Video Games: The Movie

This moth Netflix released Video Games: The Movie, the KickStarter funded documentary from director (writer, producer) Jeremy Snead. Before I sat down to write this, I was thoroughly confused why this history / culture review / look-ahead documentary on video games would solicit opinion from Zak Braff throughout, but then I saw he was the executive producer, which should give you the perfect context for the quality of the rest of the film. 

The main problem of the film is I'm not sure who it's for. Let's go to the source on the film's KickStarter page: 

One of the major goals of our film is to tear down the misconceptions the public has by revealing the truth about video game culture and the amazing, vibrant community gamers have created over the years.

Okay cool. So this is for people who are not gamers in order to tear down their misconceptions. Well that being said by the filmmaker (or whoever writes his copy), the film does a decent job. In a lot of ways it was a more slickly producer Gamers (though that film's focus was just on MMOs), going through the history of games, what gaming culture is like and what excites those who game. I would have been really excited to see this when I was ten and maybe caught it late night on some PBS documentary series. In the same way I was excited for The Wizard when it came out simply because it was talking about games. 

However, while there's a decent amount of background on gaming and introducing gaming concepts as if they were new to the audience, there's also a tremendous amount of watching Will Wheaton, a bunch of gaming journalists, game design / coding luminaries, and apparently whoever was around when filming happened waxing annoyingly nostalgic about their favorite games. There's no problem with cherishing memories of games, but it's not exactly interesting to put to film. Unless your intent was to generate in your audience the emotion of "Totally. I know what's he's talking about."

Right alongside this is the really long montages of game footage, which if this was for non-gamers, it's given no context. If it is for gamers, there's little exciting there except the feeling of "Hey, I like that game." 

On that film technique, the long montage of the "next, next generation of games" near the end, I had to mute. It was akin to an episode of Top Gear when they test a new model car. In TG, it's playing with toys that I'll never afford, even if it is a brand plug, however, in this movie, I'm just being advertised at, which is particularly obvious, if you end said montage with close ups of a PS4 and a XBoxOne. Seriously, the only difference between the below ad and this movie is that XBox labeled the games.

While I certainly imagine the fim being sponsored to some degree by game companies, and that's forgivable but, there's definitely something worse in the film. Going back to the quote above from KickStarter, which supposedly explained the purpose of the film, there is immediately a tone of defensiveness. This film is about fix what's been done to us gamers!

And it's throughout the film. Two sections are of note.

First, the culture section is a long collection of clips and quotes of how great the gaming culture is. Yes, totally, games and the people I've bonded with over games are great. Yes, people do make friends when they do similar activities. Oh, people have gotten married after meeting in games. People have probably gotten married through the oil business as well but yeah, we should devote 20 minutes to this topic. Not trying dismiss it, but this isn't 1979 - while gaming may still have stigma of fat white dudes, it's not as though friendship through games is an anomaly. Again, maybe this film is indeed for the uninitiated, however, the section is mostly self-congratulatory. 

Second, and worst, is when the film discusses violence in games. The defense that the film mounts against accusations that video games causes violence is both unnecessary and also incorrect. To be sure, it doesn't take much for most gamers or even non-gamers to remember a parent accusing gaming for rotten children's and teenagers' minds.  

However, first off, you have to understand blow back. New media brings blow back. That happens. It's no coincidence that the stock footage the movie used of uptight white people discussing violence in video games are from the mid-90s. Columbine was the last serious discussion of video game violence as a motivator for unstable people. But it's new, kids play games, and it's something easy for conservatives to be upset about the world going to hell. It's gonna happen, it's not personal. After Marilyn Manson and Doom, there was Eminem, who was destroying American culture. Which again, he's white, he's charismatic, he was just another threat. 

Second, the defensive lines about violence in video games are just a trope at this point. My favorite is "As I recall, Caine didn't kill Abel with a Gameboy". Uh, sure. However, while it won't get you anywhere to say that games have a statistical correlation with violence (they don't), it's also not valuable to reduce the argument to absurdity. And that's really the problem with most defensiveness regarding violence in gaming (suspending for the moment discussion of sexual exploitation, racism, xenophobia, and so on). 

Look - in the same way the films says cinema doesn't deserve banishment because it has violence, there must be acceptance that some games are trying to elicit a reaction, trying to be purposefully, explicitly violent. Killing prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto is intended to piss people off and blow people away with its violence. It's not an incidental mechanic. It's not even misunderstood by players. 

Movies like Salo: 120 Days of Sodom or A Serbian Film aren't trying to be oblique about their intentions. They are trying to say - look at this crazy shit we filmed, it's intended to fuck with you. 

The problem with the argument that people don't correlatively kill after playing games is it's an attempt to deny that anything is wrong or could be wrong with exploitative violence in games. Yes, there's violence in films. But you can make violent, hateful, misogynistic films that deserve criticism or just to be burned. 

So the issue that violence in games causes violence in real life, yes, statistically disproven is not the entire point. The issue is that explicit, exploitive violence in games could still nonetheless be wrong on a critical / cultural level. It's not that violence shouldn't exist in video games - instead, just that if you're going to blanket defend it, then own what's there. I have no problem defending violence against demons in Doom, but that does not mean that I can or will defend a game like Hatred

With these two parts and the initial stated purpose of VG:TM, it really saps from the more basic informative aspects and the film feels unsatisfying at the end. I went from, wow video games are neat to uh, okay, I guess video game violence should be okay because it doesn't CAUSE violence, and closed with, those new products are cool, I suppose. 

This film, like so much of literature about gaming generally, smacks of immaturity on the topic. It is possible to write serious discussions of gaming, game culture, history of games, violence and expression in games, but a bunch of people sitting around saying that stuff is neat is ultimately unspecific and uninteresting. When additionally defensiveness is the key component in multiple sections in the film and even within the stated purpose of the film, there isn't much to say that's interesting since the narrative is focused on a straw man. 

The missing opportunity here is making a film that makes games interesting and enriches those who are gamers in their subject matter. Narrative ingrained with its subject matter has been absent from so much of gaming literature, and those who finally take on the challenge will deserve their coming success. 

Turning's Cathedral

George Dyson's Turing's Cathedral is not particularly about Turing, rather instead about the work created out Turing's accomplishments. Specifically the book focuses on the Institute for Advanced Study and the construction and operation of the ENIAC/ MANIAC. John Von Neumann, for whom the Von Neumman hardware architecture is named, is the core persona throughout - lobbying for the IAS to devote funds to the construction of computers, assisting with wartime ballistics efforts, and corralling the brilliant minds who would put time in on the MANIAC for all manners of research. 

Dyson's book is exquisitely researched and for fans of technology history, this book is more a straight history with the IAS computer research as the thematic background. If you really want detail on the lives of early computing pioneers, the book provides in spades, but does not spend a tremendous about of time dealing the machines themselves. Some of the more interesting parts about the book are the surrounding small details such as the necessity for a complex air cooling system to keep the computer running and the constant tension between the IAS and its computer scientists, who were treated unfairly since they weren't studying a pure science as compared to the researchers at the IAS.

Turing's Cathedral would be a strong recommendation for anyone interested in the personality and climate surrounding early computer science work, particularly if Cold War or World War II politics are of interest to you. As I said above, since the book doesn't focus too much on the machines themselves, if you're just looking for technology history, it can probably be better found elsewhere. 

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie

Up front I'll just say two things - I am a huge AVGN fan and I did not care for his movie.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie goes out of the basement and follows the Nerd as he sets out to review the Atari 2600 E.T. (called EeeTee in the movie for obvious reasons). The journey is wrapped up in a promotion by game company Cockburn Industries (really?) to help sell their purposefully shitty game EeeTee 2, since, thanks to the Nerd, bad is good. On the trip, the Nerd becomes the taget of a government conspiracy, ends up in Area 51 and so on until a climactic battle ensues and the Nerd finally reviews E.T.

For an independent film and Rolfe's first effort at a feature length movie, the team did a great job, especially considering a lot of the work was done through a network of fans working simultaneously on different parts of the film via the Internet. But aside from just having to photograph a movie, Rolfe and his crew wrote a script that feels cohesive, every scene has a point, and the plot actually builds to something big and meaningful within its own world. 

My first thought though is - I really don't want to see the Nerd in some epic plot inside the real-ish world. The Nerd always worked great inside a temporary artificial universe where the Joker, Jason, and Freddy Krueger are real, and the NES Robotic Operating Buddy attempts to take over the world. These are fun because they take something that's maybe a 100x100px sprite and turn it into to something real, and something from the Nerd's imagination, something that he can punch and take out his aggression on. 

And that's the key - the imagination necessary for early games is part of the experience and part of the creative opportunity of AVGN generally. We play the game, but we're also playing in our own conception of the game. AVGN is about sharing in Rolfe's frustrated perspective, which theoretically is partially our own. 

So when it comes to the movie, we lose that opportunity. Some of the heart and play are lost in making the Nerd a fully fleshed out character who has a job, car, friends and can be manipulated by corporate assholes. But the truth is, if you are going to make a movie, you have to expand the world beyond the basement. And so, I get it. 

But with the play and exasperation gone, the identifying characteristics of the Nerd have to go bigger to fill in the gap. This is namely the Nerd's foul mouth. Look - I love cursing, I love hearing people think of beautifully expressively obscenities, such as - "This is worse than buffalo shizz. It's a combination of shit and jizz" - but all of that can't just be obscenities and outrageous analogies done because screen time needs things that sound funny. That's what a lot of the Nerd-ish language is in the film, and the observant fan may have noticed that some of the rants are from previous episodes. 

Consider Super Pitfall, one of my favorite of the Nerd's reviews. The line that always cracks me up is simply "Fucking Assholes!" The Nerd is ranting about a simple beginner's trap and after going on about how the developers should have just started the game this way, this simple insult perfectly embodies how he and I feel about this type of bullshit. That's all you need for obscenity to work. However, in the movie, the rants are referencing something that we're not seeing like the memory of a game or are too many words forced for the current situation. Either way, it's not fun and is distracting at worst. 

Still, compared to a lot of movies, at least the dialog is not meaningless or random or wandering even if it doesn't match up the Nerd's reviews. The same could be said of the action scenes, which are mostly done with small miniatures and simple pyrotechnic effects. They fit in the movie, however, they just don't work or feel that impactful. Sure, throw a crazy military dude in there and you're gonna get explosions, and that's about as motivated as the action scenes feel. 

I'll hand it to Rolfe and everyone who participated - if you want to make an epic movie, don't feel constrained that you need a Peter Jackson-sized budget to do it - just go for it. It's no surprise that Rolfe has said that Make Your Own Damn Movie by Lloyd Kaufman (who also appears in the film) is his favorite film book. I also happen to be a fan of this book. In it Kaufman, who runs Troma Entertainment, advises that filmmakers to make the movies that they can, in any way possible. Only have some Hot Wheels and your script calls for a high speed chase? Well, you're good. 

While this approach may lack polish, if it still tells a story you care about, then that's what matters. Otherwise, the story would never get told at all. Heartwarming as that sentiment is, I'm not sure Surf Nazis Must Die needed to be told, but to each his own. Going back to AVGN: The Movie, this ideal holds throughout, and there's a certain charm to low-budget films that are built by creative people, and that's where all this excess of dialogue and action gets in the way. 

Rolfe, while known for his rants, also has a lot of heart and love of gaming, and even within his rants, there's a voice and appreciation for the young gamer. It exudes a writer who really knows his topic and has found meaning in it. That above all is what was missing in the film. 

As pathetic as it sounds, I've enjoyed the Nerd videos because I've never really had anyone to talk with games about, particularly ones from my youth. Sure there were kids who I played games with, but to me they were never just things to be won, but worlds to inhabit and an experience in themselves. I don't doubt that other kids around me felt this way, it's just that it's a hard subject to articulate when you're young. 

However, I had a lot of anger at games as well, because I did and still do mostly suck at them, and I took this as a personal failing. Watching the AVGN, and in particular the Castlevania and Ghost N' Goblins episodes, it's apparent I wasn't the only one who felt this way, but also still loved the thing that was torturing me. 

It's an awkward situation to handle - you're playing shitty games because you love gaming, you want to enjoy them. Rolfe never states this directly in his Nerd character, and this underlying current is part of what makes the character so endearing and sympathetic. 

Outside of the Nerd character, Rolfe has had several other videos, where he mostly takes on film, that really pull on a thread that's unique to adults his age - the process of going through things you love that are difficult to share with anyone who didn't experience it but are also very corny and cheap. Rolfe's video store re-creation in his home is fantastic example.

While I can appreciate that Troma films and other shlock are part of Rolfe's youth and fit well within the appreciation of what makes his other content so great, the Nerd fits in a different genre than what makes good shlock. The Nerd video's cheap effects are not because of shlock, but YouTube and After Effects done with zero budget made for the internet. 

My point with all of this talk of heart and fit is that while Cinemassacre made decent film, they lost a lot of what makes the Nerd great in the process and the film took priority to the character it's about and what people love about him.

I'd like to see more of what Cinemassacre can do making feature length films. I think they are talented and invested enough to make things happen, and even get others excited about filmmaking on a low budget. But my personal recommendation, whatever that is worth, is to go for something that hooks into the threads of heart and childhood joy that made their other videos so fun to watch. 

Atlassian Summit Post-mortem

Okay, I'll admit it - I'm an Atlassian fanboy. I really enjoy their products (which I introduced to my company), I think their culture is awesome, I follow their blogs and lectures, and a lot of what they do I try to emulate.

Which is why going to the Summit was so tough. 

First, while I am a fanboy, I'm never a giddy fan, in any space. So going to summits is always awkward, because I'm around a bunch of people who are geniunely excited to be there - they clap at every product update, answer "MORNING!" when the first presenter says "Good morning everyone," and they wear their lanyard everywhere. I'm just not that guy. I don't have judgement who are that guy or girl. It's just not me. I get that that's part of the excitement of going to these type of things, but maybe I need a crew to go with and a couple of whiskeys before I get in that mode. 

Second, I've been told that while Atlassian may exude cool and awesome culture we never properly hear about the jerks and late nights explosions. While I believe that's fair about any company, I don't believe that's really the case with Atlassian and furthermore their culture or at least what they say their culture is meant to spread the pain and expose warnings as soon as possible. In other words, I have this perception if shit goes pear-shaped, it's not so bad as other places. With that I'll say - I make this concession to them knowing it could be not true.

Third, and finally, I saw a lot of good companies running great software and producing things in a very short time. And shit - I want to be doing that too. It's not that I'm not producing software, it's just that for every good that another company, group or whatever is doing with Agile and Atlassian products, it all the more reflects back on my own failings. It's a good thing, but it was a lot at once, and with every - "Oh man we should just do that" - it must be tempered with the reality of running a software team.

I certainly wouldn't mind going again, Atlassian does a great job putting together good sessions, but with a team. And maybe a more exotic location than San Jose. 

Mechner's Journals

Okay, I'll be honest. I had never played Mechner's games before I picked up Mechner's two journals - The Making of Karateka and The Making of Prince of Persia. However, naturally, I knew them and was fully aware of even the mechanics. 

This says a lot about the power of Mechner's games. 

These books are very similar to my review on Masters of Doom, neither really provides that much to a reader looking to learn about each game's production. Sure, they're great historical documents, and for someone, such as myself, who is interested in retro gaming and old computers, there's a lot there to enjoy nostalgically, but other than the time spent in the 80s and early 90s, there's really not a lot to learn beyond Broderbund is full of incompetent people and Mechner is exactly what you'd expect of a young person in their early 20s who has received a lot of success and attention. That on its own is ultimately boring, unless you enjoy someone debating what type of successful person they should be repeatedly.  

However, Mechner gets games. It's not as exciting from our 2014 point of view, but Mechner sees games similar to movies and is concerned with how mechanics, intros, art, sound and every other detail form a complete picture. Similarly, Mechner understands tension and anticipation, all inspiration from his interest and heavy consumption of film (he's even a legit screenwriter at points throughout the narratives). Considering that most games at his time were single screen puzzles, this is really what makes him most successful, and, again, that's obvious to us now, but I've still been in games discussions in modern times that either focus entirely on some widget-like component or some ridiculous storyline that all make you ask "And then...."

As pictured above, there were all these great snippets from his journals on how to construct his games, and I really wish more this was in the book. Both these books remind me a lot of Adventures in the Screenwriting Trade. I'd be more interested in how the games was built, not everything going on around the construction. Where were the missteps? What didn't make it in? Why the changes? Technical difficulties? Sure it's dull for most, but this is already a title for a specialized audience. 

All this critique said, there was one gem that bears sharing. In Karateka, Mechner outlines what he believes are the basis of any good game, and you can see how it drives his development process throughout his design career. Summarizing:

  1. You have to feel in control of the thing you're supposed to be in control of.
  2. You have to be able to control the form of your attacks - have a strategy. 
  3. There should be two goals. For example, getting points (primary) and clearing the screen (secondary).

He lists Asteriods, Pac-Man and Space Invaders as ideal examples. 

When Previously Recorded reviewed Sonic the Hedgehog, they incidentally go through almost every single one of these issues as serious problems with the Sega franchise. As a Nintendo fanboy growing up, I'm definitely inclinded to agree, but it also demonstrates how prescient Mechner's analysis of simple games was, while everyone around him was more concerned with flashing lights and cheap gimmicks. 

I can't really recommend this series unless you are either a huge fan of both of these games or someone who is very interested in the early history of personal computers and game development. Mechner isn't the best person (at his age) to spend time with and the thinness of his description to help to paint the world.

Credit where credit is due to Mechner's skill and creativity at his age, but looking back, it's probably better to just know these books are out there, and play his games.  

Found on the Streeet

Found this drawing on the side of the road in a box of great books. It looked like it was part of a batch of assignments. It's hard to make out, but it was a simple drawing of a phone. However, the top was a list of everything that was wrong about it, clearly written by the artist (penmanship of the signature looks the same). Maybe it was a part of an assignment, but I hate to think that someone would be so critical of just trying. 

Particularly, because their pictures of dogs were quite nice. 

Outside of the set

Leibniz's belief in a universal digital coding embodied his principle of maximum diversity: infinite complexity from finite rules. "Nothing is a better analogy to , or even demonstration of such creation than the origin of numbers as here represented , using only unity and zero or nothing," he wrote to the Duke of Brunswick in 1697, urging that a silver medallion be struck (with a portrait of the duke on the reverse) to help bring the powers of binary arithmetic, and "the creation of all thing out of nothing through God's omnipotence," to the attention of the world.

Where does this meaning come in? If everything is assigned a number, does this diminish the meaning in the world? What Gödel (and Turing) proved is that formal systems will, sooner or later, produce meaningful statements whose truth can be proven only outside the system itself. This limitation does not confine us to a world with any less meaning. It proves, on the contrary, that we live in a world where higher meaning exists.

Turing's Cathedral, George Dyson

My FPS Engine and Masters of Doom

I really thought there'd be more to it. But running through a quick raycasting coding demo (something new to me, but always wanted to know how it work), I was soon able, after a couple of duh bugs, to get a running Java application spitting out a random wall grouping. 

Reminiscent of my first FPS game I played, Wolfenstein 3D, and the same idea that powered the raycasting technology that's the cornerstone of the book Masters of Doom.

I had thought that doing the coding would provide some insight into the book - like loads of Pernot while reading A Farewell to Arms. In both cases, it doesn't really help. There's plenty of summaries out there in the world of this book, so I wont' waste time summarizing except to tell the uninitiated that it's a history of id Software and its rise and collapse under the watchful and egotistical eyes of John Romero and John Carmack. 

This isn't to disparage either thing. I had a great time and learned a lot about modeling vision within an FPS raycasting system that was not altogether evident just reading through the code (my own Ahaa's found in the commented code). The book itself is well-written and is an adventurous story. Particularly one of young people who have discovered something incredibly powerful and are not sure what to do with themselves. I'm sure I would have been even less mature and more vindictive at their age. While, I'm still obviously less intelligent. 

Consider this - I collect a lot of cookbooks, and there's a moment of discovery in making a recipe you never have or even in making a recipe that puts better flavor into what you already know. There's a connection there too, between the cookbook writer and yourself (except if you're watching Julie and Julia, that is bullshit!). However, in there is labor in that process. You have to earn the work, and, well, sacrifices must literally be made. 

One of my favorite books on computers is The Elements of Computing Systems. I loved discovering how a processor actually works, how memory gets used, and how to build an OS from scratch (yes, yes, start with the universe, ha ha). But I know in reading it that I'm at an elementary school level. It doesn't sap my enjoyment of learning, but I won't be there with the chef as in my cookbook example sharing the same thing. 

Likewise in coding a raycasting FPS engine, I am so far behind, even within the narrative of the book which covers the development of Quake, that while I love the learning, I don't feel empowered. True, I don't need to fuss around with OS/2 memory management anymore, but more importantly, I can make a game like it if I want to using Unity. However, with cooking you can't substitute - you need to learn the recipes, otherwise, you won't be able to cook like the chef ultimately. 

So does the same thing hold true for coding in the steps of the greats? Are we able to say, "Look, learn this, skip Unity for now, and then go ahead." ? Do we respect that type of thinking as coders anymore, particularly within game development?


Setting up Rails on Digital Ocean with

Lately, I've been having a good time with I've also been enjoying Digital Ocean. Combining the two has caused a couple of problems when it came to Digital Ocean's one-click Rails VPS. Following Digital Ocean's tutorial on how to quickly setup a Rails application, I ran into a few details that weren't mentioned therein that I thought it would be best to share in case someone else has the trouble. 

Nothing that came up was really Dploy's problem, so most of these are on Digital Ocean, but there's a couple additional actions that are useful for updating a Digital Ocean Rails VPS.

Okay - now the problem that started it all: My site just didn't work and hung.

This was an out of the box, totally clean rails installation. I put together one controller to make sure I had routing functioning, but aside from that it was as fresh as it gets. Replacing the default Digital Ocean rails application with mine is where my problems began. Here's how I went about fixing it:

  1. You'll need to make sure you have a secrets.yml file and have generated a key for the production environment. My basic 'rails new' didn't do this on my desktop, but this was present in the default DO installation. You can generate a key using 'rake secret' if you like. In this case, I placed this file as a static file for to override my local file so that the real key wasn't left in source control. 
  2. Your Gemfile needs to include 'mysql2' and 'unicorn' gems. I was having a little trouble locally with the former gem, and so I created a production gemfile that also overwrote after pulling from git. Mysql2 was mentioned in the tutorial, but activating the unicorn gem was not.
  3. Production.log needs to be created with permissions 0666. This does require a unicorn restart. 
  4. As described in the tutorial, you'll also need to set the correct database credentials in your database.yml file. 
  5. Finally, I also added "service unicorn restart" and "RAILS_ENV=production rake db:reset" as post build commands. 

Not end-of-the-world type stuff, but the secrets and missing unicorn gem details were annoying, as was unicorn hanging on a missing production.log file. However, once it's all hooked up, I've got automated deployment, custom config files and hook events running after every commit, which sure does feel nice.