On Learning Stuff

Posted by on Aug 9, 2017 in Editorial

Upon close examination of my life, I realize that aside from elements outside the scope of this blog (house, family, job, etc), I don’t really have a whole lot to show for my time here. When I get home I usually move right on down to the PC until dinner, and either eat with the family or, if everyone scatters to the wind or my wife insists on watching dumb crap on TV, move back to the basement until it’s time for bed. Most of the time I have is spent consuming stuff — games, TV, whatever — and considering how scattershot my posts here are when I try and talk about these things that I do, it’s pretty obvious that I’m not even very good at doing those things.

I spend a lot of time, then, trying to Learn New Things. I have to literally force myself to do so, as this virtual book-cracking is just a shade lower on the scale than “eating better” and “losing weight”; the reason why I end up gaming is that it’s so low-cost and provides some level of positive feedback that makes me feel good about the immediate actions I’m taking, and doesn’t immediately result in the level of self-reflection that happens to me at times like this…writing a post…about how I am trying to spend less time consuming and more time producing, or learning to produce.

So I’m back to square one with Blender. I have restarted my video tutorial series because it has been quite some time since I last made the effort. I’m kind of amazed at how much I have forgotten in between then and now. This realization has lead me back to the high-school mantra of “when are we going to use this in real life”, and the implication thereof: If we’re not going to use it, why learn it; and if we’re going to learn it and no use it, aren’t we just…going to forget it eventually?

I have tried to learn game development through Unity, and while I’ve made great strides (IMO) when trying, returning to it after an absence requires me to re-learn everything I already have in code in front of me. Same with Blender. Same with new technologies at work. I’m trying to put together a dynamic web form builder, and I’ve already run into situations where I’m looking at code and wondering how I ever figured out how to get it to work because I sure as hell can’t see why it’s doing what it’s doing right now.

Is this an old age thing? Is it a diet thing? And exercise thing? We have already established where on the scale those things lie so I’m hoping not. I’m just not entirely sure if it’s worth plunging into new projects these days.

The silver lining, I hope, is being able to put learning into practice. For this form builder I’ve learned a whole lot about technologies that I’ve employed which should help me in other projects — assuming I have other projects which call for these kinds of things (I’m not the kind of developer who looks for excuses to shoehorn the “flavor of the month” tech into my work). Similarly, when I was working with Unity or Blender, I did OK. Certainly well enough to have made any instructor proud, had there been any to oversee my progress. But in the case of the latter, I didn’t have any reason to continue to deploy my new skills. Being on a self-imposed schedule apparently doesn’t do it for me, and there’s no way I’m going to come across any circumstance where a looming deadline is going to help hammer home the lessons learned under pressure.

At the very least, I can feel some minor level of accomplishment in moving away from being a passive consumer to being an active producer in the things that matter to me, even if I have to keep going back to the start every six months because I’ve already forgotten what I’d learned last time.

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The Best Worst Zone in Guild Wars 2

Posted by on Aug 3, 2017 in Guild Wars 2

Sorry about the title…this is not a discussion about all of the zones in Guild Wars 2 in listicle form, but rather a backhanded compliment to ANet for their zone design in the game’s first major expansion Heart of Thorns. 

When the next expansion Path of Fire was announced it seemed to spark a review of HoT among many in my circles who had played it (and questions from those who hadn’t and whether they’d need it for PoF, the answer to which is “no”). HoT continued the “dragons are bad” theme of the base game by focusing on Mordremoth, a force of nature who had been corrupting the Sylvari and others to do bad shit across Tyria (I’m not big on specifics).

Like most expansions, HoT introduced a new area. The “Heart of Maguuma”, a mostly jungle-themed zone, is a level 80 zone and because the expansion didn’t raise the level cap, the primary motivator to Do Stuff(tm) is mastery levels. Here, you choose which path you want your XP to work towards, hitting milestones that grant you abilities that were initially specific to the HoT regions, like being able to speak to the natives or read inscriptions in dormant temples. The first mastery you are pushed toward is gliding…because you need it to traverse all of the zones in the expansion.

Getting around the jungle is a royal pain in the ass. Mordremoth’s influence has caused a whole lot of wild growth, so the zones are mostly masses of plateaus blocked and bridged by trees and massive vines cutting through what were ancient buildings before the invasion turned them into rubble. The map, therefore, becomes almost useless as PoI that you might be interested in visiting which appear to be only a few short steps away are actually a few short steps and several levels above or below you with no easy way to get to. Gliding helps; you can tap the SPACE bar while jumping or falling to deploy the glider, but that’s only good for a short time, and only helps to get to a point below you (unless you can use updrafts). In order to get higher, you need to unlock additional mastery levels which allow you to use bouncing mushrooms. If you’re really good (or patient), you might be able to find some vines to run along to get yourself into a position where using the glider is an option.

Despite the irritation that these new zones offer, they are some of the most amazingly designed zones in MMO history (in my opinion). The fact that players are frustrated by the difficulty of simply getting around means that the design compliments the narrative: Mordremoth isn’t interested in letting the players and their allies have an easy go of it. The zones are meant to be out of control with overgrowth, and either mindlessly uncaring or intelligently maddening as a means to literally frustrate the players. The details in each zone are such that not only is it frequently difficult to figure out how to get to a PoI but it’s also difficult to get one’s bearings in almost any situation since each area is almost universally devoid of meaningful landmarks. I suspect that the design was intended to invoke the European’s difficult initial forays into places like the Amazon jungle, and in that I consider ANet to have succeeded in spectacular fashion: I really fucking hate the Heart of Maguuma, but we have a job to do, and noping our way back out to familiar zones isn’t an option.

The good news is that at least some of the zones of Elonia featured in the PoF expansion are deserts, last seen in Guild Wars: Nightfall and cast in a distinctly ancient North African theme. From the limited videos and screens that I’ve seen, it looks like we’ll be trading in the oppressively humid tangles of the jungle for the oppressively dry heat of an open and windswept desert. Despite the lack of opportunity for detail inherent in what is essentially an ocean of sand, I fully expect that the zone designers at ANet will continue to prove that they are top-shelf in visual design, and I’m looking forward to getting back into GW2 in the run up to the expansion’s release on September 22nd.

 

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Be Somebody

Posted by on Jul 31, 2017 in Editorial

When my daughter was younger and was all about the Disney Channel “tween” shows, I came to realize that Disney is very much a “theme” company. Check this:

  • Young girls get the “Princess” brands, despite the Internet’s best efforts to get them to knock this off.
  • Young boys get the “Cars” brands, despite good taste’s best efforts to get them to knock this off.
  • Young and discerning adults get the Marvel and Star Wars brands, which account for 98% of all entertainment on the planet Earth.
  • And there’s a cohort of core Disney fetishists out there, who adorn their spaces with Mickey and Pooh and who laugh and say that it’s all in good fun yet do so in a slightly creepy, “don’t be alone with them in a room” kind of way.

What’s the theme of that tween content, then? Celebrity. The Disney Machine is programmed in such a way that they employ kids to star in these shows which pretty much exclusively focus on the everyday lives of kids who happen to be famous — or are trying to get famous. There was Hannah Montana (to its credit, was sometimes really funny) about a pop star who was “played” by a “normal teen”, Sonny with a Chance (also sometimes funny) about a young teen “nobody” who was given a shot at being on a Nickelodeon-type variety show with established celebrities, and I swear to gawd there are others but my brain is walling them off to protect my sanity.

If people believe that Disney is trying to “program” their viewers (and many, many people believe this), then the message here would be “you’re nobody until you’re somebody”. On the surface that sounds like a rather poisonous lesson to impart, because it leads to…well, things like social media grandstanding, Snapchat and Instagram, and live streaming and YouTube videos of kids (and adults) begging for follows, likes, and shares.

If you want to blame someone for this, blame humanity itself. The only thing that modern society teaches us is that we no longer have to limit our outreach in the age of the Internet. I have always believed that human beings have the need to be needed, and that didn’t start with the advent of social media. Think back to when you were a kid, and how the social dynamics of your ecosystem were arranged. Were there social strata in your life? Were you someone who had no trouble making friends, or were you someone who always longed to just be accepted for who you were? Did you ever decide to change who you were in order to “fit in” with one group or another? What did it feel like to be accepted, and what did it feel like when you were rejected?

The need to be somebody to someone is not a feeling we should look down on, because we all have it to differing degrees. In many cases, the snarky outbursts we might see knocking “celebrity” and self-promotion are no doubt directed mostly at the “scaffolding” that attempts to commoditize this need, like Disney’s ham-handed messaging, or the cynical and business-like apparatus that has followed in the wake of the rise of live-streaming. We as average people don’t want to be told that we should hold someone in esteem simply because other people do (aka being told someone is an “influencer”), but we as average people do find people to admire, and in turn do want to be admired by our peers for something: our sense of humor, our knowledge, our insight, our empathy, or even (sadly) our rage.

What do you want to be known for? I think about this all the time, but I never come to a satisfactory decision. I don’t want to be a “celebrity”, and I don’t think the majority of people do, but I also don’t want to be ignored or forgotten or just another face amidst a seemingly endless list. Everyone wants to matter where we want to matter, which is why being thought well of and considered by the people that I think well of and who I consider is important.

“Be honest!” some people might say. “Be yourself!” is the advice our parents give us. Truthfully, that’s not the best advice, because people are terribly complex and everyone has an asshole streak, an empathetic streak, and an indifferent streak, and the dominant personality can change from day to day or even minute to minute based on the weather, the amount of sleep or coffee we get, or even how we feel we’re being perceived where it matters. This is why the whole “anonymous on the Internet” thing is relevant — we can be whomever we want when no one knows who we really are. This allows us to appeal to those we want to appeal to. And before you say to yourself “that’s disingenuous and the you that people like isn’t the real you!”, consider that this is a door that swings both ways: no one is truly honest on the Internet, despite how earnest their bios might claim to be.

For those who consider the problem, we try our hardest to be the put forth aspect of our persons that we can be. We want to be happy, so we crack jokes. We want to be trusted, so we show that we care. We want to be remembered, so we try and be relevant to the conversations we inject ourselves into. We don’t belittle or berate or insult unless we have a juvenile sense of what it means to be liked and how to be liked. Snark and sarcasm are not virtues, and shouldn’t be celebrated. For those who opt to be infamous rather than well regarded, there’s nothing I have to say about or to you.

Wanting to be thought well of is difficult, but it’s not something we should be ashamed of. I feel like I’ve written that before, but it might just be because it’s something I often think of, especially as I get older and realize that some day I’m not going to be here any longer. What will my legacy be, and who will bear it? My daughter, obviously, and that’s an aspect for another day, but even though I’ll be gone leaving a footprint behind does matter. I’m not sure why, or beyond that even how, so the best I can do is work on the present.

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