Friday’s All Right for Getting to the Other Side

The Friday link post that asks have I been missing out on the joke my entire life?

A few weeks ago, I read a comic strip about the classic “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke that mentioned that the joke had a double meaning that had gotten lost over the years. The claim is that in addition to being a nonsense joke, it was kind of a double-entendre about “going to the other side” as in going to the afterlife. It was convincing enough that I started to wonder if everybody got both meanings, and I was the only one who’d gone since childhood assuming that it was funny only because it was a non-joke.

(Asking around to some friends and former co-workers online, I learned that none of them had heard of the double meaning, that it seemed an unlikely “retcon,” and as Dave Grossman pointed out: if one of the first appearances of it in print was as far back as 1847, that was before roads had a reputation for being dangerous or getting run over. So it’s very unlikely part of the secret double meaning. But I already spent minutes making the image for this post, dammit).

  • Pre-orders for the Playdate started on Thursday. They went through the initial batch pretty quickly, but orders made now will deliver next year. It’s good to see so much interest around it, since those guys have been working super-hard on this thing forever. (While backing up stuff the other night, I saw a bunch of early art assets for my game, and I was stunned to realize how long I’ve been working on the thing!)
  • As part of opening pre-orders for the Playdate, Panic released a new episode of the Panic podcast, interviewing a lot of people involved with the project, from initial concept to software development.
  • For the record: I’m 100% Team ScarJo. (Actually, I didn’t care all that much until I read Disney’s public statement about the suit, which was hell of gross).
  • Speaking of gross: Activision/Blizzard has been sued by the state of California for a long history of sexual harassment and discrimination. What’s been remarkable to me is how awful Blizzard’s response was — and yet 100% in line with what you’d expect from rich white men in Orange County, CA. NPR, as usual, both-sides it into an innocuous non-response, but the full text is just dripping with indignation and passive-aggressive blaming California liberals. Instead of making even a token attempt to address the allegations. I’m impressed that so many employees were outraged by the response, enough to make a statement and schedule a walk-out for earlier this week. Meanwhile, Activision Blizzard keeps digging their hole deeper and deeper. It would be very satisfyingly ironic if the arrogance of Activision Blizzard’s exec staff is what finally spurs a “Me Too” moment in video game development.

Friday Night’s All Right For Blending and Shading

Friday link post exploring the baffling world of non-photorealistic shaders

Above is a tutorial by Ocean Quigley on how to make a non-photorealistic shader for Blender that looks like an etching or engraving. I was lucky to work indirectly with Ocean on SimCity 4, and he remains one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met.

Here, he makes the baffling process of shader creation seem not simple, but at least attainable. I definitely can’t claim to understand every step of the process he outlines, but he does do a great job of walking through step by step and explaining why he’s doing each part.

A simpler but interesting effect is explained by Ian Pitkanen, with this video demonstrating how to add a grainy effect to lighting transitions. It’s a nice, subtle effect that makes 3D objects seem less sterile and more like they’ve been printed on paper.

I’m frequently trying to learn how shaders work (and then getting hopelessly confused and giving up). One of the most useful-seeming resources is The Book of Shaders by Patricio Gonzalez Vivo and Jen Lowe, which encourages you to interact with the examples instead of just passively reading. This is a perfect approach, because it’s a reminder that this isn’t magic, but neither does it require a deep understanding of math. It is presumably possible to understand the basics and then experiment until you get what you want.

The reason I’m interested in shaders at the moment is to see if I can use Blender to make art resources for a possible game for an upcoming black-and-white video game device. This article by Braden Eliason on getting that classic Mac dither effect in Blender seems like it’ll be invaluable for that!

Friday’s All Right for Even More Crankin’

Friday link post featuring Panic! at the Bluetooth Speaker

I imagine that most of the people reading this blog will have already seen it, but just in case: Panic put out a video with lots more info about their upcoming Playdate handheld videogame machine, with pre-orders starting in July. Mentioned in the “Season One Games” section of that video is my own game, “Sasquatchers,” which makes sense because it’s one of the Season One games. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it on here as it gets closer to release, because for such a small game, it’s taken up a surprising amount of my life over the past several years.

Congrats to Christa Mrgan and the rest of the team there at Panic for managing to get across so much of (what I think is) the personality and core appeal of the project. I’m a fan of the company and just the whole notion of wanting to do something weird and different, and to do it well and responsibly. Now I have to find out how to get one of those audio docks for it, because the Poolsuite FM screen with 2-color dithered video of a plane running in the Mac classic interface as a music player triggered intense feelings of need I wasn’t aware I even had.

If you don’t have patience for the whole update but would rather see an extremely Portlandish 2-minute ad describing what it is, that’s available separately. (It’s at the end of that update video as well).

The company’s been adamant about encouraging development on the device to anyone who wants to make something for it, a philosophy underscored by this video. On top of releasing a lowest-possible-barrier-to-entry development system called Pulp, they’ve pledged to make the SDK public and already released a 50-minute video with Steven Frank demonstrating how to use the SDK to make an app that runs on the device.

Plus, they’ve been running a developer preview, to expand the number of people testing out the SDK beyond just the devs in Season One. There’s been some really imaginative stuff already hinted at; you can get a good sample from Arisa’s Twitter feed, since she’s been handling developer relations for the Playdate project. One of my favorites from seeing screenshots and previews is Dustin Mierau’s “Playmaker,” which seems to nail the whole aesthetic of the Playdate and its philosophy of creative exploration.

Friday Night’s All Right For Crankin’

A pre-update for a new videogame console! A maybe-BDSM-cult-driven series of computer games! A new land at Disneyland!

Panic has been working for quite some time on making the Playdate, a handheld videogame device that I think you should all be interested in, for reasons. Today they made a pre-announcement that a video update is coming next Tuesday, with some more news about the device, the games, and how you can pre-order it later on.

Aaron Reed’s 50 Years of Text Games series is just going to be a constant fixture of my link posts, since they’ve all been fascinating. This week’s is about an adventure game called Silverwolf and really, the bonkers story about the people who may or may not have developed it, and why.

A YouTuber named Kelsea Dyer made a video exploring the new Dragon Quest Island in Japan, and it looks like an interesting attempt to translate as much of the experience of the JRPGs to a real-world setting as they could. It looks more screen-heavy than I would’ve liked, personally, but the twist of traveling to random encounters along the path, then back to the village for shopping and treasure-hunting, seems like it would add some fun interactivity to it. The official site has more info, assuming you can either read Japanese or are better at finding language settings than I am.

The Avengers Campus opens at California Adventure this weekend, and Nerdist’s video is a pretty good overview. My unsolicited take: the available space and the mostly-real-world setting both make it seem a little, well, underwhelming when seen on video, but it’d be stupid to pass judgment until I’ve spent more time in the land. Even Galaxy’s Edge was unimpressive at first, until I got to spend more time there and get a sense for how all the place-making works together. The rides themselves are just a small part of it; I’ve already seen that from riding Mission: Breakout and having a dance party break out outside the queue, which made the whole experience seem 10x more fun. I get a sense that the emphasis on characters and smaller details are going to do the heavy lifting of making the place feel exciting.

My favorite touch that I’ve seen so far: the homage to Adventure Thru Inner Space inside the Pym’s Test Kitchen, using pretzels instead of Omnimovers. And I can’t imagine ever getting tired of seeing that acrobatic Spider-Man being flung over a building.

Friday Night’s All Right For Falling Off a Cliff

Friday link post with handsome Scotsmen being skeptical about nature documentaries, handsome nerds reminiscing about CompuServe, and handsome Italians touring beautiful Apple stores.

I’m a fan of Late Night with Seth Meyers and especially a fan of Ewan McGregor, but the above clip from an interview with McGregor about his work narrating nature documentaries is just the best. “Yeah, right!”

Aaron Reed’s 50 Years of Text Games series continues to be exceptional, and the entry about Trade Wars 2002 hit me with all kinds of nostalgia. I never actually played that game, and in fact I was never that active on BBSes, but I was way into CompuServe, GEnie, and later, QuantumLink, and the potential energy in text-based games over a phone line just can’t be overstated. I wish I could explain exactly how this all-caps paragraph:

EACH OF YOU IS THE CAPTAIN OF TWO INTERSTELLAR TRADING SHIPS. YOU WILL TRAVEL FROM STAR SYSTEM TO STAR SYSTEM, BUYING AND SELLING MERCHANDISE. IF YOU DRIVE A GOOD BARGAIN YOU CAN MAKE LARGE PROFITS.

hits me harder even than when I first put on a VR headset running Elite Dangerous.

Finally for this week, Frederico Viticci and Silvia Gatta’s tour of the new Apple store in Rome, a restoration of a historic building on the Via del Corso, is stunning. Just imagine what wonderful things Epic Games would be able to do with that kind of money!

Friday Night’s All Right for Wii Snorkeling

This week’s link post features music for imaginary games and real etymologies

For the past few years, Gabriel Gundacker has been producing soundtracks for Wii Sports games that don’t exist. These exist somewhere in the space of 21st century creativity that I’m not even sure how to explain: they’re not parodies, because there’s nothing that calls itself out or hints at its being a joke. It’s just a bunch of compositions that would fit perfectly — eerily perfectly — into the music of a 15-year-old game, and are as catchy as much of the rest of the music for the Wii.

(Gundacker is also responsible for my favorite Vine ever made).

Drew Mackie’s blog The Singing Wolf is full of interesting, short-form posts about the etymology of words, how they contrast with what you’d assume is the etymology, and personal observations about each one. This is exactly the kind of blogging I’d like to see more of as we all abandon Twitter, Facebook, etc, and return to the Open Web.

Mackie is also co-host of a podcast called Gayest Episode Ever, about “the one-off, LGBT-themed episodes that classic sitcoms would do back in the day, when it was rare to see queer characters represented on broadcast television.”

Friday Night’s All Right For Swooning

I’m repeating myself by saying that Aaron Reed’s 50 Years of Text Games series continues to be excellent.

I realize I keep mentioning and linking to Aaron Reed’s 50 Years of Text Games series, but that’s because each one is somehow more interesting to me than the last.

Plundered Hearts is a game I’ve known about for over 30 years, since I knew the titles of all the Infocom games, even though I’ve never been able to finish one. At the time, this one wouldn’t even have been on my radar as something I’d want to play, since it was an interactive romance novel, instead of a story about spaceships or wizards.

Reading Reed’s account of its author, Amy Briggs, going into the creative process, and the game’s reception to audiences in 1987, is fascinating. It shows how much we’ve matured over the years — seeing the reaction from both “eww, girl stuff!” computer game reviewers as well as “eww, too much girl stuff!” from contemporary feminists seems so alien right now that it’s almost quaint.

But it also shows how much we’ve developed tunnel vision. I think back in the 80s, an interactive romance novel might’ve felt dismissible simply because it still felt like there was so much potential for interactive entertainment. When it seems like the medium can do anything, having it do something as familiar and as seemingly low-brow would seem unambitious. Now, the idea of a commercial video game release that’s both a clear work of an author and an unapologetic celebration of genre fiction would be a huge novelty.

We’re better suited to individual creators making story-driven fiction like this than at any point in history, but it’s also unlikely to get any traction because there’s not much money in it. Well-written, unconventional games that aren’t entirely action- or puzzle-based are still seen as academic experiments or hobby projects. The only game in recent memory that has that feeling of “literary fiction” is Firewatch, which felt more like an adult contemporary short story floating on the surface of a first-person action adventure game.

  • Reed’s article on Uncle Roger by Judy Malloy was even more fascinating, because it’s a game and a developer I had never heard of. It sounds even more like adult contemporary short stories, but presented in hypertext format. Again, it shows how much the game industry has overlooked and undervalued the work of women, and how much innovation and sense of raw potential there used to be in the game space, before we got stuck with so many over-familiar genres and formats. Reading about Malloy’s innovation made me feel simultaneously inspired and like a huge, unimaginative, fraud.
  • I haven’t yet read Jimmy Maher’s post about Plundered Hearts on The Digital Antiquarian, but I’m looking forward to it, as it sounds it’s a little closer in time to interviews with Briggs, and it’s more in the tone of looking at the game as a creative work as opposed to its place in video game history.
  • This blog post from 2012, lamenting the loss of “Miss April-December” from Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, was circulating again now that her portrait has been restored to the ride’s loading area.
  • Matt Sephton has a blog post explaining how to Turn an iPad Pro Into the Ultimate Classic Macintosh. I’ve always had bad luck with emulators, but Sephton’s links an explanation made it so easy that even I was able to get it working. (You do need to be able to run Xcode and make builds for an iOS/iPadOS device). Reading about video game history has made me severely nostalgic for my old Mac Plus, so I really appreciate his pointing me towards the instructions and an outlet for running HyperCard and the like again.

Friday’s All Right for Doing It, Rockapella

This week’s links are a retrospective for a charming educational series, city planning primers, and more about why GM sucks so bad.

I was too old to be the target audience of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, but that didn’t stop me from watching pretty often. It was such a charming concept executed so well that I wished it had existed just a few years earlier. (Except then, it wouldn’t have been such a product of the 1990s, which is probably an inseparable part of the charm). This retrospective/history of the show does a pretty good job of reminding you why it was so appealing, even to those of us in college at the time.

I’ve also spent the week re-discovering the City Beautiful channel, where Dave Amos makes well-produced videos about different topics in city planning and city development. I first found the channel on account of its videos about the original plan for EPCOT and a comparison of Disney World’s transit system to “real world” transit systems in similarly-sized cities. I think The Algorithm brought it back to my attention because I’ve gotten into the “City Planner Plays” channel, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a city planner doing play-through videos of Cities: Skylines.

And in case I was getting too optimistic about our potential for intelligently planning to solve the issues facing cities, Climate Town came long with another video describing how General Motors’s outsized influence on city planning helped destroy the entire model for healthy cities in the United States, to guarantee that we’re overwhelmingly dependent on cars.

The one encouraging thing is that it’s another reminder of how many of our problems in city design, pollution, income inequality, and racial inequity, have been orchestrated, instead of being inevitable or just developing organically. If we’re reminded that people are responsible for all this, then we can commit to being people that fix it.

Friday Afternoon’s All Right for Simulating

A random assortment of links including fascinating simulations of path-traveling algorithms.

I pretty much always think Sebastian Lague’s “Coding Adventure” videos are fascinating, and this one about ant and slime simulations doesn’t disappoint. His videos aren’t tutorials or how-tos, really, but more a diary of his train of thought and a high-level description of his algorithm while exploring a particular topic. It helps that he’s adept at making videos that make each topic compelling.

As a result, I’m almost always inspired to action after watching one of the videos. I want to learn about compute shaders, and procedurally-created meshes in Unity, and techniques to make interesting visualizations! But then I usually end up just sitting back and watching more theme park videos.

Also discovered this week:

  • This weird video from the Primer channel about running simulations to determine whether there’s a genetic advantage to altruism.
  • I love just about every single thing from this ad for the Magnavox Odyssey game console from 1972. Music, typography, even the dad gleefully firing a rifle at innocent animals the television under shroud of darkness.
  • Here’s a longer promotional film for the Odyssey that does a better job of dispelling any potential nostalgia. (I’m intrigued by the Haunted House game, though). I’m hoping that no millennials watch these videos and go away thinking that we were all impressed with screwing a VHF channel-switch box to the antenna connections on our TVs. Even at the time, we all appreciated that that was janky as hell.
  • Another fascinating video from the “A Critical Hit!” channel: Wild Gunman ’74, the first FMV game, from Nintendo.

Friday Afternoon’s All Right for Turning to Page 42

Nostalgia not just for childhood literature but to things I’ve already linked to.

I’ve already linked to Aaron Reed’s 50 Years of Text Games project in a previous post, but I feel like I misrepresented it somewhat. For instance, the scope is broader than I mentioned: it doesn’t just include the Infocom-style computer text adventure games, but “a history of digital games without graphics.”

That includes stuff I hadn’t realized, like the fact that The Oregon Trail started as a text-only game written in BASIC, released the year I was born! And it also includes a story of the creation of The Cave of Time, the first Choose Your Own Adventure book. That’s full of interesting details I hadn’t known before, such as the fact that the CYOA games and contemporary computer games were developed in parallel, instead of one idea influencing the other. Also, that the format predated The Cave of Time and the disappointingly litigious CYOA brand.

The series is turning out to be more interesting than I’d first expected it to be, and I’ve gone from “I’ll have to check that out sometime” to “Am I actually going to have to subscribe to something on substack?” after reading just a couple of entries.

It also reminds me of why I first wanted to get into computer programming. I was about 10 or 11 years old, I was at my friend Jason’s house, and his family had recently gotten a Commodore VIC-20, the first “home computer” I’d ever seen. I was just amazed that you could type something and it would show up on a TV screen. They started to show me how it played games as well, and while I can’t remember what game they chose, I do remember that it started by asking you to type in player names. His sister typed in “ASSWIPE (JASON)”, which resulted in 10 or 15 minutes of the computer happily calling him an asswipe. I thought it was the most brilliant thing I’d ever seen.

The spark of inspiration took hold of me that day, and I vowed to commit my life to exploring the profound potential of interactive entertainment.