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Old links should keep working, but you should probably still update your bookmarks. If you find anything broken, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
in the depths, something stirs
its crusted form shakes off the silt of months
it stretches langourously and, with a twitch of its fingers, makes its way towards the surface
that which has lain fallow and untended will bear life forth once more under the thumb of its master of old
"Well, it's been a while. Here's where I'm at."
"My phone - my beloved Nokia - died just after christmas. And, well, I switched to Android. I'm on a Sony Xperia Z5 Compact now, and between the battery life, the waterproofing, and not needing to work around things like not having a banking app, I'm suffering significantly less phone-related anxiety. So that's nice. Nothing to do with the software, mind you, and everything to do with the available hardware. I don't know why you all want such gigantic slabs in your pants, but it's making it real tough for me, okay?"
"I took a week off to go down to Gracetown with Grace and her family. We swam at beaches and went to breweries (where Michael got me on to untappd) but generally just didn't do much. It turns out the south-west is a lot more fun when a) you can drink, and b) you have your own car. It was lovely, except for the bit where I didn't bring a jacket. I wouldn't have thought I'd need one in the middle of January, but there you go."
"Oh yeah, and I turned 23, and had a super chill barbecue down the beach. And..."
At this point, your author turns around. Behind him is an enormous, grey, trunk-wearing beast. It is, indeed, an elephant, and it is in the room with him.
"Oh yeah," he types. "That."
"I think I'm going back to uni."
Let's dispense with the framing narrative, shall we?
Yeah, so I appear to be going back to uni. Specifically, to study a masters in science communication.
You may remember, almost exactly two years ago, that I got a job at Scitech. Almost a year after that, I got a sidegrade to the Planetarium.
While both of these jobs have done an admirable job at both getting me paid and letting me try out this crazy one-foot-in-science-one-foot-in-language thing I seem to be set on, it's not great on the upward mobility front. It's very casual, very operations-centric, and it kind of leaves me too busy just keeping up with my shifts to work on anything that would help me kick that idea into a higher gear.
And, on paper, this degree gets me that. It gets me some background learning in a field I want to be in, a chance to meet other people with the same nuts ideas, and a big ol' project, if I choose, to work on for a year and then be proud of. And I walk out of it all one level higher on the Australian Qualifications Framework, with a wonderfully impressive MSc(comm) to put after my name. I can put the thing on my HECS tab, and with a little bit of help and a little bit of careful budgeting - no thanks to the government - I should be able to stay alive at the same time. Happy, even.
Something is nagging at me, and I don't know what it is.
It could be that I've always said I don't want to go back to uni just for the sake of it. That I would never do a thesis unless I found a question I was passionate about. It could be that I've been pretty unimpressed with the quality of teaching and student care that UWA is providing these days, and I don't want to get back into that system. It could be that I felt like I'd finally taken a step into a larger world, and going back to student life feels like a step backwards rather than forwards.
It could be that this is a spur of the moment decision based on a flyer, without the momentum of post-high-school expectations and years of career advice propelling me forward. It could be that this is on me, and me alone, and I'm having difficulty taking responsibility for that decision.
And while all of that is a factor, I think the deep issue is something else.
Because as good as it looks on paper, the thing nagging at me is this: I'm not convinced I actually need the darn thing.
Ultimately, yes - this might qualify me to at least try for a bunch of entry level (with a masters - sheesh) outreach-y communications-y type positions in departments of this and centers for that. Then again, it might also not.
It's two years and a lot of money for something that isn't even close to a sure bet.
Would I be better off trying to spend that time freelancing? Or sinking some R&D-type time into my big long list of ideas? Am I better off trying to develop something cool, and spin that up into its own business? I have no idea.
This is what nags at me. Is it, when it's all over, going to have been worth it? And I just don't know.
So that's what's up with me right now. New phone. Fun camping. 23 years old. Filled with crushing uncertainty about the value of the higher degree I just enrolled in.
How have things been with you?
So 2015 happened. A whole bunch of stuff happened in it, too.
That's right - it's time for This Year In Selfies MMXV
2015 kicked off with a kind-of-impromptu trip to Niseko, Japan, with my dad and brother.
Then there was the new job. Well, sort of new. More of a promotion. A sideways promotion, in that I don't get paid any more, but definitely cooler. This job fits me like a glove, and it's hard to believe I've been in it for just 10 months.
And then, right as I had settled in, and even less-planned trip to the US with Grace, inspired by a bagel.
I donated blood 10 times...
...had an absolute ball...
...and got away from it all at a glorious property in Bindoon...
...where we made at least one new friend, Tancredi. He hates you. He loves you. Shut up.
And then, just to top everything up, I popped over to Melbourne for a casual 3 days of gaming convention fun times
It's hard to top 2014 as a year packed with all the things, but 2015 came pretty close. It's been a blast. Merry belated Christmas...
...and come at me, 2016!
If you ever want to be convinced that games are meant to be played and not looked at, go to a gaming expo. The point where I started enjoying myself correlates pretty precisely with the point where I started playing things that looked interesting instead of aimlessly wandering around looking at them.
If you ever want proof that games can actually be looked at and be just as fun, go to a gaming expo. I'm talking, of course, about the Omegathon.
The Omegathon is a multi-round spectator sport, with a random group of PAX attendees chosen to compete in front of increasingly large crowds. And I am kind of a shameless addict.
PAX is about buy-in for me. I learned about the convention from documentary episodes and blog posts by the event's progenitors. They talk a lot about the stuff that they're doing, and don't have so much time to catch other panels. So for me, the PAX myth was all about drawing comic strips and setting challenges for unsuspecting gamers. That's the experience I try to replicate when I finally get the chance to attend.
I'm not really into the whole streaming thing. I don't really get Let's Plays. I have nothing but respect for professional gamers, but I have zero interest in watching them. The idea of e-sports kind of makes me roll my eyes. I shouldn't enjoy the Omegathon.
But it's like the difference between live sport and televised sport, I guess. There's a whole element of atmospherics and crowd participation that I think, as a predominantly digitally mediated experience, gaming misses out on. There's something visceral about being part of a crowd. Even when the game isn't that competitive. We all knew, somehow, that we had to cheer during Katamari when someone managed to pick up the Kewpie Mayonnaise*. Everyone knew that Gongon was never going to make it past the first island in Monkey Ball, but that didn't stop people from chanting his name.
It's gripping and intense and addictive in a way that streaming just isn't. It's kind of indescribable, but you probably know the feeling I mean, and why I want to chase it.
There's a parallel of sorts to be drawn there: The Omegathon is to streaming as PAX is to gaming. PAX is a physical manifestation of a digital medium, and it exists to fill a unique experiential gap. This is a lot of what PAX is supposed to be for people: A physical place where they can hang out with their own tribe, and finally find a place to be themselves.
I'm not sure I experience that gap so much in my everyday life. I have a fairly decent bunch of mates, who already get this kind of stuff. And it's easier to chase that shared experience on the couch than it is to take it to Melbourne. I get why that particular value proposition might not have been there.
But there is another side to that. Because the people I noticed most were - and this is going to sound a little weird - other instances of us. Other groups of people who were kind of close knit, with snatches of banter indicating that this wasn't a new discovery but something old and comfortable. For these guys PAX isn't a homecoming or a safe space, it's just a really fun weekend out. And it's that level of PAX that appeals to me.
So. Do I go next year? That depends. I've done my "I want to do this, with or without other people" thing, and it worked, and I had an awesome time, but I'm not sure I'd do it again alone. PAX, the way I'm interested in it, isn't a spectator sport. I reckon it's meant to be about the people you're with. And that kind of puts it out of my hands. If I - we - go again, we go again. If not? Hey, I had my fun adventure.
*Katamari is a truly bizarre game. Even more so as a spectator sport.
The thing that this year's event really illustrated to me was the extent to which 2013 was an alpha test. The first PAX Australia was in a very different venue, and it wasn't quite big enough. Despite queueing for ages, getting into panels was pretty unlikely. For this year, though, that was vastly improved. The venue is perfect - logically laid out, and actually big enough. So this year, for the first time ever, I actually got to see a panel at PAX.
In fact, I didn't just get to see a panel. I got to see the keynote. Which last time I had to watch on the flight home, ripped from Youtube. That was a nice change.
The keynote was a pretty interesting way to kick everything off without actually saying all that much. At least not for me. The essence of the thing was Warren Spector, of Deus Ex fame, exhorting gamers to consider games on their merits as their own medium rather than comparing them to films, and trying to convince developers to stop trying to be filmmakers. Games, he said, were about interactivity and player choice, they were the ultimate in audience participation and collaborative storytelling, and we should be skeptical of anything trying to be otherwise.
All of which I've heard before, in a uni course on the subject.
The takeaway for me was kind of a corollary to that. Games are now bigger than cinema. Gaming is the dominant art form, not just a niche. So understanding how to use it to tell the stories we want to tell and craft the experiences that we want to share isn't just important for making the most of games. This is the medium that, for better or worse, is going to be the way we tell stories for at least this few decades, if not this century. Figuring it out, both as producers and consumers (and yeah, how that line blurs when you're playing, not just consuming) is going to become basic literacy for a huge chunk of our culture for all time. We owe it to everyone who is going to study the great works of this era as literature to figure this stuff out, to nail it, to start making interesting things that might be able to survive the tests of time. The state of the art right now is, mostly, not art, and we owe it to the fabric of the culture we're creating to actually do something cool with this.
None of which was in the talk, but anyway.
Two other panels kind of stood out to me.
One was the Nano Jam, where a motley assortment of designers, an artist, and a musician, attempted to concept out as many games as possible in 45 minutes.
This was bloody hilarious to watch, but also, in the context of the above, kind of depressing. What I would've liked to see was cool game ideas, totally wacked out mechanics, and weird concept art. And yes, a decent dose of humour. What I got was an incredibly funny panel of talented people who kind of phoned in every randomly drawn set of concepts by pasting memes on to one or more existing app store style game genres.
Maybe I was expecting too much? Maybe I was hoping for more of an actual game jam type thing, with an emphasis on creativity rather than a stand-up comedy show? Or - hey - maybe the creative juices just weren't flowing for them that day.
On the other hand, maybe I'm not actually missing out on much in the way of mobile gaming by locking myself up in my Windows-y tower.
So yeah, I had higher hopes for that one than it perhaps deserved, but I think I did learn something about mobile game development culture.
The counterpoint to this was Dragon Friends, which I was planning on skipping, because hey, I know what D&D is, right? How different can it be to watch it live on stage? Plus it backed right on to the closing ceremony, and I didn't want to miss out on the final round of the Omegathon*.
I decided to check it out when I found out that WA senator Scott Ludlam would be joining in the game.
It turns out if you get funny enough people, and a talented enough game master, and a hall full of people who understand the rules and the tropes (and aren't going to bring any of the stigma that the game traditionally carries in with them), and then sprinkle live background music on top, that D&D is actually a pretty great spectator sport.
And the senator brought his own dice, which if you ask me, is an excellent reason to vote for him.
*(More on the Omegathon tomorrow.)
PAX is a little bit like The Louvre. No, no, bear with me. The Louvre is so impossibly big that you can't ever hope to see it all in one visit. So it is with PAX.
And, panels aside, the thing I came to PAX this year to do was scout out some cool local multiplayer games in PAX Rising. And I tried to stay as focussed as I could on that goal.
But nobody's perfect.
Possibly the most significant of these mistakes was a little game called Build ARVI. It started as watching over someone's shoulder as they tried to manhandle some kind of physics-powered sci-fi contraption through what looked an awful lot like a World of Goo level. I was probably there watching them for a solid five minutes, and eventually, I think they realised I was there, giving up with a shrug.
"I can't get it man. Maybe you'll have better luck."
I picked up where they left off, mid-level, heading back to the drawing board and pulling their vehicle apart. I made it more compact, more balanced, and did some fine tuning of parachutes and centers of gravity. Over several dozen iterations, I solved it. And I was presented with the next level, and some new tools.
I quickly mastered air jets, rockets, and anti-gravity balloons, and attracted the attention of one of the developers who occasionally interjected with helpful hints. And I beat it, scratching a puzzle-solving itch I hadn't remembered I had.
I left the developer's keyboard, covered in sweat, to a little kid, and got to talking. I learned some interesting stuff. I found that the guy was an accountant, but was really into getting his physics just right. I learned that they'd originally tried to build a game about evolution, but stumbled on this idea of having the player iterate on a design along the way. I discovered that this was a reskin of a much cutesier game with identical mechanics, to try and hit a more mature market, and that explained the cartoon-y levels in the demo.
"Man, that's the best 20 minutes I've spent at PAX today," I remarked as I was leaving.
"Dude. That was an hour."
"I'm sorry. I have to run."
One panel later, back on the floor, I found myself scintillated yet again. This time, I feel I should add, was just because the thing was so darn pretty. On the screen is a gorgeous, bright, vector art planet, surrounded by darting chevrons and monolithic orbiting sky-towers.
"Hey, would you like to play Element?"
I looked up.
"Yeah. What is it."
The guy smiled the smile of a clever person who has a clever pitch and knows it. "It's a space-based real time strategy game for people who don't have time for space-based real time strategy games."
I kickstarted Planetary Annihilation just because I wanted it to exist. I think I knew full well that I'd never have time to play it. Maybe, one day, when the multiplayer is well and truly dead, I will finally get around to picking it up.
The RTS has its hooks deep in my gaming bedrock. I played the same single sprawling Age of Empires II game for about 3 years, all through primary school. I never got the hang of multiplayer, but-
"So, it's single-player. The idea is that each planet gets harder, and you mine a particular element from each one to escape the solar system."
I'm sold. He handed me a controller.
Element is everything it was pitched as. At the end of my play session, the dev asks me some questions.
"So how did you find the difficulty?""Good. It picked up really nicely from one planet to the next."
"And how many planets would you play?"
"In a row? Depends if I have work the next day."
Guys. Please. Please, please, please. Get this game Greenlit I need it to exist yesterday.
There was one more gem that caught my eye. It was, once again, brightly coloured, and once again, was scooped straight from my primordial soup. It was a 3D platformer. All whizzing death traps and impossible jumps. It was pretty great, if kind of unremarkable. I hopped from platform to platform, appreciating the map, and the way the hazards were placed to kind of invite you to solve the puzzle your own way. And just as I was about to start what I told myself would be my last run, a word floats past my ear.
I passed the controller to the incredibly patient kid behind me, and went in hunt of a programmer.
It turns out this whole glorious experience is crafted by a machine. Five worlds, each one generated in luminous colours from a random seed and then populated with exquisite mechanisms of destruction. They showed me a dev-mode shortcut which would rebuild the world in front of my eyes, and talked about plans for speedruns and leaderboards and challenges. But honestly, to me, it was pretty much perfect as it was.
And! And, it was on Linux.
The game was Rogue Singularity, and I kind of can't wait.
Tune in tomorrow for panels, concerts, and introspection.