sounds

The sirens are not constant, but they’re more present than before. You’re aware of them. No longer just background texture. In the evenings, as the sun is setting, they seem to be more prevalent, screaming up and down the FDR. Each one yet another case, presumably. There aren’t a lot of other reasons to be in an ambulance in the city right now.

You can see a playground down the block, if you lean out the window and the big tree between here and there isn’t in bloom yet. Others on the block are, but that one hasn’t started growing this year’s leaves yet. There were children playing on the playground for a long time, much longer than expected. Their yells are gone now, the playground finally closed, much later than the rest of the city. Who knows what difference it made one way or another.

It’s not like the city is empty. There are still people, still snippets of conversations that drift up from the sidewalk to the third floor apartment when the windows are open. Phone calls, most often. People talk louder on the phone than with people standing close (not too close) to them. When are things going to reopen. Is that cough doing better? How are you feeling. Is your mother okay. They were out of soup again at the grocery store but there were paper towels. I’m sorry to hear about that. My thoughts are with you.

Two people working out of a one-bedroom apartment takes some finesse. There’s one desk and a kitchen table, not to mention the couch. She takes the desk and the monitor, while I can work just fine with just a laptop screen, so I take the kitchen table. The couch ruins your back if you sit there too long. We eavesdrop on each other’s zoom meetings sometimes, listening to the other person do their job, knowing we couldn’t do it, thankful we both still have them.

Two of the bodegas within walking distance have closed. The third is still open. “We’ve been here forty years, it’s going to take more than this to shut us down,” she says through a surgery mask. They only let two people into the store at a time. Anyone else waits outside until another leaves. The TV is on at the register, tuned to the local news. There is nothing but news, all of it alarming.

Our neighbors either have an exercise bike or a washing machine just on the other side of the wall that generates this penetrating rhythmic thumping at odd hours. The entire living room thrums with it when it’s running, sometimes accompanied by incomprehensible pop music.

At seven o’clock, as the sun sets, the noise starts. At first, it’s just a few scattered claps, but as people throw open their windows and start banging on pots and pans with utensils, it rises cacophonously. Some people yell wordlessly. Cars honk like some asshole just stepped into traffic. A dog barks in a steady cadence. It lasts three minutes, maybe, and then peters out again. We’re still here.

PKMN

What does "the Breath of the Wild of Pokémon" mean, anyway?

I’ve been playing through Pokémon Sword the last two weeks or so. It’s… fine. A little disappointing. The internet definitely thinks it’s 2019’s most controversial release; every tweet from the official Pokémon twitter account is mass-replied to with people carping about the lack of the National Pokédex (that is, not all previous pokémon are included in the game).

It definitely has weaknesses. Camping feels half-baked and unimportant; the Wild Area is a great idea with lackluster execution; Galar’s cities suffer from the same lack of scale that previous games did. (Where do all these people who fill the stadiums and watch you battle live?) But it’s a solid execution of a familiar playbook. Marnie is well-written, Bede’s weirdness feels earned, and the low-stakes annoyance of Team Yell is a nice return to the crime-syndicate local-scale concerns against the literal world-ending evildoer plots of some previous games.

With Sun and Moon on the 3DS, the series ditched the eight-gym structure for a more free-form coming-of-age challenge for the protagonist, and a plot-heavy family saga with the Aether Foundation at its center. Critics praised the change-up but complained about the linearity of the plot.

In Sword and Shield, gyms are back, embedded in a storyline focused on the celebrity culture built up around the Galar region’s (which is just England with the serial numbers filed off) Gym Challenge. There’s the hint of something interesting here, but there’s no real commentary on sports fandom or celebrity culture at all, which seems like a real missed opportunity, especially since English tabloid culture is well-known for its toxicity!


I can somewhat understand where the #BringBackNationalDex people are coming from, even if their passion is wildly misguided. On one level, it seems crazy that 400 pokémon isn’t enough for people — who cares if Pidgey isn’t in the game? There’s Rookidee and Pidove, two perfectly acceptable two-evolution bird species right there… but they’re not my Pidgeotto, the one that fought off Lance’s Dragonite blow-for-blow in Pokémon Red when I was twelve years old…

To me, video games are machines for generating narratives. (I suppose this places me squarely on the Narratology side of the rather artificial “Ludology” vs “Narratology” divide.) And while every Pokémon game has a surface narrative, usually around beating the eight gym leaders, defeating some evil Team, and proving yourself as the Champion for the region, that rote and predictable plot isn’t what draws people back to Pokémon over and over again.

In my experience, players draw important narratives out of the push-and-pull of individual battles, of the struggle to fill up the Pokédex with those last few rare pokémon, imbuing every single roll of the RNG with meaning. Catching Mewtwo with a Great Ball after using up all of your Ultra Balls and down to one last Pokémon isn’t “a lucky coin flip following a bunch of unlucky ones” but “a narrow victory, with skill and perseverance rewarded”.

My friends and I played a lot of Pokémon Red and Blue growing up. At one point, we were batch restarting and ripping through the first part of the game up until the point where Bill gives you your Eevee, so that we could immediately trade it out of the game into one that had almost finished its Pokédex and get the last few Eeveelutions. To facilitate this, we’d trade a high-level pokémon into the donor game to make the initial run easy. One of the ways that the game tries to gate this behavior is by making it so that overly-leveled pokémon would become disobedient of a low-badge-count trainer.

At one point, the Charizard we’d traded into the donor game was simply refusing to follow any of the player’s commands, which was seriously slowing things down. We passed the Game Boy over to the owner of the original game, and watched in amazement as the Charizard immediately ripped off a sequence of attacks exactly as instructed.

Even at the time, we knew it was random, happenstance, there was no way that the game knew who was pushing the buttons. But the RNG gave us a narrative in that moment, and we believed it. Charizard knew who was out there, and obeyed his trainer.


We’ve been playing the same game, more or less, since Pokémon Gold and Silver, where most of the now-standard elements of the series came together: the day/night cycle, genders and pokémon breeding, the ever-expanding pokédex, berries, and a hunt for a mythical pokémon. There’s been some tinkering around the edges, with things like Mega Evolutions or Sword/Shield’s Dynamax temporary transformations, but the standard mechanics and expectations are pretty much set in stone.

What The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild did that prompts such a reverential air was its willingness to examine every trope in Zelda games, try and find what the core draw of it was, and then imagine it from the ground-up for a new generation of players and technology. (Sounds easy, right?) Previous Zelda games had been non-linear, had been open(-ish) world, had encouraged exploration and experimentation… and BOTW kept the framework of the conflict between Ganon, Link, and Zelda as a backbone. It helps that the franchise was always willing to throw out the playbook; Wind Waker looks and plays nothing like A Link To The Past, and each was designed not to repeat the “Zelda formula” but to try and build an interesting game, given the limits of the console in question, inside the narrative framework of the series.

What would a back-to-basics rethink look like for Pokémon?

At the risk of stating the obvious, the core of Pokémon is catching pokémon and battling pokémon, with the goal of proving yourself the Best and filling your Pokédex to 100%. Everything else — gyms, evil Teams, numbered Routes, other trainers — all of that is cruft that’s built up around the simple core feedback loop of the game: catch pokémon. Beat other pokémon. Repeat until you’ve Caught Them All.

Imagine Pokémon on an uncharted continent.

You arrive on a boat to a small port town. There’s a Pokémon Center, a small store selling Potions and Pokéballs, a few tough-looking sailors, and the colonial authorities, looking for hardy souls to go out into this strange new land and fill out a “Pokédex,” handed to you by a Professor. You’ve brought your own trusty Pokémon from home, of course, but only one, and it’s pretty young and you’ll need to do some training as you go. We’re leaning into the problem of filling large cities with interesting things on every street-corner by just not having large cities.

The terrain outside your little output is rugged. There aren’t any good routes around yet, although some other small settlements have been set up. Weather rolls across the huge, open continent in visible fronts, with rain transitioning to hail at higher altitudes. Apricorns and Berrys are plentiful, which is good, since supplies are hard to come by. You’ll be making your own Pokéballs and potions from what you can forage, and camping overnight with your team, making curries and sitting around the fire, hoping no wild pokémon decide to trample your tent overnight.

Wild pokémon travel in herds, with common ones traveling in homogeneous packs. Looking for a Pidgey? You’ll find them in spades in one particular forest, but nowhere else. There’s a little colony of Sawks on the side of a particular mountain. (Rattata can be found literally anywhere, of course.)

To start, you can’t cross any of the rivers you come encounter. For that, you’ll need to prove yourself to a fellow explorer who can teach your pokémon how to ford any river… if you can beat his team. Same for the trainer who can give you a set of cliff-climbing equipment… if you come out on top. And of course the trainer who can teach your pokémon to fly needs you to help him out with tracking down a rare bird pokémon he saw atop a mountain…

As you open up more and more of the wilderness, the little port town grows a little, with more people moving in and more resources becoming available. Maybe that merchant starts carrying Ultra Balls. No other settlements really get going, though; settling a continent is long, hard work. And it’s not always a smooth progression for you, either; wander into the wrong canyon too early in the game and suddenly your little band of level twenty upstarts are facing off against a level sixty Aggron and taking bruising damage as you make a run for it.

You run into fellow explorers out there as well, always around the same strength as you and your team, always changing up after you beat them, never in the same place twice. Some of them become familiar faces, who you run into in cave after cave; others pop up once and never return. Perhaps the wilds got to them; maybe they just gave up and went home. Don’t over-explain it. Let the player build the narrative with you.

Eventually, you make your way further and further inland, encountering strange, ancient ruins, with walls covered with murals of strange pokémon. There’s something legendary buried down in these walls, and you’re going to be the one to awaken it… and with it, claim your title as Champion.

I got married

It was great, I recommend it

I’m writing this in lieu of writing my last tranche of thank-you notes. I’ll get to them, I swear…

Sarah and I tied the knot on the 5th of October.

It was at Housing Works Bookstore, which was a nice piece of symmetry for me; Housing Works was the very first place I visited when I moved to New York City. I can’t remember the exact book event I went to, but it was literally the day after I had arrived, still uncertain where I was going to be living or how I was going to make any money. Everything felt so unstable then, but I still knew that this was where I wanted to be, come what may.

That I met a woman as amazing as Sarah and convinced her to spend the rest of our lives together is still wondrous to me. Here we are, three years into our lives together, and nothing feels more comfortable and yet precious and mysterious at the same time than the strength of our relationship.

And there was a crossword puzzle, of course.

The full set of edited photos have just come in, and they’re helping Sarah and I remember what actually happened that evening. It’s a funny thing, but people tell you to just be “in the moment” when you ask them for advice about your own wedding. It’s easy enough to sort of shrug this off as a cliché, but having gone through it now myself, it’s shocking how much of the event you don’t remember — who you talked to, what the music was, exactly what was in your vows…

At a certain point during the evening, I started saying “I’ve run out of unique ways to say ‘thank you’, so, just, thank you.” When we started down the planning road for all of this, a couple of the wedding checklists suggested we come up with a “mission statement”, and as much as that felt like a weird corporate exercise, I was glad we did it. What we came up with:

Our wedding will serve as an outward and visible symbol of our commitment to each other that we want to share and celebrate with our closest friends and family.

Having all of those people we loved there with us truly was the most important part of the night for us.

And we had fun with it.

It’s still a little hard to believe it’s done; we’d been engaged for over a year and I’d finally gotten used to how “fiancée” felt rolling off my tongue; “wife” is probably going to take a little while to feel natural, too. And not spending every weekend prepping logistics means we’ve got a sudden surplus of free time that we’re currently filling with lots of Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

Married life just feels like we’ve gotten back to normal, honestly, having survived the maelstrom (financial, emotional, logistical) of the wedding. Back to our jobs and hobbies and cat.

Just now, we’re doing it together.

Final Fantasy VII

Thoughts on a twenty-year-old classic

My friends at limipo_podcast recently recorded an episode about both of them playing Final Fantasy VII (specifically, the Midgar section) for the first time: http://limitlesspossibility.net/119.

To extremely briskly summarize the two-and-a-half hour episode: Yanik doesn't play games for their stories but their mechanics and atmosphere, and while he was frustrated by the limitations of late-90s Playstation graphics and game-design tropes he found himself surprisingly (and somewhat against his will) curious how the story would play out. Luc-Olivier was less drawn in by the story but was considering playing on to see what "the big spoiler at the end of part one is".

I recently finished a playthrough of the game on the Playstation Classic (note: do not buy a Playstation Classic unless it's on sale) and was struck by how much more I enjoyed it today than I did when I first played it back in the early 2000s (I believe my brother and I bought a copy when it was re-released as part of the bestseller collection). I loved it then, but I can't say that I fully understood the story, other than Sephiroth and Shinra were bad and you had to go stop them while swinging around a giant sword.

Playing through again with Sarah watching (who herself had no idea of any of the plot, and who had never played a JRPG before) reminded me that much of what feels like confusion and strangeness at the start of the game is what I read as a deliberate choice by the writers to mirror for the player what Cloud and the team feel like. They start off myopically focused on Shinra, with Barrett as the leader, and Cloud driven by reasons that he himself is unaware of. Much of part one is filled with the player doing things without fully understanding why they're doing them, only that they seem important or other characters say they’re the obvious next step, which I feel mirrors Cloud's state of being. He mirrors what’s expected of him back to the world. It's only much later, once more of the history of Cloud, Tifa, and Sephiroth is revealed, that the game's linear structure breaks down a little bit and you have more choices in what you want to do next.

To be fair, the plot never changes — we're not in a branching path situation in any Final Fantasy game, to my knowledge. These are games that are written to be played through and finished, with defined characters, as opposed to, say, the Mass Effect series, which has two or three main outcomes based on the choices you make as a main character. (Even there, admittedly, the choices you've made up until the final game are largely immaterial, save for choosing who lives and dies at the end of each game.) Final Fantasy games are designed for plotters and completionists, who want to wring every last secret out of the game and read every line of flavor text from every nameless NPC. While Final Fantasy VII might ultimately be a game about deciding who you want to be, the player has no meaningful choices to make, other than to just keep playing.

All that said, I do love Final Fantasy VII, as long as you can take it sort of “as it is” — game-design warts and all. Are the controls a bit crap at times? Yes. Is the snowboarding minigame absurd? Yes! Are chocobos a pain in the ass and weirdly superfluous? You bet! And the only real depth you have mechanics-wise is mastering all your materia, which in the end mostly involves grinding out battles with high-AP enemies to try and max out the high-level summons, then looking up the optimum strategy for beating the (entirely optional) Weapons. But there are some killer moments in the game — the eerie blood-filled halls of Shinra tower after you wake up in jail; the moment you first see outside the city walls; the first time you enter Cosmo Canyon, meet Bugenhagen, and see his planetarium; the firing of Sister Ray at the Northern Crater…

And there’s that twist, which even if you know it’s coming is still pretty shocking. Sarah couldn’t believe it. “Just like that?” No other Final Fantasy has pulled off something that clearly stuck with so many players, although the final part of Final Fantasy VI, with its Mad God Kefka, may be high on other people’s lists. But even besides that, the slow opening up of Cloud from a strange, rude collection of tics and memories into a fully-formed human is what’s really touching to me even today. It’s a story about choosing to be a person instead of just going through the motions, about accepting your past and seeing through your own bullshit, and about doing the hard thing, even if the odds seem impossible.

And that’s something I think is valuable.

Reading

I’m a book person.

That’s what think about myself, anyway, when people ask “oh, what are your hobbies?” ‘Books and computers.’ Sometimes I combine these hobbies; I have rewritten a little app to keep track of how many books I own a couple of times now in various languages with various backends as I’ve become a better programmer; the current incarnation lives here, if you’re curious.

But my dirty secret is that I don’t actually… read much anymore. I still buy books in decent quantities (see that list above), especially considering that my fiancée and I live in a one-bedroom apartment with our cat, but very often now I find myself buying them to have them “for someday”, and I have donated a number of books out to Housing Works without ever having cracked the spines on them.

This isn’t a new problem for me; my book-buying-and-not-reading habit was really bad a decade ago when I worked at a bookstore and probably had twice as many books shoved into my bedroom in Colorado. I had so many books that I actually broke a bookshelf under the weight, a plastic piece near the bottom shattering and sending an entire 8’x8’x2’ (books stacked two layers deep) monster of a wire-and-plastic cube crashing to the ground inches from where I was sitting.

Most of the books that nearly collapsed on top of my ended up being donated to the library right before my move to New York, unread, or maybe in some lucky cases half-read. I’m much more measured and judicious with my book-buying now, perhaps a hard-won lesson from having moved even my small library around NYC a couple of times. (Appropriately, one of those books is a wonderful slim volume titled Too Many Books, which I have read.)

Western bloggers have cottoned onto the Japanese word tsundoku as a way to express “buying books and then not reading them” and I find it too clever by half, as I do with most trend pieces on “words in other languages for things we don’t have English words for” — if it was worth having a word for it, English probably would have come up with one. It’s a mongrel language with neologisms springing up every day. I just say I buy too many books.

And then I don’t read them. That’s the source of my online handle in a number of places — a lazy reader. I don’t read the books I buy and I constantly feel a little ashamed about it.

But at the same time, like so many other people, I am constantly reading. Ours is a age that is awash in text. It’s just not books. I’m constantly reading blog posts, Stack Overflow answers, Wikipedia articles, so, so, so many tweets and hot takes and lukewarm takes and reheated takes. But it’s almost all ephemera. Scroll through my pinboard (which I have been keeping pretty regularly since June of 2017) and much of what I read is about the news of the day. I find it impossible to stop; there’s a sensation that you have to be on top of the latest horrors being perpetrated in the name of your country, that to look away and read for pleasure is an abrogation of some solemn duty. It’s not and I know it’s not and yet and yet.

All of which is to say that this newsletter will probably be whipsawing between essay-ish pieces like this and shorter roundups of interesting things I find as I read across the internet. I’ll try and avoid linking to The Latest Big Piece in the Times or something — you can find that easily enough yourself — but other things that seem interesting to me and that I have something to add to.

Or maybe it’ll end up being cat photos.

We’ll find out.

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