Firewatch lowers the narrative bar for games and that is fine

I was really anticipating Firewatch and I was sorely disappointed as was of course bound to happen.

This bit I liked:

The best part about the game

A video posted by Alper Cugun (@alper) on

The art and environment are the stars of the game. The attention to detail and craft that went into creating the world and nature you are walking through are breathtaking. It’s a nice touch that you get to take pictures and keep pictures.

What’s problematic about the game is that even people who don’t like it as a game think that the writing is really good. This is just not the case. The setup is embarrassingly bad, juvenile, and sexist. The cliched story of cheap self-pity and codependence made us want to quit the game then and there. As many people have remarked, the dialogue between the two characters is good and manages to entertain at times and move things forward despite the poor setup. The actual plot and reveal on which the game hinges is awful and inconsequential. The other characters and what happens with them do nothing more than distract from the core of the game: the natural environment & talking with Delilah.

I get that gamers don’t read literature and have historically low expectations when it comes to story. But when so many people think that the writing in Firewatch is good, it lowers the bar for all games. That is something that has been happening for a long time already and it has led us right here.

Lots of people are happy with Firewatch however poor and unsatisfying its story is. But maybe there could also be works with good writing? And maybe those should not be called games with all the expectations and limitations that come with the term?

New beginnings

At the end of 2015 personal and professional changes made it clear to us that we would not continue Hubbub in its current form. That realization made me reorient myself in Berlin and refocus on my core skills as an engineer.

I set myself the goal to work on a significant product as part of a larger team. I thought it would be useful to change up my professional life which thusfar had consisted only of freelance and client work. A long story short, as of this week I’m employed as a software engineer at ResearchGate.

The year in culture

I have a personal log of culture consumed going back to 2003. This year was a particular low on many counts. I have been busy and I don’t ascribe the same value to consuming culture pure for the goal of consuming it anymore. Been there, done that.

I’ve read eleven books (see my Goodreads) which is more than I had expected but nothing compared compared to the bookwormy prowess of people like Hans or Kars.

  • The Peripheral by William Gibson
  • Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design by Ernest Adams & Joris Dormans
  • Play Matters by Miguel Sicart
  • Surface Detail by Ian M. Banks
  • The Hydrogen Sonata by Ian M. Banks
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-nehisi Coates
  • Der Tod des Iwan Iljitsch by Leo Tolstoy
  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Certain to Win by Chet Richards
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Bold is recommended. It looks like this year I especially enjoyed non-fiction maybe because my fiction was limited to fairly mediocre genre stuff. I’m resolving that reading should not be painful (Russians were a good attempt, but too boring) and that it should also not be trivial (so no more genre fiction crap for me).

In movies I fared slightly better but did not manage to hit the one movie per week baseline with a meagre 23 of which only two in the cinema. I’m playing catchup now over the christmas break with eleven these views happening in December.

All are in my Letterboxed diary but since sites disappear I’m archiving them here as well. I am immensely pleased with almost all of the movies I have seen except for the two marked as shit.

  • Caché
  • The Imitation Game
  • Oldboy
  • Moonrise Kingdom
  • The Raid 2: Berandal
  • Sonnenallee
  • Citizenfour
  • Before Midnight
  • Straigth outta Compton
  • Grizzly Man
  • The Fantastic Four 💩
  • Frances Ha
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Gravity
  • Pacific Rim
  • Elysium
  • Frozen
  • The Princess Bride
  • Slow West
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron 💩
  • Snowpiercer
  • Inherent Vice
  • Dekalog, trzy

I managed to avoid going to theater plays and went to one opera “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” in the Komische Oper which was delightful.

I guess I can in part explain this shift by my consumption of games. Even without owning a console there is more than enough stuff to play. Here are nineteen games I played for the first time in 2015. Some of them were played only once and some of them were played for dozens of hours.

  • Borderlands 2
  • Nuclear Throne
  • Panamax
  • The Westport Independent
  • King of New York
  • Bang!
  • Cobra Club
  • Fallout Shelter
  • Her Story
  • A Dark Room
  • Sage Solitaire
  • Let’s make Chaofan
  • Panoramical
  • Mouse Guard: Swords & Strongholds
  • Downwell
  • Fightin Words
  • Counter Strike: Global Offensive
  • Galaxy Trucker
  • Sunless Sea
  • Codenames

A not so secret Hitler

Rob Dubbin at the Awl has written a comprehensive account of what is wrong with Secret Hitler. I agree with his critique but I want to highlight one issue in particular.

I tried ignoring Secret Hitler but their design notes kept making their way into my twitter. I skimmed through them and found them to be well put together. The last one about illustration and graphic design however convinced me that the game goes well beyond just bad taste.

The problem is that the identity cards for fascist players in the game (shown below) display them als lizards where the liberal identities are shown as human. Fascists are inhuman, get it?

fascists

This is simplistic and immoral. If it’s not obvious why, here are three reasons:

  1. Depicting certain groups of people like vile animals is a way of objectifying them and an excuse to exterminate them. One of the lessons of history is that we don’t produce this kind of propaganda.
  2. Depicting the fascists as animals is not a reversal that makes it all right. The fascist of my fascist is still a fascist.
  3. Depicting fascists as intrinsically different from other people and easily recognizable as such is a deeply wrong and misleading fantasy.

This way of thinking is part of an ongoing trivialization of fascism and spreading it is harmful.

As Rob Dubbin says in his piece:

There should be a high bar for invoking this person, and there should be such a thing as falling well short of it.

The people making Secret Hitler are obviously intelligent, skilled and have vast resources at their disposal. I can only guess why they would make a game about this topic and then do it so poorly.

Deutschland ’83

I was tremendously hyped for Deutschland ’83 after hearing about it and watching the first episode. Now that it is finally airing in Germany it turns out that it is not doing that well. Viewership started out low and has been declining over the first four episodes.

IMG_0181

People are attributing this to the fact that the average RTL viewer is stupid and only used to watch plain episodic series. That may well be true, but the decline of the series’s ratings closely mirror the decline of my appetite for the show itself. By episode four Deutschland ’83 is a slog and the only thing that got me to the finish line was an empty Sunday and stamina.

The plot devolves and loses whatever internal logic and coherence it had. The characters which are enigmatic to begin with become increasingly hard to empathize with and start doing random things. Worst of all, Deutschland ’83 tries to put a neutral spin on one of the most polarized conflicts of the last century which of course fails.

The one message that does come through is that everybody on the East side was evil and psychopathic and that the people on the West side were basically decent chaps. This is a laughable depiction of the world as it was back then (or as parts of the world still are). The violence and surveillance enacted by the Soviet bloc is hardly different from the stuff the Americans did and still do around the world. The only reason we get to ridicule the East Germans in the series is because they lost.

OSM Live Edit Screensaver

I’ve been running a live open streetmap edits view as a screen saver for a couple of years now and it never fails to draw the attention from people in the room (whether they know what OSM is or not). The OSM visualization is pretty cool and really comes to life when it is displayed full screen. It is also a great way to see a part of the world you might not have known existed. I used to browse atlases when I was a kid, so this is me indulging in virtual travel again.

Will attended me to the fact that I shot a video of it but I never wrote up the super basic process behind it, so here goes.

What it looks like:

This must have been the tweet by Thomas that started it all in early 2013.

After I read that I fiddled around a bit with making my own screensaver in XCode. That seems simple enough but building stuff on OS X is a bit of a pain if you’re used to iOS and definitely not something you’ll be able to finish in an hour or so. It turns out that there is a far far easier way.

  1. Install the webviewscreensaver. Thanks to Alastair Tse.
  2. Plugin the URL to the live OSM view into the screensaver. This one: http://osmlab.github.io/show-me-the-way/
  3. Enjoy.

Mann/Frau

The idea that German television is necessarily terrible has to be reconsidered. I’ve recently started watching Deutschland ’83 which is amazing (more on that later) and yesterday I finished season two of the web series Mann/Frau by BR PULS.

Mann/Frau is a mirror format byte-sized episodic where each installment details the interactions of a man and a woman their relations and lives. It treats most of the themes occupying people around my age living in Berlin but manages to do so drawing more from slapstick than from cliché.

The series is helped enormously by the fact that each episode concludes somewhere under five minutes. Brevity unfortunately is a rare commodity in Germany. The benefits of it here are that it forces them to get to the point quickly, cut rapidly and finish. Episodes of this length also greatly facilitate binge watching. I had never considered you could make a traditional format series with episodes this short, but it works fine.

Halfway through I did develop an intense distaste for the man (Mirko Lang) and the man episodes. This isn’t just because the man character is a huge doofus, but also because it turns out that the man and woman episodes are written and directed by a brother and sister respectively. The woman episodes are more punchy, contain less whining and more action.

In this interview with the brother and sister directors the problem becomes painfully obvious. During the entire interview the brother does most of the talking but doesn’t say anything of substance.

I will keep watching when the next season comes out but I might just fast forward through most of the man’s episodes.

These series may have a catalytic effect on the German television landscape. By their very existence they educate the tastes of an audience that might not have known or expected something like this to be possible. And actually creating something good in turn makes it so that other tv makers can’t hide behind the excuse that the whole landscape is mediocre. Who knows what more may be possible.

Actually it’s about ethics in software engineering

This is an expanded transcription of a tweetstorm (based partially on conversations with Peter) that starts at this Tweet about the Volkswagen emissions scandal but actually as we go along it will be clear that it is about ethics in software engineering. First the news that started it all.

Volkswagen’s US head Michael Horn blamed his engineers during a testimony about the emissions scandal.

Does anybody believe a German multinational is agile enough for a couple of engineers to be able to ship a feature without oversight? Because on the one side as people have commented if this were true that would leave huge questions open when it comes to their quality control and delivery process. On the other side if true it would be a refreshing level of agility in a German corporation. A car maker that uses the tagline ‘move fast and break things’ would certainly be a novelty.

I would be curious to see what the codebase of a modern car looks like but thanks to the DMCA that will probably never happen. Unless maybe if somebody dumps the VW code during the CCC this year?

This isn’t about car manufacturing or recruiting engineers, this is actually about ethics in software engineering. How this will affect VW’s chances of hiring the best engineers (“Volkswagen, and how not to describe your employees”) is one issue. They couldn’t hire the best anyway but they will likely always be able to hire a fair level of talent. To write good code, having a clear vision and a stable process are more important than having a mythical 10x engineer on your team. The questions now are why this took so long to be discovered and what the consequences are for the various parties involved.

I will focus on the software engineers because I am one and because I think they will be underrepresented.

Programmers could get away not caring about ethics when it involved being callous with user data or new ways to serve banner ads. The proliferation of really weird privacy-invading ad tech used to be considered a perfectly acceptable way for engineers to spend their time. Even the leak of sensitive user data like in the Ashley Madison hack was more or less business as usual among digital companies. Software companies being liable for their errors and engineers engaging in ethical behaviour were considered optional.

Not anymore. You probably wish you hadn’t snoozed through that ethics class in university. Not that that would have helped that much. Unlike many others, in university we got courses in both ethics and in the history of science and technology. Courses which at the time were much maligned by my fellow students for their lack of practical application. They were right that that course wouldn’t have helped you much by itself, but some basic level of understanding on this subject is nice to have.

Besides continuing to teach ethics, schools should teach engineers about rights and liability. Those courses in ethics could be supplemented by a practical course about your rights and liabilities when you are working at somebody else’s company or at your own. It used to be that either nobody cared about this stuff or that the company would bear the consequences. Both of those notions seem fairly shaky right now.

What do you do when your boss tells you to implement a feature, or very very strongly encourages you to reach a certain outcome? What VW seems to be arguing is that nobody gave the order to build this specific feature but it arose from a rogue group of people. That seems just as unlikely as the case where this was mandated but VW management maintained the operational security required to keep it a secret. The investigation almost certainly will reveal that an order was given and who gave it.

In an ideal company a manager of course will not tell their people how to do their work. Your boss should give you an ‘Auftrag’ (assignment) to reach certain strategic goals and leave it to you to determine the best way of getting there. They will trust that you will operate to the best of your ‘Fingerspitzengefühl’ (working knowledge) within the framework that is the norm in the ‘Einheit’ (unity) that is the company. This all borrowed liberally from Chet Richards’s excellent Certain to Win.

Even if an order was not given this points to an atmosphere in which exerting huge pressure is normal and where people consider it standard operating practice to cut corners maybe even without informing their superiors.

What recourse does a software engineer have in that situation? The current policy situation and broader environment suggest they have almost none.

Who’s responsible when that feature threatens the planet, evaporates shareholder value and leads to criminal investigations? Now that software is a determinant in one of the biggest industries in the world, bad actions have large consequences. Selling millions of faulty cars and exposing many millions more to pollution finally gives us a software malfunction that everybody can relate to.

This isn’t just the case for VW since other car companies are also implicated in fraud during emissions testing. It isn’t even exclusive for car makers since the sequence of events leading up to the financial crash were nothing but a large number of model/software malfunctions.

In the case of the financial crash nobody got punished. The American enthusiasm to extract punitive damages from VW may be attributed to the fact that the U.S.A. finally is a relevant player in (clean) car technology again.

Because these are the biggest industries in the world with immense resources and influence, normal or just rules of responsibility don’t really apply.

We need to answer these questions ourselves because if you ask the higher-ups it is clear who’ll get thrown under the VW bus. Software engineers can refuse to do work that they find ethically objectionable and find another job easily (the Snowden option). That is a luxurious position but it still remains to be seen how many actually do this.

What will likely happen is that the legal investigation will take forever and in the end some convenient people will take the fall. I think it’s unlikely that that will create a just outcome or improve the overall situation.

The criteria to which these emissions tests were held were already watered down thanks to the lobbyists of various car companies who also set the tests so that it would be easy to cheat on them. The tests may be fixed a little bit ostentatiously because they are the most visible point of failure.

The actual problem will go unfixed. We can’t independently verify the code that runs in cars now thanks to our broken copyright legislation. When cars become self-driving and dependent on remote services this will become infinitely harder. We are not be able to check software running in our devices to see whether it does what it promises to. That is the real problem and one I don’t think that is going to be fixed anytime soon.

Update: So today the word got out that some 30 managers at VW were involved in this. It looks like Michael Horn’s statement about the rogue engineers was not true.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann

I went to “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” yesterday in one of Berlin’s three operas thanks to this piece in the Guardian. Yes, I have to rely on a British paper for reliable cultural advice about Berlin.

The Komische Oper is a ten minute bike ride from my house and you can get a discounted ticket with some mild visual obstruction for €18. This makes it a fairly ideal way to spend a Sunday in Berlin which otherwise can be fairly quiet (stores aren’t open, most places close at five or six).

I’m not an expert on opera but I enjoyed the staging and the performances a lot. The Komische Oper’s productions can look a bit kitschy but this was all fairly in line. I can’t share anything from the play thanks to an extremely stringent copyright policy, so below is a recording of one of the major songs by the Met.

After having severed my relation with theater, opera is something that is still fun and interesting to me. What is especially interesting about opera is that despite it fielding some of the biggest budget stage productions we have, it allows a lot of space for weird things. That is not just the case for this opéra fantastique but reading the plot of any opera will leave you amazed at how cheesy it is.

The fact that opera is so open to even the dumbest of stories and at the same times is a spectacular confluence of the multimedia arts would indicate that it has a grand future. Unfortunately the average age of the attendees indicates that that is not the case yet.

Trying out the McB.

I finally got the chance of trying out the McB, McDonald’s new ecological burger tonight after a visit to the opera.

Trying out the McB, the McDonald's bio burger

First I think it’s great that McDonald’s is doing this. It would be nice if they switched all their meat to what is at least a nominally biologically produced variety. I’ve seen people hating on it but large food producers having to shift over is a sign of victory. Read this Fortune article about the war on Big Food.

Second I don’t think McDonald’s understands why it is that people eat organical food. I and many others eat it because it tastes better than the other stuff. There are other reasons to eat organically but if those were the only ones then it would be nowhere near as popular as it is now. The problem with the McB is that it’s just as bad a hamburger as you are used to eating from McDonald’s but now with a bio patty.

This makes it a great burger for the staunch McDonald’s customer who was thinking of switching away because they started worrying about meat quality. For Berlin’s actual burger lovers this is irrelevant and you should just keep going to Tommi.