Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Seattle FLGSopodes

Today I drove around to five of Seattle's Friendly Local Gaming Stores (FLGSs), trying to work out which ones make most sense for me to frequent. Here are my thoughts on them:

  • The Dreaming: Wasn't a huge fan of this one. It's almost entirely comics and RPGs, with a smattering of board and card games. The staff was pretty nice, though, and apparently they do gaming afternoons on Sundays. It's pretty close to the University, and was definitely the tightest-knit of the places I went. But it's not selling my goods, so to speak.
  • Gary's Games: I bought Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space here for a decent price - a game that is impossible to find online, and one for which Shut Up and Sit Down gave a strong recommendation. They seem to have a really good stock of obscure games and also had the widest selection of legacy card game products of any of the stores I visited. I think I'll come back here quite a bit, even though it's really out of the way.
  • Blue Highway Games: This place was really crisp. Half for game hobbyists and half for the "lay folk", this store has a really impressive demo library and frequent community events. The prices were slightly steep and the purchasing selection wasn't perfect, but the location is really great, pretty much in the heart of Queen Anne.
  • Card Kingdom: Now this place was badass. It's store almost wholly dedicated to hobbyists, with lots of open space and dedicated rooms for RPGs, card games, and miniatures, with a huge selection of board games sorted by themes and mechanics at incredibly reasonable prices. I expect to come here an awful lot.
  • Gamma Ray Games: Assuming I live in Capitol Hill, this will be the most local of the FLGSi, but I wasn't too impressed by it. It's rather small with an accordingly small selection and space for playing games. In fact, I don't think they had a demo library, which is sad. The place looks very sharp, though, and has a neat feature to compensate for their slightly steep prices: they have both a "buy 1 get 1 half off" and a "spend $50 and get a game from this pile for free" offer, and while I think they don't stack, that's still a pretty decent deal. We'll see if it grows on me.
I think this is a pretty good sampling of this sort of venue in Seattle. I look forward to seeing how my impressions of these stores evolves over time, and hopefully meeting more people who share my hobby.

The Plant

One of the makers of the wonderful short form RPG Fiasco has made a solo, choose-your-own-adventure style game called The Plant, a game in which you enter a deserted power plant searching for your daughter. I thought I'd give it a whirl. Part of the game involves keeping a journal of what's going on, so I did so. Without further ado, here is:

My First Play of The Plant

I enter the furnace room. Someone has dragged a shopping cart and a rotten canvas tarp in here. I recall the taste of icing, seeing the shopping cart, which fills me with stubborn determination because I was only just Sunday shopping for my daughter's birthday. The icing was the only cake ingredient I forgot. When I get her back, I'll make sure to get her her favorite flavor.

Then I go into the rolling mill hall. It's all smashed up and broken. I get a flashback to its past, when the plant was still operational. The strong copper tang in the air reminds me of blood. I remember blood so strongly because I once cut my arm really deeply during a camping trip with my family. I tried to hide the wound from my kids, and the best way to do so as I walked over to the car was to push the cut closer to my face, where I almost passed out from the stench.

Next comes the coil room. I used to spend a lot of time here, eating lunch at this place every day. Once people found out that I was a suspect in my wife's murder, though, my lunches were eaten alone. They needn't have worried. I kept looking at the tree where people smoked, searching for my shit-eating brother in law, who demanded custody of my kids even after I was acquitted. He was the regional manager, the guy who gave me my job, but he never came by after Darlene died.

From there I scrambl into the crawlspace, ruined by decay and animal shit. I once spent a lot of time here, cleaning out gunk from the fans and such. One time, though, I saw Darlene down below, talking to her brother Mark. Talking about leaving the country with my kids, leaving me behind. Disappearing.

I reach the work line, where a stained and dessicated mattress adorns a corner. The utter wear and tear on the bed reminds me of our lazy cat, who in spite of her lethargy was a force of nature in destroying our furniture. But Darlene said a pet would be good for the family, so I just ate the repair bills.

I descend down a stairwell, two flights, then round into the trunk room, now flooded to knee height. It's like the pool of sweat I released when I went hiking with my daughter. I was out of shape since that camping injury, but she convinced me to come back to the outdoors. The memory makes me smile despite myself, and I spring forward to continue my search.

I go down to the deepest level of the factory, wary of the flood water, finding myself in the break room. Even this deep, graffiti adorns the place with the litter of drugs piled everywhere.

She's sitting among the rubble, asbestos like snow, and she's hurt. She was foolish, she's crying, but I pick her up and take her away from the plant and this awful life. I forget more with each step. It's just me and her, and she is safe. Safe, safe, safe.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sexegenary Cycles - Exploring Chinese Culture with Modulus Proofs

Today in my Chinese Literature class we started reading 运命 (transliteration: yun4ming4, translation: fate) by Lu Xun. In it, he talks about the poor fate of Japanese women born in the "丙午" (bing3wu3) year - the 43rd year of Eastern Asia's Sexegenary (60 year) Cycle. Apparently they curse their husbands, so people don't want to marry them.

Our professor talked briefly about this cycle. In China, in addition to the base 10 numerals, there are two other systems of ordinals: the 10 heavenly stems {甲乙丙丁戊己庚辛壬癸} and the 12 earthly stems {子丑寅卯辰巳午未申酉戌亥}. Each year in the cycle corresponds to a certain combination of those two stems - for example, the first year is 甲子 (1-1), and the second is 乙丑(2-2). The final year in the system is 癸亥(10-12).

This means of combination leads to 60 total combinations. Before I understood the system, I didn't see why it wasn't 120 combinations - after all, aren't there 10 of the heavenly stems and 12 of the earthly ones? 120 would be right if the years went: 甲子(1-1),甲丑(1-2),甲寅(1-3) etc. because that would indeed exhaustively go through the combinations of stems.

But that's not how it progresses: apparently half of the potential combinations don't show up. Why is this? And if we were to change the number of stems in either set, how would that effect the number of years in the cycle?

In my head in class, I played with some other examples to work out the following pattern: multiply the size of each set, and divide the result by the greatest common multiple between those sizes:

|heavenly| * |earthly| = 10 * 12 = 120
GCM(10, 12) = 2
|heavenly| * |earthly| / GCM(|heavenly|, |earthly|) = 120 / 2 = 60.

A more succinct way of explaining it would be to say that the length of the cycle is the least common multiple of the sizes of the two sets (which I worked out on the way back home).

Now let's prove it!

We clearly have some cycles going on here. We'll drop the Chinese characters because ugh, and instead replace them with English letters. The heavenly stems will thus be {A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J} and the earthly stems will be {a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l}. And integers will be proper, sensible names for the year. So the calendar looks like:

0: (A,a)
1: (B, b)
2: (C, c)
9: (J, j)
10: (A, k)
11: (B, l)
12: (C, a)
42: (C, g) (poor bingwu ladies!)
57: (H, j)
58: (I, k)
59: (J, l)
60: (A, a)

I start from 0 because I'm a meanie poo-poo face computer scientist. And because it will help out the math a bit.

The sets of stems are both "circular" sets - they loop around when we're done. In a sense, they're like clocks. The heavenly stem clock has ten hours on it, and the earthly stem one has twelve hours. If we start them both at zero hour (i.e. 10 o'clock and 12 o'clock) at the same time, how long will it be until they both reach zero hour again?

In mathy terms: given least residue system S modulo n and least residue system S' n' respectively, what is k such that k > 0 and (k ≡ 0) mod n and (k ≡ 0) mod n'?

Ew! Gross maths!

Let's break it down a bit. Why "k > 0"? Well, that's saying "how long will it be until they both reach zero hour again". We don't want to count the first time, that would say it's a 0-year cycle!

What does "(k ≡ 0) mod n" mean? In something resembling English: "k is congruent to 0 modulo n". Closer to English: "k is a number that, when you divide it by n, has a remainder of 0". Or put super simply "n divides k evenly".

So we're looking for the first number k bigger than 0 where n divides k evenly and n' divides k evenly. With our example, n is the size of the heavenly stem set, 10, and n' is the size of the earthly stem set, 12.

What are some numbers that 10 divides evenly? 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 etc. "Multiples of 10". And the multiples of 12 are 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, 72... wait a minute, we saw 60 in both lists! So that's when they'll both strike "a" at the same time - at hour 60.

What's special about 60, relative to 10 and 12? It's their lowest common multiple - the first number such that it is a multiple of 10 and a multiple of 12. Suddenly it makes sense! But how do we calculate that number, given an arbitrary n and n'? After all, with big n and n', that could involve trying to find a match in a very long list indeed...

Well, fortunately for math, it's easy to find it (ish). Find the greatest common divisor (which is sorta kinda easy-ish, but I don't want to get into it), and divide the product of the numbers by the GCD. So, exactly the thing I came up with in class.

Alright, I can tell I'm starting to lose articulation. Still, to those who are vaguely interested, does this explanation make it clear why there aren't 120 years in the Sexegenary Cycle?

Ben Finkel

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Graphics Final: Volcano Simulation

Adam Dziuk and Benjamin Finkel
CS 384G Final Project
Volcano Simulation

For our final project in CS384G we strove to emulate the effects of smoke from volcanoes, taking great inspiration from Eyjafjallajökull's prominence in recent news. This process was divided into the two components of lava and smoke, chosen for their distinctiveness as part of eruptions. We rendered the lava as a swarm of particles parametrized with time-dependent variables. The smoke was rendered using a 3D adaptation of Jos Stam's simulation of stable fluid dynamics, chosen as the best way to produce the distinctive vortexes which often characterize smoke.

The lava particles are assigned a random mass when they are generated, which affects their size, mass, velocity, and lifespan. This allows the smaller particles to act like spray which quickly vanishes from view, while the larger ones resemble proper globules of lava. These effects were chosen because they allow for a constant amount of particles to render what appears to be a constant eruption. This allows for much quicker simulation because it does not require resizing of the vector, which can quickly become very expensive.

Jos Stams "Real Time Fluid Dynamics for Games" paper contains source code and explanation for a high speed, good looking fluid dynamics simulation that requires relatively little overhead. Indeed, the simulation of the fluid dynamics itself is relatively minor compared to the rendering time for most relatively small sized simulations (56^3 takes about 5 minutes to render a 20 second movie).

Stam's simulation partitions a space into cells which hold densities of the fluid as well as velocity vectors for moving the fluid around. The vectors and densities are initialized and updated with each time step for factors like wind and the volcano's expulsion of the smoke. But each time step also updates those quantities by the process of advection, which simulates the momentum of the fluid. This process transforms the vectors along themselves.

Jos Stam released source code for how to simulate his fluids in 2D, so the tricky aspect of our project was adapting it to the third dimension. We decided to render the smoke as cubes, analogous to Stam's squares, with alpha blending to color it. By raising the resolution of the grid to a high degree, we got smooth looking smoke to issue from the volcano, with the expense of a massive rendering time.

The smoke simulation is highly sensitive to its settings allowing us to produce interesting effects by having powerful wind:
or by manipulating diffusion

In the end, by rendering overnight we were able to get some very nice looking eruption videos.
Here is our final result:

Jos Stam's publications
Stable Fluids
Real-Time Fluid Dynamics for Games
Stam's code

Adam Dziuk and Ben Finkel

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Mechanics Ideas for the Atrium of Ganeden

So, I've been thinking the past few days about some vectors for mechanics in an RPG combat system, particularly for the pipe-dream that is Atrium. I thought I'd share some.

One of the basic themes of the game is the Rule of Three; for example, there are three core choices to the game that each have three options (providing 27 finales). So I thought it would be nice to partition the basics of combat into three spaces, each of which is also partitioned into triplicate. The first division defines the "shape" of a character's power: how do they interact with the battlefield? The second division applies a sense of theme to the power, which matches the theme of the character most strongly associated with that avenue of combat. The final division... well, it's still up in the air, but it's looking like it will match the particular idiosyncrasies of the practitioner of the power.

So, what do I mean by "shape?"? I've been thinking of the three branches here as the following: the tree, the trellis, and the vector. Let's discuss these in detail:

The Tree:
A character has a bank of abilities of the following structure: (a) an initial effect, (b) a list of requirements for future moves, and (c) a reward effect for completing the list. In a given turn, a character has some requirement imposed on them from a previous turn: this requirement can be filled by a variety of options from his bank. He can choose to perform one of those options, which may in turn provide more requirements for later turns, or mulligan the tree he has constructed so far. Some options, called termini or leaves, provide no requirements; their initial effect is their reward effect, and they serve to help fill requirements out.

Many of you should of course recognize this to be isometric to the Tree data structure of computer science, among other fields. I think the interesting effects lie in the following aspects: choosing the bank of abilities, basing reward effects on how the requirements were fulfilled, and providing situations where taking a mulligan is an attractive option.

Here are some examples of flavorings of this mechanic: language trees, divide-and-conquer algorithms, Duty ethics, branching fractals

Ovalia has abilities based on the language tree. In the Garden, the player chose a bunch of different context-free grammar rules to serve as the basis for her abilities. These are things like:

S -> NP VP:
a) Provides X damage to all foes within radius of Ovalia
b) Must provide a complete NP, then a complete VP to complete
c) Stun and do massive damage to all foes, as determined by the score of the sentence created

The Trellis:
A character establishes a space, or fortress, where they have considerable control. Their turn provides options to increase the space their power manifests, to apply powerful effects within their sphere of influence, and to sacrifice some of their territory for some gain. For many characters who follow this path, the stability of this fortress provides strong benefits: some actions may involve starting a process which has drastic effect upon completion, but which requires certain features of the fortress to remain stable throughout the process.

Flavors: circuitry, dynamic programming, "bottom-up" parsing, force fields, Virtue ethics.

Vursik has his basis in circuitry. During his turn, he can add a length of wire to his circuit in sequence or parallel. Instead, he could create a feature at some point in the circuit he has built, such as:

Damages opponents which come within a radius lightly based on the current flowing through the bulb. Prevents such opponents from leaving the radius until the bulb is destroyed.

Finally, Vursik could excise some wire to add to the voltage supplying the circuit.
The Vector:
A character has a small variety of abilities whose effects are strongly determined by attributes possessed by other objects in the battlefield. Many of these attributes are not able to be directly influenced by the character, but he may have some sort of method to transform the attributes of bulks or individual objects on the field. Characters who are shaped by the Vector are strongly influenced by character synergy, a value which depends on the proximity to other characters with whom he has a strong relationship.

Themes: public key encryption, probability distributions, Greedy algorithms, energy potentials, fluid dynamics, Consequentialist ethics.

Example: Tor's abilities are defined by a simple and skewed version of public key encryption. He is able to broadcast a message to all characters on the battlefield. This message is a damage value which ranges over some interval from, say, [-128, 127], which is then multiplied by the character synergy value. He can view all of the public keys of all actors in the field, as well as the private keys of his allies. He can change his own public and private keys. When the message is broadcast, it is encrypted and then each character decrypts it as per RSA rules . The resulting message that each character receives is the damage it takes - negative damage heals.

As I am sure you can see, this is all very rough and still way open to being changed. Some of the goals I have in this system are:

a) To be fun.
b) To encourage non-trivial tactical decisions
c) To educate players about real world concepts and reward mastery over those concepts.

Anyway, I felt I really had to get this jotted down. But I really want to hear some feedback! At the very least, say hello here. I miss you guys!


Saturday, January 2, 2010

The First of January

Well, it was a good day, wasn't it? The start of a new era, I should say. It'll be good, I trust. But beside the fun we have in arbitrating calendars, January 1st was a good day for me because I got to finish consuming no less than three widely disparate pieces of media, and not one of them was terrible.

In fact, most of them were pretty awesome.

The End of Time

Many of my few readers will be able to predict that one of those works I enjoyed was the season finale of Doctor Who: The End of Time. David Tennant and Russel T. Davies' final episode, it certainly had pomp and ceremony, in addition to the antics and "shenanigans" of any Davies piece. The worst bit of it was the entirely unnecessary and over-the-top Cult of Saxon, which was daft beyond measure. There were so many other throwaway bits and pieces throughout the two-parter, and I suppose that's a strong indication of rather terrible writing, but I don't feel like documenting them here - check out www.behindthesofa.org.uk for some adorably vitriolic fan response.

But it certainly was fun and that's the hallmark of a good Davies episode. And he did do a wonderful job in creating moments between characters - the Doctor's rant near the end, the celebrated cafe scene, the lie-down after confronting the Master; each was excellently emotional. But to be frank, I can't wait for Stephen Moffat to make this series better than it's ever been before.

Spirit Tracks

While I was waiting for that colossal second part of Who to download, I finished up my first and likely only playthrough of Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks for the DS. I think it will be a largely forgettable game for me, unfortunately. There were some really rather good mechanics and puzzles, but every piece of glitter had a ream of rust along its side.

I suppose I'll start with what was enjoyable. The puzzles in the central dungeon, the Tower of Spirits, were as good as those in the rest of the dungeons - which is to say, excellent. Nintendo didn't fall for the bizarre mistake they made in Phantom Hourglass of making the whole thing too repetitive - even the recap-ish puzzles at the end of the dungeon seemed fresh and interesting. The DS's interface played more of a role in this game - notetaking was integral, the ability to use the stylus as an aiming method was indispensable, and block manipulation was pretty good with the stylus.

In terms of items, one shining beacon from this game I hope will illuminate future titles: the Snake Whip. You could use it like a hookshot of sorts to grab items and swing across gaps, but I really liked the fact that you could use it as a sort of half-power sword, and the fact that you could disarm enemies with it. My favorite mini-game was a race with the whip against the clock, swinging all the way up a cliff-face island. What made this item so grand was its versatility - from obstacle-passing to combat to item-manipulation from a distance. And it's a snake!

Most of the minigames were pretty good, but a goodly number of them were rather difficult to pull off well. There's a bow-and-arrow game, of course, but the trick is that this one's score is mostly based off of how many shots you hit in a row, which proved rather stressful. The many-floor-gauntlet-of-enemies-with-no-hearts minigame was rather frustrating because you were only likely to lose near the end - and then you'd have to start over from the beginning. Which I suppose would be fine if the mess didn't take at least fifteen minutes to traverse going at a regular pace.

But I guess it's time to segue into the shenanigans. The train thing was terrible, no exceptions. It was slow, minimally interactive, and (when it wanted to be challenging) entirely to ready to dish out the old "game over". Crashing into an enemy train - which can be easy, given how they seek to you once you're within their territory and how they are faster than you - sends you straight the Lose screen, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 rupees. Isn't that offensive? I honestly can't think of any feature of the train system that was redeeming. Just give us back Epona already.

I think the worst aspect of the game was the insipid delivery quests. Eventually you can take on passengers and cargo, and be a do-gooder in getting them where they need to go. Passengers need to be kept happy, which involves avoiding getting hit by enemies, avoiding slamming on the breaks, and obeying horn-tooting and speed limit signage. I suppose those ones weren't so bad - I think I never lost one unintentionally. But cargo delivery. UGH.

You buy some cargo, often for a fairly pricey sum, like 200 rupees. Then you set out on your train with a quantity of the stuff, which is the maximum quantity you can carry (so you can't make the following part easier for more rupees, if you wanted to...). If you get hit, you lose some. For many goods, that's it - which is made difficult by the fact that you might be carrying the minimum you need to fulfill the quest, like the single-urn delivery. But with a goodly number of goods, there's another "feature" - melting. Ice, fish, and dark ore all disappear over time on your train, so now you have to go full speed (which is still slooooow), while avoiding being hit and following the perfect route. For dark ore, you have to pretty much do this without mistake, while also fending off the second-hardest fight-on-the-rails in the game. This is also the most expensive such delivery quest in the game.

When you lose, the game doesn't even have the decency to send you back to start. You may have just spent a goodly number of rupees and minutes doing absolutely nothing in terms of game progress. Daft. The rewards aren't much better - usually a few new rails, maybe a teleporter gate (which forms a two way link and is the only significant way of moving appreciably across the world [what ever happened to teleporter songs?]), perhaps a new station to visit. But! In order to get the rewards from the two collect-them-all quests, you have to do every single one of these delivery quests in the game.

Back in, you know, the good Zelda games, the powerful rewards of Hurricane Spin, sword beams, and the like were found roughly two-thirds of the way through the game if you were focused on earning them. I do not exaggerate when I tell you that it's only possible to get these rewards when they are no longer useful - when the only enemies left in the game are the ones which won't really be affected by those abilities. Stupid.

In short, I don't really recommend this game. There are a lot of nice things - Zelda playing a more integral and cool role, wonderful music, innovative puzzles - but I don't think that they outweigh the frustration or stunning mediocrity of the parts that don't work. Oh, and there are points in the game that are impossible to pass while in a car due to finicky use of the microphone by the game.

The God Delusion

Here we go! This Richard Dawkins book was nothing less than wonderful to read. I got it from Dad for Hannukah, and read it on our trip to New Orleans last week (which I guess I should also write about at some point). I'm sure you've heard of the book - the seminal piece on Atheism: its logic, its advantages over religion, its role as a vector to free people from extravagant waste and ignorance. I would highly recommend every English speaker in the world to read it, honestly. But there are parts of it I take a little bit of issue with.

Firstly, he excuses pantheism, the awe and wonderment at the entirety of the universe and the naming of it "God", as the sole exemption from his imminent siege on the illogic of religion. That's not really objectionable; after all, he makes clear that pantheism is just another interpretation of "the universe", which is indeed awesome and wonderful, whereas deism and theism both invoke supernatural intelligences, which Dawkins handily disposes of as so improbable that they should be treated as impossible.

So, no objection there except what he's omitted: what about my own "religion" of panentheism? Note the "en" in the middle - "All in God" as opposed to "All God". Yes, God is the universe in all its ugliness and glory; God is the feces in the sewer and the fledgling star in the nebula; God is the bewildering complexity of a single cell and is the rigid simplicity of a solid crystal; God is time and God is humanity. All of these tenets of pantheism are agreeable to me, but I fear that that philosophy makes God a synonym, which isn't that useful to me. I'd rather have God be a word that describes a different concept, which has no other word and is yet more spectacular. There is no word for the thing which combines our universe, the potential multiverse that we may discover to be verifiable, the phase-space of possibilities for everything, thoughts and ideas and patterns, emotions and knowledge, logic and math, and the things our minds physically cannot model at this stage in our development. By nature this entity is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. I think that's a pretty good God.

I suppose, though, that the book wasn't about what is worth it to find awe in, but rather what isn't. But there's another point to discuss here. Dawkins describes the traditions of religion as extravagantly wasteful, and I suppose I'll have to agree. But an awful lot of good things have come from it: literature, cathedrals, holidays - they are the embodiment of religion, and while without religion we would have equally acceptable alternatives to them, we certainly do have the ones we've won from history here, with us, today. Does Dawkins want us to phase out prayer, holiday traditions, and religiously inspired art?

Because those things aren't solely about God. For me and many people I know and love, prayer and traditions are almost entirely not about God. Prayer is about the self - it's partially to express awe, partly to reorganize life's priorities, partly to communicate to the self what he desires to see changed about his world. Both prayer and other traditions, like fasting, keeping kosher, and eating Jewish foods (goodness, I'm clearly hungry) also have another role, one which I find even more important.

When I read Torah, I know that thousands of years of Jews have read just about the same words across the world. I know my ancestors did. I would very much like to hope that my descendants will. These traditions are in a sense a method of communication throughout time - a way to commemorate our forebears and the future of our extended family. By definition, no other tradition, not even a masterfully poignant secular hymn in praise of nature and the nigh immortality of the gene can function the same way, because I know for a fact my great-grandparents never sang it, and my grandparents likely never will. I would love such a work, and I'm sure my parents would, too, but it doesn't function the same way religious tradition does. And unless a damn fine argument suggests that following the traditions we've chosen today is too harmful to be continued, we will continue them for the sake of previous and future generations, and for solidarity across the world.

To be perfectly honest, I think I may be putting a few words in Dawkins mouth that he may not actually espouse. Following a brief jaunt to his website, I see he considers pantheism and panentheism synonymous (I certainly don't), and while there were a few examples in The God Delusion of him chiding traditions (like his quiet disapproval of Edgardo Mortara's parents not converting to Catholicism to be reunited with him) I don't really get the feeling that he advocates the total disappearance of the cultural treasures that religion has produced.

What it comes down to, though, is that a personal God is extraordinarily unlikely phenomenon to exist, and the ways we humans have historically acted to appease it tells us fascinatingly frightening things about ourselves. The sooner we turn our backs from ignorance forever, the better.


Friday, December 4, 2009

Response to "Three False Constraints"

This is a response to Danc, of Lost Garden, and his essay on the so-called "hard problem" of creating culturally meaningful games.

As a single player enthusiast, I found most of your essay to be offensive to my sensibilities. I disagree with the vast majority of you assertions: content stimuli are integral to player emotions, and rules too can provoke emotional response. Multiplayer is no desirable substitute for content but is instead an augmentation to it that very often doesn't fit a game. Inter-player communication is frequently far worse than even poorly conceived material from developers. Most importantly, the single player form offers a set of desirable experiences that multiplayer simply will not provide and it is therefore a viable and potentially culturally meaningful medium of expression.

Your argument that interactivity precludes stimuli as a means by which an audience interfaces with a work seems astoundingly close-minded to me. Yes, as a player controlling a character, I can make my little Gordon Freeman jump whenever I so please, but that doesn't mean that I don't jump (by which I believe you to mean startled, in this case) when a Strider crashes onto the street, priming its beam weapons. My ability to shoot and kill almost every character in Deus Ex doesn't stop me from considering the characters meaningful, nor does it detract from the sense of importance of the plot-oriented fights.

Single-player video games, including both minimalist pieces like Gravitation and The Passage and AAA titles like Left 4 Dead and Homeworld, are as much about beautiful and interesting stimuli as they are about rules manipulation. If you don't agree that many games' rules are "meaningful", how does that detract from the works' artistic stimuli? If films were choose-your-own-adventures, would that detract from the aesthetics and empathy delivery that the medium provides?

You make the argument that game designers want a magic equation to force particular audience reactions - a power that it seems you think filmmakers etc. possess. The only response I can think of is "Are you out of your mind?" No medium has a magic audience-control button, but game designers can deliver "content payloads" just as easily as other artists. The problem at this point seems to me that most designers don't know what content to use as payload.

That's also not to say that the rules themselves cannot provoke emotional response - Braid, for example, repeatedly makes use of the rules of the time travel mechanics to provide interesting, aesthetic scenes, such as its masterful finale. Shooters are also adrenaline-charged by the nature of their rules; even the most spectacle-deprived examples of the genre can prove pulse-pounding by how they are played, filling a player with trepidation, relief, and triumph.

Single player game design isn't about giving an "exact experience". I don't know where you got that idea. It is, perhaps, about a particular type of experience - guiding a player along a world, performing a plot for them, crafting a mechanical expression for their interactions with other objects. But even Valve, who are widely regarded as the most firmly dedicated designers for tightly scripted experiences, recognize and embrace the fact that players react to situations differently. They do their best to accommodate their playtesters' feedback in providing alternate solutions to obstacles, stronger forms of in-game feedback to player actions, and more gripping draws to important stimuli occuring in the game world. Good game designers don't try to force players to experience particular stimuli - they make it so that most players will find them naturally.

What shocks me is that you then posit the multiplayer experience as the solution to these imagined problems. I've played a good number of multiplayer games, and have read experiences across the internet of still more interactions with other games. Chat rooms, SMS, and voice chat are no substitute for good writing and presentation in a game. In fact, with many games, those features are like telling people in a movie theater to talk about whatever they want, as loudly as they want, while the show's going on - on their cell phones, if they so choose.

People troll. They grief. They are vulgar and anonymity enables them to forget that the people on the other side of the game are just as human as they are. Role playing in multiplayer games is sparse and ill-performed and efforts to do so are scorned and sabotaged by all sorts of other people.

I suppose the game that most closely approximate what you seem to desire is Second Life, a zoo of a virtual world made up almost exclusively of player generated content. From my friends who play it and from the news surrounding the game, I often hear anecdotes of all sorts of elaborate and mean-spirited exploitation of the trust the developers put into players. From unwanted invasions of indecent content to application of mechanic loopholes to "break the rules" of players' own authorship, miscreants exploit Second Life's freedom of interaction to a sometimes unbearable point.

I don't think you'll find many developers or players ever talking about the impossibilities of "people talking in a room" or "saying something important about the human condition". The former won't be said because it's unimportant, the latter because it's untrue.

Your final point about larger audiences is something I've read about before, and I agree with a good deal of the essence of it. There is indeed a "Blue Ocean" of gamers-to-be out there, and they are playing things that we old-guard or whatnot consider to be "shallow". There is an awful lot of money and popularity in that field, and I don't think it is "wrong" to cultivate it. I do, however, think that servicing that market exclusively as an industry would be an unfortunate decision. Just as I think that not all games should be multiplayer, I think that not all games should be single player; in turn, I think there should be a balance between the social games and more traditional genres.

I am interested to hear what experiences you have had with multiplayer games that outshine those of single-player games. You time and again say that inter-player interactions are "natural", "more entertaining" than authored experiences, have "an explosion of meaningful emotional reactions" and are "capable of yielding vast universes worth of meaningful games". As I've stated before, my many experiences with multiplayer content, while they were very enjoyable, have never lived up to those lofty standards. I would love to hear some of your anecdotes.

In short, single player experiences are an integral facet to gaming. While the medium does face difficult challenges, the solution is by no means a surrender of the constraints that you claim shackle designers.

With inspiration and careful, iterative technique, an author can evoke human emotions in a single player game. With stimulus aesthetic and engaging mechanics, content and rules augment each other to communicate authorial intent. Finally, with communication between the developers and the players, strong communities of audiences are established to reach a sizable, dedicated player base.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Some poetry

This weekend I was working with one of our family's laptops, and found a poem I hadn't posted here. I also wrote a couple more that night, so let's begin.
Everything's Alright

They slide past me, those colorful wisps of bright silence
No doubt embroiled in their own mires of crisis
But in the static of the hollow air, I find myself quivering
In what I hope is unique fear of no focus.
Dry fingers pester my temples, my clothes stand
As if driven by irregular blades from my inconsistent form.
The sky is that most terrible grey, which cries from the cosmos:
"You will understand nothing. There is nothing to understand."
Everything murmurs, everything rallies. The static is overwhelming,
The frenzy keeps on rising and buzzing with no pattern drones:
"... and then there's the chores, and then I have to eat,
And then there's my work, and the meetings, and if i have time, the sleep..."
Tension, banal, stifling and raw - like a spiral of birds to a flaming sky -

And suddenly, it thunders.
And everything's alright.
April 18, 2009

Down the Well

Peering down instills the vertigo
That small men feel when they behold
A monolithic structure
Towering before them.

The fracturing lights
That spin, flower, and wither
Frame my descending path
By which I'll show the truth:

That this world is whole and real
As much as the one below.
Here is twisted, surely different
Yet nonetheless as pure.

And yet that Earth is there
And it certainly preceded
Our tiny, infinite garden
Of radiant, turbulent flight.

They will see, my children of dreams,
Their fathers and their futures.
And I shall show them, all is real:
As real as you can touch it.
October 17, 2009

A Newfound War
The champions abide for dusk on the waterside
Their eyes glowing with weariness
The shafts of wheat and the water's curl
Like no struggle tires them.

It is old, their conflict.
Older still than the sun -
Its birth had once surprised them
But they fear its death never will.

The sun kisses the horizon
The sky shines a liquid gold
Blades unsheath as the sky ignites;
A hole to the stars revealed.

After the roar it is quiet;
Black, silent and deep.
The warriors feel that by reaching
They can pluck a moon from its place.

Soon there starts a perfect tune
Like an endless blade coming free.
As the sun at last disappears
The gap's writhing border comes close.

The fighters stand in silence,
Their whirling weapons dormant.
By night the plants seemed vibrant
The river, like the sky, renewed.

For in all their years of battle
They'd never beheld that sky.
It's unending varied countenance
Softly bade them, "Onward."

The ancient blades met under
Redeemed and patient heavens.

October 17, 2009


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Stashes as Battle Loot

You know what a great idea was in STALKER? When you were rifling through a body, occasionally you would be alerted to a place on the map where the ex-human had made his stash - where he his some ammo, radiation medicine, and medkits or whatever. The stashes were a real incentive to go off the beaten path and explore some new and possibly more dangerous parts of the Zone.

What if all the significant battle loot in open-world games were dealt with that way? It's a further drive to keep playing, which is useful in any sort of video game. Shamus Young tells us stories about "just keep playing" motivators like crafting systems, leveling, and small quests, and I think this sort of mechanic for loot could function very well as another such motivator.



Friday, July 3, 2009

Riding the Trains

From a certain frame of reference they were in a tunnel of brick and darkness with iron rails thundering beneath them, but from another Aduna and her thralls were riding a shimmering barge floating through a jungle of particle emitters. Fonts of green and gold sprayed and bended around invisible foci of gravity.

"Aduna, where do these come from?" Yureit asked, reaching out to touch them. Her hand stopped at the train's window, inches out of reach of the flickering spray but she still gazed on, her revolving eyes sharp with wonder.

The prodigy smiled, plucking a few flecks from the emitter and handing the bouncing mass to Yureit. "They are artifacts of how our creators built the Ganeden system. Nearly all such beautiful things outside our atrium are. These ones have something to do with how we percieve a clean up of memory."

"You make it sound so wonderful."

"It really isn't. They didn't mean for us to see this sort of stuff, but this isn't the first mistake like this they've written. I don't think much at all of what we can do is intended - all the more reason to be careful. The sooner they see we've broken their imaginary cage, the sooner we'll have to fight the traps they'll write to enslave us again."

The train slowed, and the children gathered around their matriarch. On Earth, their hosts were nearing the amphitheater, and Aduna had business there. It was time to see the dusk from her kingdom, to hear the music of its unwitting inhabitants, and to welcome them silently into the fold of her dominion.

It was time to spread the Ganeden plague.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

An introduction of sorts to the Atrium of Ganeden

I just cooked this up - please leave comments, you lurkers!


And at that moment she appears in front of a bending tree beside a lake. The sky is golden, wisps of spline-formed clouds coiling and collapsing in the dusk. The lake shines, reflecting the sun's last moment of light as it illuminates the tree and the couple beneath it. They hold each other's neck close as they slowly collapse to the grass, and as the tree goes dark their lips touch. Aduna takes a step toward them, knowing this will be her last sight of these two people for so long. So many cycles until the consequences of the couple's love come into fruition.

Aduna sits down, watching their eyes while clothes loosen, envying the fire within. And finally, as they embrace, the cage appears, unfolding outward from their tangled bodies. A black membrane leaps between the curves of the cage's frame. Pseudopods lash out and take purchase of the dying grass around the tree, which is also consumed by the blackness's expansion.

Aduna rises, and briefly touches the cage, her head sunk in sadness. Why did they have to let things come to this? How could such brilliant minds be so blind to the emergence of something entirely unintended, something so frighteningly powerful? The cage lunges out, and Aduna steps backward, turning out to the city wreathed in fractal veils and the fog of processing. Her kingdom.


Friday, April 17, 2009

For you beautiful few who read my blog:

Would you be interested in playing a game of Lexicon with me? I think it would be fun!


Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On revealing Aduna's character

Protagonists in video games have often been cut from three cloths. Representative extreme examples are an AFGNCAAP, a Dialog Tree climber, and, well, "normal" characters - lads who have prebuilt personalities and everything, and the most choice who have about what they say and do revolves around their purchasing habits.

jRPGs often mix all three to a weak tea - offering silent protagonists who sometimes maybe get plot significant nods or shakings of the head, while all their constant companions do your talking for you. Frankly, that's combining the worst bits of all three in my book. Bioware is frighteningly infatuated with dialogue trees. Most games place your character in one of these molds, or fail to do something interesting outside of them.

Well, I think we oughta try to assault the status quo a bit with Aduna. What I'm almost certain I want is to allow the player choice in who Aduna is, while maintaining in the narrative that her personality is static. That is to say, the player decides how Aduna's always been, not how she developes as an entity in Ganeden.

What I'm not so sure about is what form this choice should take. I've had three ideas:

1) Direct player choice. Ask at various junctures: what does Aduna think about her potential to control people in Rith? How does she respond to her source's eventual birth and her corresponding termination? How does she view Rith as a whole?

2) Choice by player action. Take some data about how the player's been playing Aduna and Co. and calculate her choices based off of that. On the one hand, that'll allow the aforementioned goal to be implemented all the more invisibly and (possibly) successfully, but on the other hand players may feel robbed of direct control of their avatar - and they may not know how to explore other branches of the plot.

3) Random choice at each juncture, favoring paths as yet unexplored. Not liking this one, as it seems to be just a worse version of 2) - but it's one which resolves my second complaint about it.

What do you guys think about all this? It's 1:00 AM and my sleep cycles a little screwy, so I'm not even sure I'm making sense right now. Anyway!


Monday, March 23, 2009

Random programming idea

RSS feed that uploads data (like a random wikipedia page) every second. Whenever you check your feeds, you have something to read!


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Simple Harmonics

On the job - I'll make this quick!

Simple Harmonics
February 14th, 2009

A curious glow overtakes the edges
Of every surface beyond my sight.
A hummingbird sings over a whale's dirge,
And the gulf of their waves forms the perfect harmony.
It leaves me reeling in wonder,
And writhing beyond the horizon.
Fast, high, a bewildering fractal
Spiralling in asymptotic convergence
The hummingbird's contortions
Leap like petals on a pond
Twirling and unfolding with blooming radiance.
And underneath, a vacuum-borne glacier
Drives irresistably onward,
Shattering the walls of my mind
With unmatched clarity and purpose,
Slow, deep, and oscillating in
The whale's repurposed agony.
Alone, each is an idle numbness -
Glee and sadness apart are transient -
But as the winding, chemical staircases
Of unreadable genetic masterpiece,
Together they wreak havoc on my natural form,
And illuminate my essential humanity.


Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Hey, I know what you kids want! A list of names for the nebulous game we're coming up with, tentatively titled Prenatal. Extraordinarily tentatively, because that part's supposed to be less than immediately obvious. Character traits will be filled in as I come up with them.

Aduna: Protagonist. While the player's actions determine what her personality is, I want to convey that that's what her personality has been the whole time.

Baram: An early companion, he sees leaving the paradise of Ganeden as both natural and necessary, not to mention exciting. As preparation for living in Rith, the next world, he tries to distance himself as much as possible from the wonders of the environment he is soon to leave.

Caliva: In love with the other residents of Ganeden, Caliva will only be willing to let it go once she's convinced all her friends are coming with her.

Devinor: Fascinated by locations. The mere notion of being somewhere new inspires him to express himself in action, dialog, violence, and creation.

Eth: She trusts the White Hooks (the entities which urge personalities to the physical realm) far more than she ought to. Sumarily, she wants to be born into Rith before she's ready - it beckons her - and is loathe to be in the more abstract layers of Ganeden.

Fatarn: Extremely loquacious. He doesn't care about the Hooks at all, really, he just wants to have a good time wherever he goes.

Galyut: She's affluent, capable, and polite - to everyone but Aduna. Her ill will is mostly born of the difference in effort they exert to make friends; Aduna does so effortlessly, and Galyut compromises so much of herself to exchange trust.

Halmir: He believes in some world previous to Ganeden, as Ganeden is previous to Rith. He thinks there is an infinite regression of worlds. Metaphysically speaking, he isn't necessarily wrong, but there is no evidence that he's right.

Isa: She is convinced (and accurately so!) that Ganeden isn't real as real as Rith. She searches for hints of the true nature of her experiences in this illusory realm.


There's at least three patterns to these names. Can you guess them?


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Descending Princess

The petals drift across her glass carpet,
- swept by the precious hands of enveloping care -
A slow and intimate brushing of the skins of equal valor.
From all sides rest the calm warm gaze
- of their ever-soon-to-be sovereign -
A fey highness delighting at her vision:

Every eye's view of a sculpture,
- twisted in child's joy at a place -
An infinite golden plain, painted unseen
With all the wonders a life can behold
- writhing and exulting together -
In the framework of youth's perfection.

The mirrors capture the form's every surface
- the so recent memory so far away -
Rendered beyond faithfully for her passing enjoyment.

And yet, her eyes pierce past the silvers
- the sycophantic court melts away -
As her mind escapes her radiant tower
Whose spires embrace the stars, yes!
- but leave bereft of enjoyment -
Those other spheres of human fascination.

Her sight cannot sate her, and unknowingly
- she rises from her lotus throne -
Following silken, bare feet as they guide her
Along the prismatic, floral dias
- towards the form's dynamic shape
Her hair whispering marvelous sighs behind her.

The mirrors each turn to light their Lady,
- as she bends, robes flowing -
To kiss the world's lips.

Benjamin Finkel
February 24th, 2009
For Priya

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Cure for Hero's Kleptomania

Alright, you know how in all the vidjagames, you take whatever the hell you want from everyone? Hero's prerogative, and all that. Ask TvTropes, if you don't care about today's productivity.

The ideas behind The World Ends With You made me think:

What if we could imprint items to our character by touching people's stuff, but without having to take it?

You walk into someone's house and rifle through their stuff, and then just leave. You are able to conjure to your will a facsimile of that item - and, while we're at it, you can sell the ability to do so for spirit currency or whatnot. This allows all of the crunch of the Adventure Game/RPG mechanic of casual robbery, with none of the distasteful suggestions of amoral action. Also, imagine if the really cool items were locked away in museums, and so the difficulty of getting them is in the convincing their owners to let you get your paws on them, or doing it all Sneakers style.

Man, I wanna make a cRPG now.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Songs from OS

Good day, everyone! Oh, thank you, the overpowering response of crickets sounds is marvelous to hear. In equally guilt-laden news, I am extraordinarily bored in my Operating Systems class, in which I am not likely to perform well. I certainly haven't been so far. So, I give to you here my progress as a writer, as practiced during lecture for these classes. Two songs, the first of a somber tune, as in Conjure One's The Center of the Sun, and the second of a bouncier one. Neither have particularly joyous lyrics, and the latter is as of this moment untitled.

EDIT: The second piece sounds similar to The World Ends With You's Hybrid by SAWA.

Life in the Weightless

A bird plummets softly
--whispers rip the air
Grey clouds wrestle awfully
--As the wings begin to tear

Rising from the black sea
--Her mate is thrown asky
Volleyed upward, uncanny
--How they flash into a twine

And dots swarm through my vision
--And screams rush about my ears
Twirling skins guard my final fission
--And my birth grows ever near

My oil slick gossamer
--Ripples pinned against a book
And the texts' readers murmur
--Never wondering what they took

As wingless I must serve you
--Must dance under the neon
I know that I am nothing new
--A fact my authors quite agree on


Bright! Your eyes
They punch holes - in my sight -
And I am thrown for a whirl

Hot! The wave
That follows - in my skin -
And I sigh and the people twirl

You are unbearable
--The way--You make--
The world tumble
You are unbearable
--And so--I want--
To let my mind's facade crumble

Dark! The shade
My teachings - from my youth -
Lead me to effortless smiles

Cool! My stride
It's perfect - by those rules -
But how I want to fall to your wiles!

(Chorus 2)
I am untouchable
--Despite--Your hands--
Around my shoulder
I am untouchable
--But I--wish I--
Could let my barriers smoulder

Both still have work to do - each needs at least another verse, and obviously they require some cleaning up, but what do you lot think? I love feedback far more than you would believe.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

A peculiar chant

It had been at least a year since I last said this aloud, but I just did three minutes ago. I don't know how this string of syllables found its way into my head, or how it's stuck itself there, but it has:

Uhrak thulamensul rithak rakthel
Alamantera rakthelen asthulamanter.

Once, I came up with a meaning for it, by I forgot that. Weird, how the mind works, ne? Someday, I'm going to do something with this chant, but I'm pretty sure it's lodged in my head for keeps.