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Monthly Archives: February 2018

I’ve continued to play a ton of Slay the Spire over the last few weeks, though I’ve dropped off a bit. Even when I’m not playing the game I like to think about the game. I’ve been thinking about one card in particular quite a bit recently: Prepared.

In order to talk about this card and why it’s interesting I’ll have to talk a bit about how the game works. Put briefly, each turn you draw five cards, and at the end of the turn you discard your entire hand. During each turn you have a certain amount of energy with which to play cards: You start with three energy and most cards cost one to play. In between battles, you get a choice to take one or none of three cards, and judicious selection of these is key to achieving success as the battles get more and more difficult.

Now that you have some context, Prepared is a card that costs 0 energy to play, draws an extra card, and discards a card. It is commonly regarded to be a bad card. I don’t think it is.

There’s a couple of naive ways of looking at Prepared. The first is just looking at the 0 and the draw a card and saying “ooh, free card draw!” Of course, it actually isn’t free draw, because the card you end up drawing is just the next card in your deck, which you would have drawn anyway if you’d never bothered to take Prepared. The second naive perspective is the reaction to the first, saying essentially “well this does nothing but discard a card, so it’s bad”. The first part of this is true: The second part isn’t.

There’s two assumptions that go into this read. The first assumption is that discarding a card is bad, which it frequently is not. Once you’ve spent all your energy for the turn, extra cards are useless, so until you start generating enough energy that you have some left over after using all the cards in your hand Prepared costs you nothing at all. The second assumption is that discarding a card is not good, which sounds a lot like the first one but I think is subtly distinct: One is the understanding that much of the time there is no penalty for discarding, the other is the understanding that there is frequently utility in discarding. On the more obvious end of this, there are a number of cards and relics which take advantage of discarding in various ways – in describing Prepared as a bad card people often stipulate “except in a discard deck” because of these. However, there are also curses and negative status effect cards that you want to discard before the end of your turn to keep from taking damage or other negative effects, giving it a utility outside of these specialized synergies. If you have 3 energy and most of your cards cost 1, as at the beginning of the game, prepared is almost never bad and is occasionally quite good.

Then there’s even more obscure and surprising uses. I’ve used prepared as nothing but an empty card that costs 0 alongside abilities that activate with every card played. I’ve used it to dump cards which were perfectly fine but also not good enough to justify using them when I could empty my hand and use a relic to draw more cards. I’ve used it to pull an extra card so that next turn I would have 0 cards left in my deck and be able to use an ability that’s only usable under those circumstances.

This is what’s wonderful about Slay the Spire. Everything has a use and everything works together, sometimes in delightful and unexpected ways.

I do think it’s interesting, though, seeing how these concepts of card advantage and deck thinning sometimes fail to transfer from games like Magic and Hearthstone, where most people learn them, to a game that is, on the surface, very similar. Thinning your deck is if anything even more important, since you end up cycling through it multiple times in a combat – however, the utility of cards that only serve to grind through the deck faster is questionable, since by adding them they themselves thicken the deck, which less of a concern in a game with a set deck size. Drawing more cards in Slay the Spire doesn’t control your long-term prospects the way it does in these games either, since you’re going to draw a new hand next turn anyway, but solely offers you a way to burn energy to achieve advantages on the current turn.

In all honesty, Prepared still isn’t a very good card. It’s bad in a lot of decks, and in a lot of others it makes no real difference one way or the other. Still, the specifics of when and how it’s good, and the assumptions that people bring into the game about why it is useful, or fails to be so, are interesting.

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After last weeks piece I spent a while thinking about the weird aching sensation I described being left with after playing What Remains of Edith Finch. It took me a while to figure out why it seemed so familiar about it, but also so unlike the emotions we generally associate with death – you know, fear, existential angst, that good stuff. Eventually I recognized that sensation as one that I feel quite frequently in a much milder form: Nostalgia. Nostalgia is actually something I’ve had on my mind a lot lately, which perhaps primed me to react to the game in this way.

I’ve been thinking about what we mean when we talk about nostalgia, and the parts of our relationship with the past that turn septic and poison us. The word ‘nostalgia’ was originally coined to diagnose acute homesickness – so acute it was described as a cause of death in soldiers abroad. Nowadays we use it to describe a yearning to return to the past, or at least to access some part of it in some way. I don’t know that I, personally, actually desire any sort of return to the past, though – is it possible to yearn for something without actually desiring it? We feel the loss of things that we’re better off without very acutely sometimes. Toxic friendships, depressive binges, dangerous situations, these sometimes have a way of taking on a rosy glow afterwards. When we leave somewhere, whether a palace or a prison, we always leave bits of ourselves behind. It’s hard not to scratch that phantom limb sometimes, not to miss what we had – or what had us.

So that’s what I felt from Edith Finch, and the overriding sensation I get when I think about death and loss: A sensation that things are being lost forever and will never be recovered. Priceless first editions burned. Childhood homes torn down. A dead person leaves a hole in the lives of those who knew them, and it’s not a fear of mortality that makes that hurt, just a sensation that pieces of the world are constantly falling away, out of our reach, and that this trend will continue until we too fall out of reach.

It’s a painful thing to contemplate. Most people avoid doing so. The yearning for these lost pieces is bittersweet, though – even more so when we acknowledge that the things we yearn for were never really quite the way we remember them. When I say that I think about nostalgia a lot, it’s because a large part of the games industry is built on it. Everyone who’s played games for a long time has fond memories, and though many of those memories weren’t really about the games, usually, but about time spent with friends, long Summer nights, carefree days before money woes and health issues, people pretend it was just the games. It’s a nice thing to pretend, because the games are still here. The games can be remade, remastered, replayed: The days cannot.

All this is fine, as long as it’s just a stimulus you feed yourself to remind yourself of the past and enjoy a taste of that sweet yearning. What’s not fine is convincing yourself that these games were your past, that they don’t make them like they used to any more, that your nostalgia was an accurate recall of an experience solely provided by a piece of media, rather than a complex melange of memories and experiences being mediated through a particular work of art. Only a tiny part of those memories came from that cartridge, and it’s terribly sad that many people try so hard convince themselves that those days were contained entirely in that gray plastic box.

The precious part of nostalgia is that it is insatiable. The yearning is impossible to really feed, so it leads us to dream impossible dreams. We want to rebuild empires that never existed, relive lives we never lived, revisit art that was never created. Once in a while I’ll feel nostalgic over a dream – I’ve had many dreams of strange houses, versions of houses I’ve lived in with extra rooms or trees growing through them or, sometimes, less pleasantly, rotted walls and collapsing staircases. I had a recurring dream as a child of wandering somewhere, a field or a beach, and finding a (presumably) magic gauntlet that was the color and pattern of light refracted onto the bottom of a swimming pool. I dream of towers of interconnected white plates suspended in the sky, of familiar places grown strange and new – my point is not that my dreams are especially interesting or amazing, but that the feelings and images my memories instill in me, whether those memories are factual or not, provide the bones to carve my art out of –

But only as long as I acknowledge, with all my heart, that the past is the past. I cannot go back, just try to learn and be inspired by that past to try to shape a future. I can yearn for these things without desiring them – and yet the thought that I can make some version of them, create some sensation of the vast dream inside me within other people, keeps me creating.

What I want, as an artist, is for you someday to feel some part of what I feel now. I can’t tell yet if that’s selfishness or selflessness.

I’ve been procrastinating on writing this post, since it’s always galling to admit this: Very Little progress has been made on the project over the last month.

This is not to say I haven’t been working on it – though between a week-long trip and focusing on more immediate work to pay rent I have perhaps not been working as much on it as I ought to. The issue is more that most of the work I’ve been doing has involved slowly revising the code base to work in OpenFL, which really doesn’t give me a lot to show.

It can be discouraging sometimes when the project is in this state. In general I kind of enjoy the work of refactoring, streamlining, and optimizing that goes into revisiting an existing part of the code base like this. However, particularly when it comes to a major restructuring like this, it means there’s a long period of time where the game as a program that can be run and experimented with ceases to exist. Right now, when I want to work on EverEnding, there is precisely one part of the project available for me to work on, and that’s this programming work. Not even especially interesting programming work, at least for now – once the fundamentals are in place I’ll also have a job of making sure the drawing routines are optimal and testing/improving the replacement displacement map filter code I wrote (as it turns out shader programming wasn’t necessary to create it, but I may look into creating a version implemented that way once I have this version working).

For now, there’s not much to say. I don’t know, a lot of the time I feel like I might just be wasting my time here, like I don’t know how to access the kind of discipline and productivity to make a project of this scope feasible, at least not in my current living situation. I wonder a lot if a different project might be a faster or better way to achieve the expression I have been straining towards with EverEnding, or if there’s some way to scale back or streamline this game conceptually which would allow me to work on it in a more effective and productive fashion. It is always difficult to tell which doubts are warning signs to be taken seriously and which are just self-sabotage.

Regardless, I am nearing completion of the changes I’ve made to the Particle System to make multi-threading stuff entirely self-contained within the system itself so I don’t need to negotiate that in the game program, as well as I guess in any other games I hypothetically make with the same tool in the future. There’s definitely a hint of programmer-itis there, where I find myself creating a more general purpose and fool-proofed tool than is actually needed – after a certain point I just gotta accept that sometimes I take the long route just because I feel that it’s more proper, even if it’s less pragmatic. Within this week sometime I think I’ll be able to get back to more interesting work on the project. It sucks getting stalled, but it doesn’t last forever – and, regardless of my doubts about where all this will eventually go, I think I can pursue it with no regrets as long as I enjoy and believe in my process.

Death is omnipresent in games, but they mostly don’t like to acknowledge that. Dying in games is just a way of keeping score, a nice easily understandable failure state, something to be avoided, not experienced. In life, death is omnipresent in a different way – not as an obstacle, threatening and concrete, a risk to be managed – but as a patient specter, a cold and solid certainty. Wherever we decide to go in our wild lives, we can be certain of finding at least one thing at the end: The End.

Last night I played What Remains of Edith Finch, a first person narrative around the same length as a feature film, wherein we explore the tragic history of Edith Finch’s possibly cursed family, of which she is the sole surviving member. As you explore her weird convoluted family home, you find documents and artifacts showing how each family member died – and, more often than not, experience their final moments from their perspective. Or some version of their final moments, from some version of their perspective: Who knows? The knowledge of what part of these stories was true has passed from the world long before we got there. Much is unknowable, and the stories are as much family mythology as family history.

This game is charmingly surreal and macabre, which I had expected, but also left me with a piercing sorrow, which I had not. It’s a sensation that I never get from games; it’s a sensation I rarely get from art of any sort. It’s the sensation of death as we know death to be but prefer not to acknowledge, something which we inherited at birth and will pass on to any descendants we may have, the sensation of every joy we have being borrowed against a future sorrow. I think what makes the difference in how mortality feels in Edith Finch is that every character we play as is, we know from the start, doomed. We are them, and we are about to die, and we have no choice but to step closer and closer to that destiny – and this may be a fairy tail retelling, but we’re all taking steps towards our own far less whimsical doom. Building up a mythology of our own deaths is perhaps the only sane way to keep moving forward – though it’s not like we have a choice. We’re all on the train track, all on the conveyor belt, and there’s only one way to go from here, whether we want to go or don’t.

Death that feels anything like real death is for the most part scrupulously scrubbed out of video games. I got a whiff of it from The Walking Dead, Season 1, particularly near the end, where the stakes and sacrifices became more clear. There were the barest remnants of it in the famous post-nuke death scene in Call of Duty 4, though the developers tried to strip out, as they always do, any sense of actual death, any sense of the friends and family left behind, dreams left unfulfilled. The realities of death are largely incompatible with enjoying war on a conceptual level. This is how we relate to death in art, usually: The dying are plot devices, not people. Dying Person is a role that requires an unfortunate to play it, a character written to be a heroic sacrifice or the hapless victim, to show the act of violence rather than its consequences. We care more about killers than die-ers, usually.

What Remains of Edith Finch made me uncomfortable in a way I usually forget I can feel, in a way I usually put away in a drawer for later to forget about. It’s a sensation I mostly only get from dreams nowadays, dreams of death and of loss. A shard of ice buried under the chest and over the belly, and difficult to forget once remembered. It pierces the lungs, makes us breathless, and an ancient yell or groan bubbles up, a word born before language. I want to yell for things lost that will never be found again once they’re gone, even though they are not yet lost. I want to yell to expel the cold I already feel setting in. I want to yell to reject how comfortable the cold is, a welcoming linen pillow or a slab of stone, what dreams may come.

We were built around this yell. Someday every artifice and edifice will slough away. Under hot soft flesh is cold hard bone. We might fly, for a while, but we cannot escape gravity. There is nothing to be done, except to live a life of love and pride and happiness.

It is difficult.

I was in Los Angeles and I saw Candide. It had Kelsey Grammar and was generally a great show, but I’ve always had a bit of a hard time warming up to Candide conceptually. I may actually have a hard time with satire generally speaking – there’s an extremely fine line between highlighting the absurdities of a worldview and creating a straw man to represent it, and the genre frequently runs afoul of it.

If you’re unfamiliar with Candide, it’s a novella written by Voltaire, of “I may not agree with what you say but would die to defend your right to say it” fame – he may never have said it, but many will nevertheless die for the right to declare that he did. It was written primarily to lampoon the theory of ‘optimism’ proposed by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a theory that suggests that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Of course, a million awful things happen in this stupid world every minute, so Voltaire understandably considered this to be a tough pill to swallow and wrote a story about infinity terrible things happening to some happy-go-lucky kid and everyone around him to illustrate that point.

The thing is, optimism was a proposed solution to a pretty tricky pickle of a problem: How can an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent god allow all the shitty things that happen to happen? Optimism is just the proposal that “well, maybe we don’t understand the entirety of the problem, and God, who we must assume does, is optimizing (or has optimized) the system that is the universe in the best possible way – which is unfortunately still not that great, at least for us, at least much of the time.”

As with most god stuff, this just raises further questions. For instance, we assume that god is benevolent, but how much are we actually covered under his benevolence? The Christian deity is generally considered to be a big fan of humanity in general, but he still may have a lot else on the go such that he occasionally has to put our well-being on the back-burner. As an analogy, is the most benevolent boss the one who treats you individually best, the one who treats all the employees best, or the one who ensures the future stability of the company?

Trick question, the most benevolent boss is no boss, which is why capitalism is bad and I’m an atheist. This neatly sidesteps the question of how a kind and loving god allows bad things to happen to good people, since I believe that god is neither kind nor loving nor existent. I also have my doubts about good people – bad things I retain faith in.

In a sense, though, we do live in at least one of the best of all possible worlds – we live on a planet that sustains us, for now, in a universe that has mostly consistent laws of physical reality that we can be born and prosper in. It seems normal to us because we live here, but it really is astoundingly unlikely. However, being a creature with the capacity to observe the miracle of existence has a one-hundred-percent correlation with being in a place that can precipitate that existence – so, something that is galactically very unlikely is, from our perspective, rooted in a world that must be able to create and sustain the brain that houses that perspective, a certainty.

Similarly, the characters in Candide survive, improbably, over and over. They survive because Voltaire, a just and benevolent author, has decided in His infinite wisdom that they must, because otherwise they wouldn’t be around to deliver the moral at the end about the evils of moralizing when there’s manual labor to be done.