January 2014

Found this at Mefi– the eight types of fun, and how they relate to tabletop RPGs.  The author uses it to explain why different people enjoy different types of campaigns, or different rulesets.  Go read it!

Just for fun, I thought I’d go through the eight types as they apply to video games, and rate how important they are to me.

A mirror.  In Mirror's Edge.  Pretty sure there are edges too

A mirror. In Mirror’s Edge. Pretty sure there are edges too

1. Sensory Pleasure – how much things tickle your eyes, ears, and whatever other senses are available.

Rating: A.  I want games to be gorgeous; retro games are a big turnoff.  Music isn’t very important, but I do respond to good voice acting.

2. Fantasy – immersion, role-playing, feeling that you’re part of another world.

Rating: B-. I do love a good world, and if it’s pretty original (a la Jade Empire or Mirror’s Edge or Vampires: The Masquerade: Bloodlines or Fallout 3), all the better. But I’ve also played in some gorgeous maps (Rage, Skyrim) that leave me kind of cold. They’re well done and yet something is missing.

3. Narrative – how much do you need a good, involving story?

Rating: I have to divide this up.  Plot: A.  I have to care about something. The counter-example is Rage, where there’s no reason to care for any NPC or the PC; or Far Cry 2, where I lost the desire to do scumbag missions for scumbags.  Characters: B+.  I love a good NPC; the PC can be more bland.  Story: C.  It generally doesn’t bother me when the story is stupid.  Stupid stories, like “Get away from the zombies!”, are fun if you’re in them.  Contrariwise, game creators attempting to be arty (Braid) are probably in the wrong line of work.

On the other hand, it’s amazing how much some work in this area can make a game shine.  I’m playing The Secret World right now, and it’s full of fetch quests.  But they lavished attention on the writing, the voice acting, the NPCs.  It’s ten times more interesting than the farmer who asks everyone in the MMORPG for help killing giant rats..

4. Challenge – how hard is it?  How do you win?  Whats the best strategy?

Rating: B-.  I do like getting good at a game, but I’m far from someone who needs to maximize their build and beat the game on Megadeity.  Plus there’s some things I’m really bad at and don’t want to see in your game, like having to toss slow projectiles at fast aerial targets.

Game designers can easily ramp up the challenge to infinity, and make it unplayable for everyone except for teenage twitch artists.  I prefer an interesting challenge, like getting through a Portal level, or getting through a Dishonored mission without killing.

5. Fellowship – relaxing with friends.

Rating: depends on my mood… A to D.  I love co-op games… I loved co-op mode in Left 4 Dead, and I’ve spent hundreds of happy hours with my friend Ash in Borderlands.  I’m still playing TF2.  But I’m also quite happy with solo games.

6. Discovery – exploring, finding new things, going to the ends of the map.

Rating: A-.  If I like the game, I will wander around the maps, look at all the flavortext, maybe grab all the collectibles.  This (rather than #2) is where I really appreciate the conworlding.  Dishonored is a fascinating world to explore; Skyrim is just a really well-done bog-standard fantasy kingdom.  On the other hand, game designers, a bunch of identical whatsits scattered at the edges of the level does not scratch this itch.  Riddler trophies, that works, because each one is different.  Every last CD in Saints Row 2, not so much.

7. Expression – wanting to contribute to the game, express your own vision, make things.

Rating: C for most games– there’s approximately zero you can really bring to Arkham City, for instance, and that’s fine.  But Second Life is no game at all except for what I and others bring to it, and I like that a lot (A+).  I do like games that allow customization of the PC because I’m shallow that way.

8. Submission – you want to lay back and just lose yourself in a task that’s not too hard.

Rating: depends on the mood; probably B+ overall.  I’ll put hundreds of hours into a game I like… sometimes it’s fun to be Batman and beat up the old gang of mooks, or be Faith and dash over the rooftops.  But I do get bored eventually, which is part of why I never finished a game of Civ 5.

One thing the list leaves out, or that I can’t shoehorn into any of these categories, is cool toys.  It’s probably another A.  The combat and stealth mechanics in Arkham City, the portal gun, the gravity gun from Half-Life 2, the rewiring in Gunpoint, the parkour in Mirror’s Edge, are all just fun to do.  Contrariwise, the weapons in (say) Mass Effect 1 were interchangeably boring.

Sometimes you have to take a step back from the daily news and look at the long term trends.  This chart, by James Plunkett, does a great job of telling what’s happening in the world today:


What you’re seeing is what happened over the last 20 years to each percentile of income, worldwide. The two big stories:

  • The developing world has moved ahead massively.  The old picture of the well-off First World contrasted with the miserable Second and Third is out of date.  Literally billions of people are far, far better off than they were… a lot of this is in India and China, but also places like Brazil, Turkey, Malaysia, Gabon, Botswana, Chile.
  • The middle and working classes in the US and Europe have been stiffed.  The old picture of middle class countries where everyone prospers is– in these countries— no longer true.  New wealth is still being created, but it goes only to the top 10%.

To put it another way, you can’t assume any more that we’re inexorably moving toward a future like Star Trek— where prosperity just increases so steadily and broadly that traditional economics and inequality no longer matter– everyone joins the 1960s American middle class.  Instead, we’re heading more toward Snow Crash.

The second part of the story– how the US has moved from liberalism to plutocracy– I’ve addressed in more detail before.

Edit: Alert reader Alon Levy points out that the collapse of this part of the graph is also in part due to post-Soviet decline.

The first part we hear about much less.  A good place to start is this report from the Gates Foundation, which spotlights three huge stories:

  • Global poverty is on the way out.  Extreme poverty– the dollar-a-day type– is now limited to a billion people or so, and could be entirely eliminated.  Age-old diseases are being eradicated.  Even Africa is doing much better.
  • Foreign aid works, and it works better than ever.  Aid agencies concentrate on measurable gains, and they’re no longer held back by wasteful attempts to fight the Cold War with money.
  • When prosperity goes up, overpopulation ceases to be a problem.  We’ve already passed Peak Child; the earth’s population is stabilizing.  When people don’t have to have 12 children to have two survive, and when women are empowered, they no longer have 12 children.

The good news is going to engender some resistance, but I encourage you to read the linked report, which goes into far more detail.  Often people seem to prefer to think that the world is falling apart; we don’t have a place for massive good news.  (And I haven’t even gotten into the other huge secular trends to more democracy and less war.)

But global warming!  you cry.  And I’d reply: the big hangup on addressing global warming is not world development; it’s American political stupidity.  We’re the ones who deny the problem, refuse to do anything about it, and embrace sprawl, automobiles, and oil.  It’d be nice if China did more, given its scale, but we need to lead by example.  The developing world isn’t going to take the lead on this while we continue to spew out carbon.

And, of course, there’s that growing First World inequality.  A bunch of people look at the above chart and say, well of course, what we need is to stamp on the US middle class more, and give more money to the rich.  I wish I could say I don’t understand it, but I do: they’re still living in 1979; their worldview is still full of hippies, welfare, inflation, high taxes, and US domination.  Well, it’s time to update your calendars.

The story so far: I started writing In the Land of Babblers in 1992, and (so far as I can tell from file dates) finished it around 1996.  I sent it around a few places, but it’s basically been sitting on a succession of hard drives for, oh dear, almost 18 years.

There were a couple of near-bites.  A small press was interested for awhile, but never went anywhere with it.  My friend Jeffrey Henning was going to start a press and publish it, but ultimately went on to other things.  Then I got into publishing books myself, and when I paused to do some fiction, I wanted to get Against Peace and Freedom out first.

Also, the market spoke to me.  It said, very clearly, write non-fiction.  APAF still hasn’t sold 200 copies– which The Conlanger’s Lexipedia surpassed in its first two months.   I have an idea for another non-fiction book, but it’s going to take a couple of years to research, so it’s time to dust off Babblers and get it out there.  (And then finish A Diary of the Prose Wars.)

So, I’ve been reading and revising; I’m about halfway done.  I think the prose reads well enough; the main things that require changing are references to things I know more about since I wrote it, such as clothing styles and the Munkhâshi language.

It’s a weird book and I’m not sure how to describe it.  It has action in it, but Beretos’s major problem, once he’s at Berak’s keep, is finding something to do, as Berak thinks he’s useless.  I guess that’s partly my response to epic fantasy: most of our lives are not epic, and even important things (as, in this case, resisting Munkhâsh) often can’t be addressed with the quick violence that most stories rely on.  Plus, in your twenties and thirties, like Beretos, you may have an ideology or a religion which tells you that there’s a great struggle afoot and you want to take part in it, and yet actually accomplishing anything seems impossible, plus people who are supposed to be your allies turn out to be complete tools.

If that sound enticing, well, surprisingly soon, I’ll be asking for some readers.

Good question!  It sure looks like it’s been hacked.  Trying to contact DreamHost to see if it can be fixed.

Edit: It was just me, thanks to a bug from AT&T.  We lost phone and internet connection, and AT&T puts in a cookie that attempts to do a redirect, and fails.

Let’s look at death from a conworlding perspective.

He backstabbed that chair, but he's still dead.

He backstabbed that chair, but he’s still dead.

If you took a vote, I’m pretty sure most people would be against death.  Early death is always a tragedy, and most religions offer some (more or less implausible) consolation: reincarnation, resurrection, reabsorption into Atman, or perhaps hanging around in the form of a shade or ghost.  (These are usually depicted as mentally disordered, sometimes due to their misdeeds, sometimes as just a consequence of being dead.)

Helping to take care of parents in their ’90s has given me a different view.  This will probably horrify any readers under 35, but it feels like the last years of life prepare both the person and the survivors for death.  Quality of life declines, mobility lessens, physical problems become overwhelming.  By the time my Mom died, it didn’t feel like a tragedy, more like an ending.  She certainly wouldn’t have liked to just be prolonged in the state she was in the month before she died.  And dying in old age after a fulfilling and busy life, surrounded by family, isn’t the worst thing ever.

With my Dad, of course I want him to keep going as long as he gets enjoyment out of life.  But as I mentioned, he’s declining in both body and mind.  Old folks are notorious for keeping to their habits and likes… he’s no longer interested in finding new music, trying out new cuisines, going to new places.  He’s no longer adapting to social change… he told me disapprovingly of a couple he knows that shacked up together before marriage.  That is, before their marriage which has lasted very nicely for fifty years.  He does read some new things, but there’s not much that changes his mind anymore.

Now, this is a manageable problem in the world as it is.  But what if people lived twice as long?  Or six times as long, as in the Incatena?  Would you really want most people to be conservative old cranks for 85% of their lives?

The ancient Greeks had a myth about a man, Tithonus, who was granted immortality but forgot to ask for eternal youth.  So he ended up immobile and senile.  Oops!

One futuristic approach to the problem: get yourself uploaded to a computer, so you can stay alive indefinitely.  I think it’d be horrible to give up food, sex, exercise, and the rest of our bodily experience, even if we posit that you can still somehow retain your visual qualia.  But I can see the attraction of wanting to find out what’s next.  Perhaps you could hibernate for fifty years at a time, then wake up and avidly consume all the pop culture that’s been created since last time.  Avoid Sturgeon’s Law and read just the best 10% of stuff, forever!

However, I suspect the plan would fall apart in under 200 years.  How much really grabs us from that long ago?  We do read stuff that old, of course, but it’s only a tiny fraction of our mental diet.  The past is a strange world that takes some effort to immerse ourselves in– when it doesn’t repel us with a mindset that’s now confusing, boring, or vile.  400 years ago is even harder to grok, and 1000 is an alien world.  And looking back, I’d maintain, is far easier than looking forward.  We’re exposed to the past as history and literature– we can read Jane Austen or Jonathan Swift or Molière far easier than they’d be able to understand us.

Imagine Jules Verne, for instance, trying to make sense of a Laundry novel.  The prose itself might not be too difficult.  The idea of monsters and government bureaucracies would be understood.  But he’d miss the allusions to Lovecraft and spy novels, and references to the Cold War and computers would require a whole education to follow.  Something like an episode of The Simpsons would probably produce complete befuddlement.

I’m not saying it couldn’t be done, just that it’d require quite a bit more work than it sounds like.  And just visiting the future in one-year reading binges, you’d never really fit into the culture– you’d be an increasingly alienated dinosaur.

In the Incatena, I posit that the problem is solved by people loosening up their brains once a century or two.  Basically, you lose a bunch of memories, fade out some of the more habitual neural pathways, recover some of the intellectual flexibility (and ignorance) of adolescence.  Maybe change your body type and/or sex while you’re at it.  You want to be you just enough to feel continuity, but not enough to become a curmudgeon.  (And becoming an AI, though it’s an option, is viewed as a form of death.)

Evolution, we could say, has found a simpler solution yet: reproduction.  You get new people with the genetic heritage of the species, but neotenous and adaptable to the current environment.

My Mom died a year ago today, so you are undoubtedly wondering, how is my Dad doing?

Dad, 60 years ago. Some of you will recognize the pic

Dad, 60 years ago. Some of you will recognize the pic

The answer: surprisingly good. I thought it might be hard for him to adjust to being alone, but though he misses my Mom, he’s remained cheerful. He has a horror of nursing homes– he wants to stay in his house– and he’s been able to do that, with my and my sister’s help.

He’ll be 94 in a few days, so we’ll be doing some family stuff, including showing some of the slides I’ve been scanning.

His mind is still active, but he tends to fixate on routines and particular preoccupations. We go out on Fridays to one of a small number of favorite restaurants, and at one of them he kind of prides himself on always ordering the same thing– the walnut chicken salad. Except last time we went, because it was too cold for a salad. He remembers new events but repeats his stories a lot.

He wrote a note for his company’s retirees newsletter, and he’d probably like to share what he wrote about his 71-year marriage: “The secret to happiness is to love each other, do things together, and enjoy your family.”

One of his perennial subjects is centrifugal force. He’s offended by statements that there is no such thing. He has a whole website on the subject here. He’s always asking me how to get more attention for it, but I’ve been wary of publicizing it, as I don’t want people sending him nasty mail. But these days I’m the one who checks his e-mail anyway, so I can filter it. He’s always been a smart guy, though he missed out on college… I’m pretty sure his problem with the textbooks is terminological, but he’d be tickled if someone liked his page, or at least addressed his concerns nicely.

After finishing Saints Row IV I had a taste for more gangbanging, plus a curiosity about some of the earlier stories referenced in the game. So I picked up Saints Row 2.

Boss! Why does Earring Guy get the rifle with a missile sticking out of it?

Boss! Why does Earring Guy get the rifle with a missile sticking out of it?

It came out in 2009 (for the PC), but feels older. (Consider that Fallout 3 was already out.)  The graphics are good, but the city has a weird washed-out feel to it.

If like me you’ve played SR3 and/or 4 and wondered what SR2 is like, it’s what you would expect: like a less polished predecessor to those games.  Same basic idea as SR3: make a character, start with nothing, eliminate rival gangs while earning cash and respect with side missions of widely varying plausibility, and take over the city.  It’s nice to have an entirely different city to play with, as well as different opponents.

In some ways it’s harder.  SR3 would have activities with 3 difficulty levels; SR2 has six, and I’ve rarely gotten through all six.  Ammo is more expensive and runs out quickly– one mission I finished by the skin of my teeth, knocking down some helicopters with my last bullets.  Diversions like Insurance Fraud are harder simply because there are fewer cars on the streets, so it’s hard to get combos.  Friendly Fire shops are strangely scarce, as are autosaves in missions.

Planes are hell to fly.  (They are particularly confusing because the controls page only mention 4 controls, whereas there are actually six.  For reference, to take off you need to hit shift to accelerate plus S to lift the plane.)  The cars don’t handle easily either– they’re hard to keep on the road.

It’s also much further down on the laffs scale. I’m working on the Brotherhood, which features a couple of fairly brutal murders, by the opposing gang leader and then by the Boss (i.e. the player). It’s nothing compared to what Niko Bellic does before breakfast, but it’s just as well that they downplayed the nastiness in SR3.

It has its humorous spots, but nothing quite as over-the-top as Prof. Genki, Zimos, the mascots, or giant Johnny Gat heads.  (On the other hand, one of the diversions is called Ho-ing, where the Boss takes on some sex work.  Sound effects only, but, well, perhaps not one of their better ideas.)

I gave this inspirational speech and then did all the work myself

I gave this inspirational speech and then did all the work myself

Is it fun? Well, with the caveat about difficulty, yes. It’s like getting DLC for SR3, which isn’t as brilliant but makes up for it in volume. Plus I’ve got Rebecca Santabria doing the Boss’s voice again, which is worth the price of admission. I really missed her brashness and charm in SR4.

Edit: Thoughts after finishing the game here.

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