Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Humbled: a Review of Gemini

High-concept games impress me; I like it when my understanding of reality is enhanced by having been twisted in a particular way, as with Portal and Miegakure.

Sometimes, though, it doesn't take much for a game to be a mind-opening experience for me.

This year at PAX Prime, I came across Gemini. Drawn in by the soothing graphics, I picked up a controller at an available station.

In Gemini, your avatar is a small sparkling circle. The world is 2D. There are no apparent obstacles; just the ground, which is a line you can't fall past. The game uses all of two buttons: left bumper and right bumper.

Naturally, I moved both left and right along the ground, but I didn't seem to be making any progress. I glanced over at the other players. They were clearly able to go up. I wanted to go up, too.

After skittering along the ground for another minute, I started pressing every button on the controller in a vain attempt to start flying. Sometimes I hopped a little. One of the devs caught me button-mashing, and tapped me on the shoulder. "Those are the only controls," he said, pointing at the LB and RB icons on the screen.

Exasperated and embarrassed, I looked up at the game's poster for additional clues. I finally parsed the name, Gemini. The twins, a constellation. Wait a minute. Twins. Should I expect another player to show up?

There was a glowing bauble that appeared from time to time. I had presumed it was a part of the background. It had moved around some, but didn't seem to do anything. I had ignored it. I did recall, though, that every time I'd hopped off the ground, that bauble had been nearby. Maybe it was important, after all.

So I went back over to the little glowing orb, and sure enough, I jumped a bit. But it wasn't a real jump. Instead, I ascended somewhat unpredictably while in its proximity. With more experimentation, I found that it would follow me upwards. The bauble and I were entwined, but only just so. I couldn't get too close, or it would repel me like the wrong end of a magnet. I couldn't get too far, or we would both drift to the ground. If I kept to a certain 'Goldilocks' distance, however, I'd move upward, and it would follow me a little bit. Only together could we ascend.

I found that I had the power to fly wherever I wanted, but I could never take a direct route to get there. Gemini rejects precise, Mario-like controls. Instead, you make a butterfly-like dance across the screen with your companion orb.

When I made this realization, I had to blink back an actual tear.

You see, I'm from a WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) culture. We emphasize the individual over the group more strongly than any other people in the world. The boundary I draw between myself and others is so strong that it took me several solid minutes to figure out that I even had a companion in a game called Gemini, let alone that my interactions with that companion could let me fly.

For gods' sake, I had rejected the power of flight in favor of telescoping in on the one aspect of the game I had the most control over. I was blind to the fact that my avatar could even exist as a system between a pair of entities. Consider my eyes opened, Gemini devs, and thank you.

NYU Game Center Incubator, please release Gemini soon. Every WEIRD person in the world needs to play it and be humbled.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Brewing Tea in the Office

I drink a liter or more of tea per day, and keep 15 to 30 types of tea at my desk. Over the years, this habit has taught me some tips about brewing tea using a standard hot/cold water dispenser.

Brewing tea requires specific water temperatures and precise steeping times. While you can track steeping time using your smart phone, you cannot dip your smart phone into your cup to see how hot the water is. It's easier to interpret water temperature based on how your tea turns out, then apply what you learn to future cups of tea.

Black Tea
Most black teas are best steeped in near-boiling (195-210°F) water. A typical water dispenser doesn't make water quite this hot, but it comes close. When brewing black tea in the office, swirl hot water in your mug to heat the mug first. Dump that slightly-cooled water out, then immediately add your tea ball and pour fresh hot water right onto the tea. This helps ensure the hottest possible steeping.

Oolong Tea
Oolong is easy to brew in the office; most hot water dispensers produce exactly the right temperature water for it (about 185°F). You'll want to follow the same procedure as for Black Tea, but you can get away without heating your mug first.

White Tea
While a dispenser's water is slightly too hot for white tea, that's ok! You can get the extra heat to transfer to your room-temperature ceramic mug, creating water that is the right temperature; 160-175°F. So - pour the hot water in your mug, wait until the mug is hot to the touch, then add your white-tea-filled tea ball and steep away.

Green Tea
Green tea is difficult to brew even with the right equipment. I've ruined many a cup! Here's one way to avoid overcooking those delicate leaves in the office:
  1. Put your green tea in a tea ball in your room-temperature ceramic mug.
  2. Pour COLD water into your mug until it is about 1/6 or 1/5 full. Learning exactly how much cold water is right for your mug and your tea may take a few tries.
  3. Swirl the cold water around the tea ball, soaking the tea. This helps protect the tea against the near-boiling water you're about to add.
  4. Pour HOT water into the mug, filling it the rest of the way, making sure to aim the stream of water away from the tea ball.
  5. The green tea should now be sitting in roughly the correct temperature water (around 150°F, plus or minus). Remember to not oversteep.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Terminology Review: Girlfriend Mode

To recap the Borderlands 2 Girlfriend Mode situation, the creators of the game wanted to make a character and skill tree that would appeal to players who are less talented at playing first person shooters. They came up with Gaige the Mechromancer, a solid addition to the game.

The trouble started when the lead designer (John Hemingway) referred to the Mechromancer as 'Girlfriend Mode' in a Eurogamer interview. Here's his most quoted quote:

“The design team was looking at the concept art [of the Mechromancer class] and thought, you know what, this is actually the cutest character we’ve ever had. I want to make, for the lack of a better term, the girlfriend skill tree. This is, I love Borderlands and I want to share it with someone, but they suck at first-person shooters. Can we make a skill tree that actually allows them to understand the game and to play the game? That’s what our attempt with the Best Friends Forever skill tree is.”

It's clear that John Hemingway is not sexist and he never meant to offend anyone with his terminology. His comments, however, provide a good platform for discussions of sexism in game design.

I mentioned Girlfriend Mode the other day to a fellow game designer in one such discussion. We bantered for a while, and at one point, he asked, "If most of the people who play in Girlfriend Mode are players' girlfriends, is the term still insulting?"

His question struck a chord. At first glance, "Girlfriend Mode" may look like a harmless phrase, but it contains insidious sexism. Here's an analogy I used to answer his question:

"Pretend there is a restaurant owner who has a variety of patrons. He learns that he could get more patrons, and make more money, if he put more inexpensive items on the menu.

"So, he adds several low-cost dishes and puts them on a new 'Dollar Deals' page of the restaurant menu folder. The owner is excited for the new menu's debut, so he takes an interview with a reporter.

"When talking to the reporter about his concepts behind the 'Dollar Deals' page, the restaurant owner says, 'I wanted to make, for lack of a better term, the Black menu.'"

It's clear why a 'Black menu' containing a list of cheap food would be considered racist. The terminology makes the assumption that Blacks are poor. Worse, it implies that Blacks are a separate group of patrons who, as a group, need special treatment.

There shouldn't be any need to ask, "If most of the people who buy food listed on the Black menu are Black, is the term still insulting?"

The same logic applies to Girlfriend Mode.

It should be clear why a 'Girlfriend Mode' with the easiest gameplay would be sexist. The terminology makes the assumption that girls are bad at games. Worse, it implies that girls are a separate group of players who, as a group, need special treatment.

As a culture, we've gotten to the point where we see this as racism, yet this kind of sexism remains invisible to many. We need to learn to see it and excise it, or else the makers of games will continue to unintentionally alienate a large part of their audience.

Monday, June 18, 2012

In Support of Gamers of All Genders

The recent sex-based internet attacks on Anita Sarkeesian and Felicia Day are appalling and inexcusable. Watching the situation has reminded me that I can't just sit around and hope that misogyny in the gamer world will go away on its own.

So I'll say here that I support Anita and Felicia, and I'm glad that they have not been silenced or intimidated by the bullying they've received.

If you're unfamiliar with their situations, Squidy Girl has summed them up well.

More links:

Saturday, May 26, 2012


You can find me on Twitter, @phorusrhacid

I've been busy, but not too busy to tweet!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Apple Noms

This post is only loosely related to gaming, but it is delicious.

I dedicate my Apple Noms to Fallout 3, which I was playing as I figured out the dessert's details. (I was going to call them "Apple Bombs," but that name is already taken by a mixed drink.)

You are invited to enjoy them as I do, as a winter snack after a long evening of gaming.

Apple Noms
Dessert. Generously serves 2.

  • 2 large apples
  • "nomshell" crust:
    • 1 c. whole wheat flour
    • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
    • 1/3 c. butter
    • 1 tbsp. water
  • "funpowder" filling:
    • 2 tbsp. brown sugar
    • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
    • 1 tbsp. butter
  • Preheat oven to 350 F.
  • Peel and core the apples, then set them aside.
  • In a medium bowl, mix the flour with 1/2 tsp. cinnamon.
  • In a small bowl, soften 1/3 c. butter. (I zap it for 30 seconds in the microwave.) Add the butter to the flour mixture, and use a fork to gently toss and mix until evenly crumbly. Toss in the water the same way. At this point, the dough should be crumbly yet moist, and it should form a clump when pressed together.
  • Coat the outsides of the apples in the crust. Use whatever method works for you. I like to press pieces of dough to pie-crust thickness and tessellate them onto the apples.
  • Use any extra dough to plug the bases of the apples, especially if you cored them all the way through.
  • In the small bowl, mix 1/2 tsp. cinnamon with the brown sugar. Spoon it into the empty cores of each apple.
  • Divide 1 tbsp. (refrigerated) butter in half, and mash the pieces into the apple cores as well.
  • Dust the apple tops with cinnamon.
  • Bake the apples in a covered glass or ceramic casserole dish for 45 minutes at 350 F. Then take the lid off and bake them for 15 minutes more.
  • Let the apples cool for a few minutes before carefully lifting them from the dish.
Troubleshooting tips:
  • If your dough isn't holding together, add water 1 tsp. at a time until it does.
  • If your dough is too sticky, generously coat your hands in flour when applying it to the apples, and don't worry about the extra flour that will end up on/in the crust.
  • If you use smaller apples, you will end up with extra dough.
  • If the filling isn't filling the apple cores, add more brown sugar as needed.
  • The final appearance of this dessert varies. Every kind of apple does something different in the oven. Some hold together perfectly, some seem to puff up, and others shrink inside their nomshells.
  • You can make your favorite pie crust and use it instead of the hax0red crust I use.
  • If you are using a sour varietal of apple, mix 1 tbsp. sugar into the crust, and/or add more brown sugar on top once it is stuffed.
  • If you use unsalted butter, add a couple of pinches of salt (no more than 1/8 tsp) to the crust.
  • You can use lard or shortening instead of butter, but please don't use margarine. 
  • You don't have to peel the apples, but if you don't, it can be tougher to get the crust to stick.
  • This recipe can be doubled or halved.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Storytelling in Castle Crashers

I picked up Castle Crashers the other day. It's a well-made brawler with RPG and collection elements.

While various reviews mention Castle Crashers' simple story, the storytelling is well done. For example, at the beginning of the Marsh level:

You walk into the marsh and see that skeletons have killed a peasant. As you begin to fight the skeletons, two other peasants peek out from behind the terrain and watch your fight. They look at one another and nod, then leap out from the terrain and begin to assist you.

The designers could have just dropped in some NPC assistants; instead, they chose to tell a story that gave meaning to the NPCs' behavior - the peasants help you because you avenged the death of their friend. The game is full of little visual and gestural details that help the player understand what's going on - the sort of storytelling details that Scott McCloud writes about.

The game is also a good teacher - here's how you are introduced to sandwiches:

You reach a door that you cannot break open. Enemies run onto the screen intermittently, but steadily. Each time you kill one, it yields a sandwich that goes into your usable-item inventory. In fact, the unbreakable door itself is shaped like a sandwich. Everything points to the inevitable conclusion: try out one of those sandwiches, and see if you can't get the door open.

There are many good game design lessons to be learned from Castle Crashers. I recommend it.
These postings are mine alone, have not been reviewed or approved by any employer or company, and do not necessarily reflect the views of anyone but me.