*we put the "mmm" in communism


This is the personal blog of Tim. Here, Tim writes on anything he has enough inspiration to finish a post on. That usually ends up being matters of science, pop culture, technology, religion, and philosophy.

This blog is around nine years old, which is over a third of Tim's current age. Back in 2003, it was called "Of Tim: Tim's life - or lack thereof", and it was as bad as you might expect the blog of a freshman in high school to be. Tim hopes that his writing is a little better, these days.

Tim welcomes any input that you, the dear reader, might have. Comments are very much appreciated, especially if you have a dissenting opinion. If you'd like to learn more about Tim, you might want to see his facebook or google+.

Also: Tim is a very avid consumer of various sorts of music. You may be interested in his playlists!

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Realistically, this post should have come two months ago; most of the inspiration for this came while beating Skyrim until it was long past the dead horse stage. If you are unfamiliar with the Elder Scrolls franchise of RPGs, this may cause you to feel bored. I won't be offended if you turn back now.

This game devoured my time in a fashion not unlike that of a blue whale consuming krill. I purchased it the night it came out, and having been stricken with viral bronchitis, it proceeded to consume a full 110 hours of my spare time over the next ten days. I will credit this ferocity primarily to the bronchitis, rather than the game. In any case, I left the game utterly beaten and broken. I completed every quest line, owned every property, blah blah blah. Point is, I utterly exhausted its content. It held no secrets from me.

The first few hours are delightful - Skyrim is filled to the brim with things that you wish were in more video games. It's a high fantasy interpretation of Grand Theft Auto. This idea alone has caused dignified men and women to drool for socially unacceptable periods of time. It's natural that everyone would want to love it, that it would receive rave reviews across the board. Yet, the better I got to know Skyrim, the less I loved it. I even began to resent it very deeply. I am no Scrooge. I do not dislike things simply because they are widely enjoyed. I do, however, feel agony at missed opportunities and misguided endeavors. The ES franchise, I have come to conclude, is one long story of these very things. Looking back, I realize that they've all failed to accept some very basic facts of life. Each of them have been an ocean wide and an inch deep.

The fundamentals of the RPG are the following: leveling up; learning cool abilities; acquiring equipment and treasure. Advancement paths are placed on a log scale to provide rapid progression early on but greater challenge over time. Ability sets are made thematically and mechanically distinct, each favoring different types of playstyles. Equipment provides tangible statistical and aesthetic rewards by enhancing personalization and specialization. Package this into an alternate universe of some sort, and you have yourself an RPG. If it sounds formulaic, that's because it is. The FPS genre is much the same way; the formula there is probably less complicated, too. The devil, however, is in the details.

There's a lot about the game I could single out. The completely braindead nature of the AI, wherein you can expect mudcrabs, bandits, and skeletons to behave in the same manner (they charge directly at you and path awkwardly around terrain). Or the absurdly bland lore that has been used and re-used since the second game of the series (let alone the hilariously awkward voice acting - arrow in the knee, anyone?). Or the laughably bad interface that was actually a step backwards from the previous game, and perhaps even Morrowind, too (it consists only of menus that have to be traversed linearly and cannot be sorted in any way). Or the lack of any worthwhile mechanisms of travel (it was actually faster to sprint than to ride a horse!). These are the kinds of oversights that can be forgiven when the game has something truly lovely to offer, such as a compelling story, creative mechanics, challenging gameplay, or an immersive presentation. Skyrim does not.

Anyone that played WoW from BC to WotLK knows what a great talent tree looks like. A good talent tree enables specialization into different styles of play and forces tough choices between competing but appealing enhancements. Yet, for the most part, the skill trees in Skyrim are filled with nothing more than steroids - "become 20% better at" and "deal 20% more damage with". The few that contain mechanical enhancements will almost never change the way the game is actually played. The top tier talent for archery was a percent chance to proc paralysis on shot - think about this. Doing exactly what you did before (shooting arrows at the enemy), you now cause your enemies to flop down on the floor, where you will continue to shoot them until they remain flopped on the floor permanently. How thrilling. In some cases, mastery over a skillset didn't even require placing any points into the tree (unless you wanted to waste points). This is nothing but absolute horseshit.

But then there's the problem of challenge. RPGs rely on scaling difficulty in order to ensure that the game stays interesting. It's not fun to walk around one-shotting everything in the game, but that's what I did after 15-20 hours. I'm a min-maxer, and it didn't take me very long to find an optimal combat strategy that meant I never died unless I made some grave error. Part of this is a result of the aforementioned stupid NPC AI. Part of it's the fact that all of the dungeons were linear and all but a handful of encounters were exactly the same. Ultimately, though, it was a result of fighting the same enemies, endlessly. The majority of mobs will be encountered within the first 2-3 hours of the game, and from that point, nothing but adjectived, higher HP variations of those same mobs will appear.

Of course, even if there were a decent challenge, there wouldn't be any reward. A whopping 10(ish) different sets of equipment exist in the game, and they're divided in half between heavy and light. On top of that, it's a flatly tiered system. Aesthetic preferences go out the window as you replace one piece at a time every few hours, garnishing those handfuls of armor points. None of them offer any kind of abilities or ability modification (+%skill does not count). Most of them don't even look good. Some of them even look patently ridiculous. They've clung to glass armor for so long now, but it appears they missed the memo that it is simply not cool to waltz around coated in glass, no matter what sort of adventurer is being played. Weapons never manage to surpass anything more complex than dealing damage at a varying time period after left-clicking. Spells are worse than derivative, being poorly balanced from a numbers perspective while never bestowing a sense of satisfaction or power.

I hear your question. If it's so lame, why did I play it? Well, there's two circumstantial factors. There was the bronchitis (doing anything but sitting in a chair lead to lots of coughing fits), and I have a bit of an obsession with 100% completing games once I've started them. I get a certain satisfaction knowing that I covered all the available content. Outside of that, however, I'd probably say it was based on the hope that what I hadn't seen yet would change my mind. For sure, some of the environments were really pretty - particularly the Dwemer dungeons and the subterranean nexus cave with the glowing tentacles and whatnot. Those might have even been worth the price of admission; it's a tough call. I'm certainly a sucker for artistic grandeur.

In any case, here's my point: Skyrim is a game that fails to advance its genre in any way. So many games have developed excellent solutions to the problems that plague the Elder Scrolls series, but it's a series that doesn't seem willing to move on from where it was ten years ago. Given the fundamentally derivative mechanics and presentation, it leaves me to wonder if the designers have spent much time playing the games that other folks have made. My interest in games these days is in creativity. I want puzzles that force me to think in ways I haven't thought before. I seek out mechanics that enable novel playstyles. I crave alternate universes with lore that goes beyond elves and orcs, and crafts a world that I really haven't seen before. I want to be challenged, such that I'll be forced to learn and adapt long after I've mastered the fundamental mechanics. Games shouldn't be about forgetting reality. Games should enrich our lives, such that reality becomes a better place, more filled with creativity and ingenuity.
posted by MC Froehlich at with 5 Comments
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Three months ago, I said I had begun taking bupropion. It's time for an update on that. For the record, if you believe it unwise that I should discuss such a topic on the medium of blogs, I no longer see this as being fundamentally different from prescribing an antibiotic for an infection. This is not to suggest that modern psychotropic medication even begins to approach the level of accuracy or certainty as there exists with, say, penicillin. It is more to posit that I don't think this should be a subject of taboo. I would rather like to be able to discuss this without that awkward sensation of entering a zone of excess intimacy.

To recap a bit: medication was not something I had an interest in at any point prior. I felt strongly that the causes of my void of progress were a fatal cocktail of environmental issues combined with self-disciplinary failures. I saw myself as too unprincipled to maintain the kind of long-term responsibility necessary to make it through higher education, a problem that was exacerbated by the fundamental errors of the structure of American society as was available to me. I'm sure that both of these things contained a kernel of truth. However, the medication has brought about a level of change that I had previously not thought possible. I am now faced with the possibility that accepting medication may have been one of the best decisions of my life.

Bupropion is considered a norepinephrine-dopamine re-uptake inhibitor, but it also initiates the release of additional norepinephrine and dopamine. Basically, it increases the concentration of those two neurotransmitters within the system. Rather than list the known uses and consequences of bupropion, I'll just tell you about my experience. The first thing I noticed was an overall increase in energy. In fact, for the first three weeks, I found it absolutely impossible to exhaust myself. Waking up in the morning was absurdly easy, but going to sleep was a serious challenge. Once I did fall asleep, I slept very lightly and found myself frequently waking up during the night. This had the interesting consequence of making me much more cognizant of my dreams (everyone dreams when they sleep, but if you don't wake up during or directly after dreaming, it's forgotten), which made sleeping a very entertaining experience. Despite my increased energy levels, I found my ability to focus increased dramatically. Whereas before I would be consistently interrupted by very disruptive trains of thought and emotion - no matter what I was doing at the time - within a few days I became able to hone in on my task without mental distraction.

Then, there was its impacts on anxiety. I found myself alleviated of a weight that I had not previously realized was there. I would not have described myself as a stressed or anxious person in the past, but when I recall the frame of my consciousness as compared to now, it was filled with innumerable checklists that I was constantly running through, again and again. This was completely eliminated. I felt able to strip my current focus down to what was truly relevant, and ignore the extraneous material that was generating an intense feeling of being overwhelmed and incapable of handling reality on a moment-to-moment basis, let alone the long-term.

Then, there was the shame. Again, I would never have described myself as an ashamed person - but once it left, I knew that it had been there all along. Time did not seem to be capable of healing the embarrassment I felt about any of the events in my past. I could think back to errors or misjudgments I had made as far back as early childhood and I would instantly feel a sledgehammer of vindication and guilt. Yet, this did not compare to the intensity I would feel when I had erred in the moment. Social mishaps were like landmines waiting to thrust me into an oblivion of despair, serving as incontrovertible evidence that I was the worthless human being I had always feared that I might be. If it sounds dramatic, that's how it felt. I insert no exaggeration here.

This, too, vanished - and I mean vanished. I could return to the same memory, but this time my reaction would be within the realm of reason. I could recognize it for the mistake that it was without obsessing over the multitude of possible cosmic consequences of that event. These things, on the scale of it all, were extraordinarily average moments of the human experience that I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to learn from without suffering in a truly lasting manner. I was no longer haunted by memory, but in fact propelled. Memory became my own personal data set which I had the joyous convenience to analyze, and each moment of living experience was a chance to add novel information to that collection.

Never would I have called myself a person filled with fear, but I would say now without hesitation I was absolutely loaded with fear. Fear of being average. Fear of spending my life alone. Fear of being wrong. Fear of being an asshole. Fear of disapproval. With the shame gone, there was no fear. With the fear gone, there was no anxiety. I could now carry out my actions without a backdrop of agitation and uncertainty. My energy was no longer divided between accomplishing my present task and paying my dues to an unrewarding black hole of non-reality.

But enough rhetoric. Talk is cheap. Where are the results?

I began taking the meds in early October. At work, I started calling in late and sick significantly less. Two weeks later I wrote a proposal to start a new project on our website. My boss accepted the proposal, and I got bumped in hours. The increase in hours allowed me to save up the money I needed to pay off my debts and go back to school. I am enrolled at TC3, and for the first time, I'm on top of my shit. I have all of my textbooks on time. I spent ten minutes talking to one of my profs after class. I did homework on a Saturday afternoon. None of these things have occurred in the past. It's helped immensely with quitting smoking, too. I still crave at moments, but the act is not nearly as satisfying. In the last two months, I have purchased three packs. Before this, I was consuming a pack every three days. There's more I could talk about, but I think this is just the beginning. Really, really, really.

The only negative side effect has been my loss of appetite. I don't eat as much as I used to, mostly because I just don't desire many foods. I still feel hunger, but it competes with a lack of desire to consume anything. I remember frequently remarking on my love of eating months ago, but now I find that it's infrequent to feel a strong compulsion to eat anything. I still eat regularly enough - it's not hard to tell when my body is starting to lose functional efficiency due to lack of resources. It just doesn't have the same zest. Outside of that, I can identify no ill consequence.

My mind has never been sharper. Some anti-depressants leave people feeling like zombies, or disconnected from emotions they previously enjoyed. This has not happened for me, and my heightened focus and clarity of consciousness enables me to experience most things in a fuller way. It's true that I no longer have the episodes of euphoric creativity and confidence, but I do not think they were doing me much good anyways. My delusions of grandeur have subsided, and I am able to accept that I am, objectively speaking, not very different from anyone else. That doesn't weaken my identity - I just don't have to feel like an alien any longer.

Best of all, I no longer find that I am comparing myself to my role models again and again. Comparison is patently ridiculous - why should I aspire to be another, when I am already me? I can certainly learn from the successes and failures of my peers, but it is useless to wish to be someone that I am not. I am who I am, with the many strengths and weaknesses I possess, whether due to genetics, environment, or personality. Another quote says it better than I can.

"There is a time in every many's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide," - Ralph Waldo Emerson

As I told my mother, I believe it's a new era. My vision is clear, my course is set. A long road is ahead of me, and I will savor every moment of it.
posted by MC Froehlich at with 3 Comments
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I wrote an email. Wouldn't you like to read it? It's about Minecraft.

Dear Notch,

I'm a long-time player of Minecraft - since 1.1.0 alpha. The single player mode consumed about 20 hours of my time, but I put it down when I realized that no one else would ever be able to enjoy the fortress I'd created. A few weeks later, I got together with a group of my friends and we started a server. It's tough to say how much time I've put into the projects on that server (see here) - a thousand hours would be a low estimate. I mention this solely to support the statement that I've spent a great deal of time thinking about where Minecraft has been, where it's going, and what its potential is. Right now, that potential is being squandered. You created a wonderful game, the first viable entry into what could be a totally new genre of video games. However, I feel strongly that the direction you've taken the game is one of very, very limited potential.

I share your affinity for dungeon crawlers. I see the influence RPGs have brought to bear on the game, and I respect the intention. I think it's shooting too low. I love RPGs of all shapes and sizes, but they are nothing if not arbitrary. Experience, enchantments, achievements, tools, armor - all of these things are fine, but they are not ends that encourage a truly dynamic or novel experience. They do not enhance the creative potential of the player because they insert static incentive structures. This, of course, is the core of every RPG. The game for players then becomes developing behavior that most efficiently garnishes rewards from those incentive structures, which is why grinding/farming occurs. Vying for efficiency is much of what makes RPGs so delightful, but it is a wretched outcome in Minecraft. With the right mechanics, Minecraft could be a game with unlimited possibilities.

I've read most of your blog entries over the last year and a half, and you seem to have an interest in procedural mechanics and emergent interaction. I notice you've done side projects related to cellular automata. Certainly, the work you did with the terrain generation in Minecraft is fantastic, and the quality and diversity of environments you're able to produce with the biome system is unmatched by anything else today. Combined with dynamic light, water, and lava, environments become truly natural. Their qualities are no longer arbitrary, but emergent - and on top of that, they are fully subject to modification. This principle could apply to much, much more than just the environment, but the direction of Minecraft's development does not seem to recognize this potential.

Pistons, redstone, water, and lava are the only true block-block interactions.

You built a foundation for extremely complex interactions by including redstone. With logic gates, it is suddenly possible to create complex interaction scenarios. Yet, aside from pistons, the only blocks the redstone can influence are superfluous (lights, minecarts, doors), but pistons have enabled some of the coolest creations in Minecraft (did you see that mountain builder where they alternated flows of water and lava suspended in the air?). They're the first real step of enabling true interactivity in Minecraft. Nothing since, and pistons are hampered by the game's engine anyways. The netcode isn't accurate enough to enable rigorously timed operations on a server. Redstone is absurdly bulky to work with, and planning anything beyond simple functionality requires significant planning. On top of that, pistons can't be customized in any way. Making something as simple as a secret staircase is extremely cumbersome. Here's a short list of blocks and block modifiers that would go a long way:

Note: At this point, I managed to send the email half-completed, before I was able to proofread the above paragraph. Which is why it sucks.

- Moving (floating) platforms (think Zelda or Mario), blocks to modify another block's position from a distance
- Blocks that modify block color, blocks that emit a given color of light
- Blocks that change state based on environmental details - weather, light, time, elevation, proximity to water, lava, or air
- Blocks that generate new blocks, blocks that consume blocks (more sponge!)

The possibilities for block-block interaction are endless. An entire RPG could be made within Minecraft, if these types of blocks were available. We've seen Minecraft servers develop into massive community projects, accomplishing feats of immense collaborative nerdiness. Imagine if these people had the tools to take their creations from glorified dollhouses to living, breathing dungeons filled with stories, battles, platforming sequences, and puzzles. It's entirely possible - the communities that exist out there would most certain make use of the capability. But...

Limited mod support hinders the greatest avenues of growth.

With a good mod API, all of these features could be modded in without trouble. If this isn't a direction you're interested in taking the game, then I implore you to make it feasible for the modding community to do so. Some of my friends believe that another company will eventually pick up the torch and release the game that we wish for Minecraft to be - but I am doubtful. Competitors may mimic your focus, and embrace the block world as a format for adventuring. Terraria certainly didn't build on it. Ace of spades shows its viability with the FPS genre, but the updates I see are primarily focused on the shooting, rather than the world. But here's what I think the modding community would be able to bring to the game:

- Ability to dynamically alter/script player stats (speed, size, vision) and interface (status effects, menus, maps, dialogue)
- Dynamically alter/script mob behavior (shopkeeper NPCs! dungeon bosses! questgivers!)
- Simple physics, simple machines (it's been demonstrated that cellular automata can approximate simple physics!)
- Creating new block properties - temperature, mass, density, pressure, permeability - the list goes on
- Custom block textures

These kinds of features barely scratch the surface of what is possible with a world simulator like Minecraft. Some of these ideas are much, much more complicated than others, but I believe every one of them would establish Minecraft as a pioneer of a new way of playing video games - through the act of active creation, rather than following the path that someone else made. Perhaps I sound outside the bounds of rationality, but I genuinely believe you have a golden opportunity in your hands. My talents do not lie in programming - so I'm left at the mercy of such venerable programmers as yourself.

Thanks for all your work - I appreciate what you've created and enjoyed Minecraft immensely. I'm sure you're busy, but if you have feedback or comments on this I would tell everyone you're a cool guy with awesome hair. I promise.

Take care,


P.S. Sorry for sending this in two emails. As you may have guessed, the first part was sent prematurely. Story of my life.
posted by MC Froehlich at with 0 Comments