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September 25, 2007

Blog Roll

Finally got around to posting a blog roll. I left a few things out that seem like they've died, and in one case left someone out who I think would probably prefer her privacy, but for the most part that stuff in the side bar is what constitutes my google reader feeds. Obviously a few things fit in multiple categories, but that's pretty much my categorization in the reader.

Posted by Brett Douville at 01:11 PM | Comments (2)

September 23, 2007

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

It's not too often that I use this space for talking about my personal life, but I can't just keep the story of the last week or so to myself.

My sons each play baseball in little league here in Olney, Maryland. This fall, my elder son Luc graduated from the machine-pitch leagues that he's played in for the last couple of years into the first kid-pitch league. The first kid-pitch league shares some similarities with the earlier leagues -- a five-run limit per inning (except the sixth) -- but mostly it's real ball, with a live ball and stealing (except for home, there you have to be batted in), and of course, the kids have to pitch.

Now pitching is not an easy thing. Many many years ago I did it myself, and though I don't remember being particularly bad, I don't remember being particularly good, either. It takes a lot of practice to be a good pitcher -- my father always said that hitting a baseball is the toughest thing to learn to do in sports, but I think for me, pitching comes in a close second. Especially when you're nine years old.

Luc's team is pretty lucky in that they have a fairly deep bench when it comes to pitching. In the first game, a little over a week ago, we fielded five pitchers for an inning each, and they all did pretty well -- in fact, they won that game largely on the strength of their pitching. Luc didn't pitch that game, though; due to the league actually being a little larger this year and some scheduling issues, we were only able to get in one official practice before the season began.

But we knew he was going to have to pitch. So, last Sunday we went over to his elementary school so he could start to get the feel for pitching. He did alright -- nothing spectacular, to be sure, just getting one or two out of every five pitches over the plate, with another one or two being fairly wild. But he kept at it, and by the end of an hour he had both a sore arm and the beginnings of a fast ball.

Tuesday we were able to get out again, this time after karate. His arms were probably tired, but he was pitching decently, probably around 50% strikes or so, and with fewer wild pitches. By the end of the hour, I think he was probably pitching wild less than 10% of the time -- not great, but good enough that I felt like he would be okay to pitch in a game, not hitting kids left and right or having bases constantly stolen out from under him. I even kept a count to give him a sense of that, and while he had quite a few walks, he also had a few strike-outs -- well, counts where he had three strikes before he had four balls.

Wednesday night, Jordan had a game, and Luc's coach turned up to deliver baseball caps and things to the coaches. (I help out with the coaching on both teams, even though my knowledge of baseball could barely fill a thimble. Mostly, I'm there to keep the kids focused on the task at hand and try to leave the deep lessons of the game to the head coaches.) His head coach, Jim, and I talked about whether Luc could pitch on Sunday, and I said that I felt like while he wasn't going to be the best they had, he certainly wasn't in a position where he was going to be hitting batters or anything.

So Jim called Luc over and asked whether he'd be okay to pitch on Sunday, and Luc, who is ever the serious child, said, "Yes, I think I'm ready." Jim said, "What do you think about pitching the first inning?" and Luc said, "I think that'd be okay."

So, it was set. I knew I wanted to get Luc out on the mound again to give him a little more time and see if we couldn't get the most egregious wild pitches out of his system. Friday, we hit the field again.

It was like a different kid entirely out there, and not in a good way. He was finding it more or less impossible to find the plate -- I'm talking less than 10% strikes. That may be charitable. There were certainly a lot more wild pitches, balls which even this adult catcher couldn't get to and in some cases, I didn't bother to try, they were so far off. And of course, the more he pitched and was throwing wild, the more frustrated he would get. In this way, I think the apple has not fallen too far from the tree.

We threw a few sets of balls and I went out and talked to him, and he was a mess. He was getting very worked up about the whole thing, and I was starting to really worry about him. I told him to take a little walk out to the outfield and back, just to rest his arm a bit and give himself a little time to cool down and find his center again or something. Jordan and I tossed a ball around for ten minutes until Luc came back and started pitching again.

But the balls were still completely wild; in fact, they may have been worse than before his little walk. So I walked back out to him and I could see he was starting to tear up a bit, the frustration was so extreme.

I had been telling him a lot about letting go of each pitch, just worrying about the next one that you're going to throw. We had a kid on his team in the spring who would get really really mad at himself if he botched a play -- and you have to remember, we're talking about eight-year-olds, botched plays are pretty much the norm. I reminded Luc of what I used to say to D: "Baseball isn't about the past. It's about the future. It's about what you're going to do now, when he hits the ball, not about anything that happened to get you there. Worry about right now, not about what you think you ever did wrong." I had been telling Luc to breathe before each pitch, and to not worry about the count, and to just relax and throw the pitches we both knew he could throw.

But that wasn't working, even though it had worked before the pressure of pitching in Sunday's game. Here was a kid who was completely strung out and upset about pitching.

First, I told him he didn't have to worry about pitching on Sunday. As soon as I got home, I said, I'd email Coach Jim and straighten that out. Luc, courageous young man that he is, said, "Maybe I could pitch in the third or fourth inning," and I felt such love for that bravery, in the face of what he was going through.

Having gotten the pressure off at least a little, I started talking about things I've been doing lately in karate to improve¹. I talked about visualization, imagining in your mind the steps of what you're going to do before you do it. I talked about how I would think about a front kick before I threw it in training, and went through those steps for him, lifting my knee high, extending the foot, pulling the toes back, all the things I did. I talked about side kicks too, which are quite a bit trickier, and all the things that I would think about before throwing a side kick. I told him that Master Roberts had actually complimented me on my kicks since I had started doing that, and so I knew it was having some effect.

Then I talked about major league pitchers, and how every time they're up on the mound, before every pitch, they take a moment to think about the pitch they're going to throw. They stop, they take a deep breath, and they work through the motions in their minds. This may not be true of all pitchers, but I know certainly some of them do, and all of them are at least thinking about something up there.

So I told him, "You know what to do out here. Just think about what you're going to do before you do it, and you'll do fine. I know from the other days we've been out here that you know how to pitch the ball. Take a little time, and throw each pitch the way you know how to throw it."

I went back down behind the plate, and I'll be damned if that little man didn't throw nine out of the next ten right over the plate, and even that odd one might have caught someone swinging. I could see him out there, talking himself through the pitch each time (literally -- his mouth was moving, though he wasn't talking loud enough for me to hear), pointing his arm all the way back to second base and letting fly at just the right point in the arc.

I already felt like a million bucks, and I felt so glad for him that he'd found his way through, and hadn't even let that one ball phase him (it was the third pitch -- plenty of time to get in his head). There he was, my little nine-year-old boy, suddenly a pitcher.

But the real capper came right after we finished out the last few balls (I have thirteen we practice with -- I guess I'm not superstitious). He turned to me from the mound and said (and this is a direct quote from my serious boy), "Thank you, Daddy. What you said really helped me. I don't think you need to send Coach Jim any email." One's heart bursts with pride. I know what that means now. My kids have always made me proud, but this just took the cake.

You know, it doesn't even really matter how he pitched today -- the end of the story was really on Friday, when he made a mental move from frustration to confidence, when he learned not to give up when the chips were down, when he found a way through the difficulties that physical endeavors present.

But I'll tell you anyway.

Luc pitched his first inning of baseball today, the second inning -- Coach Jim had forgotten that he had already promised the first to another pitcher. He gave up two runs (comfortably below the five run inning limit). He had two strike-outs. He threw a total of three balls to seven batters, and only one of them got past the catcher.

I guess it's good he learned how. Because I have a feeling he's going to be pitching again.





¹It's only fair to note at this point that I had gotten these pointers from a book recommended by Jamie, Mastery by George Leonard. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:59 PM | Comments (7)

September 22, 2007

The Zelda Economy

LoZ: Twilight Princess

What is it with the Zelda economy?

I recently finished The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess for the Wii, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The dungeons were exciting and interesting and puzzling, and because I spent a significant time doing side quests, travel times didn't bother me as much as they did in Wind Waker¹. Sure, it had the same structure as every other Zelda game -- run around finding the three pieces of this, so that you can then go find the four pieces of that, which will mean you need to go and get the eight pieces of the other thing, and then you'll open the portal to that place, so that you can go and fight Ganondorf. It's a series of locked doors, each with its own key, most of which have to do with some new object you can equip and use in an interesting way.

Money, of course, is every which where. While it's not technically true that it grows on trees, it's frequently in barrels, boxes, blades of grass, urns, under rocks, and of course, jumping out of the puffs of smoke from the disappearing bodies of your vanquished foes. You are frequently maxed out on money, even when you go from the kiddie wallet to the adult wallet, even when you go from the adult wallet to the ultimate wallet (a quest which was a significant contributor to the running all over Hyrule).

In past Zelda games, I never found anything to spend all that cash on; but then, I was generally focused only on the main storyline, and not running around finding golden spiders or Poes or whatever the Wind Waker equivalent was (undersea treasures, I seem to vaguely recall, but I may be confusing things there). And indeed, in Twilight Princess there was only a couple of times that I can recall having to actually purchase something necessary to continue: bombs of a couple different varieties. It was actually kind of shocking, returning to play it after some months away, to have to buy something I'm used to finding in Zelda games under bushes and such.

But aside from these two necessary items, I didn't have to spend money on anything. And yet, there was a significant side quest to be able to carry more of it. There's a young woman in the city who collects bugs, and she's trying to collect enough to have some sort of bug ball. There are twelve pairs of bugs out in the world, which you can spot reasonably easy with your wolf sense, once you're able to transform into a wolf at will. A few of them are off the beaten path, but in general, you can find them, and as I recall, there's even a bit of an audio cue to let you know one's around. The male and female of each pair are generally found fairly near to one another, and so you can track them down with a bit of comparing the map to places you've already found bugs. The bug collection screen is fairly helpful in this respect.

You get the adult wallet, moving your maximum funds from 200 to 600, when you first turn in a bug; after that, Agatha gives you 50 rupees for every bug you bring her, unless it completes a pair, in which case you get 50 rupees for the bug and 50 rupees for finding a match². I brought her bugs all the time even with my wallet maxed out, just losing the money to finish the collection quest. After bringing her every pair, I was granted the "ultimate" wallet, which allows for holding 1000 rupees at a time. Let me tell you, a thousand rupees takes a long time to find, unless you find some of the special little hideaways with chests containing 100 rupee gems.

Around this same time, other side quests opened up around the Zelda economy. MaioMart wanted to open a branch in the city, but to do this, there were two separate things going on. On the one hand, you had to buy enough stuff from the store (and keep in mind, this is generally stuff you can just find out in the world, like bullets for the slingshot or whatever) to make Maio have enough money to purchase the existing store in the city. And a beggar appeared in MaioMart asking for donations to repair some bridge to make commerce between the towns and the city possible. The need for this wasn't entirely clear, as Link had no trouble getting to the city, but hey, given the already bizarre nature of the Zelda economy, who was I to quibble?

Having donated enough to those causes to open up the city branch of MaioMart³, you could now purchase the Magic Armor, which cost 600 rupees -- the complete contents of your adult wallet (though not of the ultimate wallet, which you received from Agatha). And what's the magic ability of the Magic Armor?

To consume rupees. The Magic Armor converts damage to a loss of money, and slowly burns through money whenever you're wearing it besides.

That's right, the whole exercise of spending something like 2600 rupees (easily found, slow to amass unless you're thinking about it) was to be able to convert money to health. Something that you could do basically the first time you got an empty bottle -- by buying red potions to fill that bottle from a local vendor.

Now, I didn't feel gypped -- it more felt like some sort of cosmic joke, really. I had a bit of a laugh when I got the ultimate wallet and the magic armor, only to find myself quickly penniless (rupeeless?) whenever I wore it. It came in handy really only in one circumstance, in the Cave of Trials, a 50-level dungeon of increasingly difficult combatants where there was virtually no health to be found. There were, however, three Poes to be found in that vast time-sucking dungeon, and that's what I was really after.

I can think of two explanations for the Zelda economy in Twilight Princess. The first, and the one I want to believe, is that the designers are trying to say, "Money isn't everything. Money just gives you means to do stuff. Doing stuff is more important." The other is that it's essentially the biggest shell game I've ever participated in.

Come to think of it, it's probably both.



¹Although, I have to say, I far preferred the look of Wind Waker to the more realistic look presented here. In a way, the realism accentuates issues like the Zelda economy -- with a world that looks so real, how can there be money under every bush and tree? In the GameBoy games, in Wind Waker, and in games like Four Sword Adventures, the fact that money is hiding in all those places matters less, somehow, because the look better lends itself to it. (back)
²Somewhat amusingly, the last pair you're likely to encounter is the snails. Snails are natural hermaphrodites, and she even mentions this in the little song she sings or poem she speaks when she receives them. Subtle humor entirely lost on young'uns, I suspect, who are thought to be Nintendo's target audience. (back)
³Itself a supremely surreal experience, with disco-style lights and dancing patrons and a dancing storekeeper who appeared to be singing some sort of song to you... (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 02:36 PM | Comments (4)

September 09, 2007

Interesting Choices?

A week or so ago I finished BioShock, tearing through it in what seemed like fairly record time, at least for me. I enjoyed it more than any shooter I've played since Star Wars: Republic Commando¹. Again, spoilers will occur, caveat lector.

BioShock

At the time, I was in the midst of playing Rise of the Kasai, a sequel to the very enjoyable 2002 SCEA action-adventure title, mostly remarkable for its art style and innovative combat style. I mention this because we'll return to Kasai in a little bit, because that game seems to want to offer some sort of interesting choice, but fails so miserably that it's an object lesson in What Not To Do².

Much virtual ink has been spilled over the moral choice that BioShock provides -- to rescue the Little Sisters or to "harvest" them. To recap (and to spill a little more): either choice will give you a certain amount of Adam, a useful game resource which effectively gives you weapons and other increases to your abilities (more health, more power for your bio-weapons, better ability to hack in-game computers and other security devices, etc.). Rescuing a Little Sister frees her from her endless quest to find Adam in corpses throughout the underwater city of Rapture, turning her into a human girl again, while harvesting her generates more Adam for you, but at the cost of the life of the Little Sister, who does not survive the procedure. I haven't seen the result of harvesting, but rescuing them is a decidedly creepy affair, with chilling Exorcist-style lines and animation, with the ultimate result of a tranquil little girl who thanks you and runs off to the nearest Little Sister tube, apparently so they can creep around Rapture hiding from Slicers much like Newt.

I read in a couple places where critics/commenters indicated that this was a false moral choice, since as gamers we would choose the option which had the greatest game utility. While I'm sympathetic to the argument, I don't think it applies to BioShock, simply because this utility was false -- or at least, I perceived it to be false.

The issue is that the resource -- Adam -- wasn't rare enough for the choice to be all that meaningful in game terms. I ended the game, on normal difficulty, with several hundred Adam left over, which would have been enough to buy myself a couple of new powers, or more health or energy (had either been available to me at that point). I had maxed out the plasmid attacks I used most frequently, and even some I pretty much never used (freezing, for example, or incinerate). I guess I could have gone and bought additional attacks -- but I already had more than the 6 plasmids that could fit in the plasmid attack slots. The utilitarian value of the Adam resource was simply too low for me to care one way or the other, which made it no choice at all -- in a choice between doing "good" and doing "evil" in terms of the game's fiction, no matter ambiguous they try to make the choice.

It wasn't just on the subject of the moral choice that the game's choices felt meaningless -- it was pretty much across the board, in every choice I might make. Late in the game there were goodies hidden behind glass (health, ammo, that sort of thing), but breaking the glass would cause drones to fly after me for a minute or so. Choosing to break the glass to get at something was fairly meaningless -- the drones were not much of a threat, since my first person shooter skills are pretty decent, and a cost-benefit mostly came down to whether I felt like adding a couple of drones to fight on my behalf for a little while, since they could be fritzed out and hacked to fight for me. That's just an example -- I simply never felt that my decisions had much in the way of long-term impact, either because my first-person skills would save me, or because of other in-game helpers (the ability to completely swap out plasmids for other ones, for example).

It's hard to be down on them for that, though, since the pure play was fantastic -- Ken Levine frequently said that it was a shooter first, and absolutely, the shooter elements are fantastic. I can also see that the ability to switch out plasmids is a natural response to complaints about being unable to understand which choice you'd prefer to make between competing augmentations in Deus Ex. I can also understand why the degenerating weapons of System Shock 2 would be abandoned -- why spend time thinking about what weapons to use, if you have plenty of ammo and oodles of weapons? It keeps the pace going, and makes you less cautious about mistakes.

Of course, I liked having to take a moment to think about what augmentations would make sense to me; I think another mechanism could have been chosen to improve on Deus Ex's augmentation system. I also loved System Shock 2, even if I did get to the end only to discover I was effectively unable to continue (not enough psi power) -- I didn't feel cheated, I felt like I didn't pay attention and make good decisions, it was all above board.

With regards to BioShock, this sense of decisions not really mattering all that much was the same with the Little Sisters: sure, I could "rescue" them and get X Adam, with some additional Adam every time I had rescued three. I could "harvest" them and get Y Adam (with Y greater than X) with no such promise of later reward. I have no idea how balanced this equation was, but I had so much left over at the end that arguing that the choice had a significant gameplay impact seems a bit wrong-headed.

Now, one thing I will say that they did very well is to telegraph that this would matter in some way, that some sort of reckoning was coming based on how you treated the Little Sisters. It was very evident in the way that Tenenbaum would speak to you that the game was keeping track of every decision you made with regards to those little girls, even saying at the end that "even losing one" was bad, was a tragedy. It strongly reinforced that the choice you were making was a moral one, in the context of the game, even if in my view there were really no game system consequences to one choice or the other. So, I was left with a choice where the gameplay consequences mattered little, but I knew that might be some long-term result that mattered one way or the other (could be game-play, might not be). I hadn't read any spoilers beforehand, so I wasn't aware that there were multiple endings; but I could tell something was going on, even if the game wasn't explicit.

I mention this in particular because of another game I've recently been playing, Rise of the Kasai, which doesn't telegraph that you're making choices that have any long-term impact at all. The game had a host of problems and head-scratching design decisions, from the minor (unable to determine how many of a particular collectible are left to be found while in the level) to the horrendous (when I'm busy doing some other task, it is unforgivable that the AI controlling the other character die somewhere else in the level if there's nothing I can do about it), but the core combat remained satisfying when used skillfully, and the stealth kills were still memorably savage and rewarding to pull off.

I was a fairly big fan of Mark of Kri, which I thought presented a really interesting combat system -- simple enough for button-mashers, but still satisfying for those who could get into the nuances. I hope that will survive somehow into this generation; it'd be a shame to see such a clean combat system go, but I don't think that poor sales of this sequel are an indicator of the strength of the core gameplay. I also liked the strong, silent hero, Rau. In any case, each level in the game offers you the choice to play either as Rau or as his sister, Tati, and after playing the introductory level as a character more like Tati, I had decided to stick with Rau and if I really felt like it, I'd go back and try a few of the levels with Tati.

Well, apparently that choice had an impact, which was never specified nor explained. Late in the game, two or three levels from the end, Tati was faced with a choice to join the Dark Side or not4. And apparently, whether or not you had much in the way of input into that choice was decided based on whether you had played her very much, or whether you were playing her then, or something. In any case, I was unable to choose for her to stick with Rau and team up to fight the bad guy. Instead, my only option was to have her join the enemy, and apparently kill her. I replayed to that point several times, and came up empty every time -- while there was a little bar indicating that the decision was somehow being made, it was completely unclear to me what I had done to affect the decision, if anything. To date, I don't know -- I started playing some of the earlier levels with Tati, but after it crashed a few times in loading screens, I gave the title up for good. I'm very forgiving, but even I have limits.

What killed me about it was that apparently out-of-game choices were influencing in-game results; there was some meta-tracking going on that mattered to the game but which was unclear to me. I would happily have taken a little control over the story -- but I need to be nudged to know that's what I'm doing. I'm not sure what was going on, but it seems unfair that the story would be forced into a path where the AI's choices have turned my characters against one another. The lack of agency on my part to influence that decision was appalling, and were it not for my curiosity to figure out how it was supposed to work, I would have probably broken the disc in half right there.

So, systems designers: giving us choices that impact real game results: good. Not telling us that we're making those choices? Bad.

¹That's about as blatant a plug as I think I've ever pulled... ;) To be fair, I haven't played oodles of shooters in that time, though I played Quake n (was it 4? it was completely bland), Doom n (okay, being snarky, it was Doom 3), Deus Ex 2 (not better than SWRC IMO, falling far short of the bar set by its predecessor), and Thief 2, which I finally finished after a multi-year hiatus, and which was probably better than SWRC but so significantly different it's not realistic to compare them. Anyway. (back)
²Or maybe I should say "Patent Pending", since it came from Sony. Sony, this generation at least, seems to be driving very hard towards What Not To Do. Yes, that's a Sony slam -- the PS3 has a ways to go this generation. I think the power of the brand is strong enough to overcome all of their missteps, but poor PS3 market performance is clearly hurting them. (back)
³It's confusing, which is a whole different problem with the game altogether. The story weaves in and out of time, going back twenty of thirty years to lay some groundwork, then bringing it forward, then swinging back again. The two character archetypes are reflected in each set of characters, though -- there's really only two ways to play the level, but even that is a step up in terms of replayability. In theory, you can play the whole game twice, and other than cutscenes you'll pretty much see new level areas. (back)
4Or the legion of evil, or whatever. Who even cares. The story is pretty forgettable, even twisting through time as it does. I did like how they were able to generate player interest in a character who was going to die, but that's a tricky one, since it's a character you play, and having him die later on... (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:45 PM | Comments (5)