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Monthly

I rarely watch movies. I didn’t see The Wizard of Oz or The Sound of Music until college, I’ve had three dental checkups since my last trip to the theater, and not only have I missed the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve only seen two superhero movies of any kind in the past decade.

In 2017 I saw just four movies all year, which was low even for me. So I made a New Year’s resolution in 2018: watch at least one movie per month.

I expected this would be a fun supplement to a bunch of “real” resolutions around hobbies and exercise and personal growth, but it turned out to be the most difficult one to keep. I did manage it, but only barely; I watched exactly twelve movies in 2018, and every one was with days to spare before the end of the month. Often, there were only hours to spare.

I was conflicted about this. I liked watching more movies, but something about the resolution framing gave it an unpleasant whiff of obligation, and so I’d procrastinate—even though I was putting off something fun.

When I relaunched this website, I set a similar goal to write at least one post per month. And as you can see from the archive page, I’ve fallen into the same trap: I have exactly one post per month since October of last year, most of which were published on the last day of the month. (And naturally, when there are fewer posts, each one feels like it needs to be weightier to justify the gap.)

Habits are weird.

Saint Lucia

Here are a few favorite photos from a recent trip to Saint Lucia (click for larger versions):

Beach

Tower

Cove

Sunset

Peton

Dock

Eastshade

Earlier this month I played Eastshade, which is my favorite game so far this year.

In most respects Eastshade resembles an open-world RPG, particularly the Elder Scrolls games. Its aesthetic evokes something between Morrowind and Oblivion. You wander the wilderness gathering plants to use as crafting materials. You can find books scattered around towns and read them for little dribbles of lore. NPC conversations begin with that characteristic zoom into the interlocutor’s face. Everyone is an anthropomorphized animal, in the style of the Elder Scrolls’ feline Khajiit. There is fishing.

Where Eastshade differs from traditional open-world games is that there is no combat whatsoever. The developers describe it as “a peaceful open-world exploration-adventure,” which is exactly as it sounds.

You play as a traveling painter visiting the island of Eastshade on your late mother’s recommendation. As is typical in video games, your particular skill happens to be in high demand: instead of requesting mercenaries to dispatch bandits, the people of Eastshade request paintings—perhaps of a sandy beach, or an owl, or a cave they once saw in a dream. You explore the island to find the places they’re talking about, press a button to pop out a painting, and then deliver the art. Meanwhile, you have your own agenda; the “main quest” is to paint four places your mother once loved as a memorial.

(One fun detail: in addition to a canvas, you need a resource called “inspiration” in order to paint. You can gain inspiration by discovering new places and reading new books, as well as a couple other ways that I’m loath to describe because they feel like spoilers.)

Sometimes game-like obstacles get in the way of your painting—you may have to scavenge for materials to create new tools, for instance, or complete a fetch quest to gain access to a new area. The most striking part about these obstacles is how familiar they are. When you open the crafting menu and realize you haven’t yet collected enough White Bloomsac to create the Raft, you are having one of the universal video game experiences.

All this is to say that the moment-to-moment gameplay of Eastshade is actually not so different from other open-world games. That sounds like a criticism, but I don’t mean it to be; I actually find it encouraging that eschewing combat doesn’t dilute the experience at all. My hope is that more triple-A designers will play games like this and realize that nonviolence doesn’t have to be some weird indie gimmick; their big-budget open-world games can hold together just fine even if they never give anyone a sword or a gun.

To that end, there’s a way in which Eastshade feels like it’s calling a bluff. Last week on Twitter, artist Katie Tiedrich expressed a sentiment I often see about open-world games (and which I have expressed myself):

sincere tweet: take the guns out of red dead redemption and give me a 70+ hour game about a seventeenth-century biologist where I can ride around on a horsey through nice environments and look at animals through binoculars and catalog local flora/fauna

Eastshade is closer to ten hours than seventy, but is otherwise aimed squarely at this idea. Oh, it says, you say you want an open-world game without any fighting? What do you think of this?


Eastshade is available on Steam and itch.io, and its soundtrack is available on Steam and Bandcamp.

Fonts for writing

I prefer text editors to word processors. The formatting behavior in a program like Word or Pages feels like it’s working against me more often than not, and the (perceived) lack of precision and predictability makes me uneasy. I’d rather just use Markdown syntax, or even handwrite HTML tags.

There are a billion apps that cater to this sort of fussiness, and every so often I explore my options. Recently I’ve been using iA Writer. I like it, although honestly I’d be fine with Byword or Ulysses or any number of similar apps. What really made iA Writer stand out to me was its fonts.

In a blog post from 2017, iA founder Oliver Reichenstein wrote about the benefits of composing in a monospace font:

In contrast to proportional fonts that communicate “this is almost done” monospace fonts suggest “this text is work in progress.” It is the more honest typographic choice for a text that is not ready to publish.

[…]

The typographic rawness of a monospace font tells the writer: “This is not about how it looks, but what it says. Say what you mean and worry about the style later.” Proportional fonts suggest “This is as good as done” and stand in an intimidating contrast to a raw draft.

This rang true to me, and was something I’d never considered before: maybe part of the reason I like writing in plain text is that the apps I use display my words in a monospace font like Menlo or Courier (or, in iA Writer’s case, Mono) instead of a proportional font like Helvetica or Times New Roman.

That said, monospace fonts feel somewhat unwieldy when writing prose—perhaps unnecessarily so. Reichenstein continues:

Designers have pointed out that, with all the structural benefits that may or may not come from using a monospace font when writing, there are typographical compromises in typewriter fonts that are mere mechanical constraints that can and should be overcome. Due to the way mechanical typewriters worked, using the same horizontal space for each letter was inevitable at the time. As beneficial as this regular rhythm is for writing, do we really need to squeeze every letter into the same square? Can we not at least make some exceptions?

iA decided they could indeed make exceptions. They developed a new font, Duo, which is mostly monospace with a handful of wider characters. A couple of months ago they followed that up with a third font, Quattro, which has even more of those exceptions:

Quattro shares similarities with a proportional typeface. At the same time, it retains a lot of the technical virtues of the classic typewriter fonts using wider gaps between the words and giving each letter more room than a classic, fully proportional face.

That blog post has an image illustrating the differences between Mono, Duo, and Quattro. In short: Duo has a handful of 1.5× width characters, while Quattro adds some 0.75× and 0.5× width ones as well.

It works wonderfully, in my opinion. Quattro still looks like a monospace font in some abstract way, but doesn’t have the clunkiness of an actual monospace font. It’s my new favorite font to write with.

iA’s fonts are available on GitHub if you’d like to try them yourself.

Length

In an essay entitled “Some Thoughts on Whitman,” the late poet Mary Oliver wrote this about “Song of Myself”:

The detail, the pace, the elaborations are both necessary and augmentative; this is a long poem and it is not an argument but a thousand examples, a thousand taps and twirls on Whitman’s primary statement. Brevity would have made the whole thing ineffectual, for what Whitman is after is felt experience. Experience only, he understands, is the successful persuader.

I always liked this insight. Communicating a felt experience can take time; notwithstanding the advice of countless writing instructors, concision is a tool, not an ideal.

Video game critics sometimes argue that games are too long, which is often true. But as with poetry, long video games can do things that short ones cannot, and their length can be essential to the experience. We might take a hypothetical eighty-hour RPG and trim it down to a more manageable sixty by removing some ill-considered sidequests, but it won’t be improved if we trim it down to ten—those hours are doing something.

Maybe the game needs chapters full of ostensible filler dialog for the shock of an ally’s late-game betrayal to land properly, for example. Or maybe it’s important for that one interminable dungeon sequence to actually be interminable to convey a sense of despair. In cases like these, the length of the game is vital to communicating the intended experience. Or, as Oliver put it, brevity would have made the whole thing ineffectual.

Video games can be long and also use their length well.

You can find older posts in the archive.