Millenial Gaming

Ever since I got my new laptop I’ve been playing video games. I’ve always liked video games and because my new laptop has a bitchin’ fast i7 processor and a nVidia GeForce GT 635M, a real graphics card, I can now play the cooler games. Or at least games which are made in this decade.

First off I tried out Shogun 2 and I realized how I completely lack the attention required for any kind of grand strategy and warfare. So I became bored and uninstalled it. Besides, I’ve always preferred Tactical RPG strategy games. Those games get you up and close with your warriors and at least they’ll keep some kind of a story or pretense for it. In Shogun 2, it feels like you’re being stalked by wolves as the CPU keeps ganging up and declaring war on you the moment you decide to prioritize giving your farmers some better farmland rather than recruiting yet another line of musketmen.

But you know, maybe that’s the whole point of the Sengoku Jidai – some asshole sees you’re trading with Koreans, so he’ll come just up and make your day. AI doesn’t care about you, it wants to rule Japan!

Here are the games that have actually kept my attention. I’ve got to know these games usually through browsing /v/, so when certain names keep popping up, I just try them out to see how it goes.

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(Chatting it up with the ladies after a satisfying karaoke session singing 80’s pop songs… I guess!)

In Sleeping Dogs, I’m playing as Wei Shen and he’s a cocky loose-cannon undercover cop with a criminal past. In a spectacular game of wits, Wei Shen, your character who had been to USA because his sister had a drug addiction, is seemingly bust for drug dealing, but that’s all a pretense for Wei Shen to go to jail at the same time as Jackie Ma, Shen’s childhood friend, who will invite Shen to join the gang and relive the times of when they were small time crooks in a gang as kids.

Of course the game reels you in with the whole cyberpunk Asian setting, playing vaporwave as you drive and getting you into nitty-gritty fights in the rain on a backdrop of the neon lights, sometimes you just step back and realize how nothing really make sense anymore. Things like how a club is way too big or how you commit murder in front of two girls after a street race and they’re completely cool with it or how Wei Shen arrives to a drug deal with a cop car and then the guys go like “Hey Wei I hope you’re not a cop okay? You know what we do with rats?” I know, it’s a gameplay kind of an issue, you can be as crazy as you want, but come on. At least it leaves the player the choice to play the character they are with the costumes he wears, allowing the player to create personal headcanons.

I was pretty impressed by Equilibrium back when I was 12, so this suit allowed me to play a gun-kata style advanced reflexes bad-ass cop, breaking legs and shooting people in the face. All he does all day is bust drug-dealers, infiltrate gangs and walk the thin line of under-cover copness, trying not getting too involved but still having to keep it real. And then all this falls apart as you go to a karaoke bar with four girls and a professional rapper from USA and they ask Wei Shen to sing karaoke. And of course, the player has to play a guitar-hero like minigame while Wei shrieks out Pat Penatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”. I mean, what the fuck? A minigame with a voice-cracking karaoke? Good lord!

So you get pretty involved with the gang and no spoilers intended, Wei’s supervisor threatens to take him off the case many-many times, every time pointing at Shen and saying “You’re crooked! The guy who shot your mob-boss on his wedding day has gone missing and all fingers point at you, you’re off the case!” Of course Wei retorts with a witty “Look, I am the boss now!” to which the inspector backs down like the spineless shit he is, because he really wants to climb up that career ladder.

Loads of sex and violence, but now I’ve also grown bored of it. It kept my attention the first few districts, but the whole game has been “go to place A, mix the following: race/chase, beat up a guy, shoot a guy, run and jump somewhere really fast in any order, mission complete.” Then you go to these awful dates with girls and because no matter what it’s always raining in Hong Kong, so you have to take pictures of your date as she’s posing cutely on the backdrop of a smoggy megalopolis. It’s kind of sad how Shen’s story of revenge reflects in the crappy environment around him and how his cocky attitude is just a facade to cover up the fact that his personal life is crumbling down in a middle of a turf war.

Maybe it’s just game of its times? Sleeping Dogs was released in 2012, so probably it started its production a few years earlier – smack dab in the bottom of the recession. Those times were tough indeed, people were losing their jobs, divorces, whatever. So instead of allowing Shen to just take some time off and really figure himself out, he’s just the avatar of the player, allowing him to blow up all the problems and frustration in his life.

Now it’s the kids born in the 90’s who are stepping into the gaming scene. Because it’s impossible to do a large-scale original RPG or farming simulator without it being a tie-in to an already-existing franchise, they’re mostly getting into the indie scene. Since there’s this generational shift, the values, themes and gameplay styles are quite different from what we’re accustomed to. First off: Stardew Valley

02(Grandpa is laying down some truth bombs to the player before he passes. Of course 20 years later the grandson winds up with a crappy cubicle job, some things never change!)

In Stardew Valley your grandfather gives you the deed to his farm and tells you to move there when you feel trapped in your life. You use your chance and move into the farm. You’ll meet strange new people, but everything’s fine. You can go adventuring, farm all day or just go for a walk and talk to people. There’s literally no pressure to do anything inside the game, because you don’t have to pay rent for upkeep and you can always go scavenge for some berries and throw into the bin and let the Mayor collect it at night. Yes, the Mayor will buy your foraged berries at a premium!

Already the game illustrates its times. Since millenials have so many problems, the whole game is about escaping your mundane life and heading off to a simpler, more wonderful life in a rustic farm, where you’ll be the king of your domain. A noble king of a farm painted with warm colors, where everybody is really nice to you all the time. The town life is vibrant and it has all sorts of cuties just hanging around, waiting for the player to woo them with wonderful gifts such as flowers and blueberry pies.

I mean, it’s fun and all, but pretty much all you do in the game is hoard things and distribute those scavenged items to the unsuspecting town people so their heart meter would go up. That means your relationship with the character has grown! That also means they’ll finally start saying different things.

While Sleeping Dogs scratched the itch to blow your way into the big leagues, starting with small-time boosts culminating with epic betrayals and constant paranoia, Stardew Valley is all about taking the literal time off from the mundane real life and going to a place where you’ll be accepted no matter what. So for triple A games, escapism is the aim, for indie games, escapism is the plot device.

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(As your character struggles to climb out of a literal hole, he must first defeat really scary monsters such as depression.)

Finally comes Undertale, the real champion of these times. It’s kind-of Tumblr: the RPG for me because everybody’s really (ironically and/or genuinely) sad and most of the storyline revolves around self-identification, acceptance and fear of rejection. The game is all about the human emotions and interactions. Undertale goes against the idea that monsters = enemies and so you can go through the entire game without killing anyone. Hell, you’ll even make a few allies on the way. It’s all for and about pacifism and the value of friendship.

Of course if you’re the person and fights with everybody, then it’ll ask you but who’s the real monster, man? Kind of trite, I know. But both of these indie games are built on the same premise: it accepts the player whoever as they may be and encourages the player to be as accepting toward other beings as well. Direct conflict and going in balls-deep guns-blazing has been replaced with attempts to make contact and actually understanding the other person. There’s no facade of hardness, but it brings the player the sincere, vulnerable side of the hero. That’s what makes indie games different from sure-fire triple-A games: instead of giving a distracting juvenile fantasy, indie games take on and analyze the times we’re most insecure in life.

So that’s why I’m stoked up for video games. Instead of focusing on the action, games are becoming more human and they allow the gamers to grow as they play. Instead of the just cool, it allows the player to play an entertaining game and then reflect on their own situation. If this isn’t true craftsmanship and artistry, then I don’t know what is!

Great Events of Our Time: AlphaGo (A.I.) Vs. Lee Sedol (9-dan)

Have you ever witnessed history? Been right there and realized that the things you see will be written down for centuries to come. People might not know your name, that you were there to see it, but they will definitely know the name of AlphaGo, the A.I. by Google. It has not only defeated the reigning European champion Fan Hui, but today it won the first match against the reigning world champion Lee Sedol.

Once again we’ve reached a milestone where the programmable computer is given a purpose by its owner and it excels in the work given, exceeding the human skill and capabilities. We’ve moved from the cogs and whistles to the silicate microprocessor supercomputers. Add thousands lines of code, tether some hardware together and you’ve got yourself a machine which can think a million things at a time. And so it happened once again that a computer game overtook its creator.

KASPAROV

Garry Kasparov ponders his chess moves during his third game with IBM’s Deep Blue Tuesday, Feb.13, 1996 at the Convention Center in Philadelphia. Wednesday’s game ended in a draw, but Kasparov ended up winning the final game and series 4-2 against the supercomputer. “Fighting this computer has changed the way I–and I imagine most others–will approach the game in the future,” he said after winning the final game Saturday night. (AP Photo/George Widman)

Of course, the idea of a machine replacing the human has existed since the industrial revolution. Even the idea of a computer game being pretty hard to beat was proven back in 1997, when IBM’s Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov in chess despite the optimism displayed on the third day.

Chess, of course, is a very simple game compared to go. Unlike go, chess doesn’t really have much to think about. The pawns move forward, the knight can jump over pieces while the other pieces can’t and that’s about it. If you can memorize how the pieces move, you can already predict your opponent’s possible moves and use the possibilites (and the hindrances) to your advantage. One of my typical winning endgames involve exploiting the fact that you can’t capture your own pieces. So when the opponent’s king is surrounded by pieces, all it takes to make one check where the king can’t escape or hide behind a piece and that’s a checkmate right there.

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(Picture from senseis.xmp.net)

In go, the simplicity is what makes it so compelling. All you do in the game is place a stone on the intersection. Then your opponent will respond to your move by placing their own stone. You can either skip your turn or place a stone again. If you want to capture your opponent’s stone, you have to cover it from all four sides. Bam, that’s it. One stone per turn, anywhere you want as long as it’s free.

And as you play the game, the empty checkered board becomes a painting of territories and vicious attacks. A patchwork of threats, fights and defences. “I’ll play over here, then he’ll probably play over there. Oh no, he instead chose to attack me from the rear.” That’s what’s happening each and every turn. For a computer, it’s a disaster to just bruteforce every single combination outcome and every position after it, because every move will have greater consequences in the future. But the computer has to think, see forward and finally choose a move that would guarantee its victory. That’s where the challenge arises.

If you’re wondering how many different play positions are possible, then it’s not in millions or billions. It’s in hundreds of decimal points. If a million is 10^6, then go is 10^761 – that’s times more than there are stars in the sky. While chess has “only” 288 billion (2.88*10^14) different positions, it’s apparent that it’s a miracle in silica that AlphaGo even exists. A game which doesn’t only need a sharp eye for detail, but a crazy imagination and a courage to go through the wildest plans. That’s probably where the human falls short: it begins to doubt their own genial moves, while the computer thinks a heartbeat longer and it plays the move anyway. It doesn’t worry about the pride of winning or the humiliation of loss – it plays.

We are the creator of the machine, but what will happen when our monopoly of creative imagination will be shared with computers? When you have 361 different places to put a stone in the start, the first moves become vital to the endgame. And so the machine waits for the opponent’s move, thinks and then answers. It takes a stone and wins the game.

go

(Picture from Newsweek)

One day it can lift stones, other day it could lift mountains.

Watchmen – A tour de force.

In this post, yours truly reflects on “Watchmen” (1986-1987) – the masterpiece by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins. All pictures in this review are from the Watchmen graphic novel, no copyright infringement intended and pictures are for educative and informative purposes.

I’ll be honest with you: I hate superheroes and everything where they are involved. I will never go see the Deadpool movie, I won’t see any of the upcoming Marvel/DC Comics movies and if you ask me which side I’m on in the Civil War, I’d say “Yes!” For me, superheroes are just some guys with strange powers and they use their abilities to defeat their equally super and weird villains. Maybe my distaste for superheroes stems from the idea that the superheroes are also quite superhuman in their emotions, and the challenges they meet are less human and more the dramatic sort. Of course, let’s not mention the rabid fandom who would kill you dead for being on the wrong side.

But here I was reading “Watchmen”. Winner of Hugo and Eisner awards, selected as one of the 20th century’s finest novels and millions of copies in print. I had some money to spare, so I decided to add this book into my library.

I think I’ve made the right decision, and allow me to explain why.

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In “Watchmen”, there’s actually only one superhero: Dr. Manhattan. The superheroes in the book are actually vigilantes who got inspiration from comic books to become costumed crimefighters. To fulfill a juveline fantasy of good-beating-the-bad and restore the rewarding kind of justice which even in our Great Recession times is awfully lacking. It’s kind of sad that in the age of surveillance we have to cover up our tracks of what we say or do and when we speak to a cop, we have to be on our toes, sweating bullets while worrying if the officer can still smell the weed you smoked a few days back. Was it me or did the dog just snarl at you?

The vigilantes were a welcome breath of fresh air, but as they were called superheroes for their fantastic costumes and gadgets, behind it all were ordinary men and women. People make mistakes, especially when they’re solely the judge, jury and the hangmen and have just minutes to deal justice. Followed by a gradual downfall of the superhero culture, an actual superweapon emerging from Dr. Manhattan’s electrifying experiment and a police riot, costumed adventuring was outlawed in 1977 and the vigilantes (save for a few fanatics) hung up their personas and retired.

Until 1985 when a murder of an active superhero sparks a chain reaction which bring on an investigation with shocking twists and turns.

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The problems in the comic book aren’t just about a friend dying and a drive for vengeance. What lies beneath are feelings of doubt, a maelstorm of fear coming up and coming to terms of change. If killing would save a few people, is it justified? What seperates the person from the persona and is there actually any difference? Where does true power come from?

It focused on the men and women behind the masks and stripped them naked, leaving them shivering under our hawkish eyes, bringing them closer to us. By removing the queer pretense of superheroism and the expectations of it, heroes become more human. It’s something that I would never get from let’s say “The Incredible Hulk” or “Batman” – there’s always the mask, gadget or strength to come and save the day and the drama they go through is just something that happens rather than matters. Of course, after Watchmen, there’s a certain shift towards human realism, but after decades of superhero adventures and countless reboots/side stories/alternate realities/canon-fanon schisms, does it really matter if Peter Parker stayed together with Mary Jane? In 1987, they got married, but their marriage was annulled in 2007 in a single issue – completely wiped from existence and memory! The superheroes are completely helpless against the changing times, focus groups, executive decisions and the cruel whims of their editors.

That’s exactly what’s in my opinion killing the superhero genre. Nothing really matters – one day they die, other day they’re ressurected. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make any sense, chalk it up as a side-story instead!

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Maybe that’s why I prefer graphic novels (or comic books, however you like to call them) –just one big longshot with nobody deciding that the thing you read a few chapters back doesn’t mean jack anymore. In “Watchmen”, everything that happened mattered to the characters. Were they successful in their quest? Maybe that wasn’t the most important thing. It’s the amazing amount of growth the characters went through during the whole adventure.

That is what I am really interested in. To see the characters thrive/decline by their own psyche, to see what makes them tick and what makes them who they are. In a storytelling sense, “Watchmen” is a masterpiece, a 100-point masterclass in the “Show, don’t tell” school of thought. Every single panel had already so much inside and still you could feel the pulsating life beneath. New York City is exactly as I could imagine it being tight and extremely cramped and the people wearing the masks carrying their own personal crosses.

What really did me in was the introduction in my edition of the book:

“Whether tales are told by the light of a campfire or by the glow of a screen, the prime decision for the teller has always been what to reveal and what to withhold. Whether in words alone or with images, the narrator must be clear about what is to be shown and what is to be hidden. […]
Although Alan knew the broad strokes of the story from the beginning, the precise narrative decisions were made only as we talked and pondered, shifting possibilities, waiting for the flash of gold in the stream of conversation and ideas. Waited for the glimpse of something valuable.
The story in this volume is the aggregation of what we gathered, what we thought would best tell our tale.
The rest, discarded, washed downstream and vanished from view.”

-Dave Gibbons, 2013

That’s where the genius lies. It shows exactly as much as you need to see, and nothing more. That’s what good storytelling is all about. There might be so much going on in the tiny world, but there’s no way that it’s possible to have it all written down. What we see might also be completely secondary compared to what we think and feel. The conclusions that we draw and the dread in our quivering hands as we flip the page over, hoping that there would be something to save from the inevitable doom. It’s just like in stage magic: one hand distracts and the other one prepares the rabbit to come out of the hat.

In “Watchmen’s” case, I am glad to have it come across to me. I hope that you’ll have the chance to read it as well and marvel in the brilliance it has.

On the art of brewing

Yesterday I had the fortune to attend my friend’s birthday. Since he was one of those hop-heads who spends most of his time drinking at the local craft beer bar, it’s kind-of obvious that he would celebrate his 29th birthday there as well.

To be honest, I don’t really care much for the whole obsession of craft beers. Mind you, I do like craft beers – they taste better and each bottle has it’s own unique twist both in the inside and the outside.

But certainly I don’t like seeing balding guys reaching their 30’s buying a beer, talk a whole lot about the grains used to brew the beer and most of all, I really hate it when they take out their little phones and scan the beer to the apps, which keeps a tally of what kind of beers has the user drunk. It just doesn’t seem proper to spend so much time gazing into the bottle. The beer is supposed to be drunk, not shouted out to the world that I’ve had a cold one!

But there I was, drinking craft beers with my good friend, and was just having a good time in my life. There were many beers and as the night went on, the importance of the craft became much more apparent and I will explain this to you by reviewing two beers in opposite sides.

I’ll start off with the main offender of the night, Port Brewing’s Santa’s Little Helper.

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(Image courtesy of Joe Canal’s)

This bottle represents everything that’s wrong with the craft beer industry. It has a whimsical label, has a trite little story on the side about the spirit of giving and beer and my very own pet peeve: “aged in <whatever> barrels” notice. In this case, it says oak barrels, but the one I had was aged in bourbon barrels.

The flat aroma, the watery taste with an dominating aftertaste of old, stale Jim Beam mixed with left-over coffee grounds. In my opinion, they gave more thought to the label rather than the actual brewing process itself. “Let’s make a stout (because that’s what men drink), add some coffee to it (so it would be darker) and age it in bourbon barrels (since that’s also manly)!” That’s how I imagined they would create such a forgettable beer. There was no soul to it – just cheap marketing tricks to pass as a craft beer.

SpontanBasil

(Image courtesy of allaboutbeer.com)

While this beer had soul. Spontanbasil by Mikkeller & Lindeman’s brewery.

I think this beer was a triumph of brewing. The name hints that there’s some basil somewhere in the beer, and by god, the moment you open the bottle, the whole room was filled with the smell of fresh basil and Mentha montanum. I was having a conversation with another friend and I asked him what thoughts he had.

“You know what, it reminds me of summer adventures I had when I was a kid.”

That is what I mean when a beer has a soul. In this case, the beer just yelled out summer. It was just so fresh, the aroma was pleasing and secure and the taste was perfectly balanced – sour, but not a lemon. Sweet, but not syrupy. Each sip brought back another time of carefree joy from the innermost depths of the brain. Spontanbasil was a beer that inspired. It’s something that you would drink and you wouldn’t just dismissively nod and smack your lips to a tune of “this is nice”, but you would sip and smile as you’re warmed by the images lit up inside your soul.

That’s what a craft beer should be: a perfect beer should awaken the senses rather than dull them. So this is my recommendation to you, dear brewer: think it through! What do you want to give to your customer? How do you want to make them feel?

As for you, the man with a smartphone with some beer app on: put the phone down, pour the drink, smell the brew and then drink it. Enjoy it and then look at the bottle and do whatever the hell you want to log your passage to the altered state of mind. Allow yourself the luxury of enjoyment of the moment, because that’s what will remain tomorrow and every day after.