• "…the bullets biodegrade when they hit flesh, leaving nothing behind but a blog post." It is a little sad that, as ever, I'm the millionth person to write "I LOVE VALVE" on the internet, but seriously, as I keep saying: I love Valve so much. (I want my white earbuds).
  • Brilliant.
  • "But then, nobody’s expected to be able to sight-read the Pro guitar tracks. It’s meant for actual students of the guitar. And if you use the game’s slowed-down Practice mode, the game packs the potential to become a real tool for learning to play music." The notion that Harmonix were always a music company, who just happened to make games, becomes ever more true. Proper tab notation, proper strings on the Pro instruments? Well done.
  • "The dwarves hide in the shadows of the trees from the wandering light. The burning tea-light (adult player) moves through the dark forest and tries to find the small dwarves in their hiding places. If a dwarf is touched by the light, it is frozen and not allowed to move anymore. The other dwarves try to release it. To achieve this they must wait until the light has gone far enough so that one of them can join it in the shadow. All the dwarves try to unite under one tree while the candle tries to freeze the dwarves. Who will win, the light or the dwarves?" How the hell did I not know about this? Asymmetric boardgame for adult/children – one player, made of light, hunts down other players, hiding in shadow, shutting their eyes between turns. Magical.
  • "Augmented Shadow, by Joon Moon, 2010. used openframeworks. It's a tabletop interface on where artificial shadows of tangible objects displayed. You can play with the shadows lying on the boundary between the real, virtual, and fantasy." Now stop reading and watch. Beautiful, simple, engaging, playful and storyful all at once.
  • "I suppose the point I was driving to that I let myself get derailed from is that all these trends in western cinema developed over time. It moved in eras of film, from the silent film, to the beginning of the talkies, to the pulp westerns, to their revival with Stagecoach and the classical period of westerns, to the revisionist and spaghetti westerns to the brooding psychological westerns of today. What RDR fails to pick up on is that these are all products not only of the time they were set, but the time they were made." This is a good post on one of my problems with the (generally very good) Red Dead Redemption: rather than trying to be *a* Western, it tries to ape *all* Westerns, and thus is all over the place tonally. Better examples in the full body – worth a read.
  • "Thinking about what defines a particular game medium, one doesn’t always consider elements like the player’s physical posture, and where they sit relative to their fellow players. But the experience of playing a digital game with a friend on the iPad proves quite different than that of sitting side-by-side on a couch with Xbox controllers in hand, or sitting alone with a mic strapped to your head. Your sense of posture and presence is part of the game’s medium, as much as the material of the game’s manufacture. Playing Small World gave me a frisson of novel confusion, marrying the player-interactivity of a board game with the board-interactivity of a computer game. I felt the seam that joined them, but it felt right. This was something new, comfortable, and fun." Jason McIntosh on how tablet gaming is similar to the "cocktail" cabinets of old.
  • Today's Guardian, from Phil, which is brilliant, for all the reasons explained in his post about it.
  • "Although the finished site looks nothing like a newspaper I think it has more in common with newspapers’ best features than most news websites do. The sense of browsing quickly through stories and reading the ones that catch your eye, feels similar." Phil is smart. This is good.
  • A short story by Jon Ingold. When I first read this, in a Cambridge May Anthology, I thought "this chap must write Interactive Fiction". It turns out he does, and writes very good IF. He's also a maths teacher now, I believe – but he also wrote this several years ago, and it's a lovely little short story about all the things you can only do in writing.

Semaphore Networks

07 June 2010

I’ve just finished reading Keith Roberts’ novel Pavane. It describes an alternate history of late twentieth-century England, in a Europe ruled by a proscriptive Catholic church that has cracked down on technology and progress. The petrol engine is all but vetoed; electricity is heresy. Coal power is as advanced as things get.

The book takes the form of a series of linked short stories, described as measures; the rigid, stately dance of the pavane is an important metaphor for the wheels of repression and revolution, and though only directly referenced at one point, hangs over the entire book. It’s a beautifully written piece, especially as a piece of SF; delicate and ethereal in its description of the myth and magic rooted in English history, solid in its telling of a world where backstory has to be uncovered, rather than laid out.

Right now, though, I wanted to share a quotation, both for the vision it describes and the design it fictionalises.

In Roberts’ England of the late twentieth-century, the primary long-distance communication method is sempahore. Towers of various sizes, from giant, 12-man beasts, to little repaters, litter the landscape, and messages are transmitted, encrypted, across the nation. The Guild of Signallers is a powerful group as a result, and semi-autonomous from the church. These messages are not just sent point-to-point, either; they travel the land, bundled up with routing instructions, finding new routes when towers break down.

And, in one marvellous passage, coaxial messaging is explained:

The actual transmitted information, what the Serjeant called the payspeech, occupied only a part of the signalling; a message was often almost swamped by the codings necessary to secure its distribution. The current figures for instance had to reach certain centres, Aquae Sulis among them, by nightfall. How they arrived, their routing on the way, was very much the concern of the branch Signallers through whose stations the cyphers passed. It took years of experience coupled with a certain degree of intuition to route signals in such a way as to avoid lines already congested with information; and of course while a line was in use in one direction, as in the present case with a complex message being moved from east to west, it was very difficult to employ it in reverse. It was in fact possible to pass two messages in different directions at the same time, and it was often done on the A Class towers. When that happened every third cypher of a northbound might be part of another signal moving south; the stations transmitted in bursts, swapping the messages forward and back. But coaxial signalling was detested even by the Guildsmen. The line had to be cleared first, and a suitable code agreed on; two lookouts were employed, chanting their directions alternately to the Signallers, and even in the best-run station total confusion could result from the smallest slip, necessitating reclearing of the route and a fresh start.

I really liked that.

It’s not a representative passage of the book as a whole, though; Roberts isn’t obsessed with the machinery of a low-tech world, but the thought behind his world-building is evident throughout, and I loved (in this case) the construction not only of the mechanics of sempahore towers, and the shape of the network, but also documenting the skills and learning necessary to master it. It felt worth sharing, overlapping so many interests all at once.

  • "This is short film I worked on a while ago called "Avatar Days"… It follows 4 MMORPG players taking about their online persona's. As they tell their stories we see them go about their everyday lives against the mundane backdrop of city life…but as their Avatars." Lovely.
  • "What this magazine requires," he said, "is red-blooded, one-hundred-per-cent dynamic stuff, palpitating with warm human interest and containing a strong, poignant love-motive." "That," we replied, "is us all over, Mabel." "What I need at the moment, however, is a golf story." "By a singular coincidence, ours is a golf story." Lovely short Wodehouse about the coming of Gowf to a far-off land.
  • "Perhaps we should be turning up at the cinema expecting more stories about resilience, or reports from the future where the problems are what to do with limitless energy, or Japanese consciousness multipliers, rather than dustbowls and gasmask hipsters. Authors: is that nihilism really what you want to leave behind? Your silhouette a stoop, rather than a hurrah?" Jim, quite rightly, likes his "shiny retro shit".