So I’ve Finished I Am Setsuna

Well, my wife did. As such I can’t comment to much on how the game feels with controller in-hand. But I do feel I can comment just fine on its systems and story, setting and sound.

First, is it just me that finds it distracting how close the title is to “I am a satsuma“? Just me? Okay.

I Am Setsuna is a New JRPG in the Old Style released in February of 2016 (which is positively recent compared to the rest of the games I usually play). Being “in the Old Style” means no voiced dialog, a fixed overhead camera, lots of numbers that max out at 99 or 255, and a certain aesthetic. The specific target of this love letter is Chrono Trigger from which I Am Setsuna borrows:

  • A silent protagonist
  • No random encounters on a small overworld
  • Monsters roam on the same screen you fight them on
  • Magic elements
  • Some spell and technique names
  • Some musical riffs
  • Some place and character names

Some of these decisions are homage, some pastiche, and some are mistakes.

The silent protagonist was a mistake. I am used to silent protagonists being used to increase immersion by reducing the number of ways the character might react in a way that disagrees with the role the player thought they were playing (the ‘RP’ in JRPG). However, no matter how silent Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman is, he still has to shoot aliens and rescue civillians and whack headcrabs as the story and mechanics require. Through narrative and mechanics the player can still feel a disconnect from their character.

Gordon Freeman gets around it by doing only what the player would do in his place. I, too, would crack headcrabs with a crowbar if they jumped at me. Chrono from Chrono Trigger gets around it the same way. I, too, would save the world and its timelines from an extraterrestrial and existential threat.

I Am Setsuna cold opens (this is funny because the game is set in a worldwide, never-ending Winter) on your character being exposited at during a tutorial objective where you are paid, handsomely. Then a mysterious man (named “Mysterious Man”) asks you to take a morally-reprehensible job: kill an 18-year-old woman named Setsuna.

Not only do you have no means of refusing the task (even to be immediately overruled in a false choice), due to the protagonist being silent you have no idea if you care.

Role-playing is a two-way street. There’s agency where the player imposes their will on the character, and there’s acting where the character shapes the role the player plays.

In Dragon Age: Origins I can chose to kill or spare a chief antagonist. I have agency to chose. However, when provided the choice I need to consider what actions my character has taken (a feedback loop of my past agency) to ensure I play a consistent role. I act accordingly.

I Am Setsuna just ignores it. It turns out, hours and hours later, that this inciting incident isn’t as central as you originally thought it was… but it seems really important at the beginning. They smash-cut from your assassination order straight to a FFVI mode-7-inspired opening sequence over which the credits roll.

There are plenty of things to like in I Am Setsuna. The Momentum battle system where you get power-ups the longer you stand still and let enemies wail on you is a nice risk/reward balance. The solitary piano music is a setting- and thematically-appropriate sparse and cold choice. The characters are fleshed out and have decent relationships. The areas are remarkably varied for all being snow-bound. The subplots along the way do an excellent job of illustrating the central themes of death, sacrifice, and what is evil.

However none of these come without caveats. The risk/reward Momentum system has an inconsistent and fuzzy timing trigger. The piano background fails to sound bombastic and epic when it shouldn’t have even tried. The characters rely heavily on type and cliche. The areas are populated by varieties of just a handful of monster species. The subplots are often just retreads of more interesting stories told more engagingly by others.

It is a pretty, wonderful, flawed game. I look forward to seeing whether they can tighten things up a bit more with their next effort early next year.


The Past is a Foreign Country: The Andromeda Strain

I love the phrase from the opening line of L.P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between”: “The past is a foreign country”

For the author it was a hook for readers, but for me it is an axiom that only becomes more apt the longer I look at it. The past is strange. The people who inhabit it do not have the same culture we do. They don’t speak the same language. They don’t watch the same TV. The care about different things and have different priorities.

And sometimes it takes effort to visit.

I haven’t read “The Go-Between” but something I have recently read that struck me with how foreign it felt was Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel “The Andromeda Strain.”

The setting is the United States in the late 60s or early 70s. As such I was expecting a recognizable landscape. This led to several surprises.

First was how plausible American Exceptionalism seemed. The US was the leader of scientific thought in the late 60s. They had just reached the moon. They were outspending other nations in defense, but also at the same time scientific research and thoughtful contingency planning. It was plausible for Crichton to write that the US would invest $22M ($136M today) on a project with no direct applications to existing endeavours, but whose returns they expected to see in other related fields of inquiry and enterprise. That level of largesse coupled with the inevitability of knock-on benefits even if the program failed could only exist in a country that believed in its own ingenuity. It was stunning.

Second was how a portion of the scientific community planned for crisis. They sent a letter to the President with both allusions to the Einstein letter and containing highly technical terminology, expecting both of those things to be understood by the recipient. Two out of the past three administrations wouldn’t understand the letter. The other wouldn’t have reacted with haste, or with such extravagant funding, or at all, to the threat as described. Underlining the strangeness was how the fictional scientists were satisfied with government response to a theorized crisis. I can no longer imagine a US government response that the scientific community would applaud as satisfactory.

Third was the overt sexism. There were no women in the novel. Sure, they had a “girl” operating the switchboard and another “girl” running lab results and still others sprinkled about… but no women. Only two were permitted names, and one of those was a recording.

Fourth was the unfiltered promotion in the cover. The cover blazed that the book was able to rivet you to your seat to equal or greater measure than the televised walk on the moon. Given how exalted that moment has now become, given how small and commonplace scientific discoveries are now treated… it is both astonishing in the temerity of the copywriter’s claim, and in the fact that a comparison to a scientific achievement is being used in advertising at all.

There were dozens of smaller hitches: anything to do with computers or automation was a little too “gee whiz” and now seems quaint, the excessive page area devoted to ASCII art, the cover design… But I’ve read early Michael Crichton before, so these things I expected to a certain degree. Even the books in the back listed for mail order at prices between 95c and $1.25 (plus 10c postage) only stuck in my mind long enough to pull up an inflation calculator and realize that, actually, those are sensible book prices (though postage costs quite a bit more now).

All of these together (placed into an engaging, if flawed, narrative) emphasize the importance of experiencing old media. By seeing the differences and imagining and inferring how they made sense at the time we can broaden our own understanding of our own time and how naive, quaint, biased, or flawed we might appear in the future

With or without a metaphor, travel to a foreign country is illuminating. I recommend it to all who have the time and capability.

So I’ve Finished The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

Yes, it’s ten years old. Honestly, though, you can play just about any Zelda game between Ocarina of Time and Skyward Sword in any order and not tell the difference, given the stagnation in Zelda game design during that period.

(Yeah, it’s not gonna be a happy review)

Phantom Hourglass is a Nintendo DS release and, as such, felt it needed to use every terrible gimmick the Nintendo DS had rather than provide interesting gameplay.

From controlling everything with the woefully inaccurate and cumbersome stylus to yelling, blowing, or snapping my fingers into the microphone… a lot of this game was a tech demo for the hardware first, and a satisfying experience second.

I cannot believe that they managed to get this control scheme past an ergonomics review. My hand hurt from balancing the entire device in one hand while the other was clenched around the minuscule stylus. Smaller (younger) hands might have helped with the stylus, but then the weight would’ve been felt worse.

I felt no surprise that they ditched stylus controls after only two DS Zelda games.

On the plus side, there was some cleverness on display. One design element that stood out as being fun was having to stamp an upside-down map displayed on the top screen onto its right-side-up counterpart on the bottom screen. To do this you had to close and reopen the DS, which I thought was a cute bit of 4th-wall breaking.

Another smart mechanic was the use of the stylus to annotate maps with puzzle solution, trap locations, and other stuff. There were only a few different types of information the game tried to convey (order, shape, counts, and intersecting lines), but the freedom afforded by the mechanic was lovely, and something everyone should steal (like the “dream sequence as a music video” bit from FFXV).

So many open world games with so many maps and no way to scribble “Here be dragons”? What rot.

Zelda combat has never been particularly innovative or fun, but with gesture recognition needed before Link would swing his sword it felt worse than usual. It was clumsy, awkward, and not something I felt I could count on.

There was a fairy avatar to tell the player what the ever-silent protagonist was thinking (rather defeating the purpose), and to irritate you with constant interruption. All the criticisms of Navi still apply.

The dungeons were straightforward, concerned more with having me go through the motions than presenting me with meaningful choices, challenges, or character/story moments. I’ll refer you to Mark Brown if you’d like a more analytical deep dive on the subject.

Exploration was rarely rewarded with anything of value. (You got 100 rupees! I’ll add them to the 800 others I can’t find anything to spend on).

At least the director of the cut scenes understood how to have fun. Playing with the characters, having fun with visual jokes in the background, subverting Zelda tropes by cutting short or modulating the “I’ve found a thing!” music… possibly the best aspect of this game, purely from whimsy.

And that’s really as far as I feel I need to write into this game. I could go on for ages about how awful the controls were every time they were used in variation. I could complain that time limits didn’t tonally fit the world or dungeon and seem like cheap tension. I could whine about how long everything by ship took, and how fiddly the salvage controls were.

But, honestly, I’ve given this game more words than it probably deserves. It’s a post-Link to the Past pre-Breath of the Wild Zelda game. I probably could’ve just stopped there.



So I’ve Finished Final Fantasy XV

(Spoilers may lie within for a game that’s a year old.)

For a game that obviously had a lot of time (10 years!), effort, and money dumped into it… it feels unfortunately uneven.

The story, though standard Final Fantasy fare, is told poorly enough that characters react emotionally to situations that haven’t been earned, the player is forced to have her character make decisions without knowledge that her character has, and injects a person from the tie-in movie in a prominent part of the endgame without having ever, in the plot or the story, meeting the player character.

I like a good mystery. I like plots that surface only about a tenth of a world’s lore. I’m happy to think about questions posed by the narrative, and intrigued by the choices made by writers and directors about what pieces to include and which to omit.

This isn’t that. I mean it is, in places. I don’t need and didn’t receive a cutscene and backing barks about how Ifrit was the one who wrought the Starscourge. That’s a fine piece of information to put in an in-game codex or tie-in novel or whatever.

At the very least you must give the player time with secondary characters before fridging them if you want an emotional response. I didn’t know who Jared was before you killed him. The only reason I knew he was important was because the main characters became mopey-faced when they heard of his off-screen demise. And for the relationship in the game’s own logo I only have the characters’ words to go by to determine how much Noctis and Luna loved each other despite never being in the same place for ten years. But boy howdy was her death rendered beautifully and with excellent scoring.

If it were just the story that was uneven, I’d still be upset. But this unevenness extends throughout the title.

Barks during the fishing minigame are timed to the wrong events; only half of the casual conversations have lip-syncing; you can only have one “Kill <some monster(s)> and get <some reward(s)>” quest active at once; the control schemes for Chocobo riding, car driving, and walking all have different buttons for jump; the map doesn’t zoom in far enough to discriminate icons in town; the fog of war on dungeon maps only shows on the full map not the minimap…

I work in software. I know how bugs creep into release. But the only reason I can think of to explain three different jump buttons and unmarkable maps with different sort orders on quest lists is that Squenix ignores their interaction designers.

Story and mechanics aren’t the whole of it either: Final Fantasy XV’s representation of healthy male relationships is above anything I can remember from any Final Fantasy title. They even cry together, our roadtrip boys… if you wait midway through the credits for it. Yet relationships with women are tropish, boring, and underwritten. Despite the backlash Square Enix received after Episode Duscae (the first of the playable demos) they declined to design Cindy some mechanics coveralls or exclude superfluous car washing scenes. Iris is a schoolgirl stereotype the game cannot decide whether I’m attracted to, embarrassed by, or protective of. Luna is a damsel no matter how much we’re told her actions drive the plot. Aranea is a spinny death machine that battles in heels and bared midriff (though she almost has a character arc)…

You might think in reading this that I didn’t have fun playing FFXV and didn’t enjoy the game. I did, really… It’s beautiful, the four main characters have acceptable chemistry, story actions have story consequences, the battle system is fast and reasonably fun, the minigames are diverting, they finally learned how to communicate enemy scale, and did I mention it’s beautiful?

But when Dragon Age: Inquisition can, two years and one console generation earlier, “Open World” better that a mainline Final Fantasy… I just wonder what went wrong.

Data Science is Hard: Units

I like units. Units are fun. When playing with Firefox Telemetry you can get easy units like “number of bookmarks per user” and long units like “main and content but not content-shutdown crashes per thousand usage hours“.

Some units are just transformations of other units. For instance, if you invert the crash rate units (crashes per usage hours) you get something like Mean Time To Failure where you can see how many usage hours there are between crashes. In the real world of Canada I find myself making distance transformations between miles and kilometres and temperature transformations between Fahrenheit and Celsius.

My younger brother is a medical resident in Canada and is slowly working his way through the details of what it would mean to practice medicine in Canada or the US. One thing that came up in conversation was the unit differences.

I thought he meant things like millilitres being replaced with fluid ounces or some other vaguely insensible nonsense (I am in favour of the metric system, generally). But no. It’s much worse.

It turns out that various lab results have to be communicated in terms of proportion. How much cholesterol per unit of blood? How much calcium? How much sugar, insulin, salt?

I was surprised when my brother told me that in the United States this is communicated in grams. If you took all of the {cholesterol, calcium, sugar, insulin, salt} out of the blood and weighed it on a (metric!) scale, how much is there?

In Canada, this is communicated in moles. Not the furry animal, but the actual count of molecules. If you took all of the substance out of the blood and counted the molecules, how many are there?

So when you are trained in one system to recognize “good” (typical) values and “bad” (atypical) values, when you shift to the other system you need to learn new values.

No problem, right? Like how you need to multiply by 1.6 to get kilometres out of miles?

No. Since grams vs moles is a difference between “much” and “many” you need to apply a different conversion depending on the molecular weight of the substance you are measuring.

So, yes, there is a multiple you can use for cholesterol. And another for calcium. And another for sugar, yet another for insulin, and still another for salt. It isn’t just one conversion, it’s one conversion per substance.

Suddenly “crashes per thousand usage hours” seems reasonable and sane.


Self-Driving Cars: Inside the cabin

The above talk was given at SXSW this year. It’s an excellent talk, but I understand if you don’t want to watch the whole thing.

I especially love how he totally doesn’t mention that the “driving on the freeway” concept is exactly how Tesla’s AutoDrive currently works.

The bit that really caught my attention was at 17:09 where Chris Urmson shows a rendering of what a self-driving car’s interior could look like. No steering wheel, a small display… more like a small living room if the chairs or chesterfield had seatbelts.

A rendering of what the interior of a self-driving car might look like. Instead of a steering column and control surfaces there is a luggage shelf and a small display.

Something in my brain was instantly repulsed by this. Not the design, which is fine. Not the lack of leg room, though my lower back tightened up slightly. Not the complete lack of heating vents, which would make it useless in Canada.

Eventually I realized it was, incongruously, the absence of a steering wheel that caused me to go “Nope.”

But this is a self-driving car! The whole point is that there is no steering wheel! Don’t you get that?

Well, yes, I do. Which is why it took me so long to figure out what was bothering me about the render. I was, and still am, convinced that the lack of a steering wheel and other control surfaces is a benefit, not a detriment. But there are some use-cases I think a lack of a steering wheel will significantly hamper.

Self-driving cars are excellent if the car knows where you are and you can tell the car where you are going. “OK Google Car, take me to work” “OK Google Car, let’s *sigh* go to the in-laws”

But what if you don’t? “OK Google Car, take us someplace nice for dinner”

It can take you to the closest Google+ listing for a restaurant. It can find the most efficient route to take you to a Michelin Star-rated eatery in a neighbouring metropolis. But you can’t browse. You can’t see the line from the street and change your mind and say “Actually, where else could we go?”

But maybe this isn’t a common enough use-case to care about. Maybe having to choose from amongst the available options before you put the car in motion is a good thing.

“OK Google Car, take me to my coworker’s BBQ” << Where is that? >> “According to the invitation, head to the Red Barn past the crossroads, take a left, then keep going until you see the balloons or a sign saying Kalamazoo”

Or: << Arriving at destination >> “OK Google Car, make sure not to park next to the begonias or my mother’ll kill me”

Or: << Arriving at destination >> “Aw nuts the parking lot’s full. Guess we have to park in the field. Watch out for the furrows or we’ll never get out.”

Is it enough to create a car that can only do most of what other cars can do? There is already an understanding of how that works in the snowier parts of the world: there are some cars that can drive before the snowplow gets to your street, and there are other cars that cannot. But will this sort of restriction, like range anxiety for electric cars, slow adoption of this crucial piece of transportation infrastructure?

I think it is necessary that people who cannot drive still be able to get where they need to go. I think it is necessary to eliminate traffic fatalities as an understood fact of life.

I think it is necessary that the Google Self-Driving Car team think some more about how the car interacts with its occupants at the same time they’re thinking about how the car interacts with its adjacent road users.


Mozilla, Firefox, and Windows XP Support

Used with permission from Microsoft.

Last time I focused on what the Firefox Windows XP user population appeared to be. This time, I’m going to look into what such a large population means to Firefox and Mozilla.

Windows XP users of Firefox are geographically and linguistically diverse, and make up more than one tenth of the entire Firefox user population. Which is great, right? A large, diverse population of users… other open source projects only wish they had the luck.

Except Windows XP is past its end-of-life. Nearly two years past. This means it hasn’t been updated, maintained, serviced, or secured in longer than it takes Mars to make it around the Sun.

The Internet can be a scary place. There are people who want to steal your banking passwords, post your private pictures online, or otherwise crack open your computer and take and do what they want with what’s inside of it.

Generally, this is an arms race. Every time someone discovers a software vulnerability, software vendors rush to fix it before the Bad Guys can use it to exploit people’s computers.

The reason we feel safe enough to continue our modern life using computers for our banking, shopping, and communicating is because software vendors are typically better at this than the Bad Guys.

But what if you’re using Windows XP? Microsoft, the only software vendor who is permitted to fix vulnerabilities in Windows XP, has stopped fixing them.

This means each Windows XP vulnerability that is found remains exploitable. Forever.

These are just a few vulnerabilities that we know about.

And Windows XP isn’t just bad for Windows XP users.

There are a variety of crimes that can be committed only using large networks of “robot” machines (called “botnets“) under the control of a single Bad Guy. Machines can be recruited into botnets against their users’ will through security vulnerabilities in the software they are running. Windows XP’s popularity and lengthening list of known vulnerabilities might make it an excellent source of recruits.

With enough members, a botnet can then send spam emails in sufficient volume to overload mail servers, attack financial institutions, steal information from governmental agencies, and otherwise make the Internet a less nice place to be.

So Firefox has a large, diverse population of users whose very presence connected to the Internet is damaging the Web for us all.

And so does Google! At least for now. Google has announced that it will end Windows XP support for its Chrome browser in April 2016. (It previously announced end-of-life dates for April 2015, and then December 2015.)

So, as of April, Windows XP users will have only one choice for updated, serviced, maintained, and secured web browsing: Firefox.

Which puts Mozilla in a bit of a bind. The Internet is a global, public resource that Mozilla is committed to defend and improve.

Does improving the Internet mean dropping support for Windows XP so that users have no choice but to upgrade to be able to browse safely?

Or does improving the Internet mean continuing to support Windows XP so that those can at least still have a safe browser to access the Web?

Windows XP users might not have a choice in what Operating System their computers run. They might only be using it because they don’t know of an alternative or because they can’t afford to, aren’t allowed to, or are afraid to change.

Firefox is their best hope for security on the Web. And, after April, their only hope.

As of this writing, Firefox supports versions of Windows from XP SP2 on upwards. And this is likely to continue: the latest public discussion about Windows XP support was from last December, reacting to the latest of Google’s Windows XP support blog posts.

I can reiterate confidently: Firefox will continue to support Windows XP.

For now.

Mozilla will have to find a way to reconcile this with its mission. And Firefox will have to help.

Maybe Mozillians from around the world can seek out Windows XP users and put them in contact with local operations that can donate hardware or software or even just their time to help these users connect to the Internet safely and securely.

Maybe Firefox will start testing nastygrams to pop up at our Windows XP user base when they start their next browsing session: “Did you know that your operating system is older than many Mozillians?”, “It appears as though you are accessing the Internet using a close relative of the abacus”, “We have determined that this is the email address of your closest Linux User Group who can help you secure your computer”

…and you. Yeah, you. Do you know someone who might be running Windows XP? Maybe it’s your brother, or your Mother, or your Babbi. If you see a computer with a button that says “Start” at the bottom-left corner of the screen: you can fix that. There are resources in your community that can help.

Talk to your librarian, talk to the High School computer teacher, talk to a Mozillian! We’re friendly!

Together, we can save the Web.