What is a Game Worth?

Halo: ODST was criticized as “not worth full price” since it was “just” an expansion of Halo 3. Yet this was the game that introduced Firefight, which became a staple of later titles and significantly extended the life of the game. Since it didn’t require intimidating and often hostile online play, my wife and I played hours and hours of co-op against waves of Covenant opponents in Firefight matches. That doesn’t even count the replayability of the campaign (nearly as good as Halo 3, in my opinion) or the add-ons like the Halo 3 multiplayer maps or beta access to Reach multiplayer.

Firewatch is a beautiful little character-driven game that was made by a tiny team. Just about everyone who has played it has loved it. Yet, at least one person wanted a refund because it was “too short”, even though he or she[1] played, finished, and liked the game. It is possible to blow through it in just a few hours, but it is a contained narrative, not an open world exploration.

Now, some are bitching that No Man’s Sky is going to “carry an astronomical fee” even before it has been released or played, just because it was developed by a small team and “looks shallow” based on preview material.

Games, like apps, should be judged on quality, not a relatively meaningless metric like length. People who have no problem dropping comparatively large sums on consumables or ephemerals suddenly become Scrooge McDuck crossed with Roger Ebert when it comes to software.

Let’s have a show of hands: How many of the bajillions of hours of side-missions in Skyrim made you feel anything other than annoyance at the inventory management at the bottom of yet another dungeon? How much actual story did you get in the work-week-worth of time you spent on any one of the GTA games? Is a sprawling, flabby, repetitive time-sink “worth” more than a short, contained narrative just because it takes longer to finish?

  1. Let’s face it, it was probably a dude. Even my sister, who is a certified grade-A diamond-class entitled bitch, wouldn’t ask for a refund under these circumstances. This is a woman who caused a scene in a restaurant over a tiny spider dropping down from a 3 story vaulted ceiling and scuttling across a table, and even she would be like, “#^¢* that. I ain’t gonna ask for my money back” under these circumstances.  ↩

Neuromancer…Still the Best Science Fiction Novel Ever Written


Gibson even at his worst — which is still better than the best of many other writers — creates startlingly lucid images with lyrical prose. In interviews he has said that he knew the tech would be horribly dated in very short order. What keeps snagging new readers, and keeps old ones coming back over and over, is his use of language.

Structure Does Not Trump Content

The author of an extensive post, titled Star Wars Ring Theory: The Hidden Artistry of the Prequels, Mike Klimo, was featured on Unjustly Maligned not too long ago. He makes a strong case for a previously unnoticed complicated interlocking narrative structure for the 6 Star Wars movies. Lucas’ own words in past interviews and Star Wars supplementary materials support the theory also.

But, using such a framework doesn’t absolve Lucas from the multiple technical, storytelling, characterization, and dialog failures in the prequels, as discussed in the RedLetterMedia video reviews, which are directly referenced by Klimo. (If you haven’t seen these yet, you really should. The only weak points are the bizarre “real life” insertions of the Plinkett character, and even those are entertaining in their twisted way.)

If you were to show all of the Star Wars movies to someone who had no prior knowledge of them, any of the original three would be judged as being superior movies to the prequels in nearly any metric you’d care to define. The Empire Strikes Back is obviously the standout even among that group. It seems that Lucas benefitted both from the strictures of studio production and the stronger influence of the directors of the earlier movies. Without those balancing forces, his vision ran unchecked.

Poetry forms like sonnets are a similar confining structure for writing, albeit on a much smaller scale than classical chiasmus which is meant to provide links between entire passages or scenes in a large narrative. For every gem by a Shakespeare or Keats, there are hundreds of thousands of sonnets by poets who dutifully followed the demands of the form, but which are utter failures as poems, however well they conform to the structure of a sonnet.

Literary structures are best used as scaffolding to aid creativity. There are few things more terrifying or paralyzing to a creative person than an utterly blank space with no limitations. By confining yourself to a particular form, or material, or subject, you can spark ideas that may never coalesce without some limiting factor. One of the most famous quotations of Michelangelo, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” reflects how in working around the limitations of his tools and the flaws in a natural material like marble, an artist has to see the possibilities. Without some limits to force the artist to use ingenuity, banality might be the rule and genius the exception.

Competently done, the parallels and echoes in the Prequels would have been evocative and thrilling. Instead they felt ham-handed, trite, and formulaic. Episodes 1–3 are occasionally beautiful-looking films, but the visuals don’t make up for the lacks. Even worse, while at the time the CGI was cutting-edge, it often doesn’t hold up as well as the seat-of-their-pants practical effects that Lucas’ fledgling studio were essentially forced to create a generation earlier in order to get the original Star Wars movie made.

The first Star Wars movies were an alchemic blend of Lucas’ ideas and the talents of the directors and artists who worked on them. Lucas on his own couldn’t recreate that magic resulting from synergy, and his predominance as the director, producer, and financier gave him essentially unchecked power in making the prequels, resulting in an intricately-crafted structure reflecting both Lucas’ obsessions and his weaknesses as a movie maker. His arguable genius in structuring his masterpiece as a classical ring composition apparently could not also encompass effective characterization, dialog, plotting, or pacing.

The Most Timeless Songs Of All-Time

Matt Daniels for Polygraph:

Until recently, it was impossible to measure the popularity of older music. Billboard charts and album sales only tell us about a song’s popularity at the time of its release.

But now we have Spotify, a buffet of all of music, new and old. Tracks with fewer plays are fading into obscurity. And those with more plays are remaining in the cultural ether.

The interactive charts Polygraph put together from the Spotify data are really interesting. If you’re anything like me, you’ll blow another 10–15 minutes above the time you spend reading the article playing with them.

As Daniels pointed out, we don’t really have data to support interactions that might change the trajectory of popularity, but I’d point out that some of the less popular but surprisingly long-lived songs were featured in movies or on TV programs.

Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” may owe its current place at the top of the longevity chart to Glee, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” would most likely languish in obscurity without the 20 year trailing consciousness-boost from Wayne’s World. Aerosmith’s “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” also stands far out in the 1998 track list, which is probably due to being a featured song in Armageddon.

It’s a classic chicken-egg problem. Were these songs featured in films and TV shows because they had a lasting impact on people, or did they get a new lease on public consciousness because someone involved with making the show liked the songs and used them?

But if the songs aren’t “good” in some sense, they won’t have lasting attention. You’d have to make a damn compelling show to bring back something like “Ice Ice Baby” from (its rightfully consigned) place in 90s obscurity. After a playcount blip, I’d expect that to go right back down to baseline, unless it got meme-ified or otherwise co-opted and used ironically.

'Smooth Criminal' Arranged for Koto and Shakuhachi

This has been posted in a few places. I tracked down the original upload and my link goes straight to the account for what I believe is the original video creator.

[Update: the original has apparently been removed, so here’s a link to the Digg version. I’d rather support Digg than the other people who freebooted the video in the first place.]

Two things immediately struck me: the arrangement for the instruments is superb, and Jackson’s original melody is so strong that it holds up under extremely divergent treatments.

Alt-metal band Alien Ant Farm did a cover in 2001 that was obviously a less drastic change from the original than this. I can easily imagine an orchestral version being made someday.


琴(箏):伊藤江里菜) Koto: ITÔ, Erina (personal blog, links to professional sites)

尺八:辻本好美 Shakuhachi: TSUJIMOTO, Yoshimi (official site)

十七絃箏:渡部祐子 17-string koto1: WATABE, Yûko (official site)

Criminally, the original video has (at this writing) only 3,821 views on YouTube. The Digg imbed that brought it to many people’s attention, and whatever source they linked from — which is definitely not the original given the watermark on Digg’s version of the video — must have many times that by now, if not hundreds of times more. It’s terrible that the original creators of content that goes viral often don’t get properly credited.

  1. A traditional koto has 13 strings. The much later variant “bass” 17-string koto added strings and construction elements for a different pitch, and has a different playing style.

RIP Terry Pratchett

“Don't think of it as dying, just think of it as leaving early to avoid the rush.”

Condolences can be left on his Facebook page.

I didn’t get into Pratchett when everyone else did in the 90s. I’d already grown out of humorous fantasy like the Xanth novels in my early teens and wrongly assumed that Discworld was roughly the same. Pratchett is a much, much (much!) better writer than Anthony, and practically requires annotations or an extensive yet wide-ranging education and acute attention to possible allusion to fully appreciate. A decade later, I finally read Pyramids and later Small Gods. The latter has proven to be a reliable gateway drug to of the other Discworld books for many of my friends and acquaintances.

Something I didn’t appreciate until fairly recently is that writing humorous fiction — particularly fantasy — is bloody hard. It’s far too easy to slip into parody, and consistently writing things that are both clever and funny for most people is very difficult to do. You can count on the fingers of one hand the people who managed the feat at all[1]. Pratchett managed to do it for 40-plus novels in the Discworld setting alone, which makes him frankly amazing and deserving of every penny he earned from it.

“I realized I was rich,” he recounted, “when I got a call from my agent one Thursday. That cheque I mailed you—did you get it? He asked. And I realized I couldn’t find it: lost down the back of the sofa or something. Can you cancel it and mail me a new one? I said. And he said, yes I can do that, but you realize you won’t be able to deposit it before next week and you’ll lose the interest on it? And I said sure, just go ahead, cancel it, and send me a new one. Then I put the phone down and realized it was for half a million pounds.” — anecdote recounted by fellow author Charles Stross

He will be remembered for decades as that be-hatted fellow who wrote all those wonderfully many-layered books about a cosmologially (and temporally) improbable nexus to humor. I sincerely doubt that in my lifetime any other author will even come close enough to be compared to him. Take good care of him, Death.

  1. In my opinion at least: L. Sprague de Camp was clever, but rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Fritz Leiber, ditto. Piers Anthony was always more punny than funny, best appreciated before age 14, and the sexual subtext of nearly all of his work is more than vaguely creepy once you get old enough to start recognizing it. Robert Asprin’s output was inconsistent, and I strongly suspect that Jody Lynn Nye was heavily involved in everything he wrote after Myth-Nomers and Im-Pervections, whether credited or not.  ↩

"Hakuhô rewrites sumo history with record-breaking 33rd championship"

Another Mongolian has set records in the sumo world. I earlier wrote about Asashôryu who was, for a few years, not just a yokozuna but the only yokozuna in sumo.

Since more and more foreign athletes have tried competing in the sport in recent years, the sumo world has had an influx of talent. Non-Japanese wrestlers have topped the match charts, broken old records, and set new ones. While the new dynamism has recently generated some renewed interest in a sport shackled by tradition — to the point of keeping many of the trappings of its origins as a religious ceremony centuries after the fact — sumo recruitment in Japan has been trending downward.

A future in which there are more foreign wrestlers than Japanese is probably not too far off, even with the unofficial limit of only one foreigner per stable the sumo association has decreed. Particularly in the higher ranks, foreigners have been dominant. There hasn’t been a Japanese yokozuna in over a decade.

Here’s a link to video of the record-breaking match between Hakuhô (白鵬) and Kisenosato (稀勢の里).


Serendipity is virtually absent in online discovery. We have an unprecedented level of access to information, but because of the sheer volume of it, discovery relies on search algorithms, or directed browsing — which is really just algorithms with a false-front. With Facebook and Twitter, your peer groups serve as a filter and serve up information that is (sometimes) suited to your interests…but only if you’ve picked the right friends.

One interesting experience back in the dark ages of the 80s and 90s used to be going to a local video store, which usually had an idiosyncratic stock of videos since they were mostly privately owned, not chain stores. Before the Blockbuster model of super-stocking the latest releases while having a very limited back catalog took hold, you could have the experience of browsing the aisles and finding something odd slotted there among more mainstream movies. And you just might take a chance and rent it, and be delighted, or disgusted, or have your mind blown.

For all the talk that Amazon suggestions are bizarre, those suggestions are the result of some correlation between the things that you searched for and things that other people have bought in the past. (It’s probably also cross-referenced with things Amazon would really like to get rid of.) If you’re buying straight-razors and Amazon is giving you suggestions for monster-sized dildos, you might think that it’s pure randomness, but it’s not. Frighteningly enough, there’s some past real-life correlation that the system is using to serve up that recommendation.

What I’d really like online is more randomness. While I do want a search to return a precise focused list of results, while browsing I’d often like to have a more organically semi-organized experience.

For instance, in used book stores, I would often find interesting books by authors I’d never heard of — by authors that sometimes no one I knew had ever heard of — simply because I’d pick up a random book with an interesting cover or intriguing title while walking through the stacks. Serendipity is finding something you immediately love that you never knew existed before then.

Recommendations from people I know rarely convince me to buy a book because my tastes are very different from most other people’s, even if we have read a handful of similar books. But I’ve bought probably hundreds of random finds at a book store.

I most often choose based on both a quick flip-and-read-through of a couple pages at the beginning, and at some spot in the middle of the book, in order to get the flavor of the writing. Because of that, I still find it hard to buy anything by an unknown author online because Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature usually has only the first couple of pages. Beginnings are easier to get right. Sustaining interesting writing even in the middle of a random passage buried in the middle of the book is much harder. I find that I fall into a rut much more easily now, where I buy more things by the same small set of “safe” authors that I know I’ll like because I don’t have a broader more varied mix of things to browse through and choose from.

Randomness doesn’t just help you find books or movies or other entertainment, it helps you solve problems. I’ve taken trips to hardware or hobby stores to find specific materials for some project, only to change my plans because I found a part that would work better than my original conception. That kind of happenstance is much harder to experience online. Most of the time, you either find exactly what you want, or you don’t find anything at all.

Apple’s Game

Sean Haber:

Apple also announced that AirPlay will now support direct peer-to-peer connections. This means that latency will be much lower and connections should be more reliable. It also means that your iPhone (for example) will not need to be on the same wifi network as your AppleTV in order to use AirPlay …

Apple announced this week that their game controller API will now transparently forward controller events from one device to another. What this means is that if you already have a shell-style controller for your iPhone, you can now use your iPhone as a dedicated standalone controller to play games that are running on your iPad or Mac and the game itself doesn’t need to know any different. It just works …

Metal is an extremely thin layer of software that interfaces between apps and the underlying GPUs. It does the same job that OpenGL ES has been doing for us for years, but Metal is optimized for Apple’s own hardware and software needs while also cutting out a bunch of legacy cruft in the process. This means games that use Metal will use less CPU time communicating with the GPU, which leaves more CPU time left over for running the actual game itself.

As I wrote last year, the smoke around the Apple TV as a console has been getting pretty thick. iOS 8 betas show that some of the technical barriers I mentioned earlier, like latency, have been significantly reduced, and the introduction of a lower-level API like Metal makes programming for performance much better for developers.

I disagree with Haber on one point; I still think that the Apple TV will be primarily an extension of iPhone/iPad gaming rather than being a stand-alone system. If Apple actually makes a game controller, and if the new Apple TV runs “real” iOS instead of the fork that it’s currently on, then that might change. Given Apple’s secrecy, it’s possible that they’re preparing launch games in cooperation with gaming studios, but right now, with the information at hand, I think it’s unlikely.

Nintendo Closing Großostheim Headquarters

Look for Nintendo to double-down on 内向き (uchimuki; internal focus) in the future, with an even stronger emphasis on the domestic market to the exclusion of the world market.

It doesn’t take the prognostication talents of Nostradamus to predict this, since it has precedent. One weakness that was repeatedly pointed out in the release of the original Wii was Nintendo’s seeming disinterest in how well their new console was selling overseas. Supply was rarely impacted in Japan, and despite sales that were better than double in North America and Europe compared to Japan’s, they held back on production to the point where some saw it as a marketing tactic. It took 3 years after release for the supply outside Japan to meet the demand. The ramp-up of production was slow and cautious, probably because they didn’t want to get burned if the popularity of the Wii wasn’t sustained.

Globally, the PS4 might be outselling the Wii U, but in Japan, it’s a different story. Nintendo’s sales are phenomenally better in Japan. Considering that with the original Wii the non-Japanese markets were doing everything short of promising sloppy wet blowjobs contingent upon a better supply of consoles and Nintendo’s response was <yawn>, foreigners who love Nintendo games might want to start brushing up on their Japanese now, because it’s a pretty good bet that there will be significantly delayed releases and very short supplies for overseas markets for further Wii U revisions or successor consoles.