Star Wars and Focusing on the Wrong Thing

Getting closer to a Grand Unified Theory of what makes something “feel like Star Wars”

I like to think of myself as a reasonably well-adjusted adult, but every once in a while I get a flare up that reminds me I’m still an Extremely Online Nerd in my soul. Tonight’s episode: getting irrationally angry about Rogue One out of nowhere.

Okay technically not out of nowhere. I was trying to think of how to handle the issue of plugging cables into the Star Wars-inspired computer I want to build, which seemed like a distinctly un-Star Wars thing to be worried about. Everything in Star Wars just works — or more often, doesn’t work for dramatic purposes — without spending even a nano-second thinking about stuff as mundane as cabling or fuel sources.

Then I remembered that the climax of Rogue One has the team both trying to find a particular file in a file system, while simultaneously trying to get a cable to reach a socket. And I mean come on.

Over the years, I’ve settled into a more mature attitude towards Rogue One after my initial nerd-rage: accepting that it has both the best production design of the entire franchise, and the absolute worst plot and characterization of the entire franchise. (Except for K2SO, which I attribute mainly to Alan Tudyk). I’ve already complained about how the entire movie undermines its own protagonist, but if I’m being honest, the thing that bugs me more is that it doesn’t “feel like Star Wars” to me.

Which is also my main issue with The Last Jedi. That movie’s grown on me a lot, although I’ve still got some issues with how it handles the characters. But the biggest problem I have with it is that so much of it just doesn’t feel like Star Wars. The stuff with Rey and Kylo Ren is mostly fantastic, but the bulk of the plot is a pointless and futile digression onto a space casino, and the Resistance fleet running out of fuel.

The plot of a Star Wars story should never revolve around something as mundane as fuel. A broken hyperdrive? Sure! A lack of fuel? Garbage. Again, that’s Battlestar Galactica, not Star Wars.

A broken hyperdrive doesn’t make sense; the Millennium Falcon shouldn’t have been able to travel between planets without it. The reason it works in The Empire Strikes Back is because to the characters, it’s as mundane an obstacle as any other broken piece of equipment, roughly the equivalent of a flat tire or a broken air conditioner. But to the audience, it’s still fantastic.

JJ Abrams gets this, I think, but takes it too far. The Force Awakens built its climax around a “thermal oscillator,” which is nonsense, but is just enough of a McGuffin to drive the action. If anything, he spent too much time with a bunch of adults standing around a table, talking about nonsense as if it made sense. That’s Star Trek, not Star Wars.

And The Rise of Skywalker, along with all its other issues, takes it way too far in the other direction. It’s not that Emperor clones and thousands of planet-killing Star Destroyers, or even the “Force Dyad” or whatever they called it, need to be explained; they do need to be justified, though. There’s no sense of building up to it. It’s just thrown at you as an immediate threat, trying to raise the stakes without “earning” it.

Comparing all the good and bad Star Wars stories I’ve seen and read over the years, I think that the main thing driving the whole Star Wars aesthetic is that it’s impossibly ancient. Technology that’s thousands of years ahead of our own is already thousands of years old by the time our stories start.

It’s so ubiquitous that characters should rarely even comment on it. That’s my “in-universe” explanation for why none of the computer panels or spaceship controls have labels anywhere; it would be as absurd as putting instructions on door knobs or cabinet handles.1I admit I do like the theory that everyone in the Star Wars universe is so dependent on droids that they’ve become illiterate, though. It’s also why I think the Imperial aesthetic “reads” as evil and unsettling even when you don’t have Darth Vader walking around in it: it’s all so clean and shiny that it literally feels unnatural.

The reason I think it’s important, instead of just a source of Strong Opinions for Nerds, is that it forces (no pun intended) Star Wars stories to be about characters, along with ideas about spirituality and magic. They are, deliberately, silly fairy stories, but dressed in trappings that make them resonate. The sci-fi elements are there to make the fantasy stories feel contemporary.

Looking back on my reaction to The Rise of Skywalker, I’m surprised that my opinion hasn’t changed all that much. I did go back to the theater to see it a second time, and watching it as “Star Wars I can watch on a big screen” instead of “conclusion of a decades-long series that’s been hugely important to me for as long as I can remember” made it a lot more fun. It’s entertaining in the moment, but falls apart at any attempt to put it into a larger context. And whether it’s good or bad, it doesn’t change the enormous potential of Star Wars as a setting for stories.

Both officially sanctioned by Disney-owned Lucasfilm, and even better, the infinite number of stories not set in the Star Wars universe, but inspired by it. Star Wars is a specific aesthetic, and I’m no closer to being able to define it than “I know it when I see it.” But more valuable than that is the idea of freely picking and choosing from elements of pop culture — sci-fi, westerns, samurai movies, swords and sorcerers, WWII movies — to make stories that are about more than just their setting or their aesthetic.

Star Wars Pi Project: Intro and call for suggestions

I want to make a Raspberry Pi project that’s probably beyond my skill level

Several years ago, I bought a Raspberry Pi and a fairly cheap car-rear-camera screen to use as a display, with the intention of making my own BMO. I never got around to making anything beyond the “assemble the components” stage, and I’d lost interest in Adventure Time and the project itself by the time the components were already outdated.

But I never completely lost the desire to do something with a self-contained Raspberry Pi and display. A couple of years ago, I made a Star Wars-inspired light-up box for a wedding proposal stunt, and I had so much fun doing it that I want to take on another more advanced project.

In the Smuggler’s Run ride in Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland, there’s a short pre-show sequence (at about 5:15 in this video) right as you’re about to enter the cockpit, where Hondo Ohnaka appears on a multi-screen display and reminds you what the mission is and what the different crew roles are supposed to be. I was immediately fascinated by that display, both the motion graphics and the hardware itself. I’m now convinced I want to make that. Or more accurately: a small, desktop-friendly enclosure inspired by that.

In a perfect world, I would’ve already built it, and this blog post would just be pictures of it and an overlong description of how I made it. But while I’d rank myself as an “advanced beginner” when it comes to 3D modeling and printing, I’m still an absolute novice when it comes to assembling anything involving electronics.

Here are the components I’ve gotten so far (some from a separate Untitled Goose Game music-and-sound-playing toy project that I’ve pretty much lost interest in). It’s:

On order I’ve got:

All came from Adafruit.com, which is a great source not just for the components but tutorials on how to build their sample projects. Their tutorials are great, as long as you’re building what’s shown. The problem is that I never know how to depart from their tutorials and make something new. I’ve had enough practice now that I’m fairly comfortable doing stuff like soldering LEDs onto an Arduino shield, but don’t know how to bridge the gap to wiring individual buttons, potentiometers, sensors, etc that haven’t come pre-assembled.

I get the sense that the only real way to get comfortable with working with circuitry is by tinkering and experimenting. The problem is that whenever I’m in a situation without an Undo menu option, things tend to fall apart around me. Blowing out an LED isn’t a tragedy, but ruining a $40 computer or display would be pretty upsetting. It seems like going from the “make a single LED light up in response to a button” demo, to the “have multiple illuminated buttons, displays, and knobs all inter-communicating” stage would require some knowledge of how resistors work and such. I feel like an outlier based on the examples and tutorials I’ve seen so far, in that I’m pretty comfortable with programming and soldering, but don’t know where to start when it comes to designing or assembling the circuit.

So I’m hoping that someone reading this with more experience working with electronics will be able to point me to a good resource or resources for bridging the gap from beginner to advanced-beginner. Some questions I’ve got before I even get started:

  1. I’m assuming that the Pi and the main display could function as a unit, but all the inputs and external display would need to be run from a separate microcontroller. Is the Feather sufficient for that?
  2. The PiTFT leaves some of the Pi’s GPIO pins available, according to the specs. Would a microcontroller for the buttons & displays be wired directly to the PI?
  3. For simplicity’s sake, I was hoping to power everything with a USB cable connected to the Pi. (In other words, skipping this thing’s potential as a mobile device). Would the microcontrollers need separate power, or can they be powered via the Pi as well?
  4. Would each display require a microcontroller, or can they be run from the same board as the buttons & potentiometer?
  5. Is it madness to assume I could use that Perma-Proto board in the final project? Or would I need to look into having an actual circuit board made?
  6. What’s the best way to divide and conquer with a project like this? My first instinct is just to try to hook up the Feather to one of the illuminated push buttons and read/write from the button input and to the LED. Does that just naturally scale up to adding more buttons and a potentiometer, or would that significantly change the circuit and the power requirements of it?

Suggestions, warnings, tutorials, explanations are all welcomed. I’ll keep updating the status of the project — assuming there is anything to update — on this blog.

Sunday Smackdown: Ghostbusters (2016) vs Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

Two movies enter the arena, each with a different idea of what made the original Ghostbusters work. (Some spoilers for Afterlife)

At this point, there have been three attempts to make a movie follow-up to Ghostbusters that captured everything that made the original such a classic. None of them have managed to do it.

But it’d be unfair to be too critical of them for that, since the original Ghostbusters was such a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of ideas, execution, and timing that it’s impossible to pick the one trait that made it such a classic. Back in 1989, when I was feeling so betrayed by Ghostbusters II, I probably should’ve kept in mind how completely surprised I had been by the original.

I’d gone in expecting it to be another Meatballs or more likely, Stripes: a movie built around Bill Murray’s charmingly lecherous, rebellious, screw-up persona that somehow became an engaging action comedy. It was only after the opening sequence, with a genuinely scary library ghost, that I realized this wasn’t “just” a comedy.

If the decades of behind-the-scenes accounts and making-of stories and frequent retellings are to be believed, that dichotomy was present in the project from concept all the way through to filming. Dan Ackroyd supposedly had a concept that went all-in on the lore, and Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman came in to steer it back towards family comedy. I’m skeptical that it was as clear-cut as all that, but it is evident in the movie, which has way more plot and world-building than a comedy needs, even in the golden age of movies that 1984 turned out to be.

(Case in point: possibly my favorite line in the movie is when the under-appreciated MVP of the whole project, Rick Moranis as Louis Tully, is foretelling the coming of Gozer the Traveler. From IMDb: “Then, during the third reconciliation of the last of the McKetrick supplicants, they chose a new form for him: that of a giant Slor! Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!”)

So any attempt at a follow-up inevitably has to decide what it was that made the original work so well. Ghostbusters (2016) decided that it was a special-effects-heavy comedy featuring SNL alumni as wacky, hapless outcasts crackin’ jokes while bustin’ ghosts. Ghostbusters: Afterlife decided that it was a lighthearted supernatural adventure whose strength came from its characters and their discoveries.1Ghostbusters 2 decided that Ghostbusters had made Columbia Pictures a lot of money, so bringing back the entire cast with more studio interference and a smaller budget couldn’t help but recapture lightning in a bottle.

Honestly, neither one is wrong. But neither one is quite able to encompass everything that made the original work, either. Is it better to be entertaining in the moment but ultimately forgettable? Or to be more earnest and emotionally resonant at the expense of much of the comedy and action?

Continue reading “Sunday Smackdown: Ghostbusters (2016) vs Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)”

EV Diary 2: The Honeymoon Continues

Minor update to my experiences with the ID.4 after a second road trip

My last post about having an electric car ended a couple weeks after my first road trip in it, from Oakland down to Los Angeles. I’d been worried about how much it’d change the dynamic of a long-distance drive, but in practice, the only difference was having more time to relax along the way while the car was charging. Tacking a couple of hours to the total trip time seemed like a small price to pay for not ending the trip still raging over all the drivers who insist on cruising in the left lane on I-5 instead of getting over.

The first week of November, I took a second road trip down to LA, and the results were about the same. It’s a comfortable, almost pleasant, drive now. And my total expenses (apart from having to spend the bulk of the day driving) were $8.50 for Taco Bell. The only thing that changed was that Taco Bell got demoted from “surprisingly delightful” to “at best, a sometimes food, and for road trips only.”

When I got the idea to make an EV Diary, I was sure that there were all these hidden aspects to driving an EV that people just weren’t writing about. There had to be a fundamental shift in the day-to-day experience, right?

Turns out: not really. The only real difference is that instead of spending 5 minutes at a gas station once every couple of weeks, I spend 30-40 minutes outside a Target1And invariably, inside a Target every three weeks or so.

The biggest change to my driving has nothing to do with electric vehicles, and is instead an aspect of the safety features added to most mid-to-high-end cars of the past several years. I already had similar on my last car2A Honda Insight, which is a traditional hybrid that is soon to be replaced completely by the Civic, Accord, and Clarity if my predictions are correct., and it was crucial for avoiding an accident. A car in front of me on the freeway had failed to stop, causing a four-car pileup with some injuries. My car automatically applied the brakes and slammed to a stop before I even had a chance to realize what was happening.

Fortunately, I haven’t had any similar incidents with the ID.4. I did have what I was sure was a minor accident on my last road trip: over the course of the trip, I kept running into a couple of guys in a similar ID.4 at the same charging stations at the same time. At one of them, they were watching as I was trying to back into a charging spot, which of course made me nervous and completely incompetent at backing into a charging spot. I felt a slam as I backed the car into the charging station, and I quickly got out, hoping I’d been driving slowly enough that I hadn’t caused any damage. When I looked, though, the car was still at least a foot away from colliding with anything. The back-up sensor had slammed on the brakes before I could do any damage.

More than that, though, the collision avoidance system allows for what they’re calling “adaptive cruise control.”3Yes, I’m aware that describing a feature that’s been available for years like that makes me sound like a grandpa. On every car I’ve ever had, I’ve hated cruise control and never used it. There’s not much more harrowing than feeling the car accelerate when my foot’s not on the accelerator, so I tend to turn it off immediately.

The drive along I-5 is a perfect test case for it, though, so I tried it out on my last road trip. This iteration of it is near-perfect. You set your desired speed, and it’ll try to keep at that speed unless there’s anything in front of you. In that case, it goes as fast as it can up to that speed, keeping a Volkswagen-calculated “safe” distance away from the vehicle in front.

It’s surprisingly good at recognizing the vehicle in front, too: on the instrument cluster, it’ll show you an image of the vehicle and how far away it is, changing between a truck, a car, and a motorcycle as appropriate. Surprising to me was that it even was able to account for people seeing my “safe” distance as an invitation to cut me off, gradually slowing down to make room for the interloper.

It’s still a long way from autonomous driving, which is fine by me because I have less than zero interest in autonomous driving. I think of self-driving cars in much the same way that I think about roundabouts: even if you show me that they’re statistically safer, they still freak my shit out.

I had the ACC on for much of the drive down to LA and most of the drive back. On top of the convenience, it seemed to be better for energy efficiency than my own driving, too. I ended up with a much higher charge on exiting the Grapevine, and I chose to make a third charging stop out of convenience more than necessity.

What I hadn’t anticipated was that it gets rid of much of the stress of being surrounded by asshole drivers: the people who follow too closely to the car in front of them, and are always lightly tapping on their brakes as a result. Whenever I get behind one of those people, I instinctively tap the brakes as soon as I see their brake lights, which is both annoying and gradually stressful as it accumulates over the miles. Here, I could just let the ACC do its thing, trusting that it would slow the car as necessary in time for me to slam on the brakes if I suddenly needed to.

Just about everything else in the ID.4 fits that same mindset: it relieves as much stress as possible from driving, and it’s comfortable, and it does exactly what I need it to do. I’d expected the honeymoon period to be over by now, and I’d start to notice more of the faults, or I’d just stop thinking about the car altogether. Instead, it’s actually growing on me. I like it more the more I drive it, and I’m looking for more and more excuses to drive it. I can feel myself turning into one of those insufferable people who loves his car and can’t stop talking about it. I’m not yet at the point of getting VW or ID.4 vanity license plates yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time.

My Favorite Games: The Sims 2

Memories of the game series that taught me about abstractions, and about how profitable video games can be (for other people)

The featured photo on this post is my attempt to create my own likeness in The Sims 41Or more accurately, a preview Create-a-Sim tool they launched to promote The Sims 4, and it came out pretty close. The character creation is still my favorite aspect of the otherwise-unremarkable The Sims 4, mostly because it wisely chose to embrace the cartoonish aspect instead of trying too hard for photorealism. (Also because it let me make a character whose beard color didn’t match his hair color, allowing me to finally see some representation in a video game!)

When I say “otherwise-unremarkable” I should probably clarify: even though The Sims 4 is my least favorite in the series, I’ve still put more hours into it than just about any other video game apart from SimCity. Maxis games for me tend to be less “entertainment” and more “all-consuming obsession.”

My favorite in the series is still The Sims 2, because it built on everything that made the first game work — and make the first one become absurdly profitable to an unprecedented degree — without straying too far from the core focus. The biggest improvement there was the Create-a-Sim mode, which allowed for more customization of characters without any hint of straying into the uncanny valley.

I happened to be working at Maxis on SimCity 4 while The Sims 2 was in production. I can still remember the first time I created a family in Create-a-Sim mode, and then when I launched into the game, it showed me a screenshot of the whole family posed together, smiling and waving. It was mind-blowing. I was still unfamiliar enough with 3D that it had never occurred to me you could render into a 2D texture. That moment in the game seemed to epitomize everything that made Maxis games so appealing: applying technology to something that wasn’t intended to be cool to nerds, but to give more universal audiences something charming and delightful.

It’s wild to read about the history of The Sims franchise. At every step, they made a decision that seems like it should never have worked, but it all came together to work magnificently. The process of building and decorating a house feels so different from the actual simulation that they could be entirely different games, and yet they build on each other in a perfectly elegant curve that seems like under-appreciated genius: a better and more efficiently-designed house helps your Sims do better in their daily lives, which in turn helps them afford better stuff and bigger houses.

Of course, it’s at least as much a Republican Capitalist Nightmare abstraction as SimCity‘s economic model is, but the sense of humor in The Sims is what makes it work. In contrast to the more blatant slapstick throughout the game, it’s more subtly satirizing consumer culture and its own promotion of that culture. At least in the earlier games. I felt like The Sims and The Sims 2 made a clear delineation between its abstractions and the real world, for instance by playing 1950s shopping mall-style music when in “Buy” mode. Along the way, the people shaping the franchise seem to have forgotten — or never understood in the first place — that it was all supposed to be a joke.

The genius of The Sims as a core game mechanic was being able to recognize people’s moment-to-moment lives as a coldly impersonal abstraction: to put “I’m lonely” and “I have to go to the bathroom” as roughly equal imperatives. The genius of The Sims as a classic video game franchise was recognizing the absurd humor of that abstraction, and leaning into the absurdity.

When I first saw The Sims, with its characters speaking gibberish before spinning around in mid-air to change clothes, or peeing themselves, or setting themselves on fire, I thought it was the stupidest thing I’d ever seen. Eventually, I began to appreciate it as brilliantly stupid and let it take over an enormous chunk of my free time.

My favorite story about The Sims is one I’ve told dozens of times, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned it on this blog but can’t find it at the moment. In short: the game recognized I was gay before I did. When I first launched the first game, it included a starter “family” of two women called the “Roomies,” and it invited you to move them into the neighborhood and make friends. My plan was to make another family of two men and move them into a different house. I’d thought I’d introduce them all to each other, have them pair off into couples, all go into the Music career, and eventually I’d have my Sims recreate ABBA.

I hit a snag early on, though, when I tried to have my two male roommates develop a friendship with each other. They got along a little too well, choosing to have long conversations with each other at the expense of all their other needs. Before long, they had the option to “Hug” each other, which was nice to see. One of the guys had a different idea of platonic relationships that I did at the time, though, since a heart appeared over his head. At that point, the guys had the option to “Try for a Kiss.” What could it hurt? I thought. It’s only a video game.

From there on out, the guys were inseparable. I brought the girls over and tried to start conversations between them, but the guys showed little interest, and things got somewhat awkward. As in real life, I tried to force one of the guys back onto the “proper” path and had him constantly striking up conversations with one of the women, inviting her over frequently, offering her back rubs. It was during one of these interchanges that his “roommate” entered the room, went into a jealous outrage, slapped the both of them, then stormed off into the kitchen to make dinner. Being a character in a Sims game, he set himself on fire almost immediately. The other Sims panicked and tried to put out the fire, but they were too late — the spurned man, just after a breakthrough in realizing his true orientation, died in the fire. I moved his urn into the backyard, which automatically created a tombstone.

His former roommate was inconsolable. He’d go out to the backyard and stand over the grave, unable to do much apart from “Cry.” His new ladyfriend eventually got bored and came out to join him in the backyard, trying to start up a conversation to cheer him up. The two Sims now had the option to “Dance,” which I chose, causing the man and the woman to dance on his former boyfriend’s grave.

For years, I thought of that story as being the perfect example of how even a seemingly absurd and comical abstraction could expose so much of my suppression and frustration while living in the closet. The best intentions. The repression. The curiosity. The guilt. The secret desire for retribution and a different life. When I told that whole story to my first boyfriend, though, he said, “You should’ve known you were gay when you bought a new video game and the very first thing you wanted to do was recreate ABBA.”

Bandersnatch and Possibility Spaces

More like an extended-length episode of Black Mirror than an interactive movie, Bandersnatch reveals (probably intentionally?) most of the problems with interactive fiction.

I finally was able to watch Black Mirror: Bandersnatch last night, after years of the Apple TV Netflix app telling me it wasn’t supported.1As far as I know, it’s still not. I ended up watching it on the built-in app on my “smart” TV. Technological dystopia indeed! I can’t talk about it in any detail without spoiling it, which would be a shame because its best moments are when it does something surprising with the format.

My short “review” is that it’s absolutely worth watching. As an episode of Black Mirror, it’s pretty strong. As a 1984 period piece — specifically to being a young tech nerd in 1984 — it’s really fun. And as an examination and indictment of all the implications that come from interactive fiction, it’s interesting. My major criticisms are that it doesn’t do much that’s actually groundbreaking with interactive fiction, apart from delivering it to a wide audience in a different context. And ultimately, it doesn’t work that well as a coherent narrative.

I think the most remarkable thing about Bandersnatch is that it seems like Charlie Brooker (creator of Black Mirror and writer of this movie/episode) genuinely understands all of the implications of interactive fiction. Which is remarkable because I think a lot of people working in video games and interactive fiction full time still don’t get it.

That’s not to say that it’s a super-accurate depiction of video game development, even in 1984. There are several scenes where a programmer furiously types a few lines of BASIC code and hits the RUN button (?) to see semi-3D graphics or a perfectly-rendered high-resolution title screen, which I don’t think is all that accurate. But that’s creative license, and complaining about it is as pedantic as faulting a car chase for going through the most scenic parts of a city instead of a real-world route.

What Bandersnatch does get right are the fundamentals: the quickly-expanding complexity of branching narratives, the lack of genuine agency on the part of the player, and the lack of stakes in the player’s story.

Continue reading “Bandersnatch and Possibility Spaces”

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: It’s Tricky

Two tangentially-related tunes for Tuesday, to remind me how I was so much more blissfully ignorant before Wikipedia

There’s a new 10-year anniversary version of Foster the People’s album Torches out now, which is weird because I’d swear it only came out 5 years ago, and also because I’m still somehow 35 years old. That made me think of my favorite track from an album full of great tracks, “Houdini.”

Which reminded me of the first time I heard the song, while watching my boyfriend (now fiance) play SSX Tricky at his apartment. Except that song wasn’t in Tricky, it was in the version of SSX that came out 10 years later in 2012.

But that already had me thinking about the record producer Tricky, who as I’ve known for years, produced my favorite Björk album, Post, with his style being most evident in “Army of Me.” Except he didn’t; that song was produced by Graham Massey and Nellee Hooper.

In reality, Tricky is credited as producer on “Enjoy.” Which isn’t my favorite track on the record, but it’s memorable and great for the album’s overall pacing. Plus I appreciate how much she commits to the subjunctive in the lyrics. Is “I wish this be enough” grammatically correct? I dunno, but it doesn’t matter if you can make it work!

This wildly careening train of thought is proof that my memory isn’t the most solid, but instead of thinking about that, I’m going to focus on my abilities!

My Favorite Games: Diablo II

Stay a while and listen

So I mean, I get it: yeah, no shit Diablo II is one of my favorite games. It’s the video game equivalent of saying you like Rumours or the White Album.

But recently I bought the Diablo II: Resurrected remaster, and it was uncanny how quickly I fell right back into it. I’m realizing I didn’t just play Diablo II, I was completely subsumed by it.

Strictly speaking, the first Diablo had a bigger impact on me. It was my first exposure to so many different things: roguelikes, procedurally generated levels, action RPGs, and narrative (more or less) in non-adventure games. Even more strictly speaking, it was the Hellfire expansion that had the biggest impact on me, by introducing the Monk character class. I had completed the first game a few times over before starting another play-through with the Monk, and I’d gotten to be level 10 or so before I tried unequipping his weapon. His attack power shot way up! Which made sense, because monks are supposed to excel at hand-to-hand combat. It’s one of those times I was shown how much a game can do not with a pre-determined story, but with interconnected systems.

But realistically, there’s no way that I’m ever playing Diablo again, even if they do come out with an opportunistic cash-grab a spectacular new remaster. With the sequel, it wasn’t even an option whether I’d play it again or not. I felt compelled to.

So now here I am with a backlog of dozens of Steam games built up over the years, which I’m ignoring to go back to playing a game that came out 20 years ago, for what might be the tenth or fiftieth time.

One of the most hilarious aspects of playing the remaster is the character selection screen, which gives you a button to toggle between the remastered presentation and the original. This is a pretty standard feature in video game remasters and re-releases, but here it’s used only in the pre-game screen, not the game itself. (At least, that’s the only place it’s easily accessible). I say it’s hilarious because without it, you might believe that Blizzard hadn’t actually done much of anything besides make new versions of the cinematic sequences — which shouldn’t be understated, actually, since they’ve improved the character designs a lot from the bafflingly ugly originals. Otherwise, the game looks exactly like you remember it. You need the button to be reminded just how generous your memories have been to a game that was still using turn-of-the-century technology. Oh no. That’s not what I remember at all!

Diablo II is my favorite of the series because it takes all the lizard-brain-dopamine-dispensing mechanisms of the original and expands on them in all the right, insidiously clever ways. I haven’t yet gotten past the first act with the remaster (because I keep starting over with new characters), but I’m still hoarding all the gems and jewels I find along the way, practically rubbing my hands together at the prospect of getting access to the Horadric Cube. The game has always been a ridiculously fancy and expensive overlay on a random number generator, but soon I’ll get a whole new set of random numbers to see!

I don’t know what other game are going to be in my “my favorite games” list, because I’m thinking of them as I go along. But I would bet that Diablo II is the game I most resent liking. I didn’t get nearly as obsessive as some others did — min-maxing has never been my thing, and I think I only played online a total of twice, quickly discovering I only enjoyed it as a solo game — but I still think of it less like a player and more like an addict.

I hate how it so perfectly doles out rewards so that I’m always looking forward to the next hit, turning over every loose boulder and opening every chest inexplicably left in the middle of an open field. I hate how it makes me carefully weigh the pros and cons of the bonuses of any two pieces of armor, even though I know it doesn’t actually make that much of a difference. I hate that I look forward to entering the next area, even though I already know what it looks like, or unlocking the next skill, even though I already know what it does. It annoys me how it’s such a brazen system of repetitive habit and exposed mechanics, and I find it so completely satisfying.

My disappointment with Diablo III is probably a good indicator of exactly what Diablo II does so well. None of these games are particularly remarkable for their storytelling (although you can tell that some of the people at Blizzard are very fond of the lore they created), but Diablo II has just the right balance. Enough so that you’re not just looking at a scroll of random numbers, but not so much to get in the way. When I was a couple hours into Diablo III and learned that the main story would have me traveling the world assembling the pieces of a magic sword, I could hear the low, raspy groan as part of my soul left my body.

I don’t have a ton of experience playing the smaller, simpler roguelike games out there, but of the ones I’ve tried, none have had exactly the same feeling of satisfaction as advancing through Diablo or its sequel. I’ve got no doubt that Diablo 4 will be huge and bombastic and meticulously crafted and balanced (full disclosure: I’ve got a friend who’s working on it), but I’d like to play something again that gets that simple feeling of risk, reward, and exploration.

One Thing I Love About Dune

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is the best adaptation of a book I only know via adaptations

I’ve never read Dune, but for years I’ve felt like I know enough about it to get the general idea. From the needlessly awful 1984 movie, from reading National Lampoon’s Doon, and just decades of nerd cultural diffusion, I had a rough idea of the overall plot, the major themes, and why it was so influential.

I also knew that it was impenetrable and basically impossible to adapt. It’s set in the far-off future, over-stuffed with lore about different cultures and future technology, heavily influenced by psychedelics and incomprehensible visions, and focused on grand-level, intergalactic, machiavellian political schemes. It’s all a melange (so to speak) of guilds, great houses, witches, prophecies, ornithopters, fremen, stillsuits, and sand worms. I was perfectly satisfied to stay safely on the outside: aware of it as a cultural landmark, but without the need to dig any deeper.

But I had some time to kill, so I saw the new adaptation directed by Denis Villeneuve, and I really, really enjoyed it. So now I’m left wondering if I have to become a fan.

There’s so much that it does well, and so much of that is interconnected: a bunch of wise choices that aren’t that remarkable on their own, but all work together to make this an excellent adaptation.

One moment in particular isn’t all that noteworthy in terms of the overall plot, but it encapsulates so much of what I like about this adaptation: Duke Leto and Lady Jessica are in their bedroom, not long after arriving on the planet Arrakis, sharing a moment together while surrounded with a sense of doom over what’s to come the next day. As Jessica massages his forehead to help him sleep, Leto says, “I should have married you.”

Here’s why I think that brief scene is so remarkable.

Continue reading “One Thing I Love About Dune”

My Favorite Games: SimCity 3000

You can’t cut back on nostalgia for the SimCity series! You will regret this!

(SimCity 3000 art borrowed without permission from Ocean Quigley’s blog)

I think SimCity 3000 was the first game I ever lost a day to. I was at my parents’ house for a holiday break, and I stared playing it in the morning, and just never stopped. I got up for meals, but spent the whole time distracted thinking of city improvements and rushed back to the computer. I stayed up too late in the den, redistricting and listening to jazz long after my family had gone to bed. And I say that I “lost” the day because by the time I went to sleep myself, I didn’t feel like I’d actually accomplished anything except for learning the game’s systems.

One of those systems was the land value calculation, which was the first time I remember recognizing how video game abstractions aren’t the pure simulations that they might seem to be. There’s an inherent bias in SimCity 3000’s simulation, in which you were incentivized to maximize land value over having a more balanced city. I’m not sure whether it was deliberate, or just a side effect of having such gorgeous building art and lots that responded to rising land values by transforming into perfectly landscaped green spaces.

Whatever the case, it felt as if providing all the basic city services and building parks and recreation wasn’t some kind of altruistic responsibility, but a game about attracting rich people. It was essentially a game about making Lafayette or Ross, CA.

Years later, even after I’d worked on the sequel, I read the observation that the economic model for all the SimCity games was some kind of Reagan-esque fantasy of using tax cuts to solve any problem, and shaping a city with the ultimate eminent domain. I guess it seems obvious in retrospect, but I couldn’t help feeling as if I’d been subtly indoctrinated with Republican ideologies.

But the reason it remains one of my favorite series is that for me it was ultimate case of getting a bunch of interconnected systems and figuring out how they all work together. Cities: Skylines has become the best city-building game available, largely by mimicking the SimCity games almost slavishly, fixing the rougher parts and taking advantage of improving computer power to expand on it over and over again. But the games feel very different to me. Cities: Skylines feels like building a city, while SimCity 2000-4 feels like encouraging a city to grow.

I think SimCity 4 is pretty great, by the way, and it’s one of the games I’m proudest to have worked on, even though my contribution isn’t really part of what makes it great. The only reason I picked 3000 as my favorite is because I can’t play 4 anymore; I spent so many days building the same roads over and over again during development that it feels robotic. I do wonder if I could go back to it now and enjoy it.

I should also mention that the reason I’ve still got so much love for the SimCity series that I’ve never had for Skylines — even though Skylines is a better game in several ways — is that there was so much creativity applied to the rewards for understanding the systems. The buildings in every version, especially the most recent SimCity, are just beautiful, and it’s no exaggeration to say that they instilled in me a better appreciation for architecture as I drive around a city. The music has also been amazing in every version, and 3000‘s might be my favorite. But so many aspects, from the often-gratuitous animations, to the sound effects, to the digitized portraits of your advisors in 2000 that conveyed so much character in so few lines of text, feel that they were put there for no other reason than to be delightful.