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Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Oklahoma is now behind me, cast party and all.

It seems as though there should have been some sort of opportunity there. If so, I missed it.



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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Discarded Opportunity

I don't think I've ever told this story to anyone before. That makes it a little bit harder to be sure of the details, since a retelling could be a good reference point in my memory. Some of the details which I do remember seem very off: for instance, I remember that this took place in a shack off in the middle of nowhere, next to a twisty road on a hill and far away from any life. My memory is clearly prone to hyperbole. But I'm sure it actually did happen in real life.

It must have been around eight years ago. Some famous pianist was coming from America to play some difficult concerto, and it said in the newspaper that he was giving a master class. When I read the column, I didn't think too much of it. I'm sure I wasn't too excited about the idea of a master class. But my parents must have encouraged me to go, because I went. There were maybe twenty seats set up in this little room with two upright pianos. The only people who had come were me and some older guy. ("Older" is relative, of course: he might just have been a teenager.)

The experience bore no resemblance to my expectations. I heard "class" and I thought I'd be sitting back and listening while some great pianist talked about something or other. I don't know what the plan was; it might have changed when no one showed up. But there was very little talking. The pianist came with someone else, and he was doing a lot more talking than the pianist. He played some sort of wind instrument, don't ask me which. They asked to hear what I could play. So I played my one and only composition, Celebration. I only played the first half of it, because I was embarrassed to go further. I sort of let it trail off and said "and then it continues from there.". I wish the story were around five years later, so that I'd have had more to do there.

The other person improvised some jazz for them. The guy who was doing the talking (whoever he was) complimented the playing. He said, "I really like what you're doing with your left hand. Usually the left hand is just accompaniment, but you're actually doing a melody with it." (I don't know why I remember this so clearly.) And for around an hour after that, it was just lots of improvising. Three-part jazz improvisations, with the two pianists and the wind guy. Then we all left, because it was clear that no one else was going to come.

But before we did, he made me an offer. He said I should come and play with them. I don't understand why. Maybe he saw some potential talent in my very primitive first composition. But he said the time and place where I should come, and I didn't see that as a real opportunity. I wasn't going to be a musician, I knew that even back then. So his offer was just words, there was no chance I was going. I said something to the effect of "I'll see if I can.", and he knew I wasn't taking the offer seriously. He tried to impress upon me that they'd played at Carnegie Hall, that they could teach me a few things.

Well, whatever. I didn't take the opportunity, and at this point it seems as though I might have imagined it. I left there, went up the winding hill to a bus stop, and waited for a half-hour or so for a bus to come.



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Wednesday, June 10, 2009


What I've written of Variations on V.O.V. is nice, but I think it needs to be the first movement in a four-movement piece.



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Monday, June 08, 2009

My interpretation of The Path

An old lady lies on her deathbed, and can't shake the nagging feeling that she's had an empty life. (This is why she is dressed in white.) She tells herself that there is only one correct "path" to take in life, and that she has taken it. But she can't quite convince herself. So she imagines how she could have been a different person, a more interesting person, when she was younger. The game takes place inside her mind.

Each of these possibilities appears in the game as a girl. One is enthusiastic about animals. One is enthusiastic about art. One is enthusiastic about exploring. One is enthusiastic about men. And so on. The old lady who never got too close to anything imagines herself as a pure little kid dressed in white, and watches these red-clothed girls try to do better than she did. She occasionally pushes them along, either to go to the straight path or to get to the ultimate realization of their enthusiasm.

The purpose of this mental exercise is for the old lady to reassure herself that personality is bad. The girls' clothes are red, which in my opinion represents only death. If this dying woman can prove to herself that the path she took is better than any other, than (she hopes) she can be comfortable with death. So the white girl puts on an air of objectivity, pretending she does not care which way the girls go, but really what she wants is to see them all die in worse ways than herself.

If a red girl follows the path, she gets exactly where the old lady got: to the boring house where she sits in her bed. This is unsatisfying and the woman considers it a "failure", because she has proven nothing. Whatever girl made it there continues to hang around in the house, continuing the nagging sense that there could have been a better life.

But if she leaves the safe path and finds the place reflective of her own personality, the old lady wins, because then she can imagine gruesome ends for each of these girls. So the animal-lover is eaten by a werewolf, and the explorer drowns in a big lake, and the man-chaser gets chopped up by a madman with an axe. And the white woman can take comfort in her own blandness, because it couldn't have ended in that horror.*-------

(At the "successful" endings, there's always a bed. The most obvious interpretation is that it stands for sex, but I think it's actually the deathbed, or the idea of dying peacefully. In these nightmares, that bed is always inaccessible or ruined.)

"Success"! That girl leaves her alone, leaving only a few other possibilities to weigh on her shoulders.

So one by one, the lady puts her imaginary selves into the forest, and enjoys seeing them mutilated and tortured. Finally she is rid of all of them, and there is no one left in the house but herself. So the white girl walks through the forest, seeing all the places and not bothering to interact with any of them. There's a red tent, which she can enter and exit at will. "Ha!", she says, "I can pretend to have personality too, but because it's not real I can get out of it again untarnished! But look at you! You took yourselves too seriously, and ended up living short, hellish lives!". The forest is quite boring without anything to do in it. Finally she goes back to her house, as plain as ever, and looks back at where she's ended up. There she is in that bed, in the moments before her death, and next to her bed she imagines a wolf waiting to devour her, which might never have actually been there.

Then she realizes where she is. She has never taken any risks and still she is dying! In her house, the white girl finds her dress covered in red. In death she is just the same as the others! And so the red girls, who she thought herself rid of, come back in one by one, and her self-image of purity leaves.



Red usually signifies sin, temptation, desires. I'd that's how it sounds like it's being used here.

Well, yes. I guess saying "only death" was overstating it. But red is also blood. I think the desires are supposed to be associated with death, since it's all the same color. That's how I explain the ending, where the white girl has red on her dress even though she never seemed to care about anything.

well done. i really like that.

very interesting game, love the interpretation

The best interpretation I have ever read about The Path.. Good job.


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Sunday, June 07, 2009

I'm supposed to be working now.
It's pretty late already. Shouldn't you have been working earlier?
Yeah. But Miriam finally asked to see Synecdoche, New York, so I changed the log-out time in Access Boss.
So why aren't you working?
Oh, I don't have to work right now. I set it to 6:00.
You said you were supposed to be working now.
Did I? Oh, I guess I did. I didn't mean that.
Sure you didn't.
Anyway, I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing.
I bet you do.
No, I really don't. That's why I'm coming to you.
Me? What do I know about making games?

Well, you don't really need to know anything. I guess I need to work it out for myself, and if you don't, um, do you mind if I bounce ideas off of you?
Is that a yes?
Okay, so what's the last thing I did?
How should I know?
You're not being helpful. I was asking myself.
Do I even need to be here?
Okay, you ask me.
Ask me what I did last.
This is silly.
Look, I need someone looking over my shoulder here. Pointing me in the right direction.
No, really. This is really silly.
Blah. You're no help.
Well, I'm sorry! What do you want from me?
Okay, could you just sort of stay there and pretend you care while I think about what it is I'm up to?
Of course, your highness.

I have the numbers.
What numbers?
The numbers that show how to move the character for basic movement. I did the same thing earlier with my own silly little design, but now I have the numbers that apply to Kyler's design.
So why don't you just plug them in or whatever?
It doesn't work like that. Anyway, the numbers aren't usable right now.
What does that mean?
Well, um. How do I explain this.
I'm not stupid.
Oy, that's not what I mean. Okay, um.. the numbers are relative to points that aren't going to be useful in the final game, and all the pictures they relate to are the wrong size for the final game. I guess I need to resize everything, unless I don't.
Why wouldn't you?
Well, I might be using the scaling algorithm which I programmed for the last game. In which case it doesn't matter so much… wait, I guess it does matter what size it is. The whole thing needs to be drawn on screen before everything else, so that the masking thing can work.
Anyway, right now it's too big to always fit on the screen. So that's no good. I'll need to make it smaller.
Sounds like you know what to do.
I guess so.
Great. Start working.
I told you you didn't have to do that!
So? I like ordering you around.
I'll work when Access Boss kicks me out.



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Friday, June 05, 2009

New Potentials

When I saw Microsoft's E3 advertisement for "Project Natal", my first thought was that it was a clichéd opening to a science fiction movie. "Natal is your friend. Trust Natal. It won't try to take over the world, oh no." What this shows, I guess, is that I watch too much science fiction.

But it really is rather science-fictiony. The hardware itself is nothing impressive: a microphone and two cameras. But what the software does with it is amazing. The two cameras' data is combined to form a 3D model of the room and everything in it. Then facial recognition is applied to figure out which people are there. And then it looks at what their bodies are doing, by which I mean their entire bodies -head, torso, hands, arms, legs, feet- and converts that into movement data for 3D avatars. It also seems that it can recognize other sorts of inanimate objects in the room and what's being done with them. And it can apparently pick up on emotions from subtle cues in the player's face. And they threw in voice recognition too, so you can talk to the TV.

This whole package is codenamed "Project Natal". They're implying that it'll be an add-on for the XBox 360, but I don't buy it. I've heard this story before, and that's not how it goes. Back when the Wii was still "Project Revolution", it was teased as an add-on for the Gamecube. But Nintendo realized that they'd make more money treating it as a brand-new product. The Wii is barely more powerful than the Gamecube, and in fact uses most of the same technology. But while the Gamecube brand was third-place in a competition for the hardcore gamers, the Wii is selling ridiculous amounts to more casual gamers. By making the controller more user-friendly and appealing to the masses, they easily overtook Microsoft and Sony.

Now Microsoft is copying their entire business model, which is a sensible move. The project doesn't have a real name yet because it's still in relatively early stages of development. I'm guessing they'll be ready for release in 2011, by which point the XBox 360 will be old technology and the market will support a new one. And that's what this is: a new game system which has full-body motion control as a standard feature.

As with the Wii before it, Project Natal opens up many opportunities for gamists. You can communicate with NPCs through body motions like waving and nodding and shrugging, not to mention talking. You can play movement games with actual movement in an abstract context. You can reach out to pick things up and throw them or move them around. Being able to move the camera just by moving your head a little (a natural instinct for anyone) should now be easy to implement without any extra hardware. (I wonder if it can track your eye movements, to realistically adjust the focus based on what you're looking at. It probably isn't fast or precise enough.) Action can be more visceral when you're actually hitting things. Puzzles can be more relaxing without the need for a conventional interface.

What Microsoft is really planning is simpler than all that, though. They want the casual gamers that the Wii has pulled into the market. Project Natal is exactly the sort of thing Nintendo wishes they had. They've been trying to make games that everyone can and will play, and this is just about as close as you can get to that short of inventing the holodeck. Not needing buttons means games could be more accessible than a DVD player. Invite over all your friends, get 'em to stand around, and just start playing- that's the idea. Which means that much like we've seen with the Wii, I don't expect many particularly deep experiences with this technology. It'll mostly be easy and simplistic mini-games, especially with multiplayer. I'm not even sure if Project Natal can handle more than that- it doesn't seem particularly precise. But regardless of how good it is, it increases the audience size for games even more than the Wii did.

This game system will never be in our house, for the obvious reason that it wouldn't work here. If kicking a ball in-game is done by making a full kicking motion in the real world, then we just don't have enough space for it. You'd need to be pretty far back from the TV anyway, so that the cameras can see you clearly. So I'm guessing they're going to be selling more of these to those enormous American houses than to tiny Japanese apartments. And the room our TV is in is cramped.

Beyond that, I'm not sure I'd want this thing in our house. At this point I no longer have any illusions about my family: they're not going to play games. If the greatest minds in gamism got together with unlimited resources for making specialized hardware and said "Let's make a videogame that the Buckman family would play together!", they wouldn't succeed. So it doesn't matter if this machine has full-body motion control or full-mind telepathy, its main purpose -getting new gamers- is not going to work here.

This system is still going to need some sort of controllers, unless Microsoft is planning on abandoning all gamers who like to play their games for more than five hours total. The motion-control doesn't seem precise enough to sustain a good single-player game for longer than that. You still need something to aim with, something to push around. Whether these will be conventional controllers, I don't know. Maybe a game could be bundled with a cheap specially-shaped piece of plastic, and the camera would see how you're interacting with that. It seems doable, though I don't know if anyone will think of it. More likely there will still be games designed for XBox 360 controllers, but where every now and then you move around a bit. I should probably keep in mind that potential and implementation are worlds apart. How much of the Wii's potential has been used? Heck, how much of the DS's potential has even been used?

In their press conference, Microsoft was heavily playing up the potential. (Same as Nintendo does.) They had a demonstration of a person interacting with a very human-seeming NPC. It's a mind-blowing video, but on reflection it doesn't seem feasible to me, at least not for a lengthy game. There are too many possible interactions, between body motions and voice interaction, for any human gamists to be able to deal with on a large scale. (And since "Microsoft SkyNet" hasn't been announced yet, you still need humans programming this stuff.) I suppose if you had twenty years and the budget of a medium-sized country you could do it.

But for all this pessimism, I am really excited about what Project Natal means. Here's another barrier between the Real World and the game world getting knocked down. If this is the shape of progress, then where will gamism be in ten years? How about fifty years? The mind boggles.

Now, Project Natal -as I've said- is probably two years away. Nintendo's high-ups responded to this announcement by joking that they like to test things out and make sure they work before announcing them to the public. But regardless, Microsoft has made the Wii seem pretty obsolete. The Wii remote is a joke, at least in how it's been used up to this point. The much-hyped motion control is implemented just by having you make a flicking motion every now and then instead of pressing a button.

This Monday, Nintendo releases their precision attachment for the Wii remote, which I mentioned after last year's E3. (They're also releasing yet another add-on, this time something that checks your pulse! No, seriously. I can't imagine what they're thinking.) I think it's called "MotionPlus" or something silly like that. Now, it's definitely more precise than anything Microsoft has planned. I read an interview with some developers of a sports game for this thing who said that it was too precise, and they had to "dilute" the input a bit to make the game playable. That's good to hear. I don't expect many games to use this thing properly, though. Red Steel 2 looks cool, a guns-and-swords action game that uses the precise movement to control all sword swipes. Beyond that, I don't know if there will be any games at all I'm interested in with the peripheral.

Sony's got their own motion controller in development too. It seems pretty far along, so I'm guessing they'll release it next year to boost sales of the PS3. And seeing as how -like the MotionPlus- it's a "sold separately" sort of peripheral, I don't expect many games to use that either. But it seems to be the most precise of the three technologies, which is cool. There's definitely stuff you could do with that.

These are all huge steps, making games more real in the minds of the player and getting closer to the dream of believable fantasies. But I see very little evidence that gamists' mindsets are changing along with the times. When games are able to connect directly to our brains, will gamism still be in the same primitive position it's in now?



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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

I'll keep this brief.

Oklahoma's opening went great. The audience filled the house, they were roaring with laughter at every joke, and when we finished singing the song "Oklahoma" they went crazy. We all had fun, too. I really should be asleep now, because I need to wake up early tomorrow to be there for the first show. I'm not at all unhappy to be in this show.

The reason I'm rushing through this, rather than waiting until tomorrow and posting in depth, is because with Microsoft's announcement of "Project Natal" suddenly this play seems awfully small. I'm finding it hard to sleep not only because it's so beastly hot in here (and not only because it's too early) but also because I can't stop thinking about this new technology. I don't know when I could possibly have the time to talk about it, but when I do I will. There's much to say.



I saw a 1:18 video of "Oklahoma" posted on Facebook. It looked great. You even looked like you were smiling and having a good time.

Let's put it this way. I am having a pretty good time. But the smiling is for the character. All the characters in the show (including the chorus) are brainless.

My family actually told me they felt I was going too far with the smiling, and that I was always smiling more than anyone else. So I've toned it down.


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Monday, June 01, 2009

Respite From Everything Else

When the double-header of Shavuot-Shabbat came a few days ago, it was almost a relief. Sure, there's nothing to do on Shabbats and holidays. But at least I wouldn't feel guilty for not working on my game.

This morning I tried working. (Access Boss kicked me out of my user at 2:00.) I say "tried" because I'm having very little success. I always feel like I'm playing that unwinnable game of Tetris -------
the lines only disappear temporarily
you need to get all the lines simultaneously
the lines only disappear temporarily
all lines come back
, where my efforts don't feel anything like progress. Today the way I spent the time was by trying to figure out how much to multiply the X and Y values I was using in the prototype, so that it works with Kyler's design. The mathematical answer I found doesn't seem to work at all. I was getting a ride with Harvey around 4:30, so I left the house at maybe 4:25. (He picks me up right across the street.) I was in a terrible mood, but I didn't bring my DS. The idea was that maybe if I had nothing to do, some sort of inspiration would hit and I'd know what to do next. (This didn't happen.)

Oklahoma opens tomorrow. This was the dress rehearsal on stage. Backstage I try to be friendly (by my standards) with my fellow cast mates, because with home being how it is I'd like to be comfortable away from it. On stage, I never feel like I know what I'm supposed to be doing: Where exactly am I supposed to be standing? What sorts of movements am I supposed to make while I'm there? What's the timing supposed to be for my lines? Binder has made it clear that there is a right thing to do at any moment, but he rarely makes it clear what that is. Almost no one knows when they're supposed to be getting on and off the stage; we all just stand around and wait for the one person who seems to know his cue and then we all rush to follow him. The upside is that this isn't my show. If I don't know what I'm doing, no big deal. The show will go on regardless of what I'm doing. The downside is that at the end of the day, I haven't learned anything and haven't accomplished anything. And for this I'm sacrificing most of my day.

I've finally gotten home, in a lousy mood. And I'm trying so hard not to think of how much I'm going to hate this week (six performances!), that I think I see what I need to do for my game tomorrow. I've got to go back to square one. I don't feel like I'm making progress because I'm not making progress. I've been trying to manipulate Kyler's design so that it functions like my design. But that's never going to work. His design is totally different, and I'm moving it around in a totally different way. So anything I figured out for the prototype can't be more than a very rough guideline. That prototype wasn't easy to make, but if it's not helpful it's not helpful. The downside of having my own project is that if I get stuck there's no one to bail me out. The upside is, no one's waiting for me to get there. (Except maybe Kyler. I do feel guilty about making him wait for this.) So it can take as long as it takes.

It's like I always say: misery leads to progress.



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