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collision detection

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Published: 2016-04-14T09:07:22-05:00

Last Build Date: 2016-04-14T09:03:05-05:00


I've started a new blog -- this one is officially retired!


After about 15 years, I'm retiring Collision Detection. (I've posted so infrequently in the last three years that it's been essentially retired anyway, heh.)

But hey! I've started a new site over at my namesake URL, I'll be posting occasional essays and building an archive of all my journalism over there.

Go over and check it out! Because there's so much fun stuff I've done on Collision Detection, though, I'm not taking this site down. I'll leave it here until the server crashes or the sun burns out, whichever comes first.

A game created "as if games were the only medium on Earth"


I recently picked up 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. I couldn't resist the title, which so neatly refracts the gibbering cultural anxieties of lists like "1000 novels everyone must read". You see this sort of highbrow listicle often in the realms of literary fiction, movies, possibly poetry. It's classic canon panic, and I say that with a degree of charity and warmth; I actually think arguing heatedly and even snobbishly about what works of art are important and mindbending can be a lot of fun, and occasionally useful to the parties involved. But there's something hilarious and unsettling about claiming there are 1,001 video games we must play. On the obvious level, it's a cheeky way of mocking the way literary fiction -- or perhaps movies -- are the only arts that self-aggrandizingly proclaim themselves highbrow enough to be considered absolutely compulsory for all non-knuckle-dragging hominids. On a subtler level, it throws a challenge even to gamers themselves. It suggests that no matter how many titles they've played and enjoyed (or hated), there is a much, much larger sea out there. Indeed, the idea that there is a subset of games that are mandatory, and that this number is as large as 1,001, points to the fact that the pool of nonmandatory games (the bad ones, the forgettable ones, the aesthetically and game-mechanically uninspired ones) is probably several orders of magnitude bigger -- tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of games. Maybe more? I mean, how many video games have been made, anyway? I've never seen a good estimate of this. When you throw in disposable app-store games -- the phyloplankton of the game world, some so forgettable you'd swear they'd just been procedurally generated (and come to think of that, that would make a crazy project! A robotic game studio that craps out algorithmically-generated games, much like the programmers who bulk-spray thousands of algorithmically-generated books onto Amazon) -- the number becomes Carl-Sagan huge. Could anyone actually play 1,001 games? Let's do the math! Since modern games promise, in general, "40 hours of play", we're talking about 40,000 hours of play. Actually, let's shrink that down to 30,000 hours, because many early arcade games discussed in this book could be "played through" in a few minutes or an hour or so. But even at 30,000 hours, that's 14 solid years of playing, if you took it on as a full-time job, played for 40 hours a week, and tried to get to the end of every game. The upshot is, the whole sly point of a book like 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die is that you're really never going to be able to play them all. The fun is in reading about them -- in touring through the encyclopedic entries. In this regard, I gotta say, the book does not disappoint. The writeups are all barely a villanelle's-worth in length -- a single short page, or even half a page -- yet the writers (about two dozen game journalists) manage to fit in a number of really delightful observations. Which brings me to the whole reason I'm writing this post! In the writeup for Half-Life 2, Duncan Harris makes a fascinating argument about the title. I'll quote nearly the whole writeup: Released in 2004 after five years in development, it continues the story of an alpha geek, scientist Gordon Freeman, as he deals with the aftermath of an experiment gone wrong. Placed back on Earth by the mysterious G-Man, he finds himself entering City 17, the cold and forbidding capital of the world now enslaved by aliens. The Combine, who snuck into our dimension, thanks to the events of Half-Life, have broken humanity's spirit and turned it cities into ghettos. Citizens wear rags and huddle next to tenement windows, waiting for the Civil Protection squads to abduct them to who-knows-where. There are no children. Had the game been so vulgar as to mimic any movies, there'd have been a Hollywood version years ago. But the secret of it success is that, while full of historical parallels, it tells its story as if games were[...]

Why 18th century books looked like smartphone screens


That's one of the opening pages of Conjectures on Original Composition, a book about creative genius published by the English poet Edward Young in 1759. It's considered one of the first big essays to tout the idea that "originals" -- writers of deep originality -- are more important and awesome than derivative folks. I heard about Conjectures while reading a different essay this evening, and since I'm sort of obsessed with tracking the rise of our modern (and disastrous) conceit that originality is something that just kind of wells up from inside you I immediately dialed up Conjectures on Google Books to read it. It's a delightful essay, but what struck me immediately was its design: Those tiny pages, crammed full of large-fonted prose. It looks just like a book displayed on a smartphone screen. That small-page format was quite common back in the 18th century. It's known as octavo duodecimo -- with pages that are about 6 inches by 9 inches. The entire Conjectures is only about 8,000 words long, but it was common to print essays in this pretty little style, because it had great ergonomics: It made for easy one-handed reading and portability. Pretty much the same advantages as reading on a smartphone, when you think about it. When it comes to books, I read about half my stuff these days in print, and half in e-format; and while I own a Kindle, I don't use it very much any more -- I just read ebooks on my Android phone. Indeed, reading on my phone has led me to read more books than ever, because the octavo-esque portability means the books are ever with me: I dip in and out while riding the subway, waiting in line at a store, lying in bed falling asleep, or lying in bed awake with "early waking insomnia", yay. The portability has made it possible for me to read books sufficiently huge that, had I'd been forced to carry 'em around, I'd probably have ditched out and never finished them -- things like War and Peace, Middlemarch, and Moby Dick, all of which I read entirely on my smartphone. In fact, one of the oddly useful things about reading War and Peace on your phone is that the octavo-like format makes the epic enormity of the tome less intimidating: It's just one little page after another, each one oddly inviting. I tend to blow up the font on my phone to quite large, so each page has only a few hundred words on it, precisely the way that Conjectures is laid out. Here's a page of Conjectures ... And here's a page of a book I'm currently reading on my smartphone (sorry for the crappy resolution of the font, which looks weird when I size it comparably): The point being, of course, that the ergonomics of smartphones as reading devices are not only kind of rad, but historically so. These small formats from days of yore also help explain the stupendous productivity of many historic authors. I'll often be reading about a nonfiction essayist from the 17th or 18th or 19th century and the bio will mention he or she wrote 56 books or some other ungodly number, and I'll freak out: Man alive! How can anyone generate so much? But then you realize that a "book" back then wasn't what we think of as a "book" now. Back then, there were a plurality of book-sized formats that were, like octavo or the slightly-smaller duodecimo, pretty compact, so these "books" were only a couple of thousand words long. (Like the totally fun The Art of Memory by Marius D'assigny, from 1706.) Authors who cranked out 40 "books" were actually writing pieces that are closer to a long magazine article. It wasn't until the 20th century arrived that nonfiction books started to congeal into the 300-page quantum, for a host of economic and cultural and industrial reasons. To wit: If you're going to charge someone $25 for a hardcover nonfiction book and do it via industrial publishing, you have to make the customers feel they're getting $25 worth, which means the book has to be loooooong ... even if the author does not possess an argument requiring 300 pages. (Thus we find so many books that are r[...]

A video game for an audience of one


(This year, I'm participating in The Pastry Box Project, a very cool joint blog; I'll be doing six posts this year. My first went up this week, and here's a copy of it!) Two years ago I was trying to think of something to get for my wife for her birthday, and I was stuck. So I decided to go the “heartfelt” route and make her something by hand: The personal touch! But what would I make? Well, I’m a big nerd from way back, and she’s also something of a nerd too. So I decided that I’d make her something peculiarly digital: A personalized video game. I downloaded a copy of Inform 7, a free and easy-to-use app that lets anyone create “text adventure” games, where the player navigates a world of text by typing commands and reading descriptions of the rooms they enter (“Go west”; “open mailbox”). My wife and I are both in our 40s, so we’re old enough to remember the first-ever text-adventure games like “Zork”. I still enjoy the stark poetry of “Zork”’s opening scene: West of House You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here. That scene always reminds me of the first few lines of Dante’s “Inferno”: Midway along the journey of our life I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path. I’m probably picking up these resonances because I’m middle-aged, so my grade-6 days playing “Zork” seem awfully far away now, while the cosmic midlife freakouts of the “Inferno” are a lot more proximal. But at any rate, I liked the idea of creating a little playable literary world to give to my wife, a sort of geeky love letter. I began plotting out a text adventure that was based in our years together, with a few dozens rooms and filled with detail and easter eggs (hidden stuff you have to discover inside a game) drawn from our shared experiences. It was fun and not terribly hard to do; I’d never created a text adventure before, but Inform 7 is reasonably straightforward. After several evenings of work, I had the game done, and on her birthday I loaded it onto her computer and explained what I’d done. I was half worried she’d think I was nuts, but to my great delight she loved it. Here’s how the game opened up: Bedroom You wake up in your bed at home. The sun is coming in the windows, and you feel deeply rested. What time is it? You roll over and grab your iphone, and holy moses — it’s 9:30 am on a Saturday! You hear a beep and look over at your sidetable, where you see an ipad. Now, here’s the thing: That’s all you get to see. I’m not going to show you any more. And that’s because a game like this doesn’t quite behave the way games normally do. Normally, games are a form of mass entertainment. They’re a one-to-many medium. A single entity — sometimes a big corporation, sometimes an indie creator working alone — creates what is (hopefully) a fiendishly fun system, and gamers try to master it, playing and replaying it again, slowly getting better and better, as with Call of Duty or Candy Crush. With games like this, the designers want as many people as possible to play their titles, of course. The more people they get hooked, the more money they make. In recent years we’ve seen the rise of something different: Artistic games, where the designers are aiming to create an expressive act. They’re trying to evoke an emotion or a mood, or to make a point. (A superb example of this sort of art game is Jason Rohrer’s “Passage”.) These games aren’t designed to get you addicted, seducing you into playing them over and over again. If you run through “Passage” two or three times, you’ll understand the message and experience Rohrer is trying to communicate, and you probabl[...]

Of Star Wars "crawl" poetry and the weirdness of our attention spans


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Yesterday I saw a picture on Boing Boing: A "behind the scenes" shot of how they made the iconic opening "crawl" text for The Empire Strikes Back. I'd always assumed, naively, that the crawl was done with computer graphics, but no: It was a steampunk affair, with the text printed on a piece of glass and filmed at a steep angle by a camera. But what really struck me was the quote from George Lucas about the formal properties of a crawl:

"The crawl is such a hard thing because you have to be careful that you're not using too many words that people don't understand," Lucas has said. "It's like a poem."

Poetry! Full on! This immediately made me think of an idea, which I tweeted: