Short Fiction Friday: Time

(Another bit of short fiction, for my on-again off-again Friday installment. No setting background for this one, I’m trying to practice writing different kinds of characters.)

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Saying goodbye was easy. She hadn’t even needed to rehearse it; she’d had plenty of time to prepare. The parting wasn’t a shock, wasn’t unexpected. On a chilly morning in late winter, she said goodbye, and was alone again.

It wasn’t that hard to fall back into a groove. Surprisingly easy, really. She didn’t really want to talk about it, and the people around her didn’t want to pry, or didn’t want to open the wound, or simply didn’t want to deal with her being uncomfortable. It even warmed up in the spring, so the cold wasn’t there to remind her that half of the bed was empty.

Then it was summer. Her morning routine was interrupted by an empty lip gloss container. Her immediate thought was “I need to replace that”, as it had been innumerable times before, but this time it was followed by a smaller, sharper, thought: “why?”

In a moment, perspective shifted, and the morning ritual suddenly felt hollow, meaningless. Weeks, months of suppressed loneliness surged forth like a punch to the gut, and the tears came, unbidden and unwanted. The morning ritual preceded the day; she was on a schedule, there was no time for a breakdown right here, right now. She had places to be, things to do. The tears had ruined the routine, smearing makeup and making it obvious that she’d been crying. Angry, now, with herself for breaking down, with the poor timing, her inconveniently sudden sense of grief, she washed off her makeup with a vengeance and went about her day, trying not to think of herself as suddenly plain.

The world didn’t end, she went about her day without issue. Even when someone commented that she “looked tired”, she simply agreed with them– the weight of the morning hadn’t evaporated. She considered eschewing cosmetics entirely, making that life change that a breakup traditionally spurred. She lasted three days. How do you explain that now, months later, you’re feeling the grief that everyone thought had passed? Plus, she liked the morning ritual, it was a part of her. She did it for herself, not someone else. She wouldn’t compromise who she was.

Then it was autumn. Her shows were back on, and viewing parties were back on the schedule. It was an escape, a way not to be alone. She felt more lonely, recently, and going out with friends should help. She smiled at her married friends, smiled at her friends in new or lasting relationships, enthused the way she always had about romance. It was comfortable, being with friends, and importantly she wasn’t alone. Except… she started to see those little gestures between couples, the little wordless communications, those minute exchanges she had barely noticed before. Each one was a little splinter, a barb, a reminder of what she was missing. By herself, she felt alone, with friends, she was surrounded by reminders that she was, indeed, alone.

She smiled, hid the pain from the little barbs and splinters. How could she, the cheerful proponent of romance, begrudge her friends their healthy relationships? The problem was with her, not them. Keep it in, deal with it.

Then it was winter. She was dating again, or trying to. Not many options, a small number of first dates that never became second ones. Nothing against the people she dated, but no spark. She had her life, she had her schedule; it was hard to meet new people. “Put yourself out there,” her friends would say. “Be someone you aren’t,” she heard. It had been long enough that she didn’t know how to date, what had changed, where to go and what to do and who to look for.

Then it’s a new year. A friend made a remark that should have reminded her of that old good-bye, but she didn’t catch it. A flurry of apologies and confusion and she realized that maybe it should have been a trigger, but it hadn’t been. Maybe she’s over it? Maybe she’s moved on? If so, why does she still feel so alone?

Then it is spring again. The sun shines, the flowers bloom, and a chance meeting sets off fireworks in her mind. She’s excited, elated in a way she’d almost forgotten how to be. It could be a new thing, an escape from the loneliness. She tries to be calm, to keep perspective. She fears scaring this new person away, being too quick, too clingy, too forward. When a chance meeting, no matter how promising, proves to simply be just chance, with no further potential, when she doesn’t see this exciting person again, it’s shattering.

Then it is summer, once again. Despite time relentlessly passing, she remembers the fleeting excitement of the spring, and “puts herself out there,” the way her friends suggested, feeling disingenuous the whole time. She doesn’t care about this cooking class, she’s just here to try to meet people. She doesn’t care about bachata, it’s just a good feeling to be asked to dance. She doesn’t care about going out to this bar, but maybe, just maybe, there’ll be someone there.

She worries that she’s obsessive. She worries that she’ll stay alone. She’s worried that she’s already missed out on the best opportunities. She worries that she’s become pitiful, she worries that everyone can see how pitiful she is. She worries most when she’s alone, and it leads her to stay alone. She worries that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Then it’s fall again. The cycle is familiar, and mostly she can ignore how alone she feels. She has other things to do, other things to think about, other things to worry about. She tells herself she’s coping, she’s concerned with other things, she’s busy. Most of the time she believes herself.

Soon it will be winter. The bed will be cold, and she’ll struggle to remember what it was like when it wasn’t. Maybe she’ll turn the heat up, maybe she’ll fill the bed with pillows, maybe she’ll start reading, or staying up until she’s falling asleep on her feet, before collapsing into bed and passing out too fast to have time to think. Tomorrow is always another day.

Soon it will be tomorrow, the ever-promised other day. The loneliness is background noise; it’s a persistent hum that she’s gotten used to, like the sound of a fan in a room, the sound of someone gently snoring, or the sound of silence. Tomorrow might be different, and if it’s not, it won’t be that much different than today.

That’s good, right?

Pet Battling in FFXIV

I never got into WoW’s pet battle system. I understand people got really excited about it, but by the time it was a thing I was already mostly checked out of the game and didn’t care much for the pokemon-alike gameplay. I like pokemon, but I can just play pokemon. As a result, I didn’t expect to enjoy FFXIV’s pet battling system; I figured it was going to be another pokemon-alike, but it isn’t even close.

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It’s more of a slow-paced real-time strategy game than anything, and it’s really interesting to me how it’s set up. The basic premise is that you’re summoning your battle pets in various numbers onto the field, and you’re attempting to take out three enemy crystals, before they take out yours. It’s a simple, MOBA-like setup.

Minipets fall into one of four categories– “critters”, which are strong against “poppets”, which are strong against “monsters”, which are in turn strong against critters. Finally, there are “constructs”, which are neither strong nor weak against anything. Every minipet also has a special ability, which is usable only if you have a group of four of them together, and only once they’ve charged up enough. It creates a bit of a balancing act between having well-balanced groups of battle minions and skewing heavily towards a certain type to benefit from special abilities.

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Each minion costs a certain number of points, ranging from 10 to 30 (I don’t think I’ve seen any costing more than 30, but I could be wrong), and you have an overall maximum number of points you can have active at a given time. At the start of the match, you can pre-summon up to a certain point value’s worth of minions, which will appear instantly when the match starts. Thereafter, you can summon further minions by queuing them, like a build queue in Starcraft.

It’s a heavily tactical game, since you can summon whatever minions you like provided you have points for them (and have appropriately set up your bar). Some minions are strong against structures (like the crystals you have to destroy), others are strong against other minions, and others have more support-style skills.

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Compounding the tactical part of the game are two more non-critical structures, which are close to the enemy’s deployment areas and, when destroyed, either make the crystals more vulnerable or remove the enemy’s ability to see where your minions are, unless they’re very close to them. It gives you some options to gain an edge, provided you can commit the forces to it.

A crystal can only be damaged if there are no enemy minions in its immediate vicinity, but only the crystals in the center overlap. This means that you often have to choose between offense and defense, and it’s possible to overwhelm an opponent by rolling around with a huge death ball of minions or by spreading your forces out.

It’s been an interesting game to play thus far, and I’ve got a few nice, powerful rare minions to work with. Unleashing a swarm of tonberries and bombs is every bit as satisfying as you might imagine.

A Trickle Of Content

Final Fantasy XIV launched its newest major patch this past week. I only got into it over the last couple of days, because Fallout, but I spent most of the evening futzing about, checking out the new stuff. A patch for FFXIV tends to be surprisingly big, in very subtle ways. For example, here’s what was added in the latest patch:

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  • A new casual raid
  • Two new dungeons
  • About two hours of new Main Story Quest content
  • A (hugely detailed) pet battle minigame
  • A new set of rep grind daily quests
  • A new extreme-mode raid boss
  • A new guild questing airship zone
  • A bunch of new crafting items
  • Frankly, more crafting stuff than I can even begin to process
  • Several new guild projects
  • Several new micro-games in the Gold Saucer
  • New Triple Triad cards and opponents
  • Several new character customization options
  • New flying mounts
  • New minipets
  • New sightseeing locations (I honestly have no idea what this part of the game is)
  • New emotes
  • A medium amount of class balancing
  • A huge amount of refreshment of older content
  • A new screenshot camera system, complete with synchronized poses (!)

It’s a truly huge list. Individually, any of these things are a fairly small bit of content (except possibly the airship zone?), but as a whole it’s quite a lot of stuff to do. It’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed with the game– even taking a little short of two months off after catching up in Heavensward, I’m still interested in hopping back in and trying out the new stuff.

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One thing that’s struck me, though, is that the way I’m approaching the game is significantly different from my last break. When I came back from my last break, there was a ludicrous amount of catching up to do, to the point where it was several major patches before I’d caught up. In a couple of days, I’ve made a pretty good dent in the “major” additions this patch, those being the story quests and one of the new raids. Another night and I’ll probably have the rest of the dungeons, too. Even after that, there will be a ton of stuff to do, and best of all, I won’t feel like I HAVE to do it to “keep up”.

I tend to check out of a game when I start feeling obligated to play it, which is where I was at before I took my break. I’d hungrily devoured the Heavensward content and had played almost all of the existing new content; what was left was to grind daily dungeons to slowly get a new set of fancy gear, for the hardest of content available. FFXIV has a notoriously punishing leading edge of content, and I’m just not that hardcore anymore. Rather than hopping in once a week, or less, I opted to take a break entirely and come back refreshed. I honestly expected that I would jump in, see the new content, and check out again, and perhaps I still will.

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However, I came back to find the guild still humming along fine and happy without me, which was great to see, and I’ve caught up on the content I feel like I “have” to do, for the most part. As a result, I’m finding myself curious about the other fun things out there, and I feel like they’re going to be more fun than obligation. It’s a good feeling, and I’m more enthused about logging in than I expected I’d be. The game feels like home: familiar, and not shiny or new or necessarily flashy and exciting, but comfortable and welcoming. It’s okay that I was gone for a bit; my room’s still made up the way I left it and I can hop back in, no problem.

I’ve consciously tried to keep a moderate pace in FFXIV, playing when I want to and no more, and it’s kept me interested in the game rather than burning myself out. Our raid is still on hiatus– I’m not actually sure there’s much raid for us to even *do*, maybe the new extreme boss or scheduled guild airship zone nights, but I’m okay with that. There’s enough to do and play without the need to try to keep up with “progression content” right now.

 

Interweaving Narratives

When I write tabletop campaigns, I tend to write in two layers, which I’ve touched on briefly before. I’ll write the background layer, all of the stuff that’s happening behind the scenes that may affect what’s going on with the player characters, but likely won’t be seen directly until the very end of an arc. I’ll then write “moments” that intersect with that background narrative, and generally just enough connective tissue to link those moments together.

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I tend to structure my tabletop RPG narratives in arcs, which are big sweeping stories with some major change or victory (or defeat) at the end. I break these down into Acts, which establish a kind of temporal lockstep with my background narrative, and then each Act is made up of scenes, which are the moment-to-moment bits that get strung together. I tend not to be picky about the order in which scenes show up, as long as they make sense within the Act.

Scenes are there to move the story forward, establish a bit of the setting, offer choices to the party, or resolve some conflict. They’re my little hints at the overall background story, and their outcomes affect how that background goes. The nice thing about breaking things down this way is that if the party makes some choice I don’t expect, I’m very rarely put in a position where I don’t know what to do next– I just pull a different scene out to move things forward. In a sense, I’m always fanning out a bunch of cards and letting my players pick the next one, at which point I set off whatever chain of events makes the most sense.

As a bit of an example, this weekend’s session of Star Wars was five scenes– two major ones, two minor ones, and one throwaway. Having acquired a starship, the group is working their way towards a particular location in the Deep Core. I figured they would either go straight for the Deep Core or take a side trip to better establish themselves. Each of these was set up with pros and cons– going straight for the Core would have gotten them closer to their goal quickly, and they’d at least be able to approach while under the Empire’s radar, but they’d be going in to a very dangerous area mostly blind. Going for more supplies / establishing relationships gets them more XP and resources, but increases the chances that they’ll do something that calls attention to themselves.

The first scene played out twice, as throwaways, and involved simply transmitting codes to Imperial checkpoints to get past. Pretty simple, but there’s still the possibility they could choose to do something crazy. Mostly it sets the scene for checkpoints as a regular occurrence. The second scene was a hyperspace interdiction– the party’s ship got pulled out of hyperspace by pirates. This could have played out in a variety of ways; it could have gotten them salvage, it could have put some damage on their ship, they might have gotten ahold of a rare and extremely valuable interdiction device, or (what they did) was talk their way out of it with some pretty fantastic social rolls and a bit of blind luck. Bel wanted his character to have something of a reputation for being bad luck, and a couple of deception checks and a name-drop later (and a successful Underworld Knowledge check on the part of the pirate captain), the party got away scot-free.

The third scene was a major one, as the group made a contact within the Rebel Alliance. This is where I start weaving in the background narrative, and the various things that are going on in the background. Their contact was intended to come off as sharp and perceptive, but friendly, and send the party on a side mission while she looked into some of their interests for them. She’ll be doing background checks on them and getting them resources in exchange for a search-and-rescue job on Nar Shaddaa, leading straight into the last major scene of the session: the rescue mission. This was interlaced with the last minor scene, another Imperial checkpoint but with a much more hostile agent. Nothing unmanageable, but not trivial either.

One of the things that I’d been tracking was the time spent by the party, both traveling and otherwise, mapped against the timeline of the background narrative. In this case, it’s the original series, so I’ve been keeping an eye on when specific major moments in the OT occurred, and what the party was likely to be doing at that time. In a delicious (for me) twist, the destruction of Alderaan coincided with the party’s rescue mission. I had a feeling it was going to occur, but I wasn’t sure how the group was going to approach the rescue. When they went in guns blazing, I knew things were going to be interesting. They did have the foresight to jack into the area’s cameras and get a view of where their enemies might be, though, which likely helped a lot.

About three rounds into combat, I asked everyone (in a party of force-sensitives) to make a Presence (Willpower) check, and got a few horrified sounds at the intense difficulty of the roll. A few people were getting a bad feeling about things when they saw the roll, and only two of the group managed to pass it. Then:

“You feel a great disturbance in the Force, as if a million voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were silenced.”

Psychic backlash is a real jerk, and I considered that in the original movies, Obi-Wan Kenobi was nearly incapacitated by the wave sent out by the destruction of Alderaan, and he was a serious badass. For my (much less powerful) party, anyone failing the check instantly passed out from the shock. Bad times in the middle of a firefight, but the party pulled through and made their rescue.

Now, it’ll be interesting to see how they deal with the aftermath of all of that, and if anyone will consider that they didn’t turn off those cameras. Hopefully no one of importance will happen upon a recording of an apparent gang fight where lightsabers got drawn and a bunch of people pass out at the exact moment a nasty ripple through the Force occurred. Surely there’s no one out there who might put two and two together…

Better Lucky Than Good

I had an idea for a Fallout 4 mod, and wanted to see the intro a second time from the “other” perspective, just to see. It meant that I have a second character, and having figured out some of the systems from the game, I decided it was time to get silly.

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Kodra was breaking down how some of the stats worked, and I’ve been looking at some of the perks. My current character is reasonably evenly balanced, and has a pretty strong “stealth sniper” thing going. I wanted something insanely min-maxed. With the starting spread of points, you can get two stats to 10, and another to 4. It should make for an interesting character.

I considered a few possibilities here– the all-strength and all-endurance, with just enough Intelligence to make fancier weapons, but that strikes me as playing things a little too straight. The ridiculous intelligence and ridiculous perception, with a hint of Agility is kinda close to my existing character, just more extreme. I’d wanted to try out Charisma, and stumbled upon an idea (edit: looks like someone else also had this idea). We’re going full on 10 points in Charisma and Luck to start, and the remaining 4 in intelligence. 1s in Strength, Endurance, Perception, and Agility. I’m going to rely wholly on the Intimidate perk and the various Lucky perks to stay alive.

I have no idea if this idea is going to work, but it’s going to be funny either way. I think there are enough options for me to be functional, although certain situations are going to be something of a problem. Hopefully anything I can’t talk my way out of will be escapable; I suspect I’m going to be running away a lot. I’ll be playing this character as kind of a break from other stuff, so I won’t be updating often, but I’ll make comments as they come.

Thus far, some mosquitoes have nearly killed me and I’ve been brutally savaged by a bloatfly. Hopefully I catch a lucky break.

The Personal Touch

I’ve recently come to realize that I don’t really care to play most board games more than a handful of times. It’s something I’ve spent a bit of time mulling over, because I feel like a board game is the kind of thing I should really enjoy, but it very rarely is after the first couple of playthroughs.

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I really like to leave my personal touch on a game when I play it. I like to really dive deep in a game and own, customize, and play a strategy. I get this in a minis game– my minis are, at the very least, chosen by me strategically before I start the game, and to a greater extent they have customized assembly and paint schemes to match my interests. Even if I didn’t paint or assemble them myself, they’re still unique to me. I’m reminded of this while I play Fallout. My settlements are incredibly bare-bones, nowhere near the lavish affairs Bel spent hours working on. I spent hours today pursuing a silencer for my weapon, seeking out new places to explore simply to find the components necessary to put it together. I’m playing a stealthy sharpshooter (quelle surprise), and I have been since the very start of the game.

I pursued a specific in-game reward to supplement the strategy I’d chosen from the very start. It’s analogous to selecting a particular deployment zone or chasing a particular objective in a game of Infinity, or choosing a particular perk as I level up in an RPG. I’m able to choose what I want to do strategically before I play, and the tactical choices I make as I go along align with that strategy (or adapt it to a changing situation).

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It’s a thing I seek out in games, especially ones without a strong narrative to keep me interested. I want to be able to express myself from the start, and make decisions based on a strategic choice I made, rather than making purely tactical decisions. In most board games, I don’t get this choice. The board is set up to a particular exacting static standard, and either starting positions are doled out randomly (as in Agricola) or are undifferentiated (many other games). Most of the time, I don’t get to pick a long-term strategy before the game begins. There are a few games that let me do this, but they’re extremely rare (and often picking that strategy is a minigame itself, as in Galaxy Truckers).

Most of the choices to be made are tactical choices, not strategic ones, and there’s very little personalization available when those are the only choices you’re making. There’s “selecting the optimal tactic”, which can vary somewhat based on your ability to execute, but it’s not really a form of self-expression, or doesn’t feel like one to me. It’s an optimization game rather than a customization one. What I like about strategic choices is that they give me the opportunity to alter the optimal tactical choices over the course of the game according to preferences that I’ve set beforehand. I have made a choice to have an aggressive Lieutenant in Infinity with a support network in the list, and so I make the choice in the game to play forward and daring with my Lieutenant. Alternately, I’ve chosen a vulnerable lieutenant, who I need to hide during the game and potentially take pains to protect. My overall strategic choices change the valuation of my tactical choices, so the optimal course in any situation has been customized by me.

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That layer of strategic customization makes the game deeper and richer for me, and can make two otherwise identical matches feel very different. In most board games I’ve played, if you were to completely remove randomness in two consecutive games; play twice with the same die results and same card draws, you’d have an incredibly boring second game. There’s no change you could make (other than potentially a different tactical choice, if you played the first game suboptimally) that would change the outcome. By comparison, if I can alter my strategy at the start of the game, I could have absolutely identical variables elsewhere and the importance of those variables would change. I can play the same minis game on the same terrain (and honestly, could have the same exact die rolls) and if I came into it with a different list it would be a wholly different experience.

I’m really interested in a board game that gives me that kind of strategic depth. I find that most “strategy” board games are actually tactics games, with very little strategy involved. You might be thinking multiple turns ahead, but you’re still mostly reacting to the board, not planning. I’ve played a few that touch on it, some of the Arkham games, City of Thieves, and to some extent the Shadowrun board game, where you select a character which changes your approach, but these tend to be fairly insignificant choices in the long run (Arkham games being something of an exception here).

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Returning to Fallout 4 (look, I’m playing a lot of this game), it’s really exciting to me that the various people I know can take extremely different strategic approaches– make strikingly different characters– and not only have a very different set of experiences in the same game, but all be equally effective. As a stealthy sharpshooter, I’ve mostly eschewed my power armor, using it only when stealth isn’t an option. I’m pretty sure Bel and Kodra are wearing theirs constantly. Some of my friends are playing melee characters, others are playing characters who are looking for the biggest guns possible. All of us are looking for different things but are all supported by the game. Bel has made his mark by tearing down his entire starting settlement and building anew; Kodra has made his mark repeatedly, with a metal bat. I make my mark once, with an exquisitely crafted implement, and once is enough.

Strategy is, for me, a form of creative self-expression. It’s something I’ve kind-of known for a long time, but the implications are a lot more significant than I’d realized. It helps me better understand why I don’t like certain games and why I like other games that are ostensibly very similar. It helps me make better decisions, and it’s nice to be able to put words to a feeling.

Post-Apoc

Here comes the first of what will probably be a LOT of posts about Fallout 4. I’ll try to curb things, since other people are playing it. Full spoilers to come in the Aggrochat podcast.

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In general, I don’t love post-apocalyptic settings. They’re kind of a study of what happens to people when civilization is totally destroyed and everything sucks, and honestly the answer is “nothing all that great”. It’s really easy for your post-apocalyptic setting to just become a joyless, bleak world, and without joy, there’s not a lot of motivation to do much of anything. It’s the same problem I have with the Warhammer 40,000 universe– it’s a massive, joyless universe and I’ve never heard anything convincing that explains what anyone in that universe is fighting for.

For the most part, I like my futuristic games to be a bit more optimistic. I tend to believe that the future is pretty much going to be better than the present, and a terrible post-apocalyptic setting doesn’t really mesh with that. I don’t even necessarily have anything against post-apoc per se, I’ve seen the occasional dark future where things are actually pretty okay, even if the world has been ravaged. Maybe we’ve got a cool colony on the moon, or some nice high-tech living spaces away from the devastation. Something to point at and say “this is worth fighting for”.

So, Fallout. I played through Fallout 1 and 2, but they don’t make my list of favorite games, and I didn’t really explore them much; I didn’t feel motivated to. Fallout 3 didn’t grab me– it felt like the exact sort of joyless future that I’m not interested in experiencing. It made things worse by making most of the actual civilized settlements pretty villainous, with Megaton, the Town of Terrible Ideas, being this sad bastion of hope. New Vegas was the first Fallout game to really capture my interest. It showed me the same dark future, but there was civilization, and the civilized people weren’t all utterly awful human beings. There was technology, and places I might actually want to live. It wasn’t just all suck all the time. Indeed, one of the big things I did was rebuild, and establish a bastion of actual civilization in the desert. It felt good.

Fallout 4 feels like it’s continuing the trend. It’s now the second area I’ve lived in that’s been the focus of a Fallout game, and truth be told I’m more partial to Boston than Washington DC. It also lets me rebuild, not just a little bit, but actually put together my own settlements and build real homes. It’s satisfying, and exciting. I’m also operating in real cities and towns. Damaged, certainly, but recognizable as places that people live.

Fallout 4 is a post-apoc world that isn’t scrounging the remnants of a technologically advanced society– it’s possible to get new, fancy technology and not just hope that the one working laser pistol I’ve found stays functional. I don’t have to hope that I run across a place that seems like a decent place to live– I can actually build one from scratch.

It’s pretty exciting, and lets me enjoy the Fallout world without the crushing pessimism that I see in other settings. Now, time to find some aluminum so I can build a new reactor core (!) for my laser pistol (!!).

Junk Food Games

I am distinctly in the minority when it comes to games where “you can turn your brain off”. Per this week’s podcast, I’m probably at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum as Bel, who, as he puts it, tries to “get to a point where playing a game requires no thought”. Pretty much everyone on the podcast other than myself had some kind of “relaxation” game, something they’d mastered and find relaxing to play because it doesn’t really require them to be engaged.

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It’s something I find hard to wrap my head around. It’s one of the blind spots in my ability to recommend games to other people and understand what they find appealing; I mostly go off of what I hear other people talk about rather than my own feelings. It strikes me as similar to people’s descriptions of cilantro– I’m aware that some people find cilantro appalling, “like eating soap”, but it’s hard for me to visualize because I don’t taste the same way. The best I can do is remember that some people really don’t like cilantro, and remember that some people relax through unengaged gaming.

I really don’t have a good set of terms to even talk about the concept. The ones that come to mind– “mindless”, “unengaged”, “requires no thought”, even “junk food” have hugely negative connotations for me, and I don’t necessarily like ascribing such negative language to what is essentially a difference in opinion. Other than that I personally get bored, I don’t have a fundamental problem with these kinds of games. I’ll get frustrated when that’s all anyone seems to want to play and I find it boring, but that’s true of anything where I’m not interested in what everyone is playing.

Spoons and Banana Split --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Spoons and Banana Split — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

What I’m more interested in sussing out is *why* I don’t have the same craving for low-stimulation games. I really do get antsy and bored when a game isn’t keeping me engaged enough– I’ve nodded off while playing all kinds of games, mostly at points where I’m just not interested in them or I’m not learning anything new. At the same time, even slow- or variable-paced games like Civ, Anno, or Crusader Kings all keep me alert, just because I’m juggling so many things in my head and managing my territory. A friend of mine suggested a possibility to me: I’ve played a lot of games, so I reach a comfortable point with them a lot sooner. She pointed out that while my threshold for boredom is a lot lower, my threshold for relaxing is a lot higher, so it’s easier for me to hit a point where a game “requires no thought”, and do with a lot more games.

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I’m not convinced by that explanation, but as was (sharply) pointed out to me, I have a history of disbelieving any explanation of something that speaks to my own abilities. It’s possible that I simply learn games quickly and that I’m really doing the same thing as everyone else when I play. I don’t have a good way of knowing if the way I play most games is the way that other people play their “most relaxing” games. I do know that I don’t have any particular game I return to over and over again; I almost never play a game more than once unless it’s been long enough for me to forget significant amounts of it (and thus, relearn them while playing). I get bored quickly when playing a game I already know, even if there are little tidbits for me to still pick up. New Game+ is REALLY hit or miss for me. As a result, there aren’t really any games I can claim mastery over, but there are a lot that I feel comfortable with.

Now I really want to plug myself in to an EEG while I play and compare my results with my friends’ over various games.

Language Studies, Continued: Rosetta Stone

I keep working on Japanese, though my pace has slowed down a little bit. Not having the weekly tutor to force me to keep up means I study less, and with classes having started up again, my focus is going there first and foremost. I have, however, started supplementing my use of the Genki textbook with Rosetta Stone, which has been interesting.

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Before I talk about Rosetta Stone, I should recap my studies thus far. I started studying Japanese about twelve weeks ago now. The first two weeks were me memorizing kana, specifically hiragana, and I’ve gotten to the point where I can just read them now. I’m not fast, but I don’t need a reference anymore. I spent the third week on katakana and some basic vocabulary and phrases. I really need to spend a lot more time with katakana, because it comes up a LOT in writing, and I really didn’t give it the same amount of time as hiragana. I find it a lot harder to memorize, because the syllables are visually very similar, and as a result my ability to read katakana is HORRIBLE.

After the first three weeks, I took about a month’s worth of lessons with a tutor, during which time we were able to blaze through the entire first Genki book. It was a whirlwind, and while I picked up concepts extremely quickly and can suss out grammar, the pace was too fast with too many new words being introduced for me to keep up with the vocabulary. After the last tutoring session, I took about two weeks off to process, which in retrospect was a horrible mistake. I didn’t lose much if any of the structural stuff I learned, but my already limited vocabulary atrophied, and my pronounciation suffered. I also lost my tenuous grasp of katakana, though I’d ingrained hiragana enough that I didn’t lose it, I just got slower.

Since then, I’ve been working with Rosetta Stone, and am going to return to doing exercises from the Genki workbook as well. Rosetta Stone is a very different structure for learning, and it works pretty well for me, but I’ve read a LOT of criticism about it. Since a few people have commented that they’ve liked to see my learning process, I kind of want to break down how I feel about Rosetta Stone, in case it’s helpful for anyone eyeing it but concerned about the (rather high) price.

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The teaching method appeals to me, as I’ve mentioned before, because it avoids using English entirely. Pretty much everything is kana and images that you match or speak. I like this, because it removes all of the English-language distractions and forces me to connect concepts with Japanese directly, rather than using English as a go-between. You can pick up a free app that has the first handful of lessons for a variety of languages on mobile devices, to see what I’m talking about, and it’s what gave me my initial foothold into Japanese.

One of the interesting things about Rosetta Stone is that it doesn’t at any point explicitly tell you what you’re saying or what the pieces of the sentences are. It slowly becomes clear as you work, but you’re looking at hours of work before you can see the shape of a sentence, because you may or may not be picking up which words mean which things, and how they’re all fitting together. It won’t stop you from progressing in the lessons, but it’ll make it difficult to feel like you’re making tangible progress until you’ve put a few hours into it. It’s an intentional bit of design, it forces you to process the sentences as a whole and work to make sense of them, so you retain the information better. Rather than telling you how to say something, it has you say something and forces you to figure out what you just said from context clues. If I wasn’t aware of that style of teaching and how effective it is, I’d probably find it very frustrating. Certain critical reviews describe it as “nonsense”, which to me sounds like frustration with the style; everyone learns differently, and while this works for me, it likely doesn’t for other people.

I’m glad I have both the textbook and other translation aids available to me as well. It lets me see interesting things that Rosetta Stone teaches me how to use, then look up the structure, how they’re being used, and what they actually mean. It’s resulted in a lot of spin-off lessons, where I learn about the different ways to use pronouns because Rosetta Stone switched pronouns on me. A great example is when the book switched from using 男の人 (おとこのひと, “otokonohito”, man) to 彼 (かれ, “kare”, he), which changes the sound of sentences significantly but can be used functionally identically in a sentence. It uses a lot of the same basic sentences with various swaps to help build vocabulary while giving you a sense of structure.

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For example, you’ll have one exercise where a sentence might be “The [boy/girl/woman/man] runs,” where the exercise is appropriately recognizing the words for “boy”, “woman”, “man”, and “girl”. The next exercise might be “The woman [runs/eats/reads/swims],” where the exercise is about recognizing the verb. It builds on the structure of the first sentence and swaps out a different part, so you slowly get a feel for all of the different pieces. The whole thing could probably use a tutorial, but once you realize what it’s asking you to do it’s pretty intuitive.

The real question is “is it worth $200+”? It’s not a question I can really answer for everyone, obviously, but I can explain my approach. I tend to look at how much content I’m getting and how valuable the content is. The demo for the software should give you a pretty good idea of whether or not the content is valuable for you; it may work well with how you learn or it might not. As far as amount of content goes, the program is structured in chunks. The smallest segments are called “lessons”, and range from quick, 5-minute items to 30-minute “core lessons”. There are a handful (six to fifteen or so) 5- and 10-minute lessons after each 30-minute “core lesson”, and after four core lessons and a final refresher at the end, you’ve completed a “unit”. There are four units, each comprised of four core lessons and numerous mini-lessons, all of which make up a “level”. The Japanese module for Rosetta Stone contains three levels. All in all, that’s 3 levels, 12 units, 48 core lessons. I tend to take slightly less time per lesson than the estimated time. By the estimated times for each segment, it works out to 60-120 minutes per core lesson+mini-lessons. If we lowball that and say it’s about 4 hours per unit (kind of a fast pace, but it’s close to the speed I’m going at), that’s on the order of 48-50 hours of lessons.

time-vs-money

Assuming you don’t repeat any lessons (i.e. do each one once and never look at it again), for the currently-listed $209 for the software (Rosetta Stone site, cheaper on Amazon), you’re paying about $4.40 per hour. As a point of reference, an inexpensive Japanese tutor in my area is on the order of $30 an hour. It’s certainly not as personalized an experience as a tutor, and I’m really glad I spent time with my tutor because it let me focus on certain specific things, but as far as a time/money value proposition, it’s better than going to go see a movie. Whether that’s time/money well spent is probably up to the individual.

Currently, I’ve gotten to the point where I can watch subtitled anime and clearly hear sentence structure, though my vocabulary isn’t close to keeping up. I can tell when the translation is different from the audio, and I’ve started being able to pick up on nuances that enrich the experience for me. It’s really funny to me, for example, how in One-Punch Man, Genos’ speech to Saitama is hyper-formal and very precise, whereas Saitama’s responses are incredibly laid back and almost too casual. It lends a lot to both of those characters that I’d otherwise have trouble picking up on just from the text and the tone of voice.

I’m a little ways into the third unit of Level 1, so I’ve still got a ways to go. I’ll keep commenting here as I get to other interesting pieces.

Making (and Missing) Connections

Today I confused a friend during a conversation. The question was “what fictional weapon would you want to have, and why?” My answer was “a lightsaber”; she laughed, then looked confused when I said I wanted one so we could solve global warming. It made absolute sense in my head, a perfectly logical sequence, and it was jarring when my friend went “wait, what? That makes no sense.”

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This happens to me a lot; it’s something I struggle with. I used to think it was a problem of me communicated badly, and while it is, it’s not poor communication in the way I thought it was. I’ve started calling it “skipping a few steps”. Here’s the full sequence of steps that led to my answer: a lightsaber is basically a ultra high powered electronic device that’s super compact. It’s power supply also lasts for decades at least without any real issues. Deconstruct one, figure out how to replicate the battery and however it recycles power/recharges, and you’ve got enough power to fuel a city in an object the size of your hand. It doesn’t seem to require fuel, it doesn’t seem to need frequent recharging, and it’s not fragile. Energy crisis is pretty much solved overnight, and the battery is small enough to power pretty much any device we currently have, with no emissions other than light, sound, and heat. That is AWESOME, and is way more exciting than having a glowy sword of dubious usefulness (as cool as it might be).

This is a (semi-)logical chain of thoughts that I went through in about the time it took for me to say “A lightsaber. I could solve global warming!”

I don’t think of this as particularly clever. It isn’t, to me, a particularly refined train of thought, and an assumption that I’ve had– that I’ve held onto for most of my life– is that anyone and everyone else is having similar trains of thought at similar speeds. They’re easily capable of making the same connections I am, and if they don’t, it’s because they didn’t think of it, not because they weren’t going to get there eventually. I wrote, a while back, about “being smart“, and in retrospect I can see that assumption in the text. When I make a connection quickly, my immediate assumption is that anyone around me can make the same connection, and to me it often feels like people who don’t are either disagreeing with me or questioning my mental capabilities. It leads to a lot of insecurity on my part, and a reticence to speak my mind, especially in person. It sometimes manifests as deep arrogance, when I’m convinced I’m right because I’ve followed a logical train of thought to its conclusion and just assume everyone else is on the same page as me.

It makes it hard to know when I’ve explained my train of thought adequately. A pet peeve of mine is having something I already understand explained to me, and I make a particular effort not to do the same to other people; it feels patronizing to me and I try to avoid it. As I wrote about above, I’ve spent a long time fleeting from the idea that I might be “smart”, because I fundamentally don’t believe I’m anything special. Some conversations and introspection over the last year, particularly as I’ve worked on becoming more open and communicative, have forced me to accept that, if nothing else, I make connections faster than some other people. It’s a testament to how ingrained my avoidance is that I’m conscious as I type this that the phrase I should be saying is “I have to accept that I’m simply smarter than many other people”, but the closest I can get is putting it in quotes, detaching myself from the statement and trying not to own it completely.

The avoidance harms my ability to communicate effectively with people. Denying my own aptitude makes it harder for me to communicate with people and connect with them. It’s a work in progress, but it’s hard to figure out feedback. I’ll occasionally have a spark of inspiration and share it, and I have a tendency to inundate people with text or words as I work my way through the thought process. Most of the time, what I get is silence, even among close friends. In my head, this resolves to “there goes Tam again, babbling about something or other”, and since it tends to kill conversations, I avoid sharing a lot of the time. The reality is that I spend a lot of time in my own head, and external feedback keeps me sane. It lets me continually ensure that what I think are logical trains of thought actually are.

For my entire life, I’ve tried very hard not to be that person who “thinks he’s so smart”, to the point where I’ve gotten really good at denying any evidence to the contrary. Impostor Syndrome is real and present for me, and haunts literally every single thing I do. As I’m forced to actively re-evaluate myself, I realize that denial is just as harmful. It’s hard to know where to go from here. Work in progress.