Peter (hujhax) wrote,

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... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Indistractable, The Secret Language of Cats, Writing Creative Nonfiction [audiocourse]
Movies:  <none>
TV:  <none>
Video Games: RiME

Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by Nir Eyal
This is the 2019 self-help book about managing and curbing online distractions.

There are certain things that are always going to be true of self-help books.  The actual advice could always be boiled down to a page or two of bullet points — I suppose we read them in book form because the stories and cited research 'surrounding' the points are interesting.  And we count on the longer version providing compelling evidence for their recommended behaviors — maybe it's more likely to actually 'land' that way.  And so it is with Indistractable.

Anyway, this is a book that's all about fighting back against online distractions — mostly social media.  It has a good overall rhetorical structure for discussing the topic.  He divides the 'direction' of influences between "traction" (towards things you want to do) and "distraction" (towards everything else).  He divides their sources, sensibly, between "internal" and "external".  Regardless of the points the book makes, that's just a handy way of conceptualizing the problems of navigating our blaring, bleating Internet.

Mainly, I took away some simple, practical tips.  I set up "Downtime" on my iPhone to shut off all social media between bedtime and the start of the workday.  I had iOS put a daily time cap on my use of the twitter app.  And I started using Forest to close off my access to my phone for 15-minute segments (i.e., while I'm trying to get things done).

Towards the end of the book, it started getting into special topics that were less interesting to me.  There are a few chapters on how to raise children that aren't swamped by online distractions all day, but I generally leave "guiding my wife's kids' behavior" to my wife and her co-parent.  There is a long section on avoiding distractions in the office, for those of you who work in offices.  And there's a chapter on keeping online distractions from impeding your marriage.  (My wife and I both work from home, so this is less of a problem for us.)

I liked his discussion of 'traction' — specifically, his point that if you don't know what it is you're *trying* to do, you don't necessarily know what distraction even *is*.  And further, if the thing you're 'supposed' to be doing is something you don't actually *like*... well, that could explain why you're reaching for your phone every five seconds.

All in all, I'm glad I read it, and I took away some helpful tips.  But you could probably get most of the same info from a simple bulleted list of ways to kill smartphone distractions.

The Secret Language of Cats: How to Understand Your Cat for a Better, Happier Relationship by Susanne Schötz
This is a 2018 nonfiction book about how cats vocally communicate, both with humans and with each other.

This has a very promising topic: a phoneticist talks about how to closely attend to meows and such and figure out how cats are feeling and what they want.  And in some ways, it *does* pan out.  She points out useful research methods for analyzing feline utterances, helpful rubrics for categorizing them, and a lot of promising ideas for further investigation.

Still, the book is mostly anecdotal: a pleasant Swedish professor talks about the kinds of sounds her own cats makes, and her best guesses as to what they mean.  Now, let's be clear: I am always, at least to some extent, down to hear people tell stories about their cats.  And the book's prose is pleasant enough, neatly detailing the personalities and histories of her family's five cats.  But I didn't come away from this book with much new information about how to (say) decode the different variants on Freya's meow, or the different types of inter-cat growls we hear when our two cats cross paths.

And the book starts to lose focus towards the end, shifting from its topic — cat phonetics — to some general "here are some possible ways to deal with different cat-ownership issues" sections that are covered better in more general cat-care books.

The general sense I got was that this is a promising start for a field that bears further inquiry — maybe come back in five or ten years, pick up some follow-up to The Secret Language of Cats, and see if new discoveries have been made.

Writing Creative Nonfiction [audiocourse] by Prof. Tilar J. Mazzeo
This is the 2012 Teaching Company course about how to write nonfiction novels.

I wasn't a big fan of this course, but to some extent that's on me.  I came to it thinking that I've plataued pretty hard as an essayist.  Writing essays has become, for me, one of those things like typing or driving: you do it all the time, but you don't get better at it, and what's worse, until you read a sentence like this, it doesn't even occur to you that it's a thing you *could* get better at.  So I figured I'd come out of this with a better idea of how to write clearer, more engaging blogposts.

Instead, this is a course about writing nonfiction novels.  If you want to be the next Truman Capote, or you want to write the next great memoir or travelog, this is the course for you.

Most of the course is basic 'how to write' advice.  There is an entire lecture called "show don't tell".  You might think, okay, this might be one of those things where it's "you *think* you know this maxim, but really here are some subtle ways you're probably violating it unawares"¹  But no, it's literally just explaining the basic concept.  There's material about how to develop good habits as a writer — it's helpful information, but you almost certainly already know it.²  There's also material about how to further your career as a writer, which in this economy might as well be explaining how to become a unicorn wizard.

The course does shine when it's speaking very specifically to how to write nonfiction novels.  If you have the streaming service and could listen to just one lecture out of the course, I'd readily recommend her lecture about "free indirect discourse", where you describe thoughts and feelings without attribution — a way to speculate about the inner lives of your characters when you don't have any records of what they were thinking.

The presentation has its strengths and weaknesses.  Professor Mazzeo's narration falls into that pit of picking one high pitch for emphasized syllables and one low pitch for non-emphsized syllables, and using that rule for literally everything she says.  But she presents her material clearly and concisely.  She also closes each lecture with a homework assignment — I did none of the homework (this was just my "listen to something while doing housework" thing), but they seemed like useful ways to explore the material.

In the end, though, it was kind of a waste of time for me.  In the future, I'll stick exclusively to the highest-rated courses available on The Teaching Company's streaming service.

This is the 2017 puzzle game about a young boy that washes ashore a mysterious island.

This is an interesting one.  As you start in, it ticks all the boxes for "puzzle exploration game".  Enclosed space full of puzzles to solve?  Check.  No verbal dialog, so as to avoid pesky internationalization?  Check.  Gorgeous design and music?  Check.  Hints that, not only are you solving puzzles, but you're getting to the heart of some vaguely-glimpsed Mystery?  Check.  Is there a vaguely-Egyptian-looking level?  Of *course* there's a vaguely-Egyptian-looking level.  There's *always* a vaguely-Egyptian-looking level.

As it gets going, it feels like yet another game in the vein of The Witness or The Talos Principle, only with much weaker puzzle design.  The puzzles tend to be simple and easy.  Rare is the puzzle where you unravel how to solve it in a satisfying "aha!" moment.  Very quickly you learn that, if a puzzle seems hard, that's because no, it's not, it's easy, just keep wandering around until you find the whatsit that obviously solves the puzzle.³  Occasionally you'll find yourself 'solving' something by accident — you try a thing, you move another thing, and somehow the door opens and the game is gently nudging you onwards.

This also means that when you get stuck on a puzzle, it's insanely frustrating, because *there's nothing to think through*.  There's really nothing to think about, beyond "have I walked absolutely everywhere and made sure there wasn't anything else I could interact with?"  I had to refer to a walkthrough twice, and the answer was unsatisfying both times ("oh.  *that's* where the thing is."), like somebody pointing out that your car keys were on the table in front of you after you'd ransacked the house.

Also, it feels sloppy in how it explores puzzle mechanics.  The Talos Principle, for all its flaws, does a nice job of keeping all of its puzzles about one thing: you're trying to get from a start point to a finish point on a map, usually getting around force fields.  At first, you just have 'jammers' that interrupt the force fields.  You explore that puzzle mechanic for a while.  Then they introduce mines that you have to carefully walk around — you see a lot of variations on that.  Then powered fans come into play.  And so on.

The Witness is practically monastic in its narrow focus on exactly one puzzle: drawing a line from a start point to a finish point on a grid-shaped maze.  And it is, if anything, even more patient with introducing and exploring different mechanics within that space: here are tetris icons, let's figure out what they do; here are multicolored dots; here's a different mechanic for drawing the lines.

RiME feels... unfocussed.  It started, for me, with a quick fetch quest.  Then some simple mazes.  Then some quasi-mazes that required darting from one piece of cover to another.  Then some mechanical puzzles with glowing orbs.  Then... a section with guard mechanics?  You could feel the game try some well-worn puzzle mechanic, make a few desultory attempts at it, distractedly throw it aside, then get back to simple climbing mazes.⁴  You never really felt like its puzzle design was *about* something, or *building* to anything.

And it was interesting to see the game suffering from some problems that Jonathan Blow alluded to directly in interviews about The Witness — problems I hadn't really *seen* in other puzzle games until now.  For example, the island in The Witness is designed to be shockingly compact — you rarely have to walk a long way to get from one set of puzzles to another, and they eventually add a boat to make getting around even easier.  Also, they also were very careful to make it so you could work on several puzzles at once — if one was frustrating, you could leave it for a while, 'walk' for thirty seconds, and start in on a different one.

RiME fails pretty hard on both counts.  It doesn't have a tremendous number of puzzles in it.  But it does have collectibles.  So many collectibles.  Like, 44 collectibles.  And that means they have to put in a lot of space for all those collectibles to go.  And that, in turn, means that the spare number of puzzles exist in an awkwardly large physical space, one that your protagonist walks through at an awkwardly slow pace.  And it's also very, very linear.  There is one puzzle you're supposed to be working on at (almost) any time, and once you're done it shunts you off to the next one, often blocking the door behind you so you are sure to work on only that.

And keep in mind, you still have 44 side quests in this game.  So you get shunted to a puzzle, you work out the likely-trivial solution to it, and then the game shoves you forward, past all the side alleys and vast unexplored territory, leaving you hoping that there wasn't anything necessary back there.

(Side note: I also am finally getting up to speed that "puzzle games have lots of side-quest collectibles for achievements".  With RiME, I was just confused, because I basically picked up *one* of each category of collectible: "Okay, I found... a toy of some sort.  Do I use it for something, or...?"  No, past!Peter — it's just another achievement thingie.)

But still: the design is amazing, the narrative hints are tantalizing, and the fox that follows you around is adorable.

To discuss this game fully, we have to talk about the ending, so: spoilers ahead.

Gonna talk about the ending.

Still here?


So I kinda had the ending spoiled for me, because the walkthrough I referenced listed the names of the chapters, and I quickly recognized the list, probably from some psychology textbook I'd read years ago.  So I knew generally what was up.  Still, I deliberately didn't think it through, so the truth about the island was still a substantial surprise.

I definitely respect RiME for taking a big swing here — making a bold, emotional choice for what their story is all about.  One friend of mine, and many fans online, have talked about crying their eyes out over how sad the ending is, and I can respect that.

For me, it was certainly *interesting*, but I was never really moved by it.  It felt like the game had a flaw that I saw in a lot of sci-fi scripts, back when I read the AFF slushpiles: 90% of the story is "a bunch of weird stuff happens", and the last 10% is "okay, here's what all of that weird stuff means".  It makes for an interesting ending.  It makes for possible re-watch value, as you go through everything again with the knowledge of how it turns out.  But none of that gets around the fact that, for 90% of the running time, you're not telling a story.  You're just dangling surreal random things in front of the viewer and saying, "Ooh, isn't *that* odd?"

So it was, to some extent, with RiME.  I was committed to getting through the game, and again I loved the design work, but I didn't really feel a story playing out 'til the last chapter.  And that largely-hidden story concept *does* inspire them to make bold and interesting choices with their designs — say, the gradual immiserating of the island from chapter to chapter, or the appearance of faceless "shades" that follow you and sometimes try to Dementor's-kiss you to death — but the ending never feels like it *explains* those choices.  It just invites you to consider them anew in an interesting new context.

So in the end, I feel ambivalent about RiME.  It was certainly gorgeous, and its bold ending stuck with me for a couple of days.  But in a world where so many games are so good at puzzle design, and so many games are phenomenal at gripping, emotional stories, I can't say you *need* to make time for this one.

But one review claims it only takes a few hours to finish (OTOH, it took me fifteen-odd hours to finish), so maybe try your luck?

For next week: I have a lot to catch up on — I still need to write up Burning and Witch Hat Atelier.  I'm currently almost done with The Mandalorian, The Good Place, and Watchmen — so that'll be a mountain of writing to do, too.  In Spanish, I'm watching Volver and I've started reading Las Grietas de Jara.  On The Great Courses, I'm watching/listening to a fun course about infrastructure engineering.

¹ Improvisors talk about "yes, and" this way a lot — there's the literal, newbie interpretation, but then you can go down the rabbit hole and find that often, saying "no" in a scene is the best way to stay true to the spirit of the guideline.
² It's kind of sad that I already know so much of this material — it means that my only reasons for not writing must be laziness and lack of creativity.
³ There were also stretches of the game where I'd be working on something, convinced I'd found the one puzzle in RiME that required even slightly lateral thinking, and discover that, no, it was all for some achievement-hunter's gewgaw.
⁴ There are lots of quasi-mazes in this game — I say 'quasi' because they are mazes without branch points.  The only puzzle-solving is finding the only way to move forward — the next place you can access from your current position.
Tags: media update, weekly
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