Rereading Neruda

Almost a decade after I first read Neruda’s Twenty love poems and a song of despair, I’ve come back to it, out of a sudden craving, perhaps nostalgia, even akin to inspiration. It’s been a while since I’ve wanted poetry badly, and today I did. So here I am.

I. Body of a Woman
Pablo Neruda, translated by WS Merwin

Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
you look like a world, lying in surrender.
My rough peasant’s body digs in you
and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.

I was alone like a tunnel. The birds fled from me,
and night swamped me with its crushing invasion.
To survive myself I forged you like a weapon,
like an arrow in my bow, a stone in my sling.

But the hour of vengeance falls, and I love you.
Body of skin, of moss, of eager and firm milk.
Oh the goblets of the breast! Oh the eyes of absence!
Oh the roses of the pubis! Oh your voice, slow and sad!

Body of my woman, I will persist in your grace.
My thirst, my boundless desire, my shifting road!
Dark river-beds where the eternal thirst flows
and weariness follows, the infinite ache.

I was surprised by the violence in this poem. The woman here seems very much abstract, described in parts (body of skingoblets of the breast… roses of the pubis), and the speaker’s tone starts off in self-hate, which he uses as an excuse to dehumanize his lover (To survive myself). In the third stanza he claims the hour of vengeance falls, and he wants to portray it like some sort of veil that gets lifted, yet the only link of the woman’s body to an actual person comes in the last half of the last line of that stanza: your voice, slow and sad. It’s also the first glimpse of a presence outside of his own, raising questions on what she must be feeling, especially when we remember her eyes of absence.  More clues follow — it is her grace that allows him to continue, her grace that enables his act of violence, and he is aware of it, he has to persist in it… The wall that separates the two of them remains erected; there’s no sense of understanding the other, which is where stem the weariness and infinite ache.


Fantastic Contraption

What it is: You get an unlimited number of rollers and sticks (maybe more as you progress, but for now that’s what I get), and you combine them into some sort of device that will get a ball to its destination.

I thought I would tire of it quickly, because it’s very open-ended which makes it easier to get stuck with no clue on how to progress. But: pleasantly surprised!

What is excellent about it:

  1. Boy oh boy is scaling things fun in VR. And that ‘pop’ sound that happens when you attach things to each other is goddamn satisfying.
  2. You’re making a life-sized cart. There’s something absorbing about making a thing which scale is so immediate — stretch it big, and you have to look up to see the top of it.
  3. The play button. You test whether your creation has succeeded by pressing ‘play’, following which physics forces will work, all things with weight fall to the ground, and you keep your eyes peeled for whether your imagined reality will be fulfilled. For game devs: it’s basically a game engine editor window LOL
  4. Oh, that joy of building something! Lego never really worked for me, but I dig this game because it gives me a goal for creating.

What were nifty solutions:

  1. Those little pins to poke whatever tools you took out and don’t want anymore. Intuitive way of getting rid of things immediately, and fun to do to boot!
  2. Whenever you take an item out from the cat (yes the cat is your toolbox), another one gets inflated to take its place.

What didn’t quite work for me:

  1. Trying to be precise about lengths and angles is the worst. Because physics don’t work in edit mode, the things you place in mid air could be slightly misaligned or facing just a few degrees towards each other. When you press play you can only watch, horrified, as your cart buckles and collapses upon itself.
    To solve it, they can use what millions of image, video, and game editors have already done: introduce controls that will allow restriction to one plane, and add a snapping to grid mechanism.
  2. Unsnapping things is a bother. I suppose I could solve this by just destroying the snapped item and making a new one though, so I’ll keep playing and see if that eliminates the problem.
  3. After they introduced the cat, the mini scene, AND the helmet, the playing space got too crowded for my liking. By default I had to move all those things aside before I start any construction.
  4. I could only estimate the initial angle that the cart had to face, and had to keep replaying the scene after making minute adjustments to the angle of the cart. It would be great if I could have some sort of tracking line that would tell me where my cart would travel to, maybe as something I can attach as well? I can see the difficulty of this though, considering that the physics of your cart might just make it go to never never land.

To sum up, making things in VR is definitely an area with a lot of potential, as long as precision controls are added. What lego did in the past, I can see VR replacing in the future.

Never knew why architecture became a lot less, well, flowery until today

However, the new technology that was emerging made the structures of buildings a lot stronger and cleaner looking. For example the use of steel made the iron-age buildings, which relied on complex arch forms for their structural integrity, obsolete. Gone too were the limits regarding height that were imposed by the structural shortcomings of masonry.

from What the Hell is Modern Architecture?

Her Story: Best narrative game I’ve played in a while

her-story-reviewBoy oh boy. I did not expect to love this game so much, but I did.

Some Background

I am not really a fan of interactive narrative experiences, especially the traditional kind on Twine (sorry Alex, my interactive narrative prof). For the uninformed, traditional interactive narratives are text-based and generally feature story-branching through decision-making. You can play an excellent example here:

Depression Quest“But, Zhi Xin, don’t you love literature? Don’t you love games? Wouldn’t the combination of the two be RIGHT UP YOUR ALLEY?”

You would think! But life has its way of springing surprises, and this is one of them.

I love reading because it allows me to sit back and get introduced to characters I would otherwise not have known. Not just introduced – I get to know what they’re thinking and why, their little obsessions, their paradoxes and complexes. I get to be some hovering presence as they make their mistakes and rectify or not rectify them. And I am not responsible for any of it! I get to feel what they feel with none of the burden that comes with the consequences. I love not having agency in this respect!

Now throw agency in for interactive narratives, and now I am just… me? Where’s the joy in learning about another person? There’s no way out – either the decisions I make affect the story, making the protagonist my reflection, or I feel forced to decide something that isn’t me at all, and not understand why I’m doing it. Feels miserable either way.

So my ideal interactive narrative would be one where I can be passive, yet with interaction that falls naturally into place.

Cue… Her Story!

I didn’t read much about what the game was about, only that there was a series of police interviews which I have to go through in the course of the game. I thought it was a murder mystery, and the win-lose condition of the game would be solving it. Nope.

When you start the game, you are given about no instructions, just this screen:

her story interfaceTwo things were clear to me immediately:

  1. This is a database of video clips belonging to the police
  2. This is modeled after a 90s computer

At first I was like, hey cool, how much freedom do I have? So I tried the term “robbery”. Nothing. Clearly this was the database relating to just that one case.

Since “murder” was helpfully pre-filled, I went with that. At the end of the experience I would be in awe of this brilliance. I’ll explain that later.

4 results came out. Now these results are video snippets of police-conducted interviews, and can be as short as one sentence. Sometimes you watch a result that’s like “I must have popped out to get some milk,” and because you haven’t watched the context that the sentence was made, the relevance of the clip is not known to you. Another design decision: you can only watch a maximum of five clips with any search term. This ensures that you can’t just search a common word and then watch the entire archive at one go. You have to choose a term that hits the right balance of specificity and generality, so that it will target the questions you have, and reveal a greater part of the story that you don’t know, allowing you to think of the next search term.

It’s basically detective work perfect for the internet era, and at the same time – unexpectedly – it resembles what a reader does when uncovering the plot of a book! All the pleasures of reading, translated seamlessly for the interactive medium!

My perception of my objective was to try to understand what happened, and that was cohesive with my action of googling my way through the interviews. When the mechanic of a game fits so well with the objective, that’s when you know you have a gem.

Of course, execution was amazing as well. Remember the brilliance I mentioned just now? Well, one of the risky things of such a mechanic is that you cannot impose an order on how the player experiences the story, and as such, there is a huge possibility that the sequence actually experienced is disjointed or unsatisfying. For me, though, the beats of the story felt on point. Sure, I was jumping back and forth, but somehow I still achieved a kind of ideal story arc of exposition – rising action – climax – denouement. And the only control the designers had? The first search term.

The execution of this game is so masterful that they managed to expect the questions you had after watching each clip, and make sure that important video clips can only be found through search terms you will only think of after watching a huge part of the story. This means that words had to be chosen very precisely; no word vomit allowed in the explanation that might appear unintentionally. THIS IS ART, GUYS. ART.

And all the most brilliant design decisions in the world won’t help if the story and protagonist are drab, but Her Story would never let that be so with how fascinating the protagonist is, and the uncommon plot twist. The story carried itself; the main character was believable and contradictory, like we all are. There were some points in the story where I thought they were trying a little too hard to reveal what happened, like when she sings the ballad for the interviewer, but that’s just nitpicking. The truth is I was utterly absorbed in the story; it felt like a good book, and that’s not something I have felt often with games.

Notes from Mattie Bryce’s “Kill The Player”


Conventional game design wisdom puts the imagined player, the player-construct, at the center of design … The dominant ideology surrounding games is ingrained with this mentality, forming the player-construct by how they imagine the dominant culture of game players.

Oppressive politics such as white supremacy and heterocissexism enter creation through the ghost of the player-construct while enculturation to a capitalist and imperialistic culture is etched into products that define the player-construct’s existence.

Taking a note from merritt and Naomi’s discussion around human-game relations, we can find a way beyond this system through creating and analyzing relationships between agents or subjects rather than reducing play to product design. This is a relational focus instead of an object one. Player-constructs cannot exist without an object, whether it be something physical, digital, conceptual, or with objectifying other agents. The player-construct must be killed.

Oppressions such as cissexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, imperialism and expressions of culture such as gender, race, sexuality, ability, ethnicity are living play experiences we did not choose to participate in and are consistently excluded from discourse surrounding the creation and situating of play. Playful relations to these topics cannot exist in the perfectly crafted fantasies of the player-construct who imagines they exist in a completely fair and egalitarian world based on merit of skill.


A game a week per person, let’s go

Last semester, I got together with a team of 4 other people and pitched a project for this semester. What kind of project? Well, have you heard about World of Goo? It was made in a student-pitched project with the following rules:

  1. Each game must be made in less than seven days,
  2. Each game must be made by exactly one person,
  3. Each game must be based around a common theme i.e. “gravity”, “vegetation”, “swarms”, etc.

We have the same rules, except the common theme had to be around emotions. We also have the following rule:

4. Each game must limit itself to minimal art and music, if any. Art style should be abstract and music should be constrained to sound effects.

So in case you forgot: 1 game, 1 week, 1 person. 4 games a week from the team around 1 emotion. We call ourselves Emotionshop.

Our goal is to explore a wide variety of game mechanics and their effectiveness in evoking certain emotions. At the end of the semester, we hope to be able to tell you what lends itself to feeling a certain way, and what doesn’t. It’s like how you have art theory on the emotional effects of colors and shapes, and similar guidelines in music – we want something like that for game mechanics.

In week 1, this was my game:

breathe | light:
Guide your light through waves of rise and fall.

If you don’t mind, please help me fill in a short short questionnaire as well (only 2 questions!):

The rest of the post will be the post-mortem, but it would be better if you played the game so that you won’t be influenced by what emotion of the week it was, before clicking through.

Continue reading

Child of Light: great mechanic, terrible writing

The most exciting part of Child of Light’s gameplay is the introduction of real-time elements to turn-based party combat. Characters take turns, but the order of the turns can be manipulated by slowing down or speeding up characters’ waiting time between spells. A few strategies can be employed: Igniculus can be used in between turns to slow down one enemy, spells can be chosen specifically for the length of their casting time so as to perform an interrupt, enemies can be slowed down or allies hastened by elixirs or abilities. Interruption occurs when, while casting, the character gets hit by an enemy attack. This causes the character’s attack not to go through, essentially missing a turn. So if you see that the enemy is some distance behind on the timeline, you might want to cast a spell that takes a long time to finish casting, so that the enemy will have begun casting by that time, allowing you to interrupt them.

This time element adds an exciting dimension to strategy as you are not only playing with aggressive, defensive, and utility abilities, you are also playing with when these abilities are executed so as to maximise their effectiveness. This makes combat much more dynamic as it isn’t only about what kinds of powers you have, it’s also about thinking on your feet as well.

The weak aspect of this, however, is that it can result in pretty imbalanced combats, depending on which part of the timeline you started on, and an unlucky match-up of character speeds. There were situations I encountered where either my side or the enemy’s side was unable to perform any turn for a few rounds because the aforementioned side was always lagging slightly behind the other side, allowing the other side to either interrupt or force the first side to defend. Of course this was almost always corrected after a few rounds as characters get out of sync, but the asymmetry of starting positions allowed one side to get a headstart that can result in a pretty drawn out battle in order to be overcome.

I thoroughly enjoyed the gameplay of Child of Light. The writing, however, was much less appealing. Child of Light chose to execute its narrative in rhyming couplets in order to, I presume, achieve a more fairy-tale style. However, the execution was atrocious. There was no meter to the verse, the length of the lines was haphazard depending on how long it took to get to the rhyming word, and it was clear that many of the rhymes were fillers. The result was a contrived piece of narration that completely took the player out of immersion, and as it wore on, was ignored completely, which meant that the storyline had no power whatsoever. The poor writing was not something expected of an Ubisoft product, and made the game look sloppy as a result, despite the excellent graphics and gameplay.