Venice Biennale VR Expanded: observations

Last weekend I watched the 360-degree films (what they called 3DOF) that were part of the Venice Biennale VR Expanded exhibition. I have thoughts on a couple of topics.

The 3DOF works were available through a virtual exhibition hall within the VRChat platform, and I thought there were a lot of missed opportunities there. The experience began in a sort of antechamber where one could select a mask off of a table, and then board a gondola which whisks one away through a series of canals to the exhibition hall proper. The antechamber was nicely done, and I liked the masks; however, it struck me that one of VRChat’s more popular functions is the ability to pick up an entire new avatar inside a world, and it felt like if the designers wanted to go with a masquerade theme, they could have thought bigger.

I did not care for the gondola ride. It felt theme-parky, and the environment felt thin. It felt like it was signifying the Biennale’s home without representing it — gondolas! masks! canals! palazzos! There were several points at which I could see between the polygonal palazzos to an infinite expanse of water beyond, which was uncanny without even being surreal.

Eventually, the gondola arrived at the exhibition hall itself, which was minimalist. Essentially there was a dock for the gondola and some stairs, leading to a tasteful warehouse with a red carpet that pointed the attendee to a series of portals for each of the available pieces. I realize, on reflection, that I cannot remember seeing anything but the exhibition hall from the dock. In my memory the infinite expanse of water just goes to the horizon in all directions, which may illuminate the aforementioned uncanny feeling. I am reminded of Larry Niven’s description of hyperspace as a giant blind spot.

The other thing that was a bit offputting about the exhibition hall was that whenever I left one of the pieces, I respawned on the dock, not at the portal for the piece I had just left. I understand that this was probably technologically simplest; I’m not sure how hard it would be within VRChat to create that many different spawn points. Still, it disrupted the flow of the experience very effectively.

I did, however, very much enjoy the works being exhibited themselves. They were my first experience with 360-degree films, and there were all sorts of exciting formal novelties for me.

The most obvious difference between 360 films and regular films is the absence of the frame, and this has various downstream effects. It’s tricky to manipulate focus appropriately; on the one hand, you don’t want the viewer to miss important story information, but on the other hand if there’s only a single point of interest, what was the point of using 360? I thought several of the pieces that were centered around interviews were disappointing for this reason. What the subjects had to say was (mostly) interesting, but that was really all there was. I could look around, but why? It was a little interesting to experiment with placing the subject in different places within my field of view, but only a little. The freedom the format gave me to explore was basically useless, and actually distracting from what the creators appeared to be trying to do.

Conversely, while I really liked the fairy-tale-style adventure In The Land of the Flabby Schnook, I feel like I missed a lot of interesting environmental detail trying to keep up with the story. On at least two occasions I missed story developments because I was looking at some exciting bit of the world in the opposite direction.

The key, I think, is pacing. I thought Penggantian (“Replacements”) handled this really well. That piece is essentially a series of vignettes — almost snapshots, really — of a neighborhood in Jakarta spaced over decades, tracing the changes to one stretch of road. Very little really happened in any given segment, but because there was a limited time to look around and explore that static space, it felt like things were happening as I absorbed all of the things that had changed from the last segment. Furthermore, the pace of change was managed quite masterfully. In the early segments, very little changed. It felt slow and lazy, and even a little boring, which was appropriate to the point I think the filmmakers were trying to make about Jakarta’s transformations over the years. As it went on, however, more and more changed with each transition, and I felt increasing urgency to find all the interesting new details before they changed again. Then the second-to-last segment was relatively uncluttered, creating the sense of a pause and a moment to reflect. It was a really remarkable management of tempo for a piece with virtually no actual action.

4 Feet High also did a good job with pacing. Its story — a teenager adjusting to life at a new school — is conventional, but the filmmakers did a good job of adjusting the pace and style of the film to exploit the 360-degree format. At any moment, the story was focused on the main characters, but the pace of events was slow enough that I had time to glance around and explore the environment. The creators also did an excellent job of selecting visually interesting locations that rewarded those little excursions. I often had the feeling that I had missed something in the corner of my eye that would have been interesting, but wasn’t important; I think that feeling may be the sweet spot for this sort of pacing. The best environmental experiences have always made deft use of an inchoate sense of FOMO.

Another thing I thought 4 Feet High did well was its use of signposting. There are several moments during the film where animated effects appear, and to me they felt like small nudges indicating where I ought to orient my attention without demanding it. It was so gentle, and yet in combination with the pacing choices I think it was the only film in the exhibition where I never felt like I had made a poor choice about where to look.

I had very much the opposite experience with 1st Step. That piece adapted historical footage of the moon missions into an immersive environment. It is a really impressive technical achievement, but I felt almost constantly that I was looking in the wrong place, that the rocket was always behind me. The creators also seemed to like using fades to black, which had an almost diametrically opposed effect to what they do in traditional film. In a regular film, a fade to black is a pause, a moment to reflect on what you just saw; in the 360 environment, my instinct was invariably “crap, is something happening behind me? Did VRChat crash?”

It is, I think, a lesson of environment-oriented performances that one has to let go. There are so many possible interactions of viewer and viewed that a creator can’t control them all, and a viewer can’t encompass them all; you can only hope to channel the flocks of possibilities. The most successful works are the ones that roll with that truth, that point and nudge without trying to direct, that offer a buffet rather than a tasting menu.

Skelebear

It is weird how children’s media and horror so often run up in close proximity. This morning my younger son and I were playing with an alphabet puzzle where one picture is, I think, supposed to be a bear standing up and holding an X-ray, but actually looks like a bear pulling open its belly to display its bones.

The idea of a skeletal grizzly bear stalking about in an ill-fitting sack of its own pelt is one of the more horrific ideas that has graced my brain lately.

Originally published on Google Plus

Uplift in heroic fantasy RPGs

I reread Startide Rising and The Uplift War recently, and it occurred to me that that interspecies dynamic would be an interesting way of handling the profusion of intelligent races in an “everything in the books”-style D&D campaign.  Sure, maybe bugbears and ogres are basically the same thing, but that’s just because the illithids thought the aboleth had too good a thing going with ogres to let the idea go unswiped.  If you have a problem with that, I’m sure the beholders will be happy to field your complaints about their client race.  Or their patrons, if you can find the right Outer Plane.

Originally published on Google Plus

Ghulhunds, and other dungeoneering breeds

Today, as I was unsuccessfully trying to get my dog Finn’s attention to get him out from underfoot, my wife tried to observe that Finn “was interested only in leash”, but it came out “was interested only in lich.” It made me wonder what sort of specialized monster-hunting dog breeds exist in heroic fantasy worlds.

Does the city watch descend into the sewers with a pack of ghulhunds, bred to root out undead in close spaces? Are there wyvern-tolling retrievers? Are dungeoneers perilously close to a TPK ever unexpectedly rescued by a St. Bernard/blink dog hybrid with a cask of healing potion around its neck? Do some parties bring along specialized trap-sniffing dogs?  (If for no other reason than to be able to say “What do you mean we didn’t say we check for traps?  The f&$(%ing dog always checks for &#)(%ing traps, it’s literally the meaning of its existence!”)

Inquiring minds want to know.

Originally published on Google Plus

Jack and the Mountain and the Stinky Cheese

One of my angsts over the last year or so is that my son demands a story before bed every night, and I dread it, and this is deeply at odds with my sense of myself.

I discovered today, however, that this is because he demands stories “of when you were a little boy”, and I went through all my good stories long, long ago.  Also, life stories from memory are not that fun for me; I have an unreasonably good memory, but the indexing is crap, and trying to call stuff up from thirty years ago is difficult at the end of a long day.

Tonight, however, he wanted a story about “monsters”, and so I got to improv a story on the fly for the first time in many, many moons, and that was a lot of fun.  And so I record it here, because why not.

–Once upon a time there lived a young boy, and let’s say his name was Jack, because boys in fairy tales generally are called Jack, it’s a thing.  He lived in a village, and it was extremely boring, because the thing about living in a village is that like twenty people live there, and you’re related to half of them, and nothing ever happens.  So Jack said to himself, “I will See The World!”

–Jack looked out from his village and he saw a far-off mountain at the edge of the world, and he decided that he would climb that mountain.  So he walked and he walked and walked through the woods, and he crossed a river, and more woods, and he came to a town, and it was HUGE, there must have been like a hundred people living there.  And they had an inn, and Jack had lunch there.

–Do you know what his lunch was?  It was a bowl of soup, and the soup was made out of goat, and he had a big chunk of brown bread, and a lump of cheese, which was very good but also very stinky, and finally an onion.  And he ate his lunch, and then he kept on walking.  And he crossed more forest, and then a big wide grassy place, and then into the hills, and then the grass stopped and he was just climbing rocks and then he FELL
.
..

but he landed in a pile of straw, so that was all right.  He thought to himself, “What’s a pile of straw doing here in the mountains, that’s odd.”  And then he thought to himself that he felt like someone was watching him, so he decided to start climbing again.

–Jack kept climbing up the side of the mountain, and he thought again that he felt someone watching him, and so he turned to his right, and several yards away he saw
a Big Pair of Eyes
and a Long, Long Nose with Greasy Nostrils
and Whiskers
and a Big Mouth with Sharp Teeth
and a Big Long Tongue going Aaarhhlllaaughhlllh!

–And Jack thought to himself, “OK, that’s a monster, I think maybe I’ll go over here,” and he turned to his right, but right there in front of him was
another Big Pair of Eyes
and a Long, Long Nose with Greasy Nostrils
and Whiskers
and a Big Mouth with Sharp Teeth
and a Big Long Tongue going Aaarhhlllaaughhlllh!
and the Monster said RRRAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!

–Jack did not know what to do.  He did not have a sword or a shield or a bow or a suit of armor or an airplane or a giant fighting robot that he could use to defend himself from the terrible Monster, so he did the only thing he could think of.  He roared right back RRRAAAARRRRGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!

–And do you know what happened next?

–Do you remember how back in the town Jack ate the onion and the goat stew and the stinky stinky cheese?  Well, all of that gave him stinky, stinky breath, and so when he roared RRRAAAARRRRGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!! the Monster said ACK-KOFF-KKKKKK-thppth-thppth-wubba-wubba-wubba-koff-koff-koff-WHEEZE – <<two thumbs up>>

–Jack’s breath was so stinky that all the Monsters of the mountain had to pay him respect as a stinker after their own hearts, and they left him alone while he climbed the rest of the mountain.  So Jack climbed to the top of the mountain, and he Saw The World, and then he went home.

–And no one believed him.

–Well, because they didn’t have Monsters in his village.

–And also his breath wasn’t so stinky any more, because it had been a while.

–Now go to sleep.

Originally published on Google Plus

Not ink you want to get from a four-year-old

This evening, my older son approached and asked, without provocation, whether I wanted a tattoo. Being a game sort of dad, I said OK, and he promptly went to town making tattoo noises on my forearm. I asked what the tattoo was of, and he immediately said, “People with wolves.”

“People with wolves?”

“Yeah. They are fighting a MILLION trolls.”

“Really.”

“And they have spears, and shields, and the trolls fall into the river. See, here’s the river, it goes all the way down to here.” <points to second knuckle of my pinky>

Frankly, that would be a pretty bitchen tattoo, if somewhat unprofessional. (And also not ink you want to get from a four-year-old.)

In retrospect it occurs to me that his vision is basically a mashup of Elfquest and 300, which is staggering in its ill-advisedness.

Originally published on Google Plus

Le fraise sans merci

I often get bogged down in the process of game design shortly before playtesting. In part, this is often because I get bogged down in revisions and edits. However, often I simply get daunted by the process of making the components.

I’m mainly talking here about board and card games; to playtest an RPG, you generally need to write some adventures, but what the heck, no one ever playtests RPGs anymore anyway. But at some point when developing a board or card game, you have to actually make boards and cards.

Aside from the physical making — index or business cards get you a long way in game prototyping — I often need to make up a whole lot of relatively arbitrary game tokens. If I’m writing a game about the secret politics of a restaurant kitchen after all the humans have gone home, I’m going to have to stat up a lot of creatures with Influence, Ruthlessness, and Deliciousness. And how do I know what a rutabaga’s Deliciousness is relative to a chanterelle? Presumably less, but how much less? How about a parsnip? Is a strawberry more or less ruthless than a ripe Camembert?

Worse, I know that the vast majority of these I will get wrong, because the main problem of early-phase playtesting is getting the asset distributions sufficiently right that you can figure out whether the core mechanics are worth saving. The task of spending a ton of time producing components that will probably survive only a single playtest is a daunting one, and one that often confounds me for a long time.

Book Review: Checkpoint by Nicholson Baker

Checkpoint is an absolutely terrible book. Baker more or less writes by pouring out raw id onto the page, which in the past has made for entertaining if rather pervy prose. However, Checkpoint is a 2004-era Bush assassination fantasy rendered as a dialogue between two old friends, one of whom has apparently gone off the deep end and decided to kill the president. While Baker accomplishes his usual feat of expressing clearly and accurately the things that people think but would never, ever say, in Checkpoint that insight doesn’t lead us anywhere.

In large part this is, I think, because after the two characters have between them expressed the key dilemma of an assassination fantasy — the target deserves to die, but it would be Wrong to kill them — there’s not really anywhere to go. It’s basically the dramatic equivalent of a long blog thread on “Bush: Worst President Ever?” It would, I think, have been much more interesting if Baker had written a book about someone actually killing the president. There’s interesting conflict in killing the president, but not so much in wanting to kill the president, and only slightly more in admitting that you want to kill the president.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Impression: Hunan Chili: OK

102 Castro Street
Mountain View

I’ve relocated again, and now I’m working on Castro Street, where restaurants are like optimistic lemmings, cheerfully poinging toward swift oblivion. Thus, more reviews which will likely soon be moot. (Incidentally, KoKo Express has now been replaced by Toust. I never went.)

Anyway, I had a yen for Chinese today at lunch, and I got the broccoli beef lunch special at Hunan Chili*. Because I got it to go, I missed out on the soup and ice cream. However, it did come with an egg roll and steamed rice.

The egg roll was really unremarkable. I have nothing bad to say about it, but I wouldn’t have missed it. Similarly, they make a perfectly serviceable heap of steamed rice. The broccoli beef, meanwhile, was OK. The beef was fine — not rubbery or chewy, but I’m not rhapsodic over its quality. The broccoli was maybe a tad overdone. The sauce had that sort of dark taste that suggests a little much soy sauce for my taste. Overall, I wouldn’t refuse to eat there again, but I won’t be in a hurry to return.

*I had a typo here that said Human Chili. I really hope never to write that review.

(Editor’s Note: Hunan Chili survived until 2013, so I guess I didn’t give it enough credit.)

Originally published on Tournedos

I take a certain amount of pleasure in my notes

I’m doing my reading for Information Privacy, and I just wrote the sentence “Steve Jackson Games indicates that a law enforcement officer seeking access to unread email would have to contend with the SCA.” (We’re reading the Secret Service case.)

Now, I meant the Stored Communications Act. But I enjoyed the image of the Illuminati BBS servers being guarded by a flock of people with plate mail and rattan swords. They can take our lives, but they’ll never take … OUR EMAIL!

Originally published on LiveJournal