“Without a constraint on time or resources What Remains of Edith Finch probably never would have come out. Or it would have been some strange, hopelessly delicate monstrosity like the Spruce Goose.”


– Giant Sparrow creative director Ian Dallas, reflecting (via Reddit) on the development of the studio’s latest game.


Santa Monica-based indie studio Giant Sparrow (The Unfinished Swan) released its second game today, What Remains of Edith Finch, and to mark the occasion creative director Ian Dallas took part in an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit.


His comments make for interesting reading, especially for fellow devs who are curious about how Giant Sparrow dealt with the ups and downs of its sophomore project — and what it was like to watch Annapurna Pictures’ new game publishing division take over from Sony midway through development.


“On our end, ‘the switch’ happened when the head of the external development team at Sony asked if I could step into his office for a minute,” wrote Dallas. “It was one of those meetings that come out of the blue that can go a lot of different ways. And I looked around the room and was like, ‘why are all these other people joining us for this meeting too. Uh oh.'”


He went on to note that the switch worked out very well and that Annapurna Interactive was probably a better fit for Edith Finch than Sony, since many of the Sony staffers Giant Sparrow worked with had moved over to Annapurna. “In a way, staying at Sony actually would have been stranger, since we would have had to get used to a whole new set of producers.”


Dallas also speaks to some of what was cut from the game to get it ship-shape, noting that some planned stories were cut (as well as plans to allow other devs to contribute guest stories, though Dallas notes the team may revisit that idea) but that those cuts were a necessary part of the process.


“I do recall some frustrating points during development. Nothing catastrophic though. We all learned from them and the game was better for it. Or at least that’s how I’ve chosen to remember it,” wrote Dallas. “Without a constraint on time or resources What Remains of Edith Finch probably never would have come out. Or it would have been some strange, hopelessly delicate monstrosity like the Spruce Goose. All in all, I’m very happy with the way things turned out.”


For more comments from Dallas and Annapurna Interactive’s Jeff Legaspi on everything from the challenges of developing a narrative-heavy game to pineapple’s place in the pantheon of pizza toppings, check out the full Reddit thread.

An interesting read via Gamasutra News

Researchers at Washington State University have created a fluid "that has the properties of negative mass," reports New Atlas. When you push it, it accelerates towards you.

Snip:

The team made the Bose-Einstein condensate by slowing down rubidium atoms with lasers, which cools them to just slightly above absolute zero and keeps them confined to a bowl-shaped area of about 100 microns across. Next, the scientists hit those atoms with another set of lasers that changed how they spin, a phenomenon known as "spin orbit coupling." That gives the rubidium the properties of a substance with negative mass when it’s allowed to flow out of the bowl shape, which, according to the researchers, makes it look like it’s hitting an invisible wall.

"What’s a first here is the exquisite control we have over the nature of this negative mass, without any other complications," says Forbes. "It provides another environment to study a fundamental phenomenon that is very peculiar."

An interesting read via Boing Boing


Nope. This Super Mario children’s birthday party cupcake arrangement did not turn out as planned.



A very funny botched bakery order from IMGURian johnnydarkko.



About a month and a half ago, my wife and I ordered a cupcake arrangement from an awesome local cupcake joint for my son’s 1st birthday party. Above is what we sent to them for inspiration. We ordered 4 dozen cupcakes which is much less than the picture, but they said that should be enough–it won’t look the exactly same but they should make it work.


Nailed it!


Might have helped if they told us that maybe we needed more than 4 dozen cupcakes or maybe drew a picture of how the arrangement would look like with that amount of cupcakes–set up some kind of expectation… but this is what they gave us instead, 1 hour before my son’s birthday party. Cupcakes were damn good, though.


TL;DR


Ordered an 8-bit mario cupcake arrangement, got this delicious shitty mario cupcake arrangement instead.


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An interesting read via Boing Boing


The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


 

Original posted on the Frictional Games blog.


Before starting on the concept of presence, I need to discuss why it’s so important to dig deeper into these aspects of games. This is not really needed in order to explain presence, but I think it is vital to know why it is so crucial to gain this deeper understanding.


I have talked about the concept of an “idea space” and how developing a game is basically about navigating this space. The most important concept that I want to get across is that developing a game is like going on a journey. You have a starting point and an idea of where you want to end up. When making a narrative game, having a clear focus on the goal is extremely important as there’ll be many occasions when you need to go against what has the greatest gameplay benefit in the short term in order to reach a better end result. But given that you can’t choose your next step based on what gives the largest boost to “fun”, what do you base your decision on? How can you achieve a high degree of certainty that you’ve made the right choice?


You do this by having rules and principles that you follow. A simple example of such a principle is to ensure that gameplay makes sense within the story. It might be more “fun” from a short-term perspective to give the player a flying unicorn, but if that seems silly within the story then this is a bad decision. However, it’s not always that clear-cut, and since you can’t simply “follow the fun” you need other things to guide you.


Evoking the feeling of presence is such a principle.


So what exactly is presence? Well, it isn’t the most well-defined term, but for our needs we can define it as something like “How much the player feels like they are present inside the game’s virtual world”. One way to measure this is to test the player’s unconscious reflexes and see if these react to events in the game. For instance, does the player flinch if an object comes flying towards the screen? It’s simple, but not the only way to measure presence. A more important aspect, in my opinion, is to evaluate to what degree the player feels they are their on-screen character. If the player views an in-game threat as something that is bad for them personally, then it means the sense of presence is high.




I remember playing Silent Hill 2 with my wife 6 years or so ago. As the intro sequence was over and she headed into the woods, she started to feel quite shaken. She went on for a minute or so and then eventually exclaimed that she couldn’t play it any longer. The game was just too scary. So I took over the controller and suddenly she didn’t feel as scared any more. I now decided to conduct an experiment and handed her back the controller. The moment she started controlling the main character she got scared, and again refused to play for more than a minute or so. This is quite interesting. Her feelings towards the game were quite different depending on whether or not she was holding the controller.


This is a great example of presence. When my wife held the controller she was no longer just a spectator of a scary narrative, she was the protagonist in a horror world. This sense of presence changed her view of the game drastically, and I believe this is what makes it a core component of creating good interactive storytelling [1]. So, understanding this phenomena is paramount in becoming better at making this sort of games.


To understand what it is that happens here, let us take a look at an experiment.


In order to conduct this experiment you will need a screen, a rubber hand and a hammer. You let your subject place their hand on a table and then place the rubber hand next to it. The screen is placed between the two so that the subject can only see the rubber hand.



You now start to stroke the rubber hand and the subject’s real hand in the same place at the same time. Once you have done this for a while the subject will start to feel as if the rubber hand is their own. You can now test this sensation by quickly grabbing the hammer and slamming it on the rubber hand. The subject will now, as an unconscious reflex, pull their real hand out of the way. You can see a video of it all in action here:



This is quite astounding. By just using some very simple manipulation you are able to change a person’s mind in such a way that they think of a rubber hand as their own. You don’t even have to use a hammer to test it. You can even threaten the rubber hand with a knife and see that the galvanic skin response (palm sweat basically) is the same as if it was the real hand that was threatened. There has really been a change in how a person perceives their body.



A bunch of similar experiments have been made by Henrik Ehrsson, above, who has managed to get people to have out of body experiences, by putting them in the bodies of mannequins and using very similar techniques to the ones explained earlier.


So why does this happen? In order to understand this you first have to understand a bit of how the brain works.


It is common to intuitively think that inside our heads sits a little man, a homunculus, who receives all of the input picked up by our eyes, ears and other sensory organs. When you start pondering this idea, it’s obvious it’s not the case – it just begs the question of how the little man is able to see, and you end up in an infinite regression. What actually happens is that there are a bunch of different modules in your brain that collect and process various data. This data is then sent onward for more processing or used as a means for decision making. There is no one thing that controls the brain. It’s all controlled by a bunch of different computational systems, each receiving different input and being able to give certain output. Marvin Minsky’s “society of mind” is a very good description of how it all works.



So what happens in the rubber hand illusion is that the input you get from your eyes overrides the kinesthetic sense. There is a sort of feedback loop going on between the constant sensation of being stroked, combined with the visual confirmation of seeing it being stroked. This provides a slight conflict with the kinesthetic sense, but the brain has to make a decision and decides to treat the hand as actually being the rubber hand.


Your sense of self is not set in stone. It’s something that is highly malleable and is under constant evaluation. At any moment, the brain relies on the information that it has available in order to form the concept of your self. The entity that you refer to as “yourself” is really just a mental construct that’s useful in making sense of the world, navigating it, and taking decisions. Most of the time it’s fairly accurate and gives the right picture, but as we’ve seen, it’s not always the case. It can be hacked.


This is where games enter the stage – because this sort of self-hacking is exactly what games do. When your current mental model of your self incorporates your in-game character, an approaching monster will make you feel afraid. This is extremely powerful and something that makes games very special. When you press down the button or stick that makes the player move forward, you instantly get confirmation that you are making a character move. Volition turned into action becomes a feedback loop and this causes your brain to change its view of your self.


In books and movies there is no such feedback loop. Information is only presented to you. In these media you are a spectator that watches as events unfold. But in a game you are an active participant who causes events and where things happen to you personally.


This is what presence is all about! And for me this is the core reason why interactive storytelling is so exciting. You are no longer just a passive audience but an active and present participant in the narrative. Being able to achieve a strong presence is a fundamental building block in an interactive narrative.



So does this mean that Virtual Reality is the ultimate device for doing interactive storytelling? Well, it is true that VR has a lot of potential to create presence. For one, it adds two senses, balance and peripheral vision, to the mix, It also allows a natural feedback loop to occur by looking and seeing the view move about. There is no denying that VR does things that games on your standard TV or monitor cannot. However, what is crucial with presence in games is what sort of activities it allows you to be present in. VR can increase the sense of presence when it comes to just standing and looking around. But I am not as convinced that VR will be as suitable for more complex narrative actions. For instance, a drawback of VR is that the game can’t really seize control of the camera – something that allows many games to provide contextual animations. This and other tricks are things that are effective in making the player feel present in story events. We used this a lot in SOMA in order to give philosophically complex events, such as the body swap, a more visceral feel.


Obviously if you use the VR medium to its advantage you can elicit responses that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. But what it all comes down to is that different mediums can do different things well, and that it’s not a case for VR always being better at conveying presence.


I am not bringing this up to be dismissive of Virtual Reality – I think it’s a very exciting field. I go over this in order to make it clear that a sense of presence is not just about recreating our normal way of being as accurately as possible. Ways to convey presence can take many forms, but what they all have in common is that they hack our brain into believing it’s partaking in something it’s not.


This also answers the common question whether or not a first person mode is better at generating presence: sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. Sure, we normally see our lives from where our eyes are situated. But this is really just a helpful mental model. Remember, there is no small man in your head that is witnessing everything. It is all just modules that process information in various ways. If it wanted to, your brain could construct your sense of reality from a third person perspective. This is in fact what happens during out of body experiences. The reason we don’t use this version during everyday life is because it is not the most optimal one. We cannot see everything that happens around us, and therefore it makes more sense to just let vision be modelled as if seen through the front of our face.



So really, the output from a game is just a stream of data that gets injected into our brains. The brain will then process the data and model the world accordingly. A third person viewpoint is just another way to be presented with that data. Sometimes it can be advantageous compared to a first person one – for instance when showing damage to the protagonist. This is something we normally get as a signal of pain, but as that is not possible [2] in a game, you can trick the brain by having the onscreen character limp and show big disgusting wounds on their legs. So again, it all comes down to different approaches being suited for different things.


So the sense of presence is a brain hack, and it can be done in different ways. Then what exactly are these different ways?


I will now go over a few basic principles that will help you maximize your sense of presence. There is a lot more to be said about these, but right now I’ll just summarize the most important aspects. I’ll go over each of these in more detail in another blog post later on.


Intuitive controls


The most important principle is to make sure that the controls can’t be overly complicated. What we want to achieve is a feedback loop where the player thinks of something and then sees it happening. We want to make a connection between the onscreen character and the player by connecting volition with action. This won’t happen if the player is too focused on pressing specific buttons.


In order to achieve a strong sense of presence, the controls need to be established as early as possible and be used for all future actions. Every time the player has to learn new ways to control their character, or has to look down on the controller to make sure they are doing an input correctly, the feedback loop is broken and presence is weakened.


A good example of a game doing this correctly is Limbo (and the more recent Inside). The player is taught the controls during the very first minutes of gameplay, and from then no new controls are needed. Instead the existing control scheme is used in intuitive ways to provide many different sorts of actions. This makes the player-protagonist connection very strong and I think it is one of the game’s big success factors.


Constant Feedback


Once you have the player-protagonist feedback loop up and running it is important to keep it up. If the player just sits with the controller in their lap watching as things happen, the feedback loop will be broken and their self will no longer be extended. So it is important to keep the player busy. It is especially good if you also make sure the input has a good correlation with the movements that you are doing. For instance, moving the mouse to look around creates a nice feedback loop, but if you just press a button in order to accomplish a complex manoeuvre you will not feel as present.


Experiments show this clearly. As soon as you stop stroking that rubber hand the illusion start fading away.


This is one of the reasons why we have the physical interaction in Amnesia. Not only does it allow for some interesting analog actions (such as peeking out from a closet), it also makes sure that the players are feeling a sense of presence as they open the door, pulling a lever and so forth.


Consistency


In order to hack our brains there needs to be a good pattern to follow. The key feedback loop has to do with desiring something and then seeing it happen. But in order for this to actually work, the thing that you want to happen must actually happen. If you press the jump button and the character doesn’t jump then there is not a connection any more. In fact, this becomes a negative stream of data to the brain which brings about the conviction that you are in fact not controlling the on screen character. The same rule also applies to interactions. The player will base their actions upon what they are currently seeing and what they know about the world. And if that set of beliefs is not accurate, then the player’s volition will fail.


This doesn’t just apply to actions that you input, but also to those where you don’t. It is really annoying if the character does some movement without you having provided any input for it. A game that does this the right way is Assasin’s Creed. Here the player’s character jumps without the player providing input, but it feels good because you press down on a button as it happens (hence willing the action) and jumping is sensible and handled in a consistent manner. Presence is maintained. However, the game also fails miserably at times and the characters can start jumping when you really just wanna walk close to a wall. In these cases the sense of presence is severely weakened.



Realism


Finally, it also very important that things feel real. By this I don’t mean that things should be photorealistic. But it is good if things happen according to how they are anticipated to happen, and that forms take a shape that make sense to us. In that way, the brain can more easily process the data using existing methods. For instance, presence works better when your character is walking like a normal human and not running around like some freak (as is the case in games like good ol’ Doom). In the same way it’s positive if as many of the actions as possible feel close to the ones we experience in everyday life.


Experiments can clearly express this by showing that it is much harder to make the subject feel as if the table belongs to them, than it is with the rubber hand. However, a super detailed hand doesn’t matter as much. The most important aspect is that it looks pretty close to a real hand.


Exactly what sort of level of realism required is hard to say. A good thumb of rule is that you should try and have enough room for the brain to fill out the details. If you go with overly photorealistic there will be too much focus on that, and you’ll end up with a problem similar to the uncanny valley [3].



Back to where I started. Now we have four new principles that we can follow in order to navigate the space of ideas. So instead of just trying to go with ideas that give us the most fun gameplay, we can instead try and get as much presence as possible. What is good about having principles like these is that we don’t have to be able to directly playtest the amount of presence added, we can instead just rely on making sure the game fulfils the requirements for creating lots of presence.


Obviously you’ll need to test at some point. A principle is not an absolute truth. But it allows you to plan further ahead and gives you more confidence to tread into uncharted territory. If you can see that a certain path through idea space means that the underlying goals of evoking presence is met, then that’s a good indicator you’re moving in the right direction. Of course, presence is not the only thing you need to work on, but it’s a fundamental part of creating an engaging narrative experience. If your game is going in a direction where the principles are not met, then you might be undermining any other features intended to accomplish interactive storytelling


That’s it for now on presence. There are more details to be explored, but those will be brought up in later blog posts. Next week, I will be going over something called the Mental Model. This will go deeper into how we as humans create a virtual representation of both our selves and the world, and how this can be exploited for making better narrative games.


Footnotes:


[1] This is how I see it and where I personally want to take games. There are other ways to approach digital storytelling. For instance, you can see the player’s role as someone who controls how the plot and pacing flows, and so forth. There is really no best way of doing it. But in order to get somewhere I need to take a stance, and games that puts the player in the shoes of another character are the ones that I find most interesting. Therefore, this is the direction that I want to explore. People who feel otherwise are welcome and encouraged to follow other paths.


[2] At least not without special equipment and not being afraid of a painful gaming experience.


[3] This is a huge subject and very interesting, but will have to cover it in a future blog post.

An interesting read via Gamasutra News

Claudia Gray’s young adult novel Lost Stars is one of the best books released in Star Wars’ new canonical universe—and now, it’s becoming the basis for a new digital manga series in Japan.

The adaptation of the book—which follows the perspectives of Ciena Ree and Thane Kyrell and their relationship over the course of the events of the Galactic Civil War, even as they both end up on opposite sides of the conflict—will begin on May 4, releasing bi-weekly chapters for free through the popular manga app Line. Yūsaku Komiyama, who you might have heard of from the Avengers zombie manga, will illustrate the series.

Star Wars already has a history with manga—in the wake of the special edition re-releases back in the ‘90s, the original trilogy was adapted into a three-volume manga, followed by an adaptation of The Phantom Menace. No movie after would get an official adaptation, but Tokyopop released its own Star Wars x Manga anthology series, and Take Shobo released a picture-manga adaptation of some episodes of the Clone Wars TV show. Lost Stars’ adaptation will mark the first time Grey’s story is actually available in Japanese, as well as the first officially licensed Star Wars manga in nearly a decade.

As well as the release, Line is also hosting a competition for independent creators to adapt the first chapters of the novels Lords of the Sith and Heir to the Jedi, by Paul S. Kemps and Kevin Hearne respectively. The winning adaptations, chosen by both Line and Lucasfilm, will see their adaptation published as well as earn a trip to Lucasfilm’s HQ in San Francisco.

[Anime News Network]

An interesting read via io9

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis looks out over Kabul as he arrives via helicopter at Resolute Support headquarters on April 24, 2017 in in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo credit Getty Images

In Afghanistan, springtime means one thing: the start of another brutal fighting season. And if 2017 is anything like 2016 was, this fighting season could be the one that breaks the fledgling Afghan National Army for good.

In what was the largest death toll yet for that army, more than 160 soldiers were killed Friday during a Taliban attack on the largest military base in northern Afghanistan. Posing as Afghan soldiers returning to base with wounded, Taliban fighters managed to slip past seven different checkpoints before launching an attack on soldiers who had just emerged from Friday prayers and were preparing for lunch. Worse, occurred in northern Balkh province, far from the traditional Taliban strongholds in the southern part of the country.

The attack prompted a surprise visit to Afghanistan by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, and the resignation of the two top military officials of the Afghan government. The Afghan Minister of Defense and Army Chief of Staff both stepped down following last week’s attack which American officials believe was carried out by the Haqqani network, a branch of the Taliban that finds their home in neighboring Pakistan.

Afghanistan has become the forgotten war, pushed out of the headlines by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and more recently by the emergence of the threat from the Islamic State and the civil war in Syria.

But approaching 16 years of combat operations, $1 trillion in cost and the lives of approximately 179,000 people—including nearly 2,400 American military personnel—the question needs to be asked, when is enough really enough?

The United States is no longer fighting to win the war in Afghanistan. It is now fighting not to lose, and that makes it a war not worth fighting. Nothing illustrates this “fight to not lose” approach more than the deployment of a small number of Marines to Helmand province in southern Afghanistan currently underway.

Fighting Not To Lose

Helmand Province is very familiar to the Marine Corps. In 2010, 21,000 Marines were based there. Battles for the districts of Sangin, Marjah, Musa Qalah and Now Zad were some of the most violent and deadly for Marines in Afghanistan, and the fight for Helmand was the largest operation of the war. Now those four districts, along many others, are back again under Taliban control.

And once again, U.S. military forces will be taking another turn at “liberating” these districts from Taliban control. The Taliban claimed a military victory (which it was) while the people running Operation Resolute Support were in full spin cycle as they tweeted that the Afghan forces “left on their terms… leaving only rubble and dirt” for the Taliban.

Yes, rubble and dirt that is part of Afghanistan, and for which more than 50 Marines gave their lives for, including 25 from one battalion during a seven-month deployment in 2010.

Afghan commandos are positioned in Pandola village near the site of a U.S. bombing in the Achin district of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, April 14, 2017. AP Photo

Soon, 300 Marines will replace Task Force Forge, which is an Army unit that has been in Afghanistan providing support to Afghan forces. The Marines will be called Task Force Southwest and according to CENTCOM will train, advise and assist the Afghan National Army 215th Corps and the 505th Zone National Police. The former group was left without American advisors when the Marines packed up and left Helmand in 2014, and they were simply not ready to assume the burden alone. Today, it is estimated that more than 85 percent of Helmand— including poppy-producing fields used in heroin production—is under Taliban control.

A Broken System

Perhaps the loss of most of Helmand was due to the corruption of the Afghan 215th Corps where 40 percent of its troops existed only on paper; these “ghost soldiers” being counted only to allow corrupt officers to collect extra pay. In 2015, the U.S. spent over $100 million training the 215th Corps to take on the Taliban, when in reality it appears much of the food and fuel was stolen by senior officers who choose profit over their soldiers’ lives.

This Marine deployment was announced in January, and according to the Washington Post the Marines going on this nine-month mission are senior Marines, many of whom have fought in Helmand Province before. The Marines have said the need to hand-select only experienced troops from across the regiment is simply due to the need to match the growing qualifications of the Afghans they will be supporting.

Maybe. Or is it that the situation has become so untenable in southern Afghanistan that the most seasoned American Marines are needed to push and lead the Afghans back into the fight?

Early this year, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction issued a report that painted a grim picture of the current state of the Afghan army and the territory now under Taliban control. Issued in January, the report says that of 407 districts that were spread across 34 provinces, only 258 were controlled by the Afghan government. Thirty-three districts were controlled by the Taliban and the remaining 120 were categorized as contested. And 37 percent of the country was no longer controlled by the government in Kabul.

The Afghan army has about 180,000 soldiers but suffered over 15,000 casualties in 2016 (including over 6,700 killed) and are affected by extremely high attrition rates, which were reported as high as 33 percent. That means every year, through desertion, casualties, and low enlistments, one-third of the Army must be replaced with new, raw recruits.

Corruption is so rampant, that the Afghan general assigned to investigate the true scope of corruption within the army was himself recently arrested on corruption charges.

Despite billions of dollars in assistance and over a decade of training, Afghan army and police units cannot stand on their own across the span of the country. Seven months before leaving office, the Obama administration admitted as much as they eased restrictions on the use of American air power.

More recently, speaking to the Senate Armed Forces Committee in early February, Army Gen. John W. Nicholson, the commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, made the following statement:

We remain concerned about multiple critical factors, specifically the stability of the Afghan government, ANDSF (Afghan National Defense and Security Forces) casualties, the influence of external actors on Afghanistan, including Pakistan, Russia, and Iran, and the convergence of 20 terrorist groups and three VEOs (violent extremist organizations) in the region…We assess the current security situation in Afghanistan as a stalemate….Russia has become more assertive over the past year, overtly lending legitimacy to the Taliban to undermine NATO efforts and bolster belligerents using the false narrative that only the Taliban are fighting ISIL-K. Similarly, neighboring Iran is providing support to the Taliban…

During the visit, Mattis and Nicholson both took a hard line with Russia amid the reports of Russia actually arming the Taliban, in what is an attempt by Russia to continue to undermine Washington, Mattis said, according to The Hill:

We’re going to have to confront Russia where what they’re doing is contrary to international law or denying sovereignty of other countries. For example, any weapons being funneled ere from a foreign country would be a violation of international law unless they’re coming through the government of Afghanistan for the Afghan forces, and so that would have to be dealt with as a violation of international law.

Nichols, echoing his earlier comments in Washington, said that Russia was arming belligerents in the country.

It appears that once again, many hands are reaching into Afghanistan for their own gain, rather than assist the Afghans to run their own country. This is by no means anything new.

A History Of Violence

Afghanistan is the 41st largest country in the world. Bigger than France and Spain and a little smaller than Texas. Yet none of Afghanistan’s present day borders were “officially” created until the end of the 19th century and the borders were drawn by the external powers of Russian and Great Britain. “The Great Game,” as it was called, was a power struggle between those two nations for control of Central Asia.

Afghanistan was created as a buffer between India, controlled by Great Britain, and Russia’s newly acquired territory in Central Asia. These artificial boundaries have helped create the problems of forming “one” Afghanistan, as the collection of ethnic groups and tribal relationships prefer to stay local rather than national. These deep tribal grievances and distrust is currently rampant within the Afghan military and government.

Outside influences have always been a problem for Afghanistan, and now that trend is continuing with Russia reaching back to support the Taliban, Iran providing assistance, and of course Pakistan providing the currency of instability for Kabul.

And this is a problem for not only the government in Kabul, but for the Taliban who are trying to complete its original objective—the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic government. The Taliban, with numbers estimated at 25,000, have alienated much of the Afghan population with their unforgiving version of control including the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. These people were the primary supply of Taliban fighters, but the Pashtun population on both sides of the Afghan/Pakistan border have been the most aggrieved by them instead.

Still, the single largest benefactor of the Taliban would be Pakistan. That country has been allowed to operate in direct contradiction to American efforts in Afghanistan, providing safe havens (remember Osama bin-Laden was killed there) and a near-endless supply of soldiers to continue the fight for the Taliban.

Pakistan was threatened into cooperating with America immediately after 9/11, and it is past time for this threat to be made again. With the consequences of continuing such actions clearly laid out to Islamabad, the American involvement in Afghanistan can be one huge step closer to ending.

There’s little doubt Pakistan is a state sponsor of terrorism. Pakistan might only change if this label was applied, and if the U.S and Europe applied strict sanctions that hurt Pakistan hard enough to make a decision about future support of Taliban or terrorism efforts directed against India. As Foreign Policy noted last year, it’s time to stop writing that country blank checks.

How ISIS Figures In Now

Making things a little more complicated for an American withdrawal is the arrival of militants from ISIS, who have set up operations in eastern Afghanistan. Calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) they announced in January 2015 their establishment in Afghanistan. Numbering less than 500, ISIS-K has not made any friends in Afghanistan and suddenly found themselves in direct conflict with the U.S., the Afghan military and even the Taliban who did not approve of the attempt by ISIS to interlope on what they viewed as their fight. The U.S. has continued airstrikes on ISIS-K positions, including dropping a MOAB on a cave complex recently.

An interesting read via Gizmodo


If you vomit, do be considerate and try not to let it land on the moon. [via Metafilter]

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An interesting read via Boing Boing

Planescape: Torment is a marvel of a game. One of the best stories in the medium, it packs a ton of emotional punch. Two moments, with smart design at their core, illustrate why it remains great to this day. We break it down in this critical video.

Transcript:

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I consider Planescape: Torment to be the best game ever made. It’s a deeply personal tale of magic and morality, packed with amazing companions and some of the best writing to be put into games. Planescape is a D&D setting where belief is the most important force. If you believe in something strongly enough, it can happen. Plants grow, NPCs narrate your actions before they happen, and entire planes of existence are forged out of lost regrets and emotions. With the recent release of the Enhanced Edition, I was eager to play through this genuine masterpiece.

In Planescape Torment, you play at the Nameless One, an amnesiac immortal searching for his past. You wake up in a morgue, make friends with a talking skull, and set off on a journey that is much more concerned with the knowledge you gain rather than the enemies you slay. While the majority of the game is dialog, the ways that Planescape Torment rewards the player or wrests control from them at profound and effective. This game says just as much with systems as it does with the countless text boxes. To explore this, I want to look at two of the most powerful moments in the game.

Early in the game, you meet a ghost named Deionarra. She was one of your past incarnation’s companions. Specifically, she was companion to one of your most ruthless selves, the Practical Incarnation. Eager to fight off a dangerous foe, he recruited her and a few others to head on an expedition to a distant plane. Preparing for the possibility of failure, the Practical Incarnation decided that he needed a spy in that realm. Deionarra was his unwitting choice. He seduced her, causing her to fall into a deep and everlasting love. As the final battle came, he profess his love even though he intended to abandon her in the other realm. The true goal was to send her to her death and use her love to keep her soul anchored to this level of existence as a spirit that could serve him eternally.

Later in the game, you can join the Sensates, a faction of hedonists and intellectuals who believe the goal of living is to feel and see all things. They maintain a library of sensory stones that contain vivid memories that you can relive. One of these is the moment that the Practical Incarnation tricked Deionarra into pledging herself to him. The experience is harrowing. You are Deionarra, you are the Practical Incarnation. You are participant and observer, feeling everything the moment it happens while also watching from a distance. It is overwhelming.

Alignment is a major focus for Dungeons and Dragons. It helps establish just exactly what type of character you are. Throughout Torment, you are able to shift between good and evil and neutral based upon actions. Your morality is a wide spectrum and you can pledge allegiance to different gods or laws. Evil takes a very specific depth in Torment. You can engage in basic murder and theft but you can also perform depraved and twisted deeds from feeding your companions to a column of sentient skulls to taking advantage of a magically compelled demon’s unbreakable vow to help you no matter what. And yet, no matter how evil you are, the same thing happens when you relive Deionarra’s memories. You cry.

This decision to force the player character to emotionally break regardless of alignment or past deeds is bold. Torment’s main vector for player expression is dialog choices and moral decisions. It comes from how players apply their knowledge of the world, what they decide is worth supporting, and the lengths they’ll go to achieve their goals. To seize control of their character is not just rhetorically powerful but an important break away from the game’s initial emphasis on player expression. In this case, less is infinitely more. You will cry at your misdeeds, that is how powerful and horrible they were.

Torment also uses experience points and statistics to form a coherent value systems. Certain actions yield more experience. It’s one thing to clear some cranial rats out of the sewers but another thing altogether to spend hours learning about your companion’s religion. Which you might have helped create in a past life. Knowledge and wisdom are incredibly important in Planescape Torment and you often gain more experience for learning a new fact than completing a fetch quest.

In theory, this has a downside. If players know the options that get the best results, won’t they feel compelled to choose those options above all else? This is a problem that plagues more games that use experience points. Likewise, won’t you just build a character with a high Wisdom score, as it gives the most useful options in dialog? To play the game optimally, you have to adhere to a certain character build and values. But without those values, the game couldn’t have our next moment.

This is near the end of the game. You’ve traveled to a distant realm to face a being called the Transcendent One. They are the literal manifestation of the mortality that was ripped from you. Here, you must face three aspects of yourself. You will dealt with the Practical Incarnation, the Good Incarnation, and a chaotic Paranoid Incarnation. Talking with them and convincing them to merge with you grants a ton of experience and knowledge. With that knowledge, you can open a plain bronze sphere that held your memories and learn your real name. This is what happens:

The sphere wrinkles in your hands, the skin of the sphere peeling away into tears and turning into a rain of bronze that encircles you. Each droplet, each fragment that enters you, you feel a new memory stirring, a lost love, a forgotten pain, an ache of loss – and with it, comes the great pressure of regret, regret of careless actions, the regret of suffering, regret of war, regret of death, and you feel your mind begin buckling from the pressure – so MUCH, all at once, so much damage done to others… so much so an entire FORTRESS may be built from such pain. And suddenly, through the torrent of regrets, you feel the first incarnation again. His hand, invisible and weightless, is upon your shoulder, steadying you. He doesn’t speak, but with his touch, you suddenly remember your name. …and it is such a simple thing, not at all what you thought it might be, and you feel yourself suddenly comforted. In knowing your name, your true name, you know that you have gained back perhaps the most important part of yourself. In knowing your name, you know yourself, and you know, now, there is very little you cannot do.

After this, the game grants you two million experience points. It is the single largest experience gain in the game. The sheer scale communicates a lot about what the game thinks is important. It is not just knowledge that matters but self knowledge above all else. Assigning such an extreme experience score turns something as small as your name into the most sought after thing in the entire game.

Planescape: Torment is packed full of amazing moments. A brothel made for satisfying intellectual curiosity, a flashback where you convince someone they don’t exist, a run in with a member of the Alphabet. It is an imaginative and compelling game. These two moments are the best, taking game systems and turning them sideways for dramatic effect. A fitting case study for the greatest game of all time.

An interesting read via Kotaku

I wake up every morning and I ask myself: "Will this be the day that a Japanese telecom builds a drone that works as a floating spherical LED display?" Today, Docomo made my dreams a reality, as spotted by Engadget.

Docomo just announced what it calls the "world’s first spherical drone display," which is basically a drone inside a spherical frame, with curved LED strips that spin rapidly to create the illusion of a spherical screen. The "resolution" is 144 pixels high and 136 pixels around the circumference.


Photo: Docomo

As if this wasn’t excellent enough, Docomo actually wants to turn its spherical drone display into a product in a couple years. I have absolutely no plans to purchase one, but I like the high-concept commitment it shows. The drone display will be shown off at a conference in Japan this weekend.

An interesting read via The Verge – All Posts


Chicago’s Department of Aviation finally replied to the LA Times’s Freedom of Information request for the police report on the public beating Chicago airport cops dealt to Dr David Dao when United Airlines decided to give his confirmed, paid seat to a crewmember and ordered him to vacate it.


The cops’ account of the beating blames Dao, fabricating a series of acts that he allegedly committed that warranted their excessive force, none of which are on the video record.


Chicago airport cops are notoriously dirty — it’s a weigh-station for disgraced ex-cops, including one actual, no-fooling Guantanamo torturer.


Officers at first asked Dao to leave the plane to make room for United crew members. He refused, the report said, and all hell broke loose. One of the officers said he tried to pull the man out of his seat with the assistance of two other officers. “The subject started swinging his arms up and down with a closed fist,” one of the officers said in a report. Another officer grabbed the man, but he “started flailing and fighting,” the report says.


Next, according to the police report, Dao pushed away an officer’s arm. This “caused the subject to fall, hit, and injure his mouth on the armrest on the other side of the aisle.” Another officer corroborated that account.


None of this is visible on the videos that passengers posted online. The videos show some type of skirmish and then an officer dragging the bloody man out of the plane to the backdrop of a passenger screaming about the ordeal. One video shows Dao saying, “No I’m not going. I am not going.” An officer responds, “Well, we’ll have to drag you.”


Police story differs from videos of man dragged from United flight
[David Kravets/Ars Technica]

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An interesting read via Boing Boing