30 January 2013

Point-and-Click for Dummies

Some people get nostalgic when they have to use pen & paper when playing a videogame, whether it's to make your own map or work out a puzzle or even just write down the solution. There was a lot of genuine excitement when the developers of Grimrock included a printable PDF of custom graph paper for people to use in lieu of the game's built-in map function. I even remember the original MYST coming with a blank notebook. If I think further back, I remember someone at a neighbor's house handing me a memo pad when I sat down to play one of the Carmen Sandiego games to work out the clues. 

I'm not a very smart person. I'm really not. 

I was a "B" student through most of middle school, high school, and the entirety of college. That may sound like a decent achievement, but it was arduous and painful. I was in Honors Algebra I in high school, and I would often be at my desk, my forehead pressed against the paper (as if trying to will the answers into existence) in tears. I'd stare at a jar of broken pencils, trying to keep things in perspective and not let it all get to me. The reasons why I struggled so much are many and varied, much of it owed to the kinds of mixed signals parents often unknowingly send to their kids when it comes to expectations. In short, unless I was told so, I wasn't allowed to be okay with anything. If I was too calm about something, I'd be chastised for not taking things seriously. If I beat myself up about something, I'd be told to calm down and keep things in perspective. There was no middle ground, the choices being to either make mountains out of molehills or get them made for me. Failure was almost always chalked up to simply not trying hard enough or wanting to win enough. 

I bring this up because I gave Machinarium a try. It's a point-and-click adventure game where you solve puzzles to get past certain obstacles and progress farther in the story. You'll gather items, talk to people (robots), you'll move things around, you'll read little schematics or symbols. The game is broken up into individual screens (sometimes two or more) of either a single room or series of rooms, each one a puzzle unto itself, with one rarely carrying over into the other. I solved the first one easy enough, but the second one resulted in me doing a search for a solution. At first, my reaction was "well, duh." but then I stopped and asked, "Well, how would I have known I could do that?" Often the solutions in these games come as a result of getting mad and clicking on anything and everything, eventually discovering the solution completely by accident. This was not a good start. 

The next puzzle involved flipping a series of switches to lower a beam to climb on. I kept trying to work out how the symbols on the switches corresponded to actions, eventually working something out that only really held up about one in every five times. I should have felt proud for solving it without the walkthrough, but I wasn't. 

To its credit, Machinarium will hold your hand on occasion, but it does so in a novel way I've never really seen before. In the upper right corner of the screen are two icons, one a question mark that isn't selectable (how this is made otherwise is never all that clear) showing a simple illustration of what should be done in order to progress. The other icon is for a notebook with a curious electronic lock. In fact, it's less a lock and more of a minigame. You suddenly get to play as a small, flying key shooting at spiders while scrolling left to right until you reach the keyhole at the end of the stage. If you complete this scrolling shooter (my favorite videogame genre, by the way), you get a rather beautifully illustrated set of storyboards revealing the solution to the screen's puzzle. In other words, it gives you the answer, but it makes you work for it. It's very novel. 

The detail of these answers varies at times, often only telling you that something is a puzzle, but not actually showing you how to solve the sliding block or red wire/black wire problem, leaving that up to you. This is where I start to develop a complex and almost abusive relationship with the game; I should be having fun, I enjoy taking on a challenge, I know there's no real pressure, and I know there's no one around to point and laugh when I need to take a few extra steps than most. So, why does the idea of getting out pen & paper feel so defeating? There was a puzzle I absolutely couldn't figure out. It was like that wolf-chicken-feed puzzle but with way more flora and fauna. The shmup hint book gave me the solution, but instead of writing it down, I tried memorizing it, even checking back every few steps. It didn't work. I started to get up to get some scratch paper and a pen, only to feel very depressed. 

I turned off the game, resolving to just come back later. Unfortunately, like I said, giving up (even briefly, with resolve to return, and after trying my best) doesn't sit well with me. It brings back a painful memory, a fight I had with someone. Someone has a go at you in frustration, and says something hurtful. The memory itself is really nothing special, certainly nothing traumatic, but it's one of those lingering echoes that comes back to haunt you at the worst possible time. A harmless little remark over a game of chess or basketball or Mario suddenly becomes this metaphor for your whole life (even though the person who made this remark is barely older than you). Worse is when someone else comes along to tell the self-appointed life coach to back off, only to turn the mess into a full-on battle of the wills. Doors get slammed, chess pieces get picked up, power buttons get pressed, apologies are made, and you try not to go to bed angry. 

Machinarium is a game that makes me very sad, but not for the reasons it probably wants me to be. 

26 January 2013

Let That Donut Be On Your Head

My little nod to The Spoony One:
In doing research for tabletop games, I came upon Noah Antwiler's episode of Counter Monkey discussing the logistics of confronting The Lady of Pain. In explaining exactly what Planescape is, how it works (or doesn't work, depending on your understanding of physics), and why one should fear the aforementioned lady, he analogized the City of Doors (Sigil) as a donut atop an asymptote overlooking a giant pizza. Well, I'd been making pizzas left and right the past few weeks (the one pictured's toppings include green olives and golden tomatoes, if you're curious), so I picked up a box of cake donuts, and started snapping. The comic panels came a bit later, as I was working on my writing project at the time, but the story was more or less always there.

The maze was a pain, but still really fun to draw, even if it completely ignores many of the basics of perspective. On the other hand, I was really, really unhappy with how my Lady of Pain turned out. There's a reason I don't draw people, even people with masks; the proportions never look right to me, and it's really hard to make a feminine face without resorting to full, pouty lips or simply drawing the face in profile. Anyway, the other character is a stick figure, so let it be known I'll always play to my strengths whenever I can, for better or for worse.

25 January 2013

A Christian Atheist and a Communist Republican walk into a bar...

Recently, Leland Yee told the San Francisco Chronicle that gamers had absolutely no credibility in any and all discussions regarding the regulation of the sale of videogames. This is akin to saying women have no say in healthcare discussions regarding birth control. As controversial as that statement may be, something a little more absurd came up in the comments to this particular article on Kotaku, from a user by the name of MassIdiocy:

For those who haven't read the gist of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association check it out at oyez.com. To be entirely honest, I sort of agree with Leland Yee and here's why: There's absolutely nothing unconstitutional about banning video games. Allow me to explain.
The 1st Amendment protects people's right to free speech for purposes of political dissent. It doesn't protect "smut" or violent media. For those commentors out their that believe SCotUS is infallible I'd suggest looking at some of their old decisions: What the Court thinks is "Unconsitutional" has been wildly different depending on who was presiding. If we accept that the Court is always right we have to accept decisions like Dredd Scott and Plessy as legitimate in their time, right?
I'm a gamer and ardent libertarian but the decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association doesn't make any sense (I think Thomas' dissent has it right). If we want to say that California has the right to pass legislation legalizing marijuana, it should also have the right to pass legislation to band (sic) the sale of games to minors.
I know that young, digitally-minded types get up-in-arms over content restriction but it is our duty as citizens to also understand the founding principles of our Constitution and apply them consistent with their intent. When Leland Yee says, "gamers have no credibility in this argument" I can't help but wonder if this is what he's talking about.

I may be a political moron, but I have a fairly good idea as to what being a libertarian entails. In broad terms, the party shares a number of core beliefs with the political philosophy of objectivism. I consider myself an objectivist in many ways, namely in my support of artists' rights, including the notion that they be allowed to take as many creative risks as possible, regardless of social norms or arbitrary authorities, allowing the lasseiz faire school of capitalism to leave matters with the power of the consumers and their dollar votes. To that end, the very idea of a game being banned or even restricted outside of a voluntary self-regulating system such as the ESRB, is all but the very definition of unconstitutional.

Mass idiocy is working under the premise that the first amendment ONLY protects political speech. This premise is sound if one has no idea how to interpret conjunctions in a sentence. The first amendment is a list of items, separated by semicolons (to distinguish from the commas in the items in the sequence), wherein each item can stand alone in the absence of others.

Freedom of Religion.
Freedom of Speech.
Freedom of the Press.
Freedom to Peaceably Assemble.
Freedom to Petition the Government.

These are not all the same thing, though they are linked by all having to do with self-expression in a verbal context. To his credit, though, he does bring up a point in one of his replies that the amendments of the constitution neither exist in nor were created in a vacuum. Interpretation of laws often has a lot to do with the political climate and public opinion. Once upon a time, it was the opinion of the people, and by extent those they'd voted into power, that the sale of alcohol should be prohibited. I think we all know how well that ended up. The point is though that laws are generally designed to be vague and open to interpretation, that they might adapt more easily to changing times. The right of people to own guns was meant to empower people to form militias against invading foreign armies back in the early days of the United States, but now can mean protection from any threat to one's home or person, nationality of the assailant notwithstanding.
Similarly, the founding fathers had no concept of the internet, but that doesn't mean the web is an exception anymore than television, radio, motion pictures, or any other form of mass communication that didn't exist in 1792.
This is all old hat and Government 101. The debate about what the government can or cannot do can go on for hours because of several factors. At the end of the day, the biggest issue most people, myself included, are taking with MassIdiocy is that he's saying the government has the right to ban videogames by way of legislation and regulation, all under the banner of him being a libertarian. Libertarians believe people should self-regulate on all but a few matters instead of relying on muscle from the government to protect them. Restricting free trade of items sold to consumers by private enterprises by way of majority votes and court rulings is a complete contradiction to that philosophy, simple as that.

19 January 2013

You Needn't Fear

You Needn't Fear by *NeuronPlectrum on deviantART

Tried something different with this one, albeit it started as just faffing about instead of working on other stuff. I put the watermark below the image instead of over it (I'll have to figure out how to put a drop shadow on text in GIMP) and I also submitted this directly to my Tumblr page (instead of just using the share buttons on the Deviation page). I don't quite agree with the notion that Tumblr is a good place to post art in lieu of either DeviantART or the like. At least, I don't think it's a good place to post art exclusively. I may write more about this sentiment, but not right now.

UPDATE: And just for the sake of redundancy (and entertaining the possibility of using Blogger as well as Tumblr to post artwork directly, here's what the image would look like if uploaded directly here).

10 January 2013

Princess Discipline (Free Preview)

ARGUMENT: The following story contains scenes which may be unsuitable for those of sensitive dispositions or ideologies (though frankly, Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew is racier). Despite the subject matter, it is at least a conceit, and should at most be taken as a fable wherein the sexes and genders of the characters therein are ultimately irrelevant.

I. I'd better knock, I suppose. 
The ride was rough, hardly to her ladyship's liking. Then again, anything that wasn't a flying carpet, which the royal scholars continually insisted to her highness were impossible, was not to her ladyship's liking. The worst part of the trek was that the coach driver only left her outside the gatehouse of the marquis' manor without so much as announcing her presence. In fact, she'd hardly had a chance to step down properly from the coach before he took off, causing her to trip. After collecting herself, straightening her hood, and dusting off her blue dress, she looked around to see if anything had fallen. Luckily, the only thing dropped was a brown envelope her father gave her before sending her off. 
She turned the letter of introduction over and over again in her hands, the wax seal embossed with her father's signet ring staring back at her. She could tell he'd practically punched a hole in his desk sealing it, as if knowing his anger and disappointment would embed itself in the wax and scream all that he wanted to say to her on his behalf. She considered breaking the seal to see exactly what the letter said. She had an idea of what it might have said, and certainly knew why she was being sent to the Marquis, even if she didn't see the issue with importuning daily the royal scholars on the practicality of flying carpets, among other things. 
Thinking better of prying, confident that her father would not dare speak ill of her behind her back, she tucked the letter into the inner pocket of her hooded cape, and approached the gatehouse's wrought iron bars. There was no light emanating from inside the gatehouse, and some of the windows were cracked. In all, the entire facade seemed laughable, not just for the disrepair and clear abandonment, but also for the bars of the gate being spaced quite far apart. It was still something of a squeeze for her to get through, though that was mostly because of her dress, which she stopped to adjust again on the other side. She stood staring at the manor house, which sat atop a small hill surrounded by broken grave markers. Even in the late afternoon's light, it was hardly cozy or inviting in appearance. The princess wasn't going to let that get to her, so she cast aside her fear and unease, straightened up, and nobly strut toward the main entrance, holding her head high and confidently. She only broke pace to lift up her dress and navigate the rather awkwardly-assembled stairs put into the hillside. At the top, instead of simply a short and straight path to the door, there was a sort of lip made of discarded masonry running across the path in front of the main door. When she approached it, she could see that between the stones and the door was a rather ornate red carpet that seemed most out of place. She leaned over and studied the weaving. It was immaculate, without a hint of having been left to the elements. She wondered if they'd simply thrown it out, leaving it for a servant to take away somewhere, but that wouldn't explain the row of stones. Speaking of which, the princess' dress made it rather hard for her to step over the stones. Unfortunately, a quick glance around revealed the entire perimeter of the house to be surrounded by a tall fence, bars far too narrow to squeeze through, making this the only practical path inside. The princess huffed at the inconvenience, and took the obstacle as a challenge. 
She stepped back, knelt slightly, braced herself, and leaped over the stones in a triumphant sprint. She would have landed quite softly on the ornate red carpet in front of her if it hadn't given way beneath her feet, coming up all around her as she fell into the hole it had been covering, almost muffling her surprised scream.
Another version of her entry goes thusly:
The doors were very tall and seemed far too heavy to be opened by one person. It seemed almost pointless to knock. She remembered leaving her room once without telling anyone, then coming back just in time to catch one of her handmaids tapping gently on her door with one finger and counting that as making an effort to deliver the princess a message she really didn't want to deliver. Now, the lady found herself in the exact same position, racking her brain for an excuse not to enter, trying to think of how to make it look like she'd tried to make her presence known. She almost regretted having that handmaid thrown in the dungeon for a month. She looked around, thinking in vain that she'd spot someone trying to catch her in the act as she had the other day. Finally, she took a deep breath, raised her hand, and brought down a fist on the door. She did this twice more and waited. She pressed an ear up against the door to try and listen for the footsteps of a servant, hearing none. The moment she stepped back, there was a sudden creaking as the door opened very slowly, stopping when it was just ajar enough that whoever opened it could peer out and greet a guest. Nothing of the sort happened, and the princess stared at the crack angrily, resenting that she'd have to squeeze through it as she'd done with the gate. She let out a groan and stomped toward the door, stopping suddenly to lean forward and peer inside. It was almost totally dark, except for a circle of light a short distance into the foyer, a patch of red carpet lit overhead by a chandelier surrounded by a cowl of iron plates to focus the light downward. As peculiar as it was, it was the most inviting part of her ordeal thus far, and she took it as a cue to step inside. She didn't bother trying to close the door behind her and walked toward the light, her heels making muffled footfalls on the red carpet. 
As she got closer, she saw that the spotlight was on a high, narrow table, curiously surrounded by a haphazard assortment of silken pillows on the floor. The princess lifted her skirt and carefully stepped over them as she made her way to the table. She stopped in front of it, and took stock of the items on it. There was a glass goblet, a silver tray with a piece of parchment on it, and a green bottle containing what she guessed was wine. She looked around, finding no one, then turned her attention back to the bottle as a mischievous grin spread across her face. Suddenly, she felt this trip just got interesting. Her father had expressly forbid her so much as a sip of champagne on the first day of the new year, and now she was being presented with a full bottle of wine. She tossed the letter of introduction on the tray and reached for the bottle. She started to pull out the cork to take a sniff when she noticed the piece of parchment on the tray, peering out from under the letter. It wasn't in an envelope, and it most certainly didn't have a seal carrying parental dismay, all of which was more than enough reason for her to pull it out from under the letter and see what it had to say. 
The note only said two words, "Drink Up." She felt she should have been offended at the commanding tone, but decided to take it for the invitation that it was. Tossing the note aside, she uncorked the flask, poured herself a glass, pinched the stem with her thumb and forefinger whilst firmly extending her pinky, took a dainty little sniff, and finally gulped the entire goblet's worth of wine. She put the bottle and glass down, then folded her arms and thought a moment, attempting to reconcile the sweet bouquet she'd sniffed and the dry bitterness she swallowed, only for her thoughts to suddenly get very muddled. She put a hand to her temple and shut her eyes, trying to think straight. She knew she'd get a bit woozy from the drink, but not so quickly, certainly not so severely. She tried to open her eyes, but found it difficult, as though they were weighed down. It was all she could do to squint, just barely making out the table in front of her, which suddenly rocked back and forth in front of her. She reached out a hand to grasp the table and stop its aberrant behavior, her thoughts too slow to realize she was losing her balance. 
She was out cold before her head hit the pillows.
There is yet another version detailing her entry. It involves the dropping of a net, but it's hardly worth exploring.

II. You're a Feisty Little One...
The princess awoke to a nightmarish image of her own body floating sideways before her in a void, head and arms missing. The entire blurry spectacle was framed by curious gray bars flecked in reddish-brown spots. She even saw what she thought were her own legs walking back and forth behind her favorite blue dress, as if searching for their fellow missing limbs. She tried calling out, but words failed her, and even the thought of her own second-guessing of talking to a pair of disembodied legs made her temples pulse with pain. The dizziness became unbearable. She tried to make herself calm, but thinking the very word made her feel anything but. The legs walked in front of the dress, revealing a dark shape, almost cloud-like, hovering over them, blotting out the dismembered body behind it. The blur got worse and there was an overwhelming sensation of falling over. The princess closed her eyes, feeling nothingness envelop her, casting aside all sensations.END OF PREVIEW

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