Clues vs Letters, On Minds and Characters

I used to think I was interested in everything, and I am, but thankfully things have coalesced over thirty seven years into some clear patterns. It is amazingly nice to identify things which are up one’s alley, amazingly disorienting when you cannot identify such things. The latter situation may sound strange to the point of ludicrous, but not if you’ve spent any time studying the brain of the depressive or otherwise mentally ill, and that area of knowledge is one in which I am furiously pursuant. Partly because it interests me to understand the mind of humans (and others species), partly because of how it intersects with epistemology and memetics, two of my other interests, but primarily out of a survival instinct. My own brain has inborn defects, and only by understanding them can I transcend them.

Another of my passions are games and puzzles, as witnessed by this blog, and no puzzle more so than the crossword. Usually the two things – mental health and crosswords – don’t intersect, but lately that hasn’t been the case. For one, I’m currently talking to someone about designing some games to help with men’s mental health initiatives, and two, I today stumbled onto the work of Susan Haack. The information was found in David Astle’s Cluetopia. Astle is the Australian Araucaria, which won’t make any sense unless you’re a crossword nerd; he is the Australian crossword guru, suffice to say, and Cluetopia is his lovely 100-chapter anecdotal chronology of the crossword, which turned 100 in 2013.

Each chapter is devoted to a year and to a landmark in crossword setting, including many of its encounters with other fields. 1995’s entry is devoted to Susan Haack, an epistemologist who found the crossword to be her perfect metaphor, like Plato’s Cave or Sisyphus’s Stone. Epistemologists and psychologists alike know that our human understanding and mindset is not just based on experiences but on how those things are interpreted. Haack’s metaphor of choice puts the clues in a crossword as our experiences, and the half-filled-in-grid as our beliefs and reasonings.

The clues are, in their nature, unlinked to each other. 1 across owes nothing to 2 down. But in our head, the answer of the clue, or the meaning of the event we experience, is extremely limited by everything that intersects with it. What’s particularly good about this metaphor is that in crosswords, we almost always defer to the grid, not the clue.  Indeed, sometimes we don’t even need the clue, and we work backwards. If the letters fill in E F T we learn that is a kind of newt. So too in life when we can’t comprehend something we ask for fill-in letters. And we guess what could go in them, and the clue be damned. Just yesterday the last clue in the Times spelled out S_I_N_E and I knew black-and-blue it had to be SCIENCE, because nothing else could possibly fit there. It fit nothing in the clue, but I decided this was just me not understanding the clue’s cleverness – it had to end up meaning SCIENCE, somehow. Of course, SOIGNEE (well-dressed) fits the gaps just as well, and was the right answer, and builds perfectly from the clue, but it’s not in my vocabulary.

And our brains are so like this. They only know certain words, and they only know certain patterns and ultimately we use brute force and guessing to fill in the gaps. This is why we have dream-logic, where we don’t need to know how we got there. It’s why magic tricks work. It’s why murder mysteries can be such fun. It’s also how mental illness and mental unfitness work. When your mind’s grid and vocabulary of choice is full of STEVE IS CRAP and STEVE SUCKS and STEVE WILL FAIL only certain kinds of words can fit in any more. And whatever the clue, you try to work it to fit the grid. Throw away parts of the clue, try and twist the meaning, because it has to be made to fit. Even those not mentally ill know this trick. Start having a bad day and the grid lines up with WHAT A BAD DAY I’M HAVING. And then you step in a mud puddle and it fits right into that pattern, instead of into HA MUD PUDDLES ARE FUN IN A WAY or WELL THESE THINGS HAPPEN or AT LEAST THEY WERENT MY GOOD SHOES. Strong mental health involves attacking like at the clue level (reducing stressors) and at the grid level (breaking down cognitive processes and reversing them) and at the vocabulary level (learning new words to go into the grid by building up loving relationships and memories).

As metaphors go, it is perfect – assuming you know your crosswords, that is. If you don’t, it may be lost on you, but that’s okay because epistemology and psychology alike have all sorts of metaphors describing the same thing. And as I’ve mentioned before, understanding mental health is a great way to help improve your roleplaying – to bring this back to the theoretical subject of this blog.

Characters are, like us, ruled by words in their heads. They have their grids shaped by their experiences and their background and their beliefs. One challenge with RPGs is to do a pencil sketch in session one that gives you something to hang onto, which allows you to react to whatever the game throws at you – and in RPGs, that can be anything. By thinking of things in the clue and grid metaphor, you can see how a few simple grid-structures can be applied to any situation. I like to come up with a few phrases that create my interior monologue, or a few images, or something I’m stealing or being inspired by. Usually two, three at most because humans are simple to begin with and characters even more so. And then everything can be filtered through those things. No matter what the clue, brute force takes over. And that isn’t just realistic, it’s narratively satisfying – and easy to play. We like characters who quickly feel familiar, whom we can predict – and we love it when, for very, very special reasons – they break that mould and surprise us. But that only works once they’ve established the pattern.

Pick a few words, set up your grid, and you can handle any clue and produce a rich, believable and surprisingly still deep character. And you’ll also learn more about how your own brains work.

Five Things To Know Before Playing Beyond Earth

Since it’s free this weekend, a few helpful tips from someone who has won the game once on the easiest setting. Two important things before we get to the official list. One, remember that on your Steam library it’s listed as Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth. It’s not under C, or B, it’s under S. Two, watch the opening cinematic, it’s great.

One: This Is A Civ 5 Mod

Beyond Earth is specifically a mod for Civ 5. It’s Civ 5 in space. It is NOT Alpha Centauri, although it has a few nods in that direction. It helps a lot if you have played Civ 5, or Civ 3 or 4 or even Civ 2, but Civ 5 in particular really helps. The hex movement, the lack of stackable units, the philosophy of balancing expansion with happiness, all of these things carry over. It’s also really easy to understand the energy economy and the health economy if you map them to gold and happiness in Civ 5. You should play Civ 5 before playing BE if possible because Civ 5 is easier to understand, I think, and has less bugs and is easier to beat (hint: airports.) And it’s a great game.

But probably the most important difference between the two games, besides how science works, is to do with food: food and population growth was the wonder drug in Civ 5, and it was relatively easy to keep your growing population happy. Not the case in BE: health drops like a stone and is much harder to maintain. And everything pulls it down, and it pulls down everything. In Civ 5 you could easily trade things off, in various ways: one big city is easier to keep happy and healthy, but crap for science. In BE, every new city counts against your culture AND your science acquisition AND your health…but new cities are the only way to gain precious resources to keep up with the curve.

Two: Don’t Sweat Your Nation

Faction choice and other start-up questions don’t make a huge difference in your strategy choices. Yes, Pan Asia is the best because they build the fastest. Brasillia is good for war. But BE is a game that rewards generalism for the most part (except see below). You cannot ignore any part of the game, and confluence is your friend. What can make a huge difference though are the last two: Spacecraft in particular. Putting out new bases is vital to controlling resources, and the Tectonic Scanner lets you find resources before you research them. For me that is a huge relief and makes planning much easier. So much better than seeing the coastline or alien nests. Start up bonuses are all good, choose here based on what you like to do in your first few turns. I prefer a worker or a soldier, but because of the health issues, a Clinic can be a big deal. If in doubt, go energy – and that’s a good rule always. Energy in BE is like money in Civ: it buys things. And thus an excess of energy can save you from a lack of anything else.

All the personalities are annoying and poorly written, it’s not just you.

Three: There Are Four Kinds of Science Now

One of the major differences in BE is the tech web. The biggest impact you can have on the game – on winning, not just how it plays out – is choosing which techs to get when. Some of this only comes from experience. Be wary of going down leaf techs. Almost all of them are unnecessary in certain situations, some are hardly ever needed. Do not chase down Wonders, either. Unlike Civ, they are no longer the game winners. Look out for Genetics (1st circle) and Bionics (2nd circle), they lead to health buildings which you will need a LOT. Computers allows you to get city-breaking artillery and spies AND boats, so is a hugely useful get. Let the circles be your guide – don’t pick one direction and go that way, but get almost everything on tier one, most things on tier 2, etc.

Most importantly, understand the “four kinds of science”. In  Civ 5, science generally led to good things in one of the areas – it would give you culture, or happiness, or money, or warfare. Science in BE is much more specific – once you have the basics, it’s very much about what victory path you want to go down, which is based on which philosophy you pick. The only way to ensure military victory (or not military loss) is to constantly get upgrades to your troops and the only way to do that is to chase down your Affinity of choice (and that is when you buy leaf tech). It is entirely possible, especially when chasing the victory of contacting aliens to get heaps and heaps of technology and still have a military stuck in the stone age because none of your tech gave you an Affinity bonus.

Four: Affinities Are Fun and Powerful

Everything in the game comes down to pursuing an affinity. You ignore them at your peril for both winning and having fun. If you want a lobster the size of the Chrysler Building, you need to go down Harmony. That said, like the tech web, level one for all of them are very useful and level 3 for all of them are handy. Lvl 1 for Purity and Harmony are almost must-haves because Exploring is so important. Watch your quests, these are good ways to pick up points in affinities without having to do slow research. If a quest is vague on its completion, check the net – a LOT of them are vague as hell. That said, chasing a quest that seems to have no value is an easy trap to fall into. Just because it says to do it doesn’t mean you should do it. Do NOT hunt worms until you are in the mid-game.

One big change between Civ and BE is the need for specific resources has been ramped up. As you chase your affinity you will use stacks of your signature resource (Harmony uses Biomass, Purity Floatstone and Supremacy Firaxite) but you’ll also need the other two and you will need Petroleum for almost anything orbital. For my money Titanium is the least useful, in the sense that it just improves things. Guard your resources well, and only trade for good deals for the things you need.

in case it’s unclear (and it can be): Harmony is believing that humanity should become like the planet (alien-human hybrid sexy times), Purity is making the planet suit humanity (mech-suits and hover tanks) and Supremacy is going “fuck biology we’re going to put our brains in giant robots”. You can think of Harmony like the Zerg, Purity like the Humans and Supremacy like the Protoss if you are a Starcraft nerd.

Five: Explore and Make Friends

You can win Civ 5 with one city, and only trading for cash. You can win without talking to anyone else, even. BE thrives on trade and that means exploring. Trade is a massive source of money, tech and (between your own cities) food and production. Get Pioneering up fast (it’s a tech), build trade houses everywhere, build trade ships everywhere. Make sure after you build the Ultrasonic Fence you select the choice that protects your trade vessels from alien attack. You cannot afford not to trade as much as possible. That said, that’s different from making diplomatic deals. This now works a bit better than in Civ because with favour trading you can force people to come to your aid in a war and such, but the AI doesn’t make any deals that don’t heavily screw you over. Don’t give in to them, they can shove it.

But DO consider trading for open borders because exploration is also really important. Not only are heaps of quests attached to exploration, it also has huge bonuses from finding satellites and buried tech. A dip into Supremacy to get extra expeditions is handy. Exploration will also help you quickly find those precious resources I mentioned, so you can nab them with new cities. You could win Civ without oil or uranium or iron if needed, you need almost everything here, and sometimes lots of it: some of your favourite warmachines will eat up 4 resources PER UNIT. Because more cities make everything harder, there are lots of reasons to get more cities, and all of them are resources. The expansionistic Civ gets the worm.

That should get you started. Watch out for aliens, they’re tough as hell, and miasma will kill you quicker than you think. Good luck.

2014 Stevies

Yes it’s that time once again, a tradition as old as quite-young dirt: the best and brightest of 2014, which is to say of the things I saw, read and encountered in 2014, regardless of when they came out although usually fairly close. Got it? BECAUSE WE WILL BE TESTING YOU.

Best Table Top Game

Lot of great games joined the stable this year as I finally had more cash to spend on my main passion, but as always it’s the dark horse that rides supreme. I bought Suburbia because the slack bastards at Golden Egg Games dropped the ball on sending me City Council. At first I found it kind of cold and uninspiring, but it kept being pulled out and the restrained snacking became full-fledged pig-gorging. This game has DEPTH, and it keeps surprising; never plays the same way twice. And it’s great to pull people into gaming. The cheap expansion adds more meat in again, unexpected ways. I like it so much I’m building bits so we can play it with five. We also had a lot of fun with Shadowrift and Yggdrasil; and along with Suburbia they were all in the $60 region instead of the $90-$100 of most games these days. Bang for buck matters. I could get Fortune and Glory, but is it really worth two other games?

Best RPG

You know what, screw RPGs. I need a break, instead of trying to keep up with a hobby I’ve drifted from. The winner, therefore, is me, for being awesome. I accept.

Best Computer Game

Does it go to Beyond Earth? Just as my love with Civ 5 was waning from over use (it won the Stevie for 2013), Beyond appeared to salve the wounds. But this was also a year I got back into computer games on a wider level. I saw how exquisitely written the prose of Shadowrun Returns is, and how elegantly Divinity: Original Sin wired exposition into gameplay. The Goat Simulator came out and was everything it needed to be, and the simple majesty of Banished ate my mind. But the stand out, stand-up and applaud forever was that I finally played the masterpiece they call Gone Home. The mechanics were a bit forced but the WRITING in the game is amazing. Strong characters drawn from different angles and illustrated with subtlety, nuance and above all, cadence. Computer games have grown up not because they’re about “big things” but because they’re written like poetry. They understand that words matter.

Best Movie

Predestination. Hopefully getting a wider release in the US over summer, this is a SF thriller that flew far too low under the radar. Yes, you’re all very clever and figured out the “twist” (both of them/all three?) but that’s not the point. Not everything is cool suits, violin cases and awesome time travel plots, combining the slick visual style of The Matrix with the cleverness of The Usual Suspects. No, Predestination is MORE than that. It’s got a cool alternative universe setting that are ever so subtle, perfect performances from the three leads and a compactness that means it can deliver its message like a bullet to the head. And WHAT a message. One of the most complex psychological commentaries to ever come out of Hollywood, and nobody fucking noticed because it looked like a time travel film. Five months later, I still can’t get it out of my head.

Best TV

2014 is the year of Parks and Recreation. Been watching all six series since about June and it has been a beacon in the darkness. Yes, the show is now ending, which means you can watch the whole thing unfold without interruption. And what a story it is. After a shaky start when it tried to be a wry, cynical show about good people failing to achieve anything in the face of crippling bureaucracy and apathy it suddenly found its heart and became a show about good people achieving moments of glory despite the bureaucracy and apathy and negativity around them. The apathy and negativity grounds the show so the moments of love and triumph and beauty don’t become schmaltz – yet shine forth with the goodness of the world. Pawnee is the new Cheers Bar; everyone wants to live there because that world is a better, kinder, more loving world. Despite the racoon problem and the high obesity rates and the occurrences of Lou Gherig’s Other Disease.

Best Comic

No contest: Rat Queens. Look, Saga is good, but Rat Queens is SEXY. Page one, panel one, these people are ICONS. This shit is bananas.

Best Science

New hope on big cures, and a robot on a comet stealing the headlines but I gotta give this to the Indian space launch, for reminding the world that science ain’t done, but it may be done with white guys in suits. Asian women in saris are running mission control and the Chinese are putting robots on the moon. That’s your future, right there: the US century is over, and nowhere is that more clear than in space.

Best Ungulate

The dik-dik continues to have a lock on this category. Adorable, great name, big eyes, fits in your pocket. The tea-cup giraffe is science fiction but a domestic dik-dik in every driveway is a future I can believe in.