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kottke.org posts about video games

A history of video game speed runs

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 05, 2018

If you’ve never seen a video game speed run before, a decent place to start is this computer-assisted Metroid run, completing the game in less than ten minutes through an artful mix of exploiting glitches and improbably precise movement, shooting, and jumping.

Or, if you want to see a speed run broken down piece by piece, try this half-hour video where speedrunner Bismuth breaks down how his fellow runner Kosmic broke the world record for the fastest unassisted Super Mario Bros. run. As Jason wrote:

If you forget the video game part of it and all the negative connotations you might have about that, you get to see the collective effort of thousands of people over more than three decades who have studied a thing right down to the bare metal so that one person, standing on the shoulders of giants in a near-perfect performance, can do something no one has ever done before.

But if you want to understand how speed run culture got going? Ah, for that you need this document by Kat Brewster. While people always gunned for high scores and world records, almost as long as we’ve had games of any sort, speed run culture as it exists today starts with Usenet forums and obsessive players of the first-person shooters Wolfenstein 3D and especially Doom, which introduced the innovation of making it easy for players to record their gameplay.

Doom also posted a “par time” statistic on its end-of-level screens, taking the best time of designer John Romero and challenging players to beat it.

This is a theme which comes up again and again from speedrunners. ‘It’s a challenge,’ they say. ‘How fast can I get it?’ It’s a natural question to ask. When it comes to speedrunning games, there is no rulebook, no guide. There’s simply one possible way to do it, or one route which might be better than another. The game ceases to be the game it was authored to be, and becomes the landscape and language for an entirely separate practice. Players take what is given, and build something else out of it. It’s a kind of subversion, a subtle power play of guerrilla game design.

Now, there are whole companies built on sharing video game play results, from the dedicated platform Twitch to a not insignificant corner of YouTube.

My favorite part of Brewster’s story is her contrast between Doom (mostly glitchless, which makes speedruns both more constrained and more accessible — there’s no secret knowledge or special tricks) and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which is full of glitches. Documenting all these potential shortcuts was an obsession of the Zelda community in the mid-2000s, centering around the Speed Demos Archive forums, and a brand-new video sharing site called YouTube.

With both a community and the capability for easy video sharing in hand, folk experimentation could begin. Narcissa [Wright] credits the inspiration for early experimentation in the game to Kazooie’s videos, and specifically, certain jumps. Narcissa describes this period of time from 2006 to 2008 as one of rich experimentation. Few speedruns were actually attempted in this two year period, opting instead for creating a catalog of glitches from hours of chipping away at the game environment, or planning possible routes with what they knew already. “In fact,” she said in a video commentary, “it felt more like we were doing science than anything else.”

From an initial glitchless runthrough of about five hours in 2006, speedrunners can now exploit these built-in accidental hacks to finish the game in less than 17 minutes. That’s a different kind of fun.

How constraints lead to creativity: making music for Super Nintendo games

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2018

In this short video, Evan Puschak talks about how music is made for Super Nintendo games. That system was first released in 1990 and the audio chips could only hold 64 KB of information, only enough room for beeps, boops, and very short samples. But composers like David Wise, whose soundtrack for the Donkey Kong Country series of games is on many lists of the best video game music, were able to make the SNES sing despite its limited capabilities.

Enhance!

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2018

Enhance

Nicole He has built a voice-controlled game called Enhance in which you speak commands to zoom & enhance images to look for secret codes, just like a detective on a CSI TV show. I bet if you try this in your open plan office, your coworkers will look at you like you’re nuts for a sec but will soon gather around, shouting their own commands at the computer. After all, everyone wants to enhance:

TANK, a 2-minute visual homage to 80s vector arcade games (and Tron)

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 19, 2018

TANK is a short animation by Stu Maschwitz that’s based on the look of vector arcade games from the 80s like Battlezone, Tempest, Asteroids, and Star Wars. And a sprinkling of Tron for good measure.

If you’re interested in how the video was made, Maschwitz did a 20-minute making of video that’s actually really interesting. I don’t know why I said “actually” there…I love watching how creative people make things. Maybe because the length is daunting? Anyway, how he reverse engineers this style using a modern visual effects software package is worth watching…the attention to detail is *kisses fingers*.

The way I made TANK is a little crazy. I made it entirely in Adobe After Effects, with equal parts animation elbow grease and nerdy expressions madness. This video is part behind-the-scenes, part After Effects tutorial, and part therapy session.

Maschwitz also shared some of assets & software he used, including an After Effects template you can use to make your own vector animations.

See also recreating the Asteroids arcade game with a laser. (thx, ben)

My media diet for Spring 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2018

I’ve been keeping track of every media thing I “consume”, so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I went to Florida with my kids and we did the Harry Potter thing at Universal & visited the Space Coast. I stopped watching Mr. Robot s03 after two episodes. Still making my way through Star Trek: Voyager when I want something uncomplicated to watch in the evening. (Ignore the letter grades, they suck.)

The Americans. This season, the show’s last, has been fantastic. It’s idiotic to say The Americans is the best show on TV with like 50,000 shows on Netflix alone, but after five strong seasons and this finish, they’ve earned it. (A)

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: The Podcast. I wrote an appreciation of this a few weeks ago. (A-)

Am I There Yet? by Mari Andrew. I love Andrew’s Instagram feed but even so, her book surprised me with timeless and universal themes woven into her life story. (A-)

The Handmaid’s Tale. The first season of this show was great and season two picks up right where it left off. I binged the first six episodes of this across two nights and came away shellshocked. (A)

Wild Wild Country. Not sure why anyone followed the Bhagwan anywhere, but Sheela on the other hand… There were several interesting threads in this documentary that didn’t quite get pulled together in the final episode. (B+)

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida. The tickets for this were incredibly expensive and worth every damn penny. This was very nearly a religious experience. (A+)

Downsizing. I wanted more from this about the implications of the evolution of humans into nano sapiens. Still, better than many critics & audiences suggested. (B)

Brain It On. I saw my daughter playing this physics puzzler on her iPad and basically grabbed it away from her and played for 24 straight hours. (A-)

Westworld. Watching this every week feels like a chore. Even though the safeties are off, everything that happens in the parks feels consequence-free. I don’t care about the robots. Should I? (C+)

Fantastic Mr. Fox. Stop-motion animation might be Anderson’s natural medium because he can shoot everything *exactly* like he wants. (A-)

Isle of Dogs. Loved this. The style of it made me want to design something amazing. I could have watched the sushi-making scene for like 15 more minutes. (A)

On Margins - The Making of Rebel Girls. Craig Mod talks to co-creator Elena Favilli about how Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls came about and came to be so successful. (B+)

L’Express. A classic Montreal restaurant. Best steak frites I’ve had in a long while. (A-)

Babylon Berlin. Super stylish. The dance scene in the second episode is amazing. The best things about the show are the music and the world-building in the first few episodes. (B+)

Death of Stalin. I love that people still make films like this. Most of the audience I saw this with had no idea what to make of it or why a few people were laughing so hard at some parts. (B+)

Kennedy Space Center. The solar eclipse last summer awakened the space/astronomy nerd in me, so this visit was incredible. We saw a Space Shuttle, a Saturn V rocket, the VAB, and a whole mess of other great things. Thinking of going back for their Astronaut Training Experience. (A+)

Avengers: Infinity War. The ending of this left me stunned…it broke the fourth wall in a unique way. (B+)

A Quiet Place. This entire movie is a metaphor for trying to keep small children quiet on a long plane flight. (B)

Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire Evans. This book demonstrates that telling the story of technology, programming, and the internet mainly through the many women who helped build it all is just as plausible and truthful as telling the traditionally women-free tale we’ve typically been exposed to. (B+)

Songs of the Years, 1925-2018. So glad this playlist is back in my life. (A-)

The Avengers. I’d forgotten where all the Infinity Stones came from, so I’ve gone back and watched this, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the first Thor movie. Fascinating to see the changes in the filmmaking and pacing. If Infinity War had been made with the pace of Thor (directed by Kenneth Branagh!), it would have been 5 hours long. (B+)

Caliphate. Gripping and disturbing and very nearly a must-listen. But I keep showing up places shellshocked after listening to it in the car. (A)

AWB OneSky Reflector Telescope. When I looked through this for the first time at the Moon, my first thought was “WHOA”. My second was “I should have bought a more powerful telescope”. Luckily I can just buy more lenses for it… (A)

I’ve been doing this for more than a year now! Past installments of my media diet can be found here.

MTA Country, a game about the NYC subway

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2018

MTA Country

Everyday Arcade, which is responsible for The GOP Arcade (sample game titles include The Voter Suppression Trail and Thoughts & Prayers: The Game!), has designed a new game called MTA Country. Based on the SNES title Donkey Kong Country, the goal of MTA Country is to guide Andrew Cuomo, Bill de Blasio, and celebrity straphanger Gregg Turkin past hazards like track fires and stalled trains to their destination. That ending though… Hmm…

The political alignments of Mario Kart characters

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2018

In this short video, Art House Politics goes through all of the characters in Mario Kart 8 and describes their political alignments.

Mario is just your average working class guy, like “oh get the government off my back” kinda guy. Luigi is a Republican, like a nerdy technocratic…like he cares about the debt to GDP ratio. Princess Peach: monarchist. Daisy is an environmentalist. Rosalina is a flat-earther. Tanooki Mario would only care about kink shaming. Cat Peach is alt-right, but one of those female alt-right YouTube personalities that are really popular.

We found love in a hopeless battle royale game

posted by Jason Kottke   May 10, 2018

I love this little piece by Robin Sloan about the world’s current video game obsession Fortnite Battle Royale, its relation to Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem trilogy, and how humans can turn zero-sum situations into nonzero-sum ones.

Worse, and predictably: I’d offer my heart and it would be accepted — I knew this because I received a heart in return, sometimes a merry dance emote — and then, delighted with our teamwork, I would turn around and … get blasted in the back.

I tried this negotiation many times with no success at all and my “Is this it?” curdled into “Is this us?” These were just the rules of the game — its very design — but even so. What a dire environment. What a cruel species!

Then, one night, it worked. And, in many games since, it’s worked again. Mostly I get blasted, but sometimes I don’t, and when I don’t, the possibilities bloom. Sometimes, after we face off and stand down, the other player and I go our separate ways. More frequently, we stick together. I’ve crossed half the map with impromptu allies.

A book I think about a lot is Robert Wright’s Nonzero, in which he argues, contrary to conventional wisdom about capitalistic competition, that much of human progress comes about through cooperation and that the effect increases as the complexity of the possible cooperation increases. As Sloan notes, the brute force of 1 vs 1 vs 1 vs 1 can get a bit boring after awhile, but add a simple way to communicate with other players and suddenly there’s more you can do with the game.

A world record Super Mario Bros speedrun explained

posted by Jason Kottke   May 10, 2018

In this 27-minute video, Bismuth explains how fellow speedrunner Kosmic achieved the world record for the fastest Super Mario Bros game ever. 27 minutes may sound daunting, but if you’ve ever played SMB more than casually, it’s fascinating. As Craig Mod said, “it’s like watching a swiss clock maker explain his machine”.

Heck, even if you aren’t into video games it’s pretty interesting. Here’s why. One of the reasons for the popularity of sports and sports media (analysis, etc.) is that, unlike many other human endeavors, it’s relatively easy for spectators to judge and compare and analyze athletes’ performances, to see how & why they fail, where they might improve, and how they stack up against past performances and records. This is similar to a point David Foster Wallace made in his piece about tennis player Tracy Austin (collected in Consider the Lobster):

Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we Americans revere — fastest, strongest — and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way. Questions of the best plumber or best managerial accountant are impossible even to define, whereas the best relief pitcher, free-throw shooter, or female tennis player is, at any given time, a matter of public statistical record. Top athletes fascinate us by appealing to our twin compulsions with competitive superiority and hard data.

In the video analysis of this speedrun, if you forget the video game part of it and all the negative connotations you might have about that, you get to see the collective effort of thousands of people over more than three decades who have studied a thing right down to the bare metal so that one person, standing on the shoulders of giants in a near-perfect performance, can do something no one has ever done before. Progress and understanding by groups of people happens exactly like this in manufacturing, art, science, engineering, design, social science, literature, and every other collective human endeavor…it’s what humans do. But since playing sports and video games is such a universal experience and you get to see it all happening right on the screen in front of you, it’s perhaps easier to grok SMB speedrun innovations more quickly than, say, how assembly line manufacturing has improved since 2000, recent innovations in art, how we got from the flip phone to iPhone X in only 10 years, or how CRISPR happened.

Anyway, that video is interesting & well done, you should watch it, the end.

One Hour One Life

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 28, 2018

Jason Rohrer, one of the most well-regarded indie video game makers out there (he made Passage, which is incredibly poignant for a video game that lasts only 5 minutes), has just released his latest game, One Hour One Life. Rohrer bills the game as “a multiplayer survival game of parenting and civilization building”. Here’s the trailer:

This game is about playing one small part in a much larger story. You only live an hour, but time and space in this game is infinite. You can only do so much in one lifetime, but the tech tree in this game will take hundreds of generations to fully explore. This game is also about family trees. Having a mother who takes care of you as a baby, and hopefully taking care of a baby yourself later in life. And your mother is another player. And your baby is another player. Building something to use in your lifetime, but inevitably realizing that, in the end, what you build is not for YOU, but for your children and all the countless others that will come after you. Proudly using your grandfather’s ax, and then passing it on to your own grandchild as the end of your life nears.

And looking at each life as a unique story. I was this kid born in this situation, but I eventually grew up. I built a bakery near the wheat fields. Over time, I watched my grandparents and parents grow old and die. I had some kids of my own along the way, but they are grown now… and look at my character now! She’s an old woman. What a life passed by in this little hour of mine. After I die, this life will be over and gone forever. I can be born again, but I can never live this unique story again. Everything’s changing. I’ll be born as a different person in a different place and different time, with another unique story to experience in the next hour…

That sounds kind of amazing, like a cross between Passage and something like Spore or Everything. And dare I say it’s a little Game Neverending-ish as well?

And check out the “thinking behind One Hour One Life” section at the bottom of the home page. It includes links to videos on the meaning of human life, Milton Friedman’s views on market capitalism (a riff on I, Pencil), and the Primitive Technology guy. (via andy)

Jelly Super Mario Bros

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 26, 2018

What if World 1-1 in Super Mario Bros was made entirely of Jello? It would look a little something like this:

That’s from Stefan Hedman’s Jelly Mario, a playable demo of Super Mario with really elastic in-game physics (up arrow to jump, left and right to move). It’s not exactly compelling gameplay, but it is super fun to pilot a drunken Mario around to off-kilter SMB theme music. (via prosthetic knowledge)

Update: Since posting this, the rest of World 1-1 has been added as well as the first part of World 1-2.

8-bit scenes from TV shows

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 21, 2018

Pixel Art TV

Pixel Art TV

Pixel Art TV

Pixel Art TV

For his Pixel Art TV project, Gustavo Viselner illustrates scenes from TV shows in a pixelized video game style. Looks like he’s done scenes from Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, Breaking Bad, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Seinfeld, Star Trek, and several others. (via @john_overholt)

Update: See also The Screenshots, a project by Jon Haddock from 2000 in which scenes from historical & fictional events are rendered in a The Sims-like style. (via @dens)

My recent media diet, special Black Panther & Olympics edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2018

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I have fallen off the book reading wagon…I really really need to find some time to start reading more. Maybe after the Olympics are done and I’ve made it through all of the levels in Alto’s Odyssey

2018 Winter Olympic Games. Yes, the Olympics are corrupt & corporate and NBC’s coverage is often lacking, but on the other hand, all of America gets a two-week look at all of these amazing women, immigrants, children of immigrants, and openly gay athletes (some of them just children) displaying many different kinds of femininity and masculinity while performing amazing feats and suffering humbling defeats. The Olympics, as the joke goes, is the future that liberals want and America is watching and loving it. (A-)

Black Panther. Really entertaining and affecting after an expositional slow start. (B+)

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. Leonardo da Vinci is not overrated. (B+)

Alto’s Odyssey. A worthy successor to one of my favorite games. (A-)

Reply All: The Bitcoin Hunter. Is admitting that you bought illegal drugs on Silk Road a thing you can do without the risk of being prosecuted? (B+)

Black Panther The Album. I can’t wait to drive around playing this as loud as I can. Also, based on my experience, movies should put more effort into their soundtracks. The really good ones (like this one) inspire repeat viewings and cause me to remember the movie more fondly. (A-)

Paddington. If more people in the UK over 65 had watched Paddington, Brexit wouldn’t have happened. (A-)

Paddington 2. Seriously, these Paddington movies are better than they have any right to be. Smart and lots of heart. (B+)

See You in the Cosmos. Read this to the kids as a bedtime story over the past few months. We all loved it. Rocketry, Carl Sagan, the Voyager Golden Record…what’s not to like? (A-)

Allied. Bland and forgettable. (C-)

On Being: interview with Isabel Wilkerson. An excellent interview of the author of The Warmth of Other Suns, one of the best books I’ve read in recent years. (A-)

Phantom Thread soundtrack. More strong work by Jonny Greenwood. But don’t listen if you want something upbeat. (B+)

Song Exploder. A podcast where musicians break down their well-known songs. Always solid. I recently caught the episodes about the Stranger Things theme song and DJ Shadow. Oh, and I’m going to give the Arrival score a listen soon. (A-)

Apollo 13. One of my I’ll-watch-this-whenever-it’s-on movies. Love the scientific and engineering detective scenes. (B+)

Alias Grace. Several people asserted this was a better Margaret Atwood adaptation than The Handmaid’s Tale, but I didn’t think so. (B)

I, Tonya. I enjoyed this more than I thought I would. (A-)

Goodthreads T-shirt. Goodthreads is one of Amazon’s house brands. Ordered a couple of these after a recommendation from Clayton Cubbitt and damn if they’re not some of the most comfortable and best-fitting t-shirts I’ve ever worn. And only $12! My new go-to. (A-)

Sleep. One of the best things I’ve done for my work and my sanity is going to bed at about the same time every night and getting at least 6.5 hours (and often 7-8 hours) of sleep every night. (A+)

This American Life: Chip in My Brain. Holy parenting nightmare. (B+)

Professor Marston & The Wonder Women. The surprising role of BDSM in the development of Wonder Woman. (B+)

Atomic Blonde. John Wick-like. I wanted to like this more but the plot was a little muddled. (B)

SpaceX launch of Falcon Heavy. That choreographed double booster landing… (A)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

Really excited for Alto’s Odyssey, the sequel to Alto’s Adventure

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 12, 2018

The long-awaited sequel to Alto’s Adventure is coming out soon! Alto’s Odyssey will be out on Feb 22nd and is available for pre-order on the App Store. The game takes place in the desert and has a very similar vibe to the original, which is one of my top five favorite video games of all time.

I’ve played Alto’s Adventure a lot over the past year and a half. Like very a lot. At first, I played because the game was fun and I wanted to beat it. But eventually, I started playing the game when I was stressed or anxious. It became a form of meditation for me; playing cleared my mind and refocused my attention on the present. Even the seemingly stressful elements in the game became calming. The Elders, who spring up to give chase every few minutes, I don’t even notice anymore…which has become a metaphorical reminder for me to focus on my actions and what I can control and not worry about outside influences I can’t control.

Here’s the trailer for Alto’s Odyssey, which shows many of the new gameplay elements like bounce-able balloons, walls you can ride, water features, etc.:

I’ve been playing the beta version of Alto’s Odyssey for the past few days and while I can’t say much about it, I will share that fans of the original will be very pleased. It strikes a good balance between familiarity and novelty. So go forth and pre-order!

The history and lifecycle of CRT television sets

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 09, 2018

Sony TV Guide.JPG

Adi Robertson at The Verge has a fun, informative history of old cathode ray tube television sets, plus the people who study them, keep them working, and continue to use them. One maybe-surprising constituency: retro gamers.

Old games may look torn or feel laggy on a new TV. That’s in part because LCD screens process an entire frame of an image and then display it, rather than receiving a signal and drawing it right away.

Some games are completely dependent on the display technology. One of the best-known examples is Duck Hunt, which uses Nintendo’s Zapper light gun. When players pull the trigger, the entire screen briefly flashes black, then a white square appears at the “duck’s” location. If the optical sensor detects a quick black-then-white pattern, it’s a hit. The entire Zapper system is coded for a CRT’s super fast refresh rate, and it doesn’t work on new LCD TVs without significant DIY modification.

Old-school arcades, too, need to constantly maintain and replace their old tube monitors. Weirdly, this makes old television sets extremely valuable, even as it’s more and more difficult to have them recycled or thrown away.

“CRTs are essentially the bane of the electronic recycling industry,” says Andrew Orben, director of business development at Tekovery, one of the companies Barcade uses to dispose of irrevocably broken hardware. The tubes contain toxic metals that could leach into a dump site, and 18 states specifically ban sending them to landfills. They’re made of raw materials that are often impossible to sell at a profit, primarily glass that’s mixed with several pounds of lead.

They’re also insanely heavy. Even in 2002, a 40” tube TV would weigh more than 300 pounds. (Bigger TVs used to be rear-projections, remember?)

An appreciation of the emergent beauty of Tetris

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2018

Martin Hollis has fallen in love with Tetris. In this series of tweets, he explains that “Tetris is good because of the emergent things that arise from simple rules”.

In the beginning, you gather heuristics like ‘try to keep the surface flat and without overhangs, and without holes’. These rules of thumbs are emergent.

As you learn more, you realize that every one of your heuristics is wrong, and in the right circumstances a hole can be built and destroyed in two moves, or in more, or in less, to your considerable advantage.

Ultimately, everything becomes dynamic, and the rules of best play turn out to be baroque. The complexity seems to me to be large compared to any other video game.

Hollis also rightly notes that like other great games, sports, and human endeavors, Tetris boils down to a battle with the self, which I’ve previously stated, perhaps absurdly, is “the true struggle in life”.

Tetris produces narrative, or narrative emerges from the shape and flow of the surface, your hopes and needs, and the wax and wane of your doom.

You come to believe you are in control of your fate and that as the board stacks up, that is a monument to your mistakes.

A reversal feels like a release from a crushing end, or an angel’s redemption. You snatch a victory from death. You put a twist in your story.

Tetris is about you. That is its simple power. (via ben pieratt)

Pixelized 16-bit portrait of Ben Franklin from the 1840s

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 22, 2018

Pixel Ben Franklin

Ok, that’s not actually a screenshot from the hit Sega Genesis game Benjamin Franklin’s Polymath Academy. It’s a scan of an embroidery pattern from the 1840s or 1850s based on this engraving. Here’s a closer view:

Pixel Ben Franklin

The scan is part of an ongoing project by the Library of Congress to scan their entire Popular Graphic Arts collection, a wonderful trove of prints, advertisements, and other printed documents from circa 1700 to 1900. (via @john_overholt)

Playing video games as meditation

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2017

For GQ, Lauren Larson says that playing The Sims 2 is the closest thing she has to meditation.

Though I am a renowned fidgeter, I do not fidget. I am aware of the woke bikers who smoke below my window sharing their thoughts on “Cat Person,” but I feel no anger. I do not pause for snacks. I do not check my phone. I do not notice as day turns into night. My mind is clear. The Sims, agrees our photo editor Jared Schwartz, “is HELLA therapeutic.” It is the closest thing I have to meditation.

I’ve written before about how playing games on my iPhone, particularly Alto’s Adventure, has helped me through anxious times in my life.

I started playing the game when I was stressed or anxious. It became a form of meditation for me; playing cleared my mind and refocused my attention on the present. Even the seemingly stressful elements in the game became calming. The Elders, who spring up to give chase every few minutes, I don’t even notice anymore…which has become a metaphorical reminder for me to focus on my actions and what I can control and not worry about outside influences I can’t control.

I’ve also noticed this with Ski Safari, a game that came out more than 5 years ago that I still play when I want to relax. Which is funny because in the game, you control a skier trying to keep ahead of the constant avalanche following you, and if the avalanche catches you, you die. Sounds stressful, right? But as you get better at the game, the avalanche becomes less of a concern. You can’t do anything about it — as in life, the potentially crushing weight of something is always bearing down on you — so, you focus on being in the moment, controlling what you can control, and get on with your skiing.

For me, playing these games isn’t just meditative in the form of stress relief but also as a path to personal philosophical insight. The ideas of living in the present and emphasizing control over your reactions to external events (rather than to the events themselves) are found in ancient philosophies like Stoicism and Buddhism. It’s one thing to read about these things, but it was helpful to realize them on my own, in the simplified and sandboxed environment of video game play. And I keep going back to them because it reminds me to focus on practicing those things in the real world as well.

My recent media diet, special Star Wars edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2017

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I’ve been busy with work, so leisure reading time has been hard to come by…but I’m still working my way through Why Buddhism is True. Lots of great TV and movies though.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I’ve been watching Star Wars for almost 40 years, and I can’t tell if any of the movies are any good anymore. At this point, Star Wars just is. Even so, I really enjoyed seeing this and will try to catch it again in a week or two. This is a favorite review that mirrors many of my feelings. (A-)

Wormwood. Errol Morris is almost 70 years old, and this 6-part Netflix series is perhaps his most ambitious creation yet: is it a true crime documentary or a historical drama? Or both? Stylistically and thematically fascinating. See also Morris’s interview with Matt Zoller Seitz. (A)

Flipflop Solitaire. Oh man, this game sucked me waaaaay in. My best time for single suit so far is 1:25. (B+)

The Hateful Eight. I liked this way more than I expected based on the reviews, but it lacks the mastery of Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino at his self-indulgent best though. (B+)

Our Ex-Life podcast. A divorced couple, who live almost next door to each other in a small town, talks about the good old days, the bad old days, and co-parenting their three kids. (B+)

Paths of the Soul. A documentary about a group of Tibetan villagers who undertake a pilgrimage to Lhasa that has a genre-bending scripted feel to it. I’ve been thinking about this film since watching it…it’s full of incredible little moments. What do I believe in enough to undertake such a journey? Anything? (A)

Stranger Things 2. The plot of this show is fairly straight-forward, but the 80s vibe, soundtrack, and the young actors elevate it. (B+)

Stranger Things 2 soundtrack. As I was saying… (A-)

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography. Huge Errol Morris fan (see above), but I was a bit bored by this. (C+)

The Crown, season two. This is one of my favorite new shows. I know she’s not the actual Queen, but I still want to have Claire Foy ‘round for tea. (A)

Blue Planet II. Just as good as Planet Earth II. Incredible stories and visuals. Premiering in the US in January. (A+)

The Moon 1968-1972. A charming little book of snapshots taken by astronauts on the Moon. (B+)

Donnie Darko. This one maybe hasn’t aged well. Or perhaps my commitment to Sparkle Motion is wavering? (B)

Part-Time Genius: Was Mister Rogers the Best Neighbor Ever? Yes, he was. (B+)

The Circle. This hit way way way way too close to home, and I couldn’t finish it. Also, not the best acting. (C)

Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom. Really interesting, but I stopped listening to the audiobook because I wasn’t in the mood. (B)

A Charlie Brown Christmas. You know, for the kids. (B)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Charming, perhaps my favorite holiday short. (B+)

xXx. An un-ironic favorite. Sometimes, dumb fun is just the thing. (B)

Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez. Tim’s recent post about smell reminded me of this book, which is a masterclass in criticism. (A-)

Young Frankenstein. I’d only seen this once before, but I wasn’t feeling it this time around. (B-)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

Sibilant Snakelikes

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2017

Sibilant Snakelikes

For his new game, Sibilant Snakelikes, Pippin Barr remade several games (Super Mario Bros, Missile Command, Ms Pacman, Minesweeper) using the gameplay mechanics from the classic cellphone game Snake. Says Barr about making the game:

Making the game has been a continuation of my interest in thinking about how the language of videogames works to express ideas. It strikes me that one useful experimental approach to understanding this is to “translate” one game’s expression into the language of another game. In trying to work out how the very simple mechanics and concepts of Snake can convey different sets of ideas (fighting a colossus, eating dots and running away from ghosts, playing soccer) I was forced to grapple fairly deeply with making reasoned design choices. The translation process doesn’t necessarily lead to “good games” and certainly not to games that are evocative in the same way as the originals, but I do think it shows us something about how a game like Snake can communicate more complex ideas without really changing it very much mechanically (there are exceptions to this of course). And then on the flip side it also shows us how moving the source games into the “Snake universe” alters those games and leads to new gameplay possibilities (or impossibilities, for that matter).

The code of the game is available on Github and is free to adapt and share for non-commercial purposes under a Creative Commons license. See also Snakisms, a philosophical take on Snake by Barr.

The Simpsons’ “steamed hams” gag as a Guitar Hero song

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 02, 2017

OMG, this is super nerdy and I am so here for it. Like it says on the tin, this is the scene where Principal Skinner has Superintendent Chalmers over to dinner for “steamed hams” presented as if it were a Guitar Hero song. (via @andymcmillan)

My media diet for the past two weeks

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 13, 2017

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past two weeks or so. I’ve been working and traveling, so there have been fewer books and more podcasts in my life. On the way home from NYC, I started The Devil in the White City on audiobook and can’t wait to get back to it.

From Cells to Cities. Sam Harris podcast interview of Geoffrey West, author of Scale. Two genuinely mind-blowing moments can’t quite salvage the remained 2 hours of rambling. (A-/C-)

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. I much prefer the book. (C+)

Kingsman: The Secret Service. Entertaining enough. I’ll give the new one a try. (B+)

Philip Glass Piano Works by Vikingur Olafsson. This is relaxing to listen to in the morning. (A-)

Luciferian Towers by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. This sounds very much like all their other albums and I am not complaining. (B+)

mother! An intense film but it was too overly metaphorical for me to take any of the intensity seriously. (B)

The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel. “A fun, high-quality, serial mystery that can be described as Goonies meets Spy Kids meets Stranger Things for 8-12 year olds.” My kids and I listened to season one over the course of a week and they could not wait to hear more. (A-)

The Vietnam War original score. By Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. An unusual choice for the score to a Ken Burns film. (B+)

Blade Runner 2049. Seeing this in IMAX (real IMAX not baby IMAX) really blew my doors off. Visually and sonically amazing. At least 20 minutes too long though. (A-)

New Yorker TechFest. I hadn’t been to a tech conference in awhile because the ratio of style to substance had gotten too high. The caliber of the speakers set this conference apart. My full report is here. (B+)

Items: Is Fashion Modern? Great collection of items, but I’m not sure I’m any closer to knowing the answer to the question in the title. (A-)

LBJ’s War. A short, 6-part podcast on Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War, consisting mostly of interviews and audio recordings from the period in question. A good companion to the PBS series on the war. (B+)

Driverless Dilemma by Radiolab. Revisiting an old episode of Radiolab about the trolley problem in the context of self-driving cars. (B)

Max Richter: Piano Works by Olivia Belli. Short and sweet. (A-)

Jerry Before Seinfeld. This felt pretty phoned-in. Some of these old jokes — “women, am I right?” — should have stayed in the vault. (B-)

Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack. A critical part of the movie that also stands alone. (A-)

Spielberg. A solid appreciation of Spielberg’s career, but more of a critical eye would have been appreciated. Also, was surprised how many of his movies referenced his parents’ divorce. (B+)

Universal Paperclips. Ugh, I cannot ever resist these incremental games. What an odd name, “incremental games”. Aren’t most games incremental? (A-/F)

Universal Paperclips

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 11, 2017

There’s a new meta game by Frank Lantz making the rounds: Universal Paperclips, “in which you play an AI who makes paperclips”. Basically, you click a button to make money and use that money to buy upgrades which gives you more money per click, rinse, repeat.

Why AI and paperclips? That’s from a thought experiment by philosopher Nick Bostrom, author of Superintelligence:

Imagine an artificial intelligence, he says, which decides to amass as many paperclips as possible. It devotes all its energy to acquiring paperclips, and to improving itself so that it can get paperclips in new ways, while resisting any attempt to divert it from this goal. Eventually it “starts transforming first all of Earth and then increasing portions of space into paperclip manufacturing facilities”. This apparently silly scenario is intended to make the serious point that AIs need not have human-like motives or psyches. They might be able to avoid some kinds of human error or bias while making other kinds of mistake, such as fixating on paperclips. And although their goals might seem innocuous to start with, they could prove dangerous if AIs were able to design their own successors and thus repeatedly improve themselves. Even a “fettered superintelligence”, running on an isolated computer, might persuade its human handlers to set it free. Advanced AI is not just another technology, Mr Bostrom argues, but poses an existential threat to humanity.

But you know, have fun playing! (via @kevinhendricks)

My media diet for the past month

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 26, 2017

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. As always, don’t take the letter grades so seriously. I’ve been watching too much TV and not reading enough books. I’m currently trying to get through Scale & Behave and listening to Superintelligence on audiobook and they’re all good & interesting, but I’m having trouble staying interested enough to actually pick them up in lieu of zoning out in front of the TV. I think I need something with more of a narrative.

The Vietnam War. Excellent, a must-see. (A)

The Matrix. Holds up well. I saw this in the theater in 1999, not knowing a damn thing about it, and walked out in a daze…”what the hell did I just see?” (A)

The Founder. There’s a certain kind of businessperson for whom the Ray Kroc depicted in this film would be a hero. Travis Kalanick, etc. Fuck those people. I stand with the McDonald brothers. (B+)

A Super Upsetting Cookbook About Sandwiches. I aspire to this level of sandwich obsession. (B)

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I should have stopped watching after 15 minutes but then I would have missed perhaps the worst closing line in movie history. (C-)

Inception. This might be my favorite Christopher Nolan movie. (A-)

american dream by LCD Soundsystem. I’ve never been able to get into LCD Soundsystem. Is there a trick? What’s the secret? (B-)

Basic Instinct. This movie is not great and hasn’t aged well. But you can totally see why it made Sharon Stone a star…she’s the only thing worth watching in the film. (C-)

Minions. *whispers* I kinda like the Minions and think they are funny and not as insipid/cynical as many others think. (B)

The Antidote. “Reread” this as an audiobook. I recommend this book to others more than any other book I’ve read in the past few years, save the Ferrante books. (A+)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I enjoyed it the first time, but this movie is so much better when watching it with two kids who think that everything coming out of every character’s mouth is the funniest thing they have ever heard. Biggest laugh was “I’m Mary Poppins y’all!” (B+)

Everything Now by Arcade Fire. Gets better every time I listen to it. (B+)

10 Bullets. Neat little one-button game. There’s an iOS version (and sequel) but they don’t work on iOS 11. (B)

Dunkirk. Saw this again on a larger screen (not IMAX sadly) and liked it even more this time. (A)

Champlain Valley Fair. I love fairs. We ate so many mini donuts and saw a dog walking a tightrope! (B+)

Logan Lucky. I was somewhat lukewarm on this leaving the theater but thinking back on it now, I definitely will see this again. (B+)

Sleep Well Beast by The National. Meh? (B-)

War for the Planet of the Apes. I saw this 3-4 weeks ago and can’t remember a whole lot about it, but I enjoyed it at the time? I do remember that the CG is seamless. (B-)

Applebee’s Artichoke and Spinach Dip. Way better than it had any right to be. I will make a special trip to eat this again. (A-)

Blade Runner. Rewatched in advance of the sequel. The final cut version, naturally. I watched the original cut for about 20 minutes once and had to shut it off because of the voiceover. (B+)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

Lego Grand Theft Auto

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 19, 2017

This video by Nukazooka of Grand Theft Auto being played by Lego characters is uncommonly well done. It looks more or less like the Lego Movie but made with a fraction of the budget.

Off-topic, but on their Twitter account I also discovered this cool 5-second video illustrating how air moves due to a passing semi truck. I can’t stop watching this!!

My five favorite video games of all time

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 01, 2017

This tweet asking people to list their top five video games of all time is going a little viral. I am very much not a “gamer” — mostly because if I were, I would never get anything else done — so I can’t produce anything like a These Are the Finest Games of the Early Age of Video Games list, but I can share the list of games that I’ve most enjoyed playing over the years.

1. Lode Runner (PC, 1983). Growing up, we didn’t have a Pong console or an Atari like some of my friends and cousins did, but when my parents divorced, my dad bought the first IBM-compatible computer that came out. And one of the few games we had for it was Lode Runner. The game was a blast, but what really put it over the top was the ability to make your own levels. Now that I think about it, that the first video game I ever obsessed over included a built-in level designer maybe primed me for falling in love with the web at first sight. View source?! Uh, yes please.

2. The Legend of Zelda (NES, 1986). Legendary…it’s right there in the name. I played this game so much. One of my finest video game achievements is finishing Zelda using only the wooden sword. Close runners-up: Super Mario Bros (NES) and Tetris on the Game Boy, which I played perhaps more than Zelda and SMB combined. So many batteries.

3. NHL ‘94 (Sega Genesis, 1993). Out of all the games I’ve ever played, I had the most fun playing NHL ‘94 with my friends and floormates in college. We’d play for hours on end, especially during the winter months, people drifting in and out to go to class. I don’t know how I managed to not flunk out of school that year. Runner-up: Tecmo Super Bowl (NES). Everyone had their favorite teams/players, but I was almost unstoppable with Philadelphia and their quarterback, QB Eagles (they couldn’t use Randall Cunningham’s name due to licensing issues).

4. Mario Kart Wii (Wii, 2008). This was a tough one. Mario Kart Wii was not my first Kart nor the best I’ve played (Mario Kart 8 has superior gameplay IMO) and almost no game was more fun than playing 8-player Mario Kart Double Dash with two linked GameCubes in the same tiny NYC apartment. But the Wii version was the first one in which you used an actual freaking steering wheel to pilot your Kart around.

5. Alto’s Adventure (iOS, 2015). I’ve written about Alto’s Adventure before:

At first, I played because the game was fun and I wanted to beat it. But eventually, I started playing the game when I was stressed or anxious. It became a form of meditation for me; playing cleared my mind and refocused my attention on the present. Even the seemingly stressful elements in the game became calming. The Elders, who spring up to give chase every few minutes, I don’t even notice anymore…which has become a metaphorical reminder for me to focus on my actions and what I can control and not worry about outside influences I can’t control.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Alto’s Adventure helped me work through some of my shit almost as much as seeing a therapist for almost 2 years. Runners-up: Kingdom Rush and Drop7, both of which I played a lot but neither saved my sanity, so…

A few honorable mentions: Quake 3, Bubble Bobble (which I never played in the arcade or on Nintendo but discovered later on MAME), Wii Sports, Metroid, Dune II, Minecraft (I haven’t actually played it that much, but I love watching my kids play), SMB 2, SMB 3, Baseball Stars, and, uh, Cookie Clicker.

Super NES Classic

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 27, 2017

SNES Classic

Last year, Nintendo came out with a mini version of their original NES console with 30 pre-installed games. This year, they hoping to repeat that device’s wild popularity with the Super NES Classic. List price is $79.99. The SNES Classic comes with two controllers and 21 games built-in, including Super Mario Kart, F-ZERO, Super Mario World, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. US pre-order information isn’t available yet (relevant Amazon page), but I’ll update this post when it is.

An update to Hidden Folks

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 21, 2017

Hidden Folks

I love the aesthetic for Hidden Folks, an iOS game that’s like an interactive version of Where’s Waldo? in black & white. The creators just released a big update to the game and explained how they designed and built the new level.

Like everything in Hidden Folks, the Factory started on paper. Sylvain Tegroeg, the Illustrator with whom I made the game, uses a fineliner to draw every single element individually. Sylvain and I brainstorm on the theme and possible sub-themes that could work well with interactions, after which Sylvain enters The Zone™ and just draws whatever comes to mind. After drawing a bunch of things, Sylvain scans them and (manually) places them in a sprite sheet.

Sometimes, the technology you use ends up unexpectedly affecting your creative output:

When Sylvain and I started working on Hidden Folks about three years ago, he decided to buy a somewhat medium-quality / cost-efficient scanner for the project. When that scanner broke down recently, he used a better scanner for a while only to discover that his digital drawings suddenly looked very different, and so we bought that same low-budget scanner just to make sure all Hidden Folks drawings look consistent.

(via @njvack)

Everything

posted by Jason Kottke   May 17, 2017

Everything, which was created (and funded) by David OReilly over a three-year period, is a difficult game to explain. Maybe just watch the trailer and let it wash over you, as I did.

Everything is an open ended interactive experience and reality simulation game.

There is no right or wrong way to play, and each person’s game will be different.

Playing Everything involves traveling through the Universe and seeing it from different points of view, it has elements of role playing games, sandbox & simulation. The systems connecting the game are designed to create moments of peace, beauty, sadness and joy — and allow the player to do whatever they want. Everything requires no player input — it will play automatically if left unattended.

That was perhaps the most cerebral video game trailer I’ve ever seen. (The voiceover is Alan Watts, btw.) The game itself contains elements of Powers of Ten as well as Dali and 2001, with a sprinkle of Katamari Damaci.

In his review of Everything for Polygon, Colin Campbell writes:

Mostly, Everything lets you loose to be and do as you please. I enjoy making small things very large or very small and placing them in strange places. A cockroach as big as a sun. A rhino as tiny as a mote. Once I’ve collected enough things, I can become any of them at any time. Look, I am a blue whale floating through space. Someone should write a book about me.

I wheel through existence, one life-form after another. It turns out that all things are infinitely variable and also, sorta the same as one another. Size, intelligence, beauty. None of these qualities signify much.

I think of the way my youngest child plays with Lego. He makes things one into the other, improbable concoctions. His imagination is boundless. This is precisely how I play Everything.

OReilly previously worked on the game animations in Spike Jonze’s Her and Mountain, a game in which you are a mountain.

Minecraft in real life

posted by Jason Kottke   May 05, 2017

Real Life Minecraft

Real Life Minecraft

Real Life Minecraft

Aditya Aryanto took a bunch of animal photos and, using Photoshop, turned them into cubic Minecraft animals. (via colossal)