Six live-action TV series I like

Yes, shocking but true: I’ve watched live-action TV series in the past. I almost never write about them, because what can I really add? But since I haven’t been able to make much of any progress at all with my running games or anime series lately, I thought it might be a good time to fill that gap by briefly looking at six of these series I like. And if this strengthens my normie credentials a little, that’s fine too, because God knows I could use more of those when I’m forced to socialize with people outside the dank, dark subcultures I inhabit.

This list is not exhaustive, but I haven’t enjoyed too many more live-action shows than these. Listed roughly in order of airing:

1) Columbo

Here’s a true classic, one that stopped airing in its original run a while before I even came around. Even the kids today seem to know something about it, but if you need an introduction, Columbo is a police procedural drama/comedy centered on title character Lt. Columbo of the LAPD, a homicide detective. Columbo is notably not a mystery — a typical episode begins with the lead-up to the murder, the murder itself, and the immediate aftermath, all while following the killer’s POV. The entertainment in Columbo comes not from trying to figure out who committed the crime (in contrast with Agatha Christie’s Poirot for example) but in following Columbo as he pieces everything together.

This wouldn’t work so well if Columbo himself weren’t a good character, but he’s a great one. He’s naturally extremely sharp, catching small details that few if any others ever notice, the details that seal the perpetrators’ fates at the end of each episode. However, he’s also exceedingly humble, a natural character trait but also a major benefit to his work, since his disheveled appearance and his rambling stories about his wife and cousin and dog usually convince the perp that he’s harmless — until he has them cornered.

I highly recommend Columbo, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t generally like crime or cop shows (though I also like Poirot, sure.) There was a revival in the 90s following the original 70s run that I haven’t seen — it looks fine, but the original Columbo is the one I’ve watched and it’s the one that people seem to care far more about.

2) Blackadder

I first saw British comic actor Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean as a kid, but I only discovered his 80s “historical comedy” Blackadder much later, probably right around when I could appreciate it. Blackadder follows a series of four different and presumably related guys throughout British history named Blackadder. The first series was a little bit of a dud as even some of the people involved have said, the probable reason being that the first Blackadder is a sniveling, pathetic character who’s kind of hard to like. I still think that first series has plenty of good moments (see the great Brian Blessed as the fictional King Richard IV) but the following series definitely improved a lot on the formula, turning Blackadder into a much smarter and more cunning amoral asshole. As much of an asshole as he is, however, there’s plenty of satirical criticism dumped on incompetent and greedy rulers, and that’s always welcome when it’s done well as it is here.

Atkinson is always at the center, but he’s not the only prominent player here: if you’re an American like me who first saw Hugh Laurie in House, you should see his very different performances in Blackadder, and maybe it’s no surprise that Stephen Fry also shows up a lot. All the acting is great, however. If you like history or comedy at all, check this one out.

3) Yes Minister

Moving from historical to political comedy, Yes Minister is another British series from the 80s centered on new government minister Jim Hacker and his civil service counterpart Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby. Hacker is a well-meaning but somewhat cowardly politician — he wants to do the right thing, but he’s also obsessed with his poll numbers and his placement in the Prime Minister’s cabinet. He also has to deal with Sir Humphrey, a smooth, intelligent, and extremely cynical bureaucrat who runs the administration side of his ministry — though Sir Humphrey would say he’s the one who has to deal with Hacker. These guys spend most of Yes Minister sparring over policy matters and occasionally joining forces with Hacker’s personal private secretary (but also civil servant and therefore on the same payroll as Sir Humphrey) Bernard Woolley caught in the middle.

From what I can tell, Yes Minister doesn’t take a political stance — Hacker’s party is never named and just seems to be generic center-ish party. The real focus is horn-locking between the politician and the bureaucrat. Good stuff if you don’t mind watching mostly guys in suits talk in fancy rooms, but even if that puts you off, I promise Yes Minister is worth a shot.

4) Father Ted

I haven’t been to Ireland and haven’t had anything to do with Catholicism aside from the one side of my family who are about as lapsed as you can get without formally getting rid of that affiliation, but I still liked the Irish comedy Father Ted a lot. This series follows Father Ted Crilly in his virtual exile to a remote island off the western coast of Ireland for some financial mishap he was involved in, where he has to live with two other priests, the kind but slow-witted Father Dougal and the possibly senile and definitely alcoholic Father Jack. Ted spends most of his time taking care of all the actual church duties these two can’t handle while trying to put up with both them, their strangely obsessive housekeeper who gets irate when they refuse to drink the tea she’s constantly brewing, and his hardass boss.

I’m sure there’s stuff that’s still over my head (like what an ecumenical matter is) but I like the show’s comedy, which sometimes gets physical and sometimes absurd. Other fans of Nichijou, Asobi Asobase, and similar misfit absurdist anime comedies should check out Father Ted.

5) Seinfeld

It’s hard to explain why Seinfeld is enjoyable. It’s the famous “show about nothing”, after all. Though I’d say it’s actually a show about etiquette starring four friends consisting of three jerks and one generally well-meaning but insane guy. Each episode follows these four and their other friends/relatives/enemies as they stumble through life in New York City and get themselves in totally avoidable and unnecessary trouble.

I grew up watching Seinfeld in syndication, but I was aware of it as a kid while it was airing and knew it was a big deal along with 90s NBC’s other massively popular sitcoms. Friends and Frasier were both pretty good as well from what I remember, but I think Seinfeld holds up just as well if not better for its great asshole characters. And while Kramer and Newman are especially entertaining, my favorite character has to be eternal loser George Costanza above.

6) The Office (US, but UK is good too)

There’s the disclaimer I’m obligated to give above. I’m not going to say the US Office is better or worse than the UK one — they’re essentially different series and both have their good points, but the US show is the one I know better. On the off chance you haven’t seen either, I’ll just say they’re both worth checking out. Their use of awkward comedy might be uncomfortable for some people (especially the UK version, featuring far more of an assholish boss in David Brent than his American counterpart in Michael Scott) but if you can get past that, there’s a lot to enjoy in both. Though as usual, the American series ran far longer than the British one, arguably overstaying its welcome for a couple of seasons after its central character left the show. (Also, I wouldn’t recommend starting with the first season of the American series — it wasn’t that good, and the show was overhauled and possibly saved from being canceled at the start of the second.)

Some statistics in case you care at all to judge my own tastes: looking over the above list of series, five of the six are comedies and the remaining one has strong comedic elements; three are American, two British, and one Irish. Five are “old” according to the youngest generation that’s currently shaping pop culture (and maybe they’d call The Office old too at this point. Lord, my aching bones.) And maybe not surprisingly for that reason, four feature the old outdated sitcom standard canned laughter, which I admit can be annoying. But look at it this way: when you’ve seen enough older sitcoms, you can tune that laugh track out and focus on the comedy. If the comedy sucks, however, the laugh track only emphasizes its badness. There’s a certain more recent extremely popular laugh-tracked comedy I consider bad that I could name, but it’s taken more than its share of fully deserved kicks by now.

So maybe those normie credentials I was looking for are a bit out of date. Not like Seinfeld makes for water cooler talk anymore, after all. I’m sure there are other more current live-action shows I’d like — for example, Office spiritual successor Parks and Rec and arguably Seinfeld spiritual successor It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But man, I don’t know. My anime backlog is way too large to add anything else unless I somehow get a thousand-year sentence in an age-slowing isolation tank with a TV so I can watch all this stuff. Blackadder being on this list might even give me negative points in that sense, considering its status as a cult nerd sort of show — I may well have put MST3K on the list too if calling that a typical live-action series didn’t feel off.

But maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s impossible to dig myself out of that  hole at this point, seeing how my current watch list consists of anime, VTuber clips, and “catgirl cleans your ears with her tongue” ASMR sound-only videos. Say what you want about that last category, but it works better than therapy and is a hell of a lot cheaper.

Final thoughts on Outer Wilds (from midway to the end)

A view of the Sun, Outer Wilds

Finally, finally. After writing that initial thoughts on Outer Wilds post ten months ago, I set the game aside. I didn’t drop it — as I wrote then, I intended to revisit it someday, but its challenges at the time proved too much for me to take on. Looking back, I might have been approaching Outer Wilds in the wrong way, trying to swallow up the entire thing at once instead of taking it a piece at a time. I knew even then that that was the approach I needed to take with it, but my patience just ran out. Having read various takes on the game around both from people who have finished it and those who haven’t, I’ve seen a lot of that same sentiment, so maybe that’s no surprise.

But I’ve also seen others say that the game’s mysteries were powerful enough to pull them back in. That’s just what happened to me: every time I started up my PS4 when I had a break from work, I’d see Outer Wilds sitting there in my list, and I’d pass it by but remember that promise I made to myself, to figure the damn thing out. And I guess it’s obvious from the fact that I’m writing this post, but I finally did, albeit with a little help from my friends because I’m also a cheat (but then what do you expect from a lawyer? Really now.)

I hope you like my extremely overlongform posts, because this is going to be one of those; I already know it — I have too much to say this time. I’ll start as I did in my first post on the game, with a summarized tour of my travels through the solar system since I picked the game back up, and then with more general thoughts on the themes, the ending(s), all that. If you haven’t read that first post, it’s basically now part one of this two-part review, so if you don’t know anything about the game, what follows will be meaningless unless you’re read up. However, a serious spoiler warning: I’ll be going in depth here and will be spoiling the entire game in its vanilla form (i.e. without the Echoes of the Eye DLC, which I haven’t played.) It’s often said that Outer Wilds is one of those games it’s best to go into as completely blind as possible, and having finished it, I agree. It’s up to you, of course, but fair warning.

The Sun Station, Outer Wilds

When I returned to the game, back at that familiar campfire, I went straight to my ship’s computer to figure out where I hadn’t been and where I needed to go. The list I made was pretty long: the dangerously Sun-adjacent Sun Station, the statue workshop on Giant’s Deep, the core of Giant’s Deep (which I’d tried to penetrate before without luck), the various Quantum Towers (which I somehow hadn’t even found on Giant’s Deep — I know), the Quantum Moon (again, tried and failed), the Southern Observatory on Brittle Hollow, and the entirety of Dark Bramble (tried and swallowed up once, then put that planet on the backburner permanently.)

I started with Sun Station. I’d read so much about the place at this point in Nomai writings that I felt it was a natural first stop. After working out how to get through the warp on Ash Twin through some trial and error (and holy hell was this trek annoying — more using falling/rising sand to avoid deadly cacti) I made it to the solar station, then tried to make the leap across the gap you see above as the bridge was out (because of course it was.) So I jumped, but without using nearly enough thrust, and so I ended up floating helplessly into space.

I shut the game down, remembering why I’d set it aside in the first place. I had to consciously keep myself from grinding my teeth, and while it was tempting, throwing my controller was out of the question, since I’d already had one break on me all on its own and replacement PS4 controllers are obscenely expensive.

But there was no turning back. I was determined to actually finish this god damn game, so I returned to the Sun Station after waiting for that stupid sand flow between the Twin planets to do its work once again, and I made the leap properly this time. And having made it across, I then remembered why I returned to Outer Wilds despite all this frustration: it rewards effort and exploration, most of all with knowledge. I don’t think the Sun Station is technically a vital step on your path to the end of the game, but the Nomai as usual leave their written conversations everywhere, and here I learned that their efforts to use the station to cause a supernova and use the energy collected to time-warp had failed. I also learned that this all happened around 280,000 years ago, unless the Nomai clock on the station had the wrong reading, and there was no reason to assume it did.

Advanced Warp Core, Ash Twin Project, Outer Wilds

My explorations next took me to the core of Ash Twin. I’d figured out that most every planet and at least one station had warp pads here, making Ash Twin into a kind of hub planet for travel, and after even more trial and error I made it entirely by accident to the planet’s core and the heart of the Nomai’s time loop operation, discovering the memory-importing/exporting masks I’d seen through various projection stones and even at the end of every loop when time reset. I also found what you see above: the “advanced warp core” powering the Nomai time-warp fuckery, with a miniature black and white hole contained inside a device. I knew more than I ever wanted to know about this game’s black hole in -> white hole out mechanic from falling into the much larger black hole at the center of Brittle Hollow countless times last year, and the same sorts of miniature black/white hole combinations showed up in the Nomai’s warp pad mechanisms. So this device being at the center, I figured it was monumentally important — a fact that was confirmed when I removed it and a more dramatic, lengthened version of the end-of-loop music started playing.

Clearly I’d made a breakthrough. I supposed I had to do something with this device other than simply remove it from the core, but I had no idea what to do with it. At least one suspicion I had was confirmed at the end of this run: instead of getting the typical end-of-loop memory-mask sequence, I got a “You Are Dead” message, just like the one I’d gotten when I accidentally killed myself by stepping on a geyser on Timber Hearth ten minutes into my first run of the game. The mask hadn’t yet activated then to throw me into that loop and I had to reload my save — this time, I’d turned the entire system off with the same result.

The next stop was Giant’s Deep. I’d finally worked out that I had to land above and inside the massive tornado at the planet’s north pole, and of course there was one of those Quantum Towers, where I finally figured out the trick to landing on the Quantum Moon. Why it kept disappearing when I previously flew headlong into it in frustration, I’m still not sure — maybe it’s the cloud layer shrouding the moon in darkness that did it, which would be an effective clue for how to get to that fucking sixth location if only I’d drawn those dots.

Quantum Shrine, Outer Wilds

After finding a fully suited Nomai corpse on the moon’s surface and remembering, then discovering her ship there, the one I’d recalled on Brittle Hollow, I stumbled on this giant shrine where I found markers for six moon orbit locations as I’d read elsewhere. I would eventually figure out how to quantumly (?) travel between planets’ orbits using this shrine, again through brute force trial and error, but not yet. I knew I had one planet left to visit that I’d been putting off. I’d read that the chief Nomai craft had been wrecked there, and I knew my fellow astronaut Feldspar was in there somewhere too.

So I had no choice but to brave the interior of the broken, twisted Dark Bramble. I put it off as long as possible, checking everything else off my list that I could: finding the horribly confusing path to the Southern Observatory, getting into the statue workshop hidden in a practically underwater cave, finally managing to dock with the broken orbital cannon I kept seeing at the start of every loop around Giant’s Deep. Only that planet’s core evaded me, but I rightly guessed that I’d find the key to that inside this final “planet.”

Listen: fuck Dark Bramble. I hated this place. Not because it was especially scary — I got used to drifting by the deadly anglerfish pretty quickly, as terrifying as they look, and I actually found having to navigate under the ocean of Giant’s Deep far more terrifying (thalassophobes take note; you’ll have to deal with that too.) But navigating through this place is a massive pain in the ass: not only can you not even use a touch of your main thruster to propel yourself if you so much as hear an anglerfish nearby since they hunt using their sharp sense of hearing, but the main “seed” in the core of the planet contains many more seeds inside it, all of equal or even greater size on the inside. Dark Bramble is a nesting doll of timespace bullshit, and while it’s actually cool and impressive how the developer strung together this internally looping maze, it sure isn’t much fun to get through when you’re worried about that 22-minute time limit yet you can only move at a crawl.

I ended quite a few cycles in Dark Bramble: getting lost, getting eaten, wishing I could kill every fucking fish inside this hellhole and bring their skeletons home as trophies (if only I had the ability and the time.) After much more trial and error, I finally found Feldspar, our legendary pilot and the first Hearthian to venture into Dark Bramble only to lose their ship after being chased by a god damn anglerfish. Feldspar complimented my resolve (nice to hear after all the bullshit I’d just gone through) and gave me the key to getting into the core of Giant’s Deep, pointing me to a dead electric jellyfish mysteriously frozen in the ice at the “south pole” of this broken planet just like the jellyfish swimming around Giant’s Deep’s core, with a note that they’re good insulators and a hint that they can be entered and comfortably ridden like a vessel through their bottom holes (the less I think about it the better.)

After a few more runs at Dark Bramble, I found the other thing I knew I was looking for: the remains of the Nomai, their escape pod and the corpses of the stranded around another seed only big enough for a scout to travel through. Using that signal, I found their primary ship, preserved after nearly 300,000 years albeit in a pretty wrecked state, invaded by giant vines.

Inside, I found the bridge and the answer to my question about what to do with that warp drive I’d taken from Ash Twin many cycles ago: in the center was an identical mechanism to hold the drive with a shattered, dead drive floating nearby. But I suspected it wouldn’t be enough to just fly to Ash Twin on a new cycle, fly back, and then jam the fresh drive in here, especially as I also found a three-panel input device that looked like it needed a particular code to activate. Everything was pointing me to the Giant’s Deep core, which I finally knew how to get to anyway, and after enduring a lot more deep sea bullshit and an extremely unpleasant jellyfish ride, sure enough, I was rewarded with a pattern that a Nomai computer referred to as the coordinates of the Eye of the Universe.

After finally figuring out the sixth location (which I’m still not clear on logic-wise — couldn’t have I just blinked or looked into a corner of my ship and changed the moon’s location while it was entirely out of view? Did I have to be in the shrine with the lights off?) and having a surprise meeting and discussion with an alive version of the Nomai Solanum, or at least some kind of quantum version of her that got trapped in this bizarre timespace, I decided it was time to shove that core in that whatever it was in the Nomai ship. Amazingly, my planned trip to Ash Twin and then the vessel on Dark Bramble went well enough (it helped that I could now highlight its location on my computer and track it, a nice hint there) and I shoved that core into the ship’s bridge, powering it up, and then I entered the three-part code into the rotating panel doing my best to control that irritating light ball the Nomai loved to use for their locks and switches. And after activating one more switch, I reached the end of the game.

On the Nomai vessel, after finding the Eye of the Universe, Outer Wilds

Looking from the Nomai vessel bridge out into the void surrounding the Eye. I know I have to go out there, but do I really want to?

I won’t get into the specifics of how all that plays out, but it ends with you joining your fellow astronauts from around the solar system at a fire. Or quantum versions of all of you around a quantum fire, I guess, together with Solanum, who I assume wouldn’t show up if I hadn’t met her considering the whole sixth location thing turned out to be interesting but not a requirement for the ending. Talking to each of your friends prompts them to start playing their old song all in unison, triggering the creation of a sky-colored sphere. And jumping into that sphere breaks the time loop, ending all life in your system and the game as a whole.

Why did I write out all of the above? Was it really necessary? Maybe not, but I did go through all this bullshit after all, and maybe you found it entertaining and/or informative to read about my suffering. Of course, if it had just been suffering, I wouldn’t have continued playing all the way to the end: Outer Wilds never once held my hand, requiring me to meet every challenge head-on, taking all the hints and clues I’d gathered throughout the solar system and piecing them together in a way that made some kind of sense. If you’ve played it yourself, you already know that this is the furthest thing possible from a simple “go to place A to get item B to unlock door C” sort of standard video game task. In the end, you do have to go to place A to get item B and shove it into item C, and I believe it might even be possible to reach the game’s ending on the very first loop if you know exactly how to do it, but that’s not a task you’ll even know you have to carry out without exploring the entire solar system and gathering all its knowledge together.

Exploration is one of the main strengths of Outer Wilds anyway. You don’t play a game like this simply to figure out how to beat it, or at least not at first: though I did eventually get determined to figure its final puzzle out, whatever that happened to be, most of my flying around and searching just sent me to places that were interesting and that contained knowledge through the Nomai’s notes and recordings that I’d be able to use to make more discoveries, or that would explain why or how they operated as they did. Very often the importance of such a piece of lore would only become obvious much later, when I was at the ship’s computer trying to piece together what I had gathered.

Even the environment itself provided clues as to how to proceed. When I found the Dark Bramble seed in a crater on Timber Hearth, for instance, it seemed natural to point my scope at it and to try to shoot my scout into it when I picked up a signal. Using the rising and falling sands between the Twin planets to reach otherwise inaccessible areas, purposely (or more usually accidentally) falling through the black hole at the center of Brittle Hollow to reach locations also pulled in that you wouldn’t be able to find on the planet itself, even simply figuring out that your ship doubles as a shitty makeshift submarine when you plunge into the ocean of Giant’s Deep — these are all clues as well, and the game damn well expects you to use them in creative ways to progress. And if these creative ways happen to involve a high risk of bodily harm or even of death, well, the universe is a harsh place, isn’t it? And it’s a good thing you’re stuck in a time loop, if an extremely painful and frustrating one.

The visuals certainly help. Outer Wilds doesn’t exactly look realistic, especially given its extremely small solar system by scale and its entirely alien cast, but you may know how I feel about the triple-A obsession with constant realism. No, this game’s style suits it perfectly. The Hearthians have their rough wood and metal constructions and technology that work but are a little janky as you might expect from a small civilization still in its early stages of spaceflight. While the Nomai technology left over is clearly far more advanced, the product of a perhaps galaxy-spanning species, they also have a unique style, incorporating color and artistic patterns into many of their crafts and stations. And of course, you may already know that the game’s soundtrack is not just excellent but essential to the story in ways you can only understand if you’ve played it.

That style extends from the game’s art to its many conversations, some you hold with your fellow Hearthians and many more you’ll find in written form among the long-dead Nomai. Each of their written lines are identifiable to particular Nomai, and far from the stoic, ultra-serious advanced alien race some creators might go for, these beings are clearly just as varied in personality as the Hearthians, with their own needs, concerns, and personal relationships expressed in their writings. I can’t use the term “humanized” here, since there isn’t a single human in this game, but it does make them feel much more real than they might feel if they’d simply been writing no-nonsense reports about their project to explode a star for scientific purposes.

Much like the doomed people of Pompei, we learn a lot about how relatable these Nomai are from their wall graffiti. That comparison is especially apt considering how suddenly their lives ended.

That leads me to the game’s endings, of which I’ve only gotten two (though technically three if you count my very first pre-loop death.) I’m pretty sure there are more than that available that I haven’t found, but since one of them was the true ending described above, I feel I’ve more or less finished Outer Wilds. While the ending was very well done, and probably the most fitting sort of ending for this game, I had a different reaction to it than many others apparently did, or at least than others who write about the game or make YouTube videos about it.

When I learned that the Sun Station had failed to cause a supernova, I figured it was likely that I wouldn’t get an exactly happy ending to this story. Deactivating some mechanism placed here by the Nomai that prevented the Sun’s explosion would have been too easy a solution anyway, and there were other clues that this station wasn’t the actual cause of the Sun being 22 minutes away from explosive death, like the fact that it starts expanding into a red giant pretty soon after the loop begins. I thought Giant’s Deep’s orbital cannon firing off might have something to do with it, but that cannon clearly shoots in a different direction at the beginning of each loop, and you learn when you explore the cannon and its control room that it’s just shooting off a probe to find the Eye of the Universe, the object the Nomai came here seeking in the first place.

During my first run through the game last year, I don’t remember visiting Chert on Ember Twin more than once, early on in the loop. They’re pretty upbeat at that point, just relaxing in their very near solar orbit (way too near for my taste, but maybe that’s what their reflective helmet is for, to keep off the sunlight and the heat.) This run, however, I visited Chert late in the cycle while I was flying around the planet aimlessly during one of my “fuck this, I don’t know what to do” spells. Throughout the game, I was wondering if anyone would react to the clearly extremely fucked about-to-explode Sun, and finally I found one: at this point, depending on when you get to them, Chert is either extremely concerned, actively having a freakout, or resigned to their death and everyone else’s, asking you to sit and join them by the fire as all life dies everywhere.

And yes, they do mean everywhere. Chert, who was sent out to make observations of the sky, comments around the middle of the cycle about how many supernovae they’ve been seeing just today, wondering if the universe is a lot older and closer to its end than they’ve projected. Talking to Chert confirms and lines up with writing from other Nomai craft found in the Dark Bramble-bound vessel: we’re not the only ones about to die. Whether it’s just our galaxy being snuffed out or the entire universe, assuming this universe extends beyond one galaxy, hardly matters if we’re effectively cut off from the rest of it anyway.

I’ll tell you, at the risk of seeming more neurotic than usual (is that possible?) that Chert’s existential freakout on Ember Twin is maybe the most relatable moment to me in Outer Wilds. That dread, then utter denial in the face of the truth, then sad resignation, that’s probably what I’d go through myself. That’s all keeping in mind that Chert doesn’t know about the time loop, but that’s hardly a comfort to the player either if there’s not much hope that ending the loop will avert disaster.

Yeah, I could have told you that looking out the window, thanks

The true ending left me feeling a bit empty initially. Even if, as the very final screen of the ending suggests, a new universe was born from the old, dying one, one that creates new worlds similar to ours 14.3 billion years later — that’s well and good, and I’m happy for them, but what does that have to do with us? We’re all dead, wiped clean away from history forever.

You might say that may just be how it is, and that’s fair. However, I want to raise a point I brought up back in my first post, that the message of Outer Wilds supports the outlook of optimistic nihilism. I don’t know whether that’s the message that writer Kelsey Beachum intended to express, but it’s the message a lot of people seem to have taken from her story, and I agree that it’s a reasonable reading of the true ending. Especially when I take the other ending I got into consideration.

Having gotten the true ending, I wondered what would happen if I took the advanced warp core from Ash Twin and just fucked off with it. Not simply to get caught in the supernova and die permanently, but to get far enough from the star that its explosion wouldn’t reach me. I’d done this once very early on in my playthrough, and while I escaped the supernova itself, the time loop still resets since the whole point of the Ash Twin Project is the preservation of memories when a being is linked with a mask from loop to loop (also the reason that lazy fuck Gabbro on Giant’s Deep also experiences the loops — they just happened to also be hanging out near one of those statutes at the relevant time.)

Something different happened when I’d powered down the Ash Twin core. Since the loop could no longer be powered by the supernova’s energy, the entire star system was swallowed up and I was left in my lander speeding away into the void, getting text a minute later that I’d escaped the supernova but would drift in space until I ran out of resources.

That certainly seemed like a profoundly shitty ending. Quite a lonely one, and perhaps deservedly so, as I’d abandoned my home and all my friends to their deaths like an asshole. But another point struck me: I didn’t get any sort of message about a new universe spawning from the dying old one. My reading is that the visit to the Eye wasn’t simply one last get-together before certain death but was absolutely necessary somehow to the creation of the new universe. Since the old universe was on the brink of death, then, this seemed in retrospect like as happy an ending I could hope for.

Library after the end, Outer Wilds

We might all be fucking dead, but at least we don’t have to deal with these assholes anymore. This is about as positive as I can get.

I’m no philosopher. All my studies beyond my early college years have to do with far too practical and worldly matters, though often taught in overly theoretical ways to suit their actual contents. But I do have feelings about matters like this. Some years back I went through my own sort of existential crisis, one that I’m not sure I’ve truly gotten past or ever will. After starting to seriously doubt a faith that I was raised in and never held too strongly anyway, I explored some of the atheistic philosophies and found them utterly empty, outright rejecting the question of “why” with the answer “there is no why.” I know some of these approaches are practical and workable for others, and I’m happy that they are, but I could never and still can’t accept a universe that simply wipes us out of being without a trace and without purpose.

I know very well that my feelings on the fate of the universe and the beings in it doesn’t affect our actual fate. The materialists and/or the nihilists may well be correct. But even if they are, I can’t accept this concept of optimistic nihilism that seems to be rising in popularity. I’ve read and heard many times now that “we can create our own meaning.” I understand, but my problem — and I grant that it’s an entirely personal problem — is that I don’t see how meaning survives death in this sort of universe. And if death destroys meaning, then how can it really be meaning? Is it possible to have temporary meaning, or even just to accept a meaningless universe with joy? Certainly some people can do that, but I can’t. I’ll admit, I almost envy you if you can.

Again, personal problem, but it does affect how I take the ending of Outer Wilds for whatever that’s worth. Though if our actions leading to the true ending did give birth to a new universe, I guess you can’t say our actions didn’t have lasting meaning, so at least in that sense, in this game, our meaning survived our deaths. This ending reminds me of Isaac Asimov’s story The Last Question for that reason — maybe that was an influence?

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just best to have a sense of humor about life and try not to worry too much about things I can’t control. Or I’d say that if life didn’t feel largely like a burden. I think this is partly why I use entertainment as escapism when I can — it feels like the only break I get.

Well, sorry for all the bad philosophizing. To give you an idea of my mood right now, I’ve had Casiopea’s cover of Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess on loop for the last half-hour as I write this. But Outer Wilds put me into this heavy mindset as it apparently has many other players. It was an excellent game, a special experience, and it will certainly stick with me. I stand by what I wrote last year: this is the only “environmental narrative” I’ve played that actually lives up to that name. If I had any issues with Outer Wilds, they were personal ones that I can’t really hold against it — again, the same goes for other games with similar philosophical angles I’ve played like NieR:Automata, and I’m only too happy to praise that one as well, even if neither of these games moved me to change my own outlook on life. But then maybe they don’t need to do that for me to enjoy them.

That said, I’m not sure I’ll be playing the Echoes of the Eye DLC. It’s not necessarily off the table, but the ending of Outer Wilds as I played it felt satisfying enough (minus my personal issues, of course.) But please feel free to push it in the comments if you think I might find it worth a try.

Now I’ve written enough. Next post won’t be quite as heavy as this one, either in terms of subject or length. See you then.

OVA/spinoff review: Girls und Panzer

How many new post features can I cram onto the site? As many as it will take. Several of the anime series I’ve watched so far have come along with supplemental OVAs, or original video animations (meaning as far as I can tell “straight to DVD/Blu-ray” only without the negative implication that term carries.) While an OVA can be a standalone work, the type I’m concerned with here are spinoffs from or additions to existing series. OVAs provide a nice opportunity to tell a side story or to just throw in a fanservice episode as a bonus for fans who support the show and buy the Blu-ray, the main downside being that they often aren’t available to watch on stream either since they are seen as being on the side, just as bonus material, or for licensing reasons.

Up until now, considering both the above and my own carelessness, I generally haven’t taken these side series on. That ends today, starting with a series of six short OVA episodes and one longer special attached to the main series of the tank girl sports anime Girls und Panzer. Let’s see if I’m insightful enough to find anything meaningful to say about this stuff.

Starting with the six short episodes in the (now incomplete) OVA collection, all sorted together into a separate side series running to just about 75 minutes. And what a mix it is, starting with the beach fanservice action you might have been surprised we didn’t get in the TV anime, but here it is. By the second episode, the girls unexpectedly move from the beach to some camping in the woods — still mostly in bikinis strangely enough. Must have been hot out.

I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of “Bikini Girls Driving Tanks” magazine out there

However, it’s not all beach-style fanservice. If it were, I’m not sure I’d bother writing about this OVA series — how much can I say about it? Thankfully, some of this series also serves to fill in gaps left in the main series, like the third episode’s explanation and tour of Oarai Academy’s stupidly massive aircraft carrier (not that the extra detail provided makes it seem any more realistic, but we got well past the point of realism with the girls’ “safe” tank combat anyway.) After episode four, a four-minute compilation (music video?) of each Oarai team doing that weird punishment Anglerfish Dance, we get an episode that follows Yukari and Erwin on the reconnaissance mission Miho sent them on while Pravda had them surrounded and holed up during their semifinal match. Not a gap that I thought needed filling, but it was nice to see more of the espionage expert Yukari’s skills at work.

How do you know Oarai is the strongest team? They wear short skirts even when it’s snowing.

Finally, episode six brings us to the Oarai girls’ celebratory dinner following their victory in the final, where they hold a feast but are also commanded by the always energetic student council to put on a show of their “hidden talents” by tank crew. It’s all good fun and a nice cap to the end of the TV anime.

But have all the gaps been filled? No, there’s a major gap left, one I complained about in my review of the original series. And while I don’t understand why or how it’s not part of the “Complete OVA series” as the above six episodes are billed, I’m happy that I have the separate ~40 minute OVA This Is the Real Anzio Battle! on a separate god damn Blu-ray I bought because unlike those, this one isn’t available on streaming services.*

And of course, in the grand Girls und Panzer tradition, Anzio is just as typically extremely Italian as you’d expect seeing the other nationally aligned schools in the main series, with plenty of passion for their tank sport but much more for food. The Anzio OVA is evenly split between the run-up to the match and the match itself, and that first part opens with more espionage: a team viewing of Yukari’s taped undercover incursion into the Italian school, where both we and Miho and co. learn about Anzio’s equipment, their new secret weapon, and the fact that they hold outdoor festivals with Italian food stalls every day. They may consistently lose in their Sensha-do tournaments, but still, I know what school I’d choose to attend. (I guess for patriotic reasons I should say Saunders, but I have to be honest.)

A typical day at Anzio, setting up for lunch in front of the Colosseum

After more setup, with some special help from the one Italian-fluent Oarai girl in translating clandestinely received Anzio tank blueprints, we’re off to the match that we’ve until now only seen the end of. This second half is essentially another Sensha-do match episode like at least half of the original series is, and all up to the same quality, complete with the action, tactics, and trickery you’d expect. And our Italian-influenced friends have plenty of tricks Miho has to reckon with, centered on a set of decoy cardboard cutout tanks and a large fleet of actual miniature tanks that swarm around their targets and can’t easily be flipped over.

The tactic ultimately fails, but it does give Oarai trouble, requiring Miho to use her creative thinking to overcome.

All these tricks make for a highly entertaining match. Of course, the outcome of the match isn’t in doubt. We already know that Oarai will win, but the fun is in seeing how they get there. And as a nice touch, we get to see exactly how the flagship and its accompanying mini-tanks get flipped into the smoking pile we see in the main series’ victory screen.

But despite their loss, Anzio is gracious. There’s nothing they love better than a feast, and that’s just what they bring with them to share with their opponents when the match is done. And take it from someone with a Mediterranean background, even if not an Italian one: this part still looked familiar to me. That’s one thing we all share in common around that coast (and I guess all humanity in general likes feasts, sure, but there’s a special kind of enjoyable chaos you get in that part of the world in these get-togethers. Though it’s also near impossible to get anything done on time over there, either; that’s the trade-off. Maybe this attitude towards life is common to the warmer parts of the world in general?)

Anzio puts their hearts into combat, but their true skill is in preparing and eating food. Maybe they should be in a cooking competition instead of a tank combat one.

So those are most of the Girls und Panzer OVAs. No, not even all of them: apparently there are a few more around, but I don’t know where to dig them up. I might write more of these posts soon, anyway, since I have still more OVAs to cover from other series.

Until then, remember: it’s good to win, but it’s better to have a good time playing the game. I guess that’s the lesson this time, and it’s one that lines up well with the rest of the series.


* As for the obvious question: the Blu-ray was cheap enough that I didn’t mind, even if there’s just one single 40-minute special on it that could easily be bundled with the main and/or OVA discs. If the cost had been at Aniplex-level pricing, though — let’s just say I don’t blame anyone for going the alternate route to get that last arc of Bakemonogatari over paying $150+.

The Florida state government’s attack on bloggers

Another unexpected subject, yeah, but I do write about writing online here on occasion. This subject affects every writer, after all, whether they address political issues or not. And given that this is also a legal issue, I can address it from a professional perspective as a lawyer (though admittedly not a Florida lawyer.)

The Florida Senate chamber (source.) I remember visiting my state capitol building when I was a kid, back when I didn’t realize government was 99% dirty grifting. Still better than the alternatives, though.

Here’s the story if you haven’t heard yet. Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, is backing a bill recently introduced in the Florida Senate, SB 1316. Said bill contains a few parts, but the only one we’re concerned with is the recently added Section 3, titled “Blogger registration and reporting” (and a red flag has already been raised.) This is an amendment to the Florida state code, adding a Section 286.31. It starts out with a long list of definitions, but subsection 2 is where the hammer comes down. Quoted in full:

(2) If a blogger posts to a blog about an elected state officer and receives, or will receive, compensation for that post, the blogger must register with the appropriate office, as identified in paragraph (1)(f), within 5 days after the first post by the blogger which mentions an elected state officer.

Section 3 continues on with details about fines to be paid by bloggers who fail to register and the information that must be provided — who paid the blogger, how much accurate to the nearest $10, a link to the blog post in question, articles on newspapers’ websites being exempt, etc. The full searchable text of the bill is here — read it for yourself.

You might be wondering whether this could possibly be constitutional. It absolutely isn’t, not by any stretch of the imagination. While it’s being framed by supporters as a way to hold special interest-influenced writers accountable for their statements and to fight against libel (which in itself wouldn’t even be close to enough to overcome its constitutionality issue) the actual wording of the bill as currently written is exceedingly broad, potentially roping in anyone who monetizes their blog with Google AdSense or some other pay-per-click advertisement program. Not exactly getting $5,000 in unmarked bills from a foreign agent packed in a brown envelope to write vicious lies about good pure American officials, which I think is the image DeSantis and co. are trying to get across. It’s more just people like me and perhaps also like you, people who just want to publish their opinions and might want to make a few dollars on the side if possible.

I’d say this was an utterly insane ploy by Gov. DeSantis, except it’s likely calculated — everyone knows he has presidential ambitions, and this is very far from the first outrageous act he’s taken as Florida’s governor (see also: shitting on teachers every chance he gets, banning books from school libraries, wedging his political agenda into school curricula, pulling ridiculous stunts in coordination with Gov. Abbott of Texas involving sending migrants, allegedly without notice, up to New York City and Martha’s Vineyard, etc. etc.) DeSantis is a lawyer himself, a graduate of Harvard Law no less. He knows very well that this section of the bill is wildly unconstitutional, a clear violation of both freedom of speech and of the press afforded by the First Amendment. Even the extremely conservative Supreme Court would not uphold this law, were it to become a law (and since the Florida Senate is controlled 28-12 by DeSantis’ party, it seems almost certain to pass in whatever form he wishes.)

But since the good Governor is backing it anyway, we may as well examine in exactly what way and to what extent Section 3 of Florida SB 1316 is a vile piece of shit. This section of the Florida bill violates not just the First Amendment, but even standards of American law whose roots were established over fifty years before the Constitution was ratified. In 1735, the royal governor of New York had a New York City printer, John Peter Zenger, imprisoned for working for a publication critical of the administration and its policies. You can find background and the details of the case here — this New York judicial history society already did an excellent job with that, so I won’t repeat their work. But the gist is that while Crown v. Zenger did not establish a precedent in itself, being more of an early case of jury nullification, it also put royal authorities on notice that they wouldn’t be able to simply have their way with an unfriendly press. And as the case history says, the spirit that led the jury to acquit Zenger also inspired the freedom of the press codified in the First Amendment.

French climber Alain Robert scaling the New York Times building in 2008 (Source: Markus Poessel (Mapos) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 (link.)) It has nothing to do with any of these cases, I just thought it was interesting. See, I’m about as far from professional as you can get.

Of course, we don’t have to reach back into colonial America to look for a precedent against this bill. Here’s New York Times v. Sullivan, a Supreme Court decision from 1964, in which a unanimous Court found in favor of the Times, which had printed an ad in favor of Martin Luther King during one of his stints of imprisonment and was subsequently sued by an Alabama city official for libel. New York Times v. Sullivan is especially relevant here, as it established the heightened standard for a finding of libel against a public official.

Now here’s the counterargument: SB 1316 has nothing to do in itself with holding bloggers liable for making potentially libelous statements against Florida state officials. It merely creates a database of bloggers who write about state politics on a professional basis, or even an amateur one if they make any money for their trouble.

Well, I’m sure the intent of Gov. DeSantis and his friends is absolutely not to create a shit list of politically unfriendly bloggers or to chill public discourse in the state. Why would they possibly want to do that? But my too obvious sarcasm aside, the anonymity of speech is in itself protected, and by a long line of Supreme Court decisions. Once again, someone else has done all the background work for me, so I’ll just link to this page written by someone at Middle Tennessee State University (do they have a law school too? There are really too god damn many of them here, at least four times too many.) The point here is that the protection of anonymity of speech is also beyond debate, and the mere fact that a writer is being paid to write about public officials and their policies has no bearing on that analysis.

Gov. DeSantis is not an idiot. He seems to be a lot of things, but an idiot is certainly not one of them. The framing of SB 1316 looks to be deliberate — I believe it’s framed as addressing a dark money issue. This framing is confirmed by subsection 5 of the offending Section 3, which states that bloggers who refuse to comply with registration are to be treated in the same way as unregistered lobbyists. But I’m also convinced that that’s not its true purpose. Public speech and private lobbying are starkly different. This is an attack not on “special interests” but rather on the public itself and our ability to speak freely on political matters.

Thankfully, since I don’t live in Florida and don’t get paid for what I write here anyway, I don’t have to be concerned with paying any fines if, hypothetically, I were to give certain opinions about an elected Florida state official. For example, suppose I were to write “Ron DeSantis is a little Mussolini,” or “Ron DeSantis is an anal wart,” or something less polite. I wouldn’t have to register with a state office even if I were in Florida as long as I kept my blog completely unmonetized and received no compensation otherwise. But obviously I can’t just say “well, this isn’t my problem.” It is my problem, and it’s yours as well if you’re a blogger in the US, considering the deep and wide-ranging implications of the bill on the incredibly off chance it were to survive a legal challenge (and believe me, it would be challenged as soon as possible if it were to pass in its current form or anything like it.)

Well, I guess I won’t get in any trouble with anyone if I write about anime, music, games, or whatever other escapist entertainment I feel like, so if that’s what you come to this site for, then rest assured that I’ll be getting back to that stuff in the next post. I just couldn’t pass this story by.

A look at an assortment of stuff I bought recently

Or a “haul” as the kids say. Look, I have to make these lower-effort posts every so often; I just hope they’re entertaining or informative somehow. I think I picked up some interesting items, anyway, though you can be the judge — I might end up writing dedicated posts on a few if they’re suitable and I have something more to say about them than I’ve written here. Starting with:

Unofficial Hatsune Mix by Kei

I found this brick of a manga volume in a Goodwill of all places while looking for an old shitty bookcase to drag back to my apartment. I eventually did find such a bookcase — it was very cheap and came with a bonus spider pet inside, and also a rusty fucking nail sticking out in a spot I couldn’t see. I believe God was watching over me that day considering I didn’t cut myself on that thing and get tetanus.

I’m also thankful that I found this book, a complete 400-page+ manga about the singing android Hatsune Miku and her other Vocaloid friends just living their lives. From reading the first several chapters, it looks like it’s mostly going to be absurd comedy, which suits me perfectly. There’s some very nice art inside as well, with a few all-color pieces, and all by Kei — if the name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s Miku’s character designer and the guy who drew the original illustration on the Vocaloid 2 Character Vocal Series 01 box way back in 2006/7 or whenever that was.

The book itself is extremely used, with a massive crease on the back cover, but for five dollars from a Goodwill that’s okay with me. Anything to buy physical, especially if it’s cheap. And the insides are all there and accounted for as far as I can tell, and that’s what counts.

Girls und Panzer: This is the Real Anzio Battle!

Remember back in my Girls und Panzer review how I complained that Oarai’s match against the Italian-themed school Anzio got skipped over? Well here it is, the whole story behind the match in OVA form: one 40-minute episode on a single Blu-ray. The waste of disc space is astounding, and even more so since there’s an entirely different “OVA Collection” DVD/Blu-ray set, yet this OVA isn’t on it and has to be bought separately. Is it excusable or a cash grab?

I don’t know about that, but I’ve already watched those OVAs on a streaming service and this one on this ripoff disc, and I can say they’re both worthy additions to the series. But I might write an entire post about that very soon. It turns out that I have a lot of OVAs and spinoffs to catch up on, not a single one of which I’ve written about here. Yet — that’s going to be fixed soon. If I can actually write anything about them, anyway.

As for this Blu-ray itself, I can at least say that I got it for a low price. Fair enough considering that Anzio apparently isn’t available to stream (legally) anywhere at all, which is some real bullshit. Oh well — I don’t mind the cash grab as much when I consider that if this were an Aniplex production, I’d be paying at least fifty dollars. Now those are some fucking ripoff artists.

20 centimes (Haiti, 1895)

Yeah, I have yet another depressing nerd hobby: I collect old money. Not that much of it, really, but I pick up stuff on occasion that interests me. This particular coin was minted in Haiti in 1895, and for eight dollars it’s a good deal for me: I didn’t have any older coins from Haiti before this one, and it’s a nice .835 fine silver piece as well, if a small one. The reverse of the coin also has the fineness and weight stamped on it, a standard you can find on pretty much all coins from Latin America and some from the Caribbean (I don’t guess Haiti is part of Latin America because it was formed out of a French colony? Not sure about how the definitions work here.) Another interesting aspect of this coin is that it only has French inscriptions — modern Haitian money has both French and the French-derived Haitian Creole, now co-official languages.

I guess a coin doesn’t exactly fit the themes of the site, but I did buy it recently, so I’m putting it here anyway. Haiti has an interesting history that doesn’t get taught all that much up here in America as well. Maybe because we did plenty to fuck things up for them, and not too long after this very coin was minted? If you want to read a horrific story, go look up the fate of Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. Not a very nice man considering what he did to lead to his death, but even so, that’s rough. I also have a lot to say about Woodrow Wilson, and not much of it very nice, but that’s for a different time and place.

S&M Ecstasy by Michiking

Sorry about the censoring. If it annoys you, here’s the full cover in a nice resolution (and NSFW of course.) I’m just doing my best not to give Google, WordPress, or whoever the hell any more excuse to make my site adult-only or whatever else they might be planning on doing. Considering how often I type “fuck” here, I really can’t be too careful. Just look at what YouTube is doing to creators now.

But to get to the point, yeah, I bought a hentai manga. Officially translated into English and best of all decensored, so you don’t have to deal with those annoying censor lines (that you may well mentally erase anyway if you’re used to this kind of stuff.) Michiking’s art is very nice, and the stories — well, it’s porn. There’s not much to this stuff story-wise, but then that’s not probably what you’re looking for if you’re buying this. It’s not all S&M as the title suggests, either, though that is in there too if you’re into it.

More interesting to me is the market for physical hentai works here in the States. There are a few specialty publishers who put this stuff out, most prominent among them Fakku, who published this and many other of these manga volumes, and JAST, who also publish translated/decensored original doujin works. I’m not sure how many perverts with tastes similar to mine are around and what subset of us insist on buying physical when it’s at all feasible, but that might be a good business to get into if you don’t have any moral qualms with this kind of art. I certainly don’t, but then you knew that already.

Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy

A digital copy. No, I’m not that happy about it, but here’s a story you can probably relate to: I saw this for 50% off on the Playstation store, so what was I supposed to do? Now the problem is ever finding any time to play this thing. Maybe when AI takes all the jobs and our benevolent government passes laws creating a post-scarcity society utopia, then I can do this stuff full-time. And maybe I’ll grow wings and gain laser-eye powers too while I’m in fantasy land here.

Sorry, I’m in a lousy mood this morning as I write this last entry. But searching around for a usable Ryza 2 cover helped cheer me up — I couldn’t find any I liked that weren’t 300×300, but then I came across original Ryza artist and character designer Toridamono’s many Ryza 2-related pieces like the one on the left from his Twitter feed, and I guess no further comment is necessary.

That’s all for today. I hope to return with another post this weekend, but in the meantime, I hope we can all drag ourselves to the end of another fucking week. Until next time!

A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 14 (VROOOM EP, 1994)

Note: VROOOM seems difficult to track down either online or in physical form. But given that most of it’s already on the following full-length album, it might be just as well. Still not sure why this EP isn’t on the main Crimson channel with the others, though. Maybe they forgot about it? Well, just wait for the THRAK post coming up with all the usual links that are missing this time.

Following the release of Three of a Perfect Pair and a lot more touring, King Crimson was again done for good. This time there was again no reason to think they’d ever return — all four guys involved had enough of their own stuff going on to keep busy, and there was probably the sense that this version of Crimson had done everything it could and had to return to the mists of time as usual.

And yet, ten years later, Crimson reformed for the fourth time (fifth? Sixth?) This version 5 or 6 or whatever of Crimson included the entire 80s lineup plus Trey Gunn on bass/stick and Pat Mastelotto on drums, creating what would become known as the “Double Trio” since each of the instruments were doubled. In addition to touring with their older material, this Double Trio recorded new originals starting with the EP VROOOM in 1994 (and no, I don’t know what this title is about — 90s Crimson would name all their albums and some of their songs after sound effects for some reason that Robert Fripp can probably explain in his usual esoteric way.)

I wasn’t sure whether I’d dedicate an entire post to VROOOM until now, the reason being this is a short 30-minute album that contains a lot of overlap with the following year’s full-length release THRAK. But it does contain two exclusives as well, and listeners had several months to mull over VROOOM before THRAK came out, so we may as well take it separately.

And for the very first time, I don’t have a lot of strong feelings about a King Crimson album, either positive or negative. This stuff is mostly just fine, not especially exciting or disappointing. Before now I’d never heard VROOOM specifically, but I do remember picking up THRAK when it was still relatively new (meaning five or six years old instead of 27… this post series just made me feel extremely old too) and while I’ll reserve judgment of the full album for the next post, I remember feeling more or less the same way then about this material as I do now aside from a few notable highlights.

This feeling is especially strong coming directly off of that 70s and 80s work. The 90s “Double Trio” Crimson is often described as a blend of the band’s 70s heaviness with its 80s precision rock style. I get where that description comes from: they are heavier than the 80s band with a bigger sound with their six-man lineup, but Belew is on vocals and Bruford and Levin are on the rhythm section as before. However, it feels to me more like this intended blend of the 70s heaviness and 80s precision led to a slight watering down, at least in their new work.

VROOOM starts promising: the opening instrumental title track is an interesting look at what these guys could do at the time, and I like that descending coda. The following song “Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream” is also a nice rock piece with a rare pissed-sounding delivery from Belew. Kind of sounds like Radiohead at times (or I should say Radiohead sounded like them. No doubt Thom Yorke and co. were influenced by these guys in general, and The Bends wouldn’t be out until the following year.) Though it is funny for the now well-established Crimson in their advancing age to be singing about such subjects, especially in the extremely short Primus-esque song “Cage”. Are you guys really living in a cage in the USA? I find it hard to believe. Weird as hell to get anything approaching social commentary on a King Crimson album too.

The only other decent song on VROOOM is “One Time”, which is one of Adrian’s nice romantic-sounding tracks. Its structure and production make it feel uncomfortably close to the dreaded adult contemporary genre (see solo Phil Collins) but Belew is more than tasteful enough to avoid writing something truly cheesy, so it’s all right. That leaves the final instrumentals “THRAK” and “When I Say Stop, Continue”, and well — they sure are instrumentals by King Crimson. I don’t know what else to say about them. Except that I can see “THRAK” making for good boss battle music in an RPG or action game. See how gaming has destroyed my brain? Then again, it gives me another way to appreciate music I might not as much otherwise.

There’s VROOOM. Not bad, but also not an album I’d recommend hunting for, especially considering what would come along in the following years. I’m not even sure why Crimson bothered with an EP when they were more than established enough to just record a full album, even after a decade-long hiatus — isn’t this more for new acts who want to prove themselves or hardcore bands who write minute-long songs?

SimTower revisited

My working days are full of stress, and those are almost all my days. So what to do? I’ve come to appreciate a certain kind of game — I’m not sure if it falls into a single genre, but it’s the kind that I can play and just relax to. Often they don’t even gave a story to follow, but if they do, it’s a light one. The island exploration game A Short Hike falls into this category, and so does the landscape creation puzzle game Dorfromantik. And though this may be surprising, so does SimTower, the original building construction and management simulator.

I wrote a retrospective review of this entry in the Sim series way back in 2014, not long after I started this site. Back then, I was also under a lot of stress as a student. It was a different kind of stress than I have now, but playing SimTower helped me relieve a little of it. And while part of its appeal to my adult self may have been the nostalgia it inspired in me — I first played SimTower soon after its release in 1994 as a kid on the one family computer — it wouldn’t hold up at all if nostalgia was all it had going for it. So after nine years away, I decided to return to my old Windows 95 virtual machine and my tower construction duties to see just how well this game would stand the test of time.

The humble beginning of my new grand tower, just a dumpy building in a dying office park off the highway. Since we can’t afford another elevator car just yet, my tenants’ employees will have to stand in line since they’re too god damn lazy to use the stairs. This will become a theme.

I went over the basics of the game in my old post, but to recap, SimTower was created by Japanese game developer Yoot Saito and his team. According to an interview I read in the “official guide” to the game (and actually a very good one) Yoot got the initial idea for the game while waiting for an elevator in an office building and wondering why he had to wait for the furthest elevator from him to stop at his floor, a story which if you’ve played SimTower for even ten minutes you can immediately believe. Yoot expanded this elevator-based concept into a building simulator, as far as I know the first of its kind, and at some point he met Maxis head Will Wright and sold him on the idea as a natural addition to his SimCity line. Therefore, while it was released as simply The Tower in Japan, Yoot’s game got the Sim branding in North America.

I felt I got more out of this third playthrough of SimTower, or if not more, then something different than before. In the foreword to the same guide I looked through, Yoot himself says that in SimTower he wanted to create a hakoniwa, or a kind of miniature garden. I don’t know much about the concept, but I think I basically understand what he was going for, and if my idea is right, I think he succeeded. Though there’s a ton of complexity in certain aspects of the game — the traffic flows most of all — the greatest appeal to me of SimTower now is being able to just let time run and watch the residents of and visitors to my tower live their lives, doing my best to accommodate their needs and wants but otherwise letting it flow.

Here’s a typical day in your mid-sized tower: office workers show up every workday morning, take the elevators to their offices, and work through the day with a break for lunch in one of the building’s fast food places. Most offices close at five, with some working longer hours (more realistically in my experience) starting the rush home, the white-collar workers passing the arriving hotel guests on the elevators, which are always too slow and backed up. The hotel guests will go straight to their rooms and stay up for a while doing whatever they’re doing (no overly personal details shown, but maybe implied) before sleeping, unless you’ve provided proper restaurants for them to have dinner at in which case they’ll give you even more business. And repeat the next day, excepting weekends when the offices are closed but your commercial spaces see more business from outside to compensate.

The tower grows, slowly becoming worthy of its name. It’s especially important to plan ahead in your elevator placement, which I didn’t do here — I ended up deleting the shaft on the left and building a new one on the far left to make room for needed improvements.

All this is very satisfying to watch run when it’s going well, meaning your elevator placement isn’t fucked and your zoning is reasonably sensible. You have relative freedom over the placement of your units, the greatest restriction being that you can’t place certain units like hotel rooms and offices underground. So while you can put a fast food place next to an office, the office drones won’t be very happy about the noise and the smell of frying oil next door unless you lower their rent. Not that the hired help would probably care much about the office’s overhead, but maybe the offices’ evaluation bars only care about the owners’ and operators’ opinions. Temps and grunts like me can fuck off as usual.

Not that that’s a point against this game. It’s probably obvious at this point, but there’s a lot of abstraction to SimTower. Most of it necessary — imagine having to balance elevator and stair traffic concerns in a 60-story mixed-use tower with the details of electricity and cable hookups, maintenance, and waste disposal. Even the calendar is extremely simplified, with a game year broken into four quarters, each quarter consisting of just one week of three days each, two working days and one weekend day for a 12-day year. Admittedly a strange calendar, but you’ll be grateful for it considering that your office tenants pay their rent on a quarterly basis.

And don’t worry about attracting tenants or guests to give you money: SimTower takes place in a city with seemingly unlimited demand for office space and hotel rooms, as they’re all rented out on the very same day you build them with a few special exceptions. There’s even a condo option available, though it’s a shitty one that I never take seeing as how condo owners are assholes who only pay you once and then spend the rest of their residence in your tower complaining about noise and traffic. Fuck condos: don’t build them.

So none of that’s very complicated. No, the most complex aspect of SimTower by far is traffic management, and the greatest focus otherwise is simply on building. That relative simplicity works for me — it would probably be impossible to get that miniature garden sort of feel Yoot wrote about if the player were having to stress more than necessary.

I especially get this feel where the commercial, office, and hotel sections meet. Express elevators are a godsend at this point, allowing hotel guests and theater patrons to bypass all that shitty standard elevator traffic and go straight to my deluxe sky mall without any unnecessary stops.

But then again, there’s one form of abstraction to SimTower that some people may find especially strange. It’s perhaps the most obvious one, and one shared by the sequel Yoot Tower: the total lack of a third dimension. Your SimTower is entirely 2D, with just one view available of the front of the building. Or maybe the side, since the lobby entrances are on either side, presumably opening to the streets than you can’t see. It doesn’t matter, though, since you can only place units on a flat plane in this view. I guess the depth is implied, but it does still strike me as weird being stuck in this 2D cross-section view when I think too much about it.

There were obvious technical limitations on SimTower, released nearly 30 years ago now, that would have made it difficult if not impossible to expand into a third dimension. Back when I first wrote about it, the only such games I knew of aside from SimTower was its 1998 sequel, which faced similar limitations and had a similar fully 2D style. But now, looking back, I think there was more to this decision than just technical considerations. Expanding a hypothetical new SimTower-style game into three dimensions, with individual units and rooms, might be so incredibly complex as to be fundamentally unplayable by a single person. At that point you’re basically just building an actual building, which takes massive crews of engineers, planners, and other specialists. Naturally none of it would be real, but even so, combining that complexity with the kind of management you’d expect from a SimTower sequel anyway might be too much for anyone possibly aside from hardcore Victoria series players.

And even if that were feasible, I think you’d end up losing a lot of that hakoniwa feel Yoot wrote about and that’s such a part of the appeal of these games for me. Back when I wrote about SimTower, I speculated about another sequel to this series, which we’d get two years later with Project Highrise, and though I haven’t played it myself, it looks from the gameplay footage I’ve watched that it also uses a 2D cross-section format. Maybe there’s a good reason for that.

There’s something peaceful about a scene like this one, your hotel guests headed to their rooms. If I were one of them, I’d take the elevator up to floor 16 and get a coffee before the café closes.

Given how good this game was and how relatively well it must have done, considering that it’s one of the better-remembered old Sim games, it’s a little surprising that we went through an 18-year gap between Yoot Tower and Project Highrise for proper building simulators. My best guess is that the scope of the building simulator has something to do with that. The Sim series has thoroughly covered life on a large city-wide scale with SimCity (though with the failure of the last entry in that series, the city-building torch has completely passed to Paradox and their Cities: Skylines series) and even far more thoroughly on a small scale with the wildly popular The Sims. SimTower and Yoot Tower are somewhere in between those two, and maybe they’re a little mundane for that reason. SimCity features natural disasters and even alien attacks; The Sims features extreme interpersonal drama. The only disasters in SimTower are the occasional fire and terrorist bomb threat. Which are admittedly pretty dramatic, but even those can be dealt with through money if you have enough and don’t trust your security team enough to leave it to them.

But I don’t mind if SimTower is a little more mundane than its city simulator counterparts. Again, I think that contributes to its appeal.

Maybe what SimTower truly needs is a series where you fall into the Backrooms but it’s all the building’s parking lot that warps into endless creepy empty hotel corridors at night. That kind of dumb bullshit spinoff might get the kids interested in this old rusty game. (Though I do like Kane Pixels’ video series, obligatory mention there. Check it out; it’s good.)

As for BIGPPTWR, as it’s officially known because of the eight-character name limit, it currently stands at 37 floors, topped by a row of fancy hotel suites that nobody has yet stayed in. I’m not sure whether I’ll bother building any higher than that — if I really cared about reaching four stars, which requires a population of 5,000, I’d build wider than I am, but I decided to restrict myself to nine office lengths for aesthetic reasons. If you want to play properly (as far as there even is a way to play a Sim game properly, which I guess there isn’t) you can really just fill the entire screen with building, including the underground section as long as you remember to leave the bottom three levels for that metro station.

For my part, I’m just happy to let my modest tower run. Maybe 37 floors is tall enough. Or maybe I’ll get the urge to keep obsessively building higher. Either way, I’m happy to say that SimTower does hold up. If you want to try it for yourself, I’d encourage you to download a copy of the game’s iso image from the library: since SimTower seems not to be sold anywhere at all, not even on GOG, this seems like a reasonable option. And in case you’re wondering, I wanted to check out Yoot Tower again and tried to do so, but I couldn’t get the damn thing to work on my virtual machine, even though it’s supposed to run on Windows 95, and I don’t have a copy of Windows 98 to try it out on. Despite my issues with 95, though, it’s still far more user-friendly than this Windows 10 shitpile.

New feeling

The name of this song is New Feeling, and that’s what it’s about.

Lately I’ve been feeling pretty up. Not happy, never happy, but energetic at least. It’s part of the reason I’ve been able to write so much — these ups are productive for me, though I can’t exactly call them pleasant either. And then add in my bouts of sleeplessness as I write this at 2 am.

At times like these, I don’t know what I’d do without music. And while I will be getting back to King Crimson soon, their 90s style of thrashing and stomping around isn’t exactly 2 am music for me. No, I’ve been using something a little lighter in tone. Some Talking Heads (listening to all of 80s Crimson sent me back there) and some bossa nova and fusion. I’ve also been revisiting legendary Japanese fusion guys Casiopea to see if my opinion of their music has changed in the last few years, and I’m happy to say it has, and for the better. Back when I first heard their debut in 2019 I loved it, and I still do. However, their following work left me so underwhelmed back then that I quit listening through their discography after their fourth or fifth album. It all felt like a bland soup of waiting room smooth jazz to me, a serious drop in quality from the excitement of their debut. I hated Super Flight, and aside from a song or two like “Gypsy Wind”, Make Up City and Crosspoint bored me to sleep.

I’m still not blown away by most of this music, none of which comes close to the heights of their debut for me. However, here’s the change in my opinion: aside from parts of Super Flight that I still can’t stand for their unbearably cheesy synth tones (“I Love New York” sucks; I’m not budging on that) I can appreciate this music a lot more than I could a few years ago. It’s tasteful, written with plenty of care, and even if some of it sounds like doctor’s office waiting room or mall lobby fare to me, well, those places need music to avoid awkward silence, right?

And this stuff is better and more interesting than 99% of what actually plays in those places where I live. I still hate this style of smooth jazz when it’s drowned in cheese: see Kenny G, who has technical skill going for him and not much else (aside from mass appeal and commercial success of course, and one halfway decent groove captured on the weather channel part of the vaporware-adjacent News At 11.) But Casiopea, those are some cool guys. That’s not to mention their massive influence on 80s and 90s video game BGM, or the fact that they were apparently amazing live. I probably need to watch a few of their old concert videos.

So where’s the connection with romantic comedy and slice-of-life anime here? It may be a stretch or the fact that I’m trying to live in a constant cloud of sleep deprivation that’s affecting my judgment, but I feel the same way about some anime series that years ago I wouldn’t have even given a first chance, let alone a second. It may have started with Nagatoro, which I found after coming across Uzaki-chan. Though I didn’t love Uzaki all that much, Nagatoro grabbed me where it put off some other viewers with its initially harsh depiction of a bully-turned-love interest (and that turnaround was pretty quick, even if the bully side of Hayase is still there.) Then I found the more straightforwardly sweet Takagi-san and loved that even more.

Okay, Takagi kind of bullies Nishikata too, but it’s a little more good-natured this time. I really do recommend this show, anyway. Even if it’s annoyingly split by season between three streaming services.

And finally, just last year Yuru Camp managed to break down my resistance to slice-of-life anime. I used to avoid a lot of these sorts of series I thought didn’t have plots, until I realized that many of them do; they just tend to have lower and more mundane stakes than most people would expect from anime (and another reminder to all of us that anime is a medium full of all sorts of stories and characters, not just the hyper-dramatic like we hear so often — but then you already know that if you’re here.)

Now I’m wondering whether I can take my new more generous feeling towards certain kinds of music and fiction and apply it more broadly so that I’m not such a miserable fuck. I’m pretty good at not coming off that way when I need to be presentable, but my friends know what I’m like (and you know too, since I hold nothing back on this site.) I don’t enjoy being like this, and if I knew some way to be more content in a life I feel extremely constrained in, I’d act on it. But maybe it’s really all about my state of mind. Almost everyone lives constrained lives, so even if my constraints might seem a little harsh to some people with the traditional family and culture I have to deal with, I can’t say I’m in a unique position.

I’d wish you a happy Valentine’s Day, but I’m not feeling that positive quite yet. If you’re with someone who makes you happy, you don’t need my wishes anyway. So happy St. Valentine’s Day maybe, if you observe that. And happy Tuesday, though Tuesdays usually aren’t that happy for your typical worker. I’m going to listen to more fusion and try to have some nice dreams for once. Until next time.

Automated creativity (and a new case to follow)

Yeah, it’s more of this. If you’re sick of hearing about AI and/or machine learning, then you may want to skip this post, but I’ll probably be writing about the subject every so often as the technology develops (and as usual, all the legal stuff here may only apply in the US.)

There have been a shocking number of developments since I wrote on the subject late last year. A few lawsuits have been filed against image and code generator owners and operators, perhaps the most prominent being Andersen v. Stability AI Ltd. now pending in federal court in California. The grounds for this class-action suit can be found on the plaintiff firm’s website, where they show if nothing else that they have a good sense for clean and simple webpage design.

The case is still in its very first stages. None of the defendants have filed an answer yet, and it’s possible they’ll be filing motions to dismiss first. Such a motion should be filed in place of an answer if the defendant has an argument that the plaintiffs’ initial complaint is technically faulty somehow. There are various grounds to base a motion to dismiss on, but the one I might expect here is failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted (i.e. “you’re not actually claiming I’m doing anything illegal/infringing on your rights.”) I doubt very much that the court would grant such a motion given how novel this case is, but it might still be worth a try. The fact that Stability AI has announced artists can opt out of having their work used to train Stable Diffusion 3 may make a difference in that decision, though I can’t say how much of a practical effect it will have either on this case or on the operation of the next Stable Diffusion model.

The complaint isn’t airtight, nor can we expect it to be given how novel this case is. This isn’t Thaler v. Perlmutter: in that case, I argued that the US Copyright Office was on extremely solid ground in denying Dr. Thaler’s image generator copyright ownership over its images based on the human authorship requirement contained in the office’s interpretation of the Copyright Act. Andersen will instead raise the question of fair use, and specifically of transformative use. Have the companies behind Stable Diffusion, Midjourney, and whatever DeviantArt is using violated the legal rights of artists by scraping the internet for billions of images to train their programs on, or will the defense of transformative use act as a shield against further litigation?

I’m not going to pretend that I can possibly predict the ultimate outcome of Andersen. However, it is certain that fair use will be the primary defense in this case. I’ve already seen some people conflating the legal issues involved in this case and Thaler, which is understandable considering how much of a labyrinth the American system of legal precedence, statutes, and regulations can be. But keep in mind that the doctrine of transformative use, a subset of fair use, is only a defense to a charge of copyright infringement. If the court in Andersen were to find, for example, that the output of Stable Diffusion is transformative enough to not infringe on the rights of the artists whose works were used to train the system, it wouldn’t automatically follow that said AI-generated output is a copyrightable work in itself given the Copyright Office’s stance against granting protection to AI-generated works. The courts’ findings in Thaler and Andersen, together with other proposed and pending AI-related cases, may create a new framework of legal precedents to work from, though I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting through the years it will take for these cases to get through discovery, countless motion hearings, back-and-forth negotiations, and finally appeals.

I won’t go into transformative use in depth today. It seems pointless to do so this early in the case — I’d rather wait for those potential motions to dismiss, responses to said motions, and the court’s order, which may take a few months to come out depending on the deadlines. Like I said, don’t hold your breath.

But there’s still plenty to examine here, even in these early days. When I was digging around for more information about the Andersen complaint, I found this attempt at a takedown of the plaintiffs’ complaint by a group of “tech enthusiasts uninvolved in the case.” I disagree that plaintiffs’ lawsuit is frivolous, and I think there are some fairly disingenuous and even a few outrageous remarks on this page. However, this unnamed group of enthusiasts also raises some counterarguments to the Andersen plaintiffs’ allegations that are worth considering.

Setting aside all the technical analysis of how AI “art” is generated on the page, which I admit I don’t have the expertise to address, the most interesting point they raise (though not their strongest argument) is the lack of a bright line between the mere use of a tool in the creative process and the generation of an AI image as an act independent of the prompt-writer. I also believe that there isn’t a bright line here but more of a spectrum. This reminded me of something I’d seen a few days earlier, when I was watching an artist in a livestream using a lighting tool in Photoshop to “place” the sunlight source in the image. I’m sure there are painters who would consider that sacrilege, and the same goes for line-straightening and even maybe for working in easily editable layers. There may also be automated tools that can be applied to certain parts or aspects of human-created works that would be further towards the “AI end” of that spectrum.

This seems to be one of the AI proponents’ favorite defenses, and for good reason: there’s something to it. Rejecting AI tools in the creation of visual art, they say, is akin to rejecting the camera or digital art tools and methods, all of which also happened in their own times. Yet I still insist, at the risk of being called a Luddite (which they would definitely say I am anyway, so it hardly matters now) that this time, it is different. I’ll refer back to an argument I made in the context of Thaler, because it applies here as well. An artist who wields a tool still completely or substantially controls the end result; the tool only aids them in getting there.1 By contrast, a system like Stable Diffusion generates an image according to the user’s parameters, said image being substantially outside the user’s control until they start editing it.

The use of AI tools in editing or supplementing human-created art may sit in a gray area between these two points. We’ve already seen such cases, again sparking serious anger — see for example the Netflix-produced anime short Dog and Boy, with background art credited to “AI (+ human)”. And there’s already been a legal controversy over such mixed human/AI visual works in the denial of copyright registration for a comic with AI-generated elements.

Again, I won’t argue over the specifics of how Stable Diffusion or similar systems generate their images — I lack the necessary technical knowledge, and I’m sure that will be gotten into in great depth in the coming filings in Andersen, so I may as well let the people actually getting paid to do the work argue those points instead. But though I probably will address those issues later on, I’m not just approaching this matter as an attorney. From that legal perspective, I can be more dispassionate and can easily put myself in the defendants’ position.

But as an amateur writer, I admit I have a bias here and a personal stake in the outcomes of these cases, even if a small one. Today, if I felt like it, I might use NovelAI, ChatGPT, or a similar system to help me fill in a story with descriptive scenes. Even after editing, however, that part of the story wouldn’t be mine, and as far as I’m concerned, that lack of human authorship — my authorship — would taint the entire work. Maybe some writers don’t feel the same way and would say I just have a silly hangup, or that I’ll change my tune later on as times change and start to pass me by. They’re free to hold those opinions, and I’m free to hold mine. And if both the visual arts and literature end up congealing into a dull, stagnant mush as a result of reliance on “automated creativity” then kindly don’t talk to me about it, because I’ll be busy with my horrible, utterly mind-numbing legal work. I’d rather do that than try to put out my own painstaking writing where reliance on automation has become the standard.

And since this is also partly an anime review/analysis/etc. site, if you want my opinion on Dog and Boy, there it is. I certainly don’t agree with everything he says about anime, very far from it in fact, but Miyazaki was spot on in this case:

Before I’m done with this post, though, I have one warning for those who are not just excited about the advent of AI but are giddy over its replacing and “improving” on the work of human artists (or who insist there’s no risk of replacement, about which a little more in the endnotes.) Those who believe AI technology can be wielded only in ways that they like will probably discover uses of AI down the road — and perhaps not far down this road we’re on — that they don’t like or agree with, uses that may even damage human relationships and society itself.

Well then, if that happens, go ahead and close Pandora’s box pretending everything will be all right. Don’t think about the possible decay of social, family, and even potentially romantic bonds as AI expands into areas of life you might have thought would always be left to humans. At that point, only one thing is certain to me: you won’t have my help if the shit really hits the fan. Because I figure that if you’re going to support the wresting away from human hands of the one thing in life that makes me feel fulfilled, I may as well go ahead and escape reality even more fully when I have the time by drowning in some AI-powered fantasy where I live in a mansion staffed by catgirl maids and where I don’t have to resent every moment of a life I live purely out of obligation to others anyway. Is that acting out of hypocrisy or just sheer spite? No, neither: I call it being practical.2

Well, I got heated this time, but can you blame me? Maybe you can, and that’s what the comments section is for. If you think I’m an idiot, go ahead and say so, but at least you know you’ve come to expect something more than dry legal analysis from these posts (which has its place, just not on this site.) Until next time.


1 I apply the same argument in favor of the use of sampling in music, and for that matter the use of that light source tool.

2 Okay, I was pretty pissed when I wrote this part, and maybe I shouldn’t have left it in. But here’s what set me off: the glib attitude we so often see from the all-in AI enthusiasts. In the takedown of the Andersen plaintiffs’ complaint linked above, see the following, taken from the pro-AI tech group’s (since I have no other name to use) response to the bios of the three named plaintiffs. Their text follows in blockquotes:

I have genuine sympathy for the plaintiffs in this case. Not because “they’re having their art stolen” – they’re not – but because they’re akin to a whittler who refuses to get power tools when they hit the market, insisting on going on whittling and mad at the new technology that’s “taking our jobs!” When the one who is undercutting their job potential is themselves.

I’ve already argued against what I see as the above faulty comparison between AI image generators and digital art tools — the latter seem to me the proper analogy to power tools. More striking, however, is the writer’s condescending tone. I doubt just how genuine the sympathy is when it’s expressed in such a way. “Bless your heart” as they say down South — polite code for “what an idiot.” See also the writer’s assumption that artists aren’t having their art stolen. From a legal perspective, that one is for the court to decide when the defendants raise their transformative use defenses. And I won’t even get into the moral concept of theft in this context — that will likely take an actual philosopher to write an entire book about.

Jevon’s Paradox is real. Back when aluminum first came out, it was a precious metal – “silver from clay”. Napoleon retired his gold and silver tableware and replaced it with aluminum. The Washington Monument was capped with a tiny block of what was then the largest piece of aluminum in the world.[30] Yet, today – where aluminum is a commodity metal costing around $2/kg, rather than a small fortune – the total market is vastly larger than it was when it was a precious metal. Because it suddenly became affordable, sales surged, and that overcame the reduction in price.

AI art tools increase efficiency, yes. Contrary to myth, they rarely produce professional-quality outputs in one step, but combined into a workflow with a human artist they yield professional results in much less time than manual work. But that does not inherently mean a corresponding decrease in the size of the market, because as prices to complete projects drop due to the decreased time required, more people will pay for projects that they otherwise could not have afforded. Custom graphics for a car or building. An indie video game. A mural for one’s living room. All across the market, new sectors will be priced into the market that were previously priced out.

These are a set of massive assumptions unsupported by any actual evidence. I’ve heard a lot of claims that artists won’t be shoved out of the market by the use of AI systems, that they won’t be replaced etc. etc., and these arguments very often rely on historical analogy. The problem with such an analogy in this case (aside from it being overly simplistic and reductive in general) is that this new technology is unlike anything we’ve seen before, and its effects have already begun to extend beyond the world of art and into most other professions — including my own. (Not that I’d be all that broken up about finding something to do other than practicing law, but I still need a livelihood, you know? But apparently that’s simply a concern that can be hand-waved away by referring to a century-plus-old drop in the price of aluminum.)

And I won’t even get very far into the specifics here because this post is long enough as it is, but the assertion that indie video games can be made more affordable through the use of AI is just bizarre. Do they know how cheap (or even free) some of the best and most creative indie games out there are? I’ve featured some of them here on the site. Check out the games index page up top. I’ve also played a couple of games heavily featuring procedural generation, and they didn’t seem to be any cheaper than the rest. The assertion that the market will expand (without limit?) to accommodate supply in itself is faulty anyway, since we only have so much time in the day to “consume content” that’s pumped out by whatever the hypothetical future artificial intelligence machines can come up with.

What can be said, however, is those who refuse to acknowledge advancements in technology and instead fight against them are like whittlers mad at power tools. Yes, people will still want hand-made woodwork, and it’ll command a premium. But you relegate yourself to a smaller market.

Here’s my final point (I promise.) The writer(s) behind this attack on the Andersen plaintiffs’ complaint may very well be right about the ultimate effects on the market. I don’t believe they’ve proven a damn thing here, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong either. However, the dismissal of legitimate concerns over the use of deep learning and image generation systems that many artists have expressed is pretty god damn glib, and combined with the condescension we’ve seen from some of these proponents, the strong resistance to their views and arguments should make sense. To put it bluntly, even crudely, it all comes off as pissing in the face of human creativity. In saying that, I’m not even blaming the technology itself, which I believe can have great uses. This isn’t a case of “tech bad”, as I’ve seen my arguments and others’ reduced to. But see my Pandora’s box reference above.

Deep reads #7.2: A short course in alchemy (or, let’s make a Mystery Elixir)

Warning: Only applies to Atelier Sophie 2. And it’s going to be a really bad Mystery Elixir, in case you found this looking for a guide on Google. Sorry, you’d better continue your search.

For everyone else, this is part 2 of my deep read run of posts on the Atelier series (and I recommend you start with part 1 if you haven’t read it for an overview of the Atelier series if you’re not familiar with it.) I’m still not sure whether it’s part 2 of 2 or of more than 2, but I knew I couldn’t stop with the one post, because I had to take on what to many players is likely the most intimidating aspect of Atelier: all the alchemy. Gathering ingredients, using them to craft items that can be used to craft still more items, with hundreds of properties to choose from and many more effects specific to each item depending upon their elemental makeups. And best of all, not only does each sub-series within Atelier have its own alchemy system that has no relation to any of the others, even each game within those sub-series introduce new elements and remove older ones, requiring the player to learn a new sort of alchemy each time they jump into a new title.

But it’s not enough to just say that: I have to illustrate it. (Do I? Probably not, but I will anyway.) Lately I’ve been playing through the final part of Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream, the direct sequel to the first Atelier Sophie and the fourth title in what used to be the Mysterious trilogy. If that seems confusing, I’ll be writing a review of the game sometime soon to put it into its proper context. For the purpose of this post, we’re not concerned with the why but the how: how to make this fucking Mystery Elixir. And to really illustrate the process, I’m going to write this post in the form of an old-fashioned screenshot Let’s Play. (If you don’t know what that is, I’ve done one before that ended abruptly a few years back; see also for some very old-school examples of user-created playthroughs some of which existed before YouTube.)

Here’s Sophie, our alchemist protagonist, ready to start crafting the Mystery Elixir, a high-level healing item. This or something like it is always featured near the ends of these games to help you out with your final fights and bosses, not to mention the extra/optional ones. I’ve already synthesized one of these, but it’s not a very good one — I can do a lot better.

Starting the synthesis process. Four ingredients are required, one of which is a Dunkelheit, an extremely rare flower that I only have one of, meaning once I make one of these, I can’t make another elixir until I come across another one. (Actually, I can get more of these easily by fulfilling certain requests and redeeming tickets for them, but they’re rare in the wild anyway.)

There’s a problem, however: I want to get particular traits onto my elixir while adding enough of the proper elements to the item to get the most HP recovery and other benefits out of the thing as possible. The best way to achieve this is to synthesize a component item with all of those elements, and the easiest component to use for that purpose is a neutralizer, a sort of liquid… something that can be used in almost any recipe if you’re creative enough.

I’m making a White Neutralizer because why not, it works. But to get this thing to as high a quality as possible, I’m going to want to duplicate a high-level magical item to use in the recipe. It’s time to go to Pirka’s shop.

The Priarco is a craftable item, a sort of crystal pyramid thing. I have no idea what it’s for — in the item’s notes, Sophie says it’s a light manipulation device (a prism?) but I’m not sure what benefit that’s supposed to give to a liquid. But it’s high-quality and cheap to duplicate, and it can be used to make a high-quality White Neutralizer, so who cares. It’s a magical item too, so I guess there’s no arguing about how it functions. It’s just magic, okay?

Speaking of magic, here we see Pirka duplicating this pyramid prism thing.

Also damn, Pirka. If I lived in this dream world (again, I’ll explain when I take on the game as a whole) I’m sure I’d find plenty of excuses to drop by her shop to use her duplication services. Why couldn’t she have joined my party, anyway? I guess someone has to tend the shop, and she doesn’t have any employees.

Time to make the neutralizer. This is the core of the alchemy system in the Sophie games and in a broader sense in the Mysterious sub-series. I think the 7×7 grid is meant to represent the cauldron — in Sophie 1 you could craft new cauldrons and switch them out, starting with 4×4 grids up to 6×6 depending on your alchemy skill and ingredients. Here the range runs from 5×5 to 7×7, and at this point in the game we really can’t do without the full 7×7 grid. You’re also technically crafting “catalysts” this time instead of cauldrons that perform different functions that I won’t even get into here — I don’t fully understand that system myself, but thankfully I’ve been able to get by somehow. I’m using the Limitia catalyst here because it’s the one I currently have that affords me the most flexibility, with the ability to flip and invert pieces to better fit them into the grid.

Anyway, Sophie places every elemental piece of each ingredient in the cauldron in this grid formation, or at least as many as she can manage to fit in. The restricted panels crossed out above can be toggled on and off, but turning them off and having the entire grid free also limits your item growth potential. It’s best to link as many of the glowing nodes of the same element as you can, since that opens up more points to fill on the right side and greatly improves your item. As you can see, we’ve maxed out this neutralizer’s attributes.

Nice work! Now we have a pretty high-quality neutralizer. Could be higher, but it’s fine. Now to move on to the Mystery Elixir.

Just kidding, we have to synthesize still another item first. Often you’ll need to follow multiple steps to get all the good stuff you want onto your resulting item. This can be a pain in the ass, yeah, but it also allows you to customize your items, armors, and weapons and to make them massively powerful. In this case, we can’t directly throw a neutralizer into the elixir, so we’ll have to make an intermediate-step item.

In this case, we’re making a Cure-all Base. Let’s shove a killer bee in there, why not.

Using the cauldron again. And the result:

Sure, that’s fine. Note the traits at the bottom of the item description, all carried over directly from the neutralizer we threw into the cauldron. The item used is important to the final result — my choice of a Cure-all Base was just me being lazy, which I’ll end up paying for soon. But at least I’ve got those nice traits carried over.

Finally, it’s time to make that fucking elixir.

Every ingredient we’ve chosen has been shoved into the cauldron. We’re not even bothering with the lightning element — it probably does something good, but I don’t want that at the expense of what I consider the more important wind and ice attributes: HP Recovery and Auto Activate so that the item is automatically used when the equipping character falls to less than half their HP. Bosses in this game like to take multiple turns and spam massive attacks that can wipe your party out, so this is a (very) partial fix.

Here we’ve got Auto Activate 50%, the best ice attribute we can achieve, but the wind attributes are still a little lacking. I don’t even know what “Activate Split” means, but I can probably get something better than that if I max out the green. So I went back to the ingredient lists… but while I changed Activate Split to Activate Scatter (???) I still couldn’t achieve the top maxed out green attribute. I probably actually can reach it given the right ingredients and the right catalyst, but at this point my laziness overtakes me and I give up. HP Recovery XXL sounds pretty good. This is where my choice of the Cure-all Base might have screwed me over, however: I might have that maxed-out attribute if I’d picked an intermediate item to synthesize with more of the wind element to it. Oh well.

And with these traits carried over from that neutralizer we made at the beginning of the process, we’re looking pretty good now: stronger healing through the Tremendous Healing and Superb Quality traits, and Multiply, which weakens the item’s effect but allows us to use it six times instead of just three. Since inventory space in combat is extremely limited, this is an important trait — we don’t want to run out of uses in the middle of a long fight. And see how happy Sophie is about this synthesis? She’s smiling for a reason: thanks to the setup I managed to put together in the cauldron, with several complete rows and columns, my Super Success Rate rose and activated a massive boost in item quality.

But we’re not done. Now it’s back to Pirka’s place. Yes, I have a legitimate reason for being back here: I need more than one elixir but I’m out of Dunkelheits, and while I can easily get more by doing requests and redeeming tickets at Kati’s bar, that method would also require me to go through the whole synthesis process again, which I don’t feel like doing. Fortunately, Pirka can duplicate my Elixir.

It’s far more expensive to duplicate these, and I end up spending about 80,000 on the job for five of these, but since Sophie 2 lets you spend as much time taking the same requests down at Kati’s bar as you like, money is essentially an unlimited resource. I have far more than I need anyway. I should note that money always carries over to your New Game Plus in Atelier, so it might be in your interest to save up and sell all the materials you’d lose anyway in your new cycle (remembering to keep the gear you want to retain equipped, of course) but I don’t have time for second playthroughs anymore.

Finally, our task is done, so I send Sophie back to the atelier to get some rest. Sleeping in this game doesn’t seem to do anything other than pass time — you can choose what time of day to wake up, and I think certain events or materials might only be available at certain times of day. But since none of the Atelier games have time limits anymore, you can potentially sleep all you want without consequence. I guess the main benefit is getting to see this CG every time (or the equally nice alternate one that I won’t mention because the other character featured is technically a very early game spoiler if that’s even a thing. I’ll save it for that dedicated Sophie 2 post.)

And that’s alchemy. At least, it’s alchemy in Atelier Sophie 2. I mentioned that each game has its own form of alchemy to learn. These are generally, though not always, pretty intuitive to get down. One of the less intuitive systems, at least for me so far, is the somewhat different cauldron/grid format used in Atelier Firis — similar since it’s a game in the same Mysterious sub-series but with some extra elements added in.

Outside of this sub-series, you’ll find totally different alchemy mechanics, however. Like the Material Loop system featured in the Atelier Ryza games:

Or the system from the Dusk series, again with variations between each game. This one is from Atelier Shallie. Is this OK? I’m not sure, but it was the best I could do this early in the game.

Since each of these sub-series takes place in its own universe, it makes sense for them to have different forms of alchemy. It’s a nice way to mix things up as well — the alchemy system would get a little too dull and samey if it were merely repeating, even with slight tweaks, in each successive game. Because alchemy is more than just a tacked-on game mechanic, as I’ve brought up before: it really is at the core of the series. To truly enjoy Atelier fully, I think you have to be at least a little obsessive, willing to mix various ingredients after gathering enough to have a wide variety of types in enough volume to ensure a good mix of traits and high enough quality ratings to make synthesis worth your while.

This usually doesn’t require grinding, either, at least in the way a JRPG would normally demand it. While there’s plenty of combat to be had in the fields and dungeons of a typical Atelier game, many fights can be outright avoided if you don’t want to bother with them by simply running around enemies. This is especially true in the later games, which tend to have enemies that aren’t easily aggro’d unless you really get into their faces. Of course, you can’t avoid all fights: you’ll need to level as you progress, and every Atelier I’ve played has featured a usual lineup of increasingly powerful bosses, some of whom can send you packing back to the atelier to synthesize new armor, weapons, and attack/buff/debuff items.

Especially true for me in Ryza, since I’m not great at coordination and that battle system demands more of your attention with its active element.

However, I’d encourage anyone feeling too intimidated by these complex systems not to be scared off of trying out Atelier. It does require a lot of item-crafting, yeah, but you don’t usually have to go into the kind of depth I do to get S-level items and gear. Hell, I’m not even going into all that much depth — a real series veteran will probably note that my Mystery Elixir still kind of sucks, which I’ll freely admit to myself. For that reason and others (certain rare ingredients only appearing in certain places at certain times, for example) Atelier is one of the few series I’d feel absolutely no shame in looking up a guide for. There are plenty of resources online detailing all the minutia of each game and its items, ingredients, monsters, weapons, and so on. I get the feeling that Atelier was made to please the kinds of completionists and obsessives who are able to put together such guides.

Still, again, you don’t have to be one of them to beat an Atelier game, much less to have fun with one. Though some of the games are more immediately accessible than others — despite being a sequel, Sophie 2 seems like a pretty good title to start with provided you’re okay with a purely turn-based combat system.

And even more ridiculous costumes than usual, but I enjoy those too. What’s with those crystal bunny ears anyway? Naturally, we never get an explanation for them.

That’s it for Atelier, at least for the moment. This series seems to have no end, so there’s always more to say. It’s truly a hidden gem, at least here in the West, where it still seems to get barely any notice outside of the typical fan circles that I move in. More hipster weeb cred for me to enjoy, anyway, if I can really be said to “enjoy” that. Not like I can shoot the breeze with anyone I know in real life and bring this game series up without getting a blank look. Is that a good or a bad thing?

I’m not sure, but either way, it’s my fate now. See you next time!