Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Well, here I am back up at sunny, palm-treed Stanford. Actually, that makes Stanford sound like the Valley, which isn't true at all. Stanford is green with a green or blue background, while the Valley is green with a brown or blue background. That's a big difference. Seriously. Evidently when God was designing California, he decided that this part of California should have rain instead of rocks, and I miss my rocks. I never go climbing on them or anything, but it's nice to know that they're there. You're not allowed to laugh at the fact that I miss my rocks (or the hills that go with them) unless you've been to my home, because I think my home is beautiful. So there.

In other news, I'm all moved in to my new single at Crothers. I don't know if I'm down with this single thing. It's a nice room; even if it is kind of old it's also pretty big and I have it laid out nicely. I just miss Archimedes. Of course even if he was a grad student we couldn't room together, because he's going away to Oxford. On the plus side, Phoebe is coming back from ... well, DC, but I think of her as coming back from Oxford. I'm excited about that.

I'm all set to begin my new era, and am sort of just killing time until the new era actually begins tomorrow. As proof of the new era, I have wall decorations. Lots of wall decorations. The trouble with wall decorations is that I never had anything to decorate with that actually belonged on my walls. I mean, I didn't want to put up just any old thing. It had to be something that said something. Now I have lots of stuff that means something.

I'll start with the non-wall decorations since most of them are new, too. Of course there's my venerable Goochy (Cthulhu). The great pastel Unknowable Evil has been ousted from his lightning ball (which, sadly, is dead after many faithful years of service), and now looks down upon me with cutesy malevolence from my desk lamp. Goochy stands for art, stories, my friends back home, and the "good old days," whatever those are.

Then there's my very own bronze horse (Etruscan, but Greek-inspired). The khalkos hippos hagios stands for the Hetairoi: for my undergraduate career and the discovery of the collegiate experience, and for my honored teachers: Jody Maxmin, Meg Butler, Eirene Visvardi, and Jack Mitchell.

The last non-wall decoration is my new Honor Harrington coffee tumbler (tumbler courtesy of Starbucks, Honor Harrington pictures courtesy of me). I don't know how much I'll use that as a cup, but I think it looks really cool. And it's pretty appropriate, if you think about it.

Overlooking my computer station I have three pictures of Hawaii and/or my family in Hawaii. Those stand for the family, the togetherness of the cove, and Hawaii and all it stands for (which, if you're curious, is pretty much the same thing Disney World stands for).

As you enter my room, if you look to the right you'll see three prints of the Archimedes Palimpsest, oriented according to the Archimedes text and not the euchologion (prayer book) text. That stands for the ancient world in general: the joy of studying it, and the importance of a long view of things.

Over my bed are four prints of Honor Harrington. They remind me to be like Honor: to never do less than your best, to do your duty or die trying, to always care, to be loving rather than safe, to be the kind of person who changes the world not as a result of what you do but as a result of who and what you are.

And finally, there is the poster of the Moulin Rouge which Blue Rose bought for me in Paris. That stands for the romantic dream, the importance of being hard-nosed and uncompromising in the pursuit of romance, and the fact that Blue Rose loves me and I love her. Or at least I think she does. I guess it's kind of presumptuous for me to say that, but I think so, at any rate. I feel kind of bad that it took me so long to get that poster up and properly displayed (it was up last year, but just with thumbtacks. Now it looks a lot nicer) because it does mean a lot to me. There were just, you know, complications.

And those are my decorations. Everybody should come by Crothers 141 and see them and be overpowered by the tidal wave of symbolism. Also to see me.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

I haven't had a game post for a while, so I think it's time I did that. But first, let me say to all of my Stanford dance friends - and by "Stanford" I mean "Bay Area" - that I miss dancing with you. I miss dancing with Esther Selene and Alanna too, even though they're no longer in the Bay Area. I think they're the only ones though. Of course it is fun to spread the dancing fever to the gang down here, but I miss certain things about the social\\vintage scene up north. Things like tender nightclub two-steps, passionate cross-step, and redowa.

So, on that note, about Alien vs. Predator 2. I picked this up because it was $10 and had won a number of awards in its day, and I'd always been kind of curious. Then I saw AVP last week and it was fantastic (don't believe the reviews; it won't win any Oscars but it's a solid action movie and a good treatment of both franchises), and after that I required more alien vs. predator action. So in between my ambitious Phoenix Earth mapping endeavors, I've been taking breaks to play AVP2.

Except that they aren't really breaks, owing to the fact that the game is terrifying on the Half-Life scale of terrifying. I haven't played as either an alien or a predator yet, but I think I'm about halfway through the marine campaign and it's been fantastic. For one thing, as I said, it's terrifying. You really can't overstate the importance of that; I mean, the marine experience is supposed to be terrifying, and this game (like the movie) is one of those situations where you score points for meeting "supposed to" expectations. I hear the alien and predator campaigns have distinctly different feels to them, which I think will be great. I mean, come on, the predator experience is supposed to be scary, but not terrifying. You're a predator.

But actually that's one of the things I appreciate about this game: the fact that the marines know all about aliens (xenomorphs, they call them), and yes, they respect them as heartily dangerous and scary, but nothing that will keep them from doing their jobs. That hasn't stopped me the player from being terrified, but it's nice to see the military portrayed as decent, competent, and courageous. The marines in Aliens ended up coming across as decent enough individuals, but the overall portrayal of the military in that movie suffered a little too much from post-Vietnam syndrome for my tastes.

The other things I really appreciate about the marine side of this game are the movement model and the gear. As far as movement goes, there's just one big thing: you move at a realistic speed. Now, don't get me wrong, the movement model could still be better. No movement model that doesn't prevent me from running all the time, make my accuracy a function of being hurt or moving, and make my ability to move a function of my injuries, truly deserves my respect. But the fact of the matter is that those three factors, plus the speed at which you're allowed to move, are things that every first-person game gets wrong, and will continue to get wrong so long as market expectations are what they are. As a result, I appreciate the guts of any game developer who will fly in the face of what the market wants to deliver to me at least a semblance of the realism I crave.

Realism (== verisimilitude == immersion == assisted suspension of disbelief) is also the reason I appreciate the marines' equipment. Most games assume that proper weapon balancing follows this model: rate of fire, damage per round, and range/accuracy must all be balanced so as to equalize the overall firepower flux. Hence, in most games the automatic weapons are weak, inaccurate, or both - after all, they're automatic. If they were more accurate, more powerful, and faster firing than a handgun, why, what would the point of a handgun be?

But not in AVP2. In this game the marines' pulse rifles really are superior to their pistols in every respect - the only time you use a handgun, really, is when you're forced to do so. And the smart guns ... oh my. In most games the machine gun (which in real life is not only an automatic weapon but a long range automatic weapon) usually fires either paper clips or is hideously inaccurate. In AVP2 the smart gun is not only mightier even than the pulse rifle, it has a higher rate of fire and actually tracks your foes. It is, if you will, "smart." In fact, so far, every weapon I've seen in the game does exactly what it looks like it should. It's true that it takes a burst of rifle fire to put down a xenomorph, which in the real world would never be accepted for long. But on the other hand I'm pretty sure a single rifle round would do for a human being, and xenomorphs are supposed to be ridiculously tough. So if you assume that marines almost never run into them, even if they know the stories, then you can probably accept the lethality level of their standard weapons.

The weapons situation, combined with the notoriously buggy netcode, probably makes AVP a very unpopular multiplayer choice. But frankly that's okay with me, because I couldn't care less about the multiplayer community's wants. Having a machine gun that tracks you is not spammy, it's an obstacle. It's not a mistake; it's a challenge. But most multiplayer players would consider the heavy use of such a weapon "cheap."

This is the sort of attitude that turns me off to multiplayer. Basically, to me the appeal of playing computer games against human beings is the fact that the human being has the potential to be far more challenging than a computer opponent. If you will, the only way to develop (or experience) real skill is to play against a human being. Now, skill is not the only reason I play computer games. I play them the way some people go to the theater, or the art gallery: to experience art. But artistic experience does not require a human being on the opposing force. Only skill requires that.

The trouble is that I have no desire to develop or witness skill at a made-up game that isn't fundamentally different from chess or basketball. Now, don't get me wrong, if you enjoy chess, basketball, or Unreal, you're welcome to do so. Competetive sports are a good thing, whether mental, physical, or electronic. They just aren't my thing, and I resent the fact that market pressures have turned multiplayer computer games into nothing but sports.

The distinction between "sport" and "real" that I'm drawing here is this: do the constraints of the competition emerge naturally from the objectives, equipment, and human factors involved, or are they imposed from the top by a referree? For example, there is nothing inherent about a basketball court which forces you not to travel, or makes it a very bad idea to do so. That is a rule which some rulemaker imposed upon the game (to make it more fun and challenging, of course), which is what makes basketball a sport in my book. Another example, from the electronic world: in every Tribes title, the rates of fire and muzzle velocities are ridiculously low. There is nothing inherent in a spinfusor which makes it fire its projectile slower than a black powder pistol would (and I of all people should know). The performance characteristics of the gear in Tribes games are artificially limited to make the game more fun and challenging.

Now, if you like that sort of thing, and lots of people do, then that's fine. But developing skill at a game like that is equivalent to developing skill at a game like basketball, which isn't something I have any desire to do. I want to develop skill at a challenge whose constraints are emergent, which makes me figure out how to get past the computer-guided machine gun rather than eliminate it from the game because it's "too hard" - which, just maybe, puts me in touch with the brave men and women who do this for real, and the incredible mental skills that let them do it.

Friday, August 06, 2004

It's time for another edition of Things I've Learned.

Twilight and I were speculating the other day that everybody (or at least every roleplayer) at some point in his or her life encounters a character that things just click with. You see a movie, or you read a book, or maybe you're just daydreaming, and all of a sudden you encounter a person and say, That's it. That's who I want to be. And for the rest of your life, all of your characters are in some way a reflection of that character. I suppose it must be something like love at first sight.

I have been fortunate enough to encounter four such characters in my life, and I happen to be revisiting Honor Harrington at the moment. Specifically, over the last few nights I have been reading the scenes in which she begins to fall in love with the Earl of White Haven, and I find myself much more sympathetic to her plight the second time around. Specifically, I was struck with this passage:

Her nostrils flared as she inhaled deeply, and when she opened her eyes once more, they were calm. She reached out, mentally and emotionally, to her new command, and something deep inside her sighed in relief as she felt responsibility's familiar weight settle upon her shoulders ... and push her maddening preoccupation with other matters out of the front of her brain. It didn't cause her distractions to magically disappear, but at least it gave her a respite which might - if she was lucky - last long enough for those competing elements to subside into their proper places.

For me, that is another one of those click moments that epitomizes what I want to - what I must - be. I believe deeply in love, and in romance, and in the proper interplay of those two things - above all things, you might say, I believe in love. I find those thoughts a constant companion these days, and more and more I find myself confronting a deep-down longing for a family of my own. Not kids, not right away - a husband and wife are a complete family in my book. A family. A house to make a home. A legacy to construct which will stand as a bastion through the centuries for all the abused little girls and downtrodden little boys of the world. As Belle sings, I want adventure in the great wide somewhere ... Or in Honor's words:

It shocked and confused her, but she could no more have denied that desire than she could have stopped breathing, for she sensed the enormous potential singing unseen but inescapable between them. It wasn't sexual. Or rather, it was sexual, but only as a part of the whole, for it went far, far beyond any sensual attraction. It was a hunger that went so deep and subsumed so much of her that sexuality had to be a part of it. No one had ever before evoked such an intense sense of shared capability within her, and she sensed the way they complemented one another, the unbeatable team they could become.

That is the kind of longing that has been with me these past weeks, the need to find that kind of love and seize it, come hell or high water, and take it farther. And yet there is much to be done first, and I have a new command that settles down upon me and calms me.

As C.S. Lewis cogently observed, the Lord never repeats himself. I have, at last, the core-deep, foundation-of-the-universe knowledge that I must go to Stanford Law School, but that assurance did not come in the same way that it did when I discovered that I must attend Stanford undergrad. And it means something different, too. Unlike the last time the Lord called me forward to a distinct season of my life, I have stuff left over from the last season. I hesitate to call it baggage, because it's not a bad thing. I suspect, personally, it is a necessary thing. I am leaving behind me so many questions unanswered, so many things unknown that I might have been able to figure out if I had just a little more time.

And I think that is one of the big points I am supposed to take away from this. I do not plan my life. It is not up to me to figure things out to my heart's content. My life, if I know what's good for me, will not be directed under my sovereign authority. And besides leaving behind questions which may never be answered, I am moving forward into territory which I thought was going to be reasonably predictable and am discovering is not. Somewhere, deep down inside, I had assumed that most of my major character traits would be formed by now. They're not. I'm starting to care about systems, about societies and institutions and how everything fits together to impact the experience of the individual. I have always believed in the moral imperative to transcend your circumstances or die trying, but I am now starting to really care, deep down, about the fact that circumstance is not some monolith that must crush or be crushed.

If that can change in me, who knows what else may change in these next three years? And who knows where I will be when I pass the bar - for with this new thing the Lord is growing in me comes the first realistic, truly imaginable scenario in which I am not a well-paid attorney. Perhaps I will be, perhaps I will not - but I don't know.

Uncertainty behind, uncertainty before, and a longing beside me which does not look like it will be filled in the near future. And what does it all come down to? Holy. When I stop to pray about my life, all my worries and hopes and confusions stop dead in my mouth and all I can really utter is that: holy. The worries, the hopes, the confusions, the outright requests are all still there, but they really don't seem to matter compared to the holiness of God. I stand in the presence of holiness, in the presence of sovereignty, and nothing is really frightening any more. In a way I stand in the presence of the most frightening thing in existence, and that makes everything else seem petty by comparison. He is not safe, but in his presence I am safe. I know who it is who gives me the new command, and I trust him implicitly. I can tell that my law school experience is not going to be at all what I expected. But I can also tell that everything is settling into its proper place, because he is holy.