May 2014

So, this dude who writes about video games for Forbes (hey, the topic is very important to businesspeople) thinks that Dark Souls is the worst video game ever. And that Dark Souls II is also the worst video game ever.

Only, by his own admission, he’s put close to 400 hours into Dark Souls, finishing it multiple times. And he’s deep into the sequel.  I think he may not know what worst means.

Well, yeah. Be wary of everything in this game

Well, yeah. Be wary of everything in this game

Now, he does make a case. He thinks the game is too hard, too inscrutable, too complex. And famously, Dark Souls is a game where you die over and over, where enemies respawn, where barely anything of the complex gameplay is explained.

But jeez, the man’s got a day job, so to rack up those hours, he must have played it every night for like three months. You don’t play the worst game ever for three months.  The game obviously satisfies Itch #1 of gaming: it makes you want to play it. It’s compelling. (For the counter-case, that the game is fabulous, see Yahtzee’s review.)

Now, that was a generic ‘you’… in fact I didn’t find myself going back to Dark Souls. Partly, I know I’m easily frustrated by unforgiving checkpoints and games you can’t play without a wiki. But knowing it’s probably not my kind of thing, I just don’t play it, and if others like it, I don’t begrudge them their fun.  Also, I have like four Medieval Fantasy Games queued up– I’m really kind of tired of Medieval Fantasyland.

What the guy wanted to say, I think, is that the game is addictive but frustrating. You can’t get rid of frustration in gaming and shouldn’t want to; it’s part of the whole flow thing:


Basically you’re having fun when skill and challenge are balanced. If the challenge is above your skill level, you get frustrated; if it’s below, you get bored.  Naturally, the balance changes as you learn the game, so challenge needs to ramp up over time.

There’s another factor that changes the boundary lines, which we might call explorativeness. Sometimes we want to relax with something we know very well– that’s when I replay Half-Life 2, or go beat up thugs in Arkham City for the nth time. You can think of this as the top part of the blue area becoming an attractive place.  Other times we want novelty and even a little confusion– we want to explore the bottom of the red area.

Anyway, the Dark Souls guy describes replaying the game at harder difficulty levels, which means the process was working: he was mastering the arcane rules, and needed even more challenge.  So he’s wrong to think that the game was too hard; he was actually adding unnecessary challenges.  (It’s probably fair to say that the fun zone in the game is purposely narrow, or that it’s a game that you’d better set aside when your explorativeness is low.)

What is the worst video game?  Obviously, one that you wouldn’t play, and ideally wouldn’t even buy. There’s a few games in my Steam library that I’ve played for about 15 minutes. But they’re not even the worst; surely the actual worst game would be something simultaneously dumb, tasteless, boring, and crash-prone. It was probably made by a particularly unpleasant third-grader and it’s hardly worth talking about.

Is there a category of enjoyably awful games, like MSTable movies? Probably, though this sort of enjoyment is more about the improv skills of you and your friends than it is about the game itself.

More often when we hate a game, it’s not that it’s bad, it’s not quite what we want. If we didn’t want it at all, we wouldn’t even buy it.  But geeks have a special hatred for things that fall short of our geeky expectations.  The Dark Souls guy probably falls in this category: if he was more self-aware he’d probably say that he got a lot out of the game– it was close to what he wanted in a game, it just wasn’t close enough, and he’s angry about it.


I just finished The History of the Renaissance World, by Susan Wise Bauer. The subtitle is From the rediscovery of Aristotle to the conquest of Constantinople, which means it’s about what most people would call the Middle Ages.

The major subject

The major subject

It’s a weird mixture of new and old style history. It’s worldwide, so you get fairly good coverage of China and India, and sporadic chapters on Africa and Native America. But it’s also all about personalities– almost nothing about culture, literature, technology, economics.  Which means it’s mostly stories about kings.

Condensed into one worldwide narrative, the story of human monarchy gets distilled to its essence: it sucked.  Srsly, all over the world, it worked about the same way, and that was “badly”.  The whole theoretical advantage of monarchy is that it avoids succession disputes.  Only it doesn’t– no matter how sacredly the king vows that his successor shall be his well-beloved son, some cousin or uncle or general or duke is likely to object once the old man is laid out.  Plus, of course, a new king is often a child, or at best inexperienced and dominated by his elders; very often this becomes institutionalized in some way.

Japan in this period provides a nice example. It became customary for the emperor to abdicate in favor of an infant relative– becoming the Cloistered Emperor, a position where he could wield the power while the child did all the onerous ceremonies. Only the military took over the actual administration of the country, producing the shogunate.  Only the shogunate was hereditary, so there was a problem of infant shoguns… no problem, an older relative became the shikken, the shogun’s protector.  For a time all four levels of this ridiculous hierarchy perpetuated themselves. (Nor did this prevent the country from being fragmented between senior and junior lines of the imperial family.)

If you did get a strong king, that often just meant that he had the resources available to spend his entire reign at war, or that he was enough of a sociopath to stop rivals before they could get going– usually by murdering them.

Elective monarchies in theory could choose only strong candidates, but of course the electors normally had little interest in electing anyone who would restrain their own freedom.

The other theme in the book is the ever-broadening idea of the crusade. It didn’t exactly start off as a noble idea, but it steadily worsened, soon being used against heretics and then anyone the Pope had a quarrel with.  The last chilling echo of the crusades was the Pope’s blessing of the Portuguese slave trade. For all that, the crusades, like all of the Papacy’s secular schemes, were a self-defeating failure. The popes, like certain right-wing politicians, just never understood the difference between how they thought the world should work and how it did work. They constantly overreached, never learned from their mistakes, and eventually destroyed what unity the church had.

The multiculturalism of the book is refreshing, but also jarring– you’ll bounce from France to China to Sri Lanka to Egypt to Africa, in chapters that are only a few pages long. This makes longer-term stories (like the papal schism or the Hundred Years war) hard to follow. Plus it’s still Eurocentric: there are 54 chapters on Europe and the Middle east, 32 on India, China, and points east, and just 8 on everywhere else.  And because of the focus on kings, regions only appear once they have some royal history– so e.g. Scandinavia doesn’t get any coverage till chapter 86.  The chapters on Mexico and Peru are barely worth having.

I have some quibbles over names. Bauer mixes pinyin and Wade-Giles for no good reason. She insists on calling France “Western Francia” until the realm of Philip II, which is weird.  (If it’s to underline that the king in Paris had little control over the territory until that time, that’s no less true of the kings of Germany.)  She also uses English names for all the European kings– this is traditional, but with the short chapters it would be a lot easier to keep the kings apart if the local names were used.

I didn’t know it when I picked it up, but the book is the third in an ongoing world history. I can about 3/4-heartedly recommend it.  It’s very readable, and presents quick, vivid portraits of a slew of kings, queens, and hangers-on. And the worldwide focus means that at least some of the stories will be new to you.  But it has almost no interest in culture; you get very little about how these nations differed, or what anyone below the elite was doing, or about any non-kingly story that was going on: what scholasticism actually taught, courtly love, early capitalism, what the alchemists were doing, the windmill revolution, how exactly the Central Asian nomads adapted to ruling China, how the Arab scientific mindset stalled, how military tactics evolved.  And even stories it focuses on, such as the English-French wars, are often better told elsewhere.  Still, it’s a fun and fast read.





I’ve cleaned up as much Viscera Cleanup Detail as I can handle, I think. Though I’m hoping to do some co-op with my pal Chris.

I did all the maps, then redid the first one to test if it was easier doing it the right way. (It is.) But I’m not eager to repeat the maps, and I think there’s a game design lesson there, on feedback.

Most overdesigned door opener ever

Most overdesigned door opener ever

The thing is, this game could be an addictive puzzler… if it gave you better feedback. It tells you the category of stuff you left: bloodstains, body parts, trash, bullet holes, etc.  But it gives no hint as to how many were left.  You don’t know if you were missing one bloodstain or ten.  I even used the damn sniffer, but I still missed stuff.  If the feedback were better, I’d go back and try to do better.  But when you just don’t know how close you are, there’s little motivation to try.  (They have the right idea– they hide (say) body parts in vents and such, so you can walk right past them. But the sniffer is fiddly and no fun to use, so the heck with it.)

Chris suggests that the game should allow cheating– e.g. leaving body parts in drawers or something.  That would be fun.  My suggestion would be to add ways to mess around… maybe you could write your own messages in blood, or temporarily wear the alien hands over your own, or take a pizza break. Janitors have to make their fun where they find it.

Again, it’s in alpha, so by the time it’s done it may well be a very different game.

After reading about Viscera Cleanup Detail, and especially after reading my friend Chris’s ambivalent review, I really wanted to try it.  So I did.

The gag is brilliant, at least.  Some space marine, perhaps you in a different game, has gone blasting through a space station, taking care of alien outbreaks or whatever.  And they made a mess.

There were no magic markers around, OK?

There were no magic markers around, OK?

You normally don’t think about the poor schmuck who has to clean up the blood, alien blood, body parts, shell casings, and other detritus. Except in this game, where you are that schmuck, and you have to restore the facility to a pristine state. You even have to refill all the single-use medical units they used.

You also have to type "SAVE US" on a nice memo pad

You also have to type “SAVE US” on a nice memo pad

Does it work as a game? Well, I’ve cleaned up two of the half-dozen maps, so I guess it is.  It’s worth the $8, at least.  Note that it’s an early access game, still in development, so it will probably get better as it goes.

There is a certain satisfaction in getting things clean… which is good, since there aren’t (yet?) any achievements or ratings.  (When you clock out, you go to the janitor’s office, where clippings on the wall tell you indirectly about anything you missed.)

The mechanics are simple enough: you have a machine that dispenses buckets of water, you have a mop, and you clean off the blood and goop. The mop gets dirty and you have to rinse it, and the bucket gets dirty after a few rinses, so you go back a lot to the Suds-o-Matic. Then you throw the bucket in the rather low-tech incinerator… along with the body parts and other detritus.

This is one game where, unusually, you’re going to move pretty slowly through the maps, so they’d better be visually satisfying.  And they are– the look of the game and the cleaning mechanic are pretty solid.

There’s a certain dark humor about the whole thing– e.g. sometimes the Suds-o-Matic gives you body parts instead.  There are notes and datapads scattered through the level, giving you a hint about what went wrong.  The buckets and body parts are deliberately made awkward to carry, so it’s easy to make more of a mess.  (It’s nicely balanced though– it doesn’t feel unfair; once you know the quirks of various things, you can work with them.)

A few places are hard to reach, which constitutes a puzzle of sorts.  That seems promising; I hope they add more things to just complicate the task.

There isn’t any tutorial, and not much in the way of on-line help, so I thought I’d record a few things that might help the aspiring space janitor.

  • If you step in the goo, you’ll track it around. You may be tempted to ignore this, but it does multiply your work.  If you clean the path from the Suds-o-Matic to the incinerator, you can get your feet clean, and then you can work out from the clean area.
  • Once the mop is dirty and it’ll spread goo instead of cleaning it– watch the color it turns. (Denser goo dirties it faster, so it’s not a set number of strokes.) Similarly, the water turns bright red (or whatever color) when it’s too dirty to use.
  • The buckets are easy to overturn. If you move slowly up to them, you actually climb on the edge, which gives you the best angle for rinsing. Only hit LMB to rince once; you can tell it works because the mop turns white again. (If you hit LMB again, you may actually re-dirty the mop.)
  • You pick up something with LMB.  Hit LMB again to straighten it out– this is essential with medkits, buckets, and quite a few other things.
  • You can carry a bunch of body parts in the yellow biohazard boxes. (If you hold shift to walk slower, you won’t spill.)  But it can save time to put stuff into the buckets once they’re too dirty to use.
  • The “sniffer” (tool 3) is mysterious, but turns out to detect either dirt or trash (hit RMB to switch modes).  It seems pretty useless.
  • There’s a laser which can be used to repair bullet holes.

Tonight I did the second map, “Office”, which actually has a story behind it, which you can piece together from datapads and the state of the office itself.






I just finished Paleofantasy, by the biologist Marlene Zuk; it’s largely a response to notions that we made a wrong turn with agriculture and cities, and should head back to the savanna, or perhaps the trees.

Which was a mistake?

Which was a mistake?

The main objection is that attempts to come up with a “paleo” diet, or exercise regimen, or childrearing method, or sex roles, are generally bullshit: highly speculative at best, completely made up at worst. More specifically:

  • We aren’t cavemen, because we haven’t stopped evolving. Genetic changes like widespread lactose tolerance, or the adaptation of Tibetans to high altitudes, have occurred in historical times. Adaptation to disease happens even quicker. It’s just not true that the 10,000 years since the evolution of agriculture is too soon to adapt to our changed diet.
  • The idea that early hominins were perfectly adapted to their environment, with everyone who came after being disastrously out of place, is a misunderstanding of evolution. Evolution is not goal-directed, and animals are never perfect. They’re always a genetic mish-mash, just good enough to have survived, always subject to tradeoffs and sudden environmental changes.
  • We just don’t know exactly how early hominins ate and lived. The fossil record is scanty; our ape relatives live in very different ways; modern hunter-gatherers are themselves varied, and not necessarily representative of their ancestors.
  • One thing we do know: they lived in a wide variety of habitats and climates, from African savannas to Mediterranean shores to Ice Age caves. They didn’t all have the same diets, or tools, or cultures; there was no single paleo lifestyle.
  • Some of the specific ideas of paleo enthusiasts are almost certainly wrong. E.g. there’s good evidence that Neanderthals were grinding grain 30,000 years ago. A high-meat diet may only have become possible with the invention of ranged weapons, at about the same time. Some paleo fans claim that early hominins rarely ran; in fact one of the things humans are extremely good at is long-distance endurance running… we can run most animals down, including deer and horses.

(In case you didn’t get the memo, humans and their non-ape ancestors are now grouped together as hominins; the older term hominid now covers the chimps, bonobos, and orangutans as well.)

If you like a knock-out blow, Zuk rarely provides one– the usual problem isn’t that paleo fantasies are contradicted by science, but that they’re poorly supported.  However, Zuk reviews the wide range of evidence that’s becoming available, from DNA analysis to ongoing evolutionary studies to finding food traces in Neanderthal teeth.

Another recent read, Chip Walter’s Last Ape Standing, is even more of a buzzkill. He presents life on the savanna as difficult: scant resources and plenty of competition. Some human features such as neoteny may be an adaptation to bad times– our infants are born prematurely, with a rapidly expanding brain, and thus can more quickly adapt to new or changed conditions.  There’s also evidence that our species passed through a genetic bottleneck– compared with other species, we’re remarkably uniform, which could have happened if our total numbers dropped to 10,000 or so. The ancestral environment might not have been all that idyllic.

None of this, of course, means that you should stay on the couch, or eat loads of donuts and fries. We definitely have an unhealthy lifestyle; but the solution is to get more active, not to get more Australopithecine.