Divinity II

I tried out Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga.  And I have to warn people: don’t.  Not because it’s a bad game; what I could play was interesting enough; there was even one side quest where the mechanism (get info from a prisoner by posing as his buddy helping him to escape) was clever as these things go.

But it also crashes regularly to desktop, and not the reload-and-pray kind of crash either– it’s the blocks-all-progress kind of crash.  First it’d crash after the initial movies.  They actually have some support and got me past that (I had to reload some drivers).  I played for about two hours, and then it crashed whenever I entered the place where the main quest led to– a place I’d entered before.  I decided to try a new game… and now the original crash is back.

Sorry to be so disgruntled, but developers, this is why we have Steam updates.  From Googling, it’s very common for the game to crash; this just doesn’t seem acceptable.

Uncle Tungsten

I just finished Oliver Sacks’s memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memoirs of a Chemical Boyhood, and I recommend it to science geeks everywhere.

It’s only half a memoir; Sacks uses his childhood fascination with chemistry to survey the elements, basic chemistry and physics, and the history of both fields from Robert Boyle through quantum mechanics.  The frequent references to his own chemical experiments helps bring the material alive… you finish the book with an almost sensual appreciation for the heaviness of tungsten, the smell of sulfur, the bright colors of flames and crystals and emission lines, the rarity of radium.

Most of his early experiments wouldn’t be available to children today– they’d be far too dangerous.  Sacks was allowed to buy poisonous or explosive chemicals at the local scientific supply store, and supplemented these with samples and equipment from his uncles.  He particularly liked processes that were explosive or stinky, but he had a keen appreciation for beauty and a curiosity that focused on the big questions– how did the elements differ, why did they do the things they did?

Sacks has always had a gift for vivid, humanistic portraits, and his sketches of early chemists and physicists, as well as the eccentrics in his own family, are fascinating.  And the early sciences are particularly interesting anyway, because they’re so accessible.  You can, as Sacks did, make your own battery or photographic paper or crystal radio.  It’s not so easy to do home experiments on genetics, quantum mechanics, or dark matter.

For reasons he can’t really explain, Sacks put aside his chemical investigations in adolescence; he studied medicine instead (both his parents were physicians) and ended up as a neurologist.  Still, he’s got to explaining electron shells by that point in the book, so as a survey of chemistry it comes to a good point of closure.

Though he’s adequately confessional about some of his own struggles and neuroses, he doesn’t focus much on traditional autobiography, except to underline how much he hated his schools.  I don’t think this is a weakness– he’s concentrated on what’s unusual about his childhood.  It’s evident that he wasn’t very social as a kid, except with people who shared his scientific interests; again, I think any science-minded geeks can relate.





Will Jon Blow ruin gaming?

Here’s an interesting profile of Jonathan Blow, about his last game Braid and his next game The Witness, and how he thinks games are stupid and he’s going to turn them into art.

Now, I’ll say right off that The Witness looks intriguing, and a welcome change from shooters, and I’m anxious to try it.

Totally not Myst

Now, I kind of agree with him that most games are dumb, and aspire to be nothing more than an interactive action movie.  But, I’m apparently the one person in the world who hated Braid, so I’m not sure he’s on the right track.

I don’t care for the arty bits of Braid one way or the other, because I never saw anything arty.  It failed for me as gameplay.  It’s apparently a load of art layered on top of a platformer, and to like it you have to a) like or at least be nostalgic for platformers, and b) be good at platformers.  But by historical accident, I never played many platformers (when you youngsters were playing Nintendo, I was messing around with Macs).  I don’t like games that require twitchy skills, or puzzle games, unless they’re very rewarding in some other ways… this usually requires immersive 3-d environments (as in Portal or Mirror’s Edge).  As I couldn’t get into the gameplay, I gave up on it and so I missed all the Art.

So, apparently you’re going to wander around a very pretty island in The Witness, looking at stuff and solving puzzles; it’s apparently going to be Myst made arty.  (Wasn’t Myst already arty?)  According to the article, a big part of the game will be listening to audiotapes from the guy who made the puzzles.

Blow sounds very bright and earnest, but this makes me think he’s unclear on the concept of video games.  If the heart of the game is narratives, no matter how poetic or reflective or soul-searing they turn out to be– well, that’s not a game, that’s a novel read out loud.  Voiceovers can add a lot of depth to a game, but they can’t be the game.  Whether the game is actually fun– or finishable– depends not on how good he can make the voiceovers, but on how compelling he can make the puzzles.

Apparently Tom Bissell worked on the game a bit, which is ironic, because Bissell does get it.  He’s actually very good at pointing out the strange dance between player and game designer, and the fact that the most compelling game experiences are a collaboration between the two.  I liked his story of betrayal and heroism in Left 4 Dead— a story with as much depth as you could want, and which wasn’t told by Valve.  It emerged out of the gameplay.

I’ve noted before that in the most satisfying games, there’s a congruence between what the game is about– what the game designer thinks it is– and what you actually spend most of your time doing.  Mirror’s Edge is my go-to example: it’s about moving from point A to point B, something that’s normally incidental in a game.  They did their best to make it interesting, varied, and challenging, and you spend most of your time on that (the story is minimal, and the combat is just an obstacle to more running).  From the description, Blow thinks games should be about something else– some thematic revelation– and the gameplay is… I don’t know, something to amuse you while you’re pondering.  He doesn’t seem to get that that there’s anything the player brings to the table; he seems to think of players as an audience.  Maybe he should make movies instead.

(One fascinating tidbit though: he hired actual architects to design the buildings on the island.  Will they do better or worse than ordinary level designers?)

At the same time, I’m kind of tired of shooters.  I have some games barely started in my Steam library, and they may well be quite good (except for blasted Divinity II, which won’t play on my computer… there’s a bug they’ve apparently known about for three years and never bothered fixing) but they all seem to involve grave crises that require shooting things with an array of weaponry.  Maybe I should go try out LA Noire

(I’ve also been trying out Dota 2, which deserves another post.  It’s just different enough to hold my interest, but by Zeus does it ever have a brutal learning curve.)