One Thing I Like About Diablo 4

Leveling up in Diablo 4 is one of dozens of moments of carefully orchestrated bad-assery

I feel like I’m supposed to mention up front that I’ve got a friend who worked on Diablo 4, even though it won’t make a difference in what I’m writing about the game, I’m not a game reviewer, and I’ve got a new policy where I don’t waste time writing about stuff I don’t like when there’s so much stuff that I do like.

After I tried the open beta, I said that I was impressed enough by the game’s introduction that I was re-considering my belief that story is superfluous in Diablo games. As much as I love these games — I have bought at least two versions of every entry so far, across multiple platforms and remasters — I’ve always had this condescending idea that all of the art and lore and such are just fancy dressing on a random number generator.

Now that I’ve played through that opening sequence three times1Once in the open beta, and then again for two new characters in the full game, I’m not so sure that it holds up as well to repeat viewings. It’s still extremely well done, but this is a game that encourages you to create multiple characters, but then puts them into a story that ostensibly relies on surprise and discovery. I was starting to fear that the game had gotten so much larger than its simpler action-RPG roots that it had succumbed to the scourge of ludo-narrative dissonance.

Continue reading “One Thing I Like About Diablo 4”
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    Once in the open beta, and then again for two new characters in the full game

Card Tables of the 21st Century

Some of the most exciting applications of AR in gaming have nothing to do with having Kratos in your kitchen

I read a column by Brendan Sinclair where he suggests that AR for gaming doesn’t have much of a future beyond the novelty factor. On Mastodon, he was even more blunt, suggesting that AR is good at attracting venture capital but will inevitably run the same course of underwhelming reality as current-day VR has.

My overall take on that column is that Sinclair makes short-term observations that I entirely agree with, and then he makes conclusions that I think are myopic and unimaginative. To be fair: the column is about games as business, which is all about analysis of existing product more than speculation about the future, and Sinclair acknowledges as much in the column.

For instance: it’s tempting to point to Pokemon Go’s success as a sign that AR is a potential gold mine, but as Sinclair points out, that game was successful because of its IP and its geolocation more than its AR functionality. We’re in agreement there, but I disagree that you can extrapolate much about the viability of AR games from that.

Pokemon Go’s AR element was doomed to be uninspiring (in my opinion at least) for two reasons: first, it had to be compatible with a broad range of devices, which limited it to the lowest-common-denominator in terms of AR functionality. Second, it had to work with a game that was literally designed to be played anywhere on earth, with zero predictability in terms of environment.

The main takeaway I got from Sinclair’s column is that most people’s thinking about the realistic potential of AR and VR — including my own! — has been both defined by the limitations of existing implementations, and also set to an impossibly high standard.

The devices — and by extension, experiences — that we’re familiar with have all been limited by necessary compromises: some of them because the tech just isn’t there yet; some of them because companies rushed products to market before they were fully baked; and some of them because the devices were intended to be prototypes, to generate ideas about what the future of VR or AR could be instead of presenting any finished and polished technology.

And to be clear, when I talk about products being rushed to market before they’re “ready,” I don’t think it’s entirely sinister. I fundamentally disagree with Meta’s overall take on VR, for instance, but I do think it was a reasonable decision to emphasize lower cost, wider adoption of headsets over the absolute best and most expensive technology.1In retrospect, I don’t agree with Google’s versions, though, even though I thought they made sense at the time. Sure, technically Google Cardboard and Daydream brought the potential of VR to more people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it or be interested in it, but it also set expectations impossibly low for what VR could be.

But it’s also put us in a weird position in which current implementations of VR haven’t lowered the bar, but raised it. In other words, for some reason, it’s not enough just to fix the problems with the existing technology. Supposedly, we have to make it perfect, or it’s not worth pursuing at all.

Continue reading “Card Tables of the 21st Century”
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    In retrospect, I don’t agree with Google’s versions, though, even though I thought they made sense at the time. Sure, technically Google Cardboard and Daydream brought the potential of VR to more people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it or be interested in it, but it also set expectations impossibly low for what VR could be.

Uncertain Point of View

There’s no one right way to do Star Wars (unless, of course, it’s the way that I like)

Last week, I had a longer-than-usual wait in the queue for Star Tours at Disneyland, so I got to see more of the pre-show loop than I have since FastPass was introduced. I was reminded both of how clever and how goofy it is. More than that, I was struck by how it’s so tonally different from Galaxy’s Edge, even though they’re both in the same park, with the same IP, and even ostensibly have the same premise.

For me, an adult who’s spent an excessive amount of his life thinking about Star Wars, it made me realize how I’ve so often had a hard time “reading” it. I’ve always taken for granted that the Galaxy’s Edge version is the “proper” version: there’s plenty of room for pulpy adventure and comic relief, but overall it’s intended to be taken seriously.

After all, it’s modern mythology, isn’t it? I always thought it was supposed to be like a more-accessible Dune: straight-faced sci-fi fantasy with a shot of mysticism, but without Dune’s complexity and complete lack of humor.1Now I’m wondering if Dune was meant to be taken seriously. Is all of this an elaborate joke, and I’ve just been punked since the 1970s? Then there’s stuff like Jar-Jar Binks and the rest of the Gungans, and the Ewoks, and the various things that seem like juvenile or clumsy attempts to inject comedy relief into what is otherwise Very Serious Business.

As I’ve lamented several times before, it’s made me perpetually wonder if, now that I’m in my 50s, it’s past time for me to put aside childish things. I know plenty of people around my age who’ve concluded that the entire business is you know, for kids and doesn’t warrant the kind of attention that some of us still give to it. At times, I’ve concluded that it’s gotten to be so all-encompassing that Star Wars is now nothing more than a particular aesthetic.

But whether it’s because I’m a Gen-Xer, or if it’s just something peculiar to me: few things unnerve me more than the sense that I might not be in on the joke.

So my world was rocked a couple of years ago when the guy who voiced the Joker “confirmed” a bit of trivia, saying that George Lucas originally wanted the Looney Toons short Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century to play before Star Wars in theaters. It would’ve been a clue that the movie wasn’t intended to be taken entirely seriously. It would’ve been nice to have heard that like forty years ago!

In any case: with Galaxy’s Edge and the popularity of the Andor series, and the animated series aiming for long story arcs and “more mature” storylines, it’s felt as if the trend in Star Wars has been to treat it as a serious setting. Or at least, to choose aspects of the setting and its aesthetic and use it to tell Grown-Up stories.

And I’m not going to say They’re Doing It Wrong — certainly not with Galaxy’s Edge, which I still love — but it would be a shame if that were to become the “preferred” way to do Star Wars, because I think the goofiness and absurdity is an essential part of what makes Star Wars work, at least as much as weathering, LEDs, and sideburns.

I’ve had a difficult time articulating exactly why I love The Mandalorian so much, most often ending up with “I just think it’s neat is all.” But I’m realizing that a lot of it is because it so confidently skips over the surface of believability, very rarely giving any indication to the audience that it’s aware of how absurd it all is. All the stunt casting and silly moments aren’t aberrations; they’re essential parts of what makes it feel so much like this is my Star Wars. Yes to the Thundercat cameo! Yes to The Mods! Yes to the Mandalorians choosing to live on a desolate planet where their children are frequently eaten by dinosaurs!

My friend Jake pointed out that Galaxy’s Edge, as excellent as it is, reminds guests that actually living in Star Wars would be more of a drag than an adventure. It’s always weird to me to see kids and families interacting with the Stormtroopers and Kylo Ren, with everyone laughing, having fun, and taking photos with murderous fascists.

I think the part that I’m forgetting is that we’re a few hundred feet away from New Orleans Square, with its rides celebrating death, murder, and human trafficking; and Fantasyland, which has rides in which children are poisoned, sold into slavery (after being transformed to donkeys), or threatened with murder by dismembered pirates. The “fascists” in this fantasy don’t have anything to do with politics; they are The Bad Guys. It’s only because of years of seeing pop culture become ever more obsessed with analyzing and examining itself, that we’ve grown to believe that everything needs to have a deeper meaning. Sometimes adventure stories need Bad Guys.

That’s something else that I think The Mandalorian gets across so well — the galaxy is brutal and unfair, and everything and everyone is relentlessly trying to murder our heroes. (And our adorable leading man contributes to the brutality by constantly eating a helpless frog woman’s children). Instead of getting introspective about it, they all just shrug and say “Taungsdays, amirite?” and then go about their business. It would be a miserable life if it weren’t a fantastic adventure story.

Recently I started up Jedi: Fallen Order for the third time, after two previous failed attempts. The opening is just a fantastic sequence of world-building and place-setting combined with a tutorial using some amazing, huge set pieces. Once again, I was inclined to make the old joke about how The Empire is just a nightmare of OSHA violations — it’s bad enough that nothing in the Death Star has railings, but the construction site at the beginning of Fallen Order is full of precarious ledges that require death-defying acrobatics simply to navigate. And the whole thing is perched over an absolute behemoth of a sarlacc-type monster, eager to digest anything or anyone that happens to fall into it.

And once again, I was reminded that I haven’t made some clever, insightful new observation; the dangerous absurdity is an essential part of it. None of this stuff is supposed to be practical, or even to make sense; it just needs to look cool and be part of a cool story. It’s nice to be reminded that not everything is hung up about whether you’re laughing with it or laughing at it; all that matters is that you’re having fun and that you’re laughing.

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    Now I’m wondering if Dune was meant to be taken seriously. Is all of this an elaborate joke, and I’ve just been punked since the 1970s?

Extremely Personal Computers

Other people’s speculation about the Apple Vision headset and platform, and what we can learn from M3GAN.

I like Mastodon quite a bit, but for whatever reason, the bad takes on there do triple psychic damage on me compared to other places. Monday during the WWDC presentation felt like a cavalcade of performative anti-capitalism, and it was exhausting being reminded so forcefully and so frequently how I was a corporate shill for not thinking that everything on display at Apple was complete bullshit.1I have no doubt that there were a tiresome number of ride-or-die Apple fans gasping at the wonders on display, but I feel like it’s a lot easier to just shrug and let them have their thing.

Also I don’t know WTF that AR/VR headsets have to do with heat pumps, but one YouTuber took to Mastodon to scold all of us for being more excited about dinosaurs coming through magical portals into our living room, than efficient HVAC systems. I hope you’re all proud of yourselves for murdering our only planet Earth!

Anyway, there were a couple of takes that I thought were pretty interesting, from people who’ve actually tried out the Apple Vision Pro headset.

One was a first impressions video from Marques Brownlee, which I liked because he’s able to talk about this stuff with the healthy skepticism of somebody who’s seen a lot of devices pushed by companies as being the next big thing, but isn’t too jaded to say when a new piece of technology feels “magical.” If we can’t get excited about this stuff, and instead are doomed to just wallow in minimum-viable-product-induced cynicism, then what’s the point in following it at all? There are plenty of parks outdoors that one might enjoy.

Another was this post from Ben Thompson on his Stratechery blog, where he quotes himself from Twitter but is otherwise pretty insightful. He has some interesting observations about mimicking AR with a headset that is technically VR (instead of using actual glasses like Google Glass, for instance); and he also takes some time to guess where Apple might be positioning the Vision product line, based on what they’ve done in the past with the Mac, iPad, and iPhone.

To me, the common thing that stood out in both was the emphasis on the personal and societal implications of this device, beyond its technology.

MKBHD said he didn’t like the demo of 3D photos at all, and he thought it was too creepy to imagine a dad wearing this headset to take video of his kid’s birthday party. Thompson says that he felt that Apple’s demos seemed sad and lonely; a man looking at photos or watching videos of family events while alone on a couch suggested “a divorced dad, alone at home with his Vision Pro, perhaps because his wife was irritated at the extent to which he got lost in his own virtual experience.”

I think it’s fascinating that so much of the conversation about the device is already about questions like these, because it suggests that a dramatic shift is imminent. And that the difference between this and previous dramatic shifts in technology and society is that we can see this one coming.

A good bit of Apple’s presentation was reminiscent of Black Mirror. I think it’s telling that the reports from people who’ve used the Apple Vision headset2In a controlled demo environment, of course haven’t objected to the WWDC video as looking faked or staged. It really does look like it does in the videos and advertisements. By every account that I’ve seen, the team at Apple has actually achieved the tech shown in their demo videos, and it’s at the level of near-future sci fi concept art.

Congratulations on achieving the most cynical and dystopian vision of a bunch of clinically depressed British television writers!” is, admittedly, an odd take. But I see it as optimistic, because we’re talking about technology not just in terms of what it can do, but in terms of how it feels and how it can affect us on a societal level.

I vividly remember being in an AT&T Store and seeing the first iPhone: I was so impressed by the screen that I thought it had to be a pre-printed sticker, no color handheld display could possibly be that sharp3I ask that everyone take that as an indication of how quickly display technology has improved, not as an indication of how gullible and easily-impressed I am., and it would be amazing to have a portable touchscreen that was always connected to the internet. I had no idea how fundamentally it would change things, and how much it would creep into my everyday life.

Here, we have a better idea of the implications and ideally, we can steer it in the right direction.

And even better, the conversation is already talking about the right things. Back when the iPad was released, for instance, it was all either “lol it sounds like maxipad!!!!” or “what’s the big deal it’s just a big iPhone” dominating the conversation. I didn’t see anyone with the foresight to predict what it’d mean for increased screen time for kids, or the implications of the App Store model on a more general-purpose computing device than a smart phone4In other words: there have always been people complaining about the “walled garden,” but they always focused on principle instead of practicality. I want my primary and essential communication device to be safe from malware, even if it means I lose some control over what I can put on it..

One of the (many) frustrating things about Facebook/Meta buying themselves into the role of Stewards of VR is that they’ve controlled the messaging about what VR can be capable of, and what is and isn’t important, and they’ve often been clumsy about it. A prime example is the whole non-issue about avatars not having legs. The reality is that without a bunch of extra cameras or sensors — which would be a compete non-starter for mass adoption of an HMD — it is near-impossible to track the user’s legs in 3D space. A more patient and thoughtful company would’ve side-stepped the issue entirely, because it doesn’t matter in practice, but instead it was allowed to become a running joke.5For the record, I’m not at all convinced that Apple’s uncanny valley virtual avatars are the right answer, either. But I’m a lot more optimistic that smart people will find a way to make 3D avatars more convincing, than that they’ll find a way to let cameras strapped into your head see down and around your body and somehow map your legs in 3D space with no depth information. Or that we’ll ever live in a world in which anyone anywhere genuinely gives a damn about what you’re doing with your legs unless you’re either dancing, or you’re kicking them.

Something that is much more important than avatars with legs: whether technology facilitates human interaction, or tries to replace it, or worse, obviate it. One of the things that elevated the movie M3GAN above camp into genuine social satire is that it depicted a world where people were so impressed by the potential of tech that they ignored all of the obvious problems with it.

Even as an Apple fan, I thought some of the marketing images crossed that line. “They know how weird this looks, right? Tell me that they still get how this is unnerving.” But I also feel like so much of it is from a determination to stay on-brand as a lifestyle-facilitated-by-technology company instead of just a computer company; and the need to undo years of counter-programming from other companies who’ve released VR headsets and set people’s expectations for what VR is like.

I can’t see anyone wearing this thing while packing a suitcase, for instance, but the message is that it can be a personal communication device. I don’t see anyone wearing the $3500 version while cooking — although an AR-enabled recipe and cooking instruction app for a lower-cost version is a no-brainer — but the message is that you can do other stuff while wearing it, and you can communicate with other people in the room. Consumer-grade HMDs have so far always been like diving into a sensory deprivation tank, and that’s the main idea they need to counteract for this to ever get traction.

For what it’s worth: I don’t believe that making this a “real” AR device — i.e. applying a display on top of transparent glasses instead of using opaque video screens and cameras — would’ve helped with that. After all, headphones can be isolating. I’ve never had a conversation with someone wearing a glasses-mounted camera, but I know I would’ve noped out of such a conversation as quickly as possible, because that’s hell of creepy.

I think that one of the issues with Apple’s demo videos is that it’s difficult to convey the idea of being alone but not lonely. There’s nothing inherently weird about looking through old photos or video of family gatherings when you’re by yourself, for instance, but it’s become a familiar symbol of “sad about the past” almost as much as panning over to the fireplace means “they’re doin’ it.”

The more troubling aspect of that part of the presentation is the whole question of how the 3D video of the family gathering was made in the first place. We already know the problem of people using their phones to record things instead of being in the moment, and it’s much worse when you think of the photographer wearing an opaque headset projecting unsetting video of his eyes on the front. I think that’s the image that Apple’s eager to counteract — and to be honest, it’s kind of their own fault for making the iPhone ubiquitous in the first place — and to convey that wearing this thing does not mean cutting yourself off from other people or not being in the moment.

But personally, I think that a device like the Apple Vision is something you’d most often be using while you’re alone. I don’t necessarily see that as a problem, since that’s also true of my computer, my iPad, and my phone. They often facilitate social interaction, but they’re not inherently social experiences. Writing a blog post, for instance, is completely solitary but still helps fill my “social meter” in Sims terminology.

By that standard, maybe the uncanny-valleyness of the virtual avatar and the front-facing eyes are not bugs, but features? Maybe it’s good to have a reminder that the goal isn’t to perfectly recreate or replace real human interaction, because it will never be as good as the real thing.

I predict that the biggest use case for the Apple Vision, at least initially, will be the most solitary parts of their demo presentation — the guy working at his desk with multiple large virtual screens, and the people sitting on their couch watching TV shows or movies. It’s a huge screen replacement with a built-in computer, essentially a 120-inch-or-more iMac, with any number of additional monitors, all of which are also 3D-capable displays.

That’s a lot less ambitious than what I imagined back when I first saw my first demo of a VR headset. I’m as surprised as anyone to realize that I’d be more interested in 2D gaming in a 3D headset (even though if that’s mostly because I could remain seated comfortably). But it’s also a lot more practical goal, and, I think, a lot more optimistic. If you concentrate solely on the escapist nature of VR and AR, you’re emphasizing the idea that the everyday world is something you need to escape.

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    I have no doubt that there were a tiresome number of ride-or-die Apple fans gasping at the wonders on display, but I feel like it’s a lot easier to just shrug and let them have their thing.
  • 2
    In a controlled demo environment, of course
  • 3
    I ask that everyone take that as an indication of how quickly display technology has improved, not as an indication of how gullible and easily-impressed I am.
  • 4
    In other words: there have always been people complaining about the “walled garden,” but they always focused on principle instead of practicality. I want my primary and essential communication device to be safe from malware, even if it means I lose some control over what I can put on it.
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    For the record, I’m not at all convinced that Apple’s uncanny valley virtual avatars are the right answer, either. But I’m a lot more optimistic that smart people will find a way to make 3D avatars more convincing, than that they’ll find a way to let cameras strapped into your head see down and around your body and somehow map your legs in 3D space with no depth information. Or that we’ll ever live in a world in which anyone anywhere genuinely gives a damn about what you’re doing with your legs unless you’re either dancing, or you’re kicking them.

One Thing I Like About Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

I liked that the movie had the confidence to slow down and be quiet

I’ll come out as a grouch right of the bat: I didn’t like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse nearly as much as the first movie.1To be clear, when I say “the first movie,” I mean Into the Spider-Verse, and not that one with the naked guy running in profile.

That’s to be expected, though: Into the Spider-Verse was a once-in-a-generation masterpiece. It seemed to come out of nowhere and not just do every single thing right, but to be so relentlessly imaginative that it tricked you into believing that anything was possible.

And the moments when Across the Spider-Verse works best are truly astonishing. It is near-flawless technically and artistically, seemingly designed and art directed with the overriding rule being that absolutely nothing would be dismissed because it was too difficult, or because it didn’t fit.

It builds on that feeling of confidence that made the first movie so exciting: mixing and matching art and animation styles not just between universes, but between characters and even between shots in the same scene. You can see the sketch marks and guide lines on some characters, the crisp lines on others, and more than one is made from paper or newsprint2And for two completely different story reasons!. When it’s working, the movie captures that feeling of “anything goes” experimentation from comic books, but applied to animation.3The various comic book-style captions from the “editor” explaining throwaway gags or blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references were an especially nice touch.

But still I was a bit disappointed simply because I could see the seams in this one. Into the Spider-Verse was relentlessly inventive but also felt “tight,” as if every detail and every stray idea was in the movie for a reason. Plus it never insulted the audience’s (or at least my) intelligence: you pretty much figured out things at the same time as the characters did, and there were no overly drawn-out revelations, or twists meant to blow your mind that you’d seen coming a mile away. Across the Spider-Verse was frustrating at points, because I was either wanting it to hurry up and get to the point already, or because I was wanting it to just calm down and be quiet for a second.

So much of it was manic. I felt like the first movie was able to throw everything together and make it all work, while the second often felt over-stuffed to me. It often seemed like the team knew they had made a masterpiece, and were now desperately trying not just to recapture lightning in a bottle, but to stretch it out into a franchise, Peter Jackson-style, even if it didn’t fit the story.

But this post is supposed to emphasize what I liked about the movie, and what I especially liked were the moments when it stopped the chase scenes and the constant one-liners and asides, and used all its artistic mastery not to overwhelm, but to just tell a story.

The beginning is excellent, deliberately deviating from the format of the first movie’s manic introductions (with a self-referential first line setting up exactly that) to re-introduce characters and introduce one of the main themes of the movie: that these stories are about characters defined by tragedy. It worked wonderfully and was one of the highlights of the entire movie, combining art and music and melodrama and humor in a way that only this series has been able to pull off.

There’s a lengthy scene with Miles and his mother that had me in tears, just because it was such a fearlessly earnest (but not quite maudlin) description of how much a mother can love her son, and the inevitable sadness that comes from realizing that letting a child reach their full potential means losing a huge part of them.

But my favorite scene in the movie is one fairly late in the movie, when (mild spoiler) Gwen returns to her home and has an extended conversation with her father. The scene itself is well performed by the actors, although I don’t think it’s quite as powerful as the one between Rio and Miles. But what makes it so remarkable is that every single aspect of the scene goes towards expressing all the emotion contained in the scene. The backgrounds gain and lose detail. The characters shift between more and less sketchy, full clarity to black shadow, as their moods change. The entire color palette of the scene changes with the characters’ emotional state.

It feels as experimental as the pinnacle of the most inventive Warner Bros shorts, but all in the context of a feature film, and all for a purpose.

I guess that it’s good that I didn’t like Across the Spider-Verse quite as much — and to be clear, it’s like the difference between a B+ and an A++ — because Into the Spider-Verse was almost too perfect in execution. Since these movies are so technically proficient and seemingly capable of absolutely anything, it’s nice to be reminded that there are real, talented, artists behind it all, trying to express something real and personal.

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    To be clear, when I say “the first movie,” I mean Into the Spider-Verse, and not that one with the naked guy running in profile.
  • 2
    And for two completely different story reasons!
  • 3
    The various comic book-style captions from the “editor” explaining throwaway gags or blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references were an especially nice touch.

Looking Towards Our Brighter, Faker, Future

Opinions about the newly-announced Apple Vision Pro AR/VR headset

Earlier today, Apple announced an AR/VR headset that is being positioned as a new computing platform, and they introduced it with a promo from Disney showing The Mandalorian and Mickey Mouse and the Main Street Electrical Parade being shoved into your house in 3D.

So yes, as a matter of fact, I do have opinions.

Back in 2016, a kind video game journalist who followed me on Twitter invited me to come by their offices in San Francisco to try out the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift. I was so impressed by Valve’s demos that I went all-in on the potential of VR, and before too long found myself working at a company doing physical therapy in VR. (I no longer work for Penumbra or REAL, but that team is doing some great work and I wish them all the best!)

In the years since then, my enthusiasm for VR and mixed-reality headsets has been diminished, if not aggressively stomped on, by all the impractical realities of these devices. They’re kind of uncomfortable, setup can be a pain, and it’s just fatiguing to wear them for extended periods over 45 minutes or so. Even for the games that don’t require a lot of physical exertion, I would get hot and sweaty just from having screens and a battery strapped to my face.

I’ve been wondering if the skeptics and cynics were right, and all the seeming potential of AR and VR was just illusory. Does it just make a great first impression but have no staying power? Is it doomed to be not just a niche, but a quickly-forgotten fad? Or will there be some sort of breakthrough that finally makes it “stick”?

Continue reading “Looking Towards Our Brighter, Faker, Future”

The games were afoot

Random observations from the Strategicon gaming convention in Los Angeles

As we’re cautiously re-emerging from our pandemic cocoons, my fiancé and I spent a couple of days over Memorial Day weekend at the Strategicon tabletop and board game convention in Los Angeles. The last time we did anything like that was a few years ago at KublaCon in the SF Bay Area, so it was nice to feel like things are slowly returning to The Old Ways.

Overall, my take was pretty similar to how I feel about much of Los Angeles at this point: there were plenty of really good people in a not-so-great venue. I’m still not at all a fan of the LAX Hilton, but the vast majority of people I met at the con were friendly, gracious, and welcoming.

Continue reading “The games were afoot”

Literacy 2023: Book 6: Hallowe’en Party

A Hercule Poirot mystery from 1969 that will form the basis of the next movie, inexplicably

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

When a teenage girl is murdered at a Hallowe’en Party, one of the guests calls on her old friend Hercule Poirot to help solve the case. Finding the killer will require Poirot to interview everyone in the small town even tangentially related to the party, as well as looking into several unsolved murders in the town’s history.


  • Has the confidence of the books written after Christie had proven herself and met with great success, where she was free to be a little experimental with style and pacing instead of purely focused on plot
  • Character-driven, with a little less emphasis placed on Poirot and his eccentricities, in favor of letting the other characters assert their personalities
  • Written in 1969, so parts of it feel jarringly contemporary. It’s fascinating to read an Agatha Christie novel expecting England in the 30s or 40s, and instead see characters complaining about how computers are ruining everything


  • Felt oddly like Christie’s heart wasn’t in the murder mystery; it feels as if she were really wanting to write a novel about these characters and their relationships, but was obligated to have a mystery running through it
  • The clues do eventually all come together, although it’s not in a particularly satisfying way. The feeling is less “a-HA!” and more “Okay, sure, I guess.”
  • Everybody is surprisingly cruel about the murder victim and nonchalant about the killings
  • More an observation than a “con,” but it was weird to see characters in an Agatha Christie openly talking about the possibility that it was a sex crime, or that the murder involved pedophilia and sexual assault. It’s unfair and condescending to Christie, but I always think of her work as being strictly G-rated-but-with-murders

Not one of Agatha Christie’s best, but I thought it was an interesting reminder that she was still cranking out these mysteries in my lifetime. The fact that turns out to be the central hook is compelling, even if the book itself is more pleasant than interesting — that makes it easier to see why it was the basis for a loose adaptation in the upcoming movie.1Although I admit I don’t understand why there’s going to be a third Kenneth Brannagh Poirot movie at all, since I thought the last two weren’t successful?

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    Although I admit I don’t understand why there’s going to be a third Kenneth Brannagh Poirot movie at all, since I thought the last two weren’t successful?

You’ve Got a Transactional Friend in Me

More thoughts about the Disney Dreamlight Valley game, since I think I’m finished with it

The last time I talked about Disney’s Dreamlight Valley, I said that I was enjoying it well enough, but it felt like waiting for the other shoe to drop, when the game would suddenly reveal itself to be a monstrous pay-to-play horror trying to sneak its tendrils into every one of my revenue streams.

I think the game finally revealed its true nature with a recent update, and… it’s fine. Its shop model seems to have been established, and it involves entire chains of objects and outfits and cosmetic items that can be bought with one type of the game’s many in-game currencies — they can technically be saved up, but it’s all structured in such a way that you’re much better off paying money for them.

But everything else in the game is wide open, and the studio seems to be releasing regular updates — free of charge — that add more characters and quests to unlock them. I don’t have any intention to pay for the cosmetic items, but then I’ve easily gotten my money’s worth for the purchase price of the game. It’s an often-charming game that served as an excellent distraction during a stressful stretch of work, and it’s delivered just about everything it promised.

As a bonus: I’ve realized a few moderately-interesting things over the course of playing it:

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My Five-Year-Old (Computer) Could Make That!

Supply, demand, and how the Steam Store helped me feel less anxious about the threat of machine learning

Featured image is a weird portrait of me as a barbarian or something, generated by one of those Midjourney-style AI toys

There’s a style of character design that I used to like a lot, until recently. It’s that exaggerated-but-still-kind-of-heroic cartoony style that I most associated with games like the Torchlight series. It managed to be appealing but not too simplistic, somewhat painterly but still approachable, bringing a novel and intentional, artistic, interpretative design to a medium that for too long seemed to prize photorealism above all else.

Now, though, I associate it with cheap, exploitative, pay-to-play games. It more or less became the de facto art style for every one of those mobile- or Facebook games that were advertised incessantly, but still managed to do absolutely nothing that I could recognize to distinguish themselves. That style of character design went from something that I aspired to, to something that I viscerally disliked, just because the market became flooded with it.1Ironic, since so many of these games seem to involve trying to save a character from a flooded, trap-filled room.

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    Ironic, since so many of these games seem to involve trying to save a character from a flooded, trap-filled room.

1d10 Things I Love About Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

I wasn’t expecting Honor Among Thieves to become one of my all-time favorite action movies.

I rolled an 8.

1. It has tons of fun with the source material, but never makes fun of it.

I never got the sense that the filmmakers were trying to make Dungeons and Dragons accessible to a wider audience, or to translate it in a way that non-nerds could understand, or use just the trappings of D&D in a tangentially related fantasy movie. Honor Among Thieves seems to say “they saw D&D in the title, they knew what they were getting into,” and just commits to it entirely. Even Marvel didn’t get this right for several years, feeling instead like they had to “ground” comic books in something movie audiences could better appreciate.

There’s not even a hint of embarrassment about the game, or an attempt to bring the game to The Normals, that have plagued so much genre entertainment for as long as I’ve been alive.

2. Maybe the best possible role for Michelle Rodriguez.

Rodriguez always gets to play tough characters, because she’s really good at it, but she never seems to get the chance to be funny. This character is just great, and her performance is perfect — still delivering all of her lines with a combination of anger and annoyance, but also with a perfect understanding of why the context makes it hilarious.

3. It seemed to never take the easier or cheaper way out.

First, it’s fantastic that they used as many practical effects as they did. The CG creatures were almost universally great (especially the dragon), but there was one scene with a cat woman1A Tabaxi, according to the wiki and her kitten that made me say “AWWWWWW” loudly and unashamedly.

But even more than that, I was surprised over and over again when a character would start describing something in flashback, and we’d actually flash back to see it all played out. I thought for sure they’d choose to save the money and just have a character tell the story in the present, but I’ll be damned if they didn’t film every single scene. Even big battle scenes, or special-effect-heavy crowd scenes, or even quick 10-second gags.

4. It always knew what to take seriously and what to have fun with, and it was rarely what I expected.

Honor Among Thieves is relentlessly, genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes with a line of dialogue but just as often with a perfectly executed visual gag. But I wouldn’t even go so far as to call it an action-comedy, since its actual story is just as earnest as you’d expect from a more traditional fantasy story, or a more straightforward and predictable action movie. Instead, it stays true to its story, its world, and its characters, and then finds every way it possibly can to make that fun.

As a result, an encounter with a dragon — which is supposed to be one of the most intimidating master-level adversaries in the game — ends up being completely charming, and a genuine threat that takes several moments of inspiration2Both in screenwriting and in D&D terms to get past.

5. It didn’t resort to corny fourth-wall-breaking references to the game, but it did often capture the feel of having to respond to random chance and unexpectedly bad luck.

The entire plot centers on heroes who have to respond to misfortune and find a clever way around it. It’s such a big part of the story that it’s the main character’s super-power. And as a result, you can see the characters have an unexpected bit of luck, followed by what must’ve been a critical failure. All of it presented organically as if it were a natural part of the story, instead of being called out as “this is the part of the movie where we show you what happens when you roll a 1.”

6. Even when I knew what was inevitably going to happen, it still worked perfectly in the moment.

Partly because it nailed that balance between earnest and flippant, but mostly because it was so frequently clever, I felt like the movie earned every single one of its “action movie moments.” Those moments when a magic item is foreshadowed early on, and you just know it’s going to become important during the climax. One of those was so cleverly executed that I never saw it coming. The other, I knew exactly what was going to happen from moment one, but seeing it play out was still completely satisfying. It was all executed so well that it didn’t seem predictable so much as inevitable.

7. Better than many “serious” fantasy movies I’ve seen at depicting what day-to-day life would be like in a world filled with magic.

I almost never like depictions of magic in movies or television, because it always comes across as too rigid in its rules and systems to still be magical, or so completely arbitrary in its rules that it becomes meaningless.

Dungeons and Dragons is one of the main reasons that we even think of magic as having rigid rules and systems in the first place, so I wasn’t expecting anything new here. I admit I did find myself frequently thinking, they’ve already used all their daily spell slots! but it passed quickly as I noticed the interesting ways the story depicted magic as utilitarian but still fantastic.

There’s a clever scene pretty early on that shows us the scale of what people in the Forgotten Realms would find fantastic or surprising, and what wouldn’t impress them at all. (“A five-year-old could do that!”) But even more importantly, the movie establishes that it doesn’t care about the wonder or spectacle of magic as much as the usefulness of it. The most spectacular thing isn’t casting a spell, but finding a clever use for it.

8. It had already won me over early on, so I could just enjoy it in the same way that I used to enjoy movies.

I’d heard plenty of good things about Honor Among Thieves, so I had a good feeling I was going to at least enjoy it. But by the end of the opening sequence, once we’d finally been introduced to Jarnathan, the movie had already won me over. All the hyper-critical parts of my brain happily shut up for a couple of hours and let me watch the movie the way I used to as a teenager.

In fact, every time the movie jumped into a new setting, or set up a new extended action sequence, I kept being reminded of how I felt being at the theater during the “golden age” of action movies when I was a teenager. Seeing things like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Big Trouble in Little China and marveling at how they seemed to keep topping themselves. I thoroughly and completely enjoyed Honor Among Thieves in a way I haven’t enjoyed movies in a very long time.

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    A Tabaxi, according to the wiki
  • 2
    Both in screenwriting and in D&D terms

Stay a while longer, and listen some more

Thoughts about Diablo 4 after the open beta, and how much storytelling is actually “necessary” in one of the most successful game series of all time

Featured image for this post is from the Diablo IV website.

Last weekend, I played through a little bit of the Diablo IV open beta — long enough to get past the tutorial section, but not long enough to form any kind of solid opinion on the game overall. Disclosure: one of my friends has been working on it, so I’m not going to do any kind of real “review” of it, even after I’ve played it for much longer. I will say that I enjoyed the beta a lot, and while it was probably inevitable that I’d end up buying the game no matter what, I’m actually looking forward to getting back into it now.

But while I was playing through Diablo IV, I was struck with the uneasy realization: this franchise isn’t made for me! I don’t mean that in the usual sense where any white American male gets uneasy when confronted with any media that isn’t made specifically for him. I mean that I’ve put dozens if not hundreds of hours into the Diablo games over the years, more than any video games apart from The Sims and maybe SimCity and Civilization, but I don’t think I’m the target audience at all.

I just play these games as single-player action/adventures. I don’t care at all about min/maxing. I’m actively repulsed by multiplayer. I don’t pay much attention to weapon or armor stats, beyond the slot-machine “this number is higher than that number” dopamine hit that forms the basis of all Diablo games. I don’t care about the ideal build of a character, only about what’s the most fun to use to smash shit up. And I play the games for the story.

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