Dream Argh
Bar Harbor
Dreampt that I got news from the Judge. Convicted to time on a Chain Gang. Luckily I was lucid enough to force myself awake from that. Woke in significant pain. Decided to write it down in hopes of getting it the fuck out of my head. Back to bed now...
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The Magic Circle
Bar Harbor
This is a really hard game for me to write about, on many levels.

It’s a small budget independent game, but takes as its subject matter AAA game development. This is perhaps unsurprising, as about two thirds of the creative team were powerhouses on the Bioshock franchise.

I’d been looking forward to it for some time on that basis, but by the time it came out, I was terminally unemployed and broke :( However, a friend of mine recently gifted me a copy, so now I have (mostly) played it.

The main meat of the game involves wandering around in the side an unfinished game world, trying to fix (or sabotage) it, while the developers bicker and fail to accomplish much, like a particularly dysfunctional pantheon of gods. It’s delightfully meta-. Most of the story content is ABOUT the nature of story content in an interactive medium. Similarly, most of the gameplay requires the player to actively engage in thinking about how gameplay systems interact. Playing this main portion of the game felt a lot like being a QA tester again, reminding me how much fun I had when I first entered the industry.

The writing and voice work are both very good. Those not in the industry might be inclined to think that the satire was a little over-the-top. I have to say, not really. Compressed, maybe; you experience, in the course of a handful of hours, a range of craziness more typical of an industry year. But the extremes of what happens are all too accurate.

There were parts of the game that seems to speak DIRECTLY to my personal experience. Though I think they probably weren’t drawn from literal shared experiences, as these patterns recur across the industry. I felt similarly when reading Austin Grossman’s recent novel, _You_, based partly on his early years at Looking Glass. Several scenarios in that book were eerily familiar, despite the fact that Austin and I had completely non-overlapping time at LG.

I made it to (what felt like) the final segment of the game, but couldn’t actually bring myself to finish it. (Spoilers.) In this section, the player is dropped into what amounts to a simplified game editor, and tasked by one of the characters with building a small level and populating it with gameplay. I interacted with the editor for a little while, and then was suddenly hit with an overpowering emotional reaction. “I’m working on a gameplay design task, with no clear mandate of what I’m supposed to accomplish, and which will eventually be evaluated by standards I have no control over. I’m in HELL! AGAIN!” Just a horrible, visceral flashback to the worst periods of working with Ken Levine. Quit to desktop.

I’m reasonably sure that the game devs did not INTEND to spur that reaction. I can hardly be considered a typical audience member in this regard. But I’m unlikely to pick it up again anytime soon.

That said, I do strongly recommend the first three quarters or so of the game to anyone who is interested in the ins and outs of game development.

Fancy’s Plaint
Bar Harbor
Though the weather cannot seem to make up its mind, it is officially (if intermittently) Spring. The time when young men’s fancies turned to thoughts of love – and also not-so-young men. This particular man is grumpy about it.

True, the poly aspect of my marriage has always been observed more in theory than in practice. As Kestrell so memorably put it on a button, “Poly, but I’d probably rather be reading.” It takes time and effort to build up a new relationship, and those are rare resources. But it was exercised on occasion. And just having the option available was often very gratifying. It’s fun, when talking with someone attractive, to think, “If I turned up the charm and put in the effort, there’s a decent chance that they would have sex with me.”

But these days… that train of thought goes more like: “If I did manage to get this relationship onto a sexual level, would it even be remotely worth it?” Except in rare cases where the sexual chemistry is as compatible as the personality chemistry, it takes a while to get to really good sex with a new partner. There is a learning curve as you adjust to each other’s particular quirks and kinks. Any new partner I got at this point would face a particularly steep curve, as so many of my body parts now respond to almost any stimulus with “OUCH!” And my ability to give pleasure is just as compromised as my ability to receive it; my once-proud ‘gamer fingers’ can no longer in repetitive motions for extended periods. And my stamina in general has gone to hell.

It’s not the worst problem in the world, but it is One More Thing. I feel kinda pathetic for whining about it. But I figure that there are enough people among my friends who either have this problem now, or will face it in the years to come, that it’s valuable to talk about it.

Pursuant to Power...
Bar Harbor
Recently happened upon an interesting article about Tammany Hall. One bit seemed especially relevant to the dynamic I was talking about in my recent sketch of "The Game of Power":
Tammany embraced immigrants because they knew how to count and they understood that, as these Irish immigrants began washing up on South Street in New York ... there were two ways that New York could respond to these immigrants:

The Whig Party, which was the main opposition party at the time, chose to regard these immigrants as aliens and interlopers. And people, because most of them were Catholic, thought of them as people who could never really understand the Anglo-Protestant idea of liberty ...

The Democrats were a little more practical. They realized that if these people were extended the hand of friendship — and I do believe it was friendship — then well, you know, maybe they would show their appreciation on Election Day.

It Follows (2015)
Bar Harbor
I really like this indie horror film (though Kestrell was “meh”). It’s sort of a mix of M.R. James’ “Casting the Runes” and an 80s slasher flick. The protagonist is being followed by an implacable monster that is guaranteed to kill them unless they passed this curse on to someone else first – by having sex with them. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a sexually transmitted CURSE.

I thought it worked well on a number of levels. It’s a scary horror movie, obviously. It’s also in some ways a meditation on inevitable mortality, and the ways in which we try to avoid it; In a move that reverses the 80s trope that sex equals death, in this film sex is the only mechanism by which you can (temporarily) avert death. And it’s a great example of rules-based storytelling.

Being who I am, I feel compelled to analyze the rules in some detail. Naturally, this involves heavy spoilers.Read more...Collapse )

_Ritual_, by David Pinner (1967)
Bar Harbor
I came to this novel via one of my favorite films. I heard that it was the basis for “The Wicker Man”. That turns out to be only vaguely true; some aspects of the novel are reflected in the film, but the novel is entirely its own thing. Indeed, given how subjective and even hallucinatory the prose is, I suspect the book is not actually filmable – though I’d like to see David Lynch give it a go.

Speaking of Lynch, I was reminded somewhat of Twin Peaks, in an odd way. Twin Peaks uses the device of a girl’s murder to investigate the secrets underpinning a small town society, all the secret loves and hidden hates, and the past that is not past. _Ritual_ has a strangely looking glass reflection of that structure. It opens just after the death of a young girl. The reader is strongly led to believe that this death was truly accidental. But the town is so full-to-bursting with secrets and tensions, that it seems to NEED a murder investigation to release the pressure, even in the absence of an actual murderer. Something of a witch hunt is organized – by the local witch!

It’s not a great novel. I found the ending unsatisfying, in an M. Night Shyamalan sort of way. That is to say, it was a clever twist, and properly set up plot-wise, yet not emotionally fulfilling (for me). The prose is often both beautiful and clever, but not as often as the author thinks, with some notable clunkers. As might be expected from a British horror novel of this era, the racial and sexual politics on display are often… regrettable. And none of the characters are particularly likable, which can be a serious problem.

I did find it interesting enough to get through, largely for the prose. I will end with a few quotes that I extracted for my quote file, to give some of the flavor of the better bits:

She was one of those women who have no delta of calm. She was all ice storms and thunder mountains. A rose, to her, was not a natural sculpture in silence, but a beautiful terror on fire.

… the sun is lusting for the sea. Squirting his liquid amber, he hears the submarine call of the mermen and the Kraken. The upper air vibrates like a sheet of crystal as the sun lunges into the water. One long hiss of pain and the water devours the fire. There is only the perfection of the darkness.

‘Yes, well, Inspector, I know it is a bad Elizabethan joke, but I always feel that bad Elizabethan is better than good Modern. At least, there’s entrails behind it. And imagery. Always important when you’re avoiding reality.’

My Day in Court
Bar Harbor
So, the good news is that today was my day in court. I explained to a seemingly sympathetic judge why I think that I count as disabled. I think I did a pretty good job.

I say “I think”, because of the bad news aspect: I don’t find out the actual decision for some indeterminate time yet, when it will be mailed to me. Back in fucking limbo…

The Game of Power: a design sketch
Bar Harbor
A Civ-like game, but with a rather different focus, and a Message in the mechanics.

Mechanics of Production and Combat are present, but greatly simplified. Exploration and (peaceful) Expansion are NOT present. By the time the player gets here, all the good places to put cities have already been occupied. Research is not an issue, at least in the initial version.

The major focus of the game (both in theme and mechanics) is on Culture (with a sideline in Diplomacy, as that's strongly related). Military conquest is relatively straightforward, assuming greatly superior force. And the player will start the game with sufficient military force to easily conquer some of his immediate neighbors right away. The really interesting part is not the war itself, but the decisions that build to the war, and those in its immediate aftermath.

After you conquer an enemy city, you are given three choices: Genocide, Enslave, or Assimilate. Genocide is the simple way to take all their territory and physical infrastructure, but has the critical failing that you lose the potential population growth. Given the timescale of this game, population growth through breeding is a minimal factor at best; you really want to get conquered people working for you. The simple way to do THAT, is to Enslave. Slave workers, however, are not very efficient, and you also need to allocate a significant amount of your military to police functions, to keep the slaves in line. To get the FULL benefit of your increased population, you need to Assimilate them as citizens. This has its own difficulties, of course.

Most of the player’s actions outside of conquest consist of shaping the Culture of your civilization. Your Culture will have opinions, possibly strong ones, about Genocide versus Slavery versus Assimilation. They will have all sorts of other opinions as well, which may initially seem largely pointless, but which help define your cultural identity.

In the build up to a Conquest, one of the most crucial points is how your cultural identity compares with that of the target city. If you move your own Culture away from theirs, and paint them as completely barbaric, that gives your own soldiers bonus strength in combat, but makes it almost impossible to Assimilate the target afterwards. Conversely, if you try to make your culture similar to the target’s, your soldiers will be less enthusiastic about fighting, but Assimilation is far more possible, and will go more smoothly, afterwards.

Ultimately, the winning player is likely to be the one who has the largest definition of “us”, the most all-encompassing cultural identity. Though their soldiers are actually the least efficient, this is more than compensated for by the number and productivity of their workers.

My design goal is to demonstrate interactively both how demonizing the Other is an attractive short-term political strategy, and how EMBRACING the Other outperforms it in the long term.

Ghost Light (2013)
Bar Harbor
Ghost Light (2013) is undeservedly obscure. There are several near-contemporary movies sharing its title, it seems to have been poorly marketed, it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and no DVD seems to have ever been marketed. Luckily, it is available on Amazon Video (link above), where Kestrell stumbled upon it, and where I recommend you go watch it. If you have Amazon Prime, it’s even free!

If you were to look at the poster without any additional context, you would probably think that this was a horror movie. While it does have some horror elements, they are too few and far between to put it into that genre. The film slips effortlessly between several different genres from moment to moment; if I had to assign a simple one to it, I’d say “comedy”.

I think, however, that a designation more likely to communicate to its true target audience is to say that this is in the same obscure mix of sub genres as Slings & Arrows.

A small theater company is putting on a production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”. With one show left in the run, the actors and crew decided to stay overnight in the allegedly haunted theater in hopes of seeing some ghosts. They spend much more time seeing each other’s human foibles. And when the ghosts finally do make their presence known, they largely bring emotions other than terror with them…

In addition to Slings & Arrows and “Earnest”, the film’s DNA also seems to us to include bits of “Noises Off”, and Shakespearean comedy in general. Very Highly Recommended.

Bar Harbor
Yesterday, Kestrell and I saw Tom Stoppard’s "Arcadia" at Central Square Theater. It’s a decent production of a brilliant show. Stoppard’s use of language and structure is dazzling. And he manages the difficult trick of making the many brilliant characters speak in ways smart people actually do, while maintaining their own individual voices.

It occurred to me that in addition to a general recommendation, I should also recommend this to Boston area fans of Hamilton. While it contains no singing of any kind, it does share a surprising number of themes. Much of the show is set in the early 19th century, and dueling plays a significant role in the plot. It is also a story about how the past is echoed in the present, while the present struggles to interpret the past. And though it has lots of funny stuff in the middle, and does its very best to end on a positive note, the ending leaves me sobbing Every Damn Time.


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