My Favorite Games: You Don’t Know Jack Movies

Did someone order an 8-inch sausage?

Warning I’m about to be extremely Gen-X here: out of all the multi-million-dollar budgeted AAA games I’ve played, none of them have managed to give me as strong a visceral reaction as the first time I played You Don’t Know Jack, and the pre-show voice said, “All right, lose the desktop.”

That was the first sign that the Jellyvision/Jackbox writers knew how to speak directly to me. In fact, I found out several years later that one of my other most impactful moments in video games — when the Seaman responded eerily insightfully after I told him my favorite movie was Miller’s Crossing — was also written by the team at Jellyvision. The thing that’s been consistent across different games and different genres is a commitment to ignoring conventions and expectations and instead making something that really connects with the audience regardless of the medium.

Or more specifically: the You Don’t Know Jack series isn’t funny for a video game, it’s just plain funny. Even back in the 90s, there was already this whole subculture of in-jokes and self-reference among video games, as if the medium could only ever appeal to a subset of nerds. You Don’t Know Jack defied that by making stuff that engaged with the audience on its own terms, instead of targeting a specific pre-existing audience.

And the Movies version remains my favorite because it felt like they were relentlessly experimenting with the format throughout. All of the question bumpers were built around movie references — my favorites being the bomb countdown, and the porno — with a confidence that the audience was going to get it. They also experimented with the format itself, like with the repeating questions about Groundhog Day. The whole thing gives the impression that they were making video games because they wanted to make video games, not because they were slumming until they could find jobs in “legit” media like television and movies.

I was especially impressed to find out just how much thought went into it, as well. At my first Computer Game Developers Conference1Long enough ago that it was still the Computer Game Developers Conference, I saw a fantastic presentation from Harry Gottlieb in which he explained the philosophy behind the You Don’t Know Jack games (and Jellyvision in general), and how it could be applied to non-game platforms like banking and medical assistance. Seemingly every single detail was designed to tear down the interface — or specifically, assumptions about the interface — and establish a more direct and natural connection between the user and the developer. Among other things, that meant more natural, casual language; and a responsiveness to everything the user did, including stuff that was traditionally ignored in interfaces, like interrupting a prompt.

It’d be well over a decade before those ideas took off, with corporations’ brief fascination with chatbots a few years back. The reason that failed wasn’t concept, but execution: they never really felt natural, so it just felt like adding unnecessary complications to what should have been a much simpler process.

But back to video games: the You Don’t Know Jack series remains the best-written comedy video games ever. And they did it by deliberately not targeting just an audience of video game nerds, but an audience of real people who could be trusted to get the joke.2And also by responding to my taking too long to type in a name by calling me “Loose Stool” for the rest of the game.

  • 1
    Long enough ago that it was still the Computer Game Developers Conference
  • 2
    And also by responding to my taking too long to type in a name by calling me “Loose Stool” for the rest of the game.

Point of Pride

Squeaking in an observance of Pride Month at the last minute

I don’t usually make a point of acknowledging Pride month, or the various events and parades or anything, because for me it would feel performative. I’m about as boring and mainstream a gay man could be1Without being a billionaire or a repressed congressman who works against civil rights legislation, of course., so it feels opportunistic to be taking attention away from the people who’ve “earned it,” either through activism, or through a lifetime of being bullied just for not conforming.

But the older I get — and, paradoxically, the more mainstream and unremarkable it gets to be A Boring Gay — the more it feels urgent to call attention to it and celebrate it.

It’s not hyperbole to be extremely concerned about the corrupt minority that’s currently working to roll back all the progress in civil rights we’ve made over my lifetime. The most worthless Supreme Court justice has already felt empowered enough by the new stolen court seats that he’s threatening to overturn the last couple of decades’ worth of progress. You know the one — he’s the one whose marriage to a blatantly traitorous asshole was guaranteed by a court ruling exactly like the ones he’s threatening. And I’d hope that anyone with an ounce of empathy who’s still calling for restraint and moderation would recognize how tirelessly the Republicans have been working to make trans people’s lives miserable.

But Pride is an invitation to take a brief break from a life that’s always spent having to be on the defensive. It’s an opportunity to celebrate. Back when I was deeply closeted, my first reaction to talk of “pride” was the predictable “what’s there to be proud of? It’s just the way I am and I can’t do anything about it.” It took me an embarrassingly long time — and it’s probably an indefinitely ongoing process, in reality — to fully accept that there’s no need to “do anything about it.” It’s an assertion that you don’t need to answer to anyone but yourself.

A couple of weekends ago, we went to an event for Pride month at the Hollywood Forever cemetery, where they were showing But I’m a Cheerleader. I could’ve sworn I’d seen it before, but it turns out I never had. But I wish I had, because I loved it and had never seen anything quite like it. So much of the “LGBT-themed” stuff I’ve seen is either about surviving through a repressive society, or stridently overcoming it by asserting your uniqueness. I loved seeing a movie where it never even occurred to the main character that she had anything to be ashamed of.

The screening was packed with people of all different types, so just being outside among other people was like getting a tentative peek at life after COVID. But more than that, it felt to me like the first “gay event” where I didn’t spend any time thinking about whether or not I fit in, or who in the crowd I did or didn’t identify with. We were all just a bunch of very different people who had one thing in common: we were there to see a movie.

And I don’t tend to think a lot about “safe spaces,” not because they’re not important, but because I rarely need to be that concerned about it. But it was just comfortable being able to turn off any sense of anxiety for the night. It was nice to be solidly in the in-group for a change, and know that everybody there either identified as LGBTQ, or was completely on-board with the idea. I lived in the Bay Area2And came out in the Bay Area for 25 years, so it’s not as if I’ve ever had to feel like I was in hostile territory. But still, it was nice to have it set aside as a big, shared space, where I didn’t have to give a moment’s thought to the other thing that most of us all had in common.

Which is why the increased level of acceptance across the US is undeniably great, but it doesn’t negate the need for Pride. I spent a long time wishing for the day when I could just be normal and fit in. I’ve been more or less enjoying exactly that for the past several years. But I’ve finally started to realize that the key to happiness isn’t just being comfortable and normal, but being comfortable with not being normal.

  • 1
    Without being a billionaire or a repressed congressman who works against civil rights legislation, of course.
  • 2
    And came out in the Bay Area

Literacy 2022: Book 5: And Then There Were None

Agatha Christie’s classic whodunnit is a classic for a reason

Book
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Synopsis
Ten strangers are called to a house on a secluded island, invited by a person they’ve never met. When the first death comes right after dinner, the other guests start to realize they’re all being murdered, one by one.

Pros

  • Stylistically, it’s much more interesting than I remembered from reading it in high school. The narration jumps around freely from person to person, switching between inner monologues and dialogues, so it never feels quite like a novel but not a screenplay, either. It’s more like someone telling a story to you in person, and they can’t wait to get to the next part.
  • It’s been decades since I last read it, and almost a century since it was written, and surprisingly little of it feels dated (now that they’ve changed the awful original title and framing nursery rhyme, two times over).
  • My copy has an author’s note taken from Agatha Christie’s autobiography, in which she essentially says that she wrote And Then There Were None mostly to prove that she could do it. Which is unquestionably a baller move.
  • The setup is so intriguing that it’s easy to see why it inspired countless homages and outright rip-offs.
  • I liked the structure at the end, of having a chapter of recap and then an epilogue laying out the entire mystery. It invites the player to be completely engrossed in the mindset of the characters while the mystery is still happening, and then go back and reconsider the clues after the events have finished.

Cons

  • The epilogue wasn’t strictly necessary, and just felt more like Christie justifying how she’d plotted the whole thing.
  • I kind of call foul on it as a whodunnit, since the clues were pretty weak. I can understand Neil Simon’s frustration when he calls out detective novel writers in Murder By Death for making clues too obtuse or pulling plot developments out of thin air.

Verdict
It’s an intriguing concept, told in a really engaging way. You can totally see why it’s become such a classic. I’m not convinced that it’s that great as a murder mystery, but if you instead read it as a horror story, it almost feels contemporary.

My Favorite Games: Suikoden 2

The game that changed how I think about Japanese RPGs and how I think about Kobolds

Featured image is from a post about Suikoden 2 on VG247.com

None of the main-line Final Fantasy games will show up in my list of favorite games, because I haven’t loved any of them as much as I loved Suikoden 2. (Final Fantasy 9 comes close, though). It’s my favorite JRPG, and it showed me why people like JRPGs so much. And I probably wouldn’t have heard about it at all, if I hadn’t worked at Infinite Machine.

Final Fantasy 7 was my first introduction to JRPGs, and I was every bit swept up in the hype as every other video game player at the time. I thought that not only was that game representative of the entire genre, but that it was the best possible example of the genre. Did you see those cut-scenes, after all? That epic story that just seemed to keep growing and growing? The absurd production value? I was stunned that they’d drawn or rendered a different combat background for every single environment you could fight in!

By that standard, the Suikoden games seemed like unambitious throwbacks. Why were my coworkers so obsessed with this game? You want me to play a sprite-based game after I’ve just finished this huge adventure with fully-3D characters?1Cloud Strife alone must’ve had at least a dozen polygons! More than that, though: Final Fantasy 7 genuinely pushed video game storytelling forward, both with its more cinematic presentation and also its more complex world-building. Suikoden 2, on the other hand, starts with the most cliched premise for a video game RPG: the main character is a boy whose quiet home town is destroyed in the game’s opening.

As it turns out, that feeling of “old-school JRPG” is a huge part of Suikoden 2‘s charm. And the appeal of a somewhat simpler and more straightforward story, where more focus was put on the game mechanics than a linear storyline, felt like comfort gaming even to those of us who’d never actually played the old-school JRPGs. (There’s a reason Final Fantasy 9 went back to the basics, combining all of the aesthetics of its roots with the series’s newfound focus on more linear and cinematic storytelling: it felt like welcome fan service for people who’d loved the earlier games).

But for being “somewhat simpler,” Suikoden 2 is still enormous. Its basic premise is the same as the other games in the series: the main character must recruit the “107 Stars of Destiny,” characters who will combine to summon some divine power to defeat a great enemy. That means finding each character and completing some type of quest — sometimes simple, but often surprisingly involved — to convince them to join your side. At a certain point in the story, you unlock an abandoned castle as your base of operations, and you can return to the castle and have conversations with all of the characters you’ve recruited.

More than that: an absurd number of those characters can join your adventuring party, using their unique skills in combat. You have a party of six, cleverly split into a front row and back row based on close-up and long-range fighting. There’s a version of Yojimbo, whose animations even include Toshiro Mifune’s mannerisms from that movie, with devastating sword skills. There’s a chef who fights with his frying pan and ladle. There’s a makeshift robot made from a barrel. There’s a squirrel, as well as a noble Kobold warrior and the Kobold puppy who idolizes him.

Many of the characters who don’t join you in combat will instead open up shops in your home base. Meaning that as your team grows, you can buy and craft better items and equipment. Some of the characters will continue their storylines after they’ve been recruited — for example, the chef will frequently be visited by people challenging him to an Iron Chef-style battle mini-game, using the ingredients you’ve found during combat.

And the characters combine in interesting ways. Having similar characters in your party, or in specific placement within your party, will unlock special combination attacks. The two kobolds can unite to unleash a pack of hundreds of dogs onto your enemies, for example.

In terms of game design, it’s just an immensely satisfying combination of systems, all building on top of each other and feeding into each other. But in terms of experience design, it perfectly captures the appeal of the first adventure game or the first RPG that you truly loved: the feeling that the story allowed for limitless exploration, and it would just keep growing and surprising you without end. To be clear, none of the characters’ stories in Suikoden 2 are particularly deep. But they’re all appealing, and there’s so many of them!

I’ve forgotten many of the details about the game, but I can remember the point where it really hit me that this was going to be one of my favorite games.2I’d already fallen in love with Gabocha the Kobold puppy at that point, but I was still thinking of the game overall as “basically charming.” I was exploring the castle that was serving as my home base, and I was surprised that it seemed to keep going and going. It felt as if it’d been clearly set up with areas where a character was obviously going to set up shop, but it also felt as if there were a lot of wasted space. Then I found a cave with an underground lake. What was going to be there? I had no idea, but I couldn’t wait to find out. It struck me like a moment from a Hardy Boys novel. It occurred to me that the real appeal of this game for me wasn’t depth, but delight.

  • 1
    Cloud Strife alone must’ve had at least a dozen polygons!
  • 2
    I’d already fallen in love with Gabocha the Kobold puppy at that point, but I was still thinking of the game overall as “basically charming.”

Literacy 2022: Book 4: Star Wars: Brotherhood

A flashback to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker’s partnership before everything took a bad turn

Book
Star Wars: Brotherhood by Mike Chen

Synopsis
Set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, explains what Anakin and Obi-Wan were talking about with “that business on Cato Neimoidia.” Obi-Wan is sent alone to an unfriendly planet to investigate who was behind a catastrophic terrorist attack.

Pros

  • Brisk reading with the right scope and focus, trying to convey a galactic conflict in terms of how it affects a small number of characters
  • New characters like a cynical Cato Neimoidian sniper, and an extremely Force-sensitive Jedi Initiate, are memorable additions among all the familiar characters
  • Sticks to a philosophy that’s somewhat unusual in Star Wars, which is that war is bad, actually, and Obi-Wan is most interested in de-escalation
  • The format of devoting each chapter to the perspective of a single character is a neat structure and is perfect for this story in particular

Cons

  • Some of the characters tend to be two-dimensional, or just illustrate their one identifiable character trait over and over again
  • Lots of words are devoted to describing Obi-Wan and Anakin’s relationship, and how it’s changing from master-and-apprentice to genuine friendship, but it would’ve been stronger to show that actually happening in action moments, instead of just resorting to internal monologues
  • There’s quite a bit of repetition, making it feel like a short story that had been stretched out to novel length
  • The demands of licensing and continuity make this often feel more like a novelization of an episode of The Clone Wars animated series, rather than a standalone novel

Verdict
The book accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is give the reader more time with some characters they like from the movies and animated series. I wish it had shown a little more insight into the characters’ motivation or a more nuanced or complex characterization, but I don’t think it aspires to be a character study.

My Favorite Games: Myst

The first mega-hit CD-ROM game still doesn’t get enough credit for what makes it so special

To start with, two personal notes about Myst:

  1. The dialogue poking fun at the game in Curse of Monkey Island was not written by me, because I was a big fan of the game. And I respect the people I worked with too much to throw Jonathan Ackley under the bus by saying who did write it. (Seriously, though, he’s always said he liked the game, too. The gags in Monkey 3 were just a side effect of Myst being the 900-lb gorilla of CD-ROM adventure games at the time, making it ripe for parody).
  2. My first surprising1Surprising at the time, completely obvious in retrospect crush on a video game character was Achenar in the original Myst. You guys be cool and don’t tell Rand Miller I said this, but Atrus could get it. But I only met Atrus later. For most of the game, the way Achenar would get uncomfortably close to the camera and ham it up, begging me for the pages just got me confusingly twitterpated. What can I say? I admit I’ve got a type: mentally unstable guys trapped in inter-dimensional voids via magic books.

A glance at all the Myst-related wikis tells me that the “trap books” were retconned in subsequent games, although even after reading two separate accounts, I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly how or why. The ensuing lore after the first game — built in novelizations, several sequel games, and a seemingly never-ending line of remakes of the original — never managed to grab me. I read The Book of Atrus and played Riven, but that was about as much of D’ni as I could handle.

But that’s not a knock against the extended lore so much as an acknowledgement of what made the first game so special. It was perfectly evocative of a deeper and weirder fantasy story unlike any I’d seen before. The possibilities suggested by Myst were more intriguing to me than any book or game would be able to make explicit.

I think over the years, we’ve collectively come to an over-simplistic explanation for why Myst was such a huge hit: it came at exactly the right time. Both CD-ROM drives and 3D-rendered imagery were still a huge novelty, and the people buying new computers wanted something to show off the potential of a machine with all this newly-available storage. Everyone at the time was talking about the potential of multimedia and new media, but there was little to show for it, apart from discs filled with uninspired shovelware, The Seventh Guest, and Myst.

I think that explains why it became so huge a hit, but it doesn’t explain why Myst has had such longevity. Creatively and artistically, it was all novel and stunning. It went beyond the “steampunk” aesthetic to combine classical architecture, early-20th century sci-fi, contemporary science fiction, and high fantasy. Even the presentation was completely novel to me: the windows into the trap books appearing like static-filled television broadcasts is such a formative idea, and I’d never seen anything like it.

It’s perfectly fitting that a story whose core conceit is the ability to create new worlds by writing in books — worlds limited only by the imagination of the creators — would hop across so many different genres.

Also, I loved it because it was originally made in HyperCard. It seemed like the ultimate realization of what was possible with the software many of us had fallen in love with for its seemingly limitless potential.

A VR version of the original game came out not too long ago, and I tried it on the Oculus Quest. It was not for me. Not only did it give me motion sickness that lasted over 24 hours, but I’d forgotten the degree to which it requires note-taking and generally being aware of the world outside the screen. I tried taking off the headset, updating the notes on my phone, putting it back on to get more information, taking it off again, etc… and it almost immediately felt like more trouble than it was worth. It’s a reminder that VR games in general come from a different age2So to speak: when Myst first came out, it was still pretty common for games to require you have at least a note pad handy, if not a full supplement of printed maps, guides, and code keys. VR took off only after games demanded that everything be supplied in-game3And often with over-long and too exhaustive tutorials.

I’m usually the exact opposite of one of those people who says “In my day, we made graph paper maps for games, and spent hours figuring out ciphers and logic puzzles, and you kids today are too damn soft!” But I’ll make an exception for Myst, since it’s so good at giving you the feeling of being trapped in a world with nothing but clues and scattered pieces of paper, and it’s entirely up to you to puzzle your way out of it.

  • 1
    Surprising at the time, completely obvious in retrospect
  • 2
    So to speak
  • 3
    And often with over-long and too exhaustive tutorials

Crank ’em if you got ’em

My thoughts about the Playdate and some of my favorite games for it so far

For the couple months or so, I’ve been obsessively following the release of the Playdate and responses to it. It’s been driving me crazy to read so many people’s opinions about it and not putting my own up on the internet.1Posting unsolicited opinions is what the internet’s for, after all.

I’m biased, of course, but I think the thing is just fantastic, both the actual device and the philosophy behind it. I think that even though I’ve spent so many years working on a game for it, I didn’t fully appreciate what Panic is doing until I saw its release and the response to it.

And it’s been many years. Several times over the past couple of weeks, I’ve marveled at the fact that a relatively simple, silly strategy game with 1-bit art has taken up five years of my life. Then I made the mistake of digging through my emails to find out when I first sent a pitch document to Panic, and I saw that the date was 2015. So it’s been seven years of my life.

To be fair to me, I haven’t spent that entire time working on Sasquatchers. I spent around a year working on the first game that I pitched, which was weirder and more targeted at an earlier conception of the season model, in which a game would last one week. But while I was pretty happy with how that game was looking, it never really gelled into an actual game. I put that one on hold — I would like to revisit it at some point — and switched to a more straightforward concept. After all, “Advance Wars plus Pokemon Snap” is an easier idea to wrap my head around.

Still, there were lots of redesigns and rewrites. The most compelling part of the game wasn’t even in until pretty late in the process, because I didn’t want to overtax my already strained art skills. Plus there were multiple job changes with accompanying crunch modes, and long stretches of time when I just couldn’t work on the game at all. If I’m being 100% honest, the pandemic and supply chain shortages and other delays are probably the only things that gave me a chance to actually finish the thing.

Even up to the point of release, though, I was still thinking of the Playdate — non-pejoratively — as a “hipster Gameboy.” Something that knew exactly what its niche was and which audience it was targeted at, and would attract a bunch of accomplished indie game devs wanting to make weird side projects.2And people like me, who were lucky enough to have a friend with connections to people at Panic!

But it’s only since the device has been released, and the SDK and developer forums have been made public, that I realized the full implication of Panic’s making a truly open platform for nearly-frictionless game development. It reminded me of my freshman year of college, geeking out over HyperCard and making games with it. I knew I was excited to be able to just make something without all the hassles of technical pipelines and production schedules and marketing and monetization and platform integration, but the real power of the Playdate is making that excitement available to everybody who wants it. It feels like it’s inherently not a device just for consumption; the games are cool on their own, but they’re even cooler as inspiration for you to make your own stuff.

Back when I started working on Playdate games, my old annoyances with Lua came back in a big way. Its simplicity and versatility are great for starting out, but gets progressively more time-consuming as the project gets bigger and more complex. Because the language (and the Playdate SDK for that matter) don’t impose that much structure on you, you have to make it yourself, which often means you’re given plenty of rope to hang yourself. I didn’t have a solid and flexible UI system until way too late in the process, for example, so adding new screens and features took way longer than it should. Once I devoted some time exclusively to setting that up, it made everything that followed much easier to development. So that’s my main tip for anyone making a Playdate game: invest in making a flexible UI system up front!3I’m also planning to rewrite the one I used as an open-source one available on GitHub, assuming I ever get the time to do it.

After I had to put my pencil down on Sasquatchers, the ideas for other games started coming fast and furious. I’m currently about 10 levels deep into a stack of game prototypes and proof-of-concepts; maybe one or two of them will turn into something? I was surprised how much the SDK has matured, too — what felt like a daunting blank slate when I started on Sasquatchers now seems like a trivial process. I’ve gone from “hey, here’s a weird idea” to having a few simple screens and UI running on the device in about 15 minutes. That’s absurd!

If all goes well, Sasquatchers will be released tomorrow to the people who got the first round of devices. I’ve already gone through multiple stages of “This is awful and is going to be such an embarrassment and no one at Panic will ever speak to me again” self-doubt, so seeing it get a pretty good response was an extremely pleasant surprise. Here are a few of the nicest reviews:

Edge magazine’s season one game recaps: “Advance Wars meets Pokémon Snap in this winning combination of strategy and photography.”

ArsTechnica‘s run-down of the 24 season one games: “…the absolute chocolate-and-peanut-butter combo to put Playdate’s library over the top. […] I’m always looking for fun games that prove challenging and engaging without any killing required, and Sasquatchers does that with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and cool, hand-drawn art design. What’s more, the further you get in the game, the more you have to adjust your crew to favor abilities like attracting beasts or opening up field vision, and this tactical spice keeps the game engaging from start to finish.”

The Verge‘s review of the Playdate: “My favorite part is how Sasquatchers uses the crank: it serves as your camera, so you have to turn it around to nail the picture or video you’re attempting. It’s very satisfying.”

Eurogamer’s Playdate review: “That same ambience permeates a game called Sasquatchers, which is basically Advance Wars but with people who want to photograph cryptids rather than deploy tanks and soldiers. Played out on a grid, regularly interrupted by moments in which you chat with your crew and turn the crank to line up pictures, it’s a playful, handicraft thing. I love it and I want to play more.”

People on the internet and in game review contexts actually being nice and supportive is such a weird and unusual experience for me, it’s yet another one of those aspects of the Playdate that reminds me of why I wanted to work in games in the first place: being able to experiment with weird ideas and focus on the merits of the game itself, instead of its value as a purchasable entertainment product.

I’m particularly grateful to my friend Seppo for playtesting the game, both for making suggestions4His suggestion led to the choose-your-own-title screen to differentiate save games, but especially for giving me the last boost of encouragement I needed to go from “this is an embarrassment” to “I actually feel okay releasing this into the world.” I’ve had so many ideas percolating and started so many projects over the years that the biggest achievement of Sasquatchers is that I actually finished it.5More or less. There are still plenty of things I’d like to add or rebalancing I’d like to do. Maybe at some point? What I love about the Playdate is that it makes that possible for more people; there’s an implicit assurance that you can do this too.

Lots of people already have, the Playdate category on itch.io has dozens of entries from developers, several of whom just used the free emulator without having an actual device in hand! Some of my favorites:

And those are just out of the ones I’ve had a chance to play. Looking through the entries reminds me a lot of looking through listings of HyperCard stacks back in the late 80s. Weird, hyper-specific ideas not necessarily intended for marketability but just on the hope that at least one person out there might find it cool and useful.

Also, a few of my favorite games from Season One:

  • Star Sled by Greg Maletic
    Near-perfect rendition of the 80s Atari aesthetic, with some really cool glitch effects. This one hits exactly the right difficulty level for me — I’m still terrible at it, but every time I crash I immediately want to try again, instead of bouncing off in frustration. I’ve probably played this more than anything else.
  • Pick Pack Pup by Nic Magnier and Arthur Hamer
    A twist on the Match 3 game that actually changes how you think about the puzzle. Great presentation that keeps throwing new ideas at you, and the music is absolutely fantastic.
  • Inventory Hero by Steven Frank, James Moore, and Neven Mrgan
    A frantic RPG where you’re just in charge of managing your character’s inventory. This one captures “the spirit of the Playdate” because it starts with a weird twist idea, keeps riffing on it, and then nails the execution.
  • Omaze by Gregory Kogos
    This elegant game makes perfect use of the crank, wordlessly teaches you how to play, and its sfx plus simple but evocative graphic design make it feel like it was delivered fully-formed onto the device by an alien civilization.
  • Demon Quest ’85 by Crooked Park
    A very well-written visual novel/logic puzzle about a bunch of 80s teens summoning demons in their house. Kind of sells itself, really.

I hope people get their Playdates soon and love them. And I hope a lot of people are inspired to make their own stuff for it, and share it6And/or sell it! on the internet! Personally, I’m looking forward to finishing unpacking and finding my Apple Pencil so I can get back to work on my next game.

  • 1
    Posting unsolicited opinions is what the internet’s for, after all.
  • 2
    And people like me, who were lucky enough to have a friend with connections to people at Panic!
  • 3
    I’m also planning to rewrite the one I used as an open-source one available on GitHub, assuming I ever get the time to do it.
  • 4
    His suggestion led to the choose-your-own-title screen to differentiate save games
  • 5
    More or less. There are still plenty of things I’d like to add or rebalancing I’d like to do. Maybe at some point?
  • 6
    And/or sell it!

A Big Nasty Redhead At My Side

Trying to figure out living in Los Angeles and songs about Los Angeles

This week we moved to Los Angeles, which really isn’t any of the internet’s business1Nothing personal, but you’ve seen the internet and you know how it is, but this blog is the closest thing I have to a long-running journal.

What is more in line with this blog is that I still can’t fully figure out what’s going on with the song “I Love LA” by Randy Newman. I’ve spent the last 40 years2I mean, not constantly. There have been whole decades in there when I haven’t thought about the song at all never being fully sure whether it was sardonic or sincere.

Since I’ve been reminded of the song over the past few weeks, I realized just how different 2022 is from 1983. If there’s anything good to come from the bottom dropping out of the music industry and everything going to streaming — apart from the convenience of having almost every song you can imagine immediately accessible from anywhere all the time — is that it’s near-impossible for a song to be inescapable anymore. And “I Love LA” was inescapable in the early 80s. It played every five minutes on the radio, on music video shows and channels, in department stores, in school announcements before the pledge of allegiance, on police scanners, HAM radios, and loudspeaker broadcasts from the correctional dreadnaughts that hovered over every city center.3I say if people are going to keep telling me that they were born after I graduated high school, I get to make shit up about what the 80s were like.

Disney did provide an eerily accurate recreation in the early 2000s with the first version of California Adventure, which broadcast a constant loop of “I Love LA” and “California Dreamin'” from speakers in every corner of the park. But it’s different hearing a song that’s supposed to be nostalgic in a theme park, versus hearing it played as a Top 40 hit in your doctor’s waiting room. So the next time you hear a musician complaining about how Spotify only pays pennies per thousands of streams, you can nod sympathetically while thinking, “Yeah, but at least now I can go years without hearing ‘What a Feeling’ from ‘Flashdance’.”

Anyway. Back in the early 80s, when the song was truly inescapable, I was convinced that it was sincere and genuine and genuinely cheesy. All the horny shots of bikinis and palm trees and stereotypical LA landmarks were standard operating procedure back then. People made shit like that with no trace of shame or irony.

But then, I started thinking, Newman was kind of a satirist. I say “kind of” because I don’t actually know. “Short People” is the only song of his that I know of before he started writing on behalf of sentient toys, so I don’t know if it could be classified as “satire” or just a goofy novelty song. He exists in some kind of nebulous zone between Roger Miller and Rick Dees.

Either way, the song’s clearly not supposed to be entirely sincere. “Look at that mountain/Look at those trees/Look at that bum over there, he’s down on his knees” qualifies as sardonic for early 80s pop music. But is that it? None of the streets he calls out are all that remarkable or scenic; is that supposed to be part of the joke? When he says “Everybody’s very happy ’cause the sun is shining all the time,” is that supposed to be an indictment? Is “It’s just another perfect day” supposed to be like La La Land‘s use of the same phrase, by which I mean the gentlest of toothless sarcasm? Why do I feel like I can’t unlock the mysteries of this dumb pop song?

Ultimately I suppose that wondering whether an ode to Los Angeles is sincere is missing the point entirely. Sincerity seems to be anathema to this city. For as long as I’ve been alive and watching TV, I’ve seen LA be the butt of jokes from people who would never, ever think of living anywhere else. I suspect that Gary Owens on Laugh-In talking about “beautiful downtown Burbank” was as genuine as Roman Mars on 99% Invisible talking about “beautiful downtown Oakland, California,” but the difference is that Burbank is universally and perpetually understood to be laughably bland, even though much of it is actually pretty nice.

I was trying to think of a song that talked about Los Angeles in an undeniably positive way, and I couldn’t come up with anything. “All I Wanna Do” by Sheryl Crow is another song I’ve never been able to read; at first I thought it was an anthem to carefree southern California living, but as they lyrics sunk in, I realized it was kind of a miserable song about deadbeats day-drinking in a nearly empty bar. I guess maybe there always has to be an undercurrent of sarcasm when you’re talking or singing about Los Angeles. If you drain away all the self-awareness, you just end up with something like “Soak Up the Sun.”

I still haven’t fully adjusted to the idea that I no longer live in the Bay Area after living there for over 25 years (which, coincidentally, is half my life). It’s odd to realize that even after so many years, after I started to think of it as “home,” and after making so many friends there, I never really felt like I 100% belonged there. It is an effortlessly gorgeous place, and I’m genuinely looking forward to getting to see it as a tourist instead of a resident again, but I can’t say that it ever felt welcoming. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but I almost always got the feeling that the best I could get from people was begrudging acceptance, a feeling of being tolerated. In the few times I’ve been out in Los Angeles so far, I’ve gotten more friendly and welcoming reactions than not. Is it sincere? Probably not, but again, I suspect that that’s missing the point.

It’s still too early for me to tell how I’m going to adjust to living in a city that I hated until a few years ago, when I stopped seeing it as a traffic-clogged obstacle between me and Disneyland, and started seeing more of the things that made people want to live here. Maybe I’ll finally be discovered and enjoy my second career as a media superstar. Maybe I’ll just end up day-drinking in a nearly empty bar on Santa Monica Boulevard (we love it).

  • 1
    Nothing personal, but you’ve seen the internet and you know how it is
  • 2
    I mean, not constantly. There have been whole decades in there when I haven’t thought about the song at all
  • 3
    I say if people are going to keep telling me that they were born after I graduated high school, I get to make shit up about what the 80s were like.

Bargaining

Notes from a post-Twitter lifestyle (again)

I deleted my second Twitter account over a week ago, in response to the news that the Twitter board had agreed to sell the company to Elon Musk. Which makes it the second time an obnoxious Trump supporter drove me off the platform.

Actually, the buy-out was the kick in the pants I needed to leave, but it was getting increasingly clear how much I dislike Twitter long before the news. I had started to realize that I was checking it unnecessarily — just to see what was “news” — and worse, that I was finding myself having vehemently strong opinions about stuff that just doesn’t matter. And being cranky and irritable to people for no reason. The Twitter algorithm seems designed to keep me upset and on edge.

It’s kind of a drag, because I was looking forward to having a read-only account so I could check in on responses to Sasquatchers when it comes out on the Playdate next month. I have to admit it was a lot of fun to see reactions to the Playdate during its launch week, after following the work the Panic team has mostly-secretly been doing on the device and its development environment for years. I liked the idea of Twitter not as a social platform, but as a crass promotional platform.

Which honestly is just another excuse. There are plenty of independent developers who are plenty successful without having social media accounts. The “I need this account for work” idea is pervasive, but it’s not actually true for most people who don’t work directly in social media or PR.

And I saw so many of those types of excuses in my timeline that it made me kind of sad. It reminded me too much of all the times I’ve quit smoking, and my brain starts coming up with tortured justifications why it wouldn’t be that bad if I just bought a pack and had only one. On Twitter, I kept seeing these variants:

  • I need this account for my career: I definitely understand how this seems true, but I’m increasingly skeptical that it’s actually the case. I’m in no position to judge, because I’ve most often worked on projects that have other people dedicated to promoting them (and sometimes promoting me as part of it). But if it is true, then it seems like it should be the perfect spark to try and build a community that isn’t so dependent on a company you have absolutely no control over.
  • Wait-and-see: “I’ll wait to see if the deal goes through.” Or “I’ll wait to see if Musk institutes any changes.” Or “If he allows Trump back onto the platform, then I’m gone,” etc.
  • Much ado about nothing: “It’s not actually going to change anything.” I saw a ton of these, and I couldn’t tell if they were supposed to be reassuring, or scolding people for making a big deal? In any case, if one of the crappiest billionaires alive takes over a communications platform to take it private, and you can’t tell the difference, then maybe that’s a sign it’s already a terrible place to be?
  • You’re no better than the rest of us: “None of you threatening to quit because of Musk will actually leave.” “You’re going to be back here within a month,” etc. These were the most pitiful, because they sound the most like dependence. After all, even cynical, performatively self-aware dependence (“This place is garbage, but it’s my garbage!”) is still dependence.

Last time, I tried both Microblog and Mastodon to “ween” myself off of Twitter. Microblog isn’t for me, and I’m skeptical that Mastodon is, either. (Although I do have a Mastodon account for anyone interested). I kind of hate to say it, but I think Mastodon really is Twitter without “the algorithm,” which makes it just as pointless as I first thought Twitter was back in 2007.

For now at least, Instagram remains my deeply problematic centralized social media platform of choice. It’s astounding just how much they’ve abandoned the pretense of providing a service to users of the platform, but still, it’s nice to have the outlet. Until that becomes intolerable, I’ll keep cranking away on this blog, hoping that RSS feed readers and Web 2.0 come back in a big way.

Edited for hypocrisy: I got tired of having to run the gauntlet of sign-up requests every time I followed a twitter link. My re-activated account is read-only for real this time, so if you see me commenting or doing memes or getting in arguments and such, feel free to mock me ruthlessly.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

More than even Infinity War and Endgame, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness feels like the culmination of the whole MCU (for better and worse)

I really enjoyed Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and I liked too much about it to be able to pick just one thing. It’s big, loud, and overstuffed, but for every criticism I have, I’m even more amazed that it works at all.

It works as a blockbuster franchise movie that must’ve had to answer to dozens of different stakeholders, but still has enough flourishes to make it unmistakably a Sam Raimi-directed movie. Like Captain America: Civil War, it works as a big super-hero team-up movie and a tentpole entry in the MCU, but it’s also a surprisingly good sequel to the first Doctor Strange. And I’d say that even more than Infinity War and Endgame, it shows what can happen when you’ve got all the various parts of the MCU laying the groundwork to culminate in a huge, weird story.

First: the Sam Raimi effect. As somebody who always liked the Evil Dead movies but couldn’t really love them, my two favorite sequences in Raimi-directed movies are:

  1. In Darkman, the shot of Frances McDormand looking at the explosion in disbelief that perfectly cross-fades to her at a funeral.
  2. In Spider-Man 2, the sequence of Doctor Octopus coming to life on the operating room table.1For whoever’s keeping track of these things: number 3 is the seance/summoning/exorcism sequence in Drag Me To Hell.

The thing that both of those have in common is that they’re perfect translations of comic book aesthetics to filmmaking. Plenty of filmmakers have tried to translate comics to movies, either getting the “spirit” of comics or doing a too-literal direct interpretation, but nobody’s ever been as successful at it as Raimi.

So I had a blast seeing Raimi getting the reins of the full power of the MCU dreadnaught, but still be able to make enough of it in his own style. There aren’t any sequences that quite reach the level of that Doc Octopus scene in Spider-Man 2 — although a scene with a character getting caught in a prison of reflections and busting their way out was gloriously creepy — but there were so many camera spins, zooms, and stylistic flourishes that you could probably recognize it as his work even before Bruce Campbell showed up.

It’s funny that the sequence of Strange and America Chavez sailing through different universes is the one that made it into the trailer as an indicator of how weird the movie gets, because at this point, it’s almost tame and predictable. The bar for CG has been raised so high at this point that I just assume that effects houses are capable of doing anything a filmmaker can think of, so the effect in the movie kind of ends up feeling just like a demo reel. The shots in Multiverse of Madness that really stood out to me were the ones that felt old-school, teetering on the edge of cheesiness: there’s at least one shot of characters’ heads superimposed over the frame that actually reminded me of The Night of the Hunter more than anything else. These movies have to check off so many boxes that it’s nice to see filmmakers like Raimi and Taika Waititi getting to have some real fun with it.

But the entire movie was thoroughly and gloriously a comic book movie in subject matter, tone, and frequently aesthetics. More than anything else in the MCU, this seemed to embrace its comic origins even more than its cinematic origins, or even broader “genre fiction” origins. It’s the first that didn’t seem to be bringing comic book source material to a movie-going audience, but rather making movies for comic book audiences. There’s a background character who’s a sorcerer and a talking bull, for instance, and nobody comments on it or even seems to think it’s that remarkable.

As a result, there’s a kind of respect for the audience throughout, and I loved it. A tone of “you get this, you understand why it’s cool, we don’t need to spell it out for you or have characters spending too long gawking at the spectacle of it.” When a cameo happens — and there are several, one of which actually had me spontaneously yelling out “Yaaaayyyy!” in the middle of a packed theater, against my more reserved impulses — it’s not milked for surprise, but treated more like, “Yeah, you all knew this was coming, but it’s cool as hell anyway.”2Contrast it with Moon Knight, which frustratingly seemed to be operating with no awareness of how the rest of the MCU works. One of its big reveals in the finale was of a character who’d been conspicuously absent the entire series, not just to fans of the comics (which I’m not), but to anyone who’d seen a “Who is Moon Knight, anyway?” explainer video (which I am).

Which isn’t to say that it didn’t surprise me; even though most of the surprises were of the “satisfying reassurance of something I already suspected” variety, the whole story went in a direction that I hadn’t suspected at all. (More on that in the spoiler section below).

And even though it was so relentless that I kept finding myself thinking, “Anyone who isn’t exactly me would be exhausted by all of this,” it actually managed to give its major characters genuine character arcs. I compared it to Civil War, but I’d say it works even better as a sequel to Stephen Strange’s story than Civil War was for Steve Rogers. It’s not as surprisingly funny as Doctor Strange was, but it did further the story of Stephen Strange becoming a better person. The arc from the first movie had only gotten him part of the way there.

Since I’d expected it to be all spectacle with little substance, I was actually surprised that Strange’s storyline had essentially the same overall message as Everything Everywhere All at Once: instead of obsessing over what could have been or even what could be, learn to accept with gratitude and humility everything that is. I don’t think it was anywhere near as insightful or as moving as Everything Everywhere, but then, that wasn’t what it was aiming for. It was more focused on super-hero fights and less on the personal implications of the multiverse.

As for the thing that most surprised me — and is in my opinion the strongest example yet of how the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe is paying off in storytelling terms, not just box office — that requires me to spoil the whole story. I think not everybody’s going to like it as much as I did, but it’s still a lot of fun and one of the best entries in the MCU.

Continue reading “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”
  • 1
    For whoever’s keeping track of these things: number 3 is the seance/summoning/exorcism sequence in Drag Me To Hell.
  • 2
    Contrast it with Moon Knight, which frustratingly seemed to be operating with no awareness of how the rest of the MCU works. One of its big reveals in the finale was of a character who’d been conspicuously absent the entire series, not just to fans of the comics (which I’m not), but to anyone who’d seen a “Who is Moon Knight, anyway?” explainer video (which I am).