Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Log 2

The first entry in this series ended up being a lot more about the background lore of the Metal Gear Solid series than I really intended.  It’s extremely easy to get bogged down in a bunch of stuff that’s maybe not so important to discussing the experience of playing this specific game, so I’ll try to refrain from talking about the larger series going forward unless it seems absolutely essential.

At the time of this writing, I’m pretty sure I’ve logged close to thirty hours in The Phantom Pain, and in that time I’ve advanced the story only a little bit.  The structural design of this game is a massive departure from other numbered Metal Gear Solid games.  Instead of a highly linear level sequence that’s reliant on the momentum of the plot to move the player from one segment to the next, The Phantom Pain goes for a much more open-ended feeling built around the central conceit that Big Boss is rebuilding and managing an unaligned private military force after spending nearly a decade in a coma.

This was taken after I’d been playing for about twenty hours. I… haven’t accomplished much more since then despite easily having at least another ten hours on my game clock.

The core gameplay is still built around solo stealth infiltration, but in the midst of all the sneaking through enemy bases the player’s free to take a break and manage the Diamond Dogs, the force that Ocelot has pulled together under Big Boss’s banner.  You can assign staff to different roles which enable various support functions during missions, direct the development of new military technology, and deploy combat forces to complete automated missions for gathering more resources.  Nothing is designed to require a whole lot of deep thought (if you want, you can just let the game auto-assign your staff to whatever team they’re best suited for, and things generally improve on their own without any careful planning on your part), but if you want to get into the nitty-gritty of min-maxing specific functions for your preferred playstyle, you are certainly welcome to do that.  The only function that has be done manually on a regular basis is directing staff to build new base platforms so that you can assign more staff to the various teams for further upgrades.  Otherwise, if base management isn’t your thing, you can safely ignore it for the most part.

I’ll come back to the Diamond Dogs themselves in a later post. Just know that their devotion to Big Boss is more than a little creepy. Death Hippo’s my boy though.

When Big Boss isn’t directing his army, the player is free to wander around whichever areas of operation have been unlocked (this is based on progression through the main story).  The maps are quite spacious with a multitude of enemy bases both large and small dispersed throughout for the player to explore and infiltrate as they like.  Free roam is a fun mode if you just want to mess around with enemy soldiers free of any of the performance standards that are imposed on scored missions (being a stealth series, there’s always a high premium placed on a player’s ability to perform operations without being caught by or killing enemies).  Side ops give some targeted objectives that players can focus on accomplishing during free roam if they are like me and prefer to have objectives instead of just enjoying sandboxes.  When it’s time to advance the plot, you pick a mission from a list; each mission has a designated smaller hot zone inside the larger area of operation.  During the mission, you have to remain in the hot zone until your main objectives are completed, or the mission will be aborted.

In terms of the scoring system, I actually find it to be a really refreshing update to the system that was in place in previous Metal Gear Solid games.  Since the first Metal Gear Solid, there’s been a scoring system that keeps track of everything you do in a given playthrough that it then grades at the game’s conclusion.  I always thought this was a really cool feature to discover after playing through the original game because once you finished enjoying the story, you had an incentive to go back and replay the game and enjoy it on a mechanical level (I’ve always had a soft spot for Metal Gear Solid games because they have incredibly absurd stories that I find nonetheless compelling combined with really polished action gameplay that’s not focused on just killing all the bad guys; you can get a lot of grace from me if you build in functionality that doesn’t require the player to be a killer if they don’t want to).  The only problem with the system in the older games was that it turned playing into an endurance contest where you had to maintain a level of play for multiple hours at a time with steep penalties if you made a mistake.  As someone who just doesn’t have the personality necessary to devote my leisure time to mastering the mechanics of one specific game, this was always torture for me.  In The Phantom Pain, the scoring system’s been scaled back so it only applies to story missions, and each one gets graded individually (that completed missions can be replayed whenever you want helps out too).  It allows you to treat a certain segment of the game as requiring whatever challenge you’re interested in giving yourself, and the rest of it is pretty much a free-for-all to do whatever goofy things occur to you.

And yes, there is a lot of goofiness on offer.  The bread and butter of silliness in this game is the Fulton Recovery System (based on a real thing the CIA has used) which involves attaching a harness with a self-inflating balloon to pretty much anything, having the balloon inflate, and then watching as the victim subject gets yanked up into the air to be caught by Big Boss’s air support.  This is how you recruit soldiers from the field for the Diamon Dogs, collect gear like artillery placements and vehicles, and rescue larger wild animals from the battlefield.  It’s as ridiculous as it sounds, and while you eventually just accept it as part of the cycle of play, the first few times you Fulton someone and watch them get yanked into the air, you remember that this is not just the gritty war drama that people not familiar with Metal Gear Solid series assume it to be.

The bear deserved it.

Revisiting The Witness

Okay, I have to backpedal a little bit.  A few weeks ago I ran a couple posts critiquing Thekla, Inc.’s indie puzzle game The Witness.  My general impression was that I enjoyed the gameplay, but the philosophical underpinnings left me a little cold.  A lot of my opinion of the game was pretty heavily influenced by this review, which I read not long after I started playing the game the first time.  I still think it’s a fantastic piece of criticism, and it pulls in a lot of threads that influenced my opinion of the game even as I was largely unable to articulate precisely why.  After an evening out with Rachael where we spent a lot of time discussing literary storytelling, including in relation to The Witness, I finally admitted that I had been looking at the game with a major bias, and I probably hadn’t given it a fair shake.

About a week before that conversation I had with Rachael, I started up a second play through of The Witness, largely because I was between games and it was already there on the PS4.  The core appeal of the game for me, the puzzle solving mechanic, was enough of a draw that as I published my first post kind of bad mouthing the game, I became immersed in it for a second time.  This second play through was significantly faster than the first time.  Already being familiar with most of the puzzle mechanics helped immensely with running through and unlocking various areas, and in time I managed to find and finish all of the island’s sections (I had completely overlooked one of the segments).  I spent more time exploring the environment itself (mostly looking for the perspective based puzzles) and enjoying the little details I found tucked away in various areas (there’s one nook at the terminus of a side path where there’s a statue of a dog; there’s nothing else to the area that I noticed, just the visual reward of finding another weird statue).  When I encountered a few puzzles that I had solved previously but which I didn’t want to spend time working out solutions for again, I just looked their answers up.  Essentially, I gave myself permission to explore the game how I liked, and generally I found it a more rewarding experience.

Rachael pointed out to me that there were some perspective puzzles incorporated into the video clips that can be played in the underground theater on the island, and once she helped me find a couple of them, I got really excited about finding the rest.  It was a cool idea to build that kind of intricacy into the environment, and though I didn’t find all of those puzzles, I did enjoy the search (most of the video clips that I found were pretty interesting as well; I especially enjoyed the GDC talk that was presented in the longest video, which just has the visual of a moon transitioning from full to eclipse over the roughly hour long run time; its subject is the human fascination with hidden patterns in art, and it was clearly pretty influential for Blow and his team in designing The Witness).  I’d call it one of the high points of the game for me.

Another thing that I quite enjoyed was the Challenge, a small course of randomized puzzles that the player has to complete in order to unlock the vault where the pattern for the aforementioned video clip is stored.  It’s a very different sort of puzzle game, as everything is algorithmically generated and there’s a hard time limit set in place.  It’s not a relaxing, pensive experience the way the rest of the game is, and while I know I complained last time about accessibility of game mechanics (I must admit that for all the difficulty built into the standard puzzles of The Witness, their controls are extremely forgiving, and there’s no punishment for taking as long as necessary to figure out each solution), I can’t help admitting that I found the Challenge exhilarating.

One other thing that I explored, and I admit here that I looked up the solution for finding this because I simply wanted to see it, is the secret ending where the player opens a portal to a luxury hotel filled with game credits and culminating in a short video of a person waking up from some kind of VR simulation of the island.  The tone of the video is a lot more neutral than I was led to believe by the above review, and after discussing it with Rachael we agreed that it can be read in a much more positive light as someone who’s emerged from the game and begun seeing the patterns and connections in actual nature that are implied within the game world (this reading fits with the general theme of the game’s multitude of audio logs that emphasize various forms of universal connectivity).

My general opinion of The Witness‘s themes is a lot less negative now than it was after the first playthrough, but I still can’t quite shake old biases.  Some pessimistic part of me wants to embrace the cynicism of thinking that Thekla produced a game that’s wrapped in so many layers of artifice that its assertions about interconnection are mostly pat platitudes.  My optimistic side enjoys the way The Witness gathers a pretty eclectic pool of sources together to demonstrate a repeated communal pattern.  Whichever opinion I prefer on a given day is likely to be dependent entirely on my mood.

Really, What Are We Witnessing?

I feel like my last post on The Witness involved a fair bit of bloviation about the weirdness of the title (to be fair, it was a post on the subject of titles) and only a little discussion of the game itself, so this post is going to try to remedy that to an extent.

In case you’ve not actually heard anything about The Witness‘s core gameplay, it works like this.  You play as your typical AFGNCAAP who has free run of an abandoned island littered with statues of people and little screens that show a variety of line drawing puzzles.  The core mechanic of these line drawing puzzles can best be described as navigating a maze where you can’t immediately see the boundaries, and different areas of the island feature puzzles that gradually educate you on the implicit rules that dictate how to solve each challenge.  By the time you reach the game’s final area, you’ll find that you’ve mastered about eight different puzzle mechanics that get combined and remixed to present puzzles that don’t necessarily grow in complexity (there were a handful of puzzles that Rachael and I genuinely struggled with, mostly because they were tied to unique environmental features that didn’t repeat very often) but which do feel continuously novel.  The end result is a game experience that doesn’t really scale in difficulty, and is actually designed with the intention of allowing the player to advance based on their own mastery of game mechanics rather than the artificial easing of difficulty that things like in-game experience levels tend to do.

I have to admit that this experience of progress based on player skill left me feeling ambivalent.  As an able-bodied gamer with a relatively sharp mind and decades of muscle memory helping me intuit how contemporary games work, I felt a real sense of satisfaction every time I worked out a particularly difficult puzzle.  The moment when I could visualize a solution before drawing it on the grid was always immensely satisfying, and success never felt cheap or like an inevitable result of putting in the necessary grind time.  On the other hand, one thing that I try to note and appreciate about games is their accessibility.  I became particularly aware of The Witness‘s inaccessibility a couple days after starting it when I mentioned it to some of my students with whom I discuss video games, and they dismissed it out of hand as a stupid game.  Though we didn’t revisit it, the impression they left me with was that The Witness, as a slow paced puzzle game, played against their strengths.  Inferring logical rules isn’t a strong suit for many of my students (teaching them explicit mathematical principles is a constant struggle), and The Witness‘s mode of instruction is entirely based on inference.

Now, there’s certainly something to be said about differences in taste and establishing who the target audience of a particular creative work is supposed to be.  I imagine that in conceiving The Witness, Jonathan Blow was not trying to capture the average teenage demographic, which is fine.  From a narrative perspective, his work tends to be highly opaque in a way that discourages people who prefer explicitly defined, Western style stories (I confess that I generally find the way Blow presents his themes to be more than a little pretentious; it’s his game design that draws most of my admiration), and you can’t reasonably expect any artist to make creative work that runs counter to what it is they want to express.  My main issue here is with regards to the accessibility of a game’s mechanics.  Can a person with limited mobility or fine motor control manipulate an interface that allows them to experience a game?  Does the core mechanic of the game rely on a player having a certain inherent cognitive strength, like the visual-spacial logic puzzles of The Witness do?  In the case of mechanics contributing to a game’s thematic elements, where’s a reasonable line to draw between accessibility and artistic vision?  How does the introduction of commercial factors influence these sorts of decisions?  It all gets really complicated really fast, and I’m not sure there are any particularly clear answers.

At any rate, while there are a lot of complicated questions to go along with a discussion of The Witness‘s mechanics, I feel like the narrative themes are a little more straightforward.  The environmental nature of many of the puzzle solutions and the thematically connected recordings strewn around the island that discuss various topics related to the interconnectedness of the individual with their environment point towards a distinct overarching theme.  It’s hard to forget the intentionality behind every aspect of the island with all the little touches that emerge suddenly with all the shifts in perspective that the game relies on (discovery of so many secrets require the player assiduously playing with perspective in every part of the environment).  Even though it looks like a natural environment, you always suspect that even within the world of the game everything about the island was deliberately designed (the final area, located inside the island’s central mountain, confirms this suspicion with a series of workshops filled with models and concept art for other locations on the island).  As for the larger purpose of all these thematic linkages, I feel more or less at a loss.  I can see the optimism inherent in a philosophical outlook that emphasizes universal interconnection, but the game’s culmination left me feeling largely unmoved by its meditation.  It’s all incredibly clever, and if I were more inclined to ponder great universal mysteries and the emergence of complexity from simplicity, then I might find it a satisfying pastime.  As it is, my final feelings about The Witness are that I really enjoyed the puzzles, and I’m grateful most of the thematic stuff was left to the side.

I Like Fighting Games But I Suck At Them

Seeing as I’m a child of the ’90s, I think of a few very particular genres of video games when I get nostalgic.  There are platformers and JRPGs, which were my bread and butter for the majority of my childhood (platformers came earlier when everyone was trying to imitate Super Mario Bros. and JRPGs were a little later when I became more interested in consuming everything in Squaresoft’s catalogue), but those aren’t the only kind of games I loved as a kid.  I got caught up in the fighting game frenzy that started with Street Fighter II and carried on through Mortal Kombat and all the imitators, though I was never very good.

The one big thing I remember about fighters is that they were a genre that dominated the arcades, which were a magical far off place that I hardly ever visited.  I satisfied myself with the Super Nintendo ports of Street Fighter II, which I played by myself because I was a very socially awkward kid who didn’t master the art of making friends until I was much older.  Consequently, my experience with fighting games has always been skewed in strange ways.

Seth Killian Wants To Help You Not Suck At Fighting Games

Screenshot from Rising Thunder, a new fighter designed by Seth Killian that’s trying to implement a simplified control scheme that helps bypass the input barrier for novice players. Click the picture for a story on the game. (Image credit: Kotaku)

Though there were a few years where I briefly flirted with Mortal Kombat as a series (this was around the time Mortal Kombat 3 got its home console port, which was apparently around the time I was old enough that my parents stopped being quite so concerned about the level of violence in video games that I played), I’ve always been a fan of Street Fighter first and foremost.  Like all fighting games, the story is pretty thin (contrasted with JRPGs which have always tried to put the story front and center), but the characters have an absurd quality that I can’t help finding compelling.  Motivations in the world of a fighting game are usually incredibly pure (it’s all about getting stronger), and it’s a setting where that kind of simplicity is really okay.  The reason people are playing is because they want to enjoy the mechanics of the game.

The problem, of course, is that the mechanics of fighters are extremely esoteric.

I think I played Street Fighter II for a couple years before I really got a handle on the controller inputs for basic special moves (my estrangement from the arcades also means that I’ve never been comfortable with the convention of playing fighters with an arcade stick; considering how expensive quality sticks can be, it’s just never been something I’ve wanted to explore).  Until I was able to pretty reliably throw fireballs and do uppercuts, I preferred characters with simple control schemes that relied on button mashing to muddle through fights (Blanka was my first main character, primarily because I had a turbo controller that let me just hold down a punch button and spam his electricity attack nonstop).  Probably the main reason that I’ve stuck with Street Fighter as a series is because the special move motions have remained pretty consistent, with the design for characters gradually streamlining so that there’s only a handful of inputs that are needed to be able to access the full scope of any given character’s toolbox (except for full circle rotations; I’ve never been able to do those well, and to this day characters like Zangief have totally opaque movesets for me).

Of course, the thing about the last paragraph is that for all my familiarity with the basic structure of how the game works, I’m awful at it.  I struggle to finish the arcade mode in any given entry in the Street Fighter series on anything above the easiest difficulty setting (and yes, I know that the computer AI is always cheating and reinforces really bad habits for play against another person), and playing against anyone who isn’t a total newbie to fighting games usually leads to pretty sound defeat.  I’m more or less shut out from participating in the larger community in any kind of satisfying way (participatory pastimes are most satisfying when you can be successful at them, and the inherent problem in a competitive pastime is that success involves winning at least some of the time), and there’s not a lot of recourse there.  Remember all that talk about how it took me forever to get a decent handle on the basic command inputs for the game?  Even with all my experience, I’m just not good enough to enjoy the genre on the deeper level that designers and high level players are able to.

Still, I keep coming back to these games.  I’m not really sure why that is, exactly.  Maybe there’s something in the fact that unlike other kinds of games that typically reward the player’s commitment to play with a decrease in difficulty (any kind of system for progressive power growth in a game is actually a system that gradually lowers the difficulty of the game while giving the player the illusion of becoming better), fighting games don’t offer that kind of rewards system.  Player success is determined by player ability, which I know isn’t really an inclusive approach to gaming, but it kind of fits with that same pure narrative that permeates the genre.

Everyone wants to get stronger.

Revisiting Chrono Cross (Part 2)

By this point in the story, we’ve been introduced to two of our primary players (the third will be showing up at the end of this next act), and we’ve gotten our feet a little wet with the combat system.

I should probably talk about combat, since the system in place here really doesn’t remind me of any other game of the time (I can see elements of the system being incorporated into later games, even in Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s Focus attacks, but as a whole Chrono Cross‘s combat still remains pretty unique in my mind).


Ignore the guy wielding a fishing pole and a speedo and just note the stamina bars and element grids that are partially charged for all the characters. Basic battleflow is attack -> cast elements -> move to new character and repeat. (Image credit: Chronopedia)

Combat generally flows like this:

You start any given battle with your entire party having full stamina.  Your characters can attack in any order, but every attack they attempt consumes a piece of their stamina bar (attacks are graded from light, costing one stamina point, to fierce, costing three) and every hit they land increases their accuracy for follow up hits until the chain gets broken by an enemy’s attack (stronger attacks are typically less accurate, and the common wisdom is to chain from light attacks to fierce in order to boost your accuracy on those harder hits).  At the same time you’re attacking, every hit builds power on your character’s element grid.  This is the part that’s viewed with mixed feelings.  On the one hand, this is a very different kind of magic system from what was typically done in console RPGs at the time.  Instead of having magic points that they consume to cast spells they innately know, each of your characters has an empty grid that can be customized with whatever abilities you’ve acquired throughout the game (the idea of collecting spells like items wasn’t totally new; Square did something similar in Final Fantasy VIII; coincidentally, that game’s magic system also receives much criticism, though in that case it had more to do with the way spell collection was tied directly to character stats, which made players reluctant to actually spend the magic they had earned).  Each character has an innate color, which makes them more proficient with abilities of matching colors and less with abilities of opposite colors, but any character can use any ability in the game (with the rare exception of summoning spells).

So far, things aren’t too out there.

The twist that I think confounded most people was the fact that while your abilities can never be used up (unless they’re specifically noted as consumable elements), they can only be used once per battle.  Enemies, naturally, have no such constraints, and will use their special attacks endlessly.  This creates a scenario where every fight is something of a race against the clock, where you’re trying to kill the enemy party before you run out of elements on your characters’ grids (keep in mind that there is no item system in Chrono Cross, so you can’t keep yourself afloat by relying on healing items unless you plan to sacrifice spell slots to equip consumable elements).  Add in the fact that you also can’t grind levels to beat difficult fights (character levels are replaced with ‘growth levels’ that only get unlocked for your entire party by defeating bosses), and this magic system can be pretty frustrating.

There are several anti-frustration features built in to help overcome the learning curve, fortunately.  The designers saw fit to make it so you can always retreat from fights (even bosses) and reconsider your tactics or tweak your element setup, and the end of every fight gives you to option to heal using any unused healing elements from the battle (which means if you plan accordingly, you can always get free healing after every encounter).  Besides that, even regular encounters can be entertaining since there’s no reason to hold your more powerful spells in reserve (unless you’re doing a New Game + playthrough and want to finish battles quickly; at that point it really is more time efficient to beat enemies to death).

Overall, I think the combat system in Chrono Cross is pretty entertaining, though it has some major flaws that probably limited its popularity.  I mean, it’s essentially a modified version of the spell slot system that originated with the earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons (anyone who’s played one of the earlier versions of Final Fantasy will recall how well that system translates to a game where encounters are randomly generated and healing items are severely limited).

Anyhow, next time I’ll get into Serge and Kid’s misadventures sneaking into Viper Manor.

Is a Better Home Awaiting

Spoilers for BioShock Infinite are discussed below.  The previous part of this series can be found here.

One feature of BioShock Infinite that got a lot of attention leading up to its release was the nature of the character Elizabeth.  She’s the story’s deuteragonist (if this story were ever adapted in a non-interactive format, I’d like to see it rearranged to make her the protagonist; I think it could be easily accomplished with a simple perspective shift), and there was a ton of hooplah surrounding the fact that she wouldn’t just be an NPC, but a companion to the player through the majority of the game.  The developers went to a lot of trouble to emphasize that they wanted the player to feel a strong connection with Elizabeth, and because of that they worked really hard on her AI as well as her general treatment by the game’s story.

Elizabeth R1

Elizabeth before Booker happens to her. (Image credit: BioShock Wiki)

Of course, that’s the same thing that the developers of Fable II said several years ago about your canine companion in that game.  To be fair, when I finished Fable II and had to decide which of the three endings I wanted, I picked the one where the dog gets resurrected; yeah, it was monstrous to pick the dog over all the innocent people who were killed in the background, but the dog actually had an impact on gameplay.  I liked getting free items while wandering around doing stuff.

Come to think, I liked that about Elizabeth too.  It was really convenient having her there tossing me healing items and ammo when I needed them.  I mean, I could have lived without it.  But it was definitely convenient.

Does anyone else see a problem with the fact that I can compare the utility of a dog from a game released six years ago with the utility of a girl from a game released last year?

This is not a step forward for game design.

Now, there is more than game utility to Elizabeth as a character.  I happen to think she was particularly well written (which is unusual, because there’s typically something about any female character that I can find problematic).  Yeah, she starts off as a Rapunzel type damsel, but that gets subverted pretty quickly when we learn that she has the capacity to alter reality to fit her whim, and she’s really angry about being used as a pawn in Comstock’s legacy scheme.  Elizabeth is a very human character.

But she’s also a glorified item fetcher.


While definitely better written than the Fable II dog, Elizabeth and this companion share the same functionality in their respective games. (Image credit: Fable Wiki)

The problem is that I can see the conundrum the developers would have been in when they were thinking about how to incorporate her into the game mechanics.  Booker is a violent man trying to resolve a violent conflict, and it’s established from the start of his and Elizabeth’s relationship that she’s repulsed and horrified by his behavior.  It would go completely against character for her to be an active combatant, so she can’t assist by killing enemies.  Also, it’s established pretty quickly that while she doesn’t like the violence, she’s realistic about encountering it and can’t just cower away from every fight that happens after that point in the story.  With those character restrictions, there’s really not much else Elizabeth can do to ‘help’ Booker in fights other than to provide him with scavenged supplies.  Still, I probably wouldn’t have gone on and on about how cool this AI companion was going to be (I should clarify that most of the talk about the niftiness of the AI was related to how Elizabeth interacts with the environment, which is pretty cool and goes a long way towards good characterization, but from a utility standpoint, she’s just not that remarkable).

So essentially, Elizabeth is a far better portrayed character than the dog, but if you were to strip away all the story and just talk about the mechanics, they’d be the same thing.

Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Elizabeth is the female character who gets the best treatment.  The other three major female characters feel incredibly flat in comparison.  Daisy Fitzroy is angry about the treatment of Columbia’s underclass, but anger’s really all we see from her.  The same is true for Rosalind Lutece, who’s essentially a one-note plot device along with her quantum twin Robert (I enjoyed every scene where they appeared, but the only reaction they ever seemed to evoke was “huh, weird.”).  The Lady Comstock is an interesting idea (literally; Elizabeth speculates that the ghost of Lady Comstock is more a projection of how Elizabeth imagines her rather than any real reflection of the woman), but she’s not really anything more than that.  She’s dead from the outset, and her brief quantum resurrection is little more than an extended boss fight that revolves around Elizabeth getting further character development.

Of course, I think the problematic elements of the female characters in this game just continue to feed back into my point about this being a paradoxical game.  The developers clearly wanted to do better by Elizabeth than other female characters in games, but it seems they couldn’t help hamstringing themselves with a devotion to the form of a big budget shooter.

Some Stuff That’s Nifty (4/27/14)

We have fifteen days of school left at work, and everyone’s starting to get kind of antsy.  This next week’s going to be the most stressful because the high school’s doing our End of Course testing (two days, four 2.5 hour testing blocks, a mess of very tired and frustrated students).  On the bright side, after that’s over we’re going to do fun educational things like watch the Baz Luhrman version of Romeo & Juliet (the kids expressed interest when I mentioned that it features gang warfare, though they were disappointed that there are no fully automatic weapons).


1. This article involves a pretty good breakdown of the instances where Jesus discusses hell in the Gospels.  It’s a small number.  Then it goes on to breakdown where Jesus discusses heaven.  In Matthew alone, the number of instances where heaven is mentioned is nearly quadruple the total mentions of hell in all the Gospels.  I think that’s a pretty strong sign that Jesus had more interest in a justice of reconciliation rather than a justice of retribution.

2. Zack Hunt reposted a video from Time about a couple in California who believe God instructed them to open up a marijuana dispensary.  It’s a charming story, and does raise some interesting questions about how Americans in the Church are going to deal with the eventual legalization of pot in our country.  Check it out, if for no other reason than to see the guy in the story offer a Girl Scout cookie to the camera operator in the middle of the interview.

3. Dan Haseltine (of Jars of Clay) asked what the big deal was about gay marriage on Twitter this week.  As in, “Is there a non-speculative or non “slippery slope” reason why gays shouldn’t marry?”  It turned into a huge conversation that spans tons of tweets from Dan where things really blew up, and there were many harsh words.  I’m not adept with Twitter at all, so it’s kind of difficult for me to follow everything that was said, but the responses were generally infuriating, particularly from people who claimed that Dan was no longer a Christian because he was asking questions about gay marriage.  I think my regulars know how I feel about that kind of talk.  Anyhow, Dan eventually posted a more complete explanation of what sparked the conversation in the first place on his blog, so that will be shared as well.  For what it’s worth, I’m glad that he’s asking these sorts of questions.  It’s a good place to start in examining our assumptions about issues of faith.

4. Richard Beck’s been writing recently about the influence participating in a charismatic church community has had on his meditations about faith.  It’s very interesting and serves as a helpful dose of fairness for someone like me who’s grown into a more subdued and intellectual form of spiritual practice.  But instead of linking to that, I’m going to link you to his post about how Scooby-Doo is an allegory for the transformation of our understanding of evil from literal demonic powers to an expression of the worst impulses in human nature like greed and deception.


0. This is a late addition to the roundup because I just saw this story last night, but it seems that a large group of students were kidnapped in Nigeria by an extremist group who did not want the girls receiving an education.  According to the article, the Nigerian government hasn’t done anything to assist in searching for the missing students, leaving the families to pay for vehicles and searchers out of their own pockets.  There’s a link to a petition in the article where you can sign to try to put pressure on the Nigerian government to do something about this situation.  Personally, I don’t know how effective that petition will be, but as someone who’s living halfway around the world, passing on the information feels like the best thing I can do to help.

1. Gender wage gaps exist in children’s allowances.  The image this article conjured for me was of a household with multiple children, a mix of boys and girls, where the parents give their sons more money than their daughters and don’t think about the disparity or dismiss it with odd rationales.  That’s probably extreme, and I doubt there are actually families who operate in such a way, but it’s a strange image nonetheless.  Remind me, if I have children, to give them all the same allowance: one crisp dollar a week.  That way they can learn about income inequality instead.

2. Samantha Field does a nice job of taking apart a recent diatribe from a blogger I really wish I weren’t familiar with.  Also, she points out that Do Not Links are the best thing ever for pointing people to things you want to criticize without contributing to their internet traffic.


1. An old video clip from The Daily Show featuring a mock debate between Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert.  The topic: Islam vs. Christianity.

2. Everyone on the internet does a cover of the Super Mario Bros. theme.  This guy did it with his fingers.

3. This bug is not having an existential crisis.  We’re just anthropomorphizing a glitch in the creature’s biology that prevents it from realizing that it’s not actually mobile.  Doesn’t change the fact that I watched this video to the end, fascinated by the anthropomorphic navel-gazing.

4. When I was a teenager, I loved Dragon Ball Z.  It’s a fun show with a simple concept: burly guys who train really hard can fly, destroy planets, and instantly grow and highlight their hair through sheer willpower.  Also, it’s an excellent illustration of time dilation as events depicted in the show tend to happen at relativistic speeds, but somehow in real time they take years to play out.  Anyway, the best thing about this show is that it has a mob of internet fans who like to argue about who is the best character.  So when someone posts a character ranking list without any kind of context, it’s like putting blood in a pool of sharks.  Enjoy the comments on this thread, which range from good-humored snark to angry rants about why the list is wrong on every level.  Warning: as with any fandom discussion, this could be a little esoteric.


1. Though I’m not really versed in any programming languages, I do think that programming logic is really interesting.  This is a collection of simple game mechanic simulators that show the code involved in each example so that you can see the moving parts of various aspects of a cohesive video game.


1. I remember doing this experiment in high school physics, but we used small model cars and glass bubbles with a little bit of water in them.  The video’s a good illustration of a fluid dynamics problem, and the guy who made the video is pretty engaging to watch.  He has a whole channel where he produces science-related videos.  There was some interesting debate on the original article where I found this video about the fact that the host, Destin, has trained his children to refer to him as “Sir.”  Anyone who’s from the American South would just shrug and note that many Southerners teach their children that using honorifics like Sir and Ma’am is just part of good manners.  For people who weren’t familiar with the practice, there was a lot of bristling.

For my part, I was more concerned with the fact that Destin appears to be an evangelical Christian.  It’s fantastic that he’s so interested in science education, and his videos really are very engaging, but I’m left with questions about his mindset.  There are a few moments in the balloon video where Destin takes a patronizing tone with his kids, or he dismisses their genuine curiosity about a scientific phenomenon (like the helium trick at the end of the video) with a flip non-explanation.  Also, and this is a concern that may be irrelevant since we’re talking about pretty basic educational videos, what is Destin’s attitude towards evolutionary explanations for biological phenomena?  From what I’ve gathered looking at a few of his videos, he seems to have a background in aeronautics, which may explain why he focuses on topics related primarily to physics.

2. Vaccines are good.  Get them.


1. I’m not going to link you to TV Tropes, because that’s a despicable thing to do to readers who may have a lot they need to get done.  Instead, I’m going to link you to the Periodic Table of Storytelling.  Just don’t click on anything.


1. There’s an interesting article at the Atlantic this week arguing that Disney has been offering ongoing support to the LGBTQ community for decades as an explanation for the apparently pro-gay reading that many people have had of FrozenI only saw the film once, and I honestly didn’t even make a connection between the plot and the struggles of an LGBTQ person (although in hindsight I suppose it should have been more obvious; I made some jokes about superheroes, and that genre is rife with allegory and metaphor about oppressed minorities).  It’s a good article, and I can see the case that the writer’s making.  On the flip side of that though, there was also a post at the io9 sub-blog (is that a thing?  I’m declaring it a thing) Animation questioning whether Disney is really pro-gay, or if, being a corporate entity with the goal of making as much money as possible, it’s simply casting a very wide net in terms of its messaging in order to appeal to the largest demographic.  Given the history of the company and Walt Disney’s own vision of creating a culture that was so pristinely inoffensive that everyone would aspire to join it, I’m inclined to go with the latter reading (although being pro-acceptance is still a laudable message).

2. As a public educator, I don’t want any more firearms inside school buildings (or in most public places for that matter).  My ultimate boss in the Georgia state government, Nathan Deal, disagrees.  I think my boss is a moron.