bjoreman.com

June 11, 2018

The day of my tentacle

A few weeks ago, I received a fantastic little package in the mail. Inside was a thing which immediately occupied a very, very high spot on my "things which spark jou" list.

What was it? Why, this:

Purple tentacle, in 3d-printed glory Purple tentacle, in 3d-printed glory

This is a 3d-printed figurine of Purple tentacle from 1993 Lucasfilm adventure game Day of the tentacle. This explanation producing no more than a raised eyebrow when given to my girlfriend, I realized there was a somewhat longer story to tell.

Day of the tentacle came out when PC games were starting to look and sound good. Today, the pixels look huge, but it still has a great style. Thanks to CD-ROMs picking up pace, they were also picking up that most data-intensive feature of spoken dialogue. Of course, the back-of-a-truck version I played at a friend´s place was the floppy version and only included speech in the intro, but I knew it was out there. The game looked and felt like a cartoon, and games before had not.

It was also the era where Lucasarts seemed to do nothing but great things. Their adventure games were the focus for me, and they seemingly came quickly, almost effortlessly, great to play regardless of topic or story.

On top of all this, my English skills were at least approaching the requirements for the games. I had loved adventure games since at least The secret of Monkey island, but in 1990 I understood very little of the clues, context, and least of all the humour.

Taken together, Day of the tentacle was the best looking, sounding and playing point-and-click adventure game so far, and it came out just as I was starting to be able to enjoy them more … efficiently. As I recall, we were eventually able to finish the game without using that much help, and a lot of the puzzles were solved by actually getting the hints and understanding the logic of the game world.

Jumping forward

("Present day" goes the speaker voice.) A Tuesday a couple of weeks ago, Joacim and I were recording Björeman // Melin as usual. We were also broadcasting live in our Discord channel, a highly enjoyable feature of which is that we get realtime interaction with some of our much too kind listeners. For some reason, people started posting photos of their desks or monitors as they were listeing. Just below one monitor, a purple tentacle was standing, blaster raised, most likely shouting out orders. I naturally abandoned all other thoughts immediately to focus on asking where I could get a tentacle of my own. The tentacle turned out to be 3d-printed and hand-painted, and Zimmel (the much too kind listener in this particular question) offered to fix one for me too. I said something like wow, that would be great, and soon forgot about it. Perhaps it did seem a little too good to be true.

A week or so passed. Then, one day, a colleague came by with a strangely lumpy envelope which was clearly addressed to me at work. I had no idea what it might be until I stood there, looking at the tentacle, flood of newly sparked joy washing over me.

As another perfect circumstance, one desk neighbor had no idea about purple tentacles, while the other one did and was just as giddy about it as I was.

Shared happiness along with some confusion in others is tripled happiness, right?

May 24, 2018

Wipeout omega collection

It is rare that a game really wows me. Whether it is with sheer intensity, emotions of some kind, or offering something which feels truly new and fresh, the wow moments are pretty far between but of course totally worth looking and waiting for.

Wipeout omega collection has given me multiple wows.

I have wanted a Wipeout game ever since first hearing about them. Technically, I did play a demo of Wipeout 2097 a bit on a woefully underpowered Pentium 133, but for many years that was it. I knew what the games were like, and played several games inspired by them, but I never had a Playstation so the real thing was always sort of out of reach. Naturally, I immediately started anticipating Wipeout omega collection as soon as I found out about it.

When it was finally released (I am not sure how far ahead of release I heard about it, but it felt like ages) I was not disappointed. Actually, it was just what I expected and wanted to a surprising degree. Which brings us to that first wow: the sheer sense of speed on twisty futuristic tracks with house music pumping along with the explosions and engine sounds. There were several early races where I almost felt my head thrown back as I accelerated from the starting line.

Time passed. The wow faded away, replaced by pleasant familiarity. Months went by.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I checked my updates and found Sony had dropped the second, even more massive wow: Wipeout had gained full VR support.

Forget anything I said about the game feeling fast and pure on a 2D screen. VR is the way to play this game. There ought to be a bundle of the headset and the game. Sony ought to be promoting this everywhere.

I am reminded, for some reason, of learning to play first-person shooters using a mouse and WASD: a little bit of work getting used to, but just so much better than any other option it is not even funny. Wipeout feels like it was made for VR from the beginning, from the loading screens, which feel like floating in the white construct in the Matrix, to the menu to, of course, the races. When racing, you are in the cockpit. The HUD has been reworked and you have a lot of detail visible on your craft as well. The sense of scale is just right too. I have played some vechicle games where something about the scale was off and made me feel more like I was wearing a vechicle-shaped helmet. But here I really do feel like I am in the cockpit of a powerful antigravity racer, and like I have some room inside the cockpit too.

Being able to look around also gives a better sense of the tracks. I always knew there was a good deal of verticality to the tracks, but it was sometimes hard to really notice it in the heat of a race. It is that much easier to grasp with the added depth of VR. And whenever there is a climb, being able to look up to see more of what lies ahead is a great advantage.

(It probably does not hurt immersion that the headset feels a bit like wearing strange racing goggles or a helmet.)

So, yes. All games should be VR. Fast racers need not cause motion sickness. More, please.

May 20, 2018

Göteborgsvarven 2018

Suddenly it was that time of year again: a long and cold spring had given way to a surprising explosion of early summer and the town was once again being flooded by runners. The week of Göteborgsvarvet was upon us, and since last year was all good I found myself on two starting lines again.

Trailvarvet

Trailvarvet turned three years old, and once again the organizers had made it more of a trail. The race took place on a hot summer evening, but my main worry - well above exhaustion or heat stroke - was falling and hurting myself. I rarely run on trails these days, and when I do I tend to stumble once or twice at some moment where I am getting tired and imagine that I have things under control. Thus, my mantra during the whole race was "Do not relax! Do not relax!" I still fell once, but it was pretty gentle for a fall and left no marks.

The organizers had indeed managed to make the trail tougher. Despite looking about the same on the map and being the same distance they had managed to sneak in a surprising amount of additional hills. They had also marked the trail even better and clearer than the last time, I never had to wonder where I was going (something which happened a few times last year), and when I got to answer a few quick questions right after finishing I had not even realized that there was a point where I could have gone the wrong way.

So the trail was tougher, but it was still fun. I did waste some energy running up hills where I should probably have walked, but otherwise I am completely happy with how and what I did. Especially for a one-off trail which I made no effort to prepare specifically for. I imagine just a little bit of preparations could make a big difference, just doing some trail running every now and then and seeking out the odd hill to run up and down would make all the rocks and roots feel a lot more familiar.

Göteborgsvarvet

Trailvarvet has always been just for fun. With Göteborgsvarvet I ended up competing with myself a bit too much and lost the enjoyment for a couple of years. But the fun came back the last few years, and the sunny Saturday found me standing in the shadow as much as possible, determined to have fun and to make as enjoyable a run as possible. And I did. I think my ultra running experience came out in that I concentrated on feeling good and balancing my energy. As the day was so sunny and decently hot, this came out as a focus on managing heat and getting enough to drink. It was a great success in that I never felt seriously close to overheating. If anything, I could perhaps have stopped a little bit less and ran a little bit faster. But then, I would certainly not have felt as good afterward. As it was, I think I got something to drink and - just as important - pour over myself on all but the very last few stations. The water was wonderfully cool, and it probably was my wettest run so far. Another great sign of things going well was that - possibly for the first time ever - some of the kilometers felt very short. There usually is a point around 16 kilometers at the very latest where someone starts to sneak in extra kilometers between the signs. This year, it seems like they managed to lock that person up. The kilometer signs kept flowing by at a steady pace all the way to the end, and I finished feeling tired but not exhausted.

One clear difference to most other years was that I got passed a lot. Starting in group three was perhaps a bit too early for my level, people kept flowing past me throughout the whole race. I am used to being in a group where I keep to the left and keep passing people most of the time, so being passed takes some adjustment and makes me wonder if I am going super-slow or something. Having a watch measuring speed and other factors is a great help combating this. It also felt good that I had energy left toward the end and got to catch up with a few more people - a nice bit of validation of my focus on staying cool and feeling as good as possible.

I think I have run fewer long distances preparing for this year's Göteborgsvarvet than previously, but I guess I got enough in because writing this on the day after the race I feel nicely worn, free of blisters and generally quite in balance. With some more long runs, and perhaps a few more intervals, I might have been able to finish even faster, but I think I nailed the wellbeing-to-result-ratio for my amount of exercise.

Best Göteborgsvarvet ever in that way?

(Yes, thoughts of working harder to be even faster next year are circling around. I will do my best to fight them down and have a good time next year too. (Not running next year? Strange concept …))

April 28, 2018

Spring forward

I found myself a podcast focused on VR gaming, thanks to Spotify of all services. I do not use Spotify for podcast listening at all, but the recommendating engine throws podcasts in with other recommended listening. And so I found myself listening to the soundtrack of Wipeout omega collection, my gaze sliding down to recommendations and noticing a couple of podcast episodes mentioning the game. Pretty nice! I just wish Spotify let me listen at more than agonizing 1x speed … Anyway, The PSVR life podcast has been a fun listen so far. Not only have I picked up game tips and rumors, I have also learned of using the word "flat" to describe non-VR games. Such a good way of putting it, immediately clear and leaving no doubt as to which version is the more immersive experience.

The daily keyboarding update is that Pok3r allows you to hit fn+x to toggle its LED:s on and off. I do not use it often enough, but I still enjoy it as much every time I do and I tell myself I am learning something in the process. All aspects of keyboards and keyboarding have truly become a running theme in my life recently. I just found myself toying with the idea of trying Dvorak or Svorak (or Colemak, but seems I might as well go all the way were I to switch things up at all), and it felt more plausible than ever before. Interesting times! Arrowing around on Pok3r using caps lock and ijkl now feels quite natural and fast even though I use it so irregularly, so there is clearly enough brain capacity to handle more variations in keyboard setups.

(The latest on the keyboard thought front is split keyboards, especially when I sit down and use a laptop's builtin keyboard for too long.)

April 12, 2018

VR, one year later

I bought my Playstation VR later in the year than I recalled, but I got to try it and started thinking about it earlier. Thus, I feel I can start saying I have been playing VR games for a year pretty much any time I want between now and July.

The vast majority of my time in VR has been on said Playstation VR, but I have also had chances to try the Vive and can play as much as I like with Daydream and Gear VR on a Samsung galaxy S8+.

The Playstation VR is by far my favorite of the platforms. Not just because I have spent the most time with it (although that surely is a big factor too), but because it is so well built for what it is. It may have miles of cables, but it works well and provides a really good experience. When I use the Gear VR or Daydream, they feel in about equal parts like unrealized potential and limited by hardware. The Playstation VR threw in extra cables and demands a decently placed camera, but those things provide value. The Playstation VR is by no means made for walking around like the Vive, but the camera tracking along with the other sensors mean you can lean in to look closer, tilt your head and move to the sides to change perspectives subtly. I think those little things play a huge part in that magical feeling of looking at a miniature landscape which feels physical around you. With the mobile-based platforms, I always feel firmly stuck at one point. Sure, I can look freely in all directions, but the viewpoint remains jarringly stuck whenever I try to lean in. Sure, the feeling of depth is better than when watching a "flat" 360 video on Youtube (it fascinates me how much less immersive they feel), but the Playtation VR is another big step above and beyond.

Controls

When I play games, I like to be comfortable and efficient. I prefer tried and true controls with precision which let me sit in any way I like to fun gimmicks. Sure, give me wiimotes, shakes and tilts, but only when they really provide something extra. Thus, another thing I really like about the Playstation VR is the fact games have access to a proper controller and are using it in sensible ways to play really well. I was wondering right from the beginning how to best control first-person VR games, and Doom VFR has proven classic FPS controls work brilliantly and feel great. No need for awkward point-to-point teleportation or other strange limits, free movement works just as well as I always hoped it would.

Isolation mode

Yes, it feels a bit antisocial to shut myself in and play VR when other people are around, but the feeling someone is going to sneak up on you and scare you to death by placing a hand on your shoulder is never there. No more so than when listening to good music in headphones anyway. I almost always play wearing over-ear headphones as well, so I feel I have pushed that limit about as far as it will go.

Retro factors

The other day I found myself sitting on the carpet in front of the TV. Cross-legged, playing an amazingly cozy platformer. In VR. A sort of retro-present wonder-combination. Moss is really a great game, with slightly clunky controls, and totally worth adjusting your setup to play well. So yes, there is another exception to the rule of wanting to be comfortable. Again, sometimes it is worth it.

Polybius was the first game to push the retro-present amazement off the scale for me. It feels so classic, yet at once so totally perfect for VR. And despite being such a simple game at its core, it is undeniably greater and purer in VR than in any other mode.

But it is not alone. Moss is another example, Tiny trax another. Perhaps fear of motion sickness and complex controls brought these things along, perhaps it was something else. In any case, it is surprising how much VR adds even to experiences which are viewing a world from a static position, things which one might expect to play very much the same on a 2D screen. The combination of your head being tracked in 3D along with a proper sense of depth and scale is working its magic.

The mobile options

I probably have not given Daydream and Gear VR enough of a chance. They do have the huge advantage of not tethering me. It is pretty amazing to be able to stand, sit and turn freely. They also both have little remotes which I like surprisingly much.

Unfortunately, that is where the strong points end. I have found fewer things I enjoy, the experiences are clunkier (especially getting the phones in and out of headsets while trying not to hit any buttons), power is more limited, you get temperature warnings and feel the heat on your face … Oh, and no head tracking as I mentioned above.

Land's end was a great experience, very well suited to the medium. You should definitely buy it and play it. But I still would have enjoyed it more on a stationary platform with head tracking.

Is there enough?

I let some friends try VR the other weekend. One comment was "Well, I never want to play games in 2D again." I wholeheartedly agree to that. Given the option, I always pick VR, and I use VR availability as a quick, harsh filter for which games to consider. There are of course exceptions, but it works well for me. Happily there are definitely enough VR games to keep me occupied, especially during my all too frequent gaming lulls. That said, I do want many more. All games should have a VR mode, plain and simple.

Keep in mind that I write this as someone playing on a first-generation Playstation VR connected to a non-pro Playstation 4. With more power and resolution 2D will fall further behind, but even now there is no doubt which I prefer.

(Wipeout gained VR support while I was somehow looking in the wrong direction! And it works! Truly, there is no excuse for any genre not to go VR.)