March 2014

When I hear about libertarians who want to seastead, the jokes, like the sea-waters bursting a wall built by sub-minimum-wage contractors, just flow.  It’s impossible not to think about Rapture.

Leading the world in waterproof neon tubing

Leading the world in waterproof neon tubing

Nonetheless it’s interesting to read Charlie Loyd’s take on the idea. Loyd lived for years on a geographic anomaly– Waldron Island, in the Salish Sea between Washington State and Vancouver. The island has no stores, no public transport to the mainland, and about a hundred residents. So he groks the appeal of isolation (and islands).

At the same time, having actually done it, he’s aware, unlike the Randian isolationists, of just how much he depends on a vast interconnected human community. When you’re the last link in the supply chain– when you have to physically haul your water and groceries and gas out of the boat– you become more aware of what a complex monster it is. Randites don’t realize that they already live in Galt’s Gulch– that they live in a highly artificial island where the people who build and maintain it have been airbrushed out of the picture.  Moving to a physical island would actually decrease their isolation; they’d be confronted by their dependence on a billion other people.

He talks a fair bit about Silicon Valley dudebros, and it makes me wonder if anyone has attempted to correlate political views with code quality. Of course, you can despise people and write good code… indeed, development is an excellent field for people who hate people!  But can you despise community and write good code? I’d suspect that a Randite can only thrive as a lone hacker, or as undisputed tech god. It’s hard to see how a person who doesn’t respect the community can re-use code, or write good check-in comments (or comments designed to help other people at all), or worry about maintainability, or create a user-friendly UI, or write a really flexible API, or even fix bugs filed from outside Dev.  To do all those things well requires empathy– the ability to see things from another point of view, to value other people’s work and time, to realize that not all users of your product are fellow devs.


This post, though a bit breathless, is extremely interesting. It’s how an upcoming game, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, makes stunning game imagery… essentially by taking a shitload of hi-res photos, then using software to turn them near-automatically into a 3-d model.

Let me guess, we dig up all the graves for coins and rusty weapons?

Let me guess, we dig up all the graves for coins and rusty weapons?

It’s certainly not a time-saver– you have to take pictures very carefully on location, and the whole idea is that assets aren’t very re-usable… you’re modeling an entire church, say, and not just making a tileable brick wall. The nice thing is that the textures aren’t tiled– they have contextually meaningful dirt and shade and mold and whatever. Photorealistic textures still look wrong and artificial if they’re too even, too widely used, or have no apparent flaws.

A quick way to test video game textures is to look at the edges of things. Take this very good work from Arkham City:

Wouldn't you take your gloves off for this?

Wouldn’t you take your gloves off for this?

It’s all photorealistic, but look at the way the combination dial just floats in the middle of the safe. Real things have transitions from one surface to another. There should also be shadows (and maybe distortions in the fabric) under the edge of Catwoman’s glove, and under that weird metallic knob on her shoulder.

Now, in a game, you normally don’t focus on that stuff… really, we want to be fooled. Especially in the middle of action, you can get away with pretty simple models.

If you’re trying to make a game on your own, on the other hand, learning about someone else’s new, better methods can be depressing. It’s hard enough making tileable textures! And god, don’t get me started on foliage. There’s a reason so many games are set in dungeons, sci-fi futurescapes, deserts, and sewers. They’re geometric! It’s still really hard to do good vegetation.

I’ve read… let’s see.. precisely one half of John Crowley’s The Solitudes. And I think that’s it, because I just don’t get it.

Part of it is genre confusion. It was recommended as fantasy, but after over 200 pages there isn’t a hint of it.  What it is, mostly, is the story of the mid-life crisis of a mid-list historian, Pierce Moffett. It’s a vivid book, eloquently written, with a tendency to hopscotch all over time, but this part is like an extended artsy slice-o-life story from the New Yorker. It’d be easier to take if Moffett weren’t such a lump. As Crowley presents him, he doesn’t have much drive as a teacher or a writer, and he’s a little too fond of cocaine. Then there’s the scene where he meets a woman at a party, gets her off alone, gives her booze, and kisses her… it doesn’t go beyond that, but it’s uncomfortable in a way I suspect the author didn’t think about back in 1987.

All this makes it hard to accept the chapter I just read, where Moffett breathlessly explains a book he wants to write about “Ægypt”, and his agent/ex-girlfriend is entirely and groundlessly enthralled. Crowley himself is obviously excited about the subject matter, but he hasn’t conveyed why Moffett would be capable of plunging into historical waters no one else had, nor what might really be lurking in those waters.

Scattered through the narrative are fragments from an earlier story featuring the Elizabethan astrologer John Dee (but it’s explained that it is a story; it’s fragments from a novel some of the present-day characters read).

The tagline of the book is “Is there more than one history of the world?”  Moffett has the notion that there was an Ægypt that isn’t the same as Egypt… basically a Renaissance reimagining of Egypt as a land of magic and esoteric wisdom, based on a misinterpretation of Hermes Trismegistus as being an ancient Egyptian sage rather than a 2nd century Platonist. (The mis- is important because there are echoes of Plato and the Christian Trinity in Hermes… completely unsurprising given when he actually wrote, but eerie and prophetic if you think they came from two thousand years earlier.)

I think what turns me off is that Crowley seems to want to take this Renaissance stir of ideas seriously, only he doesn’t.  There’s an old trope in fantasy that Hermes, Paracelsus, Dee, Bruno, et al., were really onto something.  OK then!  Embrace it, make it real, show us what that world would look like.  So far as I can see, Mary Gentle was working with the same material in Rats and Gargoyles, but she made it into an actual fantasy world. Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore have done similar things. Crowley takes two hundred pages to work up to the point where he might have John Dee talk with an angel… and even there it’s presented as something within a historical fantasy, and it isn’t even Dee but his half-idiot assistant. It’s like the author is terrified that readers won’t accept fantasy.  Author, readers love fantasy. You can even ladle it into high-lit books– look at Borges or García Márquez.

A lot of people really like these books (there are three more), so I am undoubtedly missing something.

I’ve been replaying Saints Row 3, this time on Hardcore. This involved dying a lot, but it’s still easier than SR2 was on Normal. Except for, of all things, the carjackings. Even the earliest jackings throw three stars of notoriety at you; at early levels that’s too much heat for the player, and I died; and at high levels it’s too much heat for the car, which explodes. I finished all the missions, but I may leave a bunch of cars unstolen.

SR2, SR3, SR4.  The blue hair is a constant.

SR2, SR3, SR4. The blue hair is a constant.

SR2 has its avid fans, and I certainly appreciated the bigger and more varied city. But SR3 is definitely more fun. Plus, I think they went in the right direction, from showing off badassery to developing character.  In SR2 the emphasis was on showing how tough everyone is, with the implication that you the player are tougher, since you beat them all up.  But, eh, badassses are ultimately kind of boring. The writer just thinks of mean things for them to do, and then maybe to humanize them a little bit, gives them a weird hobby.

In SR3, the emphasis is on making the characters colorful. No one in SR2 is as weird as Kinzie and Zimos. Pierce gets a personality.  The villains are more over the top.  By SR4 we can look at the Saints crew with genuine affection, something it’s hard to do with (say) the cast of Skyrim or Fallout New Vegas.

Here’s an interesting look behind the scenes of a somewhat failed AAA game, Singularity.

Mutated plants are never a good sign

Mutated plants are never a good sign

In what will be a total shock to anyone who’s developed a major software project… it was late, in terrible shape, and nearly canceled.  Then they threw something together in ten months of crunch time. It’s a wonder it’s as good as it is.

I actually liked the game a lot.  It’s very pretty, it has a lot of fun toys, the story is intriguing, and it’s bold enough to end with a major mind-fuck. The behind-the-scenes article explains why, nonetheless, it felt like it didn’t quite reach its potential. They just didn’t have time to explore the ideas further.

Actually the one big surprise in the article was the reference to multiplayer, because: there was multiplayer??  Apparently AAA games feel that they must have a multiplayer option now, which is madness.  Gaming is so fragmented these days that I can rarely play anything with my friends… our old TF2 crowd still gets together for a few hours once a week, but it used to be daily.  They’re all off playing different things.  There will be a flurry of interest in a new game’s multiplayer for maybe a few days; if you pick up the game later in a Steam sale or something, there’s no one around to play it with.  They could have dropped the multiplayer entirely and had more resources for deepening the single-player game.