Rush

Imagine a boy, where it all began. He liked music, and grew up listening to the ’70s music his three older sisters brought home. He learned much about love and romance and heartbreak and going where the stallion meets the sun. He didn’t know any better.

Then one day, playing D&D at a friend’s house, he heard some rock music that stuck with him, so that days later he got a ride to the mall from his grandmother, so he could buy the vinyl album. On the way home, he read the liner notes. He found that the song he liked best was based on a science fiction short story! Holy crap! Was this even legal?!? He looked up at his oblivious grandmother, wondering if the album in his hands was some sort of forbidden message, secretly sent from another existence.

That boy was me. That album was Moving Pictures, by Rush.

Rush’s music was different from anything I’d ever…heard, but the reason I’m such a big fan is that they seemed to write music just for me. Their songs spoke to me, were about me. I was the Analog Kid, the New World Man, I had Middletown Dreams, I cared that the Snow Dog won. Looking back, Rush seemed to carry me through parts of my life. They certainly were the soundtrack of my journey into manhood.

I’m sure everyone has this experience, everyone has a favorite band. All music speaks to someone, and everyone feels like a certain song is about them. So why am I talking about Rush now, on this blog?

Well, I just completed my collection, and now have every song they produced in studio, as MP3s (about 150 songs). So I put it all on my iphone today, and put it on random play, listening to ALL of Rush during work and while driving home. And I teared up so much I was worried about seeing the road.

It’s just so damn beautiful.

How can three guys create something so big, so precise, so complex, so powerful? Neil Peart is a universally revered percussionist, with unearthly speed and precision. He’s also the lyricist for the band. Geddy Lee is the singer, bassist, and keyboard player. His shrieks and wails were just right for offending my parents, and for releasing the teenage angst inside of me (then and now). His bass playing is lightning fast, but fun and spritely, while still somehow providing the support a bass is supposed to. Alex Lifeson "just" plays guitar, but his one guitar sounds like three, with a precision that matches his bandmates.

And lyrically, Rush still has a unique voice. After Billy Joel, Niel Diamond, and Air Supply, Rush was a revelation. Their songs were about fantastic worlds and alternate realities, politics and adventure, China and suburbs, elves and nukes, robots and gods, Witch Hunts and Vital Signs, Marathons and the Working Man.

I’ve remarked about how musical genres can be differentiated by one question: How do they treat women? Rush has insightful and powerful songs about relationships, but they have so much more! Even modern rock and pop is still JUST about relationships, and there’s not a lot of unexplored territory there.

I remember trying to explain what I liked about Rush to my mother. I blurted out that their music was "masculine". My mom scoffed, and asked how music could be "masculine". I didn’t have a ready answer for her then, but I was right. Rush helped me define masculinity for myself; masculinity means precision control of power, and that’s Rush in a nutshell.

My sisters didn’t really get it either. I got a White Snake album from my eldest sister one Christmas. I tried really hard not to look dismayed, but failed, and embarrassed her. My youngest sister (still older than I) loves Rush too, but not in the same way. I doubt she ever felt she was the New World Man.

I was never much of an evangelist for Rush, never wore a Rush shirt proudly, never went to a live concert. For one thing, since I was a pariah in school, everything I wore or expressed was also uncool. But I quickly found out that Rush was liked by lots of scary bullies and older brothers, too. This distressed me. Not only did I have to share Rush with others, I had to share them with people I didn’t like, people I felt were unable to grasp Rush’s true greatness.

Now, as an adult, I’m not threatened by Rush’s popularity. I recognize that Rush and I don’t define each other, we’re just connected. But driving home today, I was reminded just how deep that connection is. Wow.

Monty Python and the new thing

When I was a kid, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Now I’m watching their latest documentary, where they describe shows that inspired them, shows that THEY had never seen anything like, shows they took their inspiration from. For them, their half-hour of comedy wasn’t new or unique at all. Which leads me to my point.

What’s new and amazing to some isn’t usually new and amazing for the creator(s) of that new and amazing thing. It’s new and amazing TO YOU simply because you haven’t experienced anything like it, not because it’s ACTUALLY new (or objectively amazing).

The exception to this rule is…new media. When each medium was new, everything WAS new and amazing, to everyone, including the creators.

This thought is kinda depressing. I’ve always wanted to create amazing new games that no one had ever seen before, and I know first-hand how hard that is to do. Also, I’ve always been a little afraid/disappointed/jealous that I was about 5 years to young for the home computer revolution. All of the guys who made millions of dollars and created the big game companies are 5-10 years older than me. Sometimes I feel like I just barely missed the boat of the game industry of the 80s.

And if the only time to create something REALLY new is at the dawn of a medium, then I may have missed the boat for all time. 🙁

Still, I AM an expert at making games, and I have a deep grasp of the history of video games. So if the true way to make new and amazing stuff is to take what you already know, re-make it better, and show it to a new audience, well I can do that. Banzai!

Borderlands

I finished Borderlands (XBox360) last week, and lent it to some friends. It was a lot of fun. Well, it certainly was addictive, and ultimately (I feel) full of the "empty calories" that Jonathan Blow was talking about. Borderlands is like a big bag of Cheetos.

But it IS fun, and I can tell you exactly why. Two reasons…1) The Loot Cycle.
If you’ve played Diablo, a roguelike, or practically ANY RPG, you’ve found a sword, opened your inventory window, and considered whether to use it or keep the sword you have. That’s the loot cycle. An endless loop of finding something that MIGHT be slightly cooler than the last thing you found. It’s a VERY addictive gameplay mechanic, and easy for players and developers to understand. It’s also surprisingly easy to balance, because the system is sometimes even MORE addictive when it’s unbalanced.

2) The Goal Triad.
If you don’t know what to do or where to go, your game isn’t very fun. That’s easy to understand. But it’s not enough to tell the player what to do next. People respond best to lots of overlapping short, medium, and long-term goals. Having multiple goals (like side-quests in RPGs) gives the player a feeling of control and strategy, deciding which to do next.

Short term: Kill the monster in front of you.
Medium term: Save the village from a plague.
Long term: Save the world.

If you have all three (assuming the player feels they have meaningful choices about these goals, and these goals are presented to the player), you’ve got a compelling game.

And Borderlands delivers. It’s got a fun and complete loot cycle, with tons of varied, interesting, and stat-heavy guns. I spent much time parked, with my inventory screen open, carefully vetting and comparing every gun I found.

It also has the goal triad. There was always a monster in front of me to kill (short term goal), there was always a quest to complete (medium term goal), and there was always The Vault (long term). From the first cut scene of the game, the player is told about a mythical Vault full of riches. Every NPC you meet can’t stop yapping about the Vault. I knew there was a 1% chance that the Vault would actually be a room full of gold and candy, and there’d be some sort of crazy twist (there was). But I really DID want to open the Vault for myself; it was an excellent long term goal.

Now, I recognize that there are plenty of games that are fun, and don’t follow these patterns. I’m not saying the goal triad or the loot cycle is the magic secret of all games. I’m just saying that Borderlands is fun and addictive (in an ultimately meaningless way), and now you know exactly why.

Oh. One more thing. The devs of Borderlands made a big deal about their interesting art direction. I agree the art is pretty, but I hope it paid for itself with pre-launch buzz, ’cause it was a big so what. While I played, I didn’t care or pay attention to the art, and there weren’t any moments in the game where I went "Wow" because of the art style.

Roguelike programming blog

I’ve always liked roguelikes, starting with a version of Angband for my Amiga back in the day. One of my friends, Brian, even got down to the 50th level!

Here’s the interesting blog of a roguelike developer: http://roguelikedeveloper.blogspot.com/

I’ve mentioned before that…my wife loves the Japanese cutesy roguelikes. I’m not a big fan of the grind anymore, but she sure is, and so are a lot of people. I could get into a whole rant about grind being in the eye of the beholder, but I think I did in a previous post.

I was so frustrated that, for all it’s beauty, Mass Effect clearly had no procedurally generated content (which it SO could have used). They really need to hire a guy like this, to teach them what they’re missing out on.http://roguelikedevelop…