A strange sigil has been cropping up in (mostly indie) games and, thanks to some amazing detective work on the part of some redditors, it appears to be pointing to some kind of ARG. Is this Frog Fractions 2? Is lowbrowculture.com Frog Fractions 2? If you want to get deeper down the rabbit hole of this, I can recommend the /r/gamedetectives subreddit which consumed a lot of my productivity last week, especially their work on Overwatch's apparent "Sombra ARG", where it's perfectly reasonable to take a random line of source code from a web page, run it through a Vigenére cipher (using the passphrase gained from a previous bit of detective work) and then diff'ing the resulting "datamoshed" image with an original image to get even more clues. I love this stuff. (Incidentally, this is the second week in a row an article from Patrick Klepek has been making me happy. He's doing amazing work at Vice.)
Spokeswoman at high temple of particle physics suggests ‘scientific users’ of the Geneva facility ‘let their humour go too far’ with staging of occult rite
Holy shit. Something about the phrase "pranking scientists suspected" doesn't fill me with confidence.
Disney's Practical Guide to Path Tracing
Walt Disney Animation studios have put up a primer on a super-technical high-tech subject presented as if it was a 1950s documentary. It's really informative and really charming. See also Disney's Practical Guide to Snow Simulation.
Speaking of Pixar, Quora has some real gems hidden away deep in its belly. Like this fascinating 2011 answer from Craig Good, Pixar boffin, about the render times for the original cinema release of Toy Story vs the 2010 remaster.
Popbitch goes deep into the Yeah Yeah Yeah's Maps, digging into the music theory behind what makes it so unique and why it turns up under so many pop songs. Why did the Black Eyed Peas sample the intro? Let's take a look at the drum tab to find out, shall we?
I've got a real soft spot for 'clicker' games. Things like Cookie Clicker and Candy Box just hoover up my productivity (honestly, I went to look up the URLs for these and I just lost 20 minutes to Cookie Clicker again). Spaceplan does nothing new with the formula, but it's very slickly done and, unlike most other games of the genre, this one actually has a well-written story.
No Man's Sky (game)
No Man's Sky is a peaceful, colourful slice of sci-fi. When people ask me what it's like, I say it's very Minecrafty. You travel to galaxies to collect resources that allow you to travel to more galaxies and collect more resources. And you do this again and again until you've explored the universe. The act of doing this is so serene and calming, it's a lovely refresher from the usual hyperkinetic games that come out this time of year. Also, there's a lovely story doing the rounds of people naming the planets they find after dead relatives as a way to remember them. Pull-quote: "It's one of 18 quintillion planets now and no one else may ever find it but I know it's there and it has her name on it. That's good enough for me."
Web series where people take drugs assemble Ikea furniture. In the first episode, Giancarlo and Nicole take acid and build a chest of drawers and it's actually super sweet.
Geoff Manaugh (BLDGBLOG) is one of my favourite writers. In his book A Burglar's Guide to the City, he talks about how burglars have used architecture to plan their robberies. If, like me, your favourite parts of heist films like Ocean's Eleven are the bits where they construct elaborate recreations of the places they're about to rob, then this book is right up your street.
A series of portraits of the people on the other end of phone sex lines. Their stories are fascinating
“My first night was on a Saturday at midnight. It was a gentleman who I believe called himself Bob. He told me about his first experience with a glory hole. He explained that he had no one he felt comfortable telling this to, and I felt a strange intimacy between us, though it was rooted in a fantasy. I think it’s easier to release repressed desires to a non-judgmental, fictional person, because there are no consequences in the outside world.”
In an effort to push out the jive and bring in the love, I'm going to more of an effort to talk about the things that are bringing me joy.
It never quite shakes off its influences (basically all of Spielberg's early 80s films - Jaws, E.T., Close Encounters and Poltergeist), but as a piece of summer fluff, Stranger Things was surprisingly entertaining. It's less cliffhanger-y than the other Netflix original shows, but it's managed to achieve a pretty compelling vibe that draws you back for more. I'm interested to see what they do for season 2 now that they've basically tapped the 80s Spielberg well dry.
Sleeping Giants is a big dopey sci-fi thriller about the discovery of huge pieces of a statue from an ancient civilisation. And the whole thing is told in an epistolary manner, where each chapter is the transcript of an interview. So the information is drip-fed to the reader, increasing the tension. It's not going to win any literary awards, but it's so fast-paced and cinematic, it's a great summer read.
A lot of great news came out of Comic Con. We got a rad Doctor Strange trailer, a pretty decent Wonder Woman trailer. But my absolute favourite news so far has been the announcement that Brie Larson will be playing Carol Danvers in the Captain Marvel film. This is some perfect casting.
Films You'd Love Your Kids to See
The Lighthouse Cinema here in Dublin are running a "Films you'd love your kids to see" season. Now, I question the logic of programming for kids and scheduling shows way too late for kids to actually attend. Still, I'm not going to turn up an opportunity to see The Goonies in the cinema.
If, four months ago, you had asked me about my expectations for AMC's adaptation of Preacher, I would have probably given you the vocal equivalent of the poop emoji. But the finale this week capped what turned out to be an unexpectedly great season of an unexpectedly great show. It's not a straight one-for-one adaptation of the comic, but they absolutely nailed the tone of the books. Definitely worth checking out.
Last week, I began the process of moving this site from Jekyll to Hugo. Jekyll is great. Really great, actually. It was my first real experiment with static sites and it was really fun and taught me a lot. But I've been starting to feel its limits. I pumped in everything from the past iterations of my blog, through Wordpress and Tumblr, leaving me with over 1,400 posts. So building the site with Jekyll each time I wanted to update it was slowwwww. Jekyll's other big draw -- its GitHub integration is amazing -- is great if you're hosting your site there. But I'm not. I'm self-hosting. So I started looking at Hugo.
I also had a look at Middleman, which has some impressive names using it, but was just a deeply unpleasant experience as an end-user1.
So for funtimes, I wanted to see how long it would take a fresh, vanilla install of the three most popular static site generators -- Jekyll, Middleman and Hugo -- to render the 1,400+ individual markdown files that make up this blog.
Jekyll 35.35 real 31.04 user 2.50 sys
middleman 22.47 real 30.61 user 3.97 sys
hugo 8.12 real 8.96 user 1.45 sys
It's hard to argue with this kind of performance improvement, but what sealed the deal was the fact they include a built-in hugo import jekyll command that can get you started migrating your site across. I had my entire site migrated across in less than an hour.
Middleman feels as if it's been written for robots and not humans. To build your site in Jekyll, you type jekyll build, which is easy to remember. To build it in Hugo, you just type hugo, which is almost impossible to forget. To build your site in MM, you type bundle exec middleman build, which yes, is easy enough to remember after you've done it a couple of times but my God, it's so clunky and basically tells you everything you need to know about what it's like to use Middleman.
2015 is the year that open-world games broke me. Remember a few years ago, when everyone was complaining about "shooter fatigue" because it seemed like every game we played was the same thing where you shot at things and the only thing that changed were the things that you shot at? That's how I'm feeling about open-world games right now. They're great if you want to spend days and days in the world of a game, but that just sounds like work to me. Personally, I'd prefer a short, authored experience. Anyway, this explains why there are some high-profile games that aren't on this list1 - they were probably open-world games that just didn't get their teeth into me.
e.g. Metal Gear Solid V, which I have played enough of to appreciate was a really well-made game, just not one of my favourites
This is an unranked list, but if I was going to rank it, Rocket League would be the clear winner. It's a football game, you hit the ball into the opponent's net. But instead of controlling a player, you're driving a car. A car with a rocket on the back of it. It sounds like a joke, right? Well, Rocket League was the most fun I've had in any video game all year. The local multiplayer is great fun, screaming laughing with your pals as one of you pulls off some ridiculous goal. Which is great by itself, but it's also got a real depth to it. Watch some high-level videos and it's like a whole different game. What I love most is that it's genuinely the best football game I've played. All the other games, like FIFA, are trying to recreate the experience of watching football. Rocket League is recreating the experience of playing football. Favourite game of 2015.
This is only the second ever video game (after Silent Hill 2) that my wife has ever played to completion. FMV is back!
The Witcher 3
Okay, so I realise it was only just a minute ago that I was complaining about open-world games. And here's an open-world game on my list. What the hell, John? Listen, my main complaint with open-world games is that it's a way for the developers to artificially stretch out a game, to make it seem bigger than it actually is. And they can use it to hide a lot of the cruft in their actual narrative writing, going "ooh, but isn't the environmental storytelling so good?" The Witcher 3 had actually great writing underpinning it. It's dense, but accessible. There are quests here that I'm still thinking about, months after I put the game down. The open-world nature of it was incidental to the actual game. I haven't enjoyed being in a game's world this much since Red Dead Redemption.
It seems like every year I make these lists, there's at one entry that could be accused of not really being a game. This year it's Panoramical. And sure, it's not very game-like. It's more like a peaceful, meditative toy. There's no win-state to the game. You're just presented with a series of landscapes with different visual and audio tracks, and you control the levels of these tracks. That's it. That's the whole game. Play away. You finish when you've had enough. There's some real beauty here, if you're into that kind of thing. I really am.
The Beginner's Guide
For the first hour or so of The Beginner's Guide, I was in awe at the inventiveness of the game. It seemed like creator Davey Wreden was just showing off. At the very end of the game, there's a revelation. And this completely upended everything I'd just experienced. I immediately played through it again and, even though it was the exact same content, I had a totally different experience. That someone can do something ambitious like this and just fucking nail it so hard is pretty impressive. When you know the back-story and realise this game is actually about something so deeply personal? Yeah, maybe he is showing off.
Even though the two are nothing alike, playing Sunless Sea triggers the same part of my brain that is triggered when I play board games like HeroQuest. There's this wonderful, tactile feeling to the game, like you're playing with lovely hand-crafted miniature pieces in a world where anything can happen and there are million stories to tell. I've played a few different games of Sunless Sea now and they've always gone in different directions. I have a feeling I'll still be coming back to this in 2016.
Super Mario Maker
Okay, let's say you're not interested in making any levels yourself. And let's say you're not completely won over by the most charming presentation in any game ever. Then there's these three words: infinite Mario levels. You can just download other peoples' creations and have an almost limitless supply of Mario levels for you to play and enjoy. If this still isn't enough for you, then I just don't know what to say to you.
Star Wars Battlefront
For a game that got fairly mediocre reviews, I had a fucking blast with Star Wars Battlefront. It's not trying to be the deepest game ever made. It's just trying to be a fast, casual, fun, and really, really ridiculously good-looking Star Wars game. And that's exactly what it is.
Siva Vaidhyanathan, media studies professor at the University of Virginia, talking about the worst-case scenario in an all-digital world:
“Amazon has done so much to bully both readers and publishers. And yet if it were to collapse, it would cause chaos.”
At the root of that chaos would be the immense loss of media, and the wholesale disappearance of works—not just from personal collections, but altogether. “At the start of the 22nd century, we are going to find ourselves in a situation with huge gaps in knowledge and culture. Because none of these companies will be around.”
Craig Mod has some theories surrounding the apparent decline in ebook sales. TL;DR: he reckons it’s mostly to do with the physical experience of reading on ereaders (and let’s be clear, when we say ‘ereaders’, there’s really only one player in town, the Kindle). For me, he borders too much on the fetishisation of the physical form of the book. For example, here's his description of the travel guide City Secrets
Bound in rust-coloured cloth, rough against the skin, with jet-black foil‑stamped lettering and a small key on the cover, City Secrets was skinny. The trim size was non‑standard, much taller than wide. It bent easily, fit handily into my jacket pocket, and was made with cover boards that had a reassuring springy resilience. The combination of the size and the cloth cover made it feel like a travel companion – a book that could take a beating, be dragged around the world, stored for years, and returned to, again and again.
It’s like Nigella-style food erotica for the lit crowd.
But I sort of agree with some of what he’s saying. As I mentioned before (and I’ll continue to mention at any available opportunity), I recently — finally! — finished Infinite Jest. Now, Infinite Jest is a goddamn doorstop. A thousand pages of some of the densest prose you'll find. It should be the perfect candidate for Kindle-reading. But I read the entire thing on a physical book. I hauled that monster in and out of the city every day on my commute, even though it took up most of the space in my bag, simply because it was just a more pleasant experience than reading on the Kindle.
The worst part is that a lot of the things that keep the Kindle from being a genuinely great reading experience (as opposed to an entirely passable one) are fairly minor. They're not insurmountable. They're mostly niggly details like shitty font options and character spacing that could most charitably be described as ‘schizophrenic’. And these issues are getting addressed, albeit at a glacial pace. This June, almost eight years after the first Kindle was first released and seven generations into the Kindle product line, Amazon released firmware that finally fixed its shitty hyphenation and layout engine.
So the changes are slowly coming, but Amazon’s reluctance to release any information or suggestions of where they plan to take the Kindle is baffling to me. Especially when it’s their mealticket item. Apple called the Apple TV their "hobby" and said nothing about its roadmap (until they finally did). Amazon seem to be treating the Kindle in the same way. Is it any wonder people are returning to books? I'm sure they'll be back to the Kindle when something dramatically enhance the experience on there, but who knows how long that will be?
Personally, there are two things I would love to see that would improve my relationship with the Kindle. First, release an updated Kindle DX. You know, the bigger Kindle. The "Kindle Pro". My neighbour in Rome, an editor, used to have one and it was the cadillac of readers even then. The resolution of the Kindle Voyage is finally at a print-like level, but the size of the actual screen means it’s useless for anything but imitating cheap paperbacks. A slightly larger physical screen would open the device up to so much more.
Second, and this is a cheap, simple win - I’d love to see the Kindle display the cover of the book I’m currently reading instead of the Kindle’s shitty generic screensavers. When I read a physical book, I am greeted by its cover every time I look at it. I know the name of the author, I know the name of the book. On the Kindle, this stuff is hidden away from everyday view, so it’s possible to read a book and have no idea of its title or who wrote it. You’re cut off from a relationship with the book in favour of a relationship with its content. The cover, that singular piece of design that, let’s face it, we almost always base our initial judgement of a book on, is completely removed on the Kindle. Without it, a book is just a collection of photocopied pages held together with sticky-tape.
We're in the middle of getting a terrifying amount of work done to our house in Marino, so we've temporarily decamped out to my mother-in-law's house in Greystones1. My commute into work has switched from a 15-20 minute cycle each way to a 50-minute train ride each way. As a result of this new-found extra (dead) time, my reading has gone through the goddamn roof in the seven weeks since I've been out here. Instead of just the few minutes of reading I can snatch before falling asleep, I've got these huge swathes of time in my day where there is almost nothng else to do but read. Here's a graph of my reading, based on what I've logged to Goodreads:
I'm finishing books I'd previously started and given up on (e.g. A Wrinkle in Time2), and books I'd been too terrified to even begin (e.g. Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop).
As a result of this, I've decided there will probably never be a better time to tackle Infinite Jest.
Infinite Jest will be the eleventh book I've read in the seven weeks I've been out in Greystones. In this time, no-one has ever come up and commented to me about the book I'm reading. Even when I'm reading stuff that I secretly want people to come and talk to me about (e.g. John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van3), nothing.
On Friday evening, as the train came into the station in Greystones, after I'd packed my copy of Infinite Jest into my coat and got my coat on, a complete stranger came over and sat down beside me. "Sorry, I couldn't help but notice the book you're reading there. How are you getting on with it?" I told him how I was really happy - I'm enjoying it because I'm actually making significant progress in the book (currently on page 305, which is the first time I've even got past page 100). "Yeah, stick with it. There'll be parts in there that will make you want to give up, but stick with it, it's totally worth it", he said.
"Oh, I don't intend to, I've also got a non-fiction book going at the same time to keep me sane", I said.
"Good idea! Well..."
And then, awkward silence, because what else is there to say?
Now I feel awkward. Does this interaction mean I'm part of the problem, a pretentious DFW lit-bro? Do I now need to give up on Infinite Jest entirely, just in case I fall into some stereotype?
I get home and I tell the above story to my wife. She says "yeah, that's weird!" She knows this isn't my first time trying to make my way through Infinite Jest. and asks me how many pages I've read of it this time. I tell her just over three hundred.
"How many pages are in the book?"
"Nine hundred and something, not including footnotes. So I'm about a third of the way through. I'm pretty happy with my progress!"
"Yeah, but you're not halfway through."
There's an entire blog post to be written about the differences between living in Greystones vs living in Marino, but this is not that blog post.
2: Which I gave up on previously because it felt like it was dull and overrated and which, having now finished it, I can confirm, is indeed, dull and overrated.
3: If you've read this book, please hit me up on Twitter. I'd love to find more people (read: literally anyone) to talk to about it.
Casey Neistat just launched his new social network, Beme. It's probably easiest if I just link to Casey's video so he can describe it himself.
I really love the idea of Beme. I mean, is there anyone genuinely advocating for these awful, fake, rigidly curated lives on Facebook and Instagram? When these perfectly-composed, perfectly-filtered shot appears in my timeline, I get the worst fomo. The consolation, the thing that prevents me spiraling into a full-on, god-what-am-I-doing-with-my-life depression is realising that for someone to take the time to line up the shot, crop it, choose the right filter, and upload it - this all means that they weren't actually engaged in the moment they're depicting 1. So I understand the problem Beme is trying to solve.
So here's another one of his videos, where he climbs a theater in Belgium.
This is the moment when I realised that even Casey Neistat is guilty of not being engaged in the moment. At 4'00 in that video, you can see him scrambling up a near-vertical wall. God, I haven't ever climbed up a Belgian theater - the fomo is starting to set in! But hang on a second. To get that shot, he had to climb up the wall, set up the shot, climb down again and then climb up again. And then later on, he had to edit out the first two parts of that2.
Casey Neistat made a name for himself through his youtube videos. And his youtube videos are so watchable partly because of his enormous, planet-sized personality. But they're also watchable because they're really well made. They're tightly edited, and they're shot with a filmmaker's eye. None of which are available with Beme - you get a potentially wonky shot (apparently worse if you have boobs), with no way to correct it. And since you don't know what you uploaded, there's no way for you to improve your skills. Chances are you'll always be shooting wonky junk.
I really would like Beme to succeed, but I worry that heavy users of social media (i.e. not me) aren't going to like the limitations, so we'll just be left with videos like this one. Authentic as fuck, but that's pretty much all you can say about it.
One of my biggest personal achievements of the last year is when I climbed Croagh Patrick. But would you know I'd done it by looking at my Instagram or my Facebook timeline? Would you fuck.
2: He addresses this in his vlog, where he often posts videos of him running in New York and he says his runs end up taking three times as long because he has to set up the shot, go back, run past the camera, then go back for the camera.
Remember when video games were fun? Remember when they were about colour and happiness? Watching E3 2015 a few months ago, you'd be forgiven for thinking that these were things that video games had grown out of. It was dour, brown, post-apocalyptic shooters as far as the eye could see. Bombast and spectacle were the order of the day. The thing that drew one of the biggest cheers from the Microsoft crowd was when they lowered a fucking Ferrari from the roof. A fucking Ferrari.
Here's what Nintendo did for their E3.
They teamed up with the Jim Henson Company to make puppets of their corporate team and made the most adorable, dorky video imaginable. And it was lovely.
It was a uniquely Nintendo way of approaching the industry. It was showing that video games could still be about colour and happiness and fun. And it's largely because of this man, Satoru Iwata.
When someone asks me to picture the president of one of the three largest video game companies in the world, this is exactly what I want to imagine. Not someone in a blazer and jeans with a focus-tested number of shirt buttons opened. I want a person who understands why we play games. I want a person who knows that games are about bringing people together, not just about shooting people in the face. I want someone who gets it.
Iwata got it. And the world feels a little less joyful now that he's left it.