5 of Diamonds: Bullets Per Minute – A good off beat effort

When we talk about games, particularly shooters, we often talk about among other things the “rhythm” of the games. It is not hard to reimagine a gun as a percussion instrument, particularly in the safe world of fantasy. Using weapons as musical instruments in a game lets you make those bangs without any chance of hurting anyone. These isn’t even new: youtube videos matching video guns firing to a beat, or gun syncs, have been around for a while, but there’s a drastically older example in classical music: Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with it’s literally bombastic use of cannons. This flows into the gameplay, with both the firing of the weapons and the lower frequency rhythm of reloading and superpowers recharging controlling how the player goes through the game.

Given this, it is curious that, as far as I know, no one’s crossed the shooter over with a different genre – the rhythm game, where the game is controlled by the player matching the beat of the game in a very literal way. Until now.

Similarly to how Crypt of the Necrodancer pulled the adventure game into the beat of a rhythm game, BPM, Bullets Per Minute, adds rhythm mechanics to first person gun slinging and it…for the most part, works. The core part of the game, the way guns will only fire on a beat or half beat, the way your dash ability makes a drumbeat sound when you match the rhythm, that all feels really good. It’s difficult to get used to from other games, and some may find it a bit too forced in; you could remove the rhythm mechanics and have a rather generic FPS, but I do think the extra mechanic fundamentally alters the gameplay enough to make it worth it. While different guns having different firing patterns is hardly unusual, BPM takes it to the next level and have different kinds of weapons not only fire on different beats (for example, the pistols can fire on the half beat, which I struggle to do so I usually switch as soon as I can), but each weapon has a different reload rhythm, with the reloads being far more involved on the player’s part than most games, such as the revolver having you hit reload on the beat/half beat for each bullet you load in. The bosses also have attacks that go on the rhythm; the boss of the first level for instance has an attack that alternates from side to side to do damage, sending you dodging left and right in a wonderful dance. When the rhythm aspects work, they work really well.

Unfortunately, outside the bosses and some of the minibosses, the enemies don’t join you in your dance. Normal enemies don’t attack or move on the beat, at least not in a way that I can notice after quite a lot of runs in the game, which weakens the experience overall, which is really important given how much that experience is what carries the game.

I don’t want to be too harsh on the game; it’s a very small studio and the game is pretty impressive for that, with a surprising amount of material in it. It seems combining two genres wasn’t enough for BPM, as it is also technically a roguelike. Each level is algorithmically created, consisting primarily what you might call encounter rooms, where you are faced with an array of enemies, upon who’s defeat the doors open and a chest appears, along with a second random reward. The goal is to defeat the boss of each level and move onto the next realm of Norse mythology, and you don’t need to defeat all rooms in the map to move on. There’s not that much variety in the rooms – each level will have the same enemies, selection of minibosses and boss across runs. The main difference between runs is what rewards you get, and there’s an impressive amount of stuff to obtain.

There are two shops, a general shop and an armoury. The more you spend there, the more items will be available from them, including at least twelve different guns. Also, really importantly, the shopkeepers are huge dancing birds named after Odin’s ravens. That’s really important, it’s fantastic. If this was a youtube video I’d end it on just a recording of the giant dancing birds. Anyway.

Libraries, which require keys to unlock, let you obtain new abilities to add to your powers, with larger “Ultimate” abilities like healing or summoning an ally taking time to charge while more direct powers like are, like your dash powers, useable on the beat. There are four equipment slots, which also give a wide array of effects that are usually pretty powerful, such as granting infinite ammo or explosive shots or improving your jump. The equipment can be brought from the general store, found in chests (that again sometimes need a key) or sometimes you will find four high level pieces, one for each slot, and you can only choose one (probably the rarest reward). Finally, there’s also six skills you can upgrade as you go, with damage being usually the most useful.

As you go through the game and beat the levels, you unlock new Valkyries to play with, each with a different starting loadout; for example, the first Valkyrie Goll is armed with the weakest pistol and has 100 HP, and beating the second dungeon unlocks Freyr, who starts with the more powerful revolver and 150 shields, which are subtle different from HP in that once lost you cannot restore them with HP items and his total starting health is actually zero.

Like I said, there is a lot going on here, and this brings us to one of the first issues I had playing the game; it does a very bad job of explaining itself. While there are hints on the loading screen, there is just a lot of things to use and get used to in the game and without something like a codex it can just feel as if you don’t know what’s happening. It doesn’t help that many of the upgrades don’t say what they actually do, just give a word like “Cleave” or “Solar Flare”, some of which you can work out from in game actions and some which I still have no clue what is going on.

Speaking of a codex, the game could really use one. There’s plenty of weapons and enemy types that it could really benefit from it, but most importantly the codex could go someway to explaining what certain modifiers actually mean in terms of game mechanics.

Then again, perhaps they chose not to include one not just because it is a large amount of additional work for a small team, but because they wanted to make the game harder and require you to figure it out for yourself. And yes, the game is bloody hard even on the easy setting. Part of it is just how damage works; you start with 100 HP as the base character, but even the most basic enemies will do 25HP, meaning you have effectively only 4 hits before dying. Later characters start with even less HP, although they do have bonuses like extra starting stats and better weapons to make up for it. Even the smallest enemies like the worms in the first levels can kill you, and in fact the smaller ones tend to be the most deadly since it can be hard to see them coming. This brutal health requirement only gets worse when against bosses who have attacks that can basically instan-kill you if you’re not coming in with plenty of health, although one bone the game throws your way is warnings placed in the beat counter across the centre of the screen letting you know when to dodge the biggest attacks and which way. Also, while I wouldn’t call health exactly common, you can pick up tinctures along the way and buy health potions and max HP increases from the dancing bird shopkeeper on each floor.

Another factor of difficulty is from the reload/fire to the beat mechanic. As much as I enjoy them, they are slower than most game’s reload/fire mechanics, and unlike most you can not only miss your shot in spatial terms (not hitting the enemy) but in temporal terms as well (missing the beat to fire). As the enemies are not bound to attacking on the beat like yourself, this can leave you open for valuable beats that can end a run. This means that you need to be constantly on the move, since the rooms tend to be fairly small and filled with enemies that can easily surround you or pin you in with projectiles. You start with a pretty decent dodge, although you can’t do it at the same time as firing or reloading, adding another factor to the game’s action economy.

I haven’t really talked about the aesthetics of the game yet, which are actually pretty important! The soundtrack is a fairly standard mix of rock themes that you will hear a lot if you do multiple runs, but I haven’t really found it grating on me over time, and more importantly, it has a strong beat that matches the one you fire on, so it’s really useful for keeping track. I’ve noticed that playing the game with the sound off, as I might do with other games while watching a video, makes it notably harder, which does indeed make sense. It’s a functional soundtrack, both aesthetically and how it interacts with the game’s core mechanics.

Visually, the game has a very peculilar style. Each pair of levels has a different theme colour, starting with orange in the first level and moving through yellow, black and black and red as you go on. And when I say it’s a colour theme, I mean everything in the level is tinted in that colour, from the enemies to the walls and the floor. The game is also weirdly fuzzy, with details abstracted out and blended into the colour, and uses a blocky lighting engine that often has you seeing just a block colour of light to represent say, a window. It’s not a bad aesthetic, and it doesn’t hinder the game play, but it is definitely unusual. Which I think can sum up most of the game – it’s an unusual game with an unusual art style and a really strong core mechanic which is just a bit too smothered in other mechanics for my liking. It’s currently $20 on steam and that’s a fair amount for what it is, possibly on the pricy side, but if you see it in a sale I definitely recommend giving it a look.

(Oh, I dropped hints about this, but you’re playing as various valkeries, including male ones, and you are supposed to be fighting through various locations in Norse mythology. Honestly this doesn’t come up much other than in the boss names, the shopkeeper birds being named Huigin and Muninn after Odin’s ravens, and some of the upgrades. The architecture and music doesn’t really shout norse to me, and the base enemies include things like scorpion ladies so…again, this is where a codex might be handy to establish this stuff better than the game itself does. Still, like so many things here, the solid core gameplay mechanics are enough for me to let it off.)

If you enjoy my pieces and want to help support the blog, please consider supporting me on Patreon!

Jack of Hearts: The House Robots, ranked.

Well, people seemed to like the one about my top 13 favourite robots, so I feel like it makes sense for me to churn out some more Robot Wars themed content for you all. Luckily it’s one of the few things I can currently focus on in this world without getting depressed, so I’m totally down for this too (Future Mattilda note: I’m actually doing a lot better now, because this piece took a long time to write!).

One of the big aspects that set Robot Wars apart from other similar shows is the House Robots, a collective of heavily armoured and armed robots that lurk at the edge of the arena, and essentially act as moving obstacles that the roboteers must either dodge or drive their opponents into. During the earlier seasons, they would also be allowed out of their patrol zones (either the perimeter patrol zones in series 1 and 2 that stretched around the entire arena, or the corner patrol zones in series 3 and onwards, usually referred to as PPZ and CPZ respectively). They are usually much heavier than the competitors (although near the end of the original run Shunt in particular was only 5kg over the competitor weight limit), and are allowed to break the rules, such as Sgt. Bash having a flamethrower despite it being banned for contestants. This was actually why number two on my previous list, Diotoir and its predecessor Nemesis where covered in fur; they saw that you weren’t allowed to bring flamethrowers in and decided the flammable substance would be funny to have, not realising that the house plays by different rules.

The House Robots acted as mascots for the series as well. Competitors came and went, but only one House Robot was fully retired between series before the 2016 reboot with series 8. They returned in the reboot greatly reduced in number, in fact, they were back to the group’s original size all the way back in series 1, although the line up wasn’t quite the same. This was due to budgetary reasons, and the rebooted House Robots were a lot larger than their previous counterparts; the BBC released a trailer of them ripping a car apart in the run up to series 9, which really gives you an idea of the scale of the robots.

Another quirk of the House Robots is the way they are treated by the show. While they are, of course, actually remote controlled in the same way the contesters are, the show rarely refers to the House Roboteers who control them. Instead, the show, and particularly the announcer Jonathan Pierce, treats them as living individuals who are in the arena not just as a way to liven up the show but driven by a hatred of the puny robots that invade their territory and a lust for battle. All but one of them are generally referred to using pronouns other than it; she for Mattilda and sometimes Dead Metal, and he for the rest of the House Robots. In classic style, the show really hypes up the House Robots, giving them titles like “The Tin Tyrant” and “The Matriarch of Mayhem”

On a more practical side, the House Robots are often called in to help sort out the arena, particularly Refbot, introduced in series 4. Broken robots can be dangerous, with exposed electronics and the potential for fire, so the house robots will often push damaged robots into the arena pit as a safe containing area. Before Refbot, a weaponless housebot called Shove that wasn’t shown in the TV edit was used to clear the arena after battles, with Refbot taking over, and then the job being taken over by the remaining House Robots in the reboot. If competitors get stuck together or on the arena, sometimes the House Robots will come in and break them apart so the fight will continue. Sometimes.

This is one of the big problems with the House Robots. While they are a unique addition to the show, they can also be inconsistent about how they intervene and how much damage they do. Particularly in later series when they become more and more heavily armed, a House Robot intervening when they shouldn’t do so can disrupt an entire battle unfairly. This was made even worse in Series 9 and 10, where instead of just releasing the pit, the so called “Doom Dial” may swing over to the “Rogue House Robot” option, allowing the House Roboteer currently driving the robot in the arena to leave their CPZ and attack whoever they please. This inconsistency was particularly bad in the very first two series; in series 1, the House Roboteers were as confused as the competitors were, resulting in slow and lethargic house robots that occasionally got a good blow in. In series 2, they swung all the way over to the opposite end of the control spectrum and became hyper aggressive. Multiple fights ended when a robot just barely crossed the line into the PPZ before all the House Robots jumped them at once.

Another issue with these two series is that the House Robots were far more directly involved in the contests, since, unlike later series, it wasn’t just battles they had to go through. The initial round of both series was the Gauntlet, an obstacle course with multiple potential routes. Robots were marked on how far they got across the course and, if they completed it, how fast, with one robot going out at this stage each episode. The gauntlet was also patrolled by the House Robots, and how far someone got was often as dependent on how aggressive the House Robots were as their own skill. The Gauntlet stage was followed by one of the Trials, another contest where the lowest scoring robot goes out. These trials often consisted of the competitors challenging, if not battling, the House Robots directly; tug of war against Dead Metal, robot sized bowling where the robots needed to knock down barrels without being caught by Killalot, the Sumo Basho where the objective was to try and survive being pushed off a platform by Shunt (or indeed, push Shunt off the platform), ect. That last one was actually what Shunt was designed to do. In series 3 and 4, the trials were dispatched to side tournaments, and they were abandoned completely as the show went on. I personally like the idea of the gauntlet and the trials, making the roboteers think about more than just the battles, but if they were reinstalled they would need to be a lot better handled than they were when first included.

The House Robots’ inconsistency got better overtime partially as the show went on just because the show stopped needing to rely on them to put on a show as entrants brought better and better robots. In series 3 the House Robots’ area of control dropped from the huge Perimeter Patrol Zones to the much smaller Corner Patrol Zones, and in later series the number of house robots in the arena at one time was dropped from four to one or two plus the neutral Refbot. Still, a lot of the time the House Robots were called in at the end of a fight just so it wouldn’t end without some proper damage, descending on an immobile competitor robot which had been knocked out of the match and ripping it apart for the audience to see.

This use of the House Robots to do damage for the sake of damage drew the ire of several Roboteers, in particular Roger Plant who created the Mule, The Big Cheese and Wheely Big Cheese, who noted that the contestants put a lot of money and time into their robots for the show, and the show, which was already taking advantage of these passion projects by making battles with them but not really paying even the big names who’s robots had merchandising deals, was pointlessly damaging them.
Indeed, beyond issues like this, the House Robots often became targets for the big names on the show, particularly the flippers. Flipping a house robot is almost a rite of passage if you want to show you are a really good flipper bot, and the Wheely Big Cheese itself was made to try and flip the biggest one of them all (at the time) Sir Killalot. A willingness to pick a fight with the House Robots is commonly seen as one of the signs of a team’s greatness, partially because it means they can survive the competitors, beat them, then have a go at the mean machines in the corner. Attacking and damaging the House Robots doesn’t get you any points if the battle goes to a judge’s decision, so it is entirely done for flair and for the love of it.

And with that, I think the basics of the House Robots are pretty much covered. I am going to go through and rank the ten House Robots that have appeared in basically my order of preference, although some of them may swap places depending on how I’m feeling that day. Like a lot of the competitors, the House Robots went through multiple iterations, with most being rebuilt or upgraded as the show progressed. Rather than ranking each appearance of the House Robots, I’ll try to base this on the entire lifespan of the robot, and explain any major changes they have gone through. As there are only ten house robots that have appeared (outside of Shove and other offscreen bots), the list will not be particularly surprising, outside of maybe a few bits of the order being shuffled around from what you might expect. In fact, the biggest surprise might be right at the very start…

(All images are taken from the Robot Wars fanwiki)

Continue reading

6 of Hearts: “Burning the Books” and the stories we tell

CW: This post discusses homophobic and transphobic attacks by the Nazi regime.

Among the books I’ve picked up recently is Richard Ovenden’s Burning The Books, about book burnings throughout history and the actions of those who have saved precious manuscripts and the knowledge they contain. On the first page of actual text, we get a description of the night of May 10th, 1933, when the texts of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft were burnt by Nazis. Looking in the index, this opening page is the only mention of the Institut in the book. It briefly mentions that among the books burnt, both in Berlin and in other locations, were from gay authors, but…it leaves me wondering. See, this event, the 1933 book burnings, are important, and they began with an attack on the Institut on May 6th, 1933. The Institut was also, notably, a pioneering location for trans studies, carrying out some of the world’s first reassignment surgeries. It was also an important centre for studying sex, and particularly gay and lesbian love. It’s library was unique around the world, and it was destroyed. 

Stories from LGBTQ’s people’s lives at the time, the detailed notes on sex reassignment surgery procedures, all the studies the Institut had carried out – they were all destroyed by the German Student Union. The book agrees that this was a super important event, and even discusses how a bust of the Institut’s founder, Magnus Hirschfield, was carried ceremonially to be thrown upon the flames by the nazi students carrying out the burning.

So, given all of this, it is weird that this is the only time the book, as far as I can find, chooses to examine these events, particularly in a time when so many are turning against trans rights in particular and across the world LGBT rights are under threat. This is not a callout for the author or his editors. I do not believe this was maliciously intended; this is the incident chosen to introduce the entire book, and other victims of the nazis are covered in later chapters. There is also a single superscript note, pointing towards a note in the section at the end of the book, which in turn mentions that if you want to learn about the Institut, see The Hischfield Archives by Heiker Bauer, a text I may try to track down myself. By itself, this omission is simply curious; a gun over the mantle piece is commented on at the very start of act one and then never goes off.

However, I think it is important to think about these gaps in what we tell, the narratives we create, and how these narratives flow into the larger currents of society and what we see. There’s only so much you can put in a book, true, but this is what he chooses to start the entire book with; the image of the head of the institut’s bust being set alight. This is event is important, and I must assume Ovenden agrees with me on this because, again, this is what he chooses to start the book with. So why are the details of this attack, what the Institut did, and why the Nazis chose to attack it, not explored even later on when the chronological chapters catch up to that era? Why is there this gap?

Information is lost not just through deliberate acts of book burning, but also simply through what we don’t tell, what gets left behind, sometimes deliberately. The choices we make in what we choose to tell matters. Burning the Books opens with the famous quote from Heinrich Heine: “Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings.” In the attack on the Institut, the Nazis left a number of books unburnt; specifically the membership records that held the addresses and details of those patients and researchers who used the institut.

The path to burning human beings was very short indeed.

Perhaps the actual content of the first big Nazi book burning is avoided in discussions about book burning because it means you need to handle the awkward fact that those targeted were still arrested under the allies in both West and East Germany. 1920’s and 30’s Berlin were far more open to queer identities, partially due to the work of the institute, and the Nazi’s targeted it for being “degenerate”, declaring that they were returning to an utterly imaginary, murderous “pure” past. Burning the Books does at least avoid one of the biggest issues with writing about what the Nazis did by actually listing specific groups the nazis where burning literature from, as opposed to just saying they were burning books with “threatening ideas” or that were “different” – everyone wants to think their ideas would be the kind that the Nazis would find threatening and want to stamp out, so these kind of bland descriptions tend to result in people assuming that of course the libraries being burnt would look a lot like their own.

Burning The Books discusses, among other things, how the burning of libraries is not just a symbolic act, but a brutally practical one for ripping out the knowledge base of those you declare others. When people ignore why the Nazis attacked the Institute, or, as some transphobes have, directly use the attack on the Institute and the other 1933 pyres as a metaphor to attack trans people with, that history continues to burn away. 

5 of Hearts: History of the Ozone Layer Part 0 – How Do We Explain Science?

You have probably heard of the ozone layer. The ozone layer hole over the Antarctic was one of the major environmental issues of the last century, and also one of our biggest environmental triumphs given the Southern ozone layer hole is now repairing itself; a good thing, given that a weakened ozone layer results in more harmful UV rays from the sun reaching the surface, resulting in an increase in skin cancers and other unpleasant diseases caused by it damaging our bodies. However, I think it would be useful to do a deep dive into the ozone layer, discussing what it is, how we discovered it, and what the future of it may hold.

When trying to explain things like the ozone layer, aspects of the material world that are not immediately observable in our everyday lives and thus can’t be connected to them as an opening throughline, there are two main ways of approaching it. One is just to go straight into describing the physical phenomenon itself, and then using that as a springboard for discussing how it was discovered and what its implications are as needed. The other is to take a more historical approach to it, describing how we obtained our current understanding through the discoveries and mistakes that got us here. None of these paths are the wrong way of presenting scientific understanding, but they do have different focuses and different rhetorical devices available to the writer. They can almost be imagined as separate paths to the same destination; all reaching the same place, but travelling through different surroundings and people will find some paths easier to walk than others.

Presenting science by linking it to things people are likely to have already experienced allows you to show how it matters to them directly, and provides a clear point of interest to then expand upon and explain the underlying processes and research with it as a touchstone. However, as noted above this approach struggles to explain things that are difficult to observe normally, even if their effects are highly important. In the case of the ozone layer, this is due to it being several kilometers above us and not being examinable from the ground without specialist equipment. It can also find you working backwards from a position that might not be the easiest to explain physically, and particularly for large scale and complicated issues it may well be easiest to start with the overall system and work your way down.

Taking an approach focusing on the physical processes first has the clear advantage of, well, doing exactly what it says on the tin. Communicating things takes time, energy and focus, and it is often easiest to just drill down to the core of what you want to present. It is also often the approach that scientists are most happy with; while knowing the history of how things are discovered and by who is important, when it comes to modern day research scientists generally focus on the current understanding and attempt to move on from it. The drawback is that you need to meet the people you are trying to communicate at your level, both in terms of understanding and motivation. It’s no good trying to engage your audience if you don’t both give them a structured explanation of the issue explained in a way a layperson can understand, and also explain why they should care beyond “X is amazing!”, which can certainly grab some people but no topic can grab all people all the time. This kind of approach to science communication, where we only look at what we know, or in some cases what we think we know, can also feed into some of the less healthy mindsets towards science, treating it as an ultimate arbiter of truth rather than a system of collecting evidence and creating theories to try and explain what is observed. 

This problem is one the third method, where not just the processes but the history of how these processes were discovered, is often good at handling. It provides a narrative style framework to explain why and how discoveries were made, what mistakes were made along the way, and how our knowledge and understanding of a topic have grown over time. However, this can also make the actual processes harder to explain, since the history of how we reached our modern day understanding of a topic can be very convoluted indeed and require explaining multiple additional fields of study or techniques. Additionally, one can run into the exact opposite issue as with the second method; while that might cover up the people behind the discoveries, you can also put too much attention on certain big name scientists, and ignore valuable work done in providing the evidence confirming a theory or indeed not go into the required detail on the physical process the piece was attempting to explain to the audience in the first place!


For the sake of this discussion, I will be mainly using the third method. The story of the discovery of the ozone layer and its depletion by human activities is refreshingly linear in many ways, and also provides us with a number of natural rest points in the narrative which I will use to dig in and explain some of the physical properties and mechanisms that might not be fully described during the historical sections. The ozone layer, as well as being important in itself, allows for some nice introductions for various other important ideas such as why the atmosphere is structured the way it is vertically, how we observe concentrations of chemicals whether in the lab, the atmosphere or indeed beyond it into the stars, why the South Pole is colder than the North, and the concept of atmospheric lifetimes which is important for understanding why certain greenhouse gases are more important than others and for understanding air pollution. 
These articles will go from ozone’s first discoveries, to the discovery of the ozone layer high above us, to why the ozone layer depletion was focused around the frozen wastes of Antarctica,  and at the denouement of the story, we have a political drama resulting in the Montreal Protocol, the most successful piece of environmental legislation ever created. Finally, we will look at what the situation stands at today, and how it may change in the future.

But our story begins next time in a laboratory in Germany, where a scientist smells a strange sweet odor, like that you might smell during a lightning storm…

10 of Diamonds: Top 13 Favourite Robot Wars Robots

Roboteers, Stand By

Three.
Two.
One.

ACTIVATE.

Robot Wars is a long running (admittedly with a decade long gap) british tv show created by the company Mentorn, first airing in 1998. The show saw members of the public known as roboteers building, driving and battling remote controlled robots in an arena surrounded by bulletproof glass. The show ran till 2004 originally with seven main series and two side series called Robot Wars Extreme, all airing on the BBC except for series 7 which was moved to Channel 5. In 2016, the show returned for three more yearly series.

The show is a cherished childhood memory, and while some of it doesn’t hold up to my recent rewatching of the entire series on youtube (I’ve had a lot of time during this pandemic), with a particular note being some awkward 90s era casual sexism that did improve over time, the robot fights are still as fun to watch as ever, with the buoyant and incredibly enthusiastic commentator Jonathan Pierce and an array of wonderful presenters such as Craig Charles, Philippa Forrester, Julia Reed, Dara O’Briain and Angela Scanlon. The show is fascinating to watch as a demonstration of the evolution of robotics throughout the period, with huge jumps between each series, and an even bigger one during the hiatus.

The stars of the show are, of course, the robots. The show has a set of robots called the House Robots that act as moving obstacles and, during the classic series, finished off immobilised robots for the delight of the crowd. I’ll probably cover the House Robots later, but today I want to look at the competitors which fought in that arena. This is a list of my personal favourite robots. Essentially anything that I can enjoy about them can get them on this list, from battling skill to design to the team to just having good memories about them. It began as a top 10, but with so many robots to choose from, over a hundred in series 3 alone, I ended up adding some extra slots. Please enjoy.

Continue reading

Queen of Hearts: Defining the Head of A Pin #1: Planets

Defining The Head Of A Pin is a series looking into the definitions of various words and concepts, discussing the reasoning behind them, and exploring the limits and limitations of both the definitions and the way we use them.

Definitions are tricky things. Quite a few discussions have decayed because the participants are working with differing definitions for the same word. In many circles, the question of what art is is one of great interest, whether that is artists exploring it in their work or politicians attempting to defund endowments for the arts on the grounds that what they are funding is not true art. But actually discussing what definitions are is…somewhat unpopular. When you poke at many definitions, you tend to find more definitions lurking underneath, like a fractal argument. Those that don’t are usually either artificially created, like well agreed upon country borders (when they are not well agreed upon, we get some of the worst arguments about definitions), or specific, well separated natural states, which are far rarer than one might expect.

So then, one might ask…who wants to spend ages discussing definitions? Who would want to make a whole series just poking at this?

Me! I do! I love poking at definitions, from working out who created them and for what purpose, to finding weird counter examples at the fuzzy edges of them. This is something I do for fun, even for definitions that don’t really have a practical purpose; ones where you may as well ask “How Many Angels Can Dance Upon The Head Of A Pin”* for all the good it does.

* Oh look, we have the series title!

For now though, let’s look at a definition that would seem to be nice and clear, based in the world we live in. In fact, it is directly related to the world we live on.

What is a Planet?

EQhf3LnXUAABcLO

Collage created by the author

Continue reading

7 of Hearts: A couple of thoughts on Collectathons and a few on Yooka-Laylee.

It is recieved wisdom that the collectathon genre of video games had its heyday back in the 1990s with games such as Super Mario 64, Donkey Kong 64, and the Banjo Kazooie series. As the name suggests, collectathons are a particular genre of games that revolve heavily around collecting various items scattered around the game, usually with a heavy emphasis on 3D platforming mechanics.

While the genre has fallen out of the limelight, it has definitely had a noticable impact on later games, particularly ones by Nintendo; both Mario Odsessy and Breath of The Wild (the latter of which I have a lot of thoughts on, good and bad) borrow heavily from the genre with their wide open areas filled with secrets to find. I’d go as far as to say that a lot of modern free-to-play and live-service games such as Destiny 2 use a lot of the same mechanics. The main difference between a live-service open world game like Fallout 76 or Destiny and Donkey Kong 64 is that Donkey Kong 64 didn’t drip feed you the content in order to keep you playing (and hopefully spending money on microtransactions).

The late 90s were also a formative period for me in terms of gaming; I was born in 1992, so collectathons (specifically Mario and Donkey Kong, but also all kinds of cheap and quick tie-in games, such as a PC game of Rugrats in Paris and a Gamecube game of Spongebob Squarepants the Movie) were some of my introductions to gaming itself. The genre feels nostalgic to me. They were also great for kids who might not be able to afford to buy many games, since the focus of them tended to be that they are big, and expansive, and crucially can take a long time to play.

There’s one crucial itch that collectathons scratch however, one that I think they really excelled at, and that’s giving the player a constant feeling of progress and completion. Because there are so many collectibles in the game, you are constantly getting that endorphine boost from obtaining them and completing objectives on the micro- (unlocking that door), meso- (completing a level) and macro- (completing the game) scales. This, combined with the general low difficulty levels, makes the genre really good for playing when you have depression (as I’ve been struggling with). It’s a task designed to be completable that provides clear feedback and a sense of accomplishment, and on bad days that can be really comforting.

I recently completed Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and so I was interested in finding another game that could fill in those days where nothing else is going to get done so I might as well lose myself in a collectathon, and so I picked up the game Yooka-Laylee on my Switch.

Yooka-Laylee (or Y-L from now on in this post, because I can’t be bothered to write out Yooka-Laylee all the time), like Breath of the Wild, was released in 2017. Published by Team 17, it was developed by Playtonic, a group formed by former developers from Rare, the company that made Donkey Kong 64 and Bango-Kazooie. The game is in general a throw back to the golden age of collectathons, as you might expect from the team that created some of the key games of that genre.

Honestly I don’t have that much to say about the game itself. It is very much a game spilt between two time periods. The characters all have weird, quirky designs, usually with a punny name attached to them, with the titular pair, the reptial Yooka and the fruit bat Laylee being a pun on ukulele. Sometimes this works nicely, like the World 1 boss Rampo, a giant stone face at the top of a ramp that you need to make your way up using the game’s main movement mechanic (a legimately charming move where Yooka rolls into a ball and Laylee runs on top of him, allowing the pair to move more quickly while making a fun squeeking noise). Sometimes it just feels weirdly stale, like the floating, talking clouds or the skeleton explorer.

Like, I can see where they are aiming but…I dunno, maybe it’s just because I’ve seen a lot of quirky games, and if I was coming to this fresh as a kid they’d seem really unique, but they still feel like the kind of designs people reach for often in this kind of game. And, for that matter, in quirky, brightly coloured children’s properties in general…except that brings us to the final class of character designs which are definitely not for kids, such as the character who you buy upgrades from who is a…Trouser snake. Literally, he’s a snake curled up so he’s in trousers named Trowzers. Then there’s the plants you meet (who are some of the few female characters in the game) who ignore you unless you are transformed into a plant, and then flirt with you while giving you tips. The game doesn’t seem to know what tone it’s going for. Are you appealing to adults or to kids? I think they’re going for both, but they don’t land it.

This tone problem carries on with the writing as well, particularly with Laylee. She’s abrasive and makes sarcastic and often cruel comments to other characters. I honestly kind of want to dislike her, but at the same time she is coupled with Yooka the chameleon. Yooka has no character. Well, I mean, he does, he’s the one who goes along with all the weird collectathon tasks that get thrown at them, which is technically a character trait I guess, but still. He’s so bland I prefer Laylee, the character who keeps making me go “…wait why am I doing this?”

Y-K is very self-aware, with a lot of references to the fact that it is a game; characters refer to levels, special moves, and the villains in particular are constantly mentioning “the next game” (which has been announced). The game opens with Yooka and Laylee relaxing in their new home, the remains of a pirate ship coincidentally directly outside Hivory Towers,  the corporate base of the big bad (a capitalist bee named Capital B). Their initial dialogue almost made me wonder if I was missing a game in the series. There’s no real introduction to the characters or why I should care, even by the standards of collectathons. I at least get why Donkey Kong wants his golden bananas back and to rescue the other kongs. The introduction to the game’s main goal, collecting the pages (or Pagies) of The One Book, is just that Laylee happened to find it in the pirate ship. She doesn’t know what it does, and honestly neither do I even now (there’s some vague mention of it being able to rewrite reality or something?), but off we go to save them from Capital B’s evil machine to suck in all the books of the world!

(Since I messed up the flow a bit by only mentioning Capital B in the last paragraph, I will say he’s a perfectly servicable villain for this kind of game. The parody of corporatism isn’t exactly subtle here; he is introduced in an actually pretty funny scene revealing a gold statue of himself in the lobby of Hivory Towers while berating his right hand man, Doctor Quack, a duck driving around in a gumball machine. I don’t get it either, but along with the saptient shopping trolleys in the third level, he’s one of the few designs I think really stands out.

While exploring the main hub of Ivory Towers, you sometimes get Capital B popping up and saying things like “Thanks for taking out that last minion, now I don’t have to give him a raise!”. It’s a nice bit of characterisation, but most of his lines could have easily come out of a particularly dull set of Dilbert strips. No, that’s unfair. I’m not going to compare the writers to Scott Adams, they don’t deserve that level of slam. And yes, I’m aware having a two paragraph long bracket break here also messes up the flow of the writing. I just don’t care.)

Still, all of this could be ignored fairly easily. I wasn’t coming to Y-K looking for deep writing, or even shallow writing. I was coming to it looking for fun platforming challenges that give me small bursts of that wonderful feeling of completing something.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Y-K actually fufils that very well. It isn’t bad, it’s just medicore. A lot of this is due to the awkwardness of the camera, which is definitely a throwback to the 90’s era of collectathons. This isn’t a good thing. Some of it is due to Yooka feeling overally responsive; there’s a lot of moments when I’m trying to do some precise jumps that get ruined due to what I think is a small change on the joystick, and that would be a small change in something like Mario, sending Yooka and Laylee skidding off a platform. Some of this might just be porting issues for the Nintendo Switch however.

The level designs are also not great. Part of the issue is that with the exception of the first level, they mostly just look the same throughout. Probably the worst one for this is the third level, set in a swamp that is supposed to be a maze, which has a constant murky green aesthetic and no real centrepiece for the level to help position yourself around. Furthermore, with the exception of the bosses, there’s no real variation in the enemies you face. There are bees floating around on metal platforms that shoot projectiles at you, there are jellyfish in the water, there are eyes which possess objects to attack you and every level has it’s own reskin of the default enemy, and that’s about it. The closest you get is some enemies wear hats, and they take two hits to kill. This adds to the feeling of homogenity the levels give.

It isn’t all bad. The second level features an area called the Icymetric Palace, a pun that actually really landed for me since the inside changes the game from a 3D platformer to an isometric viewpoint. Isometric games have a fixed camera position, angled away from all the axes of motion; up/down, forward/back and left/right, or the X,Y and Z axes. In Yooka-Laylee this is particularly welcome because it means you are no longer wrestling with the camera, removing one of the biggest issues with the game.

I do enjoy Kartos (“The God of Ore” as Laylee jokes), an old mine cart you can play a good old-fashioned minecart minigame with in each level. These are just really fun, simple games where you jump around collecting gems (again, with a fixed camera angle).

Another cool mechanic is being able to use Pagies to expand worlds. When you first unlock a level (represented by “Grand Tomes” that you can enter the pages of), you can’t access all it has to offer. However, if you have collected enough pagies, you can use them to expand the Tome, and thus open up new areas to explore, most notably unlocking the boss fights of the level.

I do feel this piece comes off as perhaps more critical than the game actually deserves. The main issue is a constant feeling of mediocrity. It has a lot of fun tools, particularly mechanically with the special moves you can unlock; both Yooka and Laylee get ones that play off their species, with Laylee getting ultrasound and flight based powers while Yooka can eat certain objects to gain temporary abilities like fire breathing, gets some tongue based platforming powers and of course, invisiblity. The problem is that the rest of the game just does nothing with them. The levels are compotent, but boring, like wandering around a town of identical houses. The enemies are bland, the writing just doesn’t quite get to where it wants to be, and the result is a game that I just struggle to care about even though it is of a genre I usually really enjoy.

EDIT: Added in the object possessing eyes to the list of enemies, and also remembered “oh yeah, I liked the Kartos bits!”

 

 

4 of Clubs: Rearranging the Diamonds and making collages.

4 of Clubs: Rearranging the Diamonds and making collages.

I’ve not been updating this much, partially due to a lack of time, partially due to laziness, and partially because I’ve not been doing small posts in between some big drafts: I have two face card posts in the works at the moment. I’m going to try to do some smaller posts, but I’m not going to promise anything.

What I am doing however is a slight rearrangement to the card suit system. I’m going to move posts primarily discussing works of fiction from being classed as Heart posts to being under Diamonds, leaving Hearts solely for non-fiction. This is partially because I don’t want every post to be Hearts, and partially for another reason.

img_20190625_0002.jpg

BOOSTER Talisman: Collage made using pictures from Physics World Magazine.

One of the things I’ve always  wanted to do for the blog is add artwork for the posts, preferably original. However, my art skills are generally lacking (see the previous post’s artwork), and I can’t afford to pay people to make it.

I was inspired by the cover of Sam Keeper’s most recent book, Who Killed The World, a series of essays on various X-punk genres (cyberpunk, steampunk, solarpunk), which has a fantastic collage as it’s cover, the focal piece being the winged porcupine that serves as the book’s mascot. The book itself is great, but the collage cover is most relevant to this post.

WhoKilledTheWorld

Essentially, when I can, I’m going to making collage covers for these posts. You can see one up above as an example. I’ve made two so far for upcoming posts, as well as BOOSTER Talisman up there, and they have been a lot of fun.

These collages have a couple of rules. First of all, I can’t just look for “the perfect picture”. When making them, I set myself a particular source of images, whether a particular group of magazines, junk mail, leaflets that I’ve collected up for free, ect. There is one exception to this rule, which is that I am allowed one image directly relevant to the topic at hand; e.g. in a Harry Potter post I am allowed one Harry Potter picture.

Secondly, I cannot buy new things for the collages (other than backing paper, scissors, glue and other tools). Everything I use must be either something I already own, something I got for free, or at most something I found in one of my town’s many charity shops.

Rule three is a simple one; I need to be able to explain how the collage represents the post. Not necessarily in the post itself, unless people want that, but I need to have an idea for how it works. In this case, the periodic table represents organisation, the gears are me actually posting something, the Booster in the middle represents my hopes I will obtain a boost to posting here, the talisman is there to represent me moving where I put discussions of fiction, and the hands are me putting this new thing together. The collages will all have the post’s respective card in them as well, as seen here with the four of clubs. This is the other reason I am moving fiction discussions from Hearts to Diamonds: I don’t want to run out of Hearts too quickly.

Finally, all collages in this first wave will be A4 landscape. There is a reason for this that I will discuss later on.

Note that not all posts will have a collage. Sometimes, like in the previous post, I will use a different medium. I would like to get better at all forms of arts and crafts, not just collages, so I’ll be branching out sometimes. They will still always involve the post’s card however. And sometimes I will just not have time; the low the card value of the post, the less likely I am to do a picture for it.

Additionally, I will be doing live streams of me making these collages. These will be held at the weekend in the evening, hopefully both Saturday and Sunday, using a camera looking down at my desk. It will be on my twitch, Heartofaquamarine.twitch.tv, and I’ll post on various places such as twitter to say what time it will be. Please, feel free to come and join!