Building a Better Deck

Daaah- Blew it! Missed my Wednesday Post time by 4 damn hours.

So, recently, as part of my focused efforts to become a better gamer and by extension a better designer of games, I’ve taken to trying more non-video game and non-PC games. My next step is to putz about with Facebook games some more and explore the social side of all that in addition to tackling the daunting world of mobile game apps, but that’s an ongoing process (save ends).

I got (back) into Dungeons & Dragons about two years ago when Penny-Arcade started doing these Dungeons & Dragons podcasts – basically, Wizards of the Coast paid them and Scott Kurtz some money to come around the office (and later to send their guy over to PA’s office) to play DnD so that they could record them and release it as a podcast. This was a fascinating and it turns out brilliant idea, because it instantly exposed the PA audience – many of whom are curious about non-video games but don’t feel comfortable or familiar with them – to the unique and odd joy of DnD. Particularly through Mike Krahulik’s eyes, as he was super new to the whole concept of “rolling dice.” Basically, this gimmick worked splendidly on me, but I found, as time wound on, it’s really fucking difficult to break in to the tabletop gaming world. All the stores tend toward independent ownership (which is good) and subsequently develop a really exclusive culture (which is bad) that makes getting yourself ingratiated enough to find a group god-damn next to impossible (which is the worst). If your friends exist in diaspora as mine do, it’s really difficult to get schedules to line up and find time to do some DnD via virtual tabletops, MapTools or otherwise. So here I was with a newfound vigor for what we might call ‘classic’ gaming and no way to pursue it.

Fast forward two years – I get laid off, Danielle gets sick, and we decide to take her over to the doctor’s office up the street. The doctor’s office is adjacent (ish?) to a games and hobby store, which it turns out is basically just a front door that leads to a spiraling ramp/staircase into a basement filled with nerdism. We decided to go in because we keep coming back to this conversation that the games I play aren’t games she likes, but she plays and enjoys card games. Well, I’ve played a couple of nerd-friendly card games before, very recently in fact, and I wasn’t sure we had the same idea about “card games.” I also wasn’t sure there were any that were, as every mom from the 80s insisted things be, “two-player.” Particularly, I wasn’t looking for another game that pitted me against her, because I wasn’t sure that was right for us. The guy talked eventually about the idea of “deck-building games,” and included Munchkin in that process, but I wasn’t sure about that statement. Ultimately, this was the path we took, but it put me to thinking about card games in general. I don’t have experience aplenty with this medium, but I have recently expanded my mindset quite a bit. Quick look back at that:

I played Munchkin at PAX East for the first time this year and also a game called Loot and learned a third called Puzzle Strike from some wonderful fellow PAX-goers at the hotel after the show ended. Each of these games was essentially played as a card game (Puzzle Strike forgoes cards in favor of chips that have a similar effect, but have a nice tactile quality that makes you more kinesthetically connected with it. Or, at least, that’s what I took away from it), but they ultimately emulated three different types of games. Munchkin was the card game version of a dungeon-crawling RPG with slight adversarial elements between the Players – i.e. like Gauntlet, the other players were totally content to let me get screwed. Ryan, in particular took joy in it. Loot, similarly, possessed some very real adversarial elements, but Loot’s flow felt more like a Strategy Game. I had a series of resources at the ready that I could deploy and make an effect on the world, which is to say, the other two players. Puzzle Strike was a fighting/tetris game. You had a character and a deck of chips that the character could pull from, each with their own unique extras. Some were combo focused, others were focused on screwing up your opponents deck, others still had various bonuses. Winning involved building up your personal allotment of gem chips so that you could kick them into the opponent to your left. This was called crashing, and is sort of like sending rows you eliminate in tetris to your opponent’s screen. It has the twin effect of potentially giving him the opportunity to score huge points and also sort of screwing him over, because, just like in tetris, in Puzzle Strike, if you go over 10 gems in your personal gem pile (your “stack” as it’s called), you’re out of the game.

So the strategy comes in when you look at the chips that are available. Your guy starts with a couple and you have a handful of money chips in your hand at the beginning of the game. Available for purchase are larger denominations of gems (2s, 3s, and 4s), which give you more money in a single chip pull, special chips that let you do more than one action in a turn, special tips that let you block the attacks of your opponent (you’re only ever playing one guy at at ime), and special chips that let you add dead cards to the other players’ hands, which sucks univserally because your hand only ever has 5 chips in it (I think).

Anyway, that’s what I learned at PAX, and it was an awesome good time. I really enjoyed it. What I wanted to look more into was games that were simpler than that, because I thought that amount of data would overwhelm Danielle. The only reason I learned it at all was because I had a patient and kindly teacher in a fellow Arcadian who was in the hotel lobby. Gamers can speak each others’ languages, so it makes it super simple to pick new stuff up. I wasn’t sure if that would be the case for her, so I went into the store with her on the theory that I’d have to get them to understand that I couldn’t walk out of there with a deck of magic cards – besides being a commercially dangerous, I find the whole idea of customizable, expandable card games a little unnerving. You buy booster packs with the hope and prayer that, hiding within that 5 dollar investment, is a new card that will make your deck just perfect for three or four scenarios, providing you draw the card at the right time. Financial investment wins that game, regardless of what anyone says, which is why you can go on eBay and other sites and purchase individual cards for slightly more than the booster packs but without the hassle of having to wade through the system. Either way, Wizards gets paid, so I don’t think they care.

 

Regardless, I didn’t want Magic. I’m not a big fan of the game. I find it obtuse and convoluted and its system of monetization too aggressive for me. I don’t think it’s an awful game, but I’ve played it before and I don’t need to again. That’s fair to say.

Anyway, I went in there and basically said that and gave my narrow world view of Magic and within seconds I could see that I had walked into a Magic-centric shop, which started red lights and klaxons in my brain, for a number of reasons. I have an unwarranted low opinion of Magic enthusiasts which I struggle to hide from them and from the rest of nerddom. I don’t know what caused it, but it’s there and it is definitive. I manage to steer the convesration in the direction I want it to go – I have a Girlfriend, there she is, and I want a game I can play with her. I was hoping something out there would be cooperative, and it turns out there was, but it was a Lord of the Rings game which they were out of stock of. So they gave me Dominion.

Dominion, is, frankly, fantastic. It may be the mac daddy of all deck-building card games. The formula is essentially the same – the game comes in a big heaping box with a bunch of big heaping decks of identical cards. Your goal in the game is to acquire cards of a specific type which, when the game ends, are converted based on the number displayed on their faces into point values. Highest score wins. Simple stuff, but what makes Dominion so cool is how you go about doing it. The game kicks off with some simple stuff – on the playing surface are treasure cards (worth and costing respectively 1, 2, and 3; and 0, 3, and 6), Victory Cards (aforementioned “points” cards) of values 1, 3, and 6, and Curse cards (negative points).  You start the game out with a deck of 10 cards per player, 7 coppers (1 coin value) and 3 1-point victory cards. Your hand is only 5 cards deep. Each turn has an action phase and a buy phase. In your action phase, you play cards from your hand. In your buy phase, you play treasure from your hand and bonuses granted from your buy phase to add new cards to your deck, but everything from this turn goes into a personal discard pile, and you draw another hand from your deck. Eventually you run out and you shuffle the whole thing and continue.

The brilliance of Dominion is in the other 10 cards on the table. These cards are all action cards, and in their own fascinating way tell a tiny story. The goal of Dominion is to build up a medieval…well…Dominion or Realm over which you, as a monarch, rule. You don’t do this by raiding and pillaging and conquering. You do this by purchasing land. You’re basically an historical real estate mogul. Each of the 10 Action Cards, called Kingdom Cards, in play on the table assist you in some way toward the goal of gaining more Victory cards. You get to customize what actions your capable of by using your treasure cards to purchase new actions. These fill in the story in neat little ways. For example, I have a card called “militia” which is an Attack that causes my opponents’ hands to go down to 3 cards and gives me a +2 bonus to my buy phase. This represents me hiring thugs to go harass the other monarchs, thinning out their available resources temporarily without causing long-term damage. They also loot and pillage along the way and bring back a bit of swag for me. Danielle has a card in her hand currently that’s called the “Moat” and acts as a blocker card – I still get my +2 bonus, but the Militiamen basically got to her part of the realm and went “well, that’s a fair bit of water” and then puttered off somewhere else, able to bring me the spoils of the puttering but not able to cause a significant harm to Danielle’s kingdom/dominion.

That’s the part of it I find so clever – we get to tell a tiny story of the struggle for dominance in this historical-fantasy kingdom while playing a neat game of Sid Meier’s Civ… well, not really, Civ is a tabletop game in and of itself, but something within that “economic strategy” genre. And then even deeper than that, the game comes with 25 different kingdom cards, but only 10 are in play at any time. It means that there’s no surefire win strategy, and there are a number of playstyles that can benefit depending on the mutually-agreed-upon set of Kingdom Cards. The game comes with a couple of presets that it suggests and even an extra representative of each deck, giving the ability to shuffle that bitch up and have fate decide what cards you’re going to play with. It keeps things fresh and interesting.

Yet despite that, I’m pining for the expansion decks. It’s not a matter of having gotten bored with the current set of cards, but more a matter of wondering what else they’ve done. Each expansion focuses in a new direction both thematically and mechanically – Dominion was originally envisioned for 2 – 4 players at a single table, but one of the expansions adds a system for two tables competing against each other – a sort of duel of alliances. Another introduces the 15th-century exploratory focus, where things become about corporations and shipping and trade, still another focuses on making the core game bigger and better while functioning with the original sets – new types of cards you can get in your hand, new ways to win the game, and even new denominations of money and even bigger point values on a new Victory card.

But all of that is just icing – the weird thing about a card game like this, about deck-building games in general, is that, while I’ve been able to distill the “30 seconds of fun” in a video game down really quickly over the past couple of years so that I can play one for probably about an hour and narrow in on their core loop, I still have a hard time accurately communicating all the nuance and subtlety of games like this. It could be the thrill of not knowing what’s coming, even within my own deck, and it could be the nature of planning out such a massive wealth of resources to manage – your deck can get upwards of fifty or sixty individual cards before a game ends, and some turns could see you going through 20 cards in a single hand, sometimes more. The various ways the game gives you of betting your luck, the systems it borrows from classic card games and even clear influences from stuff like the generations of Civilization games – all of these are parts that don’t show you the whole picture. I think deck-building games may be my new favorite thing. They’re definitely a great gateway drug for Danielle, but they have their drawback.

We were at Legions again today and I was trying to sell her on the Wrath of Ashardalon box set because it has a cooperative aspect to it – her response? “You know, now that I’ve gotten away from the board, I don’t know if I really want to go back.”

I’d like to think that’s Dominion’s greatest contribution to our gametime – its micro stories have opened her mind and imagination to a lot more now. And I’m one step closer to getting her to roll one of these:

Arbiter of FortuneAnd then her journey to the Dork Side will be cohm-pleehtuh.

May was Not So Great

Lost my job, forgot to post a bunch, and fell super far behind on my work. Also didn’t get the opportunity to save up enough money to move somewhere that could be classified “new and exciting” at the close of July. Will try to be a little better about posting and blogging moving forward. I still have a couple of stubs and thoughts pertaining to various different concepts – one, namely, is my growing love of “deck-building” games, which don’t always take the shape of cards but generally have that structure.

Another is a continued meditation on an idea I have of examining superheroics in a philosophical light. That one sort of spins around in place and has for years – it’s based on my old Brimstone drafts. Brimstone, for those that don’t know, was a superhero outside of the classic continuum of superheroes whose extraordinary ability was to manifest radical and systemic change to his epidermis and near-dermic tissues as a kind of psychosomatic manifestation of his emotional states. Some things would make his skin cold and harden like concrete, to the point that many liquids and other objects would flash freeze on his skin. Other thoughts and emotions have a “hot” reaction, causing him to gain a molten-rock like quality that incinerated very nearly everything he touched, and if not incinerated, severely warmed. Basically, he allows himself to get arrested and then I do a four-part anthology/philosophic monologue on the nature of heroes, of hero worship, and of why those stories, characters, and archetypes are so valuable to us as human beings when they’re so far from the truth. I do that in the style of The Last Days of Socrates, with four sections – Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo but reflavored to be a fictional hero of our modern (or maybe near-futuristic) world instead of an ancient paragon of critical thinking and modern philosophy. It’s weighty stuff that’s probably super above me, but I’ve always really liked it.

Elsewise we have a few sort of thought-vomits on game design and my experiences trying to “play as a designer.” It’s particularly difficult to do when you’re trying to enjoy a game. I’m also wondering if it’s possible to do with a game you’ve already played. I’m beginning to believe that, no, it’s not, but attempting to do it can lead you to new assumptions or beliefs about the decisions the designers of the game in question made as they were going through their process. It’s a fascinating exercise, one way or the other.

So, schedule? Well, let’s see.

I’m starting Full Sail Online’s Creative Writing Master’s program on Tuesday, May 31st. So probably no post that day.

But we’ll say bi-weekly from now on, shall we? (He said to his imaginary audience)

Wednesdays and Fridays and more frequently as the mood strikes.

Wednesday, June 1st – On Deck-Building Games
Friday, June 3rd – On Euthyphro and why I’m mad I never took more philosophy courses

Wednesday, June 8th – Hopefully some Brimstome-related content to expound on that.
Friday, June 10th – a summary of experiences thus far from Full Sail Online, and some samples of that writing if it’s feasible by then. I have thoughts on this now which I’ve collected into stubs, but I want to actually, you know, do it before I issue judgment.

Wednesday  June 15th – Building Characters for Narrative with D&D. I’ve had this idea that, take away the adventuring aspect of it, we can all sort of think of ourselves as D&D characters in some way or another. I also find that the characters I’m most connected to lately are coming from my own imagination into the D&D Character Builder. I’ve been able to write up their backgrounds, give them faults and frailties, even disorders, largely based off of how I look at them in terms of the race I chose, the stats I chose, and the powers I chose. I can paint a really vivid picture of a character based on this stuff and then I can dive into his background in fun ways to upend this sort of idealized moment, give him some real gravitas and weight to his backstory. See, I’m already yapping about it. But that post will contain some examples of characters I’ve never played as in the game, who I created to balance the twin ideas of mechanically and conceptually interesting in the game. It’s a fun task, particularly if your fictional tastes run more towards fantasy and sci-fi.
Friday June 17th – Second Full Sail Online discourse. Again, going to try to dump anything useful I’ve generated into this space for my own storage and to make it more public as a challenge to myself. It may even be rewrites from previous weeks.

Wednesday June 22nd – Playing like a Designer – A Month-long Challenge discussed. Having tried to “play like a designer” for a month and tackle as many games as possible with this mindset, I’ll try to go back over the notes of the past month’s experiences and discussions with friends also interested in it to see what we came to collectively about the process.
Friday June 24th – Hm. Really thought I could plan this far. Well, mostly  hoped I could. Let’s see how we do and hope there’s something interesting to discuss come this day. Even if it’s new employment or the continued (lack of?) travails of unemployment.

 

The Indomitable Imagination

So, I was watching The Daily Show the other day, and it may have been an old episode, but it was talking about all the stuff found in Osama bin Laden’s complex and all the things we’ve learned about the guy since then… and I don’t know. I’m on the wrong side of this.

Getting to the point where we have to kill one specific person to feel good about ourselves or reconnect with our bygone illusion of global security is a little sad. Rooting through his shit to tear him down even more? That’s borderline bullying. The dude’s dead. We can’t hurt him anymore. Those who believe in him won’t care or believe that he dyed his beard or was porn-crazy (and, really, America? Pot calling the kettle black much?)

When that new first dropped, I felt weird about it. I didn’t feel an upending sense of joy and accomplishment. The President has said some things in the interim that have made me feel better – finally, a President’s gotten hard on Israel, and yes, I think they deserve. Because Israel has a democratically elected government and we opted to side with them 60 years ago, they’ve been able to scoot by on numerous civil liberty injustices and just overall bad behavior. If we’re going to do the 2 people 2 states thing (which we should), we need to make it clear that Israel doesn’t run the show entirely.

All of that information existed in a tertiary way to the fact the the news kicked my imagination into overdrive into a completely unproductive and bona fide useless direction of story crafting. Needless to say, I feel some conflicting emotions about the news. Discomfort is near the top – the idea that we’re celebrating the death of a human being is difficult for me to overcome. It is, in fact, the same behavior we abhor and detest in our primary enemies, warriors of the Radical Islamist movements. I’m not sure that we should be espousing that. Regardless of deeds, he was a man, a human man, not some aberrant demon or monstrosity. We’ll never know the precise circumstances surrounding his death, and I think that’s what causes some trepidation for me. Is it still a victory if the Spec Ops boys win the gunfight, storm the building, find bin Laden, give him a swirly in the nearest unflushed toilet, light a cigarette for him while peeing into his dialysis machine and radio in for “Papa Bear,” so that Dick Cheney can be choppered in to deliver the death blow? Is that a victory? Some would say yes. I don’t know the answer.

Now, don’t let my satire or cynicism disguise the fact that the scenario described above is a wholly and completely ridiculous notion. Our guys tend to be consummate professionals. They lose their cool, now and again, but overall our ruthless, trained, psychopathic killers really do tend to be gentlemen, so I would be powerfully hard-pressed to believe that’s how events played out on the ground (or the air? I dunno), but, again, we’ll never really know for sure, and that gives me pause.

 

Highlight for politics!

To briefly be overly political,  I do wish we’d had a trial, and what an opportunity for an unprecedented Public Referendum, specifically on the nature of the sentence. That, in my view, could reaffirm the power of democracy. We would have chosen this criminal’s fate, and, regardless if we chose, as a voted nation, to end the man’s life or to simply bury him a billion feet underground or treat him to a host of endless re-education sessions, prolonging his life as much as possible until he denounced his former ways and declared that he’d seen the light of reason and civilization and all that , it would have been a choice inflicted democratically and as a unified (or at least majority) voice. That has more staying power than a squeeze of the trigger on a suppressed M4, or whatever it is that our spooky boys are using these days. Some of that’s crueler than a death in an armed, military conflict, maybe, but that would have been my preference (not the re-education, but the vote part).

It doesn’t really matter. That’s not how life works, and not how death worked in this case.

I find the timing exceptionally poor. It’s as if, in the midst of so much political and military unrest in the Arab world, the last thing we needed was to remind all these various powers, “Hey, whenever we need to, we’re still going to kick in your doors and do what we feel is right, regardless of your opinion.” That was essentially said in the President’s speech. I don’t think that aligns with the narrative thus far – we embrace democracy, we embrace both peaceful civilian revolutions and the armed uprising of an oppressed people for real political change. The States stand with you in your struggle for freedom – emotionally and spiritually, if not economically and or militarily.”

That message, as wishy-washy and cornball as it may be, was consistent and potent and, in my humble opinion, incredibly important. We were doing our best to stay out of it as these people sorted out their own lives and countries, at least publicly. Maybe that’s not fair – maybe we’re not doing as good a job of that as I thought we were, but it seemed like an effort to buttoutsky was underway.

The message from Pakistan that night was, “Yes, we’ll mind our own business — but our business can be anywhere, even 38 miles (60km) outside your capital of your sovereign state.”

So, I dunno. That duality makes me a little uncomfortable. That’s a thought that keeps sort of surging up in my brain. Back on track…

What inevitably and indomitably marched forward, however, was my imagination in reference to this event and those surrounding it. On the other side of the pond, just before we celebrated the end of a man’s life, the greater portion of the western world concerned itself with the birth of a new union, that between the (now Duke and Duchess? I don’t know how it works) Prince William and Kate Middleton of Britannia. I kind of couldn’t help it, but I wound up painting this dumb-ass scene in my head:

The President finishes his speech and putters back off to the oval office to think – one of his aides stops him and congratulates him, and the President, being a man of taste and dignity in my mind, sort of shrugs off the comment. His apprehension is clear – congratulations, politically, certainly, but is the death of a human man a just thing to congratulate anyone else on? That’s the sort of question my mental picture of Barack Obama struggles with, and one of the reasons I think he’s a good man.

He retires to the oval office under the watchful eyes of a pair of Secret Service goons stationed just outside the door, as they always are. Reaches into the desk and pulls out a clear, stout bottle with a brownish colored liquid and a clear glass, plunking both onto the desktop without ceremony or grace. It’s obviously been a long night for our dear President – decisions to be made, concern to be had, speeches to be written, morality to be considered, ethics to be measured. These are the heavy concerns of power and office, and none of us should begrudge him this serene moment between him and his glass of colorful nameless adult beverage, particularly considering there’s a worried wife waiting for him at the other end of the building with a pair of lovely young girls and a dog to consider and worry over as well.

So let us allow our Preisdent, in this fantasy, a humbling and human need – inebriation, even just in part, to relieve the stress of command. Particularly since what will come to him next is anything but relaxing. Particularly since, having been raised and weened on a steady diet of causality-bending science fiction, my imagination beseeches me to study these two events and lead our poor, fictional president into the intrepid jaws of a distinct icon of time-travel.

A draft kicks up in the Oval Office, which gets our President’s attention, surely and swiftly. He clears his throat slightly, wondering if perhaps his hooch is more powerful than he could have anticipated, but that doesn’t seem to be it: the draft builds into a breeze and then a howling billow, alarming our President rather significantly. Now he’s out of the chair and staring into the center of the room, where  a brief flicker of light has caught his eye. That flicker erupts outward into a sphere of shimmering energy and lightning, arcs of energy zapping outward and charring the walls, sending books, documents and mementos flying. The Secret Service guys are already in the room, circumnavigating this ridiculous anomaly with the cool, measured calm of men whose higher brain functions and instinctual urge to fear the unknown have been suppressed by a lifetime of training and commitment to one individual’s safety. The lightning ball grows until it occupies a space roughly six feet in diameter, just inches off the ground, the breeze and ambient electrostatic discharges so strong the Secret Service members can’t move their President from harms way for the strength of this meteorological phenomenon.

And then all at once, in a flash it’s gone, and in its place stands a man, six foot tall to the tip of him, thinning hair and awkward smile in place, shirtless but bound in the fine dress livery of the RAF and revealing a rippling musculature born of hard work and hard fighting – his entire left arm, from shoulder down, has been replaced by an unconstrained and unconcealed robotic connection, giving him the look of an incredible cyborg. tattooed starkly on his upper right pectoral is the Union Jack. The medals and markings can leave no doubt to an educated man of the world: this is a leader of men, a man of power and authority. This is the Duke of Cambridge – or was, at one time.

I won’t go too much further for fear of reprisal (She put out an edict, you know – no parodies or satire of the wedding footage), but suffice to say, King William would have come back to our time from a grim, World-War torn future to stop President Obama from ordering the death of Osama bin Laden, pinpointing it as the moment of causality that forces everything to spiral out of control to the point where he’s Lord High General of all the active allied armed forces of the States and Great Britain and has spent his twilight years fighting ruefully against some as yet unknown presence. He came back in the hopes that he could time it right and stop Obama – he had one shot at it, it turns out, and they had miscalculated because they were under fire.

I hadn’t gone much deeper than that in detail, but I had a funny little idea where he manages to get back to that war-torn future (I could never come up with an absurd enough to be funny scenario that would actually cause all that chaos to spring from that one decision), and we would find out that he and Kate had planned it that he would go back just afterwards to warn the President and paint the future as even worse than it was, hoping that, if he followed their instructions to store up secret weapons and oil caches they’d be able to suddenly pop them open and turn the tide of the war. Like something vaguely sinister – they didn’t want to stop the war from happening, because it put the Monarchy back in full power in the Empire, but they also wanted to make sure it was well and truly winnable by ensuring that the President would supply them from the past.

I think I might be a little effed up in the head.

Thoughts Abound! First Rant of New Blog

I have a lot of stuff on my mind, but it’s all amounting to a swirling tornado of pseudo thoughts that are incomplete or malformed or largely predicated on nerd rage. In we go!

I have the firmly held belief that a live-action Star Wars TV series would be fantastic if set between Episodes III and IV following a band of plucky space criminals as they try to integrate the newly formed and expansive empire into their lives and I would totally watch it because oh wait I already did and it was called Firefly.

Which is absolutely true when you think about it. For fuck sake, look at that:

Seriously, look at that

This leads me to a startling conclusion that’s been a long time coming: I might be about done with Star Wars.

Those of you who know me, soak it in. Scoff. Bicker amongst yourselves. But seriously, that’s where I am at this point. I think better stories are out there than the ones the Great Bearded Money Dragon is choosing to tell so he can sell more toys. And I’m not a person who’s against commercialism as a rule. I’m a person who buys dumb shit, ergo I like commercialism. I’m not even saying that I wouldn’t look when new Star Wars stuff comes out – I’ll glance curiously. But I’m really at a point of saturation with it. I like what I have of Star Wars. I can do without the rest whatever it is he does.

Including, but not limited, to the dumbass 3d version. Won’t see it. Refuse. The End.

On 3d:

I hate it. It’s stupid. The end.

3D is to filmic entertainment (I use that to describe all narrative-based visual entertainments that might employ the technology) as motion capture is to real animation. It’s anathema. It’s technology for technology’s sake.

You see, I have a particular hard spot in my heart about Motion Captured animation. It looks bad. The end. Examples:

Toy Story 3 – incredibly well-animated. The pinnacle of computer animation achievement at this point.
Mars Needs Moms – come on. Seriously. The animation is horrendous. Someone take away Robert Zemeckis’ filmmaking privileges and let’s just be done with it.

This isn’t the snobby traditional animator training poking its head through and its not un-research’d bias. This is a real thing that really happen.

The comparison I’m making is that 3D in movies is tawdry and cheap and we’re doing it because we can. We’ve actually been able to for a long time, but now it’s cheap enough with digital filming and editing suites that even bad directors can (and will) do it. I haven’t seen a 3D movie that doesn’t include a ridiculously cheap shot seemingly thrown in to showcase the 3D. And when that’s not there, I forget I’m watching something in 3D because the effect has no significance on the story and movies that are counting on “wow”-some visuals are doing cool shit besides having it in 3D. TRON Legacy is a perfect example. Even though it was subtle and cautiously placed throughout, I frequently found myself wishing I could watch it in 2D for a number of reason, not the least among which is I could take off those retarded glasses and not have a headahce instantaneously when looking at the screen.

I like the film Tangled, but within 40 minutes, she’s twirling in a field, signing (Disney movie, after all), and what has to happen? A flock of song birds whirls around her and out toward the audience! Oooh! Aaaah!

It’s so patently boring, in fact, that, over a decade ago, theme parks began to realize, “You know, unless we’re selling them that shit is truly coming to life with other sensory stimuli, no one’s gonna give a shit,” so they started doing “4D” (I hate that term) interactive attractions with air guns, vibration motors, and water cannons position in and around the seats to make the audience feel things. They wanted to engage other senses because they knew that the base product is actually pretty boring and arbitrary and there’s only so many times even in 40 minutes a giant [INSERT NECESSARY GIMMICKY  THING HERE, I.E. GONZO’S NOSE, SHREK’S BUTT, OR WHATEVER] can fly out of screen at you.

I cannot wait until 3D reaches its saturation point and people become collectively fed up with it. The arc is inevitably that  by the close of 2011, I will have to work my ass off to find a movie screening not presented in 3D (and I will). Then by about midway through 2012, it’ll start to die off. The gimmick will be reserved for where it belongs – crap slasher pictures and substance-less kids movies (and probably, unfortunately, PIXAR films that Disney shareholders mandate have the given gimmick.)

I’ll also believe it’s a failure of the filmmakers in part too. I don’t think they understand something that Werner Herzog has said he realized on a recent “Fresh Air” interview: you can’t edit 3D like you would edit 2D. 3D requires a lot more of our brains. We work to see it. Our sense of vision is being deceived by this trickery, and our brain is endlessly trying to resolve the mystery of why it’s getting partial images from our two eyes. That’s, in fact, why it assembles into a 3D object. That’s a lot of work. And it’s not like your brain can opt  not to – I heard a great quote by Amy Ellis Nutt, where she referred to the idea that, if what Aristotle said in regard to nature abhorring a vacuum is true, then the brain abhors a mystery. A million neuropsychologists would absolutely agree. Our brains are compelled to solve the mystery of the visual paradox 3D films present to us. When they’re working that hard to “solve” each frame, creating a meta-solution each scene in turn is even more difficult. And when editors forget that they’re asking a lot more of us biologically, we wind up with quick, action-heavy editing that isn’t designed or paced at all to allow our brains to really revel in the mystery the film is presenting for them, which can be frustrating and even painful. I think that’s what really gives me the headache.

And I have zero hope that the average 3D filmmaker is gonna figure this out any time soon. None of them are even probably going to hear of Cave of Forgotten dreams, let alone see it and learn from his example, so I’ll just have to deal with the pain for another couple of years. And by deal with it, I mean complain. And by complain, I mean whine – a lot.

By contrast, it’ll take very nearly till 2014 before it’s dead in Televisions, and that’s because there’s some technological advantages of it. A TV can actually give you a 3D experience without requiring you to put on those stupid glasses, just like the Nintendo 3DS can (another thing I make every effort to find a way to give a damn about), so I have suffer through it even more.

I just want that whole phase in film-making to be over.

Equally – enough with the Stoner movies. Pineapple Express is a  rare gem, but Your Highness proves the that it’s the exception to validate the rule. Danny McBride can’t carry a stoner movie on his own, and neither can James Franco or Natalie Portman. Sorry, folks, I hate admitting it as much as you do: Seth Rogen brings something unique to that particular stew of idiocy and his absence is sorely felt throughout that movie.

I have a bunch of other swirly thoughts that I’m having trouble elucidating.

On Entertainment:

I just watched my first episode ever of Veronica Mars, Bones, and Lie To Me. Each one has an actor I like, which is the only reason I opted to watch these (some of them ancient) shows at all. Veronica Mars had a very cool feeling to me. I liked the premise, and it seemed fairly well written in that first episode. Maybe a little too Teen Drama for my tastes, but that’s the show’s job and target audience, so far be it for me to gripe. Bones seems to play up a stereotypical pairing we’re seeing a lot more in the modern day – we have two characters powerfully at odds, often one extremely emotional and the other brazenly logical. The latter has a tendency not to even understand the former’s concept of social norms. Big Bang Theory does this too, where they seem to be drawing on some of the things that make life difficult for people on the Autism spectrum but don’t actually assign any of the harder to cope with symptoms or deficiencies to the characters. And even then it’s a romanticized depiction of it, where the emotionally well-developed, earnest character can get through that layer of hardened understanding the logical one has developed and elicit an emotional response that allows the audience to identify with them. Plenty of kids dealing with being Autistic don’t even get that Eureka moment of understanding, either on their side or the sides of their friends and family, and I sometimes wonder if this depiction is somewhat damaging for America’s understanding of that population. It seems to suggest that with the right love and tenderness, we can undo Autism and unlock the human within!

Which is marginally deplorable as a notion (to suggest that the condition deprives one of humanity) and flat-out dangerous as a suggestion. It’s like that McCarthy woman touting her nonsense as  “cure,” when it’s just the best services and training money can buy coupled with what is, ostensibly, a depth of compassion and love that seems without end. That’s the way the tabloids and magazines prefer it, anyway, and I’m not particularly interested in the truth. It’s hard to give a damn about her life in any way, let alone how she intends to mislead Americans and Westerners with what’s essentially Faith healing where science is desperately needed.

Wow, that got off track. I’m sensitive about that sort of thing, I guess. I have the same worry about The Parenthood, because I’m not sure they’ve come out and identified the conditions they’re asking that young man to portray, but it’s definitely some kind of PDDNOS thing (that was for Danielle) and they seem to be treating it like “well, he’s just weird. Sometimes kids are weird. No reason to see a professional.” And I think that’s crazy dangerous. It could be the drastic rise in kid diagnosed as falling on the Autism spectrum in the past decade or so (it’s up to 1 in 100, which, I mean, that’s a lot) and now our entertainment is trying to find ways of contextualizing it that make it seem “not so bad,” but I do worry if it’s delivering the wrong message.

On Politics:

Broken.

On Lybia:

Same.

On NPR:

Really liking it. You may have noticed a “Fresh Air” reference earlier – RadioLab.org is also very fantastic.

On Video Games:

Portal 2 is in the bag, and I have mixed feelings about it. It could be that once I get through the co-op campaign, I will feel differently, but the single player started to get a bit thin near the end. Wheatley’s inevitable betrayal was easily telegraphed and I didn’t really like that the first 5 minutes of the game involve a lot of standing around and watching stuff. But then I suppose that’s just part of the territory with Valve games. This one is somehow darker and more narratively focused than the first, but the puzzles didn’t seem anywhere near so complicated. It could be that now that I’m used to “Thinking With Portals,” I don’t have the same struggles with it that I once did.

I did a fun exercise, though: I tried to play the first hour like a designer, writing down the parts where I became bored or confused or trying my best to note when I felt particularly engaged, the moments that made me feel connected to Wheatley, the contrivances (both technical and otherwise) that I noticed most readily, the ones I had to search out a bit. I kept writing the word “Linearity” with question marks, and I wasn’t sure why I was writing the question marks or the word. Portal is, by necessity, a linear game, but I think I kept feeling like I was ready to branch off. In an effort to make the facility and the world of Portal grander, I think they made it more apparent to me how limited my track is. As I thought about this, I wondered if that was part of the plan: if showing you this huge world and keeping you confined to this portion of path was a way of reinforcing the overall joke of you being a science lab rat in a maze run by dastardly omnipotent AI beings.

I noticed that I found what I think was a secret room because it hearkened back to the “The Cake Is A Lie” rooms from the first one, but I wasn’t able to narrow in on their primary message. It seemed to be almost religious depictions of the player character in a very shamanic, cave-painting sort of way.

On The Kinect:

I can’t give a shit about the product as it stands. I’ve tried, but I don’t really get it, and I’m not sure anything is going to come along that’s going to make me really figure it out. Now, the stuff that people who have bought Kinects are doing? That stuff’s incredible.

Fun on Paper

So, among my various projects that I currently have going right now, I’m working on some game design. I’m gonna refrain from going into a lot of detail because I have a tendency to oversell both my capabilities and ambitions, so I’m making more of an effort to avoid that. But suffice it to say, my good bud Joe and I are working on an Xbox Live Indie game. And sometimes, it’s rough. Not because it’s hard – hard is actually fun – but because it’s mind- and ego- boggling.

One of the rough things about building an Indie game, whether you’re working with a ton of experience or very little, a vast wealth of resources or a real paucity of supplies, is that you (here meaning the design crew) almost always get to a point where you have a concept that’s “fun on paper.” I’m sure not every team gets to that point, and some talented teams and folks can actually distill core fun into a handful of very direct thoughts that can line a paper. We (Joe and I) have something that we think is Fun On Paper. It feels interesting when we talk about it. We’re excited to discuss it. It makes us pumped to try and make it a reality. But we’re sort of stonewalled by indecision at this point. It’s like we’re at the turning point where we have to decide if what we think if Fun On Paper is worth locking in and moving forward. I think, before we make that decision, we ought to try to encapsulate the feelings we get with the flow of some other games and get them down so that we have idea of what they look like as “Fun On Paper.” Then we can analyze our Fun on Paper in a new light and see if it’s too refined, not refined enough, or what have you. There are a lot of questions that I have about transitioning a game from an idea that excites us to an execution that engages us.

Particularly, I’d like to try to figure out what makes another game Fun On Paper and see if it accurately translates to the gameplay experience itself. The inherent problem is my passion for games and the idea of “fun engineering” causes me to play them incorrectly sometimes (more on that some day), and even worse, I love Behind-The-Scenes stuff. I adore it. It means I’ve played through Valve games with the developer commentary turned on, have watched every bonus DVD with every Halo game, and buy special editions of Bethesda games and everything else to really try to get into the brains of some of these creators. I say creator because I think the knowledge I’m seeking isn’t specific to design, but that’s tangential, as well. So I need to make a more concerted effort to play other games, games I don’t know well and whose developers’ preferences I don’t know intimately. More on that some other time as well. As I do that and catalog my experiences, I should be able to narrow in on the fun loop that the game begins to suck you into. It shouldn’t take long – an hour of play, tops – and in that window, I wonder if I can certifiably talk about what I’ve written down as the games’ Fun On Paper with the same enthusiasm as our ideas. In essence, I’m wondering if the idea itself is fun or if the process of forming ideas collaboratively is fun and distill one from the other. It’s not an easy thing.

Inherently, in this problem of having Fun On Paper, as with many good problems, is another problem. With Indie games, and Xbox Live Indie games in particular, there’s a massive tendency to leap without looking. Developing a video game, like developing any application, is a sort of exercise in logical problem solving. You know, roughly, what you want to happen when the game runs. You want it to draw objects onto the screen and you want to create interactions with those objects in fun ways. You have a handful of problems right there that, I think, every Indie designer/developer jumps up and says “Thou Shalt Be Solv’d First!” and sets about researching exactly how they’re going to do that, without a workable plan for the game in place yet. Sometimes that’s ok – when you’re tremendously talented, tremendously dedicated or have some abominable combination of those two superlative traits, you can sort of afford to wing it as you learn the elements of actualy code to ground yourself in. I’ve definitely done it two or three times, to the massive detriment of the projects that I intended to work on (i.e. they were never finished). So once you start solving these technological hurdles, that has become the fun for you and now the Fun you had On Paper might as well be a distant memory. You’ve worked so hard to learn this stuff and get to this point that you don’t want to sully it by accidentally making a bad game.

On the other hand, I thought it was really quite fantastic to read through how the folks who built Slam Bolt Scrappers didn’t make several of the games they had originally planned out as “Fun on Paper.” In fact, they went ahead and made several things that were Fun On Paper but that none of them felt strongly about and that ultimately weren’t that fun in execution. Which reiterates, in many ways, that it’s super hard to get an idea for this stuff on paper. People with time and money and the luxury/curse of doing it as their job have to bull ahead and do it, and that empowers and frees them of the wishy-washing and hand-wringing that involves committing to an idea which may wind up crap.

So that’s where we are. Joe and I have learned from our misfires in the past. We have a sufficient grasp on the technology that we feel like the elements we’re not wholly committed to will eventually fall in place (or our research will force them in place). We’ve learned to code flexibly and with enough agility to cut whole swaths of the project out and replace it with something simpler and more effective. But we haven’t truly committed to the game that we’ve put down as “Fun On Paper.”

Sometimes I wonder if we shouldn’t prototype it in a different format. In other words, since we’ve built it out on paper could we create s scenario where we played it out like a DnD game or a round of Magic or something similar? If we could, would this show us on any perceptible level of the degree of fun that could be had eventually when we commit to it on the platform of our choice?

Or am I just pussyfooting (yeah, it’s one word. Look it up) about to avoid the potential of the reality that we may have done all this discussion and intellectual development and actual development of a project that proves to be absolute anathema for games: boring?

I’m not sure yet. But once I can make more of a determination about the value of having something that’s “Fun On Paper,” I’ll definitely talk more about it.

A Singular Voice | The Only Worthwhile Time Is Now

Someone told me recently to write something in my blog, and I took it to heart. I haven’t been here in months. I wrote something as if I was going to post it back in November 2009, but it never materialized. Then I wrote something against as if I was gonna post it back in November 2010, and nope, didn’t happen.

So what has happened since October 2009, the last time I darkened this corner of the internet with my jilted prose?

I stopped working at VITAC.
I started working at PNC.
I made a friend at PNC.
I hated working at PNC.
I really hated working at PNC.
I went to PAX East.
I stopped working at PNC. (directly related to the event above it)
I spent three months as a bum living off of what money I had and Danielle.
I realized I don’t care for children.
I got a new niece, Abigail. This has some unpleasant corollary with the above event.
I started working for a title closing company called LSI.
I acknowledged that jobs and I have a love/hate relationship that definitively has a honeymoon phase.
I went to PAX East again. It was awesome.

If the company name sounds familiar and you’re a movie nerd, it’s because Mr. Lau’s company in The Dark Knight was called “LSI Holdings.” I’m pretty sure we don’t do anything quite so sinister. Actually, there’s every chance we do, because I’m the first to admit I have no idea what it is we really do. I e-mail PDFs all day long, and with an open mind and the right attitude from our IT department, I could easily automate 3/4 of my job. Oh, I’m learning Powershell! For my Maya friends, it’s like MEL for Windows, so you can begin to form a picture of the robust nature of its features.

Ok, so let’s address all that above: completely meaningless. Empty. Hollow. Facts that delineate a position I’m no longer in. The last misfire of a post, which was aptly titled “Where Am I?” started the same way. When I wrote it, I thought I was asking from the perpsective of my imaginary readers. “Aw, Sean hasn’t blogged in a long time. Where is he?” And I was going to answer the question. I think, now, removed from the isometric ego dysmorphia I was suffering under and looking back with true perspective, I was asking myself that question. Where am I? I thought the only way to answer it was to look at where I’d come from.

And I am vastly proud to say that I’m deeply ashamed to admit that the entire post turned into a poorly-thought-out, questionably written memoir, like I was cataloging my life through the lens of failure that I had allowed myself to be defined by. I was looking back on times bygone and thinking “oh, back when…” and I’m 25! Twenty God Damn Motherfucking Shit Bastarding Dick Pissing Five. Twenty five isn’t the end of any road. It’s not a significant commentary on my life that I haven’t achieved my goals at 25. It’s not even a significant comment to say I haven’t achieved my goals by twenty-five. But those seven months or so ago, I felt it was. I felt like I had to just slip into the stream of existence and be pushed along. Fuck. That. Noise.

I sought advice from everywhere and everyone without actually looking for resolutions: I was just hoping someone would say that magical thing and make me feel better. I wanted a eureka moment that would penetrate my self-loathing and change my universe. My favorite piece of advice that I ignored was from Zach Freysinger. He told me “Life is like being trapped in a raging river. The way I see it, is you have two options. Right where you are, right now, the river is fierce. It is pushing you as hard as it can. And all you’re doing is fighting it. You’re swimming against the current. That’s wasted energy, because you can’t undo a river anymore than you can stop your life from continuing. To get out of a raging river and find a nice stream or whatever works for this metaphor, you have to just let go. You have to just coast down the river. Let it push you. Eventually, you’ll find a place when you can start to swim for the shore. You’ll never be able to swim upstream, but you can swim to a calmer place where you have more control.”

That’s solid advice. That’s good advice from a good friend with a fairly well-constructed metaphor. And what I took from that advice was all wrong. I took “don’t fight it. Just coast forever. You’re gonna die anyway. You’re never getting out of the river, so just let it push you along.”

And that’s not what Zach said at all. What Zach said, for all intents and purposes, is that the only time I have, that any of us have, is right now. We decide what we do with that time. Do we waste it trying to make it then? Do we idle away, ignoring it, waiting for when?

Or do we really use it? Invest it. If right now is the only time I ever really have, I need to invest it in getting to the part of the river flow that I want to be at. And I need to accept that sometimes that means swimming diagonally with the stream. And sometimes it means swimming horizontally. But it never means coasting, and it absolutely never, ever means swimming upstream, because that’s wasting my time.

Ultimately, I had my Eureka moment at PAX. Well, shortly thereafter while reading Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality Is Broken. This isn’t some self-help book. This is the book that made me realize the lessons I’ve been learning my whole life apply to my whole life. Suddenly everything everyone has said is clicking into place.

And for the first time in almost three years, I’m happy. I’m actively happy and trying to be happier. I have found an intrinsic motivation to do so. I’m also terrified and anxious, and it’s the best handful of feelings a person can have in the world. When I’m not scared, it means I’m safe, and I’ve always been frustrated, bored, and depresse
d when I’m safe. When I’m not anxious, it means I have no goals or ambitions, and that makes me sulk, eat, and cry.

And I’m done with that. Well, the eating not so much. One step at a time, here.

Negativity is a cancer in our society, and particularly so in the sub-culture I spend most of my time in. That sounds like some new-age bullshit, but it’s definably and certifiably true. Ask any modern psychologist, and they’ll tell you that positive people are happier, healthier, and more productive in all aspects of their lives. Which is not to say all the time – there is a positivity threshold over which you burn out and crash particularly hard. I have spent three years wallowing in negativity, all of it self-imposed and endlessly flying in the face of positive reinforcement (not the psych term, just a literal idea here: people were providing me with reinforcement about myself which was positive in nature), seemingly as a dare: go ahead and try and make me feel better, because I’m miserable enough to outdo it!

And even in saying all this, I can feel the edges of it tugging at me and grasping me. It’s like the Ring of Power that Frodo wears – not on my finger, hovering over the pit of fire, but still endlessly calling to me. Whispering eldritch cynicism in my ear and breathing a curse into my heart. I’m not immune to it. I can feel it rising like a lump in my throat as I write this.

But the trick I’m doing now is swallowing that lump away (without a cheeseburger crammed in my maw) and offering a smirk. A smirk! The Smirk. The sidelong expression that identified me so readily on the first day of my first class with my favorite English teacher. The Smirk known by anyone who knows me: I have a thought: a thought which is a biting commentary, a cutting retort, an observation so utterly true, perfectly formed, aptly poignant and as funny as I can formulate it, that I intend to keep it private. But it can’t stay that way, and so it pushes out the corner of my mouth and narrows my baby blues just a hair.

That thought, that power has gone untapped in me for years now. I hate reiterating that. Many reading this, including Danielle herself, are going to feel like I’m ascribing the loss of all these things to my time spent with her. It must be said that she’s not completely innocent – it’s very easy to be lazy when you have someone to hold you. It’s very easy to be outsource your self-esteem when you know someone will be there to pick it up. No one is immune to that.

But Danielle isn’t responsible.  A bitter man might blame Full Sail, but they’re not responsible. I have no one to blame but myself. By a year ago, all of my creative endeavors were formulated with a singular goal in mind:

Get a job.

I wanted a job in the entertainment industry, basically doing anything. If I was Lord High Cocksucker for PIXAR, I’d have been chomping at the bit to get started, an action which likely would have gotten me fired from such a position because I think “chomping” is frowned upon in the cocksucking profession. I would have prostrated and prostituted myself for any gig, any opportunity. I would have sold every idea and creative notion I’ve ever had. And it was all because of a singular thought: “I’ll be happy when…”

It’s disgusting. I’m disgusted by myself. I singlehandedly sucked the joy out of what I loved. It’s why I wasn’t writing – I didn’t see where it was going to get me. I didn’t see what it was going to do for me.

Now I’m bounced back. This is not a world where you have to debase yourself to create things anymore. I don’t have to get a guy with a piano to play me out while I tumble for Vaudeville dollars. I don’t need an agent or a big fancy marketing team to push my creative ideas. I just need to do them. I need to put in the time, as Scott Kurtz and Robert Khoo would say. And the only time I have to put in, is right now. And most of all, I need to do these things because I want to, not because I think it’ll make me happy WHEN. I need to do all this stuff for the love it, and screw everything else. I’d be an idiot and a liar to say that I don’t define my success by making money – that’s America, I can’t avoid that. I can truthfully say that I’m less concerned with being successful and more concerned with being satisfied with myself and my efforts. So, I’m gonna do it because I love it.

And again, the only time I have is right now. I put in the time right now. I invest it. Eventually, once enough now has become then, and I have used it correctly and successfully like resource management in RTS games and mana in WoW, I will have something to show for it. But I’m less concerned with having something to show for it WHEN, than I am with being satisfied that I’m putting the time in now. So, the Only Worthwhile Time is Now.

Which sort of makes us wonder: why write this? Go put your time into these things you want to do, Boyce, and get off the intertrons.

Well, this is the thing I want to do, too. I want to catalog my thoughts and opinions the way I used to. I want to share them and express them, but I want to do it for me. I want this to become my Singular Voice on the internet. As I run into complications and problems with my various projects and life events, I’m going to share them here, unabashedly and honestly and hopefully not overtly offensively.

To that end, I’m going to be disabling comments. It doesn’t much matter for those of you who read this, because you’re probably my Facebook friends, and that’s how you found the link, so you can comment there. But then it’s part of my social network, it’s removed and separated from my blog, per se, and it’s about my friends talking to me, expressing their singular voice about what I’ve said and how I’ve made them feel. And that’s fine. Its their/your/our right to do so. I’ve given you that permission by befriending you in the real world to begin with and then extended a digital version of that permission and trust with that website.

But here? Here is a Singular Voice. My voice. It’s my opportunity to vomit my thoughts onto this corner of the web. Anyone and everyone can see it, read it, and be opinionated about it. Someday, I’ll lose a job over it. Someday, maybe I’ll get hired for it. That’s all when. This is now.

And, as I may have mentioned about a billion times, the only worthwhile time is now.