Rest in Peace, Chez Pazienza

I discovered the personal blog of one Chez Pazienza, Deus Ex Malcontent, when I was in college. This was before the internet opinion sphere had ossified to the degree it has now, so reading not only such vitriol, but such clear, compelling vitriol was quite novel to me. Even as the internet media realm has expanded, giving platforms to numerous more voices, Chez and his bluntness, his cynicism, and most importantly his anger stood out to me. I kept reading his blog, and kept reading his site The Daily Banter.

Now, he’s gone. Even as someone who didn’t know him personally I still knew him through his writing, where his struggles with drugs, depression, and the vicious personal cycles that both arise from and also create the need for self-medication were evident. Despite the fact that some people may have seen his death as an inevitability of past behavior, I can’t help but see his passing as a casualty of the political era we live in.

We need more people like Chez. He and Freddie de Boer, who thankfully is still alive, are both people I see in my reading who have the ability to articulate, defend, and contextualize an opinion with no regard to how popular it is. Ultimately, agreeing with them was not the point, because agreeing mindlessly to anything you read is just another declaration of surrender to eyeball-grabbing, approval-seeking internet culture. Though I doubt it was intentional in this respect, it was good that Chez pissed you off because then you had to go back and actually try to figure out what he was saying. Writers who make you think are way more important than writers who make you nod.

Chez’s timing was terrible. Now is when we need more middle fingers in the air, not fewer. His death diminishes everyone who is trying to write about the truth, whether they have an audience of thousands or (in my case) maybe a dozen. It’s a reminder that speaking truth to power is emotionally draining, and those who do it need all the support they can get.


Review: Cyberspace

Fact is, the 1980s were the time that roleplaying games really exploded. While Dungeons and Dragons was a child of the 70s, the 80s were a time that the corpus of games got a lot bigger, and some great mechanical and genre innovations came out of it. We got GURPS from the 80s. We got Paranoia from the 80s. We got Champions and Toon from the 80s.

We got Cyberpunk from the 80s.

The first wave of Cyberpunk roleplaying games came out over a very short time period. Cyberpunk 2013 was the first, released in 1988. Cyberspace and Shadowrun both followed in 1989. Cyberpunk, in my opinion, had the best mechanics of the three. Shadowrun, more objectively, sold the best. Cyberspace trailed the other two in popularity and adoption, and while a “second edition” was published (little more than a new print run with errata), Iron Crown let Cyberspace die on the vine and focused on their more successful fantasy game, Rolemaster.

At this point, I’ve run five full-length campaigns using Cyberpunk 2020 (including one with a GURPS kitbash), played in two full-length campaigns of Cyberpunk 2020, run and played numerous 2020 one-shots, and played in two full-length campaigns of Shadowrun as well. Cyberspace is, as the third member of the Cyberpunk RPG first wave, notably absent. So what did I do? I bought the book from a used book retailer on Amazon, and then last night I read it, cover to cover.

Cyberspace is based on Rolemaster, as is pretty much every product Iron Crown released (Rolemaster, Spacemaster, MERP). In fact, the book contains conversion notes for Spacemaster, in case you wanted some sci-fi crossover. The thing about Rolemaster is that it doesn’t have a unified mechanic. As an example, GURPS has a unified mechanic…roll 3d6 and your target number is your skill score. Though there are tons of modifications the system can throw at you, all rolls boil down to rolling these three dice and looking at your skills. In Rolemaster (and therefore Cyberspace), while there is one die mechanic (1d100), there is not a consistent way to determine success. Instead, there are tables indicating what happens for each range of dice results. Every type of maneuver has its own table, meaning there are somewhere on the order of half a dozen tables with results ranging from roughly -100 to 200. There are another half dozen critical hit tables, and another half dozen fumble tables.

Weirdly enough, this doesn’t affect the actual mechanics too much. This method adds some granularity to roll results, and actually reading the tables I thought it was pretty cool that margin of success had codified results. Here’s the problem, though: the raise mechanic in Savage Worlds also codifies results for margin of success, and for that to work you just need to divide your margin of success by four. In Cyberspace, you calculate the roll, find the table, read the table, and then determine the result. In a typical combat round you’ll be consulting at least two tables, and that’s if you already did out the calculations for your attack bonus and skill modifiers beforehand. So my main fear, not yet substantiated through play, is that this system is going to be slow. It’s also much more math-intensive than most modern systems, requiring the addition and subtraction of 2-3 digit numbers every roll. The main reason this is a problem is that both of Cyberspace’s competitors were much, much better in this regard. Cyberpunk is roll against a DC like D&D, and add your straight stat and skill rank. Shadowrun is a dice pool system: roll dice and count the 5s and 6s. Easy.

The combat system is based on simultaneous task resolution. The players all decide what they’re going to do, write it down and give it to the GM. The GM then resolves actions in order of what they are, with each action subtype having a ruling on how they affect either each other or subsequent actions. So ranged attacks go first, and are always executed. That means that if characters are shooting at each other, getting shot doesn’t actually affect whether or not you get your attack off. Melee attacks, on the other hand, are resolved based on an initiative order, with only identical initiatives resolving simultaneously like ranged attacks. There’s a lot of more detail in the combat system…mostly illustrated through tables.

Character creation is both very interesting and very problematic at the same time. The problematic aspect I can get out of the way at the outset: the first thing you do when creating a character is rolling 1d100 for 11 stats. That’s bonkers. I mean, people complain a lot about 3d6 for D&D, but 1d100 is completely random. You could roll below 30 for every stat while your table-mate rolls above 75 for each stat. I’d immediately houserule this to something less random, like 5d20 or 10d10. After that nonsense, things get better. The professions in the game are different packages of skills, and don’t provide many restrictions in the way of what skills you buy, merely varying amounts of start points and future XP costs. One thing I actually really like is that skills at character creation is divided into two parts: you first get a skill package based on your upbringing which is tied to social class, and then you get to the part where you buys skills based on your profession. There is a more detailed background section which is optional but too cool to actually ignore, it serves the same purpose as Lifepath in Cyberpunk but in my opinion is a lot less stylish.

The hacking and computer rules…where to start. First, I’ll concede that all hacking rules, especially very old ones, are pretty bad. Add to that that the technology assumptions are wildly inconsistent. What really bothered me about the technology in the book was how it seemed to jump from incredibly prescient (in 1989, the authors assumed in the future we’d have smartphones with full-featured CPUs, way better than the Cyberpunk phone assumptions) to incredibly stupid (the entire section on cyberdecks seems to have no real idea how a computer works). The worst is that these two things combine themselves. For instance, the authors describe memristors and MRAM with clarity…and then say you’d make a CPU with them (the confusion between processors and memory is a strong theme). They also describe the difference between a high-level programming language and a low-level machine language, even identifying that different processor types have different machine code…and then go ahead and include a table of machine languages based on software type…which makes absolutely no sense. In Cyberpunk 2020, the technical detail in the hacking section was thin…which as I see now was for the better because it prevented the authors from making technical error after technical error after technical error.

The setting material is good, similar in feel to Cyberpunk 2020 but with more detail. I do like how the main city in the book is San Francisco…as much as Night City was a neat setting in Cyberpunk, sticking a fictional city halfway between San Francisco and LA always felt weird to me. As Shadowrun was originally set in Seattle, this continues the trend of the west coast being the fictional Cyberpunk nexus. Cyberspace also goes into more detail with arcologies, space colonization and environmental damage, aspects that were important in Cyberpunk 2020 but glossed over.

Overall, Cyberspace is solid compared to its two contemporaries, but is definitely going to be a very different game. Like the system it’s based on, it’s designed to produce consistent roll results that are clear and easy to adjudicate. Also like the system its based on, it does this through miles of tables which make rules referencing during play essentially a must. This game, like Rolemaster, is designed to be crunchy and give strong mechanical support in deciding actions. It also leans on the 80s standbys of random character generation and lack of enforced game balance (though it’s nowhere near as egregious as, say, Rifts).

I’m incredibly curious to see how this game actually plays. I have a feeling that running online is going to be all but impossible unless I convince my group to all get their own copies of the book, though it may well be that I could run in a way that only the GM is looking up results on tables. I also have a feeling that if we felt FFG Star Wars could be slow in combat, we’re in for a very rude awakening.

Ultimately, I see why this game exists and why it still has fans. I can’t say for certain how I feel about it compared to Cyberpunk 2020…from what I can tell Cyberspace has a much more robust ruleset in terms of exploitability, and both the character creation and advancement rules are better from a mechanical perspective (Lifepath still has more style though). But until I try running this thing and dealing with all of these tables, I don’t really know how the core game plays compared to others. When comparing it to my broader game collection, though, it’s hard to see my interest in this other than as a historical artifact. Cyberspace could compare favorably with Cyberpunk 2020, but with Interface Zero, The Sprawl, Technoir, and others gaming has continued to move beyond the design principles of the 80s. Even GURPS, with its own design roots in the 80s, has improved significantly in its four editions, becoming an easier toolkit while still maintaining a good amount of heft. Though I’m not sure what I thought was going to happen, reading Cyberspace made me understand perfectly well why it was the third place finisher in the first wave of Cyberpunk games.


Review: RimWorld

Pablo was a real hardass. Late 40s, good with a gun, had his hair up in a mohawk, not a style popular with other colonists. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but if he let you in you had a friend for life.

The raiders gave the colony plenty of time to prepare, but they came heavily armed. Usually the raiding parties were from the Green Tarsier tribe to the south, but these pirates had high-powered rifles and body armor. Pablo was one of the first to the perimeter. He took a hit from a sniper rifle and went down before the fight really even started. It was a tough fight, but after a couple hours of bullets flying, the pirates were repelled. The colonists even took the sniper rifle that hit Pablo as a trophy.

McClure, the surgeon, patched Pablo up as best he could. But even after the bleeding stopped, Pablo wasn’t walking. It was at this point…that I opened up the health tab in Pablo’s character menu, and saw that his leg had been shot off.

This game. Holy shit, this game. To get the basics out of the way, RimWorld is The Sims, in space, with guns and a tech tree. Or to put it another way, if you loved the idea of Dwarf Fortress but bounced hard off of it every time you actually attempted to play, RimWorld has almost as much depth but a learning curve that’s actually human. And graphics, too!

I wouldn’t say the graphics are a selling point, but they’re easier on the eyes than playing Dwarf Fortress in ASCII. They’re fairly similar to Prison Architect, in my view, being cartoonish and simple, but RimWorld has far fewer frames of animation than Prison Architect does. And ultimately, that’s OK.

All right, enough with the comparisons and carrying on. In RimWorld, you control a group of colonists who have crash-landed on a remote planet, a “RimWorld” in the game’s parlance. You must help them set up a colony so they can survive, thrive, and maybe even get back off the planet. Like in Dwarf Fortress, you don’t directly control your colonists, instead you set up orders for them, either in terms of construction or in terms of work orders on production equipment. They will then follow those orders based on a priority queue and their own personal moods and needs.

While the graphics are simple and cutesy, the simulation and AI around your colonists is miles better than what The Sims had in 2000. Your colonists will tend to their needs and generally be productive, getting things done unless their mood gets low enough to cause a mental break. These breaks can be mild (locking themselves in their room, wandering around in a daze), moderate (binge eating, binge drinking, getting really stoned), or severe (forgetting where they are and stripping naked, going bezerk and shooting people), and if your colony is a high stress environment they’ll happen pretty often.

What makes your colony a high stress environment isn’t always (or even often) you, though. Colonists will fight, fall in love, break up, get hurt, get pets, and a whole bunch of other things. The amount of detail is quite impressive, and it all works together. Let’s go back to my example of Pablo. Pretty much all of what I wrote about Pablo was specified by the game logic, including the fact that he was coolly received except for one or two very loyal friends. So he got shot, and I didn’t realize the shot had taken his leg off until I checked his health panel when he was in bed. OK, so while I hadn’t discovered prosthetics in the tech tree, I did know how to make (I’m dead serious) peg legs. So I set up an order for McClure, the surgeon, to perform the operation “install peg leg”. Well, the surgery failed catastrophically. So McClure spends the next six hours patching up the leg he had tried to cut open, there’s blood everywhere…Pablo somehow survives. But the colony is out of medicine, and it’s the dead of winter so the healroot (herbal medicine crop) won’t be ready until spring. Pablo is confined to bed for a month until I order the colonists to harvest the healroot early so Pablo can get his peg leg. The second time around, the operation is a success. Pablo is still a hardass, and after contributing to the colony for another couple seasons, he’s shot again in a pirate raid. This time he doesn’t make it. McClure still sometimes goes out and visits Pablo’s grave.

These are the kinds of stories this game generates, and it’s amazing. I’ve had one wedding, one engaged couple break it off, and one colonist who had lost his wife…only to have her come running out of the woods after escaping from slavers. One of my colonists is a 76 year old woman with dementia…a brilliant scientist who sometimes wanders around the colony late at night, forgetting where she is. As our tame red fox (the animal systems are also great) has gotten older, he too has developed dementia, and is also prone to wandering around, confused. When the game informed me that the two of them had made an emotional bond, it was strangely gripping.

Rock Paper Shotgun wrote a column about using procedural generation and deep simulation for storytelling, talking mostly about apophenia, or the human tendency to create patterns from randomness. RimWorld is the primary topic of that column because it hits the sweet spot of multilayered complexity and accessibility. The mechanics are distilled down to somewhere between The Sims and a reasonable real-time strategy game, but the layers of simulation create a lot of subtlety. I’m still marvelling over the fact that a late-game technology is ground-penetrating radar, which allows you to drill for resources. The agriculture system is a great example of finding the sweet spot between depth and accessibility: you can create a zone for growing, and then pick the crop, and be done with it, for the most part…or you can create a hydroponics system and grow crops indoors. The power system allows you to build solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal power plants and fuelled steam turbines, as well as batteries for backup or for moderating renewables. Installation is simple drag and drop, but the simulation ends up being quite satisfying even to me…and I research power systems for a living.

The downside to covering so much simulation in a limited set of mechanics is that there are limited ways to convey all the information. In the world view this is mostly fine, and anyone familiar with the realtime strategy genre will be familiar with clicking on an item to see its status. Here, though, it’s good to know there is a “next layer down” button. In agriculture, for instance, clicking on an active field will generally get you the plant you click on. To get the field itself (which is how you change the crop assigned to grow there) you need to click the “next layer down” button. With people, though, the information screen has five tabs: Needs, Gear, Character, Social,  and Health. As my experience with Pablo above showed, you need to review all five of these at given moments. While there is a certain sense of overload, RimWorld does better conveying dependencies and incomplete workflows than something like Dwarf Fortress. As an example, batteries in the game can explode, and they will do so when they get overloaded, overheated, or wet. The game tells you this. The game leaves you to figure out that you must keep batteries dry by putting a roof over them. I figured out the hard way that that means roofing them and keeping them outside, because if you put them inside and they explode you’re dealing with a very large fire.

Once you’ve gotten basic survival out of the way, the game’s trade system means you can support your colony in a wide variety of ways. You can become a space brewery (or a space grow op). You can become an outfitter, making clothing and equipment and selling them. You can mine. You can imprison people and trade them to slavers. You can make a space hotel. Even as I’ve played through most of the tech tree with my current game, I find myself itching to try all sorts of different things. There are a lot of things the game can do that I haven’t dug into yet at all.

In conclusion, RimWorld scratches all the right itches for me, and has been deeply compelling. Not only did I pay full price for this game (something I rarely do period and essentially never do with Early Access games), I knew immediately I had gotten my money’s worth. As the game is still in Early Access there are likely more features on the horizon, which could be very exciting.



New York Magazine: Technology almost killed me

I was an avid reader of Andrew Sullivan in The Dish‘s heyday. That doesn’t mean I agreed with him all the time, but his style of commentary was well-suited to the rapid-fire, clearly editorial blogging he did. As the title of this article states, it’s actually not good for you to be full-on internetting 8+ hours a day.

I’m always a little skeptical of articles discussing the dystopia of our connected world because, as Sullivan states, we’ve been bemoaning the advent of new communication technologies since the printing press. Those who did not live with new forms of communication subconsciously desire life without them, because changes in how we communicate are the most difficult to process.

Having a smartphone comes with numerous benefits for me, and for everyone else who carries them. It also comes with a societal expectation of persistence that culture has borne out. Since the iPhone first came out in 2006, the public’s tolerance to delays with their communications has steadily dropped to zero. And that in turn gives us all “notifications anxiety”. That, more than the nature of portable computing itself, is the problem.

I rarely take photos with my phone, and I rarely post to Facebook more than once a day or Tweet more than 3-5 times (and most of those are either article notifications, retweets, or nonsense). That said, even without the compulsion to be always on, I’m easily distractable. I have been for years, decades even, but now I have a distraction in my pocket.

I did have an opportunity to take a cell phone sabbatical while at Pennsic. It was nice not to pay attention to my phone, but it’s always nice to not pay attention to my phone. What the week did for me, more than anything else, was help me to realize that I don’t need to pay attention to my phone. Nothing bad happened while it was put away. I didn’t miss Facebook or Twitter. I didn’t even miss any phone calls. Remembering that helps me leave my phone in another room when I’m writing or reading, and keeping it out of my field of view while in a car or on a bike. These are good practices, and not incompatible with having the phone in the first place.

I doubt I’ll ever be engrossed in my phone the way people ten years my junior are said to be. But even without that, I’m still in the position of watching social media go by like an unending river of nonsense, and being dragged in by inflammatory political comments or cat videos, which are both about equally important in day to day conversation (take note, more active posters). That’s something I should be more aware of. The time I should be productive I can be productive, and the time I should be distracted I can at least choose to read or view things I like rather than the aggressive blah of Facebook.

As Sullivan found out, diving into the deep end of the high-energy eye-grabbing internet can have some serious health impacts. For the rest of us, the effects are unlikely to be as serious…but I’m still sure there are better ways to spend time.


First milestone

Over this weekend, my view count exceeded my post count for the first time. It’s a modest first milestone, but one I’m happy about.

To explain, back in May shortly after I started this blog, I imported the contents of four WordPress blogs I had written previously into this one. This put me at around 450 posts at the start of this month, and reset my post count on all of my imported posts to zero. As such, there was roughly two to three archive posts for every new post I had made, so I needed to get more than 3 views a post pretty consistently to bridge the gap. Well, five months into this blog’s inception, it appears that I’ve done it. 455 posts, 460 total views. A little less than 100 hits a month.

I think it’s a good starting goal, but even with this relatively modest personal blog, I do have another. I’d like to get to the point I was able to with my personal blog in college, and consistently hit over 250 views a month. I actually exceeded that this August, but I’m on track to come in much lower in September, likely due to a week with no content thanks to business travel and a writing drought. Still, I believe this is a goal I can probably hit by the end of the year. I know the best way to achieve that is to write interesting things people want to read, so I’m going to try my best to keep doing that.


An Omission: The Martian Chronicles Adventure Game

In today’s earlier reflection, I made an interesting omission in the “tie-ins” section.

The Martian Chronicles Adventure Game was based on the Ray Bradbury short story collection it shared its name with, and some of the characters returned as well. That said, the game was kind of a mess. It was a puzzle game, but at the same time you had to watch your oxygen level, and were on a time limit. To add to that, there were definitely aliens around who were trying to kill you. I never beat this game, but like both Gadget and the Journeyman Project games, thinking about it does make me want to go and find a copy. It was highly atmospheric, and used both Bradbury’s commentary and passages from the book very effectively in its presentation. And to top it all off, this game, like Gadget, creeped the hell out of me as a kid.


Seeds of Obduction

Recently I’ve been sucked into the new game from Cyan, Obduction. That said, I don’t want to talk about Obduction much, it’s a very new game with a rich world and plot, which means potential spoilers abound. Instead, I have some thoughts about the genre Oduction exists within, the first-person puzzle game. It’s a genre that, with the help of Cyan, revolutionized PC gaming, and was used as a platform to make a wide variety of games of wildly varying type and quality. And I’ve played my fair share.

The Predecessors

Myst was not Cyan’s first game. That credit goes to one of three (because I don’t remember the order they were released in) children’s titles made in the late 80s and early 90s. I played all of them. Manhole was actually one of if not my first PC games; I was around four years old. However, my memories come from a heavily remastered edition that came out years later which my father purchased for nostalgia reasons. Manhole involved wandering around a world constructed of a combination of physical impossibilities (you could at one point pilot a Venetian gondola inside a teacup), talking animals (the teacup belonged to a rabbit), and literary references (including a few literal books, Jack’s beanstalk, and some more obscure C.S. Lewis and Tolkien references). I will remember the painting of the walrus that shook his jowls and proclaimed “Indubitably!” for the rest of my life. I was also the only child in my kindergarten class who knew what ‘indubitably’ meant, thanks to the wonder of my Dad buying a very early sound card.

The other two games, Spelunx and Cosmic Osmo, did not have as lasting an impact on my childhood, but they were also older and belied Cyan’s hypercard roots (as such, both were only available on Macintosh computers until Steam came along). There was a similar sense of surrealism and wacky world-building, though only Osmo had the same level of character and weirdness as Manhole (Spelunx was more a set of interconnected minigames set in a cave). None of these games had win states, they were worlds intended for young children to explore and interact with more than anything else.

The Main Event

The first thing I remember about Myst was that it was on a CD. That, and it took no time at all to install. I remember the opening, vaguely, and other than the world with all the trees and the one with all the gears, I don’t remember much of the game. I remember the endings, though. My dad was the one actually playing, but I remember getting trapped by the brothers, and basically figuring out the “good” ending through trial and error. Myst was a long time ago…it might be time for be to give replaying it a whirl.

What I remember, though, was Riven. Oh man, my dad was excited about Riven. And then Riven took us a long time to beat. My dad by that point was not really a serious gamer, so he’d play Riven, make some progress, get stuck on a puzzle, and then put it down for a while. A while was usually months. And so we beat Riven, but it was years after the game came out. And the ending was…well, a tad anticlimactic. But the relief at having beaten it was more significant than the disappointment at having so few questions answered.

What Myst and Riven had in common for me was that they were really my dad’s games more than mine. I saw some of the puzzles and experienced the plot salient parts, but I didn’t really play them. I have both games on Steam now, but until recently have had minimal interest in replaying them. The rest of these games, though, were more my own experiences.

The Weird Japanese One

My dad brought home an odd game, some time between Myst and Riven. It was called Gadget. Gadget was less of a game and more of a visual novel in the style of Myst, which left my dad kind of cold on it. My brother and I, however, were taken by it. Gadget had an incredible art style which mixed surrealism, art deco, and steampunk, with just enough uncanny valley to make it unnerving. The setpieces of the game were these incredible trains and other insane vehicles, including spaceships and Da Vinci-esque flying machines. The people…well, the uncanny valley was a huge part of the game. One of the recurring characters was this boy you met in the elevator at the beginning of the game. He looked…well, see for yourself.


And he would just SHOW UP. Without warning. Scared the shit out of me. Anyways, between the art style and the dystopian story about mind control and an impending asteroid collision, I found the game to be fascinating. There was even a companion novel by Marc Laidlaw, which I read. I wish more was done with the world, but instead it remains a weird artifact of the 90s. After that, my explorations took a more gamey turn.

The Time Travel Adventure

When I was in elementary school, my parents bought me a game called “Buried in Time”. In this game you played something akin to a time travel cop, trying to solve the mystery of who framed your future self. Along with a couple of my friends I played through parts of this game, solving some puzzles but not others, and eventually getting stuck. I returned to the game a bit later, having figured out where I went wrong. Though there was no indication of this in the game (though if you put it in walkthrough mode it told you), you were supposed to go to the one non-historical zone in the game first. While the other zones were medieval castles and Mayan pyramids, there was a fictional mining station orbiting Saturn which was intended to be your first destination. The mining station was the home of an eccentric artist who had created an AI companion, the only NPC in the game. This AI, named Arthur, was supposed to be your guide through the rest of the game, pointing out historical incongruities and making jokes. Of course, trying to play the game without finding Arthur was significantly more difficult than it needed to be. After figuring out the Saturn issue, I was finally able to beat the game.

Buried in Time was the second in a series of three, and was by far the best. The first, The Journeyman Project, had the cool time travel premise and some interesting puzzles, but the environs were so-so. Buried in Time was much better, and the puzzles were more consistent. The third game Legacy of Time, featured much more FMV and took out the ability to die which had been frustrating in the previous titles. It was a bit easy but was by far the most polished of the three. Presto Studios, the authors of the second two, would end up making the non-Cyan Myst games, probably at least in part due to their work on the Journeyman Project series.

I greatly enjoyed this series, though with a functional inventory and cross-zone puzzling, it owed as much in design to the old point-and-click games as it did Myst. Still, Presto going on to actually develop the Myst series after Cyan licensed it shows just how well they did with the pre-rendered puzzle game format. Unlike some who tried it.

The tie-ins

The two tie-in games I played during my childhood were symptomatic of how easy it was (relatively speaking) to throw together a pre-rendered game compared to some others. And these were…well, weird.

First, there was Bill Nye: Stop the Rock! As a Nye Labs associate, you must solve byzantine trivia questions posed to you by the troublesome AI controller of an asteroid defense system that has gone rogue and refuses to save humanity. Yeah, that was the plot. You had five days, and winning the game was dependent not only on using the science lab equipment to perform “experiments”, but also to set in motion relatively convoluted chains of events to exactly answer all the questions. It was not a shining star of games, though it was fun enough at age ten.

Second, was a game that tied in to the Discovery Channel series Connections, by James Burke. Yeah, seriously. It was a bizarre game, where you had to go through historically incongruous zones that were apparently symptomatic of Maxwell’s Demon screwing up the universe (yeah, seriously), and put things back together by making strange chains of connected objects that had connections similar to what Burke discussed in his book and in the documentary series. Also, Burke himself was in the game as a guide. It was incredibly weird, though not what I’d necessarily call bad.

I know there must be more of these weirdo games out there. It was this latter part of the pre-rendered game’s lifecycle that helped kill it, though in reality what did the format in was when graphics were finally good enough that pre-rendering was no longer necessary.

The rebirth

After the FMV puzzle game had started to look shabby thanks to advances in 3d graphics, there was a shift for puzzle games in terms of design. The last Myst game released by Presto (i.e. not Cyan) was Myst 5, and it was the first to actually render the game in real-time. Two years later, Portal came out and all of a sudden puzzle games were cool again. Portal was still at its heart designed like its Half-Life 2 forbear, where jumping and movement were key. After Portal, though, the emergence of more narrative and deliberate games (sometimes called ‘walking simulators’) using first-person engines paved the way for games like The Talos Principle, The Witness, and then finally, Obduction.

To me, Obduction almost plays like the version of Myst the Cyan guys would have made if they had had the computing power. It takes a lot of the elements of Myst, including puzzles that span whole environments, and turns them into something entirely different. I’ve been having a lot of fun with it.

I’ve had fun with the trip down memory lane, as well. Just found out that the entire Journeyman Project trilogy is on, including a full remake of the first game which I’ve never played before. I may be making some purchases.

The Journeyman Project 1



Experimenting with drugs (in the loosest sense of the word)

Broadly, the ingestion of non-food chemicals by humans falls under one of three categories: health (either treatment or preventative), recreation, or performance enhancement. The last category causes most to think about scandals in sporting events or muscle-bound steroid users, but the use of drugs to enhance mental performance (now called nootropics) has a long, if quiet history.

Before becoming a Silicon Valley buzzword, nootropics were a class of drugs designed to help keep people at peak mental performance under stressful conditions. They were, to a man, stimulants, and were used back through at least World War II to improve fighting condition. More recently, the Air Force shifted to a non-stimulant “sleep preventative” called modafinil to keep their pilots awake on long missions. Modafinil is prescribed in the civilian market to combat narcolepsy, though many have started using it illegally for the same reasons one uses amphetamines and Ritalin illegally: either to study/work or to stay up through the night partying. Both modafinil and stimulants have a combination of gnarly side effects and possible addictive qualities keeping them from being a good idea for long-term self-administration for “cognitive enhancement”.

Ultimately, most of the new nootropic compounds which have cropped up since Reddit caught on to this do somewhere between nothing and nothing relevant. In terms of actual measurable cognitive enhancement, none of the fad compounds have been proven to do anything, and those with positive clinical results fail to stand up to the simplest and most proven of cognitive enhancers, caffeine. This has led to various experimentations with “stacks” of compounds in an attempt to maybe eke productivity out of some magical combination, despite the fact that there’s very little understood about the biochemical mechanism of any of these.

Well, except one. L-theanine is a compound extracted from green tea, which while it in isolation has no proven effect (though there are reports otherwise) has been pretty strongly observed to have a synergistic effect with caffeine. It’s (so they say) one of the reasons that green tea and tea in general tend to make you less jittery than coffee. L-theanine occurs naturally in foods and beverages, and shows no side effects in doses way higher than the effective one.

With curiosity and a little excess cash, I decided to give it a whirl.

I can confirm that on its own, L-theanine does absolutely nothing. This is not surprising, and about what I expected. Some reported feelings of relaxation or reduction in anxiety; despite the fact that I have had anxious episodes in the past I am not particularly anxious now, so it’s hard to say what a reduction in anxiety would feel like even if I had felt one. No matter.

I tested the synergistic effect of L-Theanine yesterday by having, by my admission, a stupid amount of coffee. Two Dunkin Donuts’ iced coffees and a double espresso from my work coffee maker, weaker than what you’d get at Starbucks but stronger than a normal cup of coffee. I’ve had less caffeine, sometimes much less caffeine, send me into an anxious episode that took several hours to get out of, basically enough time for the caffeine to leave my system. So doing this voluntarily given my track record was fucking dumb.

But I felt fine. I got the “crackle” in my head that has come to indicate I am heavily caffeinated, and a (much milder than usual) nervous stomach from drinking a lot of coffee with little food in my stomach. But no anxiety, no jitters, no attacks. I felt productive and alert, but without the heart pounding and stomach turning notes of a proto-anxiety attack. One test isn’t much, but it does appear to me that L-Theanine does something.

As someone who enjoys coffee and is very sensitive to it, I’m likely to continue with this experiment. A mild supplement which lessens caffeine side effects is great for me and will help keep me productive during my coffee-drinking hours. Knowing how sensitive I am to caffeine, it’s likely that a 2-3 cup a day coffee junkie may notice nothing if they were to try this. As such it’s hard to give a blanket recommendation for this, or even say it’s actually a “cognitive enhancer”. For me, though, and for anyone who is sensitive to stimulants, it could be a great boon.

For everyone else, keep reading Reddit, and please be careful about how you waste your money. Occam’s Razor is the watch word for most of this nootropic nonsense.


Naming fictional fraternities for fun and profit

Over the weekend I found my original outline to Fratricide on my computer. In an interesting note, this document was, while clearly framing the acts of the original draft, also written in a bitterly sarcastic tone. If I remember correctly, my attitude at the time was “fuck the Great American Novel, let’s just finish a damn manuscript”.

In that document I have all of the original organization names, which were all derived from three-letter acronyms. Scott’s fraternity, Gamma Sigma Rho, was derived from GSR, of course. What did GSR stand for?

Gratuitous Self Reference.

Never deny the creative power of depression and extreme sarcasm.