And flights of angels etc. etc.

 omphalos  Comments Off on And flights of angels etc. etc.
May 152012

I don’t like to drive. I never really did, and living in Massachusetts beat the last little bit of enjoyment out of driving rather quickly. Fortunately I lived in a relatively walkable area, and only needed my car for shopping trips, which I tried to combine as much as possible. The lucky upshot of this was that I was able to get by for years using the car my parents had bought me in college, a 1989 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera.

If this name sounds unfamiliar to you, that’s no surprise. The Cutlass group of models ended in 1999 after almost 40 years of manufacture, as the division tried to rejuvenate its lineup. Oldsmobile itself was closed by GM five years later as the company flailed through a series of changes that culminated in the bankruptcy of 2009. You can still see the later Oldsmobiles on the road, but their indifferent styling means that these models are unlikely to be preserved in any serious way.

Mine certainly won’t. It had needed replacing for years. The compressor died back when I was still living in North Carolina, and the engine had a weird, racing rhythm when it idled. The radio quit working right after Obama went into office, followed shortly by the horn. The trunk lock broke in 2005, and since nothing seemed able to extract the shards of key in there, I had the lock cored out in 2006, so that you could just open the thing with a screwdriver. In Boston, it acquired fair bit of rust, the windows stopped rolling up properly, and the adhesive holding the door liner in place failed.

It was a hunk of junk, and in any objective sense was not worth much of anything. And, let me be clear, it had no sentimental value either. I don’t miss my Oldsmobile. But, it had a great deal of value to me because I could tolerate it, and so was able to hold off replacing it for considerably more than a decade. It was a good car.

Of course, all things come to an end, and the increasing feebleness of the car meant I would not be leaving Boston with it. I could afford to replace it, but it wasn’t until it became clear I would be staying in the northeast that I decided to go ahead and pull the trigger. Now I (occasionally) drive a Hyundai Elantra, and may it too outlast its model line and manufacturer.

Or, barring that, at least survive another quarter-century.

For the New Year

 omphalos  Comments Off on For the New Year
Jan 042012

Well, the New Year, the hangover, and most of the bowl games have come and gone. The custom is to make yourself some promises that you’ll be hard-pressed to keep, and before I eat up all the leftovers from my New Year’s Day dinner, I thought I’d share mine with you. Feeling ambitious, I came up with six resolutions, and I feel confident about fulfilling at least one of them. To increase the chances that I’ll work to achieve more than that, I’ll make these public so you can scold my failures.

1. Get a new job.

HHMI has rules that prevent them from paying my salary beyond May. I feel my time in Doro’s lab has been pretty successful, but both of us are ready to move on. I’m examining all options, so if you have a crazy urge to offer me a job, don’t be shy.

2. Exercise more than two hours a week.

Losing some chub would be nice, too, but if I keep my physical activity up, that will probably come.

3. Read two books a month.

I do this anyway, but it’s good to have a reminder.

4. Make sure each blog gets at least one post a month.

The databases of Conflux and Discount Thoughts are polluted with dozens of half-written posts. I need to be better about finishing them.

5. Design and build at least one level, for purposes of humility and perspective.

I’m going to try to do this with the Skyrim creation tools.

6. Get at least one triple-secret project past the “idea” stage.

I have three novels, two websites, and at least one game rolling around as disconnected ideas or loose plans on sheets of paper. I want to turn at least one of these into a full outline or a working prototype in the coming months.

Sep 062011

Hello and welcome to the second iteration of Discount Thoughts! The original blog had three rather disparate kinds of content, and I wasn’t happy with trying to jam all of them into a single place. So, I moved to private hosting (which will allow me to experiment with some other ideas I’ve been having) and relaunched as three separate blogs. Right now, you’re at the new Discount Thoughts, which will be a place for all my personal ramblings about life, politics, books I’m reading, and ham sandwiches or whatever. If what you really like are my posts about games, and you couldn’t give a toss about that other stuff, then you should head over to Ludonarratology, where my game-related writing will be stored in the future. Or, if you really prefer to read my discussions of scientific papers and commentary on structural biology, then you should click to Conformational Flux, where those posts will be appearing. Thanks for coming with me, and while we’re getting settled in, let me know if anything isn’t working.

Jun 302010

Today The Escapist published an issue that’s all about games journalism, and there are a number of fascinating articles. I particularly liked “1984 out of 10”, a piece by Peter Parrish that examined the current game-reviewing scene through the lens of George Orwell’s 1936 essay “In Defence of the Novel”. It’s a sharp take, and shows how the inflation of praise (not just scores) results in the apotheosis of mediocrity, and thousands of crummy games walking around with Metascores in the high 70s.

Most of the commenters and linkers have focused on the idea of score inflation, which is ironic since the article is critical of readers’ obsession with and passionate screaming about scores. When I write a review, of course, I generally think about the score for a little less than a minute, and with few exceptions this has served me well. It’s almost amusing to see how obsessed people can be with the 5 I gave Shattered Memories or the 4 I gave Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, without devoting a moment’s concern to the actual content of the review. Fortunately, the comment policy at allows me to give these kinds of comments a much-deserved summary deletion.

Seeing as Parrish’s article concludes with his hope that intelligent writers can rescue game reviews from the dustbin of advertorial content, I thought it might be time to look back over my own stuff and ask how I’ve been doing. So, I went back to and reviewed my reviews. I’m intelligent, and I’m a writer, but am I writing intelligently about games? And how inflated are those scores I don’t think about?

I feel like this was generally a success. Nostalgia was out to mine older games and stories to produce a familiar-feeling RPG and it succeeded at that, which I think I conveyed. I also managed to get across that I didn’t think this was a particularly interesting or memorable thing for a game to be doing. I got bogged down discussing the uneven difficulty, though. That’s important information that needs to be in the review, but it needed some lens so it would fit in with the discussion of the bland story elements. This is a pretty good effort.
My score: 6.0 / 10
Metascore: 72 / 100
Review grade: B

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
This is a passable review. I think I got a bit too caught up in particular shortcomings, when my real problem with the game was that the exploration was too boring and the nightmares were too frenetic. I failed to adequately convey my feeling that Climax had really strong and worthwhile ideas for the gameplay and the story, but that their execution was too far off the mark. I also didn’t really get enough into what the game was about.
My score: 5.0
Metascore: 79
Review grade: C+

Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days
Well, this game isn’t really about anything, so it’s no sin that I didn’t get into that. I’m pretty successful here at conveying my core problem with the story, which is that it feels like it’s just filling up time (the title is very appropriate). I simply failed to explain that the game always feels like it’s about to start going somewhere interesting, and then lets you down. The paragraph about the panel system feels like a digression. I needed to do more with the lens about how this game isn’t really something that will appeal to anyone.
My score: 4.0
Metascore: 75
Review grade: B-

The Saboteur
Well, The Saboteur is a game about blowing up Nazis, which I think I managed to get across. I should have done more to emphasize that the game is more about play than about immersivity. I got a touch too bogged down in details and didn’t sufficiently convey how the game felt in the process of play. This is the only game where my score is significantly higher than the Metascore, but I feel secure that I’m right about this.
My score: 8.5
Metascore: 73
Review grade: B

No More Heroes 2
This was not one of my better efforts, on any level. I clearly got hung up on comparing this game to its predecessor. That may have been unavoidable, given how much I loved No More Heroes, but the end result speaks for itself. I didn’t discuss this game enough on its own merits, and I forgave it too much for its difficulty and execution issues. This is one case where, in retrospect, I scored a game too highly. Were I to try again it would probably land in the 6-7 range.
My score: 8.0
Metascore: 85
Review grade: D

BioShock 2
I think I nailed it. Either this or my Fable II review from this blog is the best review I’ve written. I got hold of everything the game made me think of, what the game seems to be about, what it’s really about, and why it succeeded at the latter. I wish every review I wrote was this good.
My score: 9.0
Metascore: 88
Review grade: A

Deadly Premonition
I think I did a pretty good job here, too, although I didn’t really succeed in conveying what the game is about or how empty it felt. I should have done more to discuss the tension problem this game had, which was much like the problem for Shattered Memories. I think I succeeded, though, in explaining what didn’t work in this game on a level more fundamental than just saying that the shooting wasn’t any fun.
My score: 4.0
Metascore: 66
Review grade: B+

Infinite Space
I’m not satisfied with this one. I mention a whole host of different problems and successes, but I never really build them into a coherent picture of the game’s ideas or themes. Of course, the game itself is somewhat incoherent in this regard. In particular I failed to really deal with whether and how the gameplay related to the narrative. I recall that the early drafts of this essay were really bogged down in details. The final form still has too many, and is a bit lost in the weeds as a result.
My score: 7.5
Metascore: 75
Review grade: C-

Metro 2033
This game is about desperation and privation, and I managed to get that across. I got bogged down in some details about the plot and the mechanics, and I didn’t talk enough about the strange transition from FPS to first-person platformer in the last parts of the game. A stronger lens around the Artyom-as-ghost idea could have really tied this review together strongly.
My score: 6.5
Metascore: 77
Review grade:B-

Resonance of Fate
This is a lame, workaday review for a lame game. I probably scored this one too high. There’s not much else to say, except maybe that I didn’t fully capture my loathing for these characters.
My score: 3.5
Metascore: 72
Review grade: C-

Red Dead Redemption
I’m slightly ambivalent about this one. I feel like I nailed what the game was about at its core. I’m a bit less certain that I properly conveyed the experience of playing the game. The information is in there, but I think it might be pushed a bit too much into the background. If I’m going to miss the mark, though, I’d much rather miss in this direction, swinging too far towards conceptual contemplation, than by clinging too close to detail-oriented reviewing.
My score: 8.5
Metascore: 95
Review grade: A-

ModNation Racers
This is not my best. It feels very close to traditional software review where I take various features and just examine them in isolation. I really should have lensed this whole thing around the question of the game’s identity crisis and examined its competence from that angle.
My score: 6.5
Metascore: 82
Review grade: D+

Alpha Protocol
I feel like I did a good job on this one, because I really thought the game was a failure in every way, and “every” involves a lot in a game this complex. So the criticism comes in pretty densely, but I needed to address that this was a bad idea that Obsidian did a crummy job of turning into an poorly-designed game. Still, late in the review it starts to turn into a bit of a hit list, which it probably shouldn’t have done.
My score: 1.0
Metascore: 63
Review grade: B-

Converting the scales so they match, my reviews come to an average score of 60 (median of 65) with a standard deviation of 24. That’s a pretty decent spread. For the same group of games, the average Metascore was 77 (median 75) and the standard deviation was 8.8, which makes the point about score inflation better than I could hope to. The games I’ve reviewed vary wildly in every aspect of quality, from narrative to design to basic coding, and they simply should not have landed so closely together on any scale. That these games averaged nearly an 80 is also a sign of trouble, to my mind.

From my perspective, the thing I need to work on most in the writing is formulating a high-level view of the games I’m reviewing, rather than getting caught up in their details. I’m tending to miss the mark on the side of getting too far into the details. Like I said above, if I have to miss, I’d rather screw up by being too concept-oriented, rather than the other way around. There are about 8000 sites on the internet where you can learn about a game’s graphics or mechanics in the review. What’s needed, and what I want to provide, is discussion of a game’s ideas and how its design informs, develops, and supports those ideas. The goal is to convey in a review what a game is about and how it is about it.

Regrettable steps

 omphalos  Comments Off on Regrettable steps
Feb 182010

So, the spam has finally gotten to be a bit too irritating. I am leaving anonymous commenting available, but the CAPTCHA is on for at least the time being to see if that suppresses the spam. I have also posted a formal Comment Policy, as well as a Page of Shame describing my most irritating comment spam. Sorry for anyone who is inconvenienced by the CAPTCHA: consider this post to be the place for leaving complaints about that or the comment policy.