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.
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.”
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 Heartson 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I haven’t been watching Tiny Secret Whispers on the streaming services, but I almost feel like I don’t need to after seeing Seth Meyers’s fantastic recaps on Late Night. His check-ins with Delgado, Packer, and the twins is my favorite recurring segment on the show.
I also saw a couple of trailers this week that look pretty interesting and/or genre-bending:
Kevin Can Fuck Himself starring Annie Murphy in what seems to be a combination sitcom/black comedy about revenge murder. Is it a series? A TV movie? No idea, but it looks interesting and is on AMC.
Made for Love will be on HBO Max and star Cristin Milioti, who has been in a ton of really cool stuff, but whom I will always think of as Your Mother. Highlights of this trailer are of course Ray Romano reciting “Crazy in Love” but especially “I thought those were metaphors!”
How Volkswagen Will Recycle Electric Vehicle Batteries. This is marketing material from Volkswagen USA, so approach with an appropriate level of skepticism. But I was interested to see that they seem to have a plan, since for so long I’ve been hearing naysayers claim that EV batteries are going to be just as big an ecological hazard in a few years as carbon emissions are now.
Disney’s also released photos of the remodeled Moana-themed rooms at the Polynesian Village resort. As much as I want the Polynesian to stay stuck in perpetual 1971, it’s pretty clear that guests paying those prices are going to want something that feels more current. I think it looks like they did a pretty great job of balancing Character-Filled-Disney-Hotel with Luxury-Hotel-in-the-21st-Century.
A fairly new YouTube channel makes getting pissed about the environment fun again
Well, that didn’t last very long. Earlier in the week, I was wondering whether it would be such a bad thing if I got an internal combustion engine car and just didn’t drive it very often. After discovering the Climate Town YouTube channel, I’m resolving to never buy gasoline ever again. Not necessarily because I believe I have a huge impact on the environment, but out of spite for the gas companies that I now hate so much.
I suspect the idea behind the channel is that the messaging around climate change has for so long been dry and boring, angry and alarmist, or guilt-tripping. Rollie Williams decided to make videos that were a call to action, but also kind of funny. It worked for me, at least: some of these were things I was vaguely aware of, but had either never put the pieces together, or I’d completely forgotten about them.
The “carbon footprint” is the one that really got me, because it reminded me of my history of being gullible and letting corporate marketing campaigns manipulate me. Back in high school, I would dutifully tear apart all of the plastic soda-can yokes before tossing them in the recycling, never once questioning why it wasn’t Coke’s responsibility to come up with something better than plastic soda-can yokes.
Fully Charged on the Hyundai Ioniq 5 Launch: I think this channel has been mentioned on here before, but it’s another attempt (with Robert Llewellyn of Red Dwarf) to put an entertaining spin on electric vehicles and cleaner energy
If you missed the video of the Perseverance Rover’s Landing on Mars, you really should watch it. I don’t understand how they kept their voices steady; I didn’t watch it until after I already knew what happened, and I was still nervous the whole time.
NASA also released audio recorded from the surface of Mars. But since the rover has its own Twitter account, I was just disappointed that they didn’t follow up the tweet with the video with one that said, “Well that blew up! While you’re here, check out my soundcloud….”
This week I’ve been a little pre-occupied thinking about the Teenage Engineering OP-1. Actually, that’s not quite accurate: for the past five or six years, I’ve been a little pre-occupied thinking about the OP-1.
It’s something I’ve talked myself out of, dozens if not hundreds of times. But I keep being drawn to it, even as someone who’s by no means imaginable a musician, much less a professional one. The problem is that no rational counter-argument has worked for me because the draw is largely irrational: from the industrial design, to the UI, to the sounds coming out of it, to the advertising, it feels like an object made completely to inspire fun and creativity.
Previously, the argument that I always used to talk myself out of it — apart from the eye-wateringly, guilt-inducingly high price — is that I can just use GarageBand on my iPhone or iPad and immediately get better results, since I understand much better how the tools work. That’s still undeniably true, but it also misses the point. It’s not just that a well-designed device with tactile buttons and knobs and cows and gorillas on the display is more fun to use. The whole process of not knowing exactly what you want and how to get it immediately is the whole point of exploring and experimenting.
(To a point. Over the years, I’ve gotten several of the Pocket Operators. They’re super fun and appealing at first, but I’ve quickly gotten frustrated with them and tossed them into a bucket to sit while their batteries corrode).
Anyway, here’s some interesting stuff I’ve see this week!
Composer David Bruce collaborated last year with Jeremy Blake of Red Means Recording, to do an orchestral arrangement of one of Blake’s now-iconic OP-1 compositions he does on YouTube. It’s a neat idea because it breaks down so many of the preconceptions about and divisions between different types of music and musical performance, suggesting that at its heart, it’s all about expression. Also an orchestral interpretation of an electronic beat drop is just rad.
op1.fun has a ton of individual sounds and sound packs available for downloading to the OP-1. (And other synthesizers, presumably). One of my favorites at the moment is the Lofi Hip Hop N Chill pack by “Lord_Shongo”
My first weekly round-up happens to be a birthday celebration
I haven’t been consistently keeping up with the Tuesday Two-Fer and Semi-New Sunday posts, but I’ve been feeling bad about it, which is at least something. I think I do better with scheduled posts. So I’m going to borrow an idea from writer Jim C Hines and devote Fridays to a link round-up, including anything interesting I’ve found over the previous week.
(For the record, I tried typing “Friday’s Alright” to get it a little closer to the song, but it almost physically pains me to type “alright”).
Today’s is a special entry because it’s Jason’s birthday, and he’s the best. Join me in wishing him a great day!
“Searching for Shelley Duvall” in The Hollywood Reporter also has nothing to do with birthdays, and is even more than a little sad, but there’s a wonderfully positive undercurrent to it. A sense that our humanity means so much more than the shallow and temporary trappings of celebrity.