Sunday, January 01, 2017

The Best Games I played in 2015

The best games I played for the first time in 2015. (posted on Facebook last year, archived here for permanent reference)

Weird story driven games:
  1. The Talos Principle and the Road to Gehenna. Unusual, philosophically complex, and beautiful. Most of your actual time is spent solving 3D puzzles that aren’t quite as slick as Portal’s in their mechanics, but the whole experience of clever puzzles combined with the drip-feed of story is exactly the kind of thing I wish there was more of. 
  2. The Beginner’s Guide. Not really a game by a lot of definitions, it’s a narrated journey through a series of experimental games in an attempt to understand their creator. Not something you play to have fun in the same the way that you play a lot of games. But it was an experience I’m glad to have had.
  3. Undertale. This is another game that is fundamentally about games themselves: it's an RPG where you don't have to kill anyone, and the core of the game is how you handle the challenge of radical pacifism in a world of monsters trying to kill you. I could believe the game started as an Earthbound mod, it’s missing a lot of the polish of some other games that attempt similar things, but it's short and has a long of interesting stuff.
  4. SOMA. An interesting reflection on the nature of existence and the future of humanity split up by moments of pure unwelcome terror.
The mainstream:
  1. Arkham Knight. This game surprised me in a number of ways, and it might be my favorite Batman story at this point, speaking as someone who has been over Batman for a while. It has some really clever parts to it that I wouldn’t want to spoil. As good as the gameplay is, I played it for the story.
  2. Shadow of Mordor. The only good thing that’s been done with the Lord of the Rings franchise in the last 12 years. It has an excellent deep combat system, and it manages to make Tolkien's world interesting again.
  3. Fallout 4. While I have my gripes about the simplified dialog and character interactions, it’s still an interesting and well-fleshed out world, with a number of quality gameplay mechanics.
  1. Concept. A clever take on communication games, where you convey information by interacting with a grid of “concept” icons and showing relationships between them.
  2. Tales of the Arabian Knights. A really weird choose your own adventure like experience. You have random encounters you pick how to respond to (the game asks if you want to hire a wandering magician, rob him, fight him, etc), each of which leads to their own story outcome that varies depending upon attributes of your character. 
  3. Pandemic Legacy. A story based campaign in board game form, that forces you to adapt your strategy and figure out a new system several times over as the game changes. It didn’t surprise me in quite the same way Risk Legacy did the first time I played it, but it’s a stronger/more balanced game, and I’m happy to see this style of game thrive.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

A list of potential cryptocurrency variants

Hearing about Bitcoin has given me a number of great ideas for Cryptocurrencies. As we all know, Bitcoin has an inflation rate that cuts in half every four years, which has led to the most stable currency valuation since Zimbabwe's. But why not try a few other options:

  1. VanishCoins. The inherently deflationary currency. Instead of new coins being mined, the existing coins disappear at random intervals spread out over a year. Spend them fast or they're gone! Or hoard the remaining ones until they're worth millions.
  2. MarkCoin. The inherently stable currency system. There is only one coin in the network. Exactly one. It can not be divided. You can spend it on any merchant that accepts the MarkCoin. The exchange rate is expected to be infinite.
  3. PonziCoin. You can only purchase a Ponzi coin if you commit to buying two more Ponzi coins at a future date at a slight markup. It's the pyramid scheme you can play all by yourself. 
  4. SpeculativeInvestmentCoin. The SICoin is not permissible as legal tender anywhere and makes no pretenses of having an exchange rate. In fact, you can't even purchase an SICoin. You can only buy exotic derivatives that fluctuate in price as the SICoin itself does. Why does its value change? Who knows! Who cares!
  5. RandCoin. On any given day your wallet has an equal chance of increasing by 10% or decreasing by 10%.
  6. FullFaithAndCreditCoin. The money supply is controlled entirely by me. Will I inflate it? Will I deflate it? How well do you think you know the man behind the curtain?
  7. MathCoin. Transactions using MathCoin can only occur in powers of two. You can trade 2, 4, 8, 16 Mathcoins etc, but nothing in between. You can only send one MathCoin transaction out per day. Liquidity is expected to be an issue.
  8. CloneCoin. At the moment of its inception, one CloneCoin is issued to everyone who owns a bitcoin, then the network continues in parallel. Which is worth more? Are they philosophically identical? Does it have free will?
  9. USDollarCoin. Accepted in vending machines and ignored nationwide.
  10. PokeCoin. Each coin comes in 151 possible flavors of collectible goodness. Gotta mine 'em all!

The Hobbit movies are not the worst prequel trilogy ever made

So after watching all of the Hobbit Prequel trilogy, I've reached the conclusion that I hate it less than the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

1) The Hobbit movies ruined fewer of my favorite characters. Aragorn for example, barely name dropped. Sauruman, so confusingly portrayed it might not have been the same character.
2) Anakin ranting about sand was a less plausible romance subplot than the dwarf/elf romance, even though girls never actually pick the shorter guy.
3) Magic, although barely used, is never explained away through pseudoscience.
4) Bunny sled is better than Jar Jar
5) The gratuitous callbacks to the original movies were less offensive somehow, maybe because Peter Jackson has shown no intention of reediting the originals with his new bloated vision.
6) Even though the third movie resolves the unnecessary cliffhanger of the second in the first few minutes like it's some TV serial and gives us an hour of Thorin high on dragon gold, it's still more compelling than Anakin's character arc.
7) No one ever says "that was so wizard", despite the actual presence of real life wizards doing wizard things.
8) Similarly, Legolas spins on more than one occasion, but has the quiet dignity not to call it out as a good trick.
9) Without the audio, the staggeringly incomprehensible visual spectacle of the Hobbit wins out chiefly for its artistic value as a tour through New Zealand
10) If you edit out all the filler and awfulness, you're left without about a half hour of good movie in the Hobbit, which might be a worse ratio than the Star Wars prequels, but still more raw quality

2015 wasn't like Back to the Future promised

(backfilling some content I posted on Facebook at the time)

As I look at the state the world is in on Back to the Future day, it makes me a little melancholy. No flying cars, no hydrated pizzas, no ubiquitous hoverboards. I truly enjoyed the fundamentally optimistic view of the future presented in Back to the Future 2. Rather than taking the easy route and making the future into a fallen dystopia, they decided the world would continue to advance and get better in fantastic ways. I'm a little sad we no longer have that goal to shoot for. We missed our chance to make that world real.

We've changed the world in ways Marty McFly would still have been surprised by, we have ubiquitous access to information compared to his future where there was a fax machine on every street corner. Conquering physics is just a lot harder than we thought.

There's still a silver lining though. At the end of Back to the Future III, it's made clear the future Marty sees isn't going to happen, it's a blank slate for him to fill in. That future was never out there waiting for us to be carried into it. Our future is still whatever we make it into.

Reflections on the first six Star Wars movies

Written prior to seeing Episode VII.

I think the only way you can make sense of the whole saga and all the flaws of the prequels is if you conclude Yoda and Obi-Wan underwent a major change in philosophy as a result of the events of the prequels. In the prequels the Jedi are basically super soldiers fighting wars where both sides of the conflict are in service of evil, and Yoda fights multiple Sith pitting strength against strength, employing forces that will ultimately destroy them all. In the original trilogy, Yoda says wars don't make one great, a Jedi should never use the force to attack, and that the evil you encounter is only what you take with you. The Yoda in the prequels is a warrior who fights evil directly and uses clone armies to destroy his enemies. The Yoda in the original trilogy is a sadder wiser creature who learned that pitting violence against violence is not the answer, and chooses to live in isolation rather than fight.

Luke defeats the Emperor by throwing away his weapon, preferring to die and leave himself defenseless rather than give in to hate. He doesn't save his father by becoming more powerful, his supreme act of defiance is rejecting the cycle of violence in pursuit of power. He mirrors Obi-Wan's final moments: in an act of love, he refuses to harm the man he should have every reason to hate. Vader isn't saved by a stronger power, but by mercy. The scenes in Return of the Jedi are so compelling because it's not a battle for who's stronger, but a battle for the souls of Luke and Anakin. Luke wins because he's able to love the monster the Emperor built for him to hate.

The prequels are a loud bombastic mess where the Jedi and Sith are two sides of the same coin, employing similar powers and tactics, a Sith is just a Jedi who favors a different leader. The original trilogy shows the Jedi as rejecting the tactics and worldview of the Sith. And saving someone from the evil within their heart is far more compelling of a resolution than fighting to kill them.

May the force be with us all.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Pros and Cons of Kindle Reading

My girlfriend got me a kindle for Christmas, and having had the chance to read a few books on it so far, I feel it's time to weigh in on what I think of the delightful little gizmo.

The pros:
  • It's the one thing you need to bring with you when you want something to read. It's lightweight, gives you your whole (digital) library, and lets you pick up where you left off in any book you want to come back to
  • Pro: It absolutely minimizes physical effort and distraction in the reading process, you don't have to turn pages, or go from one side of a bound book to another, you literally hold the book in one place and hit a button to change pages. It's faster and more convenient than traditional reading.
  • Pro: I'm starting to think it's the easiest way to read pure text, scrolling on a web browser is awkward for keeping your place and has uncomfortable margins, and it's easier to pick up and set down than a normal book and start reading just at a push of a button.
  • Pro: This is more of a lack of a problem, but the battery life is well-nigh infinite if you're not downloading books, and can be pretty much forgotten about 99% of the time.
  • Pro: Having spent so much time reading and watching backlit screens, the digital ink of the kindle is much more comfortable for reading, it feels like reading a normal book. It not being backlit means you need a light source like any other book, but I'm convinced it's the most comfortable way to read, it's essentially a book with one page that keeps changing.
  • Pro: In theory, you can search for specific text or phrases and annotate, although those seem to be more experimental and less-refined. Skipping to individual chapters from the table of contents is much simpler

Now for the cons:
  • A number of books have had spotty support for kindle features, pull quotes which are images have ended up in the wrong place depending upon your text size, there are minor transcription errors or incorrectly placed text, and viewing footnotes isn't always as easy as it's supposed to be. Not every book seems to be set up with the same level of quality
  • Con: Not every book is available in kindle format, it's great for picking up new books or best-sellers, but it's a way to get books on a going-forward basis, while most popular titles I looked for were there, not all were
  • Con: Amazon is currently fighting over the future of e-books thanks to the iPad promising 15 bucks for an ebook, and publishers not wanting to sell their content cheaply. Amazon tries to push a 10 dollar price point with possible discounts, I think trying to sell a digital book for more than a standard paperback is really unfair to the consumer who doesn't necessarily know how long he can count on a particular format sticking around.
  • Con: While the size of the device is ideal for what it is, a portable reading device, you are sometimes made aware of the limitations of the smaller screen size and the correspondingly smaller amount of text it can fit before you hit the next page button, I've chosen to go to comparatively smaller text sizes to bite off larger chunks at a time
  • Con: Picking up where you left off is very easy, but I'm not completely sold on the merits of searching by text or location, paging through a book is still faster than hitting next page even if hitting "next page" is faster than turning a normal page. In one book in particular, the index at the back of the book was useless, non-hyperlinked and the page numbers offered no correspondence to how "locations" were laid out in the book, you had to rely on a text search or guessing by section
  • Con: You can't lend out a book as easily that I'm aware of, and at the moment trying to show someone something in a book quickly turns into a kindle tech demo as the device overshadows all
  • Con: It's unsuitable for certain types of information: magazines, strategy guides, comic books, graphic novels, and newspaper articles you might want to tear out or pass on to another person.

Essentially, the kindle is optimized for a very specific process: reading a book, leafing through it one page at a time, and periodically setting it down to pick it up later. It helps accomplish that process better than any invention since Gutenberg. It is significantly less optimized towards the other ways in which people use books: leaving margin notes (although annotations are possible they aren't as intuitive as in a book), skimming through a book and trying to take in large sections at once, or representing other types of content rather than just pure text. (images are possible, but limited)

That said, going off of purely empirical data, the kindle has been an incredible success for me. It's successfully subsumed my normal book reading (excluding graphic novels, and online stuff like the wall street journal), and I'd say it's even increased the rate at which I read books because of its incredible convenience for normal reading, and the ease of just picking up a book where you left off and diving in. Reading books on the kindle is addicting, it gets information to you incredibly fast and you're less intimidated by the size of the tome in question, your progress is tracked at the bottom with a bar but you only ever have a well-measured chunk to deal with.

So while I may not have had the courage to attempt this experiment on my own, I'm sold on the kindle for basic reading, and I'll continue trying to find ways to make it better at the things I want it to do like searching and scanning, and hope it continues to grow in support among publishers. I'm undertaking a certain risk in committing part of my future library to this format, but hopefully it'll prove more resilient than the cheap paperbacks it's effectively replacing.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Topics from Comic-Con: the Philosophy of Adaptations, the Future of Strategy Guides, and the state of nerd culture

My first article with a round-up of the interesting events/etc from Comic-Con is up, you can read it here. I got to talk to Zach Snyder of Watchmen and 300 about his philosophy of adaptations, the creator of CSI and lonelygirl15 about their new project, and present an overview of all Comic-Con has to offer. For anyone interested btw, four-day passes to the 2010 convention have already sold out, single-day passes go on sale in one week.