with the Airs. They’ve pulled this switch off before in their move from PPC to Intel and their insistence on total vertical control of the development environment is what lets them do it; the App Store model is only going to make that easier. They’ll announce this at WWDC, and it will look a lot like the PPC-Intel move did – if you’re using XCode, the next version of XCode has a checkbox in it saying “ARM” that you’ll click and be fine. If not, you’re basically 100% fucked.
  • At some point late in the year we’ll learn that Adobe doesn’t develop for Macs with XCode. They’ve got their own proprietary thing, because that’s the sort of thing they’d do.
  • Windows 8, definitely ARM support and probably all of it, is going to ship late. Microsoft is going to be in a lot of trouble in the laptop space late next year, because without ARM support they won’t be able to sell a product with competitive battery life.
  • In the longer, vaguer term, processing power per watt is going to be the most important computer metric of the next decade. Virtualized services running on ARM blades are going to displace everything that doesn’t require screamingly fast sequential computing as close to the bare metal as possible, which is to say “almost all of it”. In two years your more expensive 2U servers will have several hundred processor cores in them, consuming less power than your beefier 2U servers to today.
  • Steve Ballmer will lose his job by 2012 or Microsoft continues its long slide into irrelevance.

We’ll know in a few months!

October 16, 2010


Filed under: arcade,digital,interfaces,toys — mhoye @ 10:03 pm


I’ve just fought my way through the last of Reach, and… Yeah, it’s Halo. At this point I suspect you either own Reach or never will but for whatever it’s worth here’s what I thought.

Every now and then you hear people debating whether or not video games are art. Some people adamantly say no, others insist yes; I doubt I’ll be tipping my hand much by saying I have long asserted that nobody whose soul is properly wired to their eyes and thumbs could play through Myst, Ico or Shadow Of The Colossus without admitting that whatever it is about art that speaks to us can be found there. But it’s equally true that video games are a new thing. You can cultivate a full and rewarding appreciation of the Mona Lisa, King Lear or the Moonlight Sonata without ever once having to press X to not die, for example. There’s an inclusiveness to video games that forces the audience to shape the experience in a way that other media just doesn’t – you’re not often called up from the audience to shank a Capulet yourself – and that’s not something that’s on the typical art-appreciation curriculum.

The other side of that is, of course, that there are some terrible video games in the world, but that’s equally true of everything else ever labelled art. But video games are a confluence of so many fields of artistic endeavor – narrative, performance, graphic design, gameplay and music, among others – that there are a shocking number of axes on which a video game can fail. So I’m increasingly of the opinion that video games are art, but that many and maybe most of them are in some respect bad art.

And usually the part that tips everything over is the narrative, so… yeah, what was I talking about? Halo, I think?

Under A Grey Sky

There were a number of odd quirks in the gameplay that irritated me throughout, mostly having to do with choices I thought I’d be able to make but couldn’t. I’m a member of an Elite Group of Space Marines, but I don’t get to pick my tools? That’s disappointing, but OK, I guess. All this extra armor I can buy doesn’t actually do anything, really? I wouldn’t have thought that Elite Space Marines were all about cosmetic upgrades, but OK, sure, whatever. And then I climb into a helicopter with a carefully-selected DMR and my beloved SRS 99, and when I get out, for no reason at all I’m carrying a slingshot and a bag of jujubes. Thanks guys, thanks a bunch.

Worse, sometimes when you’ve wandered a bit afield a countdown timer appears on the screen saying “Return to the battlefield”, and if you don’t go back to the designated in-play area in ten seconds you just die for no reason. Shit, guys, you want to respect the continuity just a teensy bit?

But that wasn’t the worst of it – the worst part was the story.

Now, Halo is Halo, and Halo: Reach is definitely more Halo than Halo. It’s got the alien spaceship level, it’s got the waves-of-bad-guys level, it’s got the city level, it’s got the military-base level, and you’re Noble Team member #6, grinding your way through all the above with the same old guns you know and love. It seems kind of puerile to deride a game that says Halo right there on the box for not being different enough from Halo, doesn’t it? But that’s pretty much where this is going; there’s a lot of places where the gameplay changes just enough for you to think it could grow up to be fascinating, and then that gets taken away and we’re back to what might as well be Halo 1 HD. In a lot of ways, oddly enough, Reach reminded me of Douglas Adams’ “Mostly Harmless”. Clearly in the same vein as its predecessors, clearly the best technical work of the series and just as clearly secretly and quietly hated by its creator. It’s beautiful, a lot more challenging and has a lot more variety to it, but it never really has the courage to draw that novelty out to anything close to it’s potential, and despite all that it’s still difficult to get through. Halo has always been about a largely mute, almost entirely solitary soldier butchering his way through questionably-armed alien opponents, and for the most part that’s about what you expect from even the best plot-on-rails shooter. But there’s a lot of little details in Reach that make it pretty disturbing if you’re paying attention.

A Church

As per usual in Halos you need to suspend a distressing amount of disbelief, particularly if you know the first thing about military logistics and tactics. And I’m not talking about an “able to manage the logistics of a carrier battle group deployment” sort of understanding, either. I’m talking at the “If we run out of bullets, we should have a way to get more bullets” level. Because in Reach, as in every single other Halo, nobody has thought that far ahead. And that’s fairly low on the list of things that could, to put it mildly, use a little clarification. The worst example might be the point where you shake off a fall that started in geosynchronous orbit, but there’s a bunch of these jarring little moments scattered through the game, forcibly reminding you over and over that that’s all it is.

Worse, it’s made very clear that both sides of this war are really, really dumb, bad at war in every respect except manufacturing firearms and then leaving them lying around. That was true in the original and increasingly-poorly-named “Combat Evolved” (Tactics? Logistics? Covering fire, air support? Fuck all that, charge!) and you spend about as much time as Halo-usual picking up guns you find lying around. But in Reach a typical deployment scenario for your space marine of 2550 is to be dropped in the field with a popgun and a q-tip and hope to stumble across whatever fell out of the pockets of the last ten or fifteen sorties that got sent out before you did.

And find them you do; you don’t just run into stashes of stuff anymore, you find piles of dead marines or locals, lit with nearly-spent rescue flares, and you pretty much need to shake out their pockets for enough ammunition and first aid to get through a level. In retrospect the only thing that’s kept the Covenant from a sweeping, lopsided victory in this series is forgetting to pickup after themselves. If they just sent out a few dozen of those idiotic grunts of theirs out to clean up all the weaponry that the humans left lying around, you’d never make it more than halfway through the first level. Nevertheless, scrounging from the bodies of people who have covered all this ground before seems obviously symbolic and, wow, pretty harsh.

The other thing that’s different about Reach is that you spend a lot of time in this game watching civilians get killed.

You can’t yell at them, tell them to get out of the way or hang back, anything, because you’re some sort of mute, but that wouldn’t matter anyway, because they’re dumber than the scenery. But at one point you’re ordered to stand your ground and defend your position, and even if you manage to keep a dozen of them from getting killed the very next thing you do is jump into an elevator and abandon them to their fates. You’re occasionally given similarly incompetent, unusable soldier NPCs to assist, who are just as mute and just as dumb. You get a little roster of them, where they each flash red and then disappear as they get killed. There’s no reward for saving, or even way to save, any of them.

In hindsight I should add that it was a more than a little irksome that everyone on your team is accorded a noble, self-sacrificing death with the exception of the team’s only woman, who gets shot in the back of the head in mid-sentence while questioning her orders. That was particularly classy, and I wonder who she actually represented.

But it’s the final chapter of the game that really drives it home; you’re dropped, with no transition and no explanation, into ruined shell of a military base under a burning sky. There’s nowhere to go, you don’t know how you got there or why, and you can’t do anything but  fight endless waves of aliens until you run out of ammo, at which point you are summarily slaughtered.

Did I mention some harsh symbolism earlier? Anyhow, you can run off the edge of that map too, because we can’t pass up this one last opportunity to curb-stomp your suspension of disbelief again.

So is it art? It’s Halo, and maybe even a little bit more than Halo. It’s awfully pretty, and fun. But as much as it is, it’s not everything it could have been, and seems to hate itself in a lot of ways that surprised me. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that at the very end you’re actually playing through the eyes of a developer, and not our hero Noble 6. It’s hard not to like Reach. The multiplayer is good, often silly fun, the graphics are beautiful, and what it does well it does very well. Every now and then it even rewards some patient, cautious sneaking around in the attic, where I’d find somebody has graciously left a fully-loaded sniper rifle in the rafters for somebody just like me. But I’m pretty happy there won’t be another one, and despite the series’ loose ends I strongly suspect the people at Bungie are too.

2019 update:  Replaying Reach today, and looking back on this article in light of Bungie’s recent divorce from Activision, it’s hard not to see Reach as a protracted comment on the state of Bungie’s relationship with Microsoft at the time – some of the best and most heroic work they’ve ever done in service of a doomed relationship and a longshot chance at a better future that most of them won’t get to see.


March 14, 2010

Runny, Jumpy, Stabby

Filed under: arcade,awesome,digital,future,interfaces — mhoye @ 5:37 pm


I’ve just wrapped up Assassin’s Creed 2, and my goodness.

(There’s some spoilers here, but nothing severe.)

If you’d said to me a few months ago, you know Hoye, Parkour seems like a lot of fun, but you know what would make it even better? Stabbing your way through a Templar conspiracy in Renaissance Italy. With a heavy dollop of science fiction spooned over the top. I would have said, that does sound kind of neat, but I don’t see how those things could possibly go together?

And I would have been wrong! They are terrific together, and AC2 is a great game. There’s running about, there’s the sneaking and the stabbing that I love so and you periodically get to punch minstrels just for being minstrels, which puts a small-minded, mean-spirited smile on my face every single time. So much so that even though it advances the story not a whit, sometimes I just wander around Venice, seeing the sights and looking for minstrels to punch.

Maya doesn’t play this game with me, incidentally, but when the time comes I will tell her that even though you shouldn’t hit people even if they’re asking for it, unsolicited lute-playing definitely constitutes asking for it.

The ending is pretty weak, though in principle it doesn’t seem like it should be; honestly, what could be bad about a fistfight with the Pope? But it does feel like the game betrays itself in a number of ways in the last hour; ending a beautiful open-world stealth-and-free-running game by pushing you down a long hallway is bad enough, but having to butcher your way through a bunch of stand-up fights you’ve been explicitly trying to avoid the whole game, culminating with a boss fight? It’s really too bad, particularly considering it resorts to the old, put down-your-weapons-we-do-this-like-men cliché to give you a boss fight that’s a lot more like punching a fat minstrel than anything related to the core gameplay.

Without giving too much away though it’s right about here that the narrative decides to play the long ball, something good enough to forgive a bit of lax design in the gameplay. So I’m going to pick up AC3 when the time comes, for sure.

I should tell you though, the bigger and prettier video games get the more distressed I am that all these huge, glorious open-world environments are essentially one-off, unrevisitable, single-use things; there’s no way revisit Rapture, for example, no matter how pretty it was, without being assaulted by the same locals again. The lost wastes and huge castles of Ico or Shadow Of The Colossus, the magical brass-and-oak detail of Riven, the blown out dystopias of the Fallout series or the shiny, polished futurism of Mass Effect and Halo, they’re just built, used once and abandoned; there’s no way to build on those enormous efforts, to curate or extend or even just revisit existing virtual spaces.

Which is just horribly, horribly sad, I think.

Have a comment? The original article is here:

March 2, 2010


A friend of mine recently expressed some shock when I told him that I have no problem at all with my daughter playing video games, but I’d rather she not watch television. “Really”, he said?

Life Skills

Yeah, really. And the more TV hits me in the eyes the more convinced I am that I’m entirely in the right.

From a practical standpoint, video games have a lot of things going for them. They’re either in the house or they’re not, for one; you don’t worry too much about your kid stumbling over something with wildly objectionable content. And more importantly the content I find most objectionable about television is the advertising. Video games don’t by and large spend eight minutes of every half hour of use shivving advertising into your child’s eyes, which is unambiguously a win.

And they’re participatory! You can play games with your child, either by taking turns or cooperatively, and more and more of these games can be fun, rewarding experiences for all involved. When was the last time you were done watching television and thought, we did that? We beat the bad guys together, we finished that quest together, we win?

And if my daughter is ever going to drive a Lamborghini into a concrete wall at 250mph I’d rather it be in Gran Turismo, frankly.

More philosophically but also of tier-one importance to me is that video games (especially of the open-world variety) don’t just offer you a choice, but the act of playing them forces you to make choices. There’s no detached voyeurism here and you are not, either in which games you have or in actually playing them, absolved of your own agency in this process.

I’m sure that Mcluhanites or some other school of metamedia junkies have some better word for this, but medical and crime-scene dramas are just about the canonical example of what I’ve been referring to, for lack of a better term, as “agency porn”. Pretty, driven people with morals and ideals and goals on the screen, having these heavy emotional relationships the viewer can turn off with a button, doing ostensibly important work you’ll never do and periodically splattered with entrails that don’t belong to anyone you care about; pornography of a life of decision and consequences, instead of sex.

A Fistful Of Noodle

These things are consumed without the least input or interaction, uncritically. And I am 100% convinced that if you watch enough of these it skews your view of the world. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the startling rise of helicopter parenting, overprotectionism and the general pushback to letting kids have any kind of personal freedom has happened at the same time as these viscerally vivid crime dramas about child abductions and serial killers have moved towards being on TV 24/7.

I want no part of any of that. I mean, it’s hardly news that if you pick the right channels, you can watch CSI-alikes that makes A Clockwork Orange’s “ultraviolence” look like a pillowfight from noon to midnight on any given day, but just as an aside: Christmas day of 2009, A&E decided to run a 24-hour CSI marathon. 24 hours of murder-porn on Christmas day; way to go, A&E. I’m not saying it was better when I was a kid, because it wasn’t, but when I was a kid it also wasn’t possible to watch formulaic murder-porn nonstop through the Christmas holidays.

Sure, there are games like the Grand Theft Auto or Gears Of War series’ out there, but they’re big-kid games you don’t get free with basic cable. (In GTA3, you can just walk down to the hospital, take an ambulance and drive around picking people up and driving them back to the ER, if that’s what you really want to do. Which might be where all the chum they grind through in those medical dramas comes from, now that I think about it.) And I am not even a little opposed to the existence of games like the (awesome) God Of War series or (the awesome) Assassin’s Creed 2; I’m just saying that there a distinction to be made between pornography, art and harmless, healthy fun, as much in violence and its various portrayals as in sex, and an age to start finding out about all of it.

But it is critically important to me that Maya knows that what she sees on the screen is there by choice, and that she engages media in a way that allows and encourages choice. I think those choices are deeply hidden by regular television and I firmly believe that worse than the greed, the obscene violence and routine debasement, worse than the crappy writing and the idiotic commercials is the habit of passive acceptance cultivated by the viewer’s perfect inability to engage.


And I want to introduce her to this stuff on mom and dad’s schedule, deliberately, not by some accident of numbed channel surfing. And besides, when she thinks she’s ready (maybe, maybe not, maybe almost…) for something Dad doesn’t approve of? That’ll probably be a negotiation and a half, and an interesting day for sure. But she’ll have to go after it, it’s not just going to roll in here on its own.

Which will be kind of the point.

Have a comment? The original article is here.

December 15, 2009

That’s My Girl

Filed under: arcade,awesome,parenting — mhoye @ 9:18 pm

You can kind of tell we’re related:

That's My Girl

I love this photo so much.

April 24, 2009

Mass: Effected

Filed under: arcade,awesome,digital,toys — mhoye @ 11:01 pm

I’ve just finished Mass Effect (while wearing jeans, no less, vive le basement libre!), and I am here to say this: Wow.

That’s all, really. It’s a very good game.

It’s not perfect, sure. There are some soft points – very verbose cutscenes you can’t skip, which are fine when they advance the plot and not so fine when they’re the leadup to a battle you keep getting killed in, and the thankfully-brief vehicle sequences that Ben Croshaw has accurately described as handling like a fat man on a unicycle. it’s a bit distressing to find out that in the future, we’ll be sending our finest men and women to war in something that drives like a cross between a Halo Warthog and a willful and particularly stupid puppy. But aside from that, this game is a bucket of awesome.

Thankfully the variety in character creation lets you find a style of gameplay that suits you; anyone’s who’s played Halo with me, or even just discussed urban planning after a few drinks, knows that my preferred perspective on the human condition is through the scope of an overpowered sniper rifle from the shadows behind a rock two area codes away. I have problems with intimacy when it comes to grizzled, heavily-armored alien Space Marines that are enthusiastically trying to kill me with whatever they have to hand. It’s not a thing I get hung up on during a typical day, you understand, but it’s good to have your preferred method of interaction available when things get stressful; I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person with this problem. The only real challenge with it is that there’s a pretty long walk between “I’m trying to shoot you in the head from two kilometers away” and “I’m trying to sneak up and shiv you in the back”. Think of it as an awkward pause in the conversation, if you like. Don’t worry, the punchline’s coming; stay still for one more second.

It’s nice that the game accommodates these little quirks I have. It beats existential dread, I guess; I don’t think it’s a spider.

So I’m playing through it again, because if you play through and pick some different options, different things happen. The only thing I found even vaguely disappointing about the game was that when all was said and done, you couldn’t pick up after you’d won and go screw around finishing up all the side quests you didn’t quite get to the first time around.

I have to confess (and this will make me seem extremely old, but that’s likely OK, because I am literally older than video games as a medium) that my opinion on this was formed back in the stone age, by an Apple ][c Car Wars knockoff called called “Autoduel” – after you’d actually won that game, you could keep playing, because the job of being a courier and driving stuff from city to city didn’t go away, so you could rattle around the very-tiny-in-hindsight world all you like. I can forgive that this option wasn’t available – that final battle changes the fundamental topology of the universe – but it was still such a great game that I wanted to keep playing regardless.

(So I did!)

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »

Powered by WordPress