Thursday, June 4, 2015

Austin in 2015

Having just moved into a new duplex, I'm enjoying my new location much closer to downtown. My commute to work is less than half the time it was when I was living south of William Cannon. And it's more scenic, too; I get to drive past the wall on Lamar and 5th on my way to work, where there's new graffiti practically every day.

That graffiti wall is actually one of the things that hasn't changed much about Austin since I got here in 2009. The things that have changed are also apparent on my morning drive. There are new condos everywhere. The Alamo Drafthouse on Lamar, while renovated, is tucked behind some of these giant people-holders. The area around Whole Foods is filled with expensive stores and apartments, and these stretch east until Congress, where the hotels and restaurants start (though I'm generalizing, of course there are hotels, bars and restaurants everywhere).

On Austin's subreddit, long-time Austinites like to say that the city has been changing for a while now. It stopped being the lazy, hip, small town depicted in Slacker (1991) a good bit before I got here. "We used to play music in each others' back yards because it was just something to do," said an old neighbor of mine, who's lived here for decades. "That was before we were the 'live music capital of the world.'"

The changes I've witnessed in Austin since I've arrived have been dramatic. To a certain extent, I knew they would be. I remember being in a photoshop class in my senior year of high school in Pennsylvania, searching Google to read all I could about the city where I was going to go to college. All the websites said that Austin was blowing up in ways that appealed to me: tech, music, film, and even video games. It was prosperous, on the rise.

For Austin, the difference between now and then is that I'm here now, and so is everybody else who was thinking along the same lines. Austin has been changing for a while, but in the near-six years I've lived here an important shift has occurred. This isn't merely another city in America anymore - it's a major cultural hub and a significant part of national consciousness.

Hundreds of people are still pouring in from both the west and east coasts every day. In the last two years we've gained both an In-N-Out AND a Shake Shack. Rent prices are soaring, and the gentrification of the East Side is very nearly complete. Downtown, there are hipsters everywhere ("hipsters" here meaning upper-class young folks who use non-mainstream culture as an accessory).

The city is straining in a few different ways from the influx of new people. The most obvious is our traffic problem. We need trains, but NIMBY-types and Tea-Partiers won't let it happen. Then there are other areas of strain: possible barbecue regulations, noise complaints (often coming from people who moved in next to music venues (??!?!?!)), and a rising cost of living that discourages the kinds of artists that made the city famous.

It is what it is. I don't feel too strongly about it either way. Honestly, I should have expected it when I decided to move somewhere that was "blowing up." Merely living in this city for the last six years has taught me more about the intersection of class, culture, and economics than did most courses I took in college. It has been fascinating to watch and learn, as well as a real joy - Austin is a fun place to live and work.

There are more ominous changes too. As I said before, Austin has become a major American cultural hub, comparable to Los Angeles or New York but on a much smaller scale. However, the kinds of people who come here nowadays are predominantly white, and rich. The East Side, previously and jokingly known to many as "the ghetto of Austin," is now one of the hippest and most expensive places to live. Poorer families haven't fared well against rising rent and property values, and minorities have been affected more than anybody else. To get to the point: there are very, very few black people in Austin right now, and that is not a good kind of weird.

There's something unsettling about the distinct lack of black people in this city, especially given the diversity in Houston. Austin is a center of predominantly white American culture, though with a fair bit of Mexican as well. When compared with the connotations of "paradise" and "oasis" that Austin tends to have, the lack of diversity takes on a somewhat foreboding character.

I think about these things as my attention wanders to Berlin, Germany. The things I hear from there remind me of the things I heard about Austin before I arrived: it's not too expensive, the tech industry is expanding, and it's a major cultural hub that's getting bigger every day. I think about sticking with Austin, riding it out until some point in my career. Then I think about starting again somewhere else, like I've done so many times already in my life, and getting to be part of all the change and excitement again. Berlin recently introduced rent caps. When I read that, something in my mind said, not for the first time, "see, Will, they're waiting for you."

When I say that I "get" something, it means that I know or have a very strong feeling that it's not going to surprise me anymore. I generally use it for media, but I think it can be applied to a changing city too. I "get" Austin. The trajectory is obvious now - mo money, mo problems. A few of my friends who "got" Austin, got out. Now they're in Seattle, Portland, Iowa. Some of my friends and coworkers talk about moving all the time.

For me, for now, it's perfect. Everything I could need or want is close by, including friends, food, parks, my steady job, and every entertainment. Austin is still pretty great. But I know I'll move on eventually, throwing myself into some other exciting part of the world.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Meditation in The Witcher 2

The Witcher 2 can be a frustrating game to get into, with its long intro sequence, unconventional combat, sophomoric sexuality, and lack of clear instructions. One of the features I initially shied away from is protagonist Geralt's ability to meditate.

Meditation in The Witcher 2 is a glorified inventory and stats menu, but the way combat is structured in the game (which I'm beginning to think is genius) demands you use it a certain way.

You get four options for meditation: alchemy, drink potions, meditate, character. In "alchemy" you make potions out of ingredients and in "drink potions" you do exactly that. "Character" is the skill level up menu, while simple "meditation" allows your character to wait until a certain period of the day.

Because The Witcher doesn't allow drinking potions or accessing these menus during combat, the player is forced to sit and prepare for battle in the wilderness beforehand, considering possible enemy types and combat strategies as they upgrade their skills then mix and drink potions. These potions can help protect Geralt in battle, as well as grant him certain strengths. They tend to last around 10 minutes (but I'm not very far in yet, this probably varies).

The difference between running into battle and sitting down beforehand to prepare and upgrade has a huge practical effect - Geralt can take more hits and do more damage. I also think there's a psychological effect on the player. By forcing them to sit before combat to organize resources, the game encourages the player to form a strategy. Thinking in game terms going forward in time, the player becomes immersed in the experience.

I've found meditation important in my life for a lot of reasons, but this game reflects one of them well - the need to have a moment of silence and consideration before acting on a task. I meditate every morning, focusing on my breath, letting thoughts rise and subside until I reach a point of relative stillness. I do this for about half an hour every day because it lets me shake off mental "residue" from the previous day and the night's dreams. It provides me a blank mental slate that allows me to give full consideration to the tasks and people of the day. Then when I go out and do those things, I can give them my full attention, feeling confident, prepared, but most importantly present.

That's why this meditation mechanic works well in The Witcher as a tool for immersion. It forces the player to be present in the game. Through alchemy it trains them to internalize the root mechanics of the game as they weigh them against the challenges ahead. These considerations fill the player's consciousness, drawing them further into the world. Then when they do engage in combat, it's so intense that they can't possibly focus on anything else without dying.

As I play The Witcher 2, I'm getting used to its quirks and mechanics and finding them rich in detail and it excites me.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Play and The Cosmic Calendar

I love the concept of the Cosmic Calendar as presented in Cosmos. It does a good job of making comprehendible something that's impossible to comprehend - the billions and billions of years it took to get where we are today. The Cosmic Calendar is a visual metaphor that divides up the history of the universe into the 365 days of the gregorian calendar. All of human civilization takes place on the last day, December 31st. Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed all did their thing within the last five SECONDS of this calendar.

It's mind-boggling.

On the first episode of the new Cosmos, Neil Degrasse Tyson mentioned that sex - referring to the biological process of cellular reproduction, minus the bulk of its cultural meaning to us - is as old as early November. That's about 2 billion years ago. And all of humanity, starting with apes? About 5 million years, or starting in the morning on December 31st.

So I wondered, with all that time between the beginning of sex and the beginnings of humanity, when did Play come along? Huizinga's Homo Ludens begins thusly: "Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequaty defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing. We can safely assert, even, that human civilization has added no essential feature to the general idea of play. Animals play just like men."

Despite this compelling introduction, Huizinga's book is a historical account of play in solely the timeline of human civilization and culture. He accounts for play in the last few thousand years, but before that? When did the animals learn to play? Is play as old as multicellular organisms?

What if it's older than sex?

Maybe it's only as old as consciousness itself. For Huizinga says, "in play, there's always something at play." Perhaps the object of play, whether a concept or a ball, requires a field of consciousness to exist in. Or perhaps play gave rise to consciousness. I'm shooting in the dark here.

Still, it's an interesting question. How old is play? To answer this question would shed light on the nature of play itself.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Saga: Vol. 3

I went to Dragon's Lair last night to pick up Saga volume 3, by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. Saga is a modern space opera that follows a pair of forbidden lovers and their baby across the galaxy, with bounty hunters, royals, and now a pair of tabloid journalists in hot pursuit.

Vaughn has a way with family themes and cheap-shot pathos (a la Pride of Baghdad) that makes this book a total page turner. While set in a fantastic sci-fi universe with magical creatures and badass technology, the sci-fi element of these books takes backseat to the modern, human story. These characters use smart-phones, have crazy sex, curse endlessly, and have to call roadside assistance when their spaceships break down. They have family arguments and have to deal with love, jealousy, and who changes the baby. Staples' artwork does a brilliant job conveying extremely personal emotions, some I'm not sure I've seen in comic format before.

Yet Saga is endlessly romantic. Our main characters are beautiful, have magical powers, know the right thing to say more than half the time, and are generally heroic. The man has horns on his head and the woman has wings on her back. They could only exist in this fantastical space opera universe, filled with unexpected creatures, obstacles, and technology. Sometimes they verge on a little too perfect - Vaughn seems to know exactly which heartstring to pull next. Even their mistakes are adorable.

This is a book that stokes the imagination. It knows what it's doing, too: one of the central themes is the power of the written word to inspire people. Our heroes go against the grain of their respective societies, and even the ruthless killers that pursue them have to reconsider the way they do things. Everybody has to step outside of their comfort zones, including the arrogant Prince Robot IV. And outside of that comfort zone, characters in this saga seem to tend toward compassion and deep emotional understanding. There's a lot of crying and reconciliation, and a lot of our heroes finding the inner strength they need to continue.

It's good book, I recommend it.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Thoughts on The Stanley Parable

A couple days ago, after playing it over a couple sittings, and even suspecting that I wasn't done with it, I decided to jot down all the thoughts bouncing around my head about this game. It really affected me in a way that games usually don't. The following writing is raw and unrevised.

The Stanley Parable has lodged itself in my subconscious and is making me revisit all the things I thought I had figured out about freedom and choice. While the game is, on its face, a kind of weird commentary on the nature of choice in games, I think it actually works better as a meditation on freedom and choice in life.

Part of the challenge in figuring out what The Stanley Parable means is that it's constantly telling me what it means - which means I have to re-frame the question of what it means to incorporate the fact that it's telling me what it means. It gets pretty meta and confusing, but I believe that's part of the point.

A room with two doors looks like a choice. Pick a door and go in and get your special ending. But then, after the "ending" is over, you're presented with the same choice again. The Stanley Parable knows it's a game, and it wants me to play it over and over again. The nature of choice and meaning determines that whatever I choose will be meaningful because it was chosen in lieu of another choice. But then, what happens when the same choice is presented again? And again?

The abundance of that first choice, left door or right, makes the choice somewhat meaningless. After playing the game over and over again, I know what's going to happen if I choose the left door or the right. There's no risk, and so no reward.

Yet the moment when the first choice in the game became meaningless to me is the moment when the game became meaningful. At that moment, I asked myself "if my choices are meaningless, why am I still playing?" The only answer I could come up with was that I wanted to see what would happen. The choice at that point was a choice to keep playing.

The genius of The Stanley Parable isn't that it's a clever commentary on soul-crushing desk jobs, video game narratives, or even itself. The Stanley Parable is genius because it can do nothing but question its own existence. At every level the game unravels itself, working upward, until I, the player, question the nature of my own freedom and choices. It makes me think: even if my life is stressful, even if crazy stuff is happening around me, maybe the only choice that really matters is the one I make to get out of bed every day.

The game makes me make a version of that choice right in front of it. If I played the game forever, it would be canonical within the game's story. I could live The Stanley Parable, pushing buttons in a certain order to keep the game going. But choosing to turn off The Stanley Parable is a choice to play a different game, whether it be Real-Life or something else on Steam. At one point, it even asks me to. Even when I turn it off, I'm under its spell.

Monday, October 7, 2013


My friend Robin's game Soundself went to Burning Man this year. It's an awesome project and a lot of people are astounded with it. The book full of well-wishers is real, and huge.

I helped build a third of the installation for a test run right before one of the Indiecade Annex parties. I'm in this video lumbering around somewhere. (I'm also in the beginning of the kickstarter video). I'm surprised I haven't posted about this game before actually.

The game is still a work in progress. Instead of a videogame, Robin is calling it a "videodream," a name I suggested after hearing his working term was "experiential non-game." His definition is fascinating. But before I say anything about genre, I want to talk about Soundself specifically.

I think Soundself can best be described as a kind of mirror. It listens to the player and reflects its algorithmic interpretation. The psychedelic kaleidoscopic visuals react dynamically to qualities in one's voice.

The dream is interesting for a few reasons. From one angle, Soundself feels like it's alive, communicating with you in a very intimate way. From another, it feels like a mirror, almost as if it's showing you a picture of your soul. It's a playful, relaxing, therapeutic experience at the moment. Having to sustain even the weakest note (especially in front of other people) and seeing the beauty that comes out of that sustained effort is a special experience. (Keep in mind I've only played it in public settings so my experience reflects that).

I think Robin is going for something a lot more profound than "therapeutic" though. Is it a mirror of the soul? Is it something alive, with something to say about life? Is it a tool for discovering greater truths? I'm excited to see what he comes up with. Apparently the visuals are completely revamped from when I played it.

Robin's game (dream) is part of a nascent genre. but oh snap I just got my iPhone, hold on.