Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Hyper Text

Through a combination of work stuff and forum roleplay, I've been reminded of the existence of this strange thing the web is made of. Not quite a programming language, not quite just formatted text, it seems to have fallen by the wayside recently. Of course, web pages are still made of HTML and retrieved by HTTP, but the word "hypertext" is as dead as the prefix "cyber-", and these days professional websites are more Flash and scripting than anything. Meanwhile, the W3C has been quietly moving on (I found out the other day that the FONT tag is deprecated in favor of CSS -- what's with that?), and I have a feeling we're rapidly nearing an age where people have forgotten that you can do this on the web (though maybe that's better off forgotten).

I've never been particularly proficient in HTML, but I wanted to take a moment to think about what "hypertext" really meant. Back in the day, it was, as the name suggested, a new, innovative approach to text -- now your documents could have, not only pictures and formatting, but also these strange things called "hyperlinks", which connected them to other, related documents. I remember (this was a long time ago, okay?) envisioning it as a non-linear book, in which certain words might lead into completely different stories. It was an exciting concept at the time. These days, hyperlinks are pretty much the only surviving part of that vision; the box I'm typing this into, for instance, is mostly Javascript. It changed the world and then went its way, gracefully making way for the various languages that came after it. I like to think that its greatest legacy is that even now, most links are blue and underlined.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

News from the front

So, I've recently become interested in the phenomenon of forum roleplaying. I've just joined a game, so I thought I'd take the time to put up some thoughts. (I won't link you to the site; I'm too embarrassed about having people read my writing.) I've done a lot of console and tabletop roleplaying (yes, in case you didn't already know, I play Dungeons and Dragons), but my internet RP experience consists of a few abortive Skype games (it's really hard to keep a game going over Skype). So the things that jump out at me first are the differences in the forum approach. They are, in no particular order:

1) It's generally rules-light. I consider this a good thing. Crunching numbers is fun and all, but the real joy of roleplaying is the cooperative story aspect, and recently I've felt that this means the fewer rules the better. Of course, this only works well as long as everyone gets along, which leads me to my next point.

2) It's on the internet. This is both good and bad. Bad, because as with everything on the internet, most of the forum games out there look pretty awful. The odds of things going poorly (for the players, not the characters) is probably a good deal higher than in your average college gaming club. At the same time, there's so much stuff out there that the odds of finding something that meets your personal tastes (say, psychological horror niche anime) are pretty high. And there are enough people who play that there are most likely quite a few groups full of good writers and nice people.

3) It's not realtime. This is probably the first thing that struck me, and to me the strangest. How are you supposed to have a conversation when the other person might not respond for hours or days? How are you supposed to run a dramatic scene when you don't have everyone at the table? As it turns out, people have come up with ways around it. One of these ways is to have each post partially overlap with the posts before and after it, so that in one post your character might react to a few things someone else did, do something on her own, and ask a few questions for the next poster to respond to. With more than two people, this starts getting messy, but it's better than nothing. And of course, forum posts can be edited after the fact for continuity without embarrassing cries of "retcon!" Even so, the time thing still seems like a disadvantage to me. Maybe I'll change my mind as I play.

So, for the next while, among other things, this shall be a forum roleplay blog. Wow, that's like, Web 3.0 or something. If this much nerdiness hasn't put you off already, stay tuned!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Everything's better free!

Independently made video games are really a wonderful thing. These days, big-budget games have a longer list of credits than most movies; so the idea that one person can use publicly available tools and make a game that's just as fun (and often more original) than the most recent big-name hit (sorry, Square, but it's true) is really incredible to me. And, on top of that, they're often free! I couldn't list all the best indie games out there in one post -- for one thing, I don't know them all, and for another, 1up lists 100 a year -- but here are a couple of highlights.

First, Doukutsu Monogatari (Cave Story) by Studio Pixel. This is an old one, but it doesn't get any worse with age. Though it starts off with no explanation, it has a surprisingly deep story, with multiple paths, great characters, and the kind of adventure gameplay that you can't find in mainstream games anymore. It's going to be re-released for WiiWare sometime in the indefinite future, but until then, the original can be downloaded here (click the little red guy in the 2004 row), and the English patch is here.

Second, somewhat more recent, is Scott Games. This guy's been re-imagining the traditional console RPG for a while, and it looks like he's perfected the formula in his most recent release (though I haven't played through it yet) -- his battle system, in which there's no such thing as a "normal attack", makes even random encounters strategic and enjoyable. While the storyline for the older games is a bit weak, the characters are still charming (and charming's the word; in one you play a walking coffeepot, in another a group of FF flans), and they're a lot of fun to play.

Last but most certainly not least is my friend Ellipsis, who recently released his Chrono Trigger fan game, The Rise of Magus, starring everyone's favorite blue-haired villain. "Platformer with RPG elements" might be a reasonable description of the gameplay; as for the content, it's his interpretation of the part of Magus's backstory that was left untouched in the original game. Needless to say, this is awesome; in fact, it would have been awesome even without the great gameplay, but it turned out to be a really fun game too. If you don't know who Magus is, or why this is awesome, you should play Chrono Trigger, for it is the BEST GAME EVER. Unfortunately, it's not free, though in classic Square style it's now been released for SNES, PlayStation, and DS. And once you play it, you should play The Rise of Magus.

Okay, that's it for now. A word of warning, though; these games don't cost money, but they do cost time. Once you've started, you're liable to be sucked in.... Enjoy!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Profiles in Awesome: TV Tropes

This is probably old news on the internet, but I just stumbled across this site, and became entranced for hours. It's basically what I was trying to do with the thing about hair color, in a wiki, and on a massive scale. Masses of recurring themes, subplots, character types, and gimmicks are recorded and described, with nice little illustrative examples from TV, movies, anime, literature, and so on. A lot of it's focused on speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, and such), which makes it even more fun to read (to me, at least). And that's an important point: unlike sites like Encyclopedia Dramatica (an encyclopedia of internet memes -- reading it hurts the brain), this site is fun, at least to someone with my slightly unusual taste in entertainment.

One of the reasons it works so well, I think, is that there are so many different ways to slice things; you're bound to find at least a few that apply to your favorite movies/books/shows/bedtime stories. On a meta-level, it's also an interesting resource for looking at how we think -- what features of a story stand out? What attributes allow us to conclude that two characters are similar, or that one movie was ripped off from another? It's not academic, of course, and I wouldn't cite it in a paper (actually, I would, but I'm terrible about sources), but that doesn't mean it's not educational. And if nothing else, it'd be a great source of character ideas for a story or role-playing game!

Sunday, June 7, 2009


I had a very strange experience today. I was reading a book, intently, when I felt slightly nauseous. At first I didn't pay it any attention, and kept reading, but it steadily grew worse. Eventually I realized that it was what I was reading that was making me nauseous. Intellectually, I didn't see anything wrong with it; emotionally, I didn't feel anything unusual; but physically, I felt sick. I finished the section, and sat down for a while, and after a few minutes it passed; I picked up at the next section and felt fine.

Now, let me add a bit of context. I've read plenty of shocking, graphic, and unpleasant material, and I have a fairly vivid imagination. I've read things that have given me nightmares, I've gotten awful mental images stuck in my head. I'm a fan of fantasy horror; I've read Lovecraft before sleeping, and I've read the Sandman graphic novels, in which case I didn't even need to visualize*. The thing I read today wasn't as bad as any of these. It wasn't even particularly objectionable. And yet, as far as I remember, nothing I've read has caused such a dramatic physical response.

A combination of genetics, instincts, and early nurture give us a package of associations that determine how we react to various perceptions. This is, perhaps, what we'd call human nature. Throughout the process of education and socialization, new associations are created, and existing ones are undone or superseded. This is because human nature owes nothing to constructed concepts like right and wrong, safe and risky, kind and cruel. It might, in some general sense, tend to encourage the survival of the human species, as was probably the case in this particular incident. However, it works in a way that often isn't the way we'd like to be, and depressingly often can't be overcome by any incentive. We do our best to reprogram ourselves and others to make us, in some sense, better people, but we're constantly fighting against a tendency that doesn't care whether we're good or not, one that can evoke powerful responses on a level that we can't control.

Of course, I'm being incredibly hypocritical here. I've drawn a huge false dichotomy between the human mind and this animal-level "human nature". Our constructed concepts are built on these instincts, and the associations and reactions they provide are the levers by which we can be taught. We wouldn't be able to have a sense of right and wrong if it didn't grow out of our basic responses to perceptions. If we cut out the animal brain, we wouldn't be super-human and super-moral; we'd just die. A little irrational discomfort, a susceptibility to fear, an inability to care about people we've never met and can't put a face to as much as those we've spent all our lives with; these are part of the price we have to pay to be able to have a mind at all. We can't wipe out the roots of our sentience; rather, by understanding how we work, we can come up with new ways to make ourselves better.

Well, that was a large reaction to a relatively minor event. Maybe it doesn't signify anything so grand; maybe it was coincidence, or suppressed neurosis, or something I ate. Still, though, I think there's an important lesson here. Don't take yourself too much for granted -- take the time to think about why you feel the way you feel. Who knows? You might learn something.

* By the way, please don't be put off by this characterization -- both Lovecraft and the Sandman series are great stuff, and highly recommended reading to anyone who doesn't mind a bit of scariness. They won't really give you bad dreams. Probably.