In which I subject you to my thoughts and opinions.

Excerpt – Adventures in Standard Time

For this year’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writer’s Month), I’ve decided to branch out and work on a new project. Last year was a rewrite of the previous year’s project, and while I still have work to do on it before trying to get it published, I needed to get outside of that head-space and play with some new ideas. I’ve been trying to game out how one might build an interstellar society if it turns out the faster-than-light travel is completely ruled out by the laws of physics. We have some theories about Alcubierre drives and wormholes that suggest such things might be possible, but for now it remains uncertain if they are possible, merely impractical, or flat-out impossible. I wanted to write something that made as few predictions about future science as possible – that was conceivable based on our current understanding of science. At least something that doesn’t clearly violate known laws of physics.

I do make a few assumptions – you can’t write science fiction without doing so. For example, I assume that medical technology will eventually make death obsolete. There is no law of physics that we know of that forbids such a thing, and while I’m not an expert on biology, my understanding is that there is no hard upper limit on how long an organism can live.

I also make some assumptions about how the human mind works – I don’t know if it is possible to speed up subjective time to the degree I depict in this story, and I confess that I don’t know how plausible the biological interventions I propose are. I decided not to make too many predictions about artificial intelligence either. The machines in my story could be built tomorrow if you had the resources to throw into the project. I believe that it is possible to make an artificial being conscious, but we don’t currently know enough about consciousness to know that such a thing is possible, so the AI in my story will be what we call “weak” AI.

Enough pre-amble. Here is an excerpt from a very rough draft of my first chapter:


Some people said that the world was dying. But that wasn’t quite right. The world was changing, was becoming uninhabitable, to us – and let’s be fair, to most of the mammals, the birds, even most insects. Perhaps some day bacteria would reign supreme once more, for a time, before “higher” life forms could survive once more on the surface. After our colossal mismanagement of the ecosystem, one would be hard pressed to presume superiority over supposedly lower life forms. Let’s call them “more complex.”

What do you do with 10 billion people on a dying planet? Easy, you might say. Send them off to other planets. Slow down there cowboy, do you truly appreciate the logistics of launching all of humanity off world? And supposing you solved that little problem, where would you send them? Mars? Don’t make me laugh! You think sending humans to a place even more inhospitable than the current planet is a solution?

We built bubbles around ourselves, in some cases quite literally. We closed in the cities, built giant automated hydro farms to keep ourselves fed, for the farmland had all dried up. Coastal cities were abandoned, for the water had risen enough to take out most of the good real estate. We retreated inwards, lived in virtual realities. Kids grew up never having known a time when you could go outside in the middle of July and not wither in the suffocating heat, straining to breathe. There were pockets, here and there, where reality hadn’t caught up with the rest of world. Places that were once paradise had become desert, while miserable places became islands of blessed relief, the last vestiges of the lush world that had once been Earth.

We lived in little spaceships anchored by cruel gravity. So it was not so strange when someone suggested we send our little bubbles outwards, beyond the bounds of the solar system, towards the many habitable planets we knew existed. Planets that we knew were unoccupied, for we had never detected sentient life beyond our blue sphere.

One small problem with this plan, aside from the technical challenges of building large enough spacecraft, was that few who started the journey would get to see the destination. The distances involved were too great, and the ships too slow, that most journeys would take 200 years or more. Even with modern medicine, few could live far into their second century. Fine, then, at least their children and grandchildren would get to live once more in the open air.

A few brave souls embarked on such journeys, to the nearest stars. Proxima had some decent real estate, and it would take only 80 years to reach it, a light sprint in astronomical terms. But it was still too long in terms of a human lifespan. Most would rather stay home, close to the servers, where you could enjoy the company of six billion others.

Did I say six billion? Yes, the population had begun to decline. People lived longer, had children later – much later – if at all. Slowly our population returned to a manageable level, too slow to prevent global catastrophe, but you take your wins where you can get ‘em.

The average human could expect to live 500 years now. Most human ailments, including most forms of that most vicious killer, cancer, had been beaten back by miracles of science far more effective than drugs had ever been. People died of weird new ones, never before seen, because nobody had ever lived long enough to get them. Eventually even those ones were curable, and for the first time in history we couldn’t put a number on the estimated human lifespan.

You might be saying, “surely now people would be willing to make the journey to the stars, being effectively immortal.” You would think so, but you would be underestimating the human capacity for boredom. Besides, now that you live forever, if you wait long enough the Earth may become habitable once more. With current techniques, the air might be breathable again in a thousand years.

We had conquered death, but we had not conquered its bedfellow, time. Our ships still took too long to reach relativistic speeds, so we couldn’t take advantage of time dilation to shorten the trip. And supposing you could reach such speeds, it would only shorten the trip for those on the ship. It would still take just as long from everyone else’s perspective. Not to mention that if you wanted to talk to anyone back home, you would need to wait at least nine years for a reply (probably longer, since it turns out Proxima doesn’t have such great real estate after all). You just can’t run a society like that. Humanity would become fragmented, silos of culture (much like the days of old, but multiplied by an order of magnitude) spread out over a hundred light year radius. Even with the cultural stagnation that younger and more naive people liked to complain about, one could still expect the world they left to be nearly indistinguishable from its former self, should they choose to return.

Then someone had the brilliant idea to just speed it all up.


Saving as a Game Mechanic

Pre-script: I wrote this article several years ago, but I think most of it is still relevant. There have been some interesting examples released since that time (I’m looking at you, Undertale). If you know of other games that weave saving into the game as a story element or game mechanic, I’d love to hear from you.

Saving is a feature that is often at the meta-level in games – often you go into the pause menu, or the game periodically saves your progress and you have the option of restoring a game from the menu, or the game just automatically loads from the last save. A small minority of games have integrated saving into the game mechanics. For example, the save stations in Metroid Prime. Games often only let you save at certain points – by working this into the mechanic, this feels less arbitrary or manipulative on the part of the designer, and becomes a feature of the game world rather than some meta-level imposition that takes you out of the experience.

I propose going one step further, and working the process of restoring a previous save into the gameplay. When Samus dies, she is restored from the last save point, but what if she was restored from one of the last three save points, chosen at random, or based on a consideration of skill or resource? Perhaps you only have a certain number of saves that you can use before you are forced to start the game over.

This would not work for just any type of game – this would be a recipe for frustration in many cases, even among those who like hard, permadeath-type games. The best candidates would be relatively short games, where one could realistically play through to the end in a matter of minutes. Having saves as resources introduces a strategic element, encouraging caution in the player. This caution would be balanced against an imperative, the goal of the game, which requires some risk. Being overly cautious would incur some kind of penalty – perhaps there is a time limit within which the game must be completed or else the world ends, regardless of how many saves the player has.

The thing that must be remembered is that saving is already a strategic consideration. As gamers, we have been encouraged to save early and save often, to the point where a cautious player is continually brought out of the experience by bringing up a menu or even just hitting a shortcut (even if the game itself is not interrupted, the player’s mental state is momentarily outside the game). If saving were incorporated into the game mechanic, and overtly made to be part of the strategy, this trained cautious behaviour would not sacrifice immersion. There is also the perception that being cautious is somehow less “hardcore,” and playing through a game without saving at every opportunity reflects your ability and your confidence as a player. Skilled players don’t have to save as often because they are far less likely to lose. By making saving part of the game, that skill can be highlighted (good players use less resources). Some people see interaction at the meta-level as “cheaty.” Saving at every turn, while technically allowed, might earn the scorn of other gamers. If saving is part of the mechanic, using up a lot of saves would be considered a sign of a novice, but would not be considered “cheaty,” because it would be a measurable quantity in the game that could be factored into the player’s score, or whatever metric is used to measure success or skill. In the case of limited saves, it might even present a barrier to completion – the endgame cannot be reached until you have developed enough skill and/or confidence.

For the latter reason, a system of limited saves would probably not be a good fit for a game where story is a priority, where the designer wants even unskilled players to be able to appreciate the game’s narrative, without too much struggle. However, it might be possible through clever design to reveal the essential storyline even if the player cannot technically reach the end state. In other words, the end state would not be essential to the story, or the player would know what the end state should be even if she can’t reach it. Thus the plot would be known (no spoilers) though a test of skill remains. Winning would be additional to completing the story. This would be difficult to pull off, as completing the story is often equivalent in the player’s mind to completing (winning) the game. Even if it is not, the player will have far less motivation to complete the game, so long as story is the primary motivator. Perhaps winning could reveal hidden elements of the story – the essential features of the story would already be known, but the extra push to winning would reward the player with a more elaborate telling. Admittedly, this would make “winning” secondary to the story, but that is already the dominant mindset in a lot of story-based games – the developer wants the player to focus on the story rather than their skill as a gamer. The idea presented here would just reinforce that attitude.

Time-travel is a mechanic that is cool in principle but difficult to pull off, depending on the kind of time travel involved. Of course, any game that allows saving offers a kind of time travel to the past – even games without a save feature provide a single point in time – the start of the game – to which the player can travel to their heart’s content. Of course this is rarely integrated into the game world. One exception that stands out in my mind is Spelunky, where the conceit of the game is that the caves have a mystical property causing the player to loop back in time (though a new randomly generated level is created, so it is not strictly speaking equivalent to loading a saved game – indeed, “no saving” is considered a feature of the game). This integration doesn’t, strictly speaking, add any new mechanic, but it makes starting over part of the story, and I think that is an important difference, especially when it comes to immersion.

An honorable mention goes to The Stanley Parable, which cleverly increases immersion by explicitly acknowledging the meta-level – the exact opposite to the tact I’m suggesting here. It only works because the whole point of The Stanley Parable is to draw attention to the fact that one is playing a game.

So, we can essentially “skin” a save system to make it part of the narrative, but we don’t have to stop there. We can put constraints on the player’s ability to go back in time, such as giving the ability a cooldown time. We can allow the player to bring their inventory from the future into the past, allowing them to complete puzzles that they otherwise couldn’t, or make puzzles easier to complete, or save the life of a companion, etc. We can keep a backlog of several save files, to allow the player to choose a point in time to go back to.

If we assume a parallel-worlds style time travel, the player could return to a later time with an item from the past without affecting that later time. If we assume the more paradoxical linear timeline, we would have to calculate the changes removing that item from the timeline would cause and modify that later save file. The latter would be hard to make work, but suggests a number of really cool possibilities.

Future time travel is more tricky, and I don’t want to spend much time on it, as it strays away from the topic at hand, saving as a game mechanic. It could be achieved using the mechanism suggested above – running a simulation assuming certain actions (maybe assuming the player isn’t around to alter events) then moving the player to the end state. Again, difficult to make work, but presents some cool possibilities. Not ideal for a heavily story-based game, as the branching would be a nightmare. However, if the story is largely independent of the time travel mechanic, that might not be an issue.

So you can increase immersion by removing saving entirely (Spelunky) or dressing up saving as a game mechanic, or by making a game specifically about breaking the fourth wall (The Stanley Parable). I have been focusing on immersion because that is what I think is most harmed by the “save early, save often” mentality, but there may be other reasons to work saving into the mechanics of a game. I have already suggested how it could be used as a strategic element by making saves a limited resource. I’m sure there are plenty of other ways to do it.


Postscript: There are a lot of games out there, and I am sure someone out there has already made a game that does some or all of what I’ve described. A number of games let you interact with past selves. Braid does a lot of clever stuff with time. I don’t mean to suggest that what I’ve been describing has never been done before – rather I just want to put out some food for thought for aspiring game devs, and suggest that they reconsider removing saves entirely, if the only reason they are doing so is to increase immersion. Of course, thematic considerations need to be made – it won’t be possible to make the mechanic work with all themes.

My NaNoWriMo Experiences

National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, is designed for the procrastinator. Every November, a bunch of us commit to writing a 50,000 word novel draft. For many of us, it’s a kind of therapy – a way of confronting the demons that stand in the way of productivity.

For years I’d put off writing the novel that’s been bouncing around my head. I’d made a few attempts but could never manage to put together a complete first draft. Last year, I decided to take the NaNo challenge (I had considered it the year before but never took the plunge, so to speak). Though I got off to a rocky start (see chart below), I was able to complete the challenge. The experience was exhausting, but I made it through, and I ended up with a first draft that I didn’t completely hate. Unfortunately, I was so sick of writing the damn thing that I couldn’t bring myself to edit it. I kept putting it off, and before I knew it, it was October again.


Ted’s daily word-count – 2016 vs. 2017. The red circle indicates the “anomaly” in my otherwise-consistent productivity, brought on by a virus and a quick trip to Detroit.

In the interim, I’d gone back and read parts of my draft. Having sat on it for so long, I was able to look at it with “fresh eyes.” I still liked the basic framework of the novel, but there was a lot I no longer liked, and many parts that I felt needed to be reworked. I’d also left a number of character development holes that I promised myself I would go back and fill in later (and of course never did). It was ripe for a re-write.

NaNo, as originally conceived, is supposed to be about getting out a first draft. So a re-write wasn’t technically covered by the rules of NaNo. I had an idea for another novel, but the completionist in me would not allow me to move on to a new project while my last draft sat collecting dust. After much hand-wringing and consultation with the /r/nanowrimo subreddit, I decided to go ahead and do a re-write, and declare myself a so-called “NaNo rebel” (look it up). I would not be writing a first draft – but in the spirit of NaNo, I would commit to writing at least 50,000 new words. If I decided to reuse passages, I would not count them in my daily word-count (this turned out to be a non-issue – it was far easier to just rewrite a scene from scratch and mostly from memory than to attempt to rework the old stuff).

What I’ve Learned

Since I’ve done this two years in a row, I thought I’d compare my experiences. Last year I had a very slow start. I don’t really remember what happened last November but I remember having to juggle a lot. I had a new job so that definitely cut in some. As you can see from the chart, I lagged behind for half the month before managing to up my production. However, I was never able to reach the daily goals (indicated by the grey line) until the very last day. I spent the entire month playing catch-up. It was exhausting.

Another goal of NaNo is to get you used to writing everyday which, based on what I’ve heard again and again from successful authors, is probably the single greatest way to boost your writing productivity. I don’t think 1667 words per day is sustainable (not for me, anyway) in the long term, but I could see myself doing 500 a day without cutting too much into my spare time, which would be the equivalent of almost four 50,000 word novels per year. Sci-fi novels are, on average, about twice that length, at 100,000 words, so we’re looking at about two novels per year. That’s not including the editing, finding a publisher, revising, etc., of course. But it gives me a good sense of what I’d be capable of producing if I put my mind to it. It’s a nice goal to have.

I felt burnt out after the last NaNo, and I found it very difficult to get back in the habit. This year I thought I would do it a bit smarter. It’s a bit like running a marathon (I suppose, I’ve never done it) – if you don’t prepare you’re just asking for trouble. I committed to meeting the daily goal each day – even going over a bit to give myself some wiggle room. However, I told myself I would not go over too much – the idea being that if I wrote, say, 5,000 words one day, I might burn out and have trouble finding inspiration the next day. Let’s call this the “slow-but-steady” approach.

Based on my experiences both years, I’ve learned that falling behind, even a little bit, takes a long time to recover. The red circle on the chart highlights this. Around Day 10 or thereabouts, I came down with a nasty cold. I was able to push through until Day 12, when I had to leave town for a two-day work trip. The combination of feeling like garbage, travel, and work put a huge dent in productivity. Some days I barely broke 300 words, but I did manage to get in something everyday. By Day 18 I had finally recovered, getting back to hitting those daily goals. Day 18 was probably the closest I came to burn-out. The next day was a slog – my creative juices were tapped. I had another very slight dip in productivity around Day 24, recovering by Day 28. The lesson: don’t fall behind. Write something hacky and cliché if you have to, just push through. The anxiety that comes with trying to catch up is antithetical to creativity, and can create a vicious cycle.

I noticed that some writers reached 50k very quickly, as early as the second week in some cases. While impressive, I resisted the urge to compare myself to those over-achievers. My goal, after all, was sustainability. I probably could write a novel in two weeks, but I’d be dead by the end of it.

With the exception of the afore-mentioned hiccups, I rarely felt like the goal was unattainable (admittedly, knowing that I did it once before probably helped), and without too many other distractions I never felt overwhelmed. Now that NaNo is over, I don’t feel exhausted. I’m eager to get to revising and editing my draft. It’s going to take some work to merge my drafts and iron out inconsistencies, but I don’t dread the task as I did last year.

These were my experiences with NaNo. I don’t claim that the lessons I learned are going to be valuable to anyone but me. Every writer is different – my approach may not work for you – but I hope you can draw some small bit of insight from my experiences.

Value in the Virtual is not Virtual Value

Though I have said this in my little blurb about the nature of this blog, I feel the need to preface this post by saying that what follows is not intended as a rigorous philosophical treatise. My philosophical education focused on ethics, and while I have an interest in metaphysics, I don’t claim to be an expert on it or to be particularly well-read on the topic, so I ask those who are more knowledgeable of this topic to bear with me (and please feel free to comment or point me in the right direction if I say something ridiculous).

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about virtual worlds. As virtual reality becomes increasingly more feasible (to the point where mainstream adoption of VR technology seems all-but-inevitable – a topic for another post), and we become more invested in our online presence and things that exist merely as strings of bits, the question of how much – if any – value we should place on virtual things becomes ever more pertinent.

Many free-to-play games give players the option of spending real money to purchase items that exist solely in-game, and often are only of cosmetic value. Items that confer in-game advantages are frowned upon as they skew gameplay in favour of those who can afford the upgrades, meaning that success is no longer measured by player skill alone, but partly or wholly based on how much you are willing to spend. Games that allow the latter are disparagingly referred to as “pay-to-win.”

But if the items we spend money on are just pretty baubles that have no real impact on gameplay, why are people willing to drop so much cash on them? Or to put it another way, why do we place value on these objects at all? And given that clearly many of us do, in fact, value these objects, should we value them?

For an outsider who has never played a free-to-play game, or has rarely if ever played a video game, I imagine it would be very hard to understand why someone might purchase an in-game item. A common complaint is that, regardless of any additional in-game functionality or lack thereof, that item isn’t real. We seem to place a great deal of importance on whether or not something is “real,” the implication being that if you are spending your hard-earned money on “unreal” things, you are really just throwing that money away.

Now I expect many of you are now screaming, “but these things have value, even if they aren’t physical objects, because the player is invested in the experience, and these items enhance that experience. It’s the experience that matters, not whether it is ‘real’ or not!” You might even go so far as to challenge the idea that these things aren’t real – you might say that just because they are composed of bits instead of atoms, they still exist in some sense.

That fictional things “exist in some sense” is trivially true. Intuitively, it just feels wrong to say “pink unicorns are real” in the same way that we say “horses are real.” Yes, in some sense, pink unicorns “exist,” as words on a page, or a picture in a book or on a screen, or even just as an idea in someone’s head, a cluster of neurons firing at just the right time and just the right way. Of course, “it just feels wrong” is hardly a damning argument against these things being real, so I’ll give you a bit more to go on. When I say “pink unicorns are real,” most people expect me to mean that there are flesh-and-blood pink horses with a single horn wandering around somewhere in the universe (let’s leave aside parallel universes for the time being). I’m not saying that someone has an idea of a pink unicorn, or that someone has drawn a pink unicorn. Clearly all fictional things that have been dreamt up or articulated in some form “exist in some sense” as words and pictures or bits or neural firings, so to say that all of these things are “real” would be to include absolutely everything in that category and thus render the category meaningless. When we say that something is real, we are saying that it exists in a very particular sense. In the sense that a simulated fire will never burn your house down. The moment that a simulated fire becomes capable of burning your house down it stops being a simulation and becomes a “real” fire.

Virtual items are an interesting border-line case, because while we all know that you could never accidentally stab yourself with a virtual sword, that sword is likely more useful to you in a game than the mere thought of a sword. Even if it provides no gameplay function, it may perform the function of status symbol or demonstrate one’s support for the game developers. We might want to say that a virtual sword is “more real” than a drawing of a sword, though I’m resistant to thinking of reality as something that comes in degrees. I am inclined to regard a virtual sword as just as fictional as a drawing or an idea. It may be a better simulation of a sword, but it still meets none of the criteria required to be a real sword.

Okay, so the sword isn’t real, but does that mean it has no value? Only if the value of a sword is solely based on its ability to cut things. But even people who buy real swords in this day and age rarely buy them with the intention of cutting anything. In fact, since (I hope) most people only buy swords because they “look cool,” they have about as much value as a virtual sword, which looks just as cool on your virtual wall as your real sword looks on your real wall. If the purpose is to show off your passion for swords to the people you spend time with, and most of those people interact with you in a virtual location, the virtual sword may actually be more valuable to you than the real one (“to you” is an important proviso, since an actual sword is likely to retain its resale value for much longer, being made of things that aren’t dependent on servers remaining online).

This doesn’t apply in all instances, since we value many things for properties that only real things can have. The value of food is largely dependent on its nutritional properties, and the fact that food is made up of molecules and not bits is instrumental to that value. The virtual sword is only more valuable than the real sword because the properties that make it real or not are inconsequential to the player.

Virtual Reality blurs the line even more, since aside from the basic necessities, it can in principle (though in practice it still has a ways to go) provide most of what we seek in the “real world,” provide experiences that we could never afford in real life, allow us to do things too dangerous to attempt in real life, and have experiences that would be impossible to have in the real world.

At this point one might imagine a dystopia where everyone lives in VR bubbles and only take off the goggles when they need to attend to basic needs. I don’t think such a dystopia is plausible, but even if it were, it would only be a dystopia for the people on the outside. It’s only a dystopia if you accept the premise that the virtual world is value-less. But virtual experiences can have as much (and sometimes more) value as many real world experiences (and even if not, the virtual version is likely a lot cheaper and might be worth the trade-off). True, there are some things that can’t be replaced by virtual substitutes, at least not any time soon, and we would be wrongheaded to ignore what the real world has to offer in favour of an entirely online existence, but it would be equally wrongheaded to dismiss our experiences in the virtual world as less valuable simply because the world isn’t “real.”

Postscript: This is not to say that I support people spending thousands of dollars on virtual items, any more than I support people spending thousands of dollars on real, but equally useless, junk. I just don’t think the fact that an item isn’t real means that it is necessarily value-less (and I don’t personally think there is anything in the virtual world as it currently exists that I could justify dropping that kind of cash on).

Game Review: The Talos Principle

I love playing and making games – so I’ve decided to try my hand at reviewing them, too. I recently “completed” (as in, reached at least one of the “good” endings of) The Talos Principle (2014) by Croatian developer CroTeam, so that’s as good a place to start as any. I will avoid spoilers about the plot beyond the first few minutes of gameplay, although I will discuss some of the features that appear later in the game.

The Talos Principle is a game split roughly down the middle by puzzles and narrative elements – I’ll address the narrative elements first then go into the puzzle and technical aspects. The story was written by Tom Jubert (of The Swapper and FTL fame) and Jonas Kyratzes, and features the voice acting of Timothy Watson and Erin Fitzgerald.

You are a robot tasked with running through a gauntlet of puzzles to attain eternal life, as promised by the disembodied voice of Elohim (Watson). Along the way you will also be introduced to Milton, an entity that you interact with via ASCII-based terminals scattered throughout the world, and challenges your assumptions about the world with philosophical questions on topics ranging from the nature of existence to ethics. You will also come across voice recordings by a woman named Alexandra Drennan (Fitzgerald) that provide clues to the protagonist’s origin and purpose.

Coming from a philosophical background, I was skeptical upon hearing that philosophy was a central part of The Talos Principle (the developers themselves label it as philosophical science-fiction), but I have to admit that I was impressed by the writers’ awareness and knowledge of philosophical themes. Unfortunately you can only respond with a rather small set of possible responses, and there were times I felt important alternative positions were left out (though, in the writers’ defense, you are presented with options to revise or add nuance to your arguments in later conversations). Still, I can’t say I know of any other game (with the possible exception of Deus Ex) that pays this much attention to detail on philosophical themes. Admittedly, this might not be a draw for everyone. If you don’t mind reading a few pages of text between puzzles you will be pleasantly rewarded (and if you’re like me and enjoy reading all the books to be found in Skyrim, it will seem like light reading). Some may be put off by the idea of “text dumps” as a method for communicating ideas and themes in games, but in the context of this game they are a suitable and effective technique.

If you take the time to absorb the narrative, you will be rewarded with a strange combination of hope and sadness. The soundtrack, composed by Damjan Mravunac, evokes feelings of serenity, awe, a sense of timelessness and a hint of sadness that complements the narrative portions. Though you do encounter a small number of NPCs over the course of the game, your interactions with them are fairly limited, so you spend most of your time wandering alone among the ruins of long-dead civilizations, which only serves to highlight the afore-mentioned themes.

The Talos Principle is a beautiful game, though at times it left me wanting a little more variety. The three main zones (not including the hub world) are divided up into 7 or more worlds, each sharing the central theme of that zone. There was a bit more variety among worlds than I was expecting, and the game rewards exploration in a variety of ways, from “easter eggs” to “star” sigils that require out-of-the-box thinking to obtain. As an example, to obtain one of the star sigils I had to use an element from one puzzle area to trigger an effect in a different puzzle area. This reflects the theme of questioning assumptions presented by the narrative elements.

I found most of the puzzles ranged from slightly challenging to moderately challenging, though there were certainly a few real head-scratchers that I had to come back to. The Talos Principle gives you a great deal of freedom over the order in which you complete puzzles. Essentially there are small number of zones, and once you have unlocked a zone, you can complete most of the puzzles (save for a handful of secret or unlockable puzzles) in that zone in whatever order you choose. This non-linear approach means you rarely feel as if the game is holding you hostage – you can leave the ones that give you the most difficulty to the end, rather than the ones that the devs think are the hardest. Completing puzzles unlocks tetromino “sigils” that are used to unlock other zones or tools used in later puzzles, so you do need to solve most of the puzzles to beat the game, however often when I came back to a puzzle that I had thought too difficult, I would find that the solution had come to me. The game even explicitly encourages you to try other puzzles and come back to the one you’re having difficulty with, recognizing the brain’s ability to work on solutions even while you’re performing other tasks.

And if you’re really having trouble with a puzzle, at certain points in the game you can unlock messengers who will provide a one-time, vague hint about the puzzle you are struggling over. The hints give you just enough to get you over the hump and re-orient your thinking without feeling like the game is just giving away the solution. I will confess to consulting the messengers for a couple of puzzles.

In summary, The Talos Principle provides a deep, emotionally-rewarding narrative together with challenging, thought-provoking puzzles, sprinkled with a healthy dose of assumption-questioning philosophical musings (without seeming overly pretentious). I have to admit that I only took the plunge after the game went on sale on Steam, but it is well-worth the full price.

The Talos Principle is currently available for PC, OS/X, Linux computers via Steam, and is also available on Android devices. A PS4 version is set for release on October 13th, 2015.

Transhumanism and You

*SPOILER ALERT* In this post I discuss several works of fiction (nothing terribly recent, however), and I don’t hold back on the spoilers. You have been warned.

The post-human condition

It’s common in science fiction to treat the human condition as a fixed constant. Stories often use aliens or robots to highlight what makes us human, by way of contrasting us with the Other (often this is used allegorically to comment on or criticize our attitudes towards people of different races, orientations, genders, cultures and so on).

Regardless of whatever technological or sociological changes the human race goes through, we are led to believe, certain things will never change. Naturally there are various opinions on what these unchangeable facts about humanity are, and these are often reflective of the author’s political views. The haves will be perpetually in conflict with the have-nots. People are basically greedy. Love will conquer all (I have to throw a bone to the more hopeful visions of humanity). These are just a few examples of “timeless” revelations about the human condition that various media attempt to illustrate.

What I find interesting about transhumanism is the potential for subverting some of these observations of the human condition, by postulating what we might call the post-human condition. Of course, much transhumanist fiction serves as commentary on the human condition. Science fiction is like holding a mirror up to ourselves, allowing us to see things about ourselves that we can only see in contrast with an Other. Regardless of when and where the story takes place, it is meant to tell us something about our present selves, to give us pause to reflect on what, exactly, is human nature. Transhumanist fiction shows us how future (or alternate history) humans or their derivatives differ from present day humans and thereby tells us something about ourselves in the present.

Allegory and metaphor are all well and good, but we should not forget that there is value in the literal, too. Transhumanist fiction asks us to consider whether or not we are headed down the right path. Do we want the future that is depicted? If not, what should we watch out for, and if so, what conditions do we need to put in place? Stories that serve a more cautionary purpose warn us against losing our humanity in becoming more and more machine-like, by for example showing us bleak visions of the future where unmodified humans face extinction. Sometimes this is celebrated.

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke is a brilliant example of the latter. When I read the book, I felt a pang of sadness mirroring the “ordinary human” protagonists’ recognition that their children were no longer theirs – they had become something better than human. In the book, this leads to mass suicide, as the humans make way for the post-humans. Not a warm and rosy picture of the future, but Clarke gives it a hopeful spin. The name of the book says it all. It is a book about growing up as a species, and the growing pains of that evolution into our “mature” form. Adolescence is a brutal reconfiguration, and the being that comes out the other side is almost unrecognizable. There is sadness and pain, but we recognize it as a necessary stepping stone to adulthood. We lament our childhoods, and sometimes we wish we could go back to those innocent days (and we relive them vicariously through our own children), but most of us wouldn’t wish to give up the benefits of adulthood.

Much modern transhumanist fiction deals with the merging of the biological and the technological, whether it be a total conversion of one to the other (e.g., Transcendence, Chappie), or a partial conversion (e.g., Johnny Mnemonic, Deus Ex – though the latter deals with both). In recent years, there appear to be more stories in mainstream media with a positive spin on this merger, perhaps reflective of our changing relationship with technology. Smartphones are ubiquitous, and people have developed a strong attachment to both hardware and software – for many, these are no longer mere tools, but entities that we engage with in human-like relationships.

The movie Her takes this to a logical conclusion – a man falls in love with his operating system. This relationship is not treated as an aberration. When the protagonist’s friends and colleagues discover that Joaquin Phoenix’s character is in a romantic relationship with his OS, they don’t react with revulsion or criticism, but immediately accept it as normal, no big deal. And we learn towards the end of the film that he is not alone in his fondness for artificial intelligence.

Of course, we shouldn’t lose sight of the risks. Technological progress is currently driven largely by capitalist forces – do we really want the long-term evolution of the species being directed by short-term economic gains of shareholders? Do we want to trust the inner sanctum of our minds to large corporations (or government overseers) who might abuse that information? If you think your privacy is at risk now, just imagine if Google or the NSA could witness your innermost thoughts and memories. And even if we accept that the forces at work have our best interests, or the best interests of the species at heart, what assurance do we have that they won’t mess it up and inadvertently lead us to extinction?

The individualist, pro-transhumanist fantasy is a world of self-directed evolution, where the individual can exercise her choice to modify/augment herself in whatever way she sees fit, independently of market forces or the pulling of strings by “big brother”-type organizations. This is probably the version of transhumanist fantasy I favor, but it doesn’t take a cynic to appreciate that such a fantasy is unlikely to become reality under the current paradigm.

Whatever form the post-human takes, and whatever forces drive our modifications, we can be reasonably assured that both the length and (at least material) quality of our lifespans will be improved – that is, our longevity increased, perhaps indefinitely.

Expanding Spheres of Care

Personally, I’m not overly concerned with species-survival. I am most interested in my own survival and quality of life, and that of those closest to me. Assuming I have children, and my children have children, and so on, I’d be lucky to witness the birth of great-grandchildren in my lifetime. I might extend my “sphere of caring” to include at least my great-great-grandchildren that I will never meet, because I care for my great-grandchildren and don’t wish them the hardship of losing children. Beyond that, I have no real interest in future folk. Like the distant past, the future is not and never can be real to me. So I simply can’t really care about it, not in the same way I care for the people in my limited sphere of spacetime.

That sounds callous and selfish, but to claim otherwise would be disingenuous.

There is of course an analog to this in spatial terms. We tend to care more about our family than our friends, our friends than our fellow citizens, and our fellow citizens over people half-way around the world. Technology has mediated this somewhat, because it is becoming easier to establish and maintain friendships with people almost anywhere on the planet, and as barriers to Internet access continue to lower, we should see this trend continue. We also have many more opportunities to empathize with people we are likely never to meet, through documentaries, online articles and so forth (I myself am banking on VR providing new ways to empathize with people, but that’s a story for another time).

As our lifespans grow longer and longer, our “sphere of caring” expands along the temporal axis. Extending my longevity via technology increases my concern for species-survival, because a healthy species with a future is good for the people in my ever-expanding sphere of caring. It stands to reason that, given our cognitive limitations, there is likely an upper limit on the number of people we can personally care about (and how much I can care about them). I won’t even attempt to quantify that statement, and I think we’re a long way from being able to meaningfully quantify it. The point is, if there is a limitation on how much or how many people I can care about, perhaps a technological intervention can increase my capacity for caring, just as it can increase my capacity for living.

There’s a lot more I want to say about transhumanism, but I’ll leave it for another day.

Learning to Let Go

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned in recent years is how to let go of attachments. I’ve always had a soft spot for Buddhism and the idea that letting go of one’s attachments could lead to inner peace resonated with me. Though I could appreciate the wisdom of this idea, I could not put it into practice. However, in a fairly limited domain I have learned to let go of attachment. That domain is the creative one. I’m going to focus mainly on the context of game design/development, but what follows could apply to any creative endeavour (note, however, that you probably shouldn’t apply this advice to non-creative projects – please do not let go of your attachment to getting those stairs fixed).

When making games was just a little side project I dabbled in from time to time, there was no sense of urgency to make progress. There were far bigger things on my plate. Since completing my doctorate and deciding to pursue game-making in earnest, it has become far more important to make regular progress and, most importantly, finish projects. It is well known that it is relatively easy to come up with an idea for a game, and these days it is incredibly easy to start making a game. But finishing a game, even a crappy little prototype, is something that evades a lot of aspiring game devs. This is why game-making competitions and jams are incredibly useful to new game-makers. Having the constraint of a tight time limit (two days in the case of Ludum Dare, seven in the case of 7DFPS) forces you to think about how to use your time most wisely. If you find yourself taking too long to design the sprites, for example, but your core game mechanic has not been fully implemented, you may decide that the programmer graphics currently in place are good enough, and that your time would be better spent finishing and testing your core mechanic (and that is almost universally the case, unless the mechanic is intimately linked to the graphic design). Abandoning your half-finished spritesheet can be incredibly difficult, as you may have got rather attached to that cute little cow character that was going to be your guide through the mystical lands of Dairia (or whatever). But if you want to finish the competition with something playable, you just have to let the Duke of Moo go.

Outside the context of a very time-critical competition, it can be a lot more difficult to abandon an idea, task, or project. We have it in our heads (at least I did) that whatever we have started we must finish. And didn’t I just say that finishing a game is the most important thing? It is disheartening to look back at all those projects that you never finished, that you always meant to get back to some day, if only something hadn’t come up. It’s easy to think “gee, with results like this, I’ll never finish anything.” I’m here to tell you, “it’s okay to not finish things.”

Let me clarify. I’m not saying “it’s okay to constantly start projects, work on them for a long while, but never finish them.” What I am saying is “it’s okay to abandon a project if you’re having a lot of trouble making progress with it.” The key is learning to abandon a project early, before you’ve become too invested (personally or professionally) in it. Some folks call this the “fail fast” approach – learn quickly what doesn’t work so you can focus on what does work. Now, it might not be that the game you are making is a complete failure – maybe the premise is sound and the game is fun, but you just can’t figure out how to design compelling levels. You’ve been beating your head against the wall for too long – it’s time to let it go.

It’s easy to think that all those unfinished projects piling up in your master to-do list (you do have one of those, don’t you?) are just evidence of your failure to “get it together,” that they are reminders of just how much time you’ve wasted. Those projects are not wasted time, though. You learned a lot about game design from your “failures.” You learned how to do parallax scrolling, or you designed a really nice GUI, or you figured out how to procedurally generate cave systems. All of these skills and lessons you learned will be valuable in new projects, some that you probably haven’t even dreamt up yet. The failures themselves are also lessons.

Okay, so I’m sure you’ve heard most of this before – learn from your mistakes, don’t be afraid of failure, and so forth. What you may not have been told (or at least what I wish I had listened to been told) is that you don’t have to – and probably shouldn’t – go back and finish those projects unless you’re suddenly hit by a wave of inspiration. I’ve written a handful of fiction in the past – started a few novels that I never got around to finishing, and started ten times as many short stories that I was initially excited about but just couldn’t carry the momentum. They are still sitting on my hard drive, waiting, beckoning to me, “finish me!”

Should I finish them, just because they are unfinished? If we were talking about food, I would say that you should finish whatever you start – it is wasteful to eat half an apple and let the rest rot away on the sidewalk (you litterbug!). But games, novels, stories, music, paintings, etc. are not food. They don’t rot when you set them aside, and if at some point the spirit moves you, you can always finish them if you really want to. Another way to look at it is that all the work you did on those projects has made you a better game-maker, writer, painter, whatever, which means that before you began those projects you were worse at those things. Maybe those projects weren’t worth finishing. You thought that grass simulator you were working on was a pretty wonderful idea, and you got so attached to it that you convinced yourself it would be the future of immersive gaming experiences. You know better now. Leave the grass behind. And next time, maybe just don’t get so attached in the first place.

I know that’s like someone saying “don’t feel sad” when you feel sad. “But how do I not get attached?” you ask. I’m not sure I have a great answer to that, I think part of the answer has to do with ego. We are biased toward anything we create. It is only by sharing what we create with other people as soon as possible that we learn what works and what doesn’t – hence why playtesting is so important in game development. Some of my most humbling experiences came from announcing some grand idea I had only to be met with laughter by my friends. Now, sometimes people are just cruel, and it is true that many great inventions and ideas met with laughter the first time they were suggested, so social acceptance is not the only meter by which we should judge an idea. However, sometimes a negative response is exactly what you need to realize your idea is actually pretty terrible (you knew deep down that it was actually pretty terrible, you just couldn’t admit it to yourself). The best treatment for inflammation of the ego is home-cooked humble pie.

Finally, please do finish something, even if it’s not very good. The whole point of abandoning bad projects is to to get you to focus on the good ones, or at least the ones that you know you can finish in a timely manner. Take on shorter projects, then work your way up to more ambitious ones as your abilities improve. Don’t let all that hard work you did on old unfinished projects never come to anything, otherwise you truly will have wasted your time.