Thursday, January 20, 2022

Way up in the middle of the air

"Biblically accurate angels" are a semi-regular topic on Twitter and such. Particularly around Christmas, of course. You've probably seen photos go by of a Christmas tree topped with a bizarre halo of wings and eyes. I see it's a regular tag on Etsy, too. Wings and eyes, eyes and wings, wheels within wheels.
(From https://www.reddit.com/r/excatholic/comments/kj87fq/biblical_angel_christmas_tree_topper/ and probably a bunch of other places on reddit too)
When people do this stuff, they're recalling the Book of Ezekiel:
And I looked, and behold four wheels beside the cherubim, one wheel beside one cherub, and another wheel beside another cherub; and the appearance of the wheels was as the colour of a beryl stone.
And as for their appearances, they four had one likeness, as if a wheel had been within a wheel.
When they went, they went towards their four sides; they turned not as they went, but to the place whither the head looked they followed it; they turned not as they went.
And their whole body, and their backs, and their hands, and their wings, and the wheels were full of eyes round about, even the wheels that they four had.
That's Ezekiel chapter 10. (There's similar stuff in chapter 1. You know when you find two slightly different verses for the folk song, I mean holy text, and you can't decide so you copy them both down to sort out later?)
Now, the first version I encountered wasn't that Biblical text. It was the old spiritual, the version arranged by William Dawson. I sang it in junior high school choir, I do believe.
Ezekiel saw the wheel; way up in the middle of the air! Ezekiel saw the wheel, way in the middle of the air!
Everybody loves this stuff -- holy men tripping balls. Ezekiel is great for it. (Not just wheels! If you're a fan of The Prisoner, you know what the hip bone's connected to, dem dry bones: that's chapter 37.) So quite a few modern texts have picked up the imagery. I grew up with these covers of A Wind in the Door, for example.

More recently, I've become fond of Kill Six Billion Demons, an over-the-top web comic about angels and demons kung-fu-fighting. The angels are chaotic -- well, not chaotic -- assemblages of wings, wheels, and eyes. They bleed wings and eyes.

(From Kill Six Billion Demons, page 2-29.5)
On the videogame side, I recall the original Bayonetta going heavily for wheel-and-wing angels. The PS2 Dororo had some wheely monsters too. (El Shaddai and Darksiders didn't, but they should have, c'mon.)
But that's not really what this post is about.
Here's a (sorta) secret: I always feel a little smug at these illustrations of wheels and wings and eyes. Why? Ten years ago, I saw them.
Literally. Way up in the middle of the air.

(Andrew Plotkin, Medford MA)
This was October 27, 2012. Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the East Coast. It hadn't struck yet, but the atmosphere was in motion, and that afternoon it slung a whole lot of moisture into the upper air. That means high-altitude ice crystals.
Water droplets in sunlight form rainbows, because water droplets are round. Each droplet refracts light from the sun in just one way; so you see refracted light at just one angle from the sun. That makes a circle in the sky. Part of the circle is cut off by the ground (unless you're lucky in an airplane) so a rainbow is always an arch.
Ice crystals in sunlight refract and reflect light in several directions. If they're all aligned -- which they tend to be -- you see many arcs and circles. Here's another photo, taken by David Hathaway in Alabama on Oct 30th:
(David Hathaway via Spaceweather.com)

But if you're not thinking about hexagonal crystals and angles of reflection, what do you see? What are those shapes? Any child or holy man will tell you: those are wings, and eyes, and wheels within wheels.
That was one of the more unexpectedly stunning afternoons of my life. A thing that I, a Jewish atheist, call holy. But that's not really what this post is about either.
Lots of people saw that sky! My neighborhood Livejournal page had a thread of photos. Local news reported it. People collected photos and photo galleries.
You know what all those links have in common? They're all broken today.
The neighborhood group shifted to Dreamwidth (and copied over the post history, so I can still link to it, thank you). The Universal Hub page is still up but the images are broken. (Wayback Machine got it, thank you.) Lockerz doesn't even remember that it exists. And so on, and so on.
It's been a bit under ten years. Frankly, it's embarrassing. Frankly, we're doing this wrong.
I wish I had a better idea. Run your own web sites, kids. (It's a lot of work.) Keep supporting the Internet Archive and Wayback Machine. (They're great but they can't be solely responsible for saving civilization.) Save your photos and keep backups. Also, backups.
(Someone is going to comment with "bl*ckchain" and I will laugh as I moderate that horsecrap into the ether. Don't bother.)
I guess my point is that nothing on the Internet stays around without people -- actual people, not profit centers -- actively working to keep it around.
Web sites stay up because of love. Long run, nothing else works.
What I've done today is go through all those old busted links and trawl out every photo I could find of those solar arcs and halos. I've stashed them on one page -- the same page I created ten years ago to hold my own pair of humble sky photos. That page is mine; I run it; it's not in the pocket of any social media company. I think it will still exist in 2032.
If not, try the Wayback Machine link. (Which is probably how you're reading this if my web site died.) It should have captured the page and all its photos, as of this writing. If you try to click through to one of the images and it doesn't appear, try hitting "Latest".
(Note that this is all blatant copyright violation. I've linked and attributed every single image, but nobody gave me permission to grab copies of them. (Except the one from Wikipedia, which is CC-BY-SA.) I hear the copyright gorgons are on the march again. But that, again, isn't really what this post is about.)
Look. I can't think of much to say beyond, "I'm tired and this isn't going to get better." It's 2022; that's all of us. I've tried to save one good thing.
If you have photos from the hurricane-weather skies of October 2012, feel free to pass them along.

Monday, January 10, 2022

2022 IGF nominees: fireworks

We come to the end of my IGF review posts: the games that made me stand up and say "Holy zorch, you did not just do that!" Because, let's be clear, they just did that.
As I said at the beginning, this is not the same as being my "favorite game of the year". All of these games also did something else that I wasn't into. Maybe I didn't even play them all the way through.
But this is an important point! I don't want my favorites to become the best-of-the-year stars. I mean, yes I do, of course I do. But next year's games aren't going to be the same as this year's award-winners. They're going to build on these games. They're going to learn from them. So we must talk about the games that pushed the boundaries of technique or design or straight-up bravura.
  • Inscryption
  • Overboard!
  • Opus: Echo of Starsong
  • Tux and Fanny
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of some of these games. I bought Inscryption, Overboard, and Opus: Echo of Starsong on my own before IGF judging started.)

Sunday, January 9, 2022

2022 IGF nominees: miscellaneous

Yeah, I tried to come up with a category to fit this batch into. Nope, didn't work.
You could maybe call these "familiar game genres with a twist", but then you could say that about every game, right? We're all in the business of offering reassuring familiarity with a twist.
  • Sable
  • Papetura
  • Lacuna
  • Dagon
  • Kathy Rain: The Director's Cut
  • Chronicles of Tal'Dun: The Remainder
  • Strange Horticulture
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of most of these games. But I bought Sable on my own before IGF judging started. Dagon is entirely free. Strange Horticulture and The Remainder are not yet released.)

Saturday, January 8, 2022

2022 IGF nominees: intimate and/or personal

Some of these are cozy. Some are the opposite of cozy. All of them tell you straight-up where the authors come from.
Several of these reviews wind up saying "This is really good but I didn't entirely connect with it." Honestly, that's 2021 talking. Connection is hard. We're all walking around with deflectors at maximum.
  • Unpacking
  • No Longer Home
  • TOEM
  • Last Call
  • NORCO
  • Lake
  • An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of most of these games. But I bought Lake and Airport Dog on my own before IGF judging started. NORCO is not yet released; I played a demo chapter.)

Friday, January 7, 2022

2022 IGF nominees: on history

IGF finalists are out! Only eight months since the last time I said this, I know. Here we go.
My theme this year is... mixed reactions. I throw no shade! I played a lot of great games. But I didn't come away with overall favorites. Instead, I played a lot of games that did something fantastic but then this other game did something else fantastic and I want to talk about all of them.
...I say "all of them", but of course this week's posts are a highly curated list. IGF got over 400 entries this year -- and that's light; it's usually 500+. I didn't play every game and I'm not going to post about every game I played. Not even every finalist. Think of this as a collection of spotlights. A glint here, a facet there.

In this post: games which interrogate history.
Several of these games use, or riff on, the "database" game model -- a collection of story snippets which the player is free to explore at will. (Or perhaps just the illusion of free will.) These days the database game is familiar from Sam Barlow's Her Story and Telling Lies, but fans of this blog will not needed to be reminded of Rob Swigart's archetypical Portal.
The database game is an easy fit for a game about history, because the database is static. It's a slice of history. The player makes no choices except what to read next. Or is that necessarily true? Let's see.
  • Closed Hands
  • Blackhaven
  • Neurocracy
  • Inua
  • The Rewinder
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of most of these games. Blackhaven is entirely free, mind you. Inua is not yet released; I played a demo chapter.)

Saturday, December 18, 2021

That Kickstarter news

Kickstarter, oh yeah. Lots of people talking about Kickstarter right now. Most of them are talking about Teh Blockchain.
Let's not do that! How about this? I'll paste in the meat of Kickstarter's recent update -- except for the lines about blockchain. I'll just skip over those bits. We can talk about the rest of it, okay?
(Warning: I will return to the blockchain bit at the end of this post. At that time, I will point out that blockchain is horseshit. If you want to read about how blockchain will save the Internet, go read another blog post, because this one will just annoy you.)

Friday, November 19, 2021

Slice of Sea

It's IGF judging season, which means that I'm writing a lot of reviews which you won't see until the nominees are announced in January.
(January this past year happened in May because of GDC rescheduling. But they're more or less back on track for an in-person GDC in 2022. I am way ambivalent about going, let me tell you.)
However! Occasionally I have to set aside the GDC entry list and play a brand-new old friend. To wit: Slice of Sea by Mateusz Skutnik.
I've been enjoying Skutnik's surreal little pen-and-ink adventures since the Flash days. The Submachine series began in 2005, for Adobe's sake... They were marked by a mix of post-Soviet mechanical grunge, Tesla-esque technology, and otherworldly dream architecture. The point of view was uniquely ambivalent, too: neither the classical first-person Myst/escape camera nor a third-person point-and-click style. You were outside the game world, looking in, but you weren't looking at anyone in there. Somehow it worked.
Submachine grew into a deca-ology with bonus side-quels. In parallel, Skutnik did a bunch of one-offs and experiments -- the Daymare Town series was probably the most notable. I also grew to anticipate his periodic 10 Gnomes whimsies (based on black-and-white landscape photography) and his annual Where is New Year?
But these were all snack-sized games. Even after Skutnik moved on from Flash, he kept the scale and rhythm of a browser-playable diversion. Open it up, play it through, go back to your work day. Does it make sense to talk about a full-sized Skutnik game?
Well, we've sure got one! (Maybe making sense isn't the point.) I just finished Slice of Sea with six hours on the Steam-ometer.
We have a protagonist this time: a little seaweed creature, adrift on land in mechanical trousers. But it's still not a traditional point-and-click. The game takes pains to show that you are with the protagonist, not inhabiting them. The screen is yours to play with; your hand can reach what they cannot. You can carry (in "your" inventory?) items much larger than their body. But then, you must open doors for the bouncing weed-person to reach new screens. It's not a resolved relationship.
Neither is the story particularly explicit. Your goal -- sorry, Weed-friend's goal -- is clearly to advance. But nothing says where you're going. (Okay, the store blurb says "lead Seaweed back home to the sea." But let's play fair.) The world is inhabited by gnomes, chimeras, and nautiloids, all of whom eye you with silent detachment. The landscape of locked gates and unpowered machines makes demands of you; living creatures never do.
The landscape is the game, anyhow. It's a Skutnikite wonderland of dust, cockeyed cities, crumbling archways, and cubes floating in the sky. (Nobody floats a cube like this guy.) But now the landscape has scale. You move from cramped basements to yawning gulfs, and there are a lot of both. For the first time, you'll need to map! Unless you've got a really good sense of adventure-game direction. I do, and I made it through without mapping -- but that was orneriness. I crawled back and forth through the map a lot, trying to remember where I saw that one rock with a diamond-shaped hole. If I'd drawn a map and filled it with notes, I would have spent way less time running around.
(I'll give you one non-spoiler for free: a banner with a hook symbol always indicates that you can go up/back/in. Some in-passages are explicit doors, but not all. Twice I went to the walkthrough, only to realize that I'd overlooked a less-obvious trail leading back into the landscape. Then I figured out what the banners meant. Learn from my mistake.)
The inventory ("your" inventory?) is similarly scaled up. This is a bit of a problem. The game freely loads you up with scads of miscellaneous trash. You don't have to take it all -- it's pretty clear which items are the important gears and gizmos -- but come on, adventure game, of course you take it. Then you spend the game staring at an inventory screen full of junk.
It's thematically appropriate! This is a wasteland of ruined machinery; of course it's rolling with junk. But it does drag down the gameplay a bit, particularly because the game almost never gives you a cursor hotspot for placing an item. (Takeables, yes; buttons and levers, yes; sockets and keyholes, no.) So if you get stuck on a screen, you're probably going to try clicking every item on every pixel, or at least on every significant-looking ink-stain. When you have forty objects in hand, that's a slog. But you still do it, because come on, adventure game.
(The junk winds up being important for a couple of achievements. I'm not very interested in achievements.)
No, click-lawnmowering never helped me. The art provides good focus; you can distinguish the important sockets from the ink-stains. At least I learned to. But I think that cursor-hotspots would give the player more confidence without detracting from the feel of the game.
The other problem with a large game is that the large inventory is really widely scattered. If you're stuck, you're missing a rod or diagram or spark plug or something; and it could be anywhere in the game. You really do have to revisit every single unsolved puzzle and see which one is currently solvable. (This is where the notated map helps a lot. Never, ever forget a locked door.)
But for all that, I never did in fact get stuck. (Aside from the missed banner-paths I mentioned. And one late puzzle that turned out to be a timing problem.) Finding all the stuff, and remembering all the locked doors, was a mental exercise. (Without a map it was, let's say, a rigorous exercise.) But it wasn't hard. Spotting the important features, like I said, was learnable. The puzzles aren't intricate but they get nice variety from the core game elements.
I guess the closest spiritual kin is Rhem? (Speaking of old-school.) Slice of Sea isn't the same style of game as Rhem, but it has the same mindset: sprawling map, puzzles in every nook, take careful notes and you'll make it through. Not really story-oriented. Satisfying to finish.
I've said how much I enjoy the art. Skutnik once again invokes The Thumpmonks for the game's eerie ambient soundtrack. It's not front-and-center like the freaky line art, but it keeps the mood flowing. The title and credits tracks are by Cat Jahnke, who you may remember from Daymare Cat back in the day.
It's fun! It's a trip to another world! It's everything you liked in Submachine but piled to the ceiling. Play Slice of Sea.