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.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Does Austin Suck?

Whiskey-infused bacon. Why is that cool? What may once have been a delicacy made on a hot-plate next to some piss jugs in a dorm room is, in Austin, an artisanal treat. Things like whiskey infused bacon, or fried PB&J sandwiches, or the ability to buy breakfast tacos anywhere, or the lineup at any given venue on any given night: these may vary in quality, and may not even justify their existences, but the ability to experience these things says something about Austin.
It’s a sweltering, congested sub-metropolis full of slack-asses and yuppies who simultaneously take themselves too seriously and not seriously enough. It's a place where spending $11 on a sandwich is considered a societal good. - friend and fellow former KVRX DJ Luke Winkie, in an article for Vice.
What's not said in that quote is that $3 of those dollars may have gone in the tip jar of the food stand he bought it from. There are tip jars EVERYWHERE in Austin. It won't be long until people start wearing them as accessories. But that's part of the point that I'm getting at:

Austin is full of believers. Yes, it's full of slackers too, and yes, there is a sort of "inertia":
Living in a city where things are actually expected of you is hard. It’s much easier to blame your professional and personal failings on the lack of inertia in Austin. It’s just so much nicer to hunker down in an inclusive local scene than trying to reach your potential as a human. Austin is like the safety school of life.
But what's better than an inclusive local scene? Really? Inclusive local scenes are great! Fantastic! We have five to eight farmers' markets a week, food trucks all over the city, tech startups everywhere, small and growing businesses of all kinds, meetups and places to perform... because people believe in the dream.
You don’t give a shit about whiskey-infused bacon. You’re pretending to, because that’s what keeps the whole city from feeling like a big lie.
Whiskey-infused bacon isn't important. It's what whiskey-infused bacon represents on a macro scale that's important. It's the thing that's keeping people in this city employed. It's what's bringing millions of dollars into town. People believe in each other. They're giving each other the benefit of the doubt. If you have a stupid idea, just go ahead and do it - somebody will pay for it (gourmet donuts the size of your head? Duh!).  And if not, just wait until night when everybody's drunk. In this town, that's a winning formula.
Nobody has a clue what his or her job is... When you build a city on the promise of employing every vague Comm-degree'd asshole in America, ye will reap what ye sow... When you settle down here you separate yourself from any childhood aspirations and settle with a job you're not sure actually exists.
Luke is talking about himself here, but that doesn't mean he's wrong. The way young people in this city get paid is different than the typical model in America. Yes, like everywhere else, work = pay. But in Austin the question of "work" and "jobs" is an existential one. People, at least people in their 20s (like myself), don't tend to hold down stable 9-to-5 jobs. A lot of young people hold down some kind of part-time job, then do other things for money to make up the gap. "Freelancing" is the word here. I know journalists, game developers, graphic designers, sound engineers, directors and people who wear a few kinds of figurative hats. I don't tend to agree with the Robert Heinlein quote about how a person should "...be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion," etc, but in Austin it certainly helps.

The logic is this: It's hard to find a job here... so why not go into business for yourself?

There lies the place on the venn-diagram where the "big lie" overlaps with the "big dream." No, Austin is not some jobs metropolis where they're handing out financial security to everybody with a degree and an idea. It's nothing like that. It's a place where enough people believe in the dream that they're willing to give everybody a chance, because then people will give them a chance. You can call it lowering your standards, or "taking yourself seriously and not seriously enough," or being a "slack-ass", or "a series of personal and financial failings", but that would be looking at it with a rule set designed for a different kind of game.

Austin is a place where you, as a young person developing your artistic and professional voice, can hustle your bullshit and people will give you a shot. And they'll give everybody else a shot, and you'll give 'em all a shot as well because that's what's keeping everything afloat.

And really... the only safety net in this city is the one you brought in with you. I've seen people from out of town move in, try the dream, fail, and move right back out of town. Some people don't have the financial security, the immense privilege, the know-how, or the skills (or degree) to do well here. But I've also seen plenty of people work hard and flourish. Luke Winkie is one of them.

When I moved here, a friend was talking to me about the hipster situation here (hipsters were more of a going concern back then). We were talking about how hipsters are defined by cascading irony, and how that's different in Austin. "Hipster" doesn't quite describe the Austinite. Neither does "hip," really. As ridiculous as they can be sometimes, people here mean it when they do and consume things.

Sometimes I can't shake the feeling that I'm living in Monty Python's camelot: "...it is a silly place." This is not what I was told adult life looks like. Maybe one day I'll graduate to that realm.

Until then I'm going to try to get a non-job and make enough money to start my own business.

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.