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Guess the Graph [Sep. 13th, 2014|02:02 pm]
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Gone Home vs. The Stanley Parable [Aug. 28th, 2014|12:54 pm]
So in the last two weeks I've played two of the most acclaimed indie releases of 2013: Gone Home (http://fullbright.company/gonehome/) and The Stanley Parable HD Remake (http://www.stanleyparable.com/). The two games are simultaneously very alike each other and very different from each other. It's hard not to compare-and-contrast the two games, so I will not resist that temptation.

Similarities:

* Both are first-person perspective games.
* Both were Honorable Mention for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the Independent Games Festival.
* Both are very limited in what first-person games generally let you do with the UI; you can crouch, but you can't jump. There are no weapons to pick up or use.
* There are few-to-none enemies or interactive actors in either game. There's no health meter, or even a concept of health (except for small parts where an internal health meter is used for a different purpose).
* In both games, you're playing/controlling a specific character (Katie in GH, and Stanley in TSP), as opposed to a personal avatar.
* Both games are narrative-driven. As you go around the environment, a disembodied voice (which does not represent the character you control) comes out and advances the narrative. The voice primarily talks to the character controlled by the player (as opposed to talking to the player).
* Both narratives are best appreciated without spoilers. It's pretty common for both games to be introduced by a friend saying "don't learn anything about this game before playing it." Of course, that may cause backlash if you are paying for the game and you end up not feeling it was worth the money.
* Both games have a singular geography. By that I mean that, unlike a traditional FPS, neither game explicitly punctuates its geography into different "levels"; you might go to different sections of the map, but they aren't numbered with checkpoints or missions. You can easily imagine the geography of each game just taking place in one building; it's not a wide-open area to explore.
* Both games can be finished relatively quickly. If you're satisfied with seeing 90% of everything in a game, you can do that in either game in just a few hours, probably without even needing to look up hint guides or spoilers. And since both games are narrative-driven, there's not much replay value unless you enjoy looking for secrets and easter eggs. (If you want to get 100% of the game without cheating, there are certain aspects of TSP that will make it impossible to do in a few hours.) Because of this, it's a common complaint from some players that "the game isn't worth your money" -- these are players who prefer their games to be more action based with replay-value.

Now, about those differences.

The two games were developed on different engines, by different people.

GH is a more cooperative vision; while the story was written by one person, many aspects of it were driven by contributions from the different artists. TSP is much more from a single developer's mind and fits the auteur model better.

GH is warm and human, as shown by its decision to use hand-written notes and text for its user interfact; TSP is more impersonal and cold, and uses bold even-weight fonts for its displays.

GH's player character and narrative voice are young women; TSP's player character and narrative voice are adult men. One could probably talk about this gender contrast quite a bit more, but I'll just leave it at this.

TSP pushes on humor and is very trope-aware, and is perfectly willing to break the fourth wall when it's funny. GH has bits of humor but it's always within the story, and the overall story does not have humor as a main goal.

But in some sense those differences pale in comparison to what I think is the most thought-provoking contrast of all.

Contrasting both games made me really think about the terms we use to describe the flow of a game. Usually there is a dichotomy between a "linear" story and a "non-linear" story; but I think that dichotomy fails when it's being used to contrast these two games.

There are two important things involved in telling a story. First, you need to have the building blocks: a setting, a plot, perhaps some characters, and events that happen -- a world, so to speak. Second, you need to have a narrative path -- a sequence where you lead your audience through this world that you've created, showing them some of those building blocks.

Traditional storytelling is monolithic and linear. By "monolithic" I mean that your building blocks in the story are fixed and unchangable. By "linear" I mean that the narrative path generally marches forward in time. Movies such as "Pulp Fiction" or "Memento" are monolithic but not linear; Honey Bunny always has the hold-up in the cafe, regardless of whether it's at the beginning or the end of the movie. Movies such as "Run Lola Run" or "Sliding Doors" are linear but not monolithic; time progresses the same way but we are shown different events that cannot exist in the same world. Of course there are going to be some impurities, even in traditional storytelling -- when one of your characters has a flashback, your story has a bit of non-linearity; when one of your characters has a dream, your story has a bit of non-monolithicness.

Gone Home is a good archetype of a monolithic non-linear narrative. There is a consistent history throughout the whole game; but that history is being revealed slowly and non-linearly by the decisions of the player. The player is a bit like a detective; you inspect artifacts and objects that reveal aspects of what happened, of what the truth is. But for that to work you need to have faith that there *is* a truth; that the rules of the world are logical and consistent -- in other words, that the story is monolithic. The player has choices, but all those choices affect are the narrative thread. You can learn about things in this order, or that order, but eventually you're learning about the same things. You can experience X before you experience Y, or the other way around; but you'll always have access to X or Y. Gone Home has one "ending"; a natural point where the designers feel that you've learned the important bits of the story.

The Stanley Parable is a good archetype of a linear non-monolithic narrative. You always start at the same point and you're always being pushed forward in the story, but your choices actually affect the nature of the world the story takes place in. There is no "true history" for you to discover through artifacts and observation; the game teases you with things that look like they might have consistency, but is perfectly willing to discard that consistency to make the narrative interesting. On the other hand, because the story has this freedom of non-monolithicness, the narrative thread then becomes linear. Doors close behind you, barring you from going back to where you came from. Unless you're at a specific "choice point", you generally have no choices that have any impact on the narrative. If you choose to experience X, then you'll never get to experience Y, or vice versa, because X and Y can't coexist in the same story. The Stanley Parable has 18 endings.

Because of this difference, another thing that struck me is how the meta-game mechanic of savegaming services or disservices both games. Gone Home's savegame system is pretty much invisible. You can save whenever you decide to stop playing, and pick up where you left off seamlessly. Since you can always go back and revisit things you missed, there's not much reason to restore a savegame. The Stanley Parable, on the other hand, because of its linear structure, means that if you don't use savegames, you'll have to experience the whole story from the beginning again if you want to try a different choice. Or you can save the game before the decision point -- but that's somewhat problematic because it breaks the linearity of the narrative. In some sense, TSP is better enjoyed by a player who is patient enough to relive the same starting aspects of the game over and over again (which is rather few players indeed). I am reminded of the old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, where the book wanted me to start each story from the beginning of the book, but I would always keep my fingers all fanned out at different decision pages and read different branches.

Overall, both games were highly enjoyable to me and I would recommend them both to anyone who likes narratives (and isn't super cost-conscious). If Gone Home is like experiencing a story through extended flashbacks, The Stanley Parable is like experiencing multiple dreams (or nightmares).
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Alphabrowsing [Mar. 19th, 2013|02:57 am]


An interesting experiment about web-browsing habits I just invented, which I'll call "Alphabrowsing":
1. Go to your web browser address bar, and type one letter.
2. Write down the first auto-complete suggestion the browser makes.
3. Do this for every letter.
4. Report on the results, especially commenting on which ones surprised you.

I, Q, and R are the most surprising ones to me. "I" was a place I stayed at a few months ago, but I guess there haven't been many other websites since then that start with I. "Q" I just looked at 30 minutes ago, for the first time. And "R" I check maybe every two months when the joking-around in the household gets blue -- but really, are there no other websites I visit more frequently that start with "R"?

I also made a simple pie chart categorizing the results. Note that I categorized things under the reason I go to the site, not necessarily the site's purpose. E.g., rule34.paheal.net is under "Humor" because I mostly use it for shock humor, and thesaurus.com is under "Puzzles" because I usually go there for some sort of puzzle research.

Here are the raw results:
http://apps.facebook.com
http://blackletterlabs.com
http://cracked.com
http://drive.google.com
http://erfworld.com
http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com
http://giantitp.com
http://hadonejob.com
http://innatparkside.com
http://joker.com
http://keepvid.com
http://leftoversoup.com
http://member.nikoli.com
http://nutrimatic.org
http://ofb.net
http://picasaweb.google.com
http://quantified-mind.com
http://rule34.paheal.net
http://schlockmercenary.com
http://thesaurus.com
http://unitedmedia.com
http://vanguard.com
http://wordsmith.org
http://xkcd.com
http://yelp.com
http://zeldadungeon.net
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Time Magazine Article [Feb. 22nd, 2013|01:52 pm]
I have been told that, unless some major news item shows up to pre-empt it, that the 2012 US Puzzle team will be the focus of an article in Time Magazine next week.

As a member of the US team, I will probably be mentioned in the article. I haven't seen the article and I don't know to what extent I'll be mentioned or how flattering it will be.

There will also be some photographs of the team that were taken at my house. I also have not seen which photographs were chosen.
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In which Wei-Hwa rails against the irrationality of athletic pledges by providing an unorthodox pled [Dec. 5th, 2012|01:16 am]
So my personal trainer is doing a "push-ups for Hurricane Sandy relief" fundraising thing at her company. The idea is that each of the trainers pledge to do a certain number of push-ups next Monday (my trainer went for 400). They try to get people to pledge them money to do this, either unconditionally or to be given if they match their push-up goal.

Now, I've never personally understood the reason behind athletic-driven fundraisers. Any time I get approached with something like this, it's always from someone who already is inclined to do something athletic. They are almost certainly going to do their athletic goal *anyway* regardless of how much they actually raise. I mean, when was the last time you heard someone say something like "Well, I only reached $500 of my $1000 goal for breast-cancer research, so I guess I'll only run half of the marathon and stop." And, unlike, say, a big company matching donations, the athletic achievement doesn't actually *do* anything for the charity. If the energy in those 400 push-ups were harvested and sold to some energy company with the proceeds donated to hurricane relief, well, that would at least be something. But all that is really happening is
that it's helping some athletic person get even more fit.

In a sense, they're not actually sacrificing anything, but it's coached in such a way as if you're supposed to be guilted into donating to charity. Well, I've got real guilt from not donating to charity, which I can alleviate by donating to charity, so I don't really appreciate having a middleman handing out fake guilt. I really like my trainer, but I don't like how she's part of this system that doesn't make any sense, as far as I can tell.

So, I made an unorthodox deal with my trainer. I will pledge to the cause a maximum amount of $800, to be given out like this: Start with a pot of $400. For every push-up she does on Monday (the day when all the other trainers are doing the pledge), I remove $1 from the pot. For every push-up (up to 400) she does on *Tuesday,* I add $1 to the pot. After Tuesday I'll donate whatever's in the pot. The idea here is that to earn the maximum pledge, she has to give a real sacrifice, which is that she has to endure the peer pressure of needing to explain to all the other trainers (and maybe other donators) why she isn't doing push-ups on Monday like everyone else. Or, more importantly to me, doing something that she *wasn't expecting to do*.

It will be interesting to see how much of the $800 she manages to collect for charity.
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The Black Letter Game: How NOT to create a new type of puzzle event [Nov. 4th, 2012|03:35 pm]
So Trisha and I have finally gotten around to playing The Black Letter Game (http://blacklettergame.com/). With some help from friends, we consider ourselves to be 40% done, which isn't bad for one day of work.

I have very ambivalent feelings about my experience with The Black Letter Game so far. On the plus side, the puzzles are interesting and unbroken, which is much harder to do than one might think, and generally to me that's the most important part of a puzzle event. On the minus side, the organizers have utterly and completely failed on one count, and that is "providing clear and useful expectations to participants at the start of the event."

I understand that they botched the start of the game, thinking they would be able to pull off the feat of having a successful game start while managing to stay in character. But because of all the confusion at the beginning, coupled with repeated grumblings from other players, our expectations for the event kept on getting lower and lower, the result being that it never seemed worthwhile to actually *start* the event when we had so much other fun things to do.

It was only until I heard that they were going to shut down this month that we decided that we should at least try to recoup some of our sunk costs. And to our surprise, the puzzles were actually fun. We're hitting all sorts of bugs with the website and the submission system is not ideal for rapid feedback and solving, but I understand that this is mostly because we're starting this at such a late date. And it's rather annoying needing to solve quickly puzzles that were clearly designed to take days.

Which comes back to the big problem with this event. All it would have taken is for the organizers to send a simple OUT-OF-CHARACTER e-mail to us, some time in July or so, saying "Hey, we're sorry we screwed up the opening of the game. But we're working on fixing the kinks, and there are now plenty of puzzlers solving stuff and having fun now. But we do plan on closing up shop in November, so we really do think you'll have a lot more fun if you actually start the game now." But instead of something clear and simple like that, we get a bunch of in-character cryptic messages that we don't understand because we haven't logged in and read your introductory material that you didn't make it clear that it was even there.

The lesson here should be simple. If you're(1) trying to create a different sort of entertaining experience, and you (2) want to maximize everyone's fun, you NEED TO SET EXPECTATIONS CLEARLY. Sure, you can be all cryptic and in-character and cool, and I'm sure some people will totally "get it" and have an awesome experience -- but there will also be others who will be disgusted and frustrated at you. Unlike an overnight experience like the Mystery Hunt or The Game, where I've set aside special time to enjoy your experience, I have plenty of other entertainment options clamoring for my free time and you have a higher confidence bar that you need to reach.

Anyway. I hear that they're planning to do Black Letter Game for another year, and seeing as if you're reading this you already have some idea of what to expect, I think that there's no chance you'll have the same crappy experience that we've had with the inaugural Black Letter Game.

But if any of you out there reading this are considering doing something new and unprecedented, heed this lesson of Black Letter Game well.
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The Daily Puzzle [Sep. 5th, 2012|08:15 pm]
I totally forgot to mention this when it happened a month ago. One puzzle I helped design is now available for sale on the mass-market! It's called the Daily Puzzle because it doubles as a desk calendar -- if you can solve the puzzle of how to make the date show up. http://www.thinkfun.com/shop/product/daily-puzzle,111,9.htm
Oskar van Deventer came up with the idea, but I was the one who actually found an arrangement to make it work.
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Happy Birthday [Aug. 26th, 2012|01:35 pm]
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Lampshade Wearing [Aug. 17th, 2012|08:06 pm]
From BBSB 8-16, 8-17


Lampshade Wearing is a Dead Horse Trope.
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Musings on Doctor When, making good products, and the Five-Man Band [Jul. 11th, 2012|05:39 pm]
I found myself thinking the other day about Doctor When, and on how well the meeting team (by which I mean the four people that came to almost every meeting) tended to work together and take on "spokesperson" roles. Basically, we had four people who had these four focus areas:

* Attention to the Big Picture: Allen was always very mindful of the overall story and vision behind the game, and would speak up if we seemed to stray too far from that vision.
* Attention to Details: Wei-Hwa was focused on small imperfections and ways to improve things, working on backup plans and wanting to make sure that there'd be as few unexpected surprises as possible.
* Attention to Customers: Sean was always conscious of how our game would be perceived by the players, on whether certain things would be fun or not fun.
* Attention to Reality: Erik tended to be the sanity check, who would make sure that what the others wanted to do was feasible, whether we had time to do things. This person often tended to be the "swing vote" in cases where we disagreed.

Of course, all four of us shared some aspects of each of the four focus areas; it wasn't a fight between viewpoints since we all appreciated each other's viewpoints.

What I was thinking is that this applies to making almost all products, and not just a weekend-long puzzle hunt. A good product is made by someone who can pay attention to all four aspects. Often there's a reason why a small product tends to suffer -- it's because it was designed by one person or a small team, and they failed to pay attention to one or more of those four aspects.

I also wonder if there is a mapping between the four aspects and the four classical temperaments (you know, the stuff that covers everything from Ninja Turtles to Greek philosophy). Something like:
* Attention to Big Picture = Choleric (Raphael)
* Attention to Details = Melancholic (Leonardo)
* Attention to Customers = Sanguine (Michaelangelo)
* Attention to Reality = Phlegmatic (Donatello)

Ah, but later on the Phlegmatic gets separated into the Leukine and Phlegmatic II. Perhaps not coincidentally, we actually have five members of the core team -- Melissa, Erik's wife, didn't participate actively in the meetings but did a lot of work for us and gave opinions when necessary. Although I wouldn't consider her temperament to be the classic Leukine, I certainly can see it matching her level and style of participation.

So that sets a mapping from our group to the Five Man Band trope:
* Allen = The Lancer
* Wei-Hwa = The Smart Guy
* Sean = The Big Guy
* Erik = The Hero
* Melissa = The Chick

Back to thinking about making good products, I wonder what the missing fifth element (analogue to the Leukine) would be?
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