Assassin’s Creed III’s Frontier: Revolution Against the Map

Ubisoft has trained me like a dog. I realized it when I set foot in Boston for the first time in Assassin’s Creed III. Before I did anything else, I fired up the map, looked for an eagle icon, and set a marker so I could make a bee-line for it, ignoring everything else along the way.

The eagle represents a high point in the world, a church spire or bell tower you can climb. Once you reach the top, you “synchronize,” which gives you a pretty view of the scenery, and more importantly, reveals a portion of the map (then you leap off into a hay bale in the most ridiculous and iconic moment of the series). The map doesn’t just let you know where you are—it also put labels on all the side quests nearby. And further, in AC 1 and 2, once you reach every high point in a region, you’ll have uncovered the entire map, along with all the missions you can do.

This is a big deal for me because I sure as hell don’t play these games for their story. Rather, I love running around old cities randomly assassinating pedestrians because a note in a pigeon cage told me to (or whatever). So, I am extremely motivated to find and reach these high points immediately upon discovering a new area, and that’s exactly how I progressed though the first two entries in the series.

But Assassin’s Creed III screwed with my pavlovian reaction. It introduces a new zone called the frontier, a vast open wilderness unlike the classical cities of the previous games. Of course, when I first got there, I pulled up my map to check for eagles. Much to my lizard brain’s satisfaction, there were a few such icons scattered across the otherwise blank screen. I set a marker for the closest one and ventured off toward it. I soon came to a high tree (nature’s church spire, clearly). I scampered to the top, synced, and leapt off into a pile of leaves.

When I opened the map, however, I saw only a tiny circle of new cartographic data. Worse still, there were not nearly enough eagles in the frontier to reveal the entire map. Even after reaching each high point (which I did, out of desperation), I still knew almost nothing about the frontier or what I could do there.

Of course, that’s the whole point. It’s the fucking frontier, you’re not supposed to know what’s in it. The conclusion slapped me in the face and I felt like an idiot for not figuring it out sooner. But it was also a great moment as a long-time fan of the series. The developer toyed with my expectations, giving me a few useless high points in the frontier just to emphasize how large it is and how different it is from every other setting in the series.

Since then, I’ve been having an absolute blast playing around in the frontier. The lack of structure is incredibly freeing in a game where most of the fun comes just from navigating the environment. And I love how actions that would have been linear side quests before now just happen. Hunting is cool, fighting bears is cool, and stumbling across random redcoats in the woods then hanging them from trees with rope darts is definitely pretty damn cool. And I didn’t even have to look up any of it on the map.

The A Word

I work at a large tech company, and I often joke that a lot of the people I work with have Asperger’s. What I’m really describing is a common trait across the tech industry where innate intelligence is valued over normal human interaction. But it’s not a joke I’m going to make anymore.

Benjamin Wallace has a terrific piece in the most recent issue of New York Magazine about Asperger’s and its cultural implications:

[T]his is not a story about Asperger’s, autism, or the spectrum—those very real afflictions that can bring untold hardship to the people who suffer from them and to their families. It is, instead, a story about “Asperger’s,” “autism,” and “the spectrum”—our one-stop-shopping shorthand for the jerky husband, the socially inept plutocrat, the tactless boss, the child prodigy with no friends, the remorseless criminal. It’s about the words we deploy to describe some murky hybrid of egghead and aloof.

Hollywood also loves perpetuating the notion of the autistic savant. It makes for a good story: a socially inept character who is redeemed by his/her genius. There’s the kid in Mercury Rising who can solve government cryptograms just by looking at them; there’s the math whiz in Cube who can do prime factorizations in his head; more famously, there’s Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, both films considered modern classics.

More recently, tech culture has embraced this stereotype. There’s a widely believed myth that Mark Zuckerberg is autistic (he is not). Bram Cohen, a hero among web nerds for creating BitTorrent, is also a figure in a pride movement for people with Asperger’s. But Wallace’s article confirms that his Asperger’s “was suggested by his girlfriend and never confirmed by a professional.”

IQ levels are completely average among people with Asperger’s. Look at the list of notable savants on Wikipedia. There are fewer than three dozen people on that list, and this includes not only people with autism but every other neurodevelopmental disorder as well. The truth is that Asperger’s and autism can be serious personality disorders. In Wallace’s article, one expert at the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at Weill Cornell Medical College says that “More and more people with ASD have jobs, but the majority are underemployed.” By perpetuating the myth of the autistic savant, we undercut the seriousness of the condition.

In elementary school, I learned to stop using the word “gay” to call something stupid. In high school, it was the same case with “retarded.” College made me realize the word “rape” should never be used in a trivializing context. As an adult, I’m only now realizing how careless I am when I say someone “probably has Asperger’s.” There are plenty of other jokes I can make that don’t diminish conditions or lifestyles that are serious. I’ll use those jokes instead.

Some “Letterpress” Strategies

It’s not about making the biggest word.
More than anything, Letterpress is about controlling the end of the game. Once all but two or three letters have been claimed, you know you’re close to finishing, depending on what letters remain. Chances are there’ll be uncommon letters left, like a Q and a Z, meaning there are likely two turns left (unless you can spell QUIZ). A good way to gauge letter difficulty is to think of how many points they’re worth in Scrabble.

You only need to win by one.
It helps to do a little quick math. If your opponent is ahead by 7, you can claim the lead simply by taking 4 of her letters. This means you can come from behind with something as short as a four-letter word to win.

Most turns, you’ll be exchanging the lead with your opponent. In fact, unless the game goes on for quite a few turns, it’s difficult to defend enough letters to maintain a comfortable lead. Remember you only need to be ahead when the last letter is claimed.

You don’t need to defend many letters.
Defending letters is Letterpress's most interesting gameplay element, and maybe the trickiest. I've found so far that you don't need to defend too many letters. Go for a few, and make sure they're convenient (edges, which need three connected letters instead of four, or even better, corners, which only need two). Maybe obvious, but prioritize vowels and S's; just don't go out of your way to protect an A, especially if it's in the middle of the board.

Check the “Played Words” if you’re stumped.
I take it back: maybe the best thing Letterpress has going for it is that playing is frustration free. I haven’t played a game yet where either player had to pass her turn, and really, played a game where someone’s vocabulary was drained. (Another great feature: you can use your opponents defended letters — you just won’t score points for them. Nothing prohibits you from playing great words.) For this reason (among many others), Letterpress is a lot more fun than Words with Friends.

Anyway, in the menu, you can see what words have already been played. This definitely gave me some much-needed inspiration in longer matches, and helped me keep track of which game was which.

Making big words is really fun.
It’s also a good early game strategy to claim a lot of letters. Also it makes you feel smart.

If you have other strategies, let me know. And if you want to play, my Game Center name is nguyenkmh. Can’t wait for you to use my own advice against me.

Pandora’s Payouts

A recent New York magazine profile revealed that indie band Grizzly Bear is likely not as wealthy as you think they are. It’s a terrific piece that attempts to look at the financial state of a band with Grizzly Bear’s stature. Though they’re hesitant to discuss specifics, singer Ed Droste says:

"Obviously we’re surviving. Some of us have health insurance, some of us don’t, we basically all live in the same places, no one’s renting private jets. Come to your own conclusions.”

Last week, a blog post from Pandora founder Tim Westergren rubbed me the wrong way. In it, he detailed a payment structure to artists based on Pandora play counts:

For over two thousand artists Pandora will pay over $10,000 dollars each over the next 12 months… and for more than 800 we’ll pay over $50,000, more than the income of the average American household.

It sounds like a lot of money, but is it? $10,000 in a year divided among, say, four band members equals out to $2.5K a year — some nice change, but really only a few month’s rent. This isn’t changing any artist’s quality of life, that’s for sure.

But what Westergren is talking about is the potential, especially when you consider that Pandora only represents 6% of the radio market. Assuming (optimistically) that Pandora or something similar becomes half of the radio market and maintains the same payout structure and rate, that $10,000 becomes roughly $83,000, which is over $20 grand per band member per year, a nice supplement to touring profits and album sales. But again, this assumes labels don’t take a cut, the payout is fixed, and internet radio can even be that popular.

This model also appears to be driving an income gap between artists. According to the same letter, “top earners like Coldplay, Adele, Wiz Khalifa, Jason Aldean” already make over $1 million from Pandora; Drake and Lil Wayne are close to $3 million. That $10K is starting to seem like a pittance.

Also, the top two thousand artists doesn’t actually cover very many musicians. If you look at Pitchfork’s five-a-day album review schedule, they’re covering roughly 1,300 different artists a year — and that’s only artists the indie space, written about by a single publication. And then think about artists who are no longer active. According to the same blog post, Motown outfit Four Tops will receive $65,173. (I’d love to see how many of Pandora’s favored two thousand are bands no longer releasing new music. Something tells me Journey is making a killing.)

But of course, commercial radio plays far fewer than two thousand different artists. What Westergren is proposing is an improvement over the traditional radio model. Let’s just not pretend that this suddenly turns music making into a healthy, profitable lifestyle for artists. I suspected popular indie bands weren’t getting paid as much as people would assume, but the Grizzly Bear piece drove home that even a band with their critical acclaim and commercial success are still not in a comfortable financial circumstance. Something tells me Grizzly Bear’s Pandora payout is also on the low end.

At the end of the post, Westergren declares: “Artists, this is your future. Own it.”

It really sounds like Pandora wants to own artists.

Dishonored’s Blink

I would feel like an idiot for spending $60 on Dishonored if it weren’t for one special power — one little icon among far-too-many in the game’s overstuffed radial menu — called blink.

With blink selected, when you hold down the left trigger, a glowing target appears on the ground about 30ish feet (who’s counting?) in front of your character. When you release the trigger, he darts through the air and lands on the targert nearly instantly. You can use it to go forward, up, or down, so it makes climbing and platforming a breeze. This is a cool enough mechanic that it would work in basically any action game, but since Dishonered is a stealth game, it changes everything.

In the past, it hasn’t taken me long to lose patience with stealthy gameplay. My runs through Metal Gear Solid games devolve into firefights and my copies of Splinter Cell go unplayed. I just find all the sneaking and strangling to be so slow and laborious that I never end up having fun.

I’m only a couple missions into Dishonored, but so far, blink has saved stealh for me. Instead of skulking through shadows at an inch per minute, I can bolt from cover to cover, zap across rooftops and balconies, and even dash right past an enemy’s face to land out of sight behind him. And rather than waiting forever for one guard to reach a spot where his buddy can’t see him and then turn his back for long enough for me to crawl up behind him and break his neck, I just blink behind one guy the second I have an opening, take him out, then blink right behind the other dude and slice his throat. All of this feels smooth, intuitive, and fast-paced, words you could never have applied to stealth games of yore.

What I like most about blink, though, is that it still feels like stealth. Games like Assassin’s Creed and the rebooted Splinter Cell try to solve the slow-paced stealh problem by more-or-less becoming action games, which, while fun, do not make you feel like a sneaky cool assassin dude. In Dishonored, though, when you get found out, you’re dead meat, so it’s almost always better to go around enemies than plow through them. That’s the hallmark of a true stealth game, and, I hope, the first one I’ll enjoy playing as intended the whole way through.

Crosswords with Friends

My junior year of college, I became obsessed with crosswords. More accurately, the house I was living with became obsessed.

It was a weird, nerdy craze that was sweeping the campus. Every morning, the school supplied a hundred or so free copies of The New York Times in the student union building, and by 9 or 10 a.m., every issue was gone or stripped of its Arts section. It was like everyone had just seen Wordplay, the documentary of Times crossword editor Will Shortz (we certainly had).

Let me admit: I’ve never been particularly good at crosswords, but I had the patience for them. My biggest feat was completing a Friday puzzle (they escalate in difficulty throughout the week, with Sundays being the hardest), which was done cooperatively with a housemate and took the course of several hours. We cut out and taped all our completed puzzles on the wall. Some mornings when we had late classes, we would make a big pot of coffee at home or go to the cafe, where you could see other students working on the same puzzle, and pour an hour into one. It was a quiet, pensive, but strangely social activity.

But after college, I started doing crosswords on my iPhone. The Times has an official app that has gotten better over time (like three years). One competitive social feature is the way the app times your performance, so it can rank you against other users. This radically changed the way I did crosswords. No longer could I spend a leisurely breakfast sipping coffee and filling it out; now I was on the clock, constantly being reminded just how slow I was.

It’s not necessarily a worse experience, just a different one. I started seeing more patterns, some recurring clues, and really started to gain in understanding of the internal mechanics of a crossword. (I have now seen every possible way to describe an OREO.) But you definitely can’t play the app with a friend. I tried once with a girlfriend just before we went to sleep, but since the app shows one clue at a time, it makes it difficult for two people to concentrate on the same puzzle.

I started only doing Monday puzzles, the easiest day of the week, as it was the only one I could finish consistently in under 20 minutes. (This was very slow, especially when you looked at the online leaderboard. Crossword champs can do Mondays in a matter of minutes.) I would later bring this average down to 15 minutes, then sometimes, on good days, just under 10. And since then, for the past three or so years, I have at least started every single Monday puzzle, abandoning them if it takes me more than 15 minutes.

Earlier this week, I finished the Monday puzzle in 7:24. It’s cool that I know that exact number, but the satisfaction was all my own. I couldn’t really print it out and tape it to the wall of my apartment (and also I’m a little too old to do that). Every time you complete a puzzle on the iPhone, the app plays some hokey celebratory music and says “well done.” You also get the option to tweet your score, but it seems to make more sense to just keep your victories to yourself.

Will Carly Rae Jepsen Survive “Call Me Maybe”?

Probably not.

I’m lucky Rdio doesn’t keep play counts, but I suspect the number of times I’ve listened to “Call Me Maybe” is in the high hundreds. For the past couple weeks, I’ve been listening to The Kiss, Carly Rae Jepsen’s new second album, but the first full-length she’s released since “Call Me Maybe” made her a household name. It’s not bad, but it’s largely unremarkable, which is to say, “unremarkable” is the problem with Carly Rae Jepsen.

Jepsen doesn’t have the personality or strangeness of Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj, nor does she possess the lyrical sentimentality of Taylor Swift or Katy Perry. (Perry is a funny one, because one would think that her appearance puts her at odds with being emotional in any way, but she has more hits in the vein of “Teenage Dream,” “Firework,” and “Part of Me” than she does in tracks like “California Gurls.” Anyway, Katy Perry is a whole other thing.)

As a figure, Jepsen is extraordinarily bland. And in fact, aesthetically, “Call Me Maybe” is an equally uninteresting song, one that already sounded dated when it debuted last spring. But the chorus, paired with the underrated refrain (“I missed you so so bad”), might be the most powerful pop hook of the past year. It almost strengthens the case that its melody succeeds in spite of its lackluster production (synth strings anyone?).

The Kiss tries to emulate the success of “Call Me Maybe,” but Jepsen’s sound is so insubstantial that it only manages to cobble together a handful of decent tunes wrapped in uninspired production. The title track sounds like a pretty good “Call Me Maybe” sequel (it even opens with more synth strings). “Good Time,” released as a single earlier this summer, pairs Jepsen with Owl City in a song that is as impressive for its catchiness as its inoffensiveness. “Curiosity,” just about the worst song I’ve heard this year (also released on an earlier EP), attempts to take Jepsen to the dance floor and even throws in a truly grating key change.

There’s a ballad toward the end with Justin Bieber, who is actually a good parallel to Jepsen, as the most innocent, least offensive pop star out there (also from Canada!). And “Call Me Maybe” actually has a lot in common with Bieber’s first hit “Baby,” a pretty terrific song despite reeking of the ’90s and featuring the most hilariously phoned-in rap part of all time.

But unlike “Baby,” the commercial triumph “Call Me Maybe” has always felt like an accident. The song first appeared on an EP, and Bieber launched Jepsen’s career when he and his friends uploaded a lipsync of “Call Me Maybe” to YouTube (though one could reasonable argue that the song was destined to be a hit anyway). Will Carly Rae Jepsen still be a star a year from now? Without another miracle song, it seems unlikely.

"Call Me Maybe" is a precious piece of pop; the rest of The Kiss proves how hard that is to come by.

Why Roguelikes Should Be Hard

House of Dead Ninjas is one of my favorite browser games. It’s a fast paced action-platformer where you descend a treacherous tower at break-neck speed while slashing dudes, chucking shurikens, dropping bombs, and scoring points with twitchy, precise controls. Plus, like so many buzzy indie games these days, it has roguelike elements. That means the levels are random and death is permanent. The only way to beat the game is to do it all in one run.

Its sequel, Super House of Dead Ninjas, came out recently, and in most ways, it improves on the original. On top of looking better with more gameplay variety, it also takes a number of steps to take the edge off its roguelike-ness. You can unlock new weapons, items, and upgrades that make subsequent runs easier, and if you descend to certain levels in the tower and beat a boss, you can start your next run from right after the boss’s room. These are all good things - they prevent monotony and give you a sense of progress.

But, Super House of Dead Ninjas has one other new element the undermines the benefits of its roguelike nature: continues. When the game is on normal mode—the default—you can die twice before really dying for real. At first, I found this odd but not so bad. I think, instinctually, we like when things are made easier for us, and a part of me was enjoying plowing through the game. Then I realized that I had made it to and past the first boss on my second try. If I wanted, as I suspect many players would, I would never have to see the first section of the game again.

And this, to me, defeats the whole point of a roguelike. Why does it matter if the levels are randomly generated if you only see them twice? In Spelunky, the king of roguelike fusions, you have to play any given stage dozens of times before you unlock the shortcut to the next one. This can seem like a grind, but it’s integral to what makes the game tick. As you replay a stage, you explore the patterns and secrets hidden in the randomness, generating mastery until you can overcome each obstacle by muscle memory. Your runs start short but as they grow the game becomes more fun and more satisfying. Giving players continues may seem like a trivial nicety in this era of easy games, but it devalue’s one of the roguelike’s greatest assests, and that’s a shame.

Of course, you could just put the game on hard.

Albums in the Stream

Rob Weychert talks about his past year using music subscription service Rdio (aka better Spotify) and how it has affected his album consumption:

I think the concept of investment is at the core of this issue. When I buy an album, I’ll make an effort to enjoy it for the sake of my investment, even if I don’t immediately like it. I spent money on it, it’s taking up space on my hard drive and/or shelf, and I want that to count for something. But subscribing to Rdio is a different kind of investment. Rather than investing in one album, I’ve invested in all the albums, which is the same as investing in none of them. If something doesn’t grab me right away, I don’t have an incentive to return to it, which limits my repeat exposure to only the music with the most superficial rewards. And even that stuff is quickly overcome by the newer and shinier stuff constantly spraying from Rdio’s fire hose.

I’ve been using Rdio for about a year and a half and have had a very similar experience to Weychert. But the difference between us is that Weychert’s goal of using Rdio is not as a replacement to his mp3 library, but as a “try-before-you-buy service.” Me, I only open iTunes to back up my iPhone.

It’s true: Rdio (and I assume any service that offers you an infinite library of music) makes it harder to concentrate on one album simply by offering so much selection. But what Weychart asserts is that a monetary and physical investment should drive our attention, which I don’t necessarily think are the only, or really the best, ways to focus one’s music consumption. Why can’t reviews or recommendations from trusted friends encourage the same patience for an album?

What he strangely neglects is the social aspects of Rdio. There’s a light-but-powerful follow/follower relationship between Rdio users. The Heavy Rotation window, the default of both the beautifully minimal browser- and desktop-based interfaces, sorts albums based on what the people you follow are listening to most. It’s a terrific means of discovery, and an even better conversation starter with friends.

I only follow ten people, but they’re all close friends. Most of them are people whose tastes align with mine (is that why we’re friends or does that simply happen because we’re friends?). I also follow a few friends who listen to music way outside the scope of what I’m interested in. But even though they’re not generating appealing suggestions, it’s still meaningful to know what your friends are listening to, even the ones who are launching Katy Perry up the charts. (Just kidding, that’s totally me.)

But Weychart lands on a great point:

Repetition is important for music. Not only is it virtually impossible to fully appreciate a song on the first listen, but repetition is one of the fundamental building blocks of music, and repeated listening is a continuation of that inherent rhythm.

I don’t necessarily think the unlimited nature of Rdio or Spotify is an obstacle to repeated listening (in fact, there’s a strange reinforcement of the same handful of albums when your friends all listen to the same things). But it’s a strong argument why streaming music services that offer massive libraries for a premium are very different from free internet radio stations like Pandora. To make listening active, it has to be deliberate; more than how much music costs or how much space it takes up, choice is the strongest sign of an investment. And to chose to listen to one album, out of every album, means a lot more than deciding between what you own.

Press Space to Pause

For the serious indie gamer, we who revere the Spelunkys and World of Goos of the world, FTL is an easy sell. Its tagline alone, “a spaceship simulation roguelike-like,” is pure pornography. Plus, it’s one of the first high-profile Kickstarter games to actually become, well, a game. So yes, I bought it (predictably), and yes, I like it (to no one’s surprise). But FTL has something that pushes it beyond your average indie game du jour, a moment of gameplay made me gasp with nostalgic glee when I realized what was happening.

During the tutorial, as the game was teaching me its combat system, I saw four magic words: “press space to pause.”

Now, the pausing isn’t really the special part. You can pause a lot of games. But when you pause in FTL, you can do stuff. Specifically, you can issue commands to your ship and crew. Then when you unpause, the game returns to real time and they carry out your orders. Basically, the game is turn based, but only when you want it to be. You choose when to interrupt the flow of time to get an extra moment to think and execute.

If you’ve played the legendary 90s role-playing games from Black Isle and pre-EA Bioware (Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate), this will sound all too familiar. Those guys pioneered this time-management scheme ages ago. But, as I realized while playing FTL, it’s still arguably the richest and most satisfying strategy-based mechanic ever. No other system gives the player such a sense of control without dampening drama and urgency.

There are lots of reasons that real-time-with-pausing gameplay has fallen out of favor—the decline of PC gaming, the rise of multiplayer—but I am thrilled that FTL has brought it back in such sterling form. I don’t want to give the impression that the game is a pure throwback—in fact, overall it feels remarkably innovative—but every time I boot it up, all I really want to do is mash that spacebar, plan my moves, and issue tactical commands to my party like it’s 1999.