Review

Writing about games is hard

This last week (sometime in July of 2014) I finished the fourth release from Boss Fight Books - Galaga by Michael Kimball. My intent with this book was honestly to wash the taste out of my mouth from reading their second publication Chrono Trigger (by Micahel P. Williams), but unforunately this recent book didn't help much. 

Writing about video games as a serious medium is no longer in its infancy, but it is, to some degree, a stumbling toddler who has a tendency to hit their head against table ends. There are great books on games (and everying surrounding them), such as Masters of Doom, The Platform Series, and, shit, even Ready Player One for all its plot ridiculousness still makes playing with gaming concepts and literature fun. Boss Fight upholds my analogy and they commit one key failure that makes it so - they want gaming and gaming literature to be taken seriously without actually writing content that would make it so. 

I'm going to look at both these books as a group because they share a lot of the same critical problems. 

The biggest issue is both authors associate their respective games with something that on human level that is emotionally jarring and has nothing at all to do with their games. Williams talks at length about the Fukashima disaster (if the unnecessary amount of Japanese text in his footnotes wasn't an indication, he spent some time in Japan); Kimball intercuts stories of his abusive father.

I have no problem with trying to connect large ideas, themes, however you want to put it with games. What I do have a problem with is putting things physically next to each other in paragraphs and assuming that the reader will associate meaning with your argument with something obviously meaningful. Abuse and disaster make us feel things automatically. These books' main threads do not. 

Take Williams summation of the Fukashima disaster within a chapter titled "The Day of Lavos." He draws a comparison with your first quest in the post-apocalyptic 2300 AD to retrieve some seeds for survivors of doomsday and the 2011 tsunami: "We [Williams was a resident of Fukashima for a period] are the people of Chrono Trigger's 2300 AD. All we can do is plant our seeds, work to nourish and encourage them and how they will grow into something beautiful, useful, alive." As much as I love Chrono Trigger, this is a ridiculously dull comparison and flat insulting to the people of Japan. 

Think I'm just being harsh? Let's try another example off the top of my head: "We sacrifice part of ourselves, like Mario, every time we hit the question blocks with our heads. Will it be a 1-Up, or a just a single coin we risked our lives to obtain. Either way, it's chance we always take. A chance to grow, to gain new abilities, and to take one further step forward to the goals of our hearts, and those we take responsibility for." See how much that sounds like bullshit? The symbolism and the activity is not equivalent to what I'm trying to associate it with. 

Earlier in the chapter "Life by the Book", Williams equivocates his game's strategy guide and "strategy guides for life." Stating earlier that games teach us "No matter how high your station in life, you can always be knocked down", he sets up "well-highlighted Christian devotionals" and "the book version of a bowl of chicken soup" as examples of these aforementioned guides. First, games are meant to be balanced, and Chrono Trigger especially is.

While games do sometimes make twists that reset us to lower position part way through the game (Chrono Cross is a great example), we nonetheless come out on top. Second, Christian devotionals, self-help guides, and so on are not akin to a guide that just flat says "the power tab" is here. It's a glib way of looking at life if you think the Bible and Chrono Cross Strategy Guide are peers. Maybe he meant A Purpose-Driven Life or something, but the point still stands. Life is unbalanced, life can knock you down, and life doesn't have definite answers. Strategy guides in fact are antithetical to these guides for life. Instead of just going out into something as small as a video game and trusting you can win, you cheat. Warren's Purpose-Driven is trying, in his own way, to give people the tools that he believes will do exactly the trusting and exploration guides remove from games. 

Everything about both ideas are wrong and don't connect. 

Kimball is more forgivable. He weaves a story of his growth as a Galaga player and growing up more generally, which, as I mentioned, does involve abuse. He rightly states that video games were an escape, were a safe place, and were one of the few places where he felt he could express himself and feel strong. I don't think any of this is disagreeable and I don't doubt that most kids, especially those from bad homes, would agree its what they really got out of games. Kimball unfortunately draws these simple and fairly obvious points out for the entire book (albeit a small one) and is somewhat vague about his abuse. Not to say that an author should draw out painful memories to up the emotional connection, but it gets redundant and I'm also at a distance from the discussion of abuse because of the nebulous descriptions ("wrestling"). 

Second problem shared by both books, a bit less serious, is both the authors spend time more time simply describing the gameplay, Kimball more than Williams. If the attempt is to bring in an audience who may not be familiar with the game, it fails as the game play descriptions are incredibly boring and don't really serve as good descriptions in the first place. For folks who are familiar, it's already a waste of their time. It'd be one thing if the gameplay descriptions were actually related to some point being made, but they're aren't. Want to know what Galaga looks like when reading a book from an independent publisher that just publishes books on games? I'd suggest spending 2 seconds searching on YouTube:

Finally, Williams and Kimball, despite devoting what I imagine is a decent chunk of their personal life to these books, don't actually appear to take their subject seriously.

A small beginning of this is how neither author appears to make any effort towards speaking with the games creators (Kimball does have second hand interviews, Williams a few spatterings of quotes). Neither of these guys claim their books are journalism, but the few bits of sources are actually interesting, and provide valuable background to why the game is the form that it is. As I said, that may not be the point, but don't tease us with interesting quotes and then waste time on gameplay descriptions. 

The larger missing seriousness is both author's lack of respect for their readers's interest in their topics

Kimball's book is a disjointed mess of one paragraph sections called "stages" that go for the entire book. I get it - it's stylish. However, I can't get engaged as a reader if every 15 seconds, I'm forced to jump to a new section. Furthermore, he never keeps his sections consistent. He goes from abuse, to gameplay, to friends he played with, game history, to abuse. I can't get emotionally engaged in any of it, and even if I tried, I would be immediately pulled away. I get it - this is stylish, but it's also annoying, because I actually want to care, but Kimball won't let the readers, because, you know, style. On top of this, Kimball makes several things up and then pages later reveals they weren't true. These are pointless things as well, mainly fan tributes to the game. I, and perhaps others, are interested in reading about games, we take a it seriously, so can we just get on with it?

While I've already criticized Williams for what I think are at best grasping at straws, his most troublesome statement comes at the end of the book:

"I've tried to make this book a Gate Key, but in doing so I have become the gatekeeper, opeing some doors to you and obscuring others behind false walls. I do not apologize for this."

What the fuck is this guy talking about? Honestly, I'm willing to believe I missed something here, something went over my head, so please tell me at corey@ckplusplus.com. This sentence in the penultimate paragraph makes no sense at all. At no point was there any revelation or feel of his control as a gatekeeper to any level. I can only guess the doors he obscured were the ones leading to better and more interesting thoughts about the game. But not apologizing? What does that have to do with anything written? When do author's apologize for the entirity of the thing you just read? What level of arrogance is required to speak to your reader's in this way? Just write a book, state your opinions, draw connections and walk away. Don't create an illusion about yourself in the last paragraph to some personal ends. No one cares

These books are frustrating and in the end, Boss Fight maybe doesn't need stronger writers, but better editors. I don't doubt that Kimball and Williams could have written fairly enjoyable and enriching books had they been pushed by a proper editor to cut the bullshit parts, focus on real deliverable insights and acted like what I believe Boss Fight hopes to be - a publisher that shows how games can touch us deeply and emotionally, make us better people, and open us to new worlds.

3 Game Books I Just Finished

The Platform Series from MIT Press is something that I've dreamt about but never had the specific description to really define what I was looking for nor the expertise to deliver it myself. As the name implies, each book in the series covers a particular platform, as of the time of this post: Atari VCS (the 2600), Nintendo Wii and the Commodore Amiga. Considering the nature of the publisher, the books are not maudlin non-sensical nostalgia-gasms that some other companies (BOSS FIGHT BOOKS) have published on video games. 

See, unlike most of what's written about video games, which seems to center on the idea that "video games are popular and have gained credibility", the platform series treats the individual platforms, their games and social cultures adjacent as distinct subjects that they genuinely believe have something to reveal about the nature of play, simulation, technology, economics, and all the rest of those academic subjects. 

Generics on the series as a whole aside, each book, which I loved each of them, has their own gems and rather than summarize in their entirety, and they should be read as such, I'd like to hit on what stood out to me for each one

 

Racing the Beam 

I have a fascination with the Atari 2600 that a lot of my generation shares. I didn't grow up playing it exclusively (that was the NES), but I did have one in my home for a short while, and I've always loved the charming simplicity of its games, its hellish sound and the legacy as a business Atari laid (by the way, if you haven't seen Once Upon Atari, please do). I'm a collector of Atari stuff, and if my income and wife were a bit more open, I'd probably have near a full collection at this point. 

Needless to say, it's why I bought the book. The best section, and most important to the rest of the arguments in the book, is the long and thorough discussion of the different processors and memory locations of the VCS's hardware. Here you learn about how racing the beam actually worked (the beam that drew the CRT TV images), hardcoded sprites, memory for sprites, and the 6507 all worked together. For one, it's nice to have a set of hardware that you can really wrap your head around. Again, charming simplicity. But more importantly, as the book progresses through the games "Adventure" and "Pac-Man", it delivers detailed discussion of how these games were crafted using the chipset available. 

You can't understand why "Pac-Man" on Atari sucked unless you know its chipset, and you can't appreciated how clever "Adventure" was without understand how sprites were kept in memory. The book accomplishes in this long section and subsequent chapters what it sets out to do in the introduction - show how creativity intersected with hardware, and how hardware formed games. It's really something we'd rather ignore now with such an obscene amount of memory and power, but the material does affect the medium and knowing its strengths and weakness helps creative professionals know where to cut and what to push. 

The Future Was Here

I found this book to be by far the most fascinating. However, I don't think there's anything revolutionary in the author's discussion of the Amiga and its software. It's simply the best book I've ever read on a single computer and its history. Well researched, covering every aspect of the system the author's could find including The Bard's Tale, the boing demo, the Demoscene, digital music / video, and the multitasking operating system. 

Putting this book down, you walk away with such an appreciation for the folks who built the Amiga, and those who used what would now be considered, pretty humble hardware, to build unheard of digital expressions. It's one of those moments of understanding - yes computers are about automation, but truly, and particularly in the demoscene, they are really about expression and hard fought at that. 

Codename: Revolution

I am not a Wii player. I don't own one, I've played it some and for the most part, I've found it interesting, but never enough to purchase one. Similar to Racing the Beam, the book's author target the intersection of the technology of the platform including its all important peripherals in order to draw a point about how expression changes with a reduced processing capacity, the sensitivity of the controller, and the player's physical game space. 

I enjoyed the discussion on the design of Mii characters, which led to a tangent on the design of Nintendo's early character designs (Mouths are hard to draw, cool give Mario a mustache), but it's not really the power of the book, which comes in the final chapter. After chapters on how the different aspects of the Wii had impacted game creators and player interaction with the system, the author's took on the follow-up competitors to the Wii, namely the Kinect. 

Not to say they are outright bias, but it's apparent the authors are definitely not fans. They back it up - while the Kinect was supposed to submerge the player into the gaming environment, the author's point out that players generally don't want to be completely subsumed by the gaming environment. Instead, they want a cybernetic environment. Case in point - Wii Bowling. While it may be more "freeing" to not have a controller with the Kinect, having a button, the player could more accurately control release of the ball. 

Having personally had to do non-game programming with the Kinect, I found that trying to do accurate things other than jump and lean, were outside of its capabilities and prevented the user from receiving good feedback as to whether their actions were received. Keys at the very least click. 

As I said, I'm not a Wii fanboy by any means, but its an excellent defense of where the Wii succeeded and the Kinect failed. Yes, Wii needed a better library and wasn't as powerful, but when it used the motion, it used it right - the motion gave you the control you wanted rather than forcing you to substitute physically jumping for pressing the "A" button (not true for all the titles to be fair).

While I don't have a stake in either camp, the final chapters made me actually care about how 3D motion was used in games and that is demonstrative of where the Platform series excels - they teach you and carry you through history and technology to help you understand game expression to the point where, even if you aren't playing said platforms, you're still enjoying that they're out there. 

Four Documentaries on Arcade Gaming and why most documentaries are boring recently

Couple quick thoughts on this group of recent nostalgic bouts:

Chasing Ghosts

With the most history and interviews, this is a good compendium of the rise of the arcade period in the early / mid-eighties. Sadly, it's not really interesting and there's nothing really to draw from knowing this information, or at least something the filmmakers want you to take away. The film has no key tension, other than an arcade champions reunion, which the filmmakers never underscore why this was the central crux of the movie, other than it's something that actually happened presently. 

High Score

The worst amongst the movies, the film follows a gamer attempting to break the Missle Command high score. While it's a good objective goal for the main character, it doesn't really have any actual impact on the film. It's just, again, something that happens. Video game records are usually video recorded and mailed in, so the attempts themselves are not very dramatic, and more importantly, achieving Missle Command high scores is an endurance challenge rather than a skill excellence. Since the most exciting event would be somebody to stay up for 80 hours playing video games, it makes this move really slow and ultimately says very little about gaming.

King of Kong

Another record attempt, in this case Donkey Kong high score, held at the time of the film by Billy Mitchell. Mitchell is the best arcade gamer of all time, and has an amazingly arrogant and proud personality, so this film, while the record is only a little interesting, is fun to watch because there's actually an antagonist to the main character's goal that registers with the audience. Doesn't say much about the game or gaming generally, but Mitchell's personality makes the film worth it. 

Space Invaders

Best of the bunch - Space Invaders documents several very elaborate personal arcade collections, delves into the history of arcade gaming and the video game hysteria in the 80s, and tries to get an understanding of why people would devote so much to such large, old fashioned games. Ultimately that answer is mainly nostalgia, and touching of one's youth, but the filmmakers discuss collecting more generally and what it is to maintain something that is horribly out of date. 

 

Most of these movies are bad. Not just low budget, but boring, dull and wandering. The problem in the ones above and in a lot of low-budget documentaries coming out is the miss the point of making a film - to make us feel something and connect with a different world, just like a fictional movie. Instead, most of these new documentaries are things just happening that are being filmed.

By far the worst I've seen is SOMM on a group of men trying to attain the highest rank of sommelier in the US. The movie just thinks that you can show peopel drinking fancy wines and somehow I'll care, because, you know, I like wine. However, even though it's a rigid test, the film never really sets up the conflict of passing it. They just create a mystique that it's hard, but I don't know why it should be that hard (say, if you watched a movie on astroanut training you'd understand why the bar is so high) and why I should care that people can pass the test. 

Likewise with the gaming films above, the filmmakers appear to have thought - hey, here's a gaming thing, let's shoot reels, throw in a couple transitions of close ups of joysticks and old game art, and we got a film. I'd like to say I'm insulted, but in truth, I figure the intentions of the documentarians were pure, it's just that the material is not all that exciting

Video game high scores just aren't that interesting to modern gamers nor are they visually very interesting. Watch some bad ass on Call of Duty pwn and you'll at least see something visually cool, but Donkey Kong, whether the first level or the last screen, still pretty much looks the same at every point in the game. Score are also very antithetical to the intent of the modern gaming community to be more open and inviting rather than ultra competitive. High scores breed people like Billy Mitchell, who don't make me want to play video games. This doesn't mean there aren't competitive people, it just means, the epitome of a great gamer is not necessarily his/her competitiveness. In fact, in games like Minecraft, it may be the exact opposite.

 

 

 

Drupal Summit in Vancouver

There's a scene in Eurotrip, where a group of dudes heads to a nude beach expecting to see girls, only to find that the entire beach is filled with dudes, also expecting to see women.

Every summit/convention/expo I've been to for tech has this feel to it. It's as if everyone going there is looking to connect and make this break in their career with a new contact, see a new product or company. Maybe finally get that real coding job they've wanted for so long. But with everyone there with the same objective, it's hard to make any progress.

I'm not sure what I was looking for when I went to the Drupal Summit in Vancouver this last month. I wanted to present, which I I did - Stealing from the Core and Elsewhere. I hoped this presentation would be a challenge to me and involve me with perhaps with some more serious Drupal developers. 

Unfortunately, I may have put too much into my session, which lesson learned I suppose. Because I presented on application development in JavaScript, folks (some) thought I was just a Node.js geek and this system was just imitating it. Given the fact that my application was not an asyncronous server tool, even explicitly saying my server side code was handled by PHP, I found this frustrating, but perhaps I should have been a better presenter. 

But how can I actually be annoyed? Drupal is a divided community. With those who are serious backend folks and those who are serious GUI-end folks looking for the next module / theme that they feel will give them the edge or at least the final amount of control without needing to code. On the edges are folks like me who use it tangentially so don't really geek out about it. 

Given that divided ground, it makes me worry about the future of Drupal. Because its curators aren't all in the same place mentally, it's difficult to drive towards synced goals on the code and feature levels, unlike what I've seen in the Rails community. However, maybe this makes Drupal have a bright future, because it's end users (the GUI-folks) are so demanding of the coders to come out with things that work better together. 

Does the real guts of Drupal really lie in the salt of the earth conferences, or is it at the big conventions each year? I typically trust salt of the earth, actual use day to day, but perhaps that is much like the quickly stated, poorly thought out, immediately downvoted answers on Stackoverflow.

In order to see the real state of Drupal, it's not in everyone who uses it, but those who do so the best. Maybe Austin and Amersterdam might be worth it to change my mind. 

 

 

10 Print


10 Print
 is boring, code fetishist, smary, unbalanced and probably worth a read. 

Officially titled some long string of code I won't bother to repeat, the collection, part of MIT's Software Studies series, is made up of small essays surrounding a one-line program that when run on a Commodore 64 produces an infinite random maze.

Hitting on the general topics of mazes, the hardware of the 64, porting the program to other platforms, the nature/history of BASIC, randomness and traversing the maze produced, the book does a fine job of trying to hit this topic from every possible angle. Doesn't hurt that the cover is pretty freaking cool and the nods to the platform itself (64-style font for page numbers, listing chapters like BASIC line numbers, and the emblatic Blue of the 64 system) are also fun, especially, I imagine, if you were learning about those elements for the first time. 

The technical discussions, the historical tangents and the play with the program are the goods of the book. Showing the program in various 3D formats using the Processing language, porting it to the Atari and explaining path traversing in BASIC would really on point and carefully walk the line of exploring a technical subject with the aesthetic value of its output. 

The writers do a fine job of drilling down technical topics, emerging why subtle details of chip design, BASIC and business decisions have large reprecussions on computer function and expressiveness.

I insulted the book at the beginning of this post, and I should explain it. The book is aware that it's both smart and cool. While I enjoy feeling smart and cool, the subject is actually very interesting on its own and doesn't need attachments of hipness. Unfortunately, a lot of the chapters read like grad student responding to a writing prompt, pulling in complexity and reach as much as possible. While the authors never overreach, there's a lack of what makes good computer enjoyable which is genuine interest and exploration of a machine or language. 

There's already so much to say and go into, that reaching far out isn't necessary and is detrimental to the actual work ahead. A discussion on the history of mazes, regularity and randomness in art, while interesting, are essays about those matters that touch on the 10 Print program or use it as a jumping off point simply because that's what the book is about. While this makes the book far richer and posed for general audience acceptance, they clash with the books later more technical chapters and come off as "Look at all the tangents I can go off this small subject." 

I don't feel the authors failed in answering the prompt, but unfortunately this isn't about grading. The chapter on grids in art definitely turned me onto to new artists and have enriched my appreciation of organization in art, but they told me nothing new about the core subjects of the book. Essentially, they were out of scope.

But what is on about this book is spot on. 

 

Three Books I Read on Simulated Realities

As with all rapidly losing-blooded Americans, I want a global virtual reality network.

Much as I was excited about diving into a few novels (Snow Crash Neal Stephenson, Ready Player One Ernest Cline, Rapture of the Nerds Cory Doctorow & Charles Stross) in a row about this type of thing, every imagining of some form of Virtual Realm (VR) has problems. Annoying ones:

  • The rules are badly defined. 
  • Virtual characters do things that make no sense.

These books aren't annoying as stories. They're exciting adventures. 

Snow Crash combines ancient religion, computer hacking, rival corporate gangs and the urban virtual world, the Metaverse, in a violent action story that takes a humble katana-wielding pizza delivery man to the root of all human language. It's a satire of corporate idealism, American evangelicalism and post-Nuclear politics (there's a dude rolling around on a motorcycle with a warhead), but the only element without the humorous play up is the Metaverse.

Stephenson coined the term and since then it's been every geek's dream to bring it into existence in various forms, such as SecondLife. The MetaVerse is an urban landscape and for the most part people interact and act much like they do in reality from a first person perspective. Of course, you can make your avatar look however, many folks resorting to cheap duplicate avatars similar to Barbie and Ken dolls.

In contrast, the hero of Doctorow/Stross's book, Rapture of the Nerds is staunchly anti-technology and horrified of upload himself up into the cloud. It's a virtual reality, but you go there once and you stay. For most of the world, it's a gateway to immorality; for Huw, the story's protaganist, it's dying. It takes a while for the book to get up in the cloud, in point of fact, it's a pretty wild undertaking of Apocalyptic Christians living in a giant anthill, bizarre cyborg infections, multi-genitaled religions and repeated betrayls. 

Once in the cloud, Huw's reality is completely virtualized and controlled, down to his own emotional reactions, which have buffers, filters and dials to adjust. He can fork his own self repeatedly to aid him in processing or trying different realities at different speeds. It's a strange form of conciousness to describe, but nicely matching with how we currently view computer programs own operations and manipulations. 

Ready Player One is the most familar virtual universe. The OASIS is a gaming environment turned virtual world. School classes are now held there as does most socializing, and of course there are thousands of adventure worlds of every imaginative ilk - sci-fi, fantasy, hybrid or simply friendly places like SecondLife - to explore. The real world is a bit of a shithole, so the book makes no satire - it's just better to leave the real world and enter the OASIS, where the book spends most of its time.

Each book has its own successes and failings as novels, but none of these really annoy me and when they are flagrant, it's typically because the story needs to move on. It's sci-fiction after all. But on the technology stuf - well, that's worth taking a look at.

The main issue with the majority of these proposed virtual worlds is the inefficiency. I get the literary motivation for the avatars - a VR is just an excuse to have a fantasy world that plays by whatever arbitrary rules that satisfies the story's need for excitement. Better than any fantasy world too, because the author can just decide whenever that previously stated rules don't apply.

Why the emphasis on rules? When you have wizards inside of Cyberpunk planets fighting starships (as in Ready Player One), you need rules so you can understand what is important or what is at stake. Stories without stake are pretty boring. 

But back to inefficiency. In the movie Hackers, there's so massive hack at the end where the characters are all using these virtual reality headsets to navigate some database. It really doesn't make sense - why can't they just type some macros into in a command line and get what they need immediately? It's the same in these literary VRs.

Why spend a bunch of time walking, actually walking, to your friend when you can just message they instantly. We do that now. Why make a rendezvous in some secret location when you can just email a person? I think it's easier to encrypt a simple text message over encrypting instant voice communication and digital rendering of several characters simultaneously as happens repeatedly in Ready Player One.

It's a problem of motivation. The author's need to play in a sci-fi world makes sense, the reader's desire to be in that sci-fi world makes sense, but why the characters would operate in this made up world that humans made and then elected to be a part of doesn't.

Since I've picked on Cline's book a bit, I'll say at least his has small caveat that the VR was originally a gaming environment, but in general, when the modern day Web user has more instaneously and efficient modes of communication than folks in a vast global virtual reality network in the future, the author's imaginings at this point are akin to fiction of modern magic, not because of the level of technology required to produce a VR environment, but because we know that VR realms just don't operate in the manner's described as we've had some taste of it with online communities and gaming.

It's sort of like one of those images where you see what the future looked like to folks 100 years ago 

It takes a couple core concepts of what "technology" is and pushes them to extremes. Ships were the most powerful form of technology at some point, so therefore the future will be dominated by ships of war that can go on land. Watch out!

It's unfortunate, but Stephenson's Metaverse style fiction isn't all that enthralling and the need for a full digital rendering of a person in the other novels is not a breakthrough in a science fiction sense (I doubt the author's think so or care). It is just another fantasy world erected in order for characters to do cool things and have fun. 

Quiet frankly, you do have fun and perhaps because you aren't struggling with a mind altering concept of reality just to turn the pages, you can enjoy that. 

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