“Trust” and “Safety”

In June of 2013, I apparently filed a complaint with Kickstarter that voiced concerns about a specific project that was seeking funding, and was ultimately funded, on the service. I vaguely remember it, it was a while ago. It wouldn’t have come to mind at all…

…except that Kickstarter got back to me about it.


Seven years later.

I got a form letter response, from Kickstarter’s Trust and Safety division (which, let’s face it, probably has all the force and intelligence of a ‘bot), more than seven years after the fact. The form response indicated that the project did not violate their community standards nor their terms of service. The project is no longer visible on their site, however.

Safe to say I find no Trust nor Safety in Kickstarter as a result.

It’s entirely baffling to me. Especially when I looked it up and found that Kickstarter apologized for their mishandling at the time, though they did not end the Kickstarter and the author got his money at the time. The product is currently available from Amazon. He uses the fact that he broke Kickstarter as part of his sales pitch. It’s just grossness all the way down.

I mean, whatever. I’ve scarcely backed anything on the service since that time; doing a search for Kickstarter in my email folders spins for a long time and I’m just assuming that means it’s looking on a hard drive somewhere out there in the cloud. But ugh, if this is what passes for “Trust and Safety” at our tech companies, we are indeed in dire straits. Part of the reason I’ve been withdrawing from all of this stuff so much in the intervening seven years, I guess.

There’s probably some weird stray cosmic ray¹ thing going on here, because why else would this have happened. I did entertain a brief envisioning of a beleaguered solo reviewer at a functional desk taking the printed copy of this and stamping it and putting it in a box marked June 2013 and sighing, “That’s the last of those” before looking over at a pile of boxes marked July 2013. But anyway: Ugh. Gross.

¹This a term I use for a bug that is just kind of so weird that it’s almost not worth tracking down, though it makes me wonder how many people suddenly got an email all these years later reminding us why Kickstarter wasn’t really for us.

The Americans

Note: minor spoilers about The Americans inside. Well, unless you consider answering “what’s this whole show about” a spoiler, in which case, major spoilers, I guess.

Over the last month or so I’ve been watching The Americans, it’s all on Amazon Prime right now and I wanted something I could watch over dinner each night. I haven’t really watched any television in a while, kind of felt like this was a spot in my life where it fit okay.

Last week I was talking about the show with a friend, and I said, “You know, what I love about the show is that although it’s about spies, what it’s really about is how fundamentally unknowable other people are.” And he looked at me like I was crazy.

Almost at the very end of the third season, putting it almost squarely at the center of a six season show, Sandra Beeman¹ had this to say to one of the leads:

It’s hard in a couple. […] Even in a relationship that’s really new, you run into things, you have to work through it. […] It’s about everything. Learning how to be open. Really knowing yourself. Someone really knowing you. I’m not sure anyone in my life has ever really known me.²

And I said to myself, “well, that’s it then, that’s sort of the whole ball game.” They’ve told us what the whole show is about and to their credit, I was already at that point quite a number of episodes earlier. But: what now? What are they going to do for the next three seasons? The show obviously really isn’t about the KGB or the FBI or even the 80s, which mostly only appears as sort of background decor most of the time.

The answer, it seems, is that on the one hand, they’re going to have a bunch of plot. Which is fine, as far as it goes, honestly. It’s a well-plotted show and I’m often genuinely curious about where they’re going to go next and at times they surprise me. They are starting to wear a bit of a patch in the carpet around some issues: often, for example, an approach to solve a spy problem will have the two leads disagreeing about a course of action, and something will happen that gives them more time and space to process, and one of them will cave to the other and say, “you’re right.” This is all fine and good. It works as a show, there are multiple intersecting arcs, it’s all interesting enough.

On the other hand, now they seem to be also playing with the audience, teasing us with questions of how well we understand the characters. Leaving us in that ambiguous space where some big plot point is happening and we are no more sure of what one of the leads is thinking than the other lead is. I kind of love this, because it makes us empathize with these characters through this pretty fundamental, universal truth about people: we are unknowable to one another. I admit that I also kind of hate it because they are not good people: not because they are spies or Russians but because, well, they kill people.

That scene above, with Sandra Beeman, it happens after an EST session, a self-actualization fad/program/thing that ended in that form in the 80s, though I gather it maybe transformed into some other things; I’m not being dismissive, I just don’t care too much. Erhard Seminars Training being a real thing was actually one of the surprises in the show for me, I thought it was a stand-in for a general self-focus vibe that actually did feel pretty ego-driven 80s to me. It’s the perfect spot to make this declaration as to what the show’s about, because the underlying sentiment is that part of the reason we’re so unknowable to each other is that we’re pretty much unknowable to ourselves.

I feel like I have a million more things to say about this, touching on things like the fact that once a generation or so (the 60s, the 80s, the early 00s, and… gestures around uh… now) we as a culture have a real crisis about identity, whether at a personal or a national level or often, both. Or the ways in which parents leave marks on their children, and how they take responsibility for that, which is something on my mind a lot lately. Or, sometimes, the plot. Or a dozen other things. I’m just happy I’ve found a show I can watch for a little while every night that makes me think.

I’m also happy to learn that this show ends well; multiple people have commented on that to me. I’m curious to know whether I’ll feel that’s true. I’m not sure what ending this show well looks like to me. Or more accurately, whether my idea of ending this show well lines up with others. Because I feel like I just can’t know you people. 🙂

¹Wife of an FBI agent on the show, portrayed by Susan Misner — really well, actually, a great supporting cast almost universally.
²I’ve stitched together a few things here, but it all takes place in about thirty seconds, all from Sandra.


Occasionally I’ll be reading a book and I’ll come across something that just knocks my socks off, because it’s profound or I can’t get it out of my head, or I’m angry about it or I haven’t come to a conclusion about it yet and need to think about it some more. Sometimes it’s just that it strikes me particularly funny. This is from Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood, which purports to be a novel¹ made up entirely of questions:

If you were part of a couple living in a three-story Victorian house with a bad paint job outside and a shabby interior, to the extent that some of your rooms were lit by bare lightbulbs on swinging cords effecting heavy glare on the beadboard walls, wouldn’t you consider it an appropriate diversion for the two of you to play Norman Bates and his mother at least sometimes?

I may not be able to quote this ten years from now but I bet I will on occasion remember the general sentiment, the specificity that makes you think that the author is driving towards a conclusion you really can’t imagine, and then you get there and it absolutely is that and it’s even more off-the-wall than could have been predicted.

I’ve been having a lot of trouble with insomnia lately, often manifesting as waking up at 1am and being unable to fall back asleep for hours (or even, on  one memorable night, at all). So maybe it was the 1:30-in-the-morning-and-reading-punchy effect, but dang, that question just zinged me.

¹I don’t know how much I’m inclined to agree with this classification, yet, but I suppose I’m only half-way through this admittedly fairly short work. Not even sure I can recommend it. There have been other good moments, but I haven’t been able to pick out anything that feels quite like narrative yet.

Announcing my mentoring program

Recently I read an impressive description of mentoring elsewhere with respect to writing, production, and marketing for indie games. I was really impressed that they offer that and, as a person typically having served as a lead in the past, I’ve been missing that aspect of my work.

I’ve been programming professionally for games for more than 20 years now. I’ve probably been a lead for at least half that time, though I’ve never counted it up, mentoring and leading programming teams from three or four people up to more than a couple dozen. I’ve learned a lot about building games in that time and the skills required to be a good contributor and a good leader. Although I hope I’ll still be doing this for decades to come, I’m in a position right now to be a mentor outside of my daily responsibilities. And to be honest, it’s something I miss, as right now I’m the sole programmer on the project and have been for more than a year.

Here’s what I can offer:

  • Help with the programming skills. I’ve been doing this a while, and I have learned the ways I’m most effective at the pure aspect of writing code. This includes things like code structure, algorithms, what-have-you. The software stuff.
  • Help with the less tangible stuff. Things like scheduling, communication, productivity, working with both programmers and other departments, and how you might approach your work differently at different times of the project.
  • Practically speaking: access to me via email at whatever frequency works for you. An hour or so video conference once a week. Maybe a longer session (or several hour-long sessions) in our first week just to get to know each other better and maybe set some goals.
  • Code review. I won’t do this on a daily basis, but it’d be great to look over some code you’ve written or a project you’ve done and talk about techniques to improve it in various ways.
  • An invitation to a Slack that I’ll create just for this; my hope is that as I continue doing this for more people, it’ll be a small community of programmers that help each other out. Admittedly, in the beginning it’ll just be you and me.
  • Let’s start with six months of this; not an obligation but I think longer-term regular contact is probably beneficial. We can talk about continuing this level of intensity as we approach the end, and possibly extend, and similarly, if a few months turns out to be all you really need, we can slow down the level of contact/mentoring earlier too.
  • Hopefully, a lifetime professional contact. I’ll be happy to introduce you to people I know as opportunities arise, whether at conferences (I attend sporadically, but expect to go to a few next year).

Here’s what I can’t offer:

  • I won’t program for you. I’m more likely to ask you a bunch of questions than tell you an answer. You will know better than I do in so many ways anyway.
  • I’m not an intermediary with your company. If you should end up having issues with people, they’ll be yours ultimately to navigate, though I’m happy to offer advice based on what I know.
  • I’m not looking for who I next hire where I’m working. I mean, it’s not like it could never happen, but you wouldn’t necessarily have a leg up.
  • I’m not a teacher looking to specifically teach someone language X or whatever. We may do some readings together and discuss them, but coding basics in your primary language I assume you’ve picked up somewhere else.

The ideal candidate I think has a few characteristics:

  • Near the beginning of his/her/their career. Maybe in the first five years?
  • Part of a team, whether AAA or indie. A lot of what I have to offer isn’t necessarily of use to someone who is working solo.
  • Probably a generalist, game, or systems programmer — I will not be the best person to help someone with shaders, for example, or DSP programming for audio, except in a general way.
  • Willing to share honestly the problems he/she/they face on a day to day basis, both technical and those that involve working within a team.
  • Probably working in a C-adjacent language. Although language isn’t really super important, I’m going to be fairly useless on language skills to someone who wants to program all day in Haskell or Ruby or something. While I’ve used tons of languages and while I think a lot of what I have to offer is language-agnostic, there are still likely limits to what I can do to mentor someone working in something totally alien to me.
  • Ideally, different from me. I’m white, cis, straight, neurotypical, able-bodied and male, which is to say I play life on the easiest difficulty level. I can learn from you if you’re different from me along those lines, and that’s important to me, too. I’d love to expand game programming in whatever small way I can, and reaching out specifically to people who aren’t just younger versions of myself I think would be helpful. Consider this a strong endorsement that people who are different from me should write in.

Reminder: matching up entirely with my “ideal” candidate characteristics is not disqualifying. I’m aware that under-represented groups will often take themselves out of the running earlier if they don’t match up perfectly with some list of “requirements.” These are just some things I’m looking for. It’s unlikely that every applicant will meet all of them. How you present yourself in your email introducing yourself will probably make a big difference to me. I’m not giving out a certain number of points or anything like that, this is more of a “feel” thing, I think.

How to apply: Send me an email at brett_douville@yahoo.com with the subject line “Be my mentor”. I’m not especially interested in your résumé, really — I’m more interested in you telling me a little story about who you are, where you feel you are in your career, how you got there, where you want to go, and what challenges you face. Let’s talk. Even if you’re not the person selected this time out, maybe I feel like I have time for another in a couple of months. Hopefully we both get an opportunity to grow from this experience.

Self-Help Questions for Gamers

I’ve been reading Walker Percy’s 1983 ruminations on the human condition “Lost in the Cosmos; The Last Self-Help Book,” which is structured as a series of questions and thought experiments. Here are few topical ones for gamers.

Thought Experiment 1

In the wake of a huge financial success, a publisher increases competition by opening a digital storefront; they will not require a subscription, but yes, will require a password to a service and to run a service connected to the Internet on your PC when you are playing games you purchased through them (though it is likely for competitive reasons this latter requirement will at some point be dropped). To establish themselves, they have sought limited-time exclusive arrangements with several high profile upcoming games. Do you

(a) intend to support the new storefront, realizing that monopolies, even de facto ones, are bad for both consumers and developers? Healthy competition tends to drive prices down for consumers, and in this case, developers may be able to get a healthier percentage of sales revenue owing to competition for their audiences, and those better numbers for developers lead to more games from those developers. Further, do you reflect that competition may similarly improve services for consumers in the innovation of store features, such as better curation or even features not yet imagined?

(b) feel uncomfortable with the decision, since you prefer the digital storefront with whom you’ve done business for so long, and therefore intend to wait out the exclusivity periods in favor of keeping all your goods in one place? After all, a six month window will allow you to catch up on other games you’ve bought but not finished, and its availability on that storefront will come long after reviews and other critical works inform you about whether that purchase would be a good fit for you. A good game is a good game forever, and under this scenario might even be cheaper for you, thus allowing you to purchase more games.

(c) log into your preferred digital storefront and write scathing negative reviews of games made by any developer associating a single game with that new storefront in an effort to discredit the developer, show your extreme dissatisfaction that although the game will be available to you at launch, it will not be in the precise location of your choosing? Realize, in choice c, that doing so may hurt the developer’s ability to continue to fund the making of games in the future.

(d) shrug and continue with your day.

Thought Experiment 2

A difficult game has come out to critical acclaim. As happens in such cases, an op-ed has appeared defending the choice not to present easier modes for players who are unable for whatever reason to make significant progress in that game owing to its difficulty. Do you

(a) privately disagree with the editorial, feeling that difficulty modes exclude a wider audience over what is in effect a matter of taste? Some players will prefer to play easier modes first to train up to playing the more difficult mode; some players will prefer the difficult mode only; some players will only play the easiest mode. In the end, you would make the choice that is best for you, wouldn’t you? Or do you fear that you wouldn’t?

(b) privately agree with the editorial, on the grounds of the developer’s freedom of speech through their art? Even though their approach might make for a smaller audience, and therefore make it more difficult for them to make such games in the future as development costs continue to rise, it is after all their product.

(c) publicly take to the Internet to excoriate those who do not agree with the editorial in the hopes of preserving only the one style of game that is to your taste?

(d) shrug and continue with your day.

Experiment Variant: Retake the experiment, but this time, an op-ed has appearing criticizing the developer for the lack of easier modes of interacting with the game. Make appropriate adjustments to the choices given, typically by recasting as agreement rather than disagreement or vice versa.

Thought Experiment 3

A game comes out that offers customization options, whether through models or text changes (e.g. pronouns), that admit the existence of varieties of skin color, gender presentation, and human sexual preferences. Are you

(a) as a person looking forward to playing the game, glad that there more people who will be able to see themselves in the game and therefore feel pleased that there will be a wider audience for the game and that this will likely mean more games of types that you enjoy in the future?

(b) as a person not looking forward to the game, still glad that there are games for everyone, even if not every game is for you? After all, there are literally dozens of games released each day on a wide variety of platforms.

(c) as a person either looking forward or not looking forward to the game, angry that such options exist and are therefore ready to use whatever tools of anonymity you have via the Internet to make threats, review-bomb, or otherwise make life as living a hell as you can for the developer of this game or appreciators of these moves to grow both the breadth of the medium and the size of its audience?

(d) even now shrugging and continuing your day?

Thought Experiment 4

If you answered (c) to any of these questions, look to your personal history. At what point did you become so broken that these seemed like rational responses?

I have a weird confession to make

There are any number of movies I’ve seen multiple times. I’ve seen Alien and its sequels many times. I’ve seen the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones¹ trilogies lots of times. There are lots of Pixar and Studio Ghibli films I’ve seen many times… unavoidable, when you have kids. I’ve rewatched a bunch of Tarantino, and Fincher, and Gilliam. There are probably hundreds of films I’ve seen a couple of times, once when I saw them in the theater and a second time when I shared them with my sons.

But the film I’ve seen more times than any other — probably over 100 times — is Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It turns 30 today.

I don’t know why I love this movie so much. I had a VHS copy in grad school and it was just the thing I would turn on at night after programming or studying all day. It was my wind-down film, one I’d have a friend over and throw on to watch over beers. There was a period of time when I’d just put it on randomly once or even twice a week, when my then-girlfriend was asleep, on low.

I don’t think it’s a perfect film. But I do think there’s something simply wonderful about its tone and I do think the structure is pretty great, too. It has an almost earnest sweetness to it, on top of an admittedly silly conceit. But that silliness leads to pleasures that just connect with me for reasons I’ve never been able to satisfactorily explain, even to myself.

If you somehow have never seen this movie, let me try to get you a quick plot description². The film opens with two teens — Bill S. Preston Esquire and Ted Theodore Logan, played by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves respectively — being informed by their history teacher that if they don’t absolutely ace their history presentation the following day, they will flunk the class and have to retake it over the summer. The stakes are high; if this happens, Ted’s father will send him to military school in Alaska, and that will kill Bill and Ted’s dreams of being in a band together. It turns out that the stakes are even higher — we are given a glimpse of the far future with Rufus (the late, great George Carlin) describing the utopia that the world has become… as a result of the music and philosophy of Bill and Ted. Rufus is tasked with getting Bill and Ted across the finish line of their history report through the use of a time machine… and we’re off to the races. They’ll visit various time periods, kidnap historical figures, and trash the local mall, all on the way to acing that report.

The absurdity of this premise leads to some wonderful places. It’s so peculiar and specific; the very idea that all the students of San Dimas³ high school will all give history reports to an auditorium filled with students is insane. The selection of historical figures is great; Napoleon, Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Genghis Khan, Sigmund Freud, Billy the Kid, Socrates, Beethoven. What would these historical figures think of San Dimas 1989? Well, we get to see. There are several wonderful montages: Napoleon enjoying a water park4, the teens kidnapping the historical figures, the figures enjoying the local mall, and the final presentation. The jokes are very frequent, though sometimes understated, and mostly motivated by character. There are a ton of tiny delights that never fail to make me smile, like Clarence Clemons being the apparent leader of that future utopia or the way Keanu Reeves will refer to Joan of Arc as “Miss of Arc” or Bill’s confession of a minor Oedipal complex (it’s a long story) or funny little time travel bits.

I was 18 when this movie came out, and I actually missed it in the theater, because it seemed too silly to me; to this day I don’t watch a lot of comedy. I caught it as a rental a year or two later and it just completely connected and I eventually got a copy of my own that I wore out. I don’t know how it has changed my brain to have seen this movie so many times, other than to say that it informs some of my sense of humor. Bizarre as it is to say this, it’s one of a few films that reflect something about my psyche, and the only one of those films that is lighthearted.

I haven’t watched it in a few years. I’m going to watch it again today. Happy thirty years, Bill and Ted. Thanks for being excellent to me.

¹There are only three Indiana Jones films, released in 1981, 1984, and 1989 and I will fight you on this. (back)

²Better yet, if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can go and watch it there for free. It’s a lean 90 minutes. (back)

³Ever since I got a phone with a weather app, I’ve made one of my stored locations San Dimas. I’ve never been there, but sometimes on a rainy day I’ll just look and see that it remains beautiful weather in sunny San Dimas. True story. (back)

4A few years back Cameron Kunzelman made a trivial little web game that he shared with me on Twitter that recreates this scene in a minimalist style with the music playing… I laughed for a solid five minutes with joy. Cam, if you’re reading this, you have to send me that game again, it’s not on your site. (back)

Fuck Activision Blizzard and Fuck Its (Mis-)Management

I heard about the Activision Blizzard layoffs last night via Jason Schreier’s reporting, and read Patrick Klepek’s opinion piece on Waypoint this morning.

Layoffs are horrible; I went through a painful one at LucasArts in 2004 as we were finishing Republic Commando. I’ve been lucky, in an industry that is full of them and with a career of more than 20 years now, that I’ve only experienced one — and that I got to finish that game and see it on the shelf to boot¹. It was all pretty terrible and is easily the most traumatic thing that has happened in my professional life. I’ve been pretty lucky in that regard.

Usually this sort of thing happens for business reasons — “we didn’t hit our sales targets,” or “we didn’t get the contract we needed to survive,” or what-have-you. The company can’t continue as it once did. Even then, it’s a failure of management. Management didn’t anticipate the problem, wasn’t prepared for the business environment, or failed some other way.

Which makes this Activision Blizzard announcement from yesterday particularly galling. After a record year with $2.4 billion in revenue, they felt the need to excise 8% of their workforce. This is a failure of conscience. It is a failure of fairness. It’s a failure of morals. It’s also a failure of both leadership and creativity.

You see, I’ve also worked with a company that had a title come out and take longer to reach profitability than had been hoped — that was a company that might have felt the need under those circumstances to cut back. It had no other titles in development, it was carrying several developers who didn’t have a lot to do. That company found temporary contract work for several of its developers, so that the financial burden of those salaries could be partly borne by others. This gave breathing room to pursue other revenue sources and look for that next contract that would keep everyone together. It was a creative solution to a common problem.

And that’s why I call this failure by Activision Blizzard a failure of leadership and creativity. I can understand that, after a breakup with Bungie, they may not need all the production services people that they have, going forward. I understand that. But you’ve invested in these people and they’ve invested their trust and faith in you, as well. With the amount of revenue from last year, and the investment that those people represent to your company, why not spin off a production services division as an independent entity that continues to serve Activision Blizzard’s needs in the near future and go out and drum up additional business? There aren’t tons of companies like that for games and there’s every chance there’s work out there for them, and potentially other work, too, in other entertainment industries. They had an opportunity to create something new.

Patrick ends his essay by pointing out a bump in Activision Blizzard stock following the announcement. The financial sector loves its cost-cutting, it just loves that, and as I had a guest say on our podcast this past year, “nobody ever got fired for saying no.”² Financial markets don’t care about the human cost. Apparently they don’t care very much about the lost investment in these people, either, money the company spent to make these people good at their jobs; hopefully other companies will benefit from that investment going forward.

Even better than cutting, though, is creating something new. Every single company that gets traded in the financial markets today was a new company once, founded to compete in a niche often — but even better to create a new one it could own.

With the amount of money Activision Blizzard brings in, they could have helped a new services company along as it slowly cut the cord, on a reasonable schedule. They could have created something, perhaps even a new niche. Given it time to sink or swim. Put the jobs of these people into their own hands. If it had made it out of the cradle, they might even have been able to sell it for a tidy profit down the line. Who knows?

But no, instead it’s clear that the “C” in Activision Blizzard’s “C-suite” stands neither for chief, nor for creativity, nor for courage. That “C” stands for cowardice. That “C” stands for cravenness. Fuck Coward-in-Chief Bobby Kotick and his whole suite of cowards.

Game workers, unite.

¹In that case, the studio contracted and then spent the next couple of years trying to expand again enough to support even one AAA-scale project on the XBOX 360 / PS2 level of hardware. The company’s reputation was tarnished, and it really never fully recovered that before it shut down permanently after the Disney acquisition. (back)

²It was this episode. (back)

A couple of great things from the end of EarthBound

Recently I played through EarthBound for the first time — it’s the most unconventional JRPG I’ve ever played, with bizarre choices in monsters, a setting that seems to be more or less on our own planet, and a progressive strangeness with which I’m still struggling¹. But there were a couple of things I really loved about the ending section of the game.

In case it was not abundantly clear from either the title or the preceding paragraph, this discussion must necessarily spoil plot points from the end of EarthBound.

Powering up the player… and maybe it’s not enough. Once you finish the quest to free the eight stones and unify their song, or whatever that’s about, there’s a mechanical boost that occurs to the player. The player gets dramatically stronger, gaining maybe 30% more hit points and for me I think about doubling his magic casting resources as well. What’s wonderful about this is that when you then make your final approach to take down Giygas, you are still… kind of underpowered? I died a few times on the way just to get to him from the randomly placed enemies, and then it took me four tries to defeat Giygas himself². So despite the fact that they’ve made you comparatively really powerful, it’s still balanced in such a way as you feel like you’re the underdog. You’re not, of course, because you’re functionally immortal and can basically level indefinitely… though if you don’t figure out the trick to beating Giygas, you might spend a lot of time looping there. Still, it’s a neat feeling to see your character get dramatically stronger only to still feel like you’re barely hanging on.

Aftercare. When we talked with Jill Murray on Dev Game Club, she brought up the idea of “after care” with respect to players. Tim had observed that we’re really good at stirring up emotions like fear and aggression in our players, and maybe not so good at warmer feelings, and Jill specifically lamented that we don’t take the time to care for players after we’ve brought them to that point. It was a good point and it’s notable that EarthBound does this pretty well, as do some others of my favorite JRPGs³. It’s different from simply allowing the player to go around and do lots of clean-up tasks, as most open-world games have tended to do these days. Here, we literally have a little celebratory moment with various characters, say goodbye to a couple of our party, and escort Paula back to her home before returning home ourselves. It’s lovely; we retrace our steps, characters thank us, there are no threats. The game also lets you know that it’s about to end, should you care to save and maybe go visit other characters now that you’ve saved the world. It’s really, really pleasant, and while modern game design often doesn’t allow for it, that’s to the detriment of modern games.

Anyway, very worthwhile to return to this 20+-year-old title, which I did via the SNES Classic. Lovely bit of hardware, that, and the presentation of the games is really great. I’m looking forward to playing a few other titles on there that I’ve never had the chance to. You can play EarthBound there, or I gather it’s also available on the 3DS.

Until next time…

¹Some of this made my jaw drop (suddenly changing the size of the player sprites when you descended to the Land That Time Forgot or whatever was a highlight) and some of this I’m not sure was used to good effect (particularly numerous abstract enemies that were surreal in some way but had no real unifying theme that spoke to me). One tends to want to forgive something like that because it’s unusual, but one still must ask — sure, this is all pretty surreal and unusual, but what are you trying to make me feel? (back)

²The first time I failed was because I didn’t know what the mechanic to defeat him was (though I looked it up and was also then informed by my stream friends), the second was because he overwhelmed me with attacks, and the third due to some bad luck using a combat mechanic. The signaling of the mechanic to defeat him was so subtle that I missed it entirely — it was the only time in the game whatsoever that I was really lost as for what to do. So I won’t dwell on it, but that wasn’t my favorite — mostly because there was a lot of retreading of combat to get to try your hand against Giygas again. (back)

³Final Fantasy IX, aka the Best Final Fantasy, immediately springs to mind. There’s a bit of post-final combat falling action, then a rising action to a different sort of emotional payoff. Most of it takes place in cutscenes, both pre-rendered and in-engine. (back)

What I Read, Watched, and Played: 2018 Edition

I used to write up a sort of look back at the year in cultural objects I examined and I’m going to try to get back to that. For years I’ve kept a list on the blog of the books I’ve read, the movies I’ve seen, and the games I’ve finished. This has usually been for my own benefit — it’s helpful when I’m in the library and looking at a book quizzically to be able to search for it on my site via Google. But at the end of the year, it also helps me look back a bit.

2018 was the year I read. Hoo boy, did I read. I finished reading 279 books this year, which is about 100 more than the next nearest year I’ve had with books since I’ve been listing them in the blog. There were a few reasons for this:

  • I wasn’t able to play games due to an injury. More on the injury in a week or two, but less time spent playing games meant more time reading books.
  • My kids are grown. Less time spent with kids means more time reading books; it also means fewer movies, since in any given year I’d probably watch upwards of 50 movies that were with them.
  • Fewer films. See above. I saw a bunch of movies this year but fewer than most years. Part of that is having the kids out of the house, which meant that I spent more time with the movies I prefer and less with stuff that appeals to kids.
  • Getting off social media. I decided to leave Twitter for good in August, and had been lessening my use over time through the year as well. It wasn’t making me happy. I deleted my Facebook account for good this year, although it had been disabled for years, and although I dabbled with Instagram I remembered that it too was Facebook and I quit that too. I love being able to be in touch with folks I know mostly through Internet connections but… the draw to be always on those things is strong. So, goodbye to all that, as they say. (I do still manage the Dev Game Club account, but that’s strictly for interacting with listeners, the only account it follows is Tim’s.)

Aside from that, though, there were some other trends in my reading.

  • I read more by women than men. A few years back I read only women authors for a year, and that had the intended effect: it exposed me to more women authors with whom I keep up on a regular basis. I had looked at my list in the couple of years prior and seen them hover in the under 25%, and that dismayed me, because it meant I was missing out on huge swaths of reading about the human experience, which is why I read so much anyway. I’m really happy with this trend, and it’s essentially 50/50 now.
  • I read more by people of color. I don’t have hard numbers on this, but I look through what I’ve read and I see names where I recognize the authors as people of color. I didn’t make a special effort, this just sort of happened, but it’s a nice trend.
  • I read a ton of genre fiction this year. Part of being exposed to more women authors was that I was looking specifically for those authors who might expose me to new ideas in genres I already enjoy, and the other part was that after Ursula K. Le Guin’s death early in the year, I both read (or re-read) several of her books and started looking for other voices. For horror, that meant a couple of books by Tanarive Due, for example. For mysteries and thrillers, that was Karin Slaughter and Kathy Reichs and Laura Lippman (and also Dorothy B. Hughes, who wrote novels back in the 40s). For fantasy, that was Laura Anne Gilman and N. K. Jemisin, for example.
  • I like reading projects. I have a bunch of them going on right now, and these tend to be series of novels in the case of long-running character genre stuff, or reading all of John McPhee, for example. I started doing this sort of thing a few years back when I revisited all of the Spenser series and all of John MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. So I often have a few of these on the go.

As far as films and games go, the biggest single influence on my film-viewing this year was probably attending a film festival with a friend. We watched a lot of movies together and I’m hoping we’ll get the chance to go again this year. With games, I was pretty much limited to what we played for my podcast with Tim Longo, Dev Game Club.

The biggest change in how I play games, though, has come from streaming them as I play. Around the middle of the year I thought I might start streaming those games on Twitch as I played them, and now I’m finding myself playing games as much as six or seven times a week on my Twitch channel¹, which is fun. It really enriches my experience of the games to be a more social experience. I don’t have tons of viewers, but I enjoy my chatter with my regulars tremendously. In addition to whatever we’re playing on the podcast, which is what I normally play on weekends, I also try to fit in a couple of hours with a JRPG most weeknights. It’s a welcoming group and while we talk about the game in question at times, we also just shoot the breeze.

So, what next?

I said above that I like to have reading projects going, and I do, so I’ve definitely been thinking a bit lately about what sort of projects I’d like to pursue as far as reading goes in the next year.

Naturally, I’d like to see the balance in my reading continue, and I’ll keep a vague eye on that. I’ve found that really enriches my reading experience. But I’d also like to move away from the fairly steady diet of genre fiction to other sorts of things — more classics and deep reads. I’m going to have to figure out how to do that. In all honesty, if I read fewer books altogether but more books that left a lasting mark, I’d consider that a big win — this includes looking to read something like Moby Dick or War and Peace this year.

As far as films go, I’m going to try to winnow my Netflix streaming list down to things I actually will watch and consider cutting that particular cord this year. I will maintain the DVD service, because most of what I enjoy from Netflix is actually not streaming anywhere. I’m also going to try and mix in films from Kanopy, which is available to me through my public library. I didn’t even watch ten movies a month this year, so having that many available to me each month through Kanopy might just be enough, in addition to what I see in the theater.

With games, I’m enjoying playing down my backlog through regular streaming play. I’ve got hundreds of games I’ve paid for and never played, which is silly, so no time like the present. Plus, I enjoy hanging out with that gang.

Last but not least, I’m also hoping to spend more time blogging this year — I’ve made it kind of a goal to blog once every couple of weeks as a minimum. This will continue to be the sorts of things I’ve wrote about in the past, whether that’s some particular aspect of mechanics or just general commentary on some game I’ve played or am playing.

I hope all of you out there reading have a great 2019 in culture. I’ll continue to measure out my life in pages and frames.

¹Obligatory “like, share, and subscribe” message here. Also: shout-out to a podcast listener, Matt Alan Estock, for his help in getting me squared away as far as getting going with streaming, especially with retro games. It was hugely helpful. (back)

The gentle layered failure of Spyro the Dragon

I love it when a game feels like it’s rooting for you.

Over this ten day weekend that comprises the holidays, I’ve been playing the remake¹ of Spyro the Dragon. So I want to talk about the way the game handles failure gently and in a way that tries to give you a leg up to success.

I need to give you a bit of a sense of the structure of the game to discuss the topic, so here we go. As a platformer of its time, it has “lives².” Spyro has a starting number of lives, like Mario does; when he runs out of lives, the game is “over” in some sense (we’ll get to that). The world in which the game takes place consists of a number of hubs, which are themselves game levels, from which Spyro can reach other levels via magic portals; additional hubs can be reached by accomplishing certain in-game goals. The current state of the game is saved every time Spyro enters or leaves a level, or when he rescues a dragon. The game state consists of what collectibles he has collected (gems that are either distributed loose, in chests of different kinds, or dropped by defeated enemies), which dragons have been rescued, and a smattering of other small details. Collectibles, once gained, are gained forever³. That’s the rough outline, and I’ll fill in more as we go as I discuss the various ways the game makes you feel like it wants you to succeed.

So, the first way it wants you to succeed is to make it harder to lose a life. Spyro is accompanied by a dragonfly named Sparx, he flits alongside him as he has his adventures. Sparx acts effectively as a renewable shield; Sparx will take three hits for Spyro before he disappears, and then Spyro will be unguarded and further damage will end this particular life of Spyro’s. It is as if Spyro has four hit points, which can be depleted one-by-one by environmental hazards or walking into enemies or being hit by their attacks. The three hit points belonging to Sparx can be regained by finding non-threatening ambient critters (sheep and rabbits and that sort of thing). All of this is fairly standard mechanical stuff going back to Mario and probably before; Mario eats mushroom to get big, Mario can now take two hits before he dies, if he takes one he can eat another mushroom to regain it.

One way it differs from Mario’s 2D games is that these ambient creatures are both fairly plentiful and more importantly, they respawn a little time after Spyro has gotten Sparx to consume them. So although good level design tends to place these critters after significant challenges for Spyro and the player, it’s almost always possible to go back and find some before you engage in these challenges. The game is happy to have you be at your best before you take on its challenges. So that’s one layer of encouragement to the player, to protect these lives.

Above, I mentioned how rescuing dragons saves the game state; it’s also true that returning to a place where Spyro has rescued a dragon will save the state again; typically we call this a checkpoint. The game state that is maintained while Spyro still has lives includes which enemies are alive or dead in the level he is currently in, but as noted above, collectibles such as gems are collected once and forever. If Spyro loses a life, therefore, any enemies he has encountered since the last save point are restored — this is done to maintain a level of challenge to the actual moment-to-moment play4.

Since gems dropped by enemies are collected once and forever, the game then goes further to give the player another benefit from defeating them a second time. On any subsequent defeat, an enemy will drop an orb which, when Spyro grabs it, will fill up a meter that grants an extra life once filled. It’s as if the game is saying, “Oh, I see you had trouble with this section, perhaps this will make it up to you.” Enemies similarly respawn whenever Spyro re-enters a level, and since the hubs are themselves levels, enemies will be recreated whenever one returns to them, giving Spyro an additional chance to earn these orbs and thus earn extra lives. There are also items in the levels which grant a whole extra life at one go.

Finally, on “game over,” the game can be continued and Spyro will be returned to the hub nearest to his final death — since enemies are restored when levels are entered, the enemies in the hub will be restored. On continuing the game with five new lives, then, the player is subtly encouraged to go ahead and add another life or two before continuing with whatever challenge ended his prior game.

I love these sorts of layered failure states, which is why I went into all of this so pedantically. It just feels like a pat on the back from the designer, a sort of “hey, you got this” cheer and a little boon to help you finish the game. It allows you to fail with a sort of forward momentum at each stage.

Sadly, none of these carry over into the final level5, which requires a nimbleness of the player which hasn’t really been strictly required up to that point, except occasionally. That final boss requires real agility and doesn’t contain any enemies that allow you to start building up new lives. If I were a player who had leaned heavily on the fail forward mechanics of the rest of the game, I’d be frustrated. Endings are hard.

Just thought I’d document all of that to help explain to myself why playing these games again feels like seeping in a warm bath.

¹I was surprised to discover it’s a remake, actually. I had assumed it was a remaster of some kind though I realize how difficult that would likely be and it’s not something we see too often from PS1 to PS4. (back)
²”Lives” mechanics are a holdover from the arcade era, where they were used to force a “game over/put in another quarter” loop. As of the PS2 era, I remember talking with Nathan Martz about how the mechanic was almost certainly going to die off. I’m sure it hasn’t, entirely, but it’s no longer a staple and indeed when Insomniac released its first PS2 platformer, Ratchet and Clank, they had abandoned it. (back)
³To be fully pedantic about this, collectibles once gained could be lost if the game were turned off before another save, but as long as the game is running, a collected gem is Spyro’s forever. (back)
4As a collection-based platformer, returning to empty levels just to search for remaining collectibles might be more tedious without combat distractions; mileage will vary for and individual player’s tastes. (back)
5Sadly, these mechanics do not apply at all to a certain class of level, in which Spyro must fly through a timed obstacle course; however, it might be possible to complete the game without engaging with these levels at all. I didn’t do the math, but I generally skipped them in favor of returning to them after I had defeated the final boss, so I think that’s the case. I did come back to them later, for the cheevos. 🙂 (back)