What Day Is It?

I kid. I’m mostly sure it’s Saturday.

Mostly.

Kinda wild that another week has already gone by. Couldn’t tell you what I’ve been doing, just because it’s the thing where days tend to blur together, kinda like how summer days used to back when you were a teenager only with less time spent going outside and more existential dread. Fun times.

I’ve been doing stuff, to be sure. Reading, cooking, supposedly writing; stuff like that. Been playing video games too, and not just playing Star Wars Battlefront II while listening to podcasts, either (though certainly a lot of that).

I’m a huge fan of game maker Hideo Kojima. His Metal Gear Solids are truly singular in how wildly bonkers they are and with how committed they are to their bits. They’re games about nanomachine-enhanced soldiers, using ketchup as fake blood, and the ramifications of mutually assured nuclear destruction. The second game is a serious exploration of meme theory and the permeation of culture into a person’s psyche and their need to act it out wrapped up in a story involving clones, a roller-skating bomb man, and giant mechs. Trust me when I say these games are ridiculous and thoughtful at the same time, sometimes spinning between the two ends in a matter of minutes.

Death Standing is his latest game, one I’ve been eagerly waiting for since it was announced. The game’s borderline nonsensical, but it’s so committed to its nonsense that it somehow makes sense. I’ve talked about it before on this blog, about running deliveries in an isolated, disparate, post-apocalyptic America (and how that’s oddly prescient given where we are now).

I’m over seventy hours into the game, which is testament to how much time I’ve on my hands these days, but also pretty impressive since it’s a game I’ve only been playing with my girlfriend so it’s on her, too. Somehow, this plot involving stillborn fetuses being able to bridge the gap between life and death has just gotten weirder as it’s gone on, but it’s a game so sure of itself you can’t help but to get sucked into its melodrama and want to come along for the ride. It helps that the game’s central themes are so clearly on its sleeve; Death Stranding isn’t a game about death and life so much as it is one about the connections between people and a meditation on ways that people stay connected — like the internet. And then there’s Mads Mikkelsen playing, well, it’s almost a spoiler to say who he is, but he just adds to the madness in a fantastic way.

I’m someone who has trouble sitting still. Binging movies and tv is hard for me, since I have this antsy need to be doing something. So video games are a wonderful diversion for me, as they’re a medium where I feel like I’m taking an active part in stuff. And I’m so glad that there are games like Death Stranding to occupy my time, the sort of art (yes, art) that’s so specific and singular and fills me with joy.

See you in seven days, which should be Saturday again.

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Day Thirteen

‘sup?

Today is, more or less, day thirteen of my self-imposed quarantine/isolation. I’m not sick, but as someone who’s in a position to take themself out of the equation of contagiousness, I elected to do so. Social responsibility and all that.

In the time since, New York has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the US, with the City itself being a hub within it all. It’s a lot to take in; like knowing that a few neighborhoods over there’s a hospital that’s operating in crisis mode. I’m lucky in that me and mine are safe and sound, some of us are working from home, some are on paid leave, but some have had to file for unemployment. But we know it could be worse for all of us, and we know that others aren’t nearly so lucky.

I go on walks now and then, both because I’m told I need sunlight and exercise, but also because I need groceries and wanna get takeout from places that are still offering. Being outside in my neighborhood is surreal. Lots of places are closed, which is sad to see even if they’re places I usually don’t frequent. The diner I go to most weekends stopped offering takeout earlier this week and has a sign on their door saying they’re closed indefinitely. So too went the ramen joint I like and the restaurant I live over.  A coffeeshop I adore and served me many a ginger-tinged coffee during NaNoWriMo is selling its beans in bulk before they close this weekend.

Throughout all this, I can’t help but wonder how this will all look when the pandemic is finally over, whether it’s several weeks or several months from now. Will that diner reopen? Will the staff still be there? It feels a selfish question, but it’s a place where I know a lot of the staff by name and have holed up with a book and endless coffee for hours, and truth be told, I miss that. Plus, I’ve a soft-spot for hole-in-the-wall eats and I’m loath to lose one, especially one like this. Feels like there’s so much in the air right now.

It’s funny. There’s a part of me that’s taken pop-culture’s obsession with New York as being just a trope that works. Yeah, aliens invade the City; yeah, that’s where the Ghostbusters operate; yeah, that’s where all the supervillains are for Spider-Man to fight. Seemed like Washington State was gonna be the big one for the Covid outbreak, but, no, it’s here in New York. Guess there is some truth in television to it all.

But again, I consider myself lucky. The supply chain to New York is robust, so I’m not worried about running out of food and other supplies. So long as the infrastructure holds up, FaceTime and Google Hangouts can afford a sort of companionship. I’m not worried about myself making it through this storm, but I do worry for those who aren’t as privileged. For those who still have to go in to work at grocers and hospitals, for those out of a job and those who might not have a job when this is over.

I don’t know what sort of conclusion to draw here, at the end of this rambling blog post. But be thankful for what you’ve got. And please, if you can, stay home and stay safe. Let’s get through this whole thing.

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Quarantined

To stem the rising tide of a pandemic, the residents of New York are put under lockdown. Life in the city grinds to a halt; no one goes into work and restaurants and bars are limited to take-out only options. News chyrons speak of medication being shipped to cities and team games being banned.

Who would’ve seen March 2020 looking like some B-Movie from the 80s?

It’s a time that I’ve been filling with watching movies, playing video games, and playing board games with friends. And reading too, because it’s a good time to be curled up with a book and a cup of coffee (I’m reading Ken Liu’s The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, if you’re curious).

I’ve really taken a liking to Legacy-style board games. These are the ones that every game impacts the next one and rules develop as you go. You get to name characters and mechanics get added and changed. Pandemic Legacy has been a lot of fun, because Pandemic is a fun board game anyway and it’s a little topical now given the whole, y’know, worldwide pandemic. Given the opportunity to name the diseases, we naturally chose to name one Corona and, keeping with the theme, the other three Budweiser, Miller, and Guinness. Because theming.

A fun bonus of it is that it’s a cooperative board game, so rather than conspiring against each other (which believe me is one of my favorite things), you’re working together against whatever’s going wrong in the game. It makes for a fun tabletop experience because you’re united with a common goal. It also makes for a gaming experience that’s built more around puzzling and problem solving than usurpation, which is a fun part of the brain to exercise.

Tonight we’re gonna take a stab at the Legacy version of Betrayal At The House On The Hill, another game that lets you play together alongside each other until the Haunt begins at which point it becomes competitive. All the same, it makes for a fun time.

Of course, to play with people outside of my apartment is another affair, but we find a way. Like streaming Jackbox’s Quiplash through Twitch and setting up a Google Hangout for everyone to play together. Sure, the eight-or-so of us are all in different places, but there’s still that community of doing something together and laughing at the same jokes. Feels not too unlike everyone sitting on a couch together somewhere.

Another friend of mine is putting together some Dungeons and Dragons campaigns over Discord, which, again, though not the same as everyone sitting around a table with beers and chips, still makes for a cool simulacrum of the actual experience. We’re all still cracking jokes and riffing off each other, just not in person.

Community is such an odd thing; it’s something that you can’t really quantify but you know when it’s not there. I recognize its loss when I walk past shuttered stores and empty restaurants to grab pickup from a place I dearly hope is still open after all this blows over. It’s liable that things will look more than a little different when all the dust settles. Community will probably look a bit different, and I think we’ll really learn that we don’t have to actually be together to be together.

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Alone Together

I’m a big fan of escapism. Not the sort where you bury your head in the sand and ignore the world around you; the sort where you pay attention to what’s going on then seek out solace in entertainment. Call it self-care, call it recharging; but I believe that part of being an informed member of society is knowing when to disengage for a bit.

So it’s times like this that I really enjoy a good video game, in this case, Death Stranding. Because what better way to escape the current headlines than by playing a video game in which communities are isolated and it’s up to you, Sam Porter Bridges, to bring necessary supplies to these holdouts and help reconnect them to the greater world. In a world where no one’s going outside for fear of what it portends; you’re the one who can help bring everyone together.

It’s a lonely game too. Sam’s out there in the American wilds by himself. Most of the people he makes deliveries too he talks to via hologram, even though they’re sharing the same space they aren’t really there. The only people Sam actually comes into contact are the hostile MULEs, who  you have to fight, and the enigmatic Fragile, with whom Sam isn’t willing to get too close to. You’re alone out there.

Except, you’re not.

Death Stranding is actually a multiplayer game. You don’t interact with other people directly as in other games; you don’t pass someone else running deliveries out there. The multiplayer aspect in Death Stranding is very passive, and also very wonderful and tied into the way the game works.

Transporting cargo is difficult. The terrain is unforgiving, with rivers and cliffs impeding progress at every turn. There are ways to get around this; a well-placed ladder can help you ford a river, a climbing anchor makes it safer to descend from a cliff’s edge. You can carry a PCC with you that can be used to build structures, like generators to recharge vehicles’ batteries, bridges to get those vehicles over rivers, or shelters to wait out the dangerous Timefall and repair damaged cargo.

What’s cool is that these structures aren’t limited to your own game state. Ladders you place and bridges you build are shared among other players, meaning that CoffeeMan69’s ladder could make your trip that much easier. You can also upgrade and repair others’ structures, so if ol’ Coffee’s bridge is falling apart you can contribute materials to repair it. Roads that scatter the terrain require a lot of materials to be built, and constructing an entire network usually means a few people coming together to get it done.

It’s such a terrifically subtle form of multiplayer that has you really appreciating the other people playing the game. I’ll never see CapnCasper in the game, but I’ll be eternally grateful for the bike they left behind that made my delivery that much easier. Though there’s a small gameplay benefit to helping others out, it’s mostly to better the community as a whole. That bridge you build won’t just help you, but any other player who comes across it. You should help build that road ‘cuz it will make everyone’s life that much easier.

Death Stranding is a game that’s, in part, about being stranded from society, about being alone but still doing what you can. You, the player, though, aren’t alone. You’re part of a community of other players all working towards the same goal. It’s a reminder that even if you’re stranded alone out there, you’re not really alone when you’re at it alongside someone else.

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Conjuring Worlds

I had the opportunity to go to a talk by one of my favorite authors this week. In the Rare Books Room at The Strand, Ken Liu talked about his new short story collection, the art of translating, and the process of crafting sci-fi and fantasy worlds.

Worldbuilding, as the process is called, is a fundamental part of any work of fiction — particularly genre work that takes place in a world not quite like our own. You can’t just say “there are wizards” and call it a day since the reader (or viewer or player) probably won’t have much of an idea as to what that entails. What kind of world is it?

Though the idea of worldbuilding gets thrown around a lot with regards to science fiction and fantasy, it’s present in any work. Maycomb, Alabama of To Kill A Mockingbird is a very specific place and so needs to be developed thus. It might not need a firm idea of how faster-than-light travel works, but we still need to have a firm grasp of what Maycomb is like. For a reader who’s never left Liverpool, it may as well be another world. When people say that Harper Lee really brought Maycomb to life, what they mean is she did some topnotch worldbuilding.

Even landmark places like New York need worldbuilding. Sure, everyone knows something about the city by cultural osmosis, but there’s always gonna be the question of which New York we’re dealing with. Is it the grungy one of Taxi Driver? The one rife with adventure J exists in Men In Black? The one that you see in How I Met Your Mother or the one in Spider-Man Homecoming? You still have to create the city so the audience knows what they’re dealing with.

Granted, it’s definitely easier to create a town in Alabama than to weave Middle-earth from the air. Worldbuilding an entirely imaginary place takes work, in part due to having to take the audience on the leap past reality with you. Middle-earth isn’t real, but Tolkien made it feel real.

During his talk, Ken Liu described it instead as ‘world conjuring’ (a term he borrowed from writer Jo Walton). The distinction is that building implies making something concrete for others to see, whereas conjuring belies the act of weaving something out of nothing; it might not be perfectly solid, but like an image in the smoke it’s there.

Reading — and really most forms of storytelling — is a collaborative process between the author and the reader. The author throws up characters and concepts, and it’s up to the reader to engage with it. The Lord of The Rings won’t land for you if you find elves and dwarves to be hokey nonsense. The mindset behind world conjuring is to lean into that when it comes to creating your world; not everything needs to be spelled out, let the reader fill in the gaps. After all, whatever they come up with will most likely be cooler for them than whatever you could prescribe.

Star Wars conjures up an amazing world. There are so many ideas thrown out with little explanation that aren’t vital for the story but clue the audience into the existence of a world out there. Ben Kenobi fought in the Clone Wars. Threepio frets about the Spice Mines of Kessel. The Imperial Senate has been dissolved. These are small details that conjure up images in the viewer’s head of a world far bigger than what is being shown on screen, and it all seems a little more real.

Worldbuilding is no mean feat. It requires a tremendous amount of imagination and logic to come up with it and keep it all straight. The idea behind world conjuring allows for the onus of creation to be shared between two imaginations, and the world produced the combined result. It requires the creator to share ownership of their world with the reader, and in so doing invite them in. Conjure up enough of an image and the reader will fill in their blanks as they will, and in so doing make the fictional real.

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Just Quadrilaterals

Thomas Was Alone is a game about rectangles. Okay, there are some squares, but all the characters in the game are basic colored quadrilateral polygons. The story of theses characters is one that will make you feel things you wouldn’t expect a story about colored quadrilateral polygons to make you feel.

Gameplay-wise, Thomas is a fairly straightforward platformer. You, as Thomas or another one of the shapes, jump and maneuver your way upwards and to the right. Like any platformer, really. Mario, MegaMan, Sonic; you’re almost always moving to the right. Nothing special there. Where Thomas Was Alone shines is in its narrative cladding. Chapters are given a small preamble that reads like developer’s notes on a project or excerpts from a later book on the events of the game. They’re snippets of flavor text that set the game in a bigger scale, they tell of the kindling of true Artificial Intelligence and of selflessness. But that’s not where the meat of the story comes in.


It’s the narration, presented clear and wry by Danny Wallace, that really communicates the story. In each level, the narrator tells us what the characters are thinking (“Thomas was alone. What a weird first thought to have.”) as they move through the level. Now, the old adage does say to show, not tell, and Thomas Was Alone does a fair amount of telling, in that it’s through the narration that we find out that Thomas is an inquisitive rectangle who makes notes of his observations, or that Claire wants to be a superhero, or that Chris and Laura are falling for each other. The narrator tells this, and so we ascribe these emotions and intentions to the plain rectangles doing the most basic of platforming.

As humans, we intrinsically interpret events as stories and narratives. Not just in our own lives, but in what we see happening. In 1944 Marianne Simmel and Fritz Heider published An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior wherein the showed a simple animation of a bunch of shapes moving about the screen and had observers describe what happened. Despite the animation being crude and, uh, just shapes, stories were described of violence and heartbreak; shapes were described as being mean or scared.

Again, this is all just shapes.

But we as people have a tendency to not just tell stories, but to anthropomorphize the world around us. When we see a big triangle closing in on a small circle, we ascribe motivations to those actions and shapes, just attribution theory says we do it to people. We find a narrative, we find a story.

While the narration of Thomas Was Alone does much of the narrative legwork, the gameplay serves to reinforce it. In the beginning, Thomas is alone, but when he meets the other characters, the platforming gets a little more tricky. The shapes need to work together to keep going upwards and to the right; maybe John needs to jump on Thomas to reach a switch so that Chris can get to the end; maybe everyone needs to balance on Sarah to make it across the toxic water. The gameplay reinforces the narrative idea that the shapes need each other because you need each one to be able to beat each level. Also, the personalities that the narrator prescribes to each shape stick, not just because of our human need to anthropomorphize, but because each shape has a different color and shape, behaves differently, and makes a different noise when they jump. Thomas and Sarah feel different when you’re controlling them, and so they feel like individuals. It all works together.

That Thomas Was Alone is able to tell a genuinely moving story through shapes and basic platforming a testament to both Mike Bithell’s game design and the human capacity for empathy and storytelling. We like stories, we like being moved. And that’s even if it’s just colored quadrilaterals.

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Walking Game

I’ve finally started playing Death Stranding and it is delightful and weird and everything I want it to be. Basically, you play as a Porter, bringing things from A to B, by walking and sometimes balancing your load. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic America after the Death Stranding put a hold to civilization and isolated everyone. It’s up to Sam (you) to reconnect the United Cities of America by visiting various outposts and connecting each Strand and Knot together (get it?). There’s also the mysterious Timefall, a rain that speeds up time on all it touches, a consistent danger in the world that’s heralded by an inverted rainbow. Also, BTs, which are, um, ghosts(?) that follow you by your breathing. And a fetus strapped to his chest that helps you sense those BTs but also has memories of its own. And if a BT grabs hold of a living person they can create a massive explosion that obliterates everything around it. But not Sam, since he’s a repatriate and able to come back to life.

Like I said, the game’s fricking weird.

And oh how I love it.

I’m only a few hours in, but I know I’m in for a ride. In part because director/writer/producer/auteur Hideo Kojima proved in the Metal Gear Solid games that he is a man with a vision. That vision may be totally bonkers and nuts, but he knows what he’s doing and you’re just along for the ride. I’ve been looking forward to Death Standing for years, so my personal hype makes sense, but I’m just so darn delighted by how completely devoted to its weird idiosyncrasies it is.

Perhaps it helps, then, that gameplay is so basic. You’re walking. Amidst all these complex themes (seriously, I found myself looking up chirality and knot theory on Wikipedia during my commute because of this game), the core mechanic is just going from A to B, traversing ridges and fording rivers and using a ladder to get a little higher. You’ve gotta load your gear just right so you don’t topple over, and toppling over is bad because you don’t want to damage whatever it is you’re transporting.

It’s simple.

But I know it’s gonna get more complex. Not just because I’ve seen trailers for the game that involve doing more than I’m doing now, but because that’s how video games work. You start off simple, with the basic mechanics of the game (in Death Stranding, it’s walking and balancing; in Super Mario Bros., that’s jumping and squashing goombas; in Breath of the Wild, it’s walking around and hitting things with sticks) and as the game goes on things get more complex (Wild gives you a hang glider, Mario has you swimming sometimes, Death Stranding, well, I’m not there yet).

A neat part of a well-made game is how the game gets more complex as it goes. It takes time, sure, but by the endgame, you’re managing a variety of systems and mechanics that would have been overwhelming at the get-go. Metal Gear Solid V starts you off with only a couple guns and a horse. Over time you’re able to deploy decoys, call in helicopters, have a sniper buddy, drive a tank, and play music on a Walkman. It’d be a lot to drop on you at once, so instead, the game paces it out, introduces you to things as they happen. The MegaMan games are like this too; with the platforming starting off simple and later stages throwing more curveballs at you and mixing things up as you go on, so by the time you reach the final stages you’re acing all that came before.

As of now, Death Stranding is a simple game with a lot of crazy ideas, and I know that simplicity is foundation for more interesting stuff later on. In the meantime, it’s a really weird game about walking and I am so here for it.

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