5 x 100: Taming the Fire Hose

Hi, my name’s Steve, and I play a lot of video games. In the past, I did this professionally, either as a journalist or for market research purposes. Now I do it because I built a Steam Box, and the Humble Bundle, where you can literally pay anything you want to download games by the half-dozen, has its hooks in me. There is no going back after crossing this threshold; there is only the next bundle, and the one after that. And the insidious Steam sales offering you last year’s Triple-A titles at a 75% discount. And of course there’s also the App Store, and PlayStation Plus, where games are so cheap and plentiful, or so heavily amortized, that they are effectively free. The flow of novelty is both intoxicating and addictive.

So you see, if I’m not careful, I will end up spending more time researching and downloading games than I do playing them. This blog post, which I hope to turn into a semi-regular feature in the new year, is intended to make me be careful. I am limiting myself to playing ten games at a time, while forcing myself to write about five. The thinking is that I will actually have to savor the games I’m playing, instead of simply burning through them on a mad search for the next high. I’ll write 100 words about each game at most. Economy of language leads to disciplined thought.

XCOM: Enemy Within

This year’s XCOM simply provides more of what made last year’s Enemy Unknown a great design, a perfect fusion of high-level management with detailed tactics. The new stuff–and there is a lot of new content–is built on top of the last game. This is an achievement akin to painting the Mona Lisa into the Last Supper. Play it on Classic or Hardcore difficulty in Ironman mode, so if you screw up a mission, it stays screwed up. The stakes need to be high for the game to work its magic to the fullest.

rymdkapsel

Games do not get more Northern European than this. rymdkapsel is a deep-space iOS strategy game engineered for maximum efficiency. The space station is made from pastel Tetris blocks, the characters are white rectanges, the controls only rarely require a second thumb, the music is a focused drone in the background, and the goal is to stay alive. These ingredients combine into a game that holds my attention for hours at a time, because figuring out which station modules to build where, and when, is a very interesting challenge.

The Binding of Isaac

This is a top-down roguelike adventure in the style of the original Legend of Zelda. Not very remarkable. The style in which it is executed, however, is… unique. The hero’s tears, born from extreme psychological traumas detailed in short cartoons, are weaponized. His enemies disgust on a visceral level–obese waddlers that belch flies, children with their eyes gouged out, bags of pus and filth that explode into blood. And it’s fun, even though playing it makes you feel dirty. This was made a small team of deviants who happen to know something about games.

Metro: Last Light

A post-apocalyptic FPS made by, for, and about Russians. It’s set in the subway beneath a thoroughly nuked Moscow, where survivors have split into gangs organized by territory. Contemporary Russian politics echoes through the tunnels, where neo-nazis, communists and nationalists kill each other with jury-rigged weapons. The air on the surface is poisonous, requiring the use of a gas mask that obscures your vision and doubles the claustrophobia. Russkies are survivors, though, and there is an undercurrent of dark humor that runs throughout. It’s worth playing.

Antichamber

In Antichamber, you dash around inside an M.C. Escher print. The game is series of optical illusions and oblique verbal clues to puzzle through before a timer runs out. The exit, inaccessible to the novice, is cruelly situated near the origin point, where you will be repeatedly deposited after failing a challenge. All of this is more intriguing than frustrating, at least from my perspective, because I rarely encounter a game that so openly jerks players around and messes with their heads.

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Good Idea, Bad Idea: North Korea Edition

KJU

Kim Jong Un’s taking East Asia on a roller coaster ride.

Just how crazy is this Kim Jong Un guy, anyway? In the week or so since KJU had his uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, branded a traitor, executed, and expunged from official existence, I’ve read several articles describing him as a dangerous enfant terrible, and perhaps even a “modern Caligula.”

That notoriously depraved Caesar was eventually assassinated by his own Praetorian Guard, and some voices in our foreign policy establishment would like to see the U.S. expedite this process. This argument comes in two basic flavors. The first is that we should try to get rid of KJU because he’s a really bad guy who commits crimes against humanity and flouts international laws, especially the nonproliferation regime, with impunity. The second is that KJU’s behavior has been so erratic that he cannot be trusted to make decisions that are consistent with the survival of his regime. In other words, he may not deterrable, which could be a big problem given the DPRK’s rudimentary-but-still-plenty-fissile nuclear stockpile.

Neither flavor tastes good, in my opinion. KJU is indeed a monstrous individual who deserves to be locked up in The Hague for 999 consecutive life terms, and so were the two previous Dear Leaders. Luckily, the state of North Korea isn’t a useful vehicle for causing serious international security trouble, because those three guys have driven it like a budget rental for 60-odd years.

Consequently, most of the nasty stuff the DPRK does on the international scene amounts to small-time mafioso crap: drug smuggling, counterfeiting, and illegal weapons sales, all done to keep the lights on in Pyongyang (12 hours a day). Peddling nuclear and missile technologies to the highest bidder is somewhat more serious… but what do the North Koreans actually have to sell, anyway? DPRK is very unlikely to sell a completed weapon or fissile material–the risks associated with that transfer are practically insurmountable, given how often DPRK’s weapons shipments are intercepted–and the other states in the market for nuclear weapons can likely do better with indigenous programs.

In short, DPRK is effectively contained, leaving the irrationality argument. The thing is that KJU’s purge doesn’t seem irrational to me. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was able to eliminate his uncle, an experienced and very well-connected politician who was close to the levers of power, suggesting both animal cunning and a knack for self-preservation, not madness. For all we know, KJU may not have lasted another year if he hadn’t acted when and how he did. Whatever the case, this kind of action isn’t unprecedented in new totalitarian governments.

I’ll end with this final thought: we don’t actually want KJU’s regime to collapse, and neither does South Korea, believe it or not. Nothing KJU has done to this point is as unpredictable as what could occur in the wake of a North Korean civil war or coup. And if you think reintegrating Germany was difficult for the Germans, just imagine what the South Koreans will have to do to bring 25 million of their starving Northern cousins up to speed.

I think the best way to get rid of KJU and his regime, ultimately, is to sign a peace treaty and formally end the Korean War, depriving the DPRK of its main excuse for oppressing its people so horribly under “wartime conditions.” From there, let the Sunshine Policy do the work, and maybe we get reunification several decades down the road.

Relaunch!

I’ve been no good at keeping this blog updated regularly… but I have a good excuse.

Initially, this was intended to be my professional grad student blog. My plan was to write exclusively about academic subjects, with an eye on boosting my web profile as I headed towards the job market.

The problem was that I had trouble identifying academic topics I felt like blogging about. Not because there was any lack of interesting developments in the real world, or of cool work being done in my academic areas of interest. I simply found that I would rather write about all the other stuff I like, such as:

  • Startups, entrepreneurship, the accelerating creation and destruction of markets.
  • My own projects, such as the new startup I’m working on, ApplyMap.
  • New developments in media, interactive entertainment, and games of all kinds.
  • Awesome books: fiction, nonfiction, prose, how-to.
  • Maybe I’ll pretend like it’s 2010 and do some games journalism.
  • Pro sports and sports analytics, which I’m really getting into, with a special focus on the San Francisco 49ers, the Sacramento Kings, and combat sports.
  • Not-so-pro sports, meaning all the sports and other athletic endeavors I injure myself participating in.
  • Current events.
  • Coding. I’m learning Objective-C and backend web stuff (JS, PHP, MySQL).
  • Okay, fine, academics. political science, development econ, complexity science, computational modeling. I may be on leave from UCLA right now to work on the startup, but I still love this stuff.
  • Food.
  • TBD.

So, with that in mind, I’m officially rechristening, repurposing, and relaunching this blog, just in time for 2014. Given this new list, I’d better be able to keep a regular posting schedule, because I’m out of excuses.