Refugees, Immigration, and You (and Me)

One of the (very few) upsides of living in a city with poor public transportation is the opportunity to converse with cab / Uber / ride sharing drivers. Unlike the unspoken rule of leaving everyone else alone on the subway / metro, cab drivers are normally eager to chat a bit, with limited refuge in the quieted radio, and a near-constant presence of traffic to slow things down further.

One particularly memory encounter of late via a hellacious 2-hour jaunt to the municipality of São Bernardo do Campo (onetime homebase of Lula, as well as the highly recommended Cantina do Zelão) to resolve some Brazilian bureaucratic nightmare and meeting a second-generation Japanese-Brazilian driver. He told me about his experience growing up in outer São Paulo alongside hundreds of other Japanese immigrants sent to Brazil, and we chatted about the baseball-playing Brazilian population, mostly of Japanese descent. This was a conversation I would’ve never had if not for the inviting nature of the cab ride chat.

Over the weekend, I took an all-too-short trip back to the United States to visit an ailing grandparent and help out however I could. My Uber driver back to JFK was named David, who informed me shortly after we set off on the 1.5-2 hour trip that his English wasn’t very good, as he was from Venezuela. Seizing the opportunity, we began chatting in Port-onhol-glish — a hybrid of the three languages which enabled us to understand one another.

The story that he shared with me was one that I was familiar with from the newspapers, but had never heard in person. David was a civil engineer in his native country, previously working on Caracas’ metro system. However, two years ago he fled his country, immigrating to the US and joining an Uncle of his wife’s in New Jersey. Along with David, many in his family had left Venezuela, dispersing across South America, the United States, and Europe, joining millions of others who have fled the failed state as its leader, Nicolas Maduro, continues to rob the country of its resources while creating civil, social, and fiscal disfunction.

As he shared stories of living with hyperinflation and empty supermarkets, rationing, starvation and senseless and pervasive violences, oftentimes crying or fighting tears, I began to reflect a bit on refugees and our common responsibility to the suffering of individuals succumbing to state failures across the world.I pushed David on some of the latest news out of Venezuela: who did he believe was behind the drone-bomb-assassination attempt against Maduro? (Maduro himself, who had previously regulated drone flight and seemingly orchestrated the parade for such an event.) What of Trump’s rumored support of a military coup against Maduro, and the United States’ history of supporting coups against democratically elected leaders in favor of military strongmen promoting stability and rooting out communist influence? As previously recounted, David pointed out that the military are just as corrupt as Maduro, and deeply involved in the illegal drug trade. Better to round them all up and start over, leaning on the pre-Chavez Venezuelan Constitution. Would he go back? In a heartbeat.

While I could hardly argue against David’s answers, I felt like answers to the situation were somehow incomplete (sidenote: useful editorial in the NYTimes for thinking through the situation.) In addition to driving for Uber, David had risen within the ranks of his day job to become a supervisor, and was building a life for his wife, two children, and himself in just two short years in the United States. But David was fortunate to have skills and a college education, and even luckier to know someone to support his immigration to the United States, and the means to get there. Millions of venezuelans are not as lucky, and are either stuck in the country (and starving) or fleeing to neighboring countries. In one example, after seeing hundreds of Venezuelans crossing the border into the quiet Brazilian town of Pacaraima over the past year+, and given support by the Brazilian government, the citizens of the town pushed back against the massive influx of Venezuelans and their strain on the small town, destroying migrant camps and other acts of violence against the Venezuelans trying to survive.

Across the world, refugees seem as unwelcome as they’ve ever been. Nicaraguans fleeing the right wing repressive regime of Daniel Ortega have flooded into Costa Rica, leading to more than 200 asylum cases per day. Today, Nicaraguans make up 1/10 of all people in Costa Rica, putting strain on the country and its civic systems. Hundreds of thousands of other Central Americans have fled violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, mostly heading north via Mexico to the United States, and meeting President Trump’s no tolerance policy towards the border (short of an actual wall.)

As This American Life exposed in an incredibly powerful and informative episode called Let Me Count the Ways, Trump is not only trying to limit immigration via US’ Southern border. Refugees from Haiti, Syria, Sudan, and other war- and weather-stricken parts of the world, and even talented STEM workers (yes, the “best and brightest”) have been turned away from the United States through well-oiled US immigration routes, met with Trump-appointed bureaucrats empowered to delay, obfuscate, and generally make the United States a less welcoming place to those in need.

Unfortunately, this anti immigrant environment is far from limited to the United States. In Sweden, notoriously one of the most refugee-friendly countries in the world (welcoming 163,000 Syrians in 2015 alone), the misleadingly folksy, “keep Sweden Swedish” far-right Sweden Democrats party has grown into a formidable political force, forcing one of the country’s more moderate political parties to build a coalition with a party with Neo-Nazi roots, lest the centre-right and left band together (gasp.) Across Europe, from Germany’s emboldened Alternative for Germany, to France’s National Front and Italy’s Five Star Movement, we are seeing a widespread backlash against refugees, and immigration in general.

I have many more question than answers in this post, but I’m left contemplating the stark reality that in today’s society, with global warming continuing apace and natural disasters damaging cities and claiming lives across the world, how the world will accommodate the continued (and likely growing) influx of refugees with compassion for their hardships, and recognition for the passion, intelligence, and perseverance, not to mention skills, that these people are bringing to their adopted countries. People like my Uber driver, David, and millions of others.

On Wrestling Failures, and (Momentary) Ju-Jitsu Successes

I think I was the worst wrestler in the history of my high school. Like, 1-30 terrible. Over my two season-long wrestling ”career,” I lost to everyone: boys and girls alike. And I remain convinced that the unsuspecting freshman that I beat was in his first few days of learning the sport. The opening bell would sound, and before I knew it, I would find myself on my back, struggling to avoid being pinned.

Despite the constant losing and the draining weight loss regimen, I enjoyed my wrestling experience, namely for the team’s camaraderie and training. While wrestling is an individual sport, each team trains collectively, and work together closely to improve each teammate’s individual prowess. Rather than being an embarrassing footnote in my life’s story, my high school wrestling failures have proven incredibly consequential, even life-changing.

When I made the decision to accept a job in Brazil, I did so despite not having any friends in the country, let alone family. With a newfound surplus of free time, I decided to take up Brazilian Ju-Jitsu (BJJ), a grappling-based martial art that has become one of the country’s biggest cultural exports. With my wrestling failures front-of-mind, I sought to approach my ju-jitsu training from a clean slate. ju-jitsu has become an instrumental part of my life since taking up the sport, and has re-enforced many of my closely held values.

Humility

After several weeks of settling into my new position, I found a nearby BJJ gym, hopeful that the gym’s proximity would give me little excuse to avoid going. From my first class, I was introduced to an entirely foreign experience, with specific rules and customs to attend to. As a white belt, I was relegated to the back of the gym, reserved for the most junior members of the gym. Surrounded by individuals with years and decades of experience, it is hard not to feel humbled every time I enter the gym, to this day. This humility serves as the basis for much of my learning and progression – my “novice” status enables me to ask basic or “dumb” questions, actively seek out opportunities to learn and improve. This humility drives my willingness to learn, and to not miss any opportunities to get better. This means constant, near-daily training, and pangs of guilt when I do decide to take a day or two off.

Teamwork

The gym is filled with students of all levels, from minimally experienced white belts to black belts with decades of experience. Inside the gym, age, physical prowess, social standing, and one’s profession, things that serve to divide us in the “real world,” especially in a place as unequal as Brazil, go away. As a white belt at the beginning of my journey in ju-jitsu, my primary objective is to act as a sponge – to “soak up” the actions and mannerisms of those around me. Each member of the academy has something for me to learn from. As a result of my willingness to learn, I’ve developed a strong camaraderie with the men and women of the gym, who have acted as a surrogate community for me and have embraced me as the token “foreigner” of the group.

Self improvement

As the weeks progressed, I joined the ranks of my fellow students in the gym: individuals on a personal journey of self improvement, but committed to working together to elevate their own craft and the success of the gym. My initial feelings of humility have not dissipated, but are momentarily accompanied by mommentary recognitions of progress.

One of my all-time heros, Anthony Bourdain, was a humble student of BJJ, a challenge he took up at the ripe age of 58 and partially based in the inspiration of his now ex-wife, Otavia Busia-Bourdain, a dedicated BJJ practitioner and competitor (here’s an article written by Busia-Bourdain on ‘how jujtisu changed her life’).

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Bourdain explained how BJJ has reengaged a long-dormant part of his brain:

I started at 58. It’s the last thing in the world I could’ve ever imagined wanting to do or enjoying. I’ve never hung out in a gym, I’ve never really cared about those things.

I think it can best be explained by, at my age, to entirely learn a new skill is deeply satisfying. To recreate the feeling of being the lowest person on the totem pole, being in a kitchen when I was 17, knowing nothing, in a very hard world. The incremental, tiny satisfactions of being a little less awful at something, every day, it’s like that with ju-jitsu for me. I’m learning an entirely new skill, a very difficult one, a very physically demanding one, but one that I think about for the rest of the day. They call it “physical chess” because it’s something you think about […] there’s a lot of engineering involved.

Patience

Recently, I’ve reflected a bit on my aptitude for ju-jitsu, especially in comparison to my tenure as a horrible wrestler. As I’m still reminded by my training companions, ju-jitsu is oftentimes about patience – about establishing your position, thinking about your next move, and conserving your energy, versus wrestling’s rule of constant motion.

This patience extends to my training more broadly. Time and time again, through injuries (a couple of undiagnosed deeply bruised/broken ribs, fingers, and toes), humiliating defeats, and periodic moments of retention, I am pitted with the enormity of the journey ahead of me and the need to maintain this perspective throughout this lifelong journey of advancement and improvement.

In August, I received my first examination result, adorning my white belt with two stripes, signifying my (minimal) advancement. Now several months in, I’m no longer at the far, far end of the gym, replaced by younger newcomers just a few months behind me. But far from any overconfidence or feelings of deservedness, I continually remind myself that the process continues, learning is lifelong, and I have decades to go before my jujitsu journey is complete.

Designing Puzzles, Games, Worlds

Over the past two weekends, I’ve devoted hours of my free time playing Myst III: Exile for the first time, after its ported re-release to modern machines by the venerable Gog.com (formerly GoodOldGames.com.)

With a bit of remove since playing Riven, a game that I had been initially introduced to as a child, I feel like I can reflect more clearly on the incredible pleasure I get from playing these games – exploring the individual levels created, working through the puzzles put forth, and immersing myself in the broader worlds created by the folks at Cyan.

exile-02exile-03exile_1Screenshots from Myst III: Exile (2001)

As a younger person, the concept of video game designer is an abstract one, most likely conceived more so as video game “player” (which now, coincidentally, is actually a real job) than designer – of worlds, levels, mechanics, and stories. What’s so incredibly pleasurable about playing games from the Cyan canon, and especially in the progression from Myst to Riven to Exile, is how much care and attention was given to the design of these games, and how much these games were created with the “player” in mind.

As I’ve come to innately learn through playing their games, the game designers expect an active and observant player (with some baseline knowledge of physics concepts). These are not games to be mindlessly played through on a couch – one must be willing to be challenged and occasionally frustrated. In exchange for these ‘asks,’ the game designers have gorgeously constructed worlds filled with areas to explore and puzzles to be solved.

Unlike Riven (and Myst before it), I’ve made a conscious effort to work my way through the game without the assistance of walkthroughs or obvious hints that would take the thinking out of my hands. As a result, I’ve gone through momentary bouts of getting stuck, and several frustration-/exhaustion-quits (the lesser known cousin of the famous “rage quit.”) However, this has also led to intense, pleasure-filled sequences as I figure things out, either while playing the game itself, or via a stray thought on a particularly thorny area passing through my head over the course of my non-gaming day.

Cyan’s puzzles are not meant to “break” you, nor are they reserved for only the most mathematically astute codebreakers. Rather, they are mostly rely on the player’s power of observation, the ability to insert oneself into the world(s) constructed by the designers to orient oneself, learn the world’s rules, and play within the confines of the game’s “sandbox.” From there, it’s mostly a question of connecting the dots between these in-game observations (I use a notebook to jot things down), with necessary patience and reflection in between.

One of the interesting byproducts of playing these games has been the exercise of thinking like a designer to try to draw logical connections, and make progress within the game. In my view, this requires the perspective of an adult – the ability to actively place yourself in the shoes of another (in this case, a grown-up game designer), to logically work backwards and make progress with the “game.” This is something that I could have never reasonably done as a pre-teen clicking through the various art panels of Myst with mouth agape. One stray thought that I’ve returned to often as an adult is the “limits” of videos games themselves, whether due to graphics, computer processing power, or the concept of a video game itself. As a younger person, these games (even the most basic MS-DOS games) felt like they had almost unlimited potential if I was good/smart/adept enough at unlocking them, able to blur the lines between the game and reality, and the possibility of deeper secrets underneath the surface of the game.

Like a director’s mise-en-scene, a novelist’s detail, or an artist’s choice of color, subject, or style, every element of the worlds being explored within the Cyan’s video games were considered by the designers, and in turn left to be interpreted by the players – why was this put here? What question is this meant to solve? In Cyan’s games, which oftentimes include minimal dialogue and no narration, rooms are strewn with tools and artifacts with no broader purpose other than to further immerse the player in these strange worlds, as well as notebooks that take you into the minds of the characters (protagonists and antagonists alike). This, combined with goregous art and immersive sound design, gives a game like Exile, released all the way back in 2001, a timeless quality, and elevates it from a mere video game into a world of art, in my mind (though it appears as if MoMA agrees).

Aside from continuing to refine game mechanics and further improve the game’s intuitive connection between player and game, the game’s principal technological leap from its predecessor (released four years prior) is the use of a panoramic, VR-like perspective to allow the player a full perspective on what’s below, above, and next to him. Today, more than 17 years since Exile’s release (and even longer since its design), the concept of VR has sought to replicate this sensation, adding a more immersive video headset and motion controllers as well as more photo-realistic graphics, but otherwise not changing the core concept in any major way.

In my mind, Cyan’s immersive worlds, and their ability to unlock the innate human pleasure of exploring and figuring things out represented the best use case for VR, in video games or otherwise. It’s no surprise that Cyan’s upcoming release, Firmament, is being designed to be played in VR, and deemed “a new VR experience” by Cyan. Interestingly, its predecessor, Obduction, was given a VR-release after its initial design, which ultimately proved ambitious but underbaked. Back to the drawing board, I have the utmost confidence that the next game will draw on the lessons learned from Obduction, and potentially be the first great VR game, As Cyan founder Rand Miller recently said in an interview regarding the transition from Obduction to Firmament:  “We definitely jumped in, and realized that this was going to work, but it also allowed us to get a nice head start on what’s coming next. It definitely seems like what we do, making these worlds, is definitely going to be amplified by VR.”

Obduction_01A goregous screenshot from Cyan’s latest, Obduction (2016), to be played at some point

One day, I’ll spend the money to update my machine to be able to play some of these newer games. In the meantime, I will continue to maintain that a masterpiece stands the test of time no matter when it was created, and is oftentimes more innovative and engaging than the flashier, better looking new releases. For now, good old games will have to do.

Hitting ‘Publish’

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about journaling vs. blogging on this site, and how to balance between the two in a productive and beneficial way.

There’s an obvious psychological difference between words that intended for broader consumption, and those that are kept close and mostly to myself — consciously or not, there’s a certain self-censoring to one’s public-facing writings, as opposed to the more unstructured, impulsive, and emotionally honest relationship between a person and their journal.

However, I do think there’s room for both, and think that the public blog has more utility than one might expect in the journal/blog writing continuum.

When I decided to try and revive this webspace, I had two primary objectives.

The first was to hold myself accountable to the act of consistent writing – any significant length of time between posts would be readily noticeable to the curious / critical visitor, including myself.

The second objective was to do away with the fear of reprisal from broader consumption of my own thoughts and opinions: to leave little distance between my name and my writing, and to leave myself open to the public criticism, commentary, and consideration that putting your name and opinions the internet entails. In doing so, I recognize that I will occasionally be wrong, misguided, naive, or look stupid, and have to be okay with that.

As a general principle, I am a huge proponent of the importance of incremental improvement, the ability of one’s growth mindset to propel one’s learning and abilities throughout one’s life. From a personal standpoint, the skillset that is most important to me deals with the absorption of ideas, and my ability to impart my own interpretations and thoughts on these ideas coherently and cogently. Further, I believe it is crucial to learn from the responses and perspectives of others, who will only be able to respond to my thoughts with their own if I can express myself in a clear and structured fashion.

Therein lies the value of the blog – a repository for my own thoughts and a time capsule to be revisited by myself and others as I continue to learn and grow, while simultaneously a place to hone my ability to translate my thoughts into words, paragraphs, and blog posts.

Ryan Holiday recently reflected on revisiting his first book, Trust Me, I’m Lying, which he wrote and published at the age of 25:

When reviewing these pages — pages I’d hurriedly written and edited in my excitement to publish my first book — I wonder who the hell I thought I was. I’d studied and sat with the topic for how long? And here I was, printing words that could never be unprinted. I’m embarrassed by the certainty of it. As if it had never occurred to me to hedge my bets or entertain the possibility that subsequent events might prove me wrong. Why couldn’t I have said simply that this is what I thought at the time and knew to be true to the best of my ability? There’s a pervasive overdone-ness to so much of it. If there’s any proof of the ego’s insecurity, it’s there — in the fact that I have to put two sentences where one would clearly do, a big word where a simpler one would have sufficed.

Ryan continues:

And here I am now, regretting it, as I inevitably will regret parts of this article, and parts of the article I wrote last week and the one I will publish next week.

Not having had the privilege of publishing a book at 25, I can only imagine the feeling of revisiting your first book, after years and further published books that more accurately reflect how he seems himself today. However, I believe this ultimately only reflects positively on his evolution as an author, as a thinker, and as a human being. His ability to reflect on his initial writing with humility, and to have the distance and clarity to critically examining his younger self is a testament to the evolution that he’s undergone in just six short years. In my eyes, this reflects much more positively on himself and who he is today than the fact that his previous writing may have been immature, boorish, or incorrect.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book We Were Eight Years in Power is a truly fantastic collection of essays written during President Obama’s Presidency that dissect the broader context behind the President’s ascension, accomplishments, and legacy. Each essay is accompanied by an ‘up-to-date’ introduction that I found especially resonant. In these autobiographical pieces, Ta-Nehisi reflects on his year-by-year journey as a news reporter to a magazine contributor and blogger for the Atlantic to the author of Between the World and Me, his trials and tribulations from self-doubt and poverty, and his personal, professional, and intellectual evolution during Obama’s two terms.

In the book, he cites his blog, of which I was a faithful follower (but not contributor), as the place where the majority of his intellectual development and opinions were formed. During that span, he reflected on the books his was reading, openly solicited the thoughts, opinions, and supplemental reading and recommendations of his commenters and interacted with likeminded (and some non-likeminded individuals) on subjects that became the basis of some of his most lauded pieces. As he humbly recounts, it was those oftentimes anonymous contributors, as well as his desire to return to his blog day-after-day, week-after-week, that formed the basis of much of his later success as an author, thinker, and public intellectual.

One day, I hope to be able to revisit this blog with the same type of embarrassment and humility that Ryan and Ta-Nehisi see their earlier writings and blogs, and look towards this (and the internet in general) as a place where I was able to learn, grow, and develop. Until then, the onus is on me to continue to read and think, as well as compose my conclusions for all to see, consume, and criticize here on this site.

Less, More, and None

 

I was inspired by a page that has been making the rounds on the internet called Less, More, None, and decided to sit down and craft my own version of the exercise.

Revisiting this in digital form, I think the sum of the answers encapsulates my current state of mind.

Less

  • Podcasts
  • Completionism
  • Seductive reading
  • News / Journalism
  • Impulsive acting
  • Excuses / Rationalizations
  • Negativity / Cynicism
  • Compulsive phone checking
  • Clutter
  • Distraction
  • Internet
  • “Needing to know”
  • Last in, first out (email)
  • Email
  • Digital

More

  • Music
  • Learning
  • Patience
  • Quiet
  • Thinking
  • Writing
  • Consistency
  • Gratitude
  • Creating
  • Experimenting / Tinkering / Toying
  • Long walks
  • Catching up with loved ones
  • First in, first out (email)
  • Journaling
  • Analog
  • Organization
  • Passions

None

  • Comparing my journey to others
  • Worrying about other’s opinions
  • Conformity
  • Self-pity
  • Chasing the latest / sexy trends

 

Gravity’s Rainbow: Embarking

After finishing the super hyped Annihilation last week (not terrible, but overly introverted for a suspense / thriller ), I’m building myself up to embark on a long-delayed journey – reading Thomas Pynchon’s infamous 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

A collection of different book covers used for Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

I’ve long held Gravity’s Rainbow in a reading category with the works of old masters like Tolstoy and Proust, Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, and American postmodern works like Delillo’s Underworld and Gaddis’ Recognitions: books that I’ve earmarked to read at some point in my life, but have purposely held off from reading due to some combination of intimidation, a desire to further build up my reading “muscles,” and more time to induce the wisdom/intelligence that only life experience provides. However, I believe that these are all mere rationalizations that have kept me from pursuing these works, like anything else that is used to keep one from carrying out a long-dreaded and delayed tasks.

After reading a great book that I’ve put off reading for one of the above reasons (or because a recent purchase, release, or recommendation has been moved to the top of my list), I normally return to a common realization – that life is short, reading time is finite, and there is little reason to spend one’s precious time reading books that are less than “great,” especially when there are multiple lifetime’s worth of worthy books to be read. However, the appeal of ‘easy’ books, or books that I deem particularly relevant at a certain point in my life, oftentimes take precedence, leaving the list of ‘to read, at some point’ continually growing. At some point (within reason), there needs to be a conscious effort made on my part to do away with drivel and ‘interim’ reads, as well as the books that indulge some small curiosity, and be more intentional with the books that I choose to tackle. </rant>

I bought my first copy of Gravity’s Rainbow after already having purchased a “Companion” to the book at a garage/library/$1 book sale. I was immediately seduced by this companion (A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Context’s for Pynchon’s Novel), a sort of cipher that would enable the reader to capably break through the complexity and more directly access the author’s intentions and hidden meanings. A minimal amount of online research furthered my understanding of the notorious challenge associated with reading GR, as well as an base knowledge of the general mystique that surrounds Pynchon the person, and the mass acclaim given to Pynchon the author.

companion

A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources & Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel, by Steven Weisenburger (1988)

Since that initial fateful purchase, I’ve heeded the recommendation of many Pynchon fans of reading The Crying of Lot 49 as an “entry point,” into Pynchon’s work, given its relatively short length (160 pages) relative to his other books. The book introduces many of the concepts that seem to be characteristic of Pynchon’s broader work: metaphysics, vague, deep-seated conspiracies that are at the heart of our fragile order, and absurd backdrops and satirical characters (with quippy names) that veer from rational explanation.

Reading Lot 49, I felt fairly uninitiated to the the novel’s broader context, which was written in 1965 and includes references and nods to the 60s, most famously allusions to The Beatles / Beatlemania. This feeling was validated after reading two of Pynchon’s more recent novels: Inherent Vice (2009), which is set in hippie-era 1970s California, and Bleeding Edge (2013), which, most familiarly, is set in the aughts’ tech world. Both of these books felt more accessible, both in terms of their use of a more modern vernacular, as well as an ability to more capably process Pynchon’s humorous digressions and broader plot as a result of a more comfortable baseline of knowledge. From this standpoint, GR’s 1973 publication date already seems like a challenging entry point.

Aside: Instead of Lot 49, I would recommend individuals curious about Pynchon to start with Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice, which I think does a fantastic job of capturing the absurdity, humor and thrust of the novel. Now that I think about it, it’s probably my pick for the most faithful / worthy film adaption.

pta

Paul Thomas Anderson’s faithful film adaptation of Pynchon’s novel, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin (2014)

I intend to use this blog as both a capsule and a tool for reading Gravity’s Rainbow, as I try and to tackle it chapter-by-chapter over the summer. Hopefully, using chapters or page intervals as a prompt to pause and reflect will allow me to maintain some grasp the novel. After reading and absorbing each chapter, I also plan to visit the Companion as a way to engage with some of the book’s hidden contexts or obscured clues. While I’m sure there are time-tested and/or recommended approaches for reading the book, for the time being I hope to embrace this method, and intend to capture my thoughts and reflections (and/or lack of comprehension) fairly regularly. That or I give up fairly quickly, and move on to an easier / more relevant read.

Cyan’s Worlds: Myst and Riven

As I mentioned in last week’s weekly reading post, I really enjoyed the experience of re-playing Riven, which coincidentally coincides with Cyan’s (the creators of Riven, and its predecessor, Myst) 25th anniversary.

Myst was a fairly ubiquitous experience for the early 90s PC owners – it came on CD-ROM on my parent’s Gateway computer, along with the ambitious, pre-Wikipedia Encarta and pre-Youtube music and movie encyclopedia projects Microsoft Music Center and Cinemania, both of which sparked a nascent interest in the broader worlds of music and film. Gaming-wise, the “bundle” also included the early LucasArts collection of non-Star Wars of animated point-and-click adventure games: the scifi Day of the Tentacle, the Road Rash-influenced Full Throttle, the extraterrestrial adventure The Dig, the cartoonish buddy comedy Sam & Max Hit the Road, and the globetrotting Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.

fate of the atlantis

Lucasarts’ Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992)

All of these games required a certain level of attention, intelligence, and imagination – items to be found, logical connections to be made, and tiny pixelated switches, levers, and buttons needed to be noticed and pushed/pulled. In short, you needed to think like a game designer, not a click-hungry eight-year-old. Needless to say, I beat none of these games, but both remain captivated by them, and nostalgic for them to this day. Thanks to the magic of GOG.com (originally Good Old Games.com), these games are mostly available to be played on modern-day PCs for less than $4.99 (and even more incredibly, on iOS / Android devices!), and have faithfully honored my recollections (though the graphics are always worse than I recalled) and indulged my nostalgia.

95832-Full_Throttle_(CD_DOS)-4

Lucasarts’ Full Throttle (1995) – now remastered & available on the iPhone!

Unlike any of these games, Myst defied (and continues to defy) convention. For a young person uninitiated to the world (and possibilities) of mid-90s video gaming, Myst was a revelation. Upon starting up the game, you are dropped into an seemingly alien world – with artifacts of planet Earth (wooden ship, clocktowers, library) and Alice in Wonderland-esque set pieces (oversized gears, spaceships, infinite oceans), all open to be explored at one’s leisure. There was no storyline (at least not without painstaking reading), objective, or clear-cut answers to be had. And I was hopelessly lost. The game couldn’t be more different from many of my other beloved early gaming memories – two-button Nintendo and Sega side scrollers with teams of enemies (and level-ending bosses) to dispense of, and yet I kept coming back. Something about the mystery of the island, and the potential secrets behind the puzzles and reading (imagine: reading in a video game), ignited my curiosity.

 

In retrospect, I conflate the hours spent and limited payoff playing this game as a 10-year old to the collegiate / adult experience of reading a brick-of-a-postmodern-novel – with the right amount of intelligence, concentration, and investment, pleasure exists, but it’s most definitely beneath the surface. And sometimes, it doesn’t exist at all.

The sequel to Myst, Riven, first arrived at the house of a friend’s in a carefully crafted box set of CD-ROMs. The ominous Riven logo graced the front and back covers, with inserts of each CD evoking the gorgeous, otherworldly scenery to be had in the game. With no ability to purchase the game myself, I immediately sought to prioritize my time spent at this friend’s house to maximize the amount of time spent exploring the contents of Riven.

riven002

Screenshot from Riven  – “The Rotating Room”

Even back then, Riven always felt more inviting – less barren, with more immediate “action” and even interaction with other humans, right from the start. Its world felt just as imaginative, following the same arrow-led point-and click format, with an entirely new world to explore and even more collections of weird contraptions, eerie music, puzzles to solve, and answers to discover. I’m not sure if I got much further in Myst than I did in Riven (maybe slightly), but Riven always felt like a more complete game than its predecessor, and worthy of my time and concentration. I imagined myself as an older person, notebook in hand, dutifully working my way through the game and solving its puzzles.

 

Two more screenshots from Riven

As I spent the past weekend recreating my imagined self, albeit in a foreign country and consuming an alcoholic beverage, I’m struck by just how much Riven met its hype, more than 20 years after the game’s release. As I worked my way through the game, I was struck but just how mindful the game required you to be – no in-game map or hints to be had – requiring the player to survey the areas themselves, both for orientation and hints for what’s next. It was interesting to learn that Riven was intentionally made more intuitive and rewarding: as recollected by one of the principal game designers (now a longtime animator at Disney), in a recent essay coinciding with the studio’s 25th anniversary:

Many players of the original Myst, while loving the experience, had never actually escaped Myst Island. That seemed… unfortunate. This time around we would start players in a fantastic world that would promote more exploration with less roadblocks. Puzzles would be equally challenging to Myst’s but more logical, better integrated into the cultures and environments and therefore less arbitrary. (link)

Watching some of the behind-the-scenes videos associated with the 25th anniversary release, as well as the 13-minute documentary on the Making of Riven (all due to the magic of Youtube), you are struck by the incredible analog effort behind the game’s production, as well as the romanticism behind the low/shoestring budget game with giant aspirations – a story akin to Kevin Smith’s Clerks, and his subsequent success.

Riven reflects everything that I still love about games (and art in general): a sense of mystery, adventure, and discovery, immersive worlds, and engaging and medium-hard puzzles. Just like most of the masterpieces that I love, it reflects the fact that more is not always better – in our current day of life-like graphics and multi-million dollar game budgets, I’ve found very few games which can equal the imaginative environment, evocative imagery and music, and rewarding and thought-provoking (and rewarding) puzzles – though I’m certainly open to suggestions!

Bonus: Here’s Steve Jobs introducing Riven’s creator, Rand Miller. “I guess some of the prior management didn’t like games. I heard this from so many developers that they didn’t support games. The current management really likes games.”