Because It’s There

Every so often I stumble upon a game that I immediately know will be one of my all-time favorites. More and more, the games that fall into this category are indie games that only take me a single digit number of hours to clear. Despite being short by video game standards, they manage in this short time to demonstrate the very best gameplay qualities and innovate further within their chosen genre, as well as present a compelling and deep narrative, all along with art and music that link the two together. It seems like a tall order, but back when I started this blog I had just started Bastion and knew instantly that it would forever be one of my favorite games. Later on, Axiom Verge and Undertale joined the list. This week, the new inductee is Celeste.

Madeline: There's no way this ends well.
It doesn’t.

A glowing review from a co-worker convinced me to buy Celeste on Switch (though it is available on most consoles and Steam), and within mere minutes I was loving it. Celeste is a puzzle-platformer with a platforming difficulty level somewhere above Super Mario Bros but well below Super Meat Boy, which puts it right in the sweet spot of challenging but not sadistically punishing. That may intimidate some who aren’t huge platformer fans, but about half of the challenge (and in particular the hardest parts) are purely optional. Strawberries are distributed throughout the levels in hard-to-reach spots that will push your platforming skills to the limit. They’re there if you want to get them, but the game even goes out of its way to let you know that they don’t matter other than that.

Strawberries – the hardest way to impress your friends. Seriously.

So then what’s the point of the strawberries? Why do I (the player) feel such a gut-level need to at least try to collect them?

In Celeste, you play a girl named Madeline who is trying to climb the titular Mount Celeste. Along the way you meet a few other characters, including social-media-obsessed fellow climber Theo and a crazy old lady who seems to be more with it than she lets on. At the start, the lady warns you that strange things happen to climbers who attempt to summit the mountain and urges you to turn back. Of course, Madeline stubbornly pushes ahead, insisting to both the lady and herself that she “needs to do this.” It’s only in a later chapter that you meet the reason why – A physical manifestation of Madeline’s mental illnesses (mainly depression and anxiety) who springs from Madeline’s mind in a nightmare and retains physical form even after the sun has risen.


The girl (nicknamed “Badeline”, though this name is never used in the game) haunts Madeline at every turn, insulting her and telling her repeatedly to give up. At every success, she urges Madeline to quit while she’s ahead and at every failure trumpets her foresight and warns of even worse consequences if Madeline doesn’t throw in the towel. But Madeline persists, and persists, and persists.

There is a very interesting connection between platformers and depression. In any sufficiently difficult platformer, even the best player will “lose” to the game hundreds of times before they eventually succeed by the skin of their teeth. With every successive failure, the game is effectively telling you, “You can’t do this. You’re not good enough. You’ll never be good enough. Quit. Turn the game off. Give up.” I am no expert in anything mental health related, but I wonder if these same feelings of frustration and hopelessness are what people who suffer from depression deal with constantly in their everyday life. If so, the game not only destigmatizes depression but praises those who carry its burden while continuing to push themselves to reach the highest heights. Within the game, continuing to play is telling the game that it is wrong. That after every failure you will try again. That you have the ability to succeed and the fortitude to see it through.

The fact that the mechanics and the narrative are intertwined at the deepest of levels really drives this point home. I yearn to collect strawberries just like Madeline yearns to reach the summit of Mount Celeste. Neither poses any reward of any sort, yet the very existence of the mountain (and the strawberries) issues a challenge to any who would dare lay eyes on it. Simply walking by would be admitting defeat, and neither I (the player) nor Madeline the character are ready to give up just yet.

Towards these ends, the musical score is truly magical. It seamlessly fits into the mechanics and themes, while also subtly re-asserting the plot throughout the game. For an example, here’s “Scattered and Lost”. Each of the songs blends light acoustic sounds (mainly piano and acoustic percussion) with heavy, dark and dissonant electronic sounds. In a way, this combination symbolizes the state of Madeline’s mind, with the acoustic sounds representing her optimistic and confident personality and the electronic ones representing the weight of her depression. Throughout each of the songs in the soundtrack, these two elements do battle, each vying to gain dominance over the other yet both unable to fully declare victory. The plot of the game, which I won’t spoil here, comes to the same conclusion.

One of my favorite parts of games as an art form is that they are able to unlock emotions in the player that other art forms (for example, books, movies, and paintings) struggle with. Platformers excel at causing the emotions of frustration and (in the non-medical sense) depression when the player fails while bestowing elation, confidence, and pride when the player succeeds. Celeste capitalizes on this unique ability of platformers to weave a narrative of challenge and suffering, of rising only to fall and yet still getting back up onto your feet. It instills a deep empathy for Madeline and respect for all who struggle with depression but despite its burden still continue through life.

In a way, the very frustration and challenges set up by platformers like Celeste make them the most optimistic and encouraging of games. By setting up challenges they make us better players by allowing us to overcome them. We collect the strawberries because they’re there. We climb the mountain because it’s there. We strive to make tomorrow better than today because that’s what it means to be alive. If the mountain could see our faces at the top, if it could feel our elation and our pride at conquering it, I don’t think it would curse us.

I think it would be proud.


Foolish as They [Are]

Dormammu! I come to bargain!

Is the key line BentoBox CabbagePatch uses to bring yet another Marvel superhero movie, Dr. Strange, to its climax and conclusion. Some kind of conclusion anyways. I kinda stopped paying attention at this point; I was too busy trying to understand just exactly what it would mean to use a time machine in a dimension… without time.

Anything is possible in a dimension that is “beyond time”! Including dialog, physics, Dr. Strange mysteriously continuing to breathe despite what I would assume would be a complete lack of oxygen, and more generally the progression of events causally linked in a linear fashion. So, time. Got it. Makes total sense.

I think the clearer way to frame Dr. Strange trapping Dormammu in a time loop is that Dormammu himself (itself?) is beyond time in a god-like fashion, experiencing all events across time in one long stream of consciousness, not that the realm itself is beyond time. (Yes, I’m contradicting the movie directly here, for the sake of proposing an explanation that makes sense.) Dr. Strange would experience the time loop as a time loop, both mentally and physically (and therefore never die), but Dormammu would perceive it as an eternity. Using a time loop in a realm without time… shouldn’t work, and more generally doesn’t make any sense. I’ll have to ask my physics-major friends what would likely happen if one tried to do so. I’m betting on the dark dimension instantaneously folding in on itself to a single point of mass.

I’d give it a solid B/B+. Probably wouldn’t have watched it if I weren’t on yet another plane from SFO to the east coast and back. But then, that’s also true of another movie, which is the actual topic of today’s post.

So….. I didn’t actually like it….?

I started the movie with both an open mind and a high bar. I had heard very good things from both friends and the media (see the image above), so I was ready both to be impressed and to fall in love. But, well, I really wasn’t a fan. (Really wasn’t a fan. Which is unusual for me. So this one is going to be long, but I swear it is rooted in something real, not just a long list of nitpicks. Also, uh, spoilers.)

Let’s start with the easy stuff. The musical numbers were pretty darn great across the board (though I had some qualms with Fools Who Dream, but more on that later). The pacing of the film was great –  the plot unfolded at a perfect pace, and I never felt the slightest bit rushed or dragged.

I was sold on the movie for the first ten minutes or so, as our first protagonist, Mia, is introduced. Mia (Emma Stone) is a college dropout living and working as a barista in LA as she tries to break into the acting business with constant auditions for every role she can lay her hands on. Completely understandably, she’s having a hard time. Not only has she not landed a role (the implication being that so far she hasn’t landed any role), her auditioners are constantly rude and dismissive, adding insult to injury day after day. Yet, despite all the shit Hollywood throws at her, her life seems relatively together. She lives with friends in a roomy and well-furnished apartment and spends most every waking moment either working to get by or doing anything it takes to get into acting – Her friends are only able to convince her to come to a Hollywood party with the argument that she can schmooze with the other partygoers, perhaps all the way into an acting role.

For contrast, we have the second protagonist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Unlike Mia, Any sympathy I may have had for him went out the window within minutes of his introduction (not including a brief prior cameo when Mia is driving to work). Sebastian is a Jazz pianist, and like Mia, he is clearly exceedingly talented. Unlike Mia, however, he cannot blame his lack of success on the overall grind of the process and bad luck: The guy is stubborn to the point of absurdity, and more generally a bit of an asshole. The opening scene introducing his character demonstrates both of these points so thoroughly that I have no worry that I am reading too far into things. Sebastian, apparently, somehow found employment playing the piano for diners at what appears to be a fairly nice restaurant. His boss instructs him, exceedingly reasonably, to play a setlist of Christmas songs, to fit the festive evening. Sebastian wants to play Jazz instead. His boss says no, and reminds Sebastian that this is his second chance after pulling this stunt once before. Sebastian relents and agrees to play the set. After (presumably) finishing the set, Sebastian somehow decides that the best thing to do is to launch into a freeform jazz piece. Entirely reasonably and entirely unsurprisingly, Sebastian is then promptly fired.

This is a guy who’s well past broke. (We see a “Past Due” bill during a brief scene between Sebastian and his sister.) This is a guy who wants nothing more than to create a jazz club in the old style, which requires first and foremost money. (A good credit score wouldn’t hurt either. One more bit of ground he’ll have to make up.) And yet, somehow, he can’t bring himself to play Christmas tunes for a SINGLE NIGHT.

That’s not artistic integrity. That’s not valor or courage. That’s stubbornness more suited to toddlers than to late twenty-somethings, as well as arrogance that sneers at the very people lending a helping hand. Mia hasn’t had a single chance to pull herself up and reach her dreams, but that hasn’t stopped her from continuing to try. Sebastian has had many chances to start to pull himself up and reach his dreams (which, remember, require quite a bit of startup funding), but that somehow hasn’t stopped him from throwing them away.

There’s plenty more to the movie than just the opening scenes of the two main characters, but that was enough to sour it for me. In addition to being a waste of perfectly good piano talent, Sebastian manages to pull Mia into starting to think a bit like him. With a bit of prodding, he convinces her to stop trying to break into the business through auditioning and instead take a much more dramatic (and much riskier) path – writing and starring in her own play. And what should she do if people don’t come and no one likes it? In Sebastian’s own words, “Fuck ’em”.

Watching Mia drink Sebastian’s artistic-purist kool-aid was very frustrating. Clearly, Mia was having no luck with the traditional process, but that’s not a valid reason to transition to a no-more-guaranteed approach that involves much more effort and much much more risk. From this point on, I wasn’t happy with the actions of either character.

After thinking about the movie for the past couple days, I think the real reason it got so deep under my skin is that I fundamentally disagree with the philosophy I believe the movie was trying to push. In Mia’s final audition that would turn into her big break, she tells (sings) a story about an aunt jumping into a river in Paris. Here’s the chorus:

And here’s to the fools who dream
Foolish as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that break
Here’s to the mess we make

The story (as well as the movie as a whole) romanticizes the artistic dreamer, one who never gives up on their dream, no matter what. It doesn’t matter who they hurt in the process, including themselves. It doesn’t matter that they might have achieved happiness a different way. It doesn’t matter if they found love along the way. Everything must be sacrificed in pursuit of the dream. To do any less is sacrilegious. To give in to the pressure and take an easier or more standard path, claims the movie, is worse than an eternity of failure. I could not more strongly disagree.

When I was in middle school, my dream was to be a game designer. I wanted to make games that would make people’s minds explode with infinite possibility, that would be both remembered fondly and be sources of endless entertainment and challenge. I still do. But time passed, and many things changed. For one, I learned that for the game industry, all that glitters is not gold. Working my way up in a major game company to a level where I could have actual design impact, I found out, would be positively grueling. Making my own independent game would be terrifyingly stressful, and I would need to be exceedingly lucky to see it succeed. Moreover, I found out that I vastly enjoy computer science in a non-game context. I like the puzzle of intelligently designing programmatic architecture for ease of use and extension. I like striving to find the optimal balance of wide capability and narrow, specialized speed. It is undeniably not the same to me – I like computer science, I love game design. Yet when I totaled everything up, I came to the conclusion that I would have a vastly easier and more enjoyable life if I gave up on game design.

So, I took the easy route. I sold out. And you know what? Every day I wake up and I’m so happy I made that choice.

People change. People change as they grow older, but also as they process the events that unfold around them. Beliefs one currently holds may be completely alien in just a few years’ time. This is a central aspect of what it means to be human and as such deserves to be celebrated, not fought against tooth and nail. Without change, there is no forgiveness, no discovery, no growth. One’s (singular) dream, as the most succinct expression of one’s desires, is all the more likely to change over time. There should be no stigma associated with the decision to stop pursuing an old dream and start pursuing a new one, or to simply put the dreaming on hold for a while and aimlessly enjoy living.

Sebastian doesn’t allow either of them to change. Mia asks Sebastian if he enjoys playing pop music, to see if maybe his direction in life has shifted. He dodges the question. Later, after Mia has hit rock bottom and is considering pursuing a new path in life, Sebastian shows up to demand that she go try out for one more role, despite her protests that another rejection will kill her. Thankfully this a movie, and having the protagonist fail her last audition is the kind of anti-climax that doesn’t win a ton of awards, but if it were real life there would be the all-too-real chance of yet another failure, and thus doing what Sebastian did is downright cruel.

I’ve heard that many were crying when the end of the movie came around. Personally, I was smiling – Sebastian finally got everything he wanted. He got his Jazz club, packed to the gills with audience members who are there to honestly appreciate jazz (and eat the chicken). By his insistence at the start of the movie, he couldn’t possibly have been happier. There was just one problem – two of the audience members were the woman he would always love, and her husband. Not only is it very possible to find happiness after straying from the path to your dream, there’s also no guarantee that following your dream will lead to happiness. Sebastian had a chance at happiness and love. He chose not to do everything in his power to keep hold of it, and instead let it slip through his fingers. All in pursuit of a pure artistic dream that in the end didn’t make him happy.

Meanwhile, I am the alternate-universe Sebastian, happily living out the pop-band life, reminiscing bittersweetly back on the days when I wanted nothing more than to open a Jazz club. How steadfast I once was, so certain of my path forward despite knowing so little. If I am any wiser now, it is only because I am no longer so sure that I know what the next decade will hold for me. Even so, I wouldn’t change a thing. After all, this path led me here, and it’s been pretty fun so far.

Impulsive Decisions

This Thursday, I sat outside a Best Buy for four and a half hours! To tell this story right, I have to tell it as it happened. I wanted to blog as I went, but my phone died in the middle, so I have to rewind a bit. So here we go..!

Let’s do the time-warp agaaaaaain!

Friday, March 3rd at 12:01AM marked the release of the Nintendo Switch, Nintendo’s new console-portable hybrid. For the non-nintendo-fanperson, here’s a rundown: The “Console” itself is a medium sized tablet-looking rectangle. At home, the console can be placed in a dock which is then attached to a TV via HDMI cable. The controller is then two controller pieces with buttons and a joystick, each attached to a controller frame that provides the hand grips. On the go, the console can be removed from the dock and the controller pieces can be attached to the console, resulting in a device similar in style to a PSP.

The concept is exceedingly novel, but until Thursday at around 7PM (PST) I had decided not to buy a Nintendo Switch. More out of laziness than an actual lack of desire, I felt that I didn’t need a Switch. I had basically moved away from console gaming towards the glory (and sale prices) of Steam, and didn’t see a huge reason to change that policy now.

But gosh, LoZ: Breath of the Wild. That’s a link to Google results for “Breath of the Wild Reviews”. Click it. Seriously, click it. In addition to quite nearly flawless reviews across the board, we get link previews like:

So when I say Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild not only gatecrashes the list, but probably beats the lot as the greatest of them all, I hope you realise how serious an achievement it is. (source)


If everything remains the same, there’s a case to be made that Breath of the Wild is in the top three best reviewed games for as long as review … (source)

I was finally pushed over the top when Aaron (thanks Aaron!) sent me a compiled list of Breath of the Wild’s scores across some twenty-plus game reviewing platforms.

Anyone notice “Time” in there? Yeah, that’s Time Magazine.

Thus, at 7PM PST, with both the game and the system launching in five hours, I decided to jump on board. At that point, preordering was long past possible. The only way to get my hands on a Switch and the absurdly-well-reviewed Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was to take matters into my own hands.

By which I mean wait in a line outside of Best Buy for four and a half hours.

Nerds. Nerds everywhere.

To be honest, I got very very lucky. The first place I called (a Best Buy) said that their line was too long, but to try a different best buy half an hour further down the road. I called them and they said if I arrived then I had a very good chance of being early enough, so I immediately called an uber. Upon arrival, I was at position forty-seven in line, which made me fairly optimistic (as fifty is a nice round number to have shipped to you).

And so we waited.

This is what I’m really writing to talk about. Not the Switch and Breath of the Wild (I’m sure I’ll get to it soon enough), but the experience of waiting in line for a new console and game. I’d never done it before, and after doing it once, I can say I’d absolutely do it again! (And that I’d prepare better).

I was surprised by how friendly and outgoing everyone around me was. After a few minutes of awkward silence, we started talking about our favorite games and systems and why we liked them. One of the guys who lived nearby left and came back with snacks for everyone, which was amazing because my hastily thought out plan didn’t include provisions for sitting in one spot for four and a half hours. One couple came with a huge fluffy puppy who immediately took a liking to me (along with everyone else) and spent the night moving from person to person and licking our faces.

[Picture of Dog would go here, but my phone died before I could get one. Just imagine a huge dog with long black and white fur and little sharply pointed ears. You doing it? Great! Good imagining. Who’s a good imaginer? You are!]

At around ten thirty they handed out tickets guaranteeing us at least a Nintendo Switch and a copy of Breath of the Wild. This, of course, raised everyone’s spirits and made the rest of the night fly by. The fact that I found a Game of Thrones book in my backpack didn’t hurt.

Finally, the time arrived. The doors opened and we were herded inside into yet another line. Slowly, the line progressed as people exchanged their tickets for products and walked out, tired but triumphant. A little while longer, and it was my turn.

“Aha!” You’re thinking, “a plot hole! You said your phone was dead.” Great detective work, hypothetical reader! I plugged it in when I got into the Best Buy.

Reflecting on the whole experience, waiting in line for four and a half hours was really, really nice. I cannot recall a single instance of assholishness. No one tried to cut, and when people left to go to the bathroom or pick up supplies, no one got angry at them for resuming their former position in line. When the time came and we were let into Best Buy, everyone proceeded in an orderly fashion. No one threw a fit when the specific version of the product or a specific add-on was no longer available when they reached the register. Everyone picked what they wanted out of what was available, paid, and left.

The contrast to standard Black Friday decorum in America could not be more stark. With that in mind, I have to wonder, what made this shopping experience so different? Some of it was the weather and the duration of waiting. We were waiting in the fifty-degree chill of a mild Californian winter, and for a mere six hours at the most. I assume that the atmosphere of waiting in a multi-day line in the snow would be exceedingly different. We’re also only waiting for a single product, and one who’s company makes a conscious effort to be family friendly and on the whole “nice”. I have to wonder what the same line would have been like if we were waiting for a new Playstation or XBox. (Here’s one theory).

There’s plenty to ponder, for sure. But for now, on to Breath of the Wild!


Spring 26, Year 17, Parallel Universe 3

It’s been a long time since I stayed up until 4 AM playing a video game. The onset of both college and post-college life meant that I would rather spend my fairly limited time doing many other things. I just couldn’t afford to ruin the next day by spending the time I would be sleeping on playing a game. In order to convince me otherwise, a game would have to be playable in an unlimited number of discrete increments, such that I would always want to play one more. Additionally, it would have to be non-competitive so I wouldn’t give in after losing a game. Growth and achievement are must-haves. Taking all that and tossing in pleasing visuals and sound, in an endlessly rich world, gets us to a fairly strict set of requirements.

Fortunately, I have just the thing.


A wonderful world awaits within!

Recommended to me a while back, I picked up Stardew Valley during the past Steam winter sale, and finally had a chance to open it a couple weeks ago. Since then, for better or for worse, I have been completely hooked.

If I had ever played a Harvest Moon title, I would probably say the game is reminiscent of Harvest Moon. Having not, it feels like a wonderful amalgamation of Animal Crossing and Minecraft, with some of the good parts of Farmville. The game is divided into days, each of which take about a half hour (though this can be highly variable). Each day you wake up promptly at 6 AM and have until 1 AM the next morning to do whatever you want, whether that’s planting, watering, and harvesting your crops, fishing in the rivers, lakes, and ocean, talking to villagers, or any number of other activities.  Your path forward is entirely up to you.


You know it’s not my farm because he’s not using his scarecrow efficiently.

And yet, the wide range of choice leads to a frustrating conclusion. Upon initially opening up the game, I made it to the first summer before giving up. In a game about open-ended cultivation and exploration, I nevertheless felt like I was doing it wrong. Over the course of that first spring, I had realized so many things I hadn’t been doing or did wrong. I didn’t know that all your crops withered at the end of each season unless they specifically are marked to carry over. I didn’t know that you could build a chest until I had already thrown away tons of useful material. I didn’t know that because of weekly gifting limits, you have to start early to become friends with the villagers.

Thus, after the first month, I started the game over.

On take two, I made it to day 13 of the first spring before giving up. I once again felt that I wasn’t doing it right. There were many days in which I didn’t get done what I thought I had to accomplish. On one day I even ran out of energy and collapsed in the mine, which is never a good sign. With so many successive days of perceived failure, I didn’t have it in me to continue.

So I started over. Again.

On my third play I finally nailed everything for the first spring. I went into the Egg festival with tons of money for strawberry seeds. I blitzed the mine up to level 40 to start gathering iron for sprinklers. I made a bunch of tree tappers to gather pine resin for fertilizer. Finally, I felt like I was hitting or even exceeding all of my goals. With more and more sprinklers, I had to water fewer and fewer crops each morning, leaving me with more time and more energy to do other productive things with the rest of the day. Summer came, and I spent my accrued fortune on as many blueberries as I could support. I’m now at Summer 4, year 1.

And I feel a little bit lost.


Not pictured: Me. I skipped the Flower Dance to keep fishing all day.

In my relentless drive to perfect my first month, I set myself up for failure following it. I did it; I hit my goal, I made every day count. But now what? Should I set another extremely distant goal and replay over and over until I hit it? It’s not quite that I don’t want to give up on my progress again, but that I don’t know what I should even be aiming for in the first place. What is the point of playing Stardew Valley?

In this way, Stardew Valley feels less like a video game and more like, well, life. There’s not really a “point” of playing the game. The closest thing the game provides to a singular main goal is repairing the community center, but that feels more like a way of marking your progress than your motivation to progress. When I finally decide to stop playing, I don’t think I’ll feel completed. Though I don’t know what the “end” of the game has in store for me, I don’t think it will feel like a fitting, all-inclusive conclusion.

And yet, isn’t that life? Living out one more day, reaching another little goal you’ve set for yourself, and making new friends along the way? Perhaps the all-consuming search for perfect and complete meaning isn’t the right way to play, nor the right way to live. Stardew Valley does not give a reason to farm, to fish, or to explore. Aside from an initial hint, it doesn’t even force you to meet all of your neighbors.

But then, it doesn’t have to. The world is so rich in color, in sound, and in personality. Blades of grass and flowering bushes dance everywhere you go. The music shuffles to match the season and the weather, as well as to punctuate key scenes and days. Each and every townsperson has a completely independent schedule that varies by day of the week, season of the year, and current weather condition. Additionally, all have exceedingly deep personalities that change and reveal themselves as the player gets to know them. I’ve never seen this much attention to detail in a game not for the purposes of game mechanics, but purely to create an amazingly rich world in which to play.

One day while I was farming away, I heard a train whistle. Immediately thereafter a notification popped up on the bottom of my screen, saying, “A train is passing through Sundew Valley.” Did that have any significance? I don’t know! In any other game, I would answer yes, beyond a doubt. But in Sundew Valley I’m not so certain. Maybe it didn’t have any meaning. Maybe, just as in real life, sometimes trains pass through your town, blowing their far-off whistles while traveling to far-off lands. As the sound fades, maybe you return to your prior activity, or maybe you start a new one. Maybe it had significance to you, and maybe it didn’t. Did it mean something? No one can say for sure. That’s just life.




Peace and Love on the Planet Earth

Happy New Year, everyone! Now that we’ve hit 2017, we should really start thinking about a rapidly approaching decision – Will “the 20’s” will refer to the 1920’s or the 2020’s?

Irrelevant slang aside, 2016 was a really tough year. Even for those of us who escaped 2016 personally unscathed, the events of the year still dealt a heavy blow to any remaining optimism we had in reserve. (And for those of you who couldn’t care less about the events of 2016 because of a personal tragedy that blacked out everything else… I have no words.)

Because 2016 was so trying, it seems like a good time to reflect and re-center ourselves. Toward that end, I’d like to suggest a certain animated show that I binged over the course of 2016, that always manages to make me smile and rekindle a bit of the hope that 2016 nearly snuffed out. That show is not:

This show is not the subject of this post.

Yeah, holy crap, no, it’s not Bojack. Also an amazing show, but WOW is it depressing. Not today. I’ll cover Bojack later. Rather, today I want to talk about:

They’ll always save the day! (And if you think they can’t, they’ll always find a way!)

Steven Universe! A Cartoon Network show I first started watching on my way home from Thailand at Ethan’s suggestion (thanks, Ethan!) that I have only become more obsessed with over time.

In short, the show centers around the titular character Steven, at center in the above image. In the most abstract sense, the show is about Steven growing up and learning about himself as a half-human, half-non-organic-alien (Gem) hybrid. The three beings around Steven (from left to right: Pearl, Garnet, and Amythest) are three Gems that make up Steven’s family and live peacefully among humanity as its self-appointed protectors.

Before I go any further, I know what you’re thinking: “Gems? Aliens? Cartoon Network? Really? So it’s a kids show and it only makes you smile because it’s simplistic, preachy, and sugar-coated”. In fact, you (the hypothetical you, anyways) couldn’t be more wrong. It would be a dire mistake to judge Steven Universe by its cover. Underneath that bright, saturated and lovably-rounded exterior, the show has:

  • An intense sci-fi plotline spanning the entire show, which is currently midway through its fourth season
  • A cast of deep and real characters, each struggling with their own personal demons
  • A cast that is, in terms of the voice actors for the main characters, majority female and majority non-white
  • Blunt and empathetic discussions about real issues that have no simple solutions, like colonialism and healthy relationships

Even while tackling depressing and difficult issues, Steven Universe remains positive and upbeat. The essential moral lesson of the show as a whole is that the right combination of empathy, patience, determination and self-value can overcome any challenge. In the face of insurmountable odds or a crisis of faith, you still have control over yourself and who you want to be. As 2016 showed us, the world can sometimes be terrifying, chaotic, and downright depressing. Even with the worst that can possibly be thrown at you, you can still try to be better than you were yesterday, to believe in yourself and those around you. Not because doing so will grant you magical anime powers to accomplish the impossible, but because if there’s a change to be made in the world around you, it has to start with you.

Really, watch the show. Episodes are only ~11 minutes long (with two fitting in a standard half-hour TV block) and the show starts to get good even within the first ten episodes, so think of it as if I were suggesting that you watch one episode of an hour long show. I’m going to end with a long quote from the season two episode “It Could’ve Been Great”, in which one character tries to convey this sense of optimism, despite everything, to another. Take from it what you will, and happy 2017!

1: Working hard is important, but feeling good is important too

2: What are you talking about? (Presses trigger of electric drill)

1: Hey! Bzzzz… What is that, a C? (Plays a C on their ukelele)

2: The drill? (Presses faster speed of electric drill, playing a G)

1: Oh my gosh, now it’s music!

2: Music?

1: Well yeah, it’s music. Like.. this. (playing) Do re me fa so la ti do! (Plays a chord)

2: Do me so do

1: (Plays a chord) Isn’t it pretty?

2: That’s exceedingly simple

1: (Plays a chord)

2: Do me so ti

1: (Plays a chord) We’re making music!

2: What is the point?

1: (Starts playing a song)

2: You’re not making anything

1: Well if it isn’t anything, then why does it sound so good?

2: I guess it’s just interest, do me so do, devoid of substance or purpose, a hypothetical pattern, do me so ti, for the satisfaction of bringing it to completion!

1: Sure!

2: Interest without meaning, solutions without problems…

1: And then you just add words. Here’s one I’ve been working on..

Life and death and love and birth,
And peace and war on the planet Earth.
Is there anything that’s worth more
Than peace and love on the planet Earth

Get Up and GO

So, Pokemon Go. Now that the moment has essentially passed, what the heck was that all about? After an initial record-shattering surge of downloads, Pokemon Go has essentially faded away. As with any fad of this scale, there are certainly important lessons to be learned from the sudden rise and exponential decay of the popular gaming app. Here are my thoughts:

The single most important thing that Pokemon Go proved is that Pokemon is very alive, with a wider fanbase than I think anyone realized. When I told my parents about the game and attempted to explain its appeal, each of their immediate, knee-jerk reactions were, “I thought Pokemon ended ten years ago.” As it turns out, that is very much not the case. Because the franchise aggressively markets itself to older children and pre-teens, it makes sense for those forty or fifty years and older to think about the franchise as an artifact of a bygone era, one that existed exactly when their children or grandchildren were at the targeted age, and died out swiftly thereafter. My parents stopped hearing about Pokemon when my brother and I stopped talking about it constantly, and so they forgot about it. With that mindset, the revival of the franchise in such a public way must seem very odd.

The issue is, not only did Pokemon not die (and as such it continued to indoctrinate new generations of players throughout its two decades), the past players… never really stopped playing. Yes, I stopped watching the cringe-worthy TV show, but I kept playing the games until very recently. Even friends of mine who didn’t keep playing the games remember their time as a Pokemon trainer fondly. When Pokemon Go was initially announced a long time ago (I think around a year ago but I can’t find a source for that), we were all suddenly brought back to that time, and given a chance to relive it.

Little by little, the hype built. News and details slowly trickled out, along with an eventual release date: July 2016. We got a commercial introducing the game, which led to hype. We got a super bowl commercial for Pokemon, which led to even more hype. Finally, the game launched, and we got scenes like these:

One particular corner of Central Park in New York. Quite literally everyone in this picture is playing Pokemon Go. This picture was taken in August, which means that the scene in July must have been twice as crowded.

People went absolutely nuts. All of the people who devoured Pokemon Red and Blue after their release in 1996 were oh-so-ready to jump back into the world of pocket monsters, now accessible through the device you already carry with you everywhere you go. Nintendo’s stocks skyrocketed after the initial launch (though, as the article details, quickly fell after the reality of Pokemon Go’s shared ownership among Niantic and Google surfaced).

After that absurd launch, however, players started leaving. What the hell happened?

Pokemon Go is only the second “augmented reality” game that I’ve played. Before Pokemon Go was ever announced, I was a Geocacher. In a nutshell, Geocaching is a worldwide, everyday treasure hunt. There are nearly 3 million players and nearly as many caches to find. Everywhere I go I spend at least a few hours hiking around, trying to find these little boxes hidden throughout the world.

Essentially, here’s how it works. Using your phone or computer, you locate a geocache near you on a map, like this:

Screen Shot 2016-10-08 at 5.44.06 PM.png
Here are all of the caches near me, right now. There are probably just as many near you, right now. What are you waiting for?

Then, using a geocaching app (on your phone) or a GPS, you navigate to the location of the cache listed online. This may be as simple as walking down the street, or as difficult as hiking to the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Once there, the real fun begins. Unlike in Pokemon Go, there is a physical prize, the cache, to be found. It can be as big as a large toolbox or as small as a fingernail, and it’s up to you and your puzzle-solving skills to find it.

Just today I spent a few hours walking around downtown Mountain View, grabbing a few caches (note the smiley faces on the map above). Some were easy, quick grabs I managed in under a minute. Others took between five and ten minutes, as I walked back and forth around the listed area scratching my head and contorting myself into strange positions to look under rocks and around poles. Two I couldn’t even find.

One cache, the second-to-last that I found today, took around half an hour and is easily my favorite cache to date. Never before have I felt so much on a treasure hunt as I did while finding the aptly-named Treasures Abound.  The listed location of the cache took me to a lovely park just behind the Mountain View Public Library. Amid the rolling green and lazily meandering paths, I set in to solve the puzzle.

Upon arrival, I immediately noticed a nearby sculpture, depicting a couple literary characters that some of you may recognize.

Two animal gentlemen talk near a home in a tree.. I knew I had seen them somewhere.

Noticing the sign on the right that says “Toad’s Book Club,” I googled around and realized that the shorter chap on the right is none other than Mr. Toad, a character in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. The solution to the puzzle must be obvious now, yes?

Unfortunately, I still had no idea what to do. I walked around the whole park looking for another clue, but found nothing. In re-reading the description of the cache, however, I noticed that it includes the following restriction:

Note that the cache is only available:
Mon.–Thurs. 10 a.m.–9 p.m.
Fri.–Sat. 10 a.m.–6 p.m.
Sun. 1 p.m.–5 p.m.
These hours could change, and there is no access on major public holidays (and some days preceding or following the holidays).

If the cache were outside, there would be no such restriction. If it were inside, however, it could explain the warning. Sure enough, I went to the nearest door into the library and found that the hours synced perfectly.

As a geocacher, I have to be prepared to go anywhere, including…. into a public library

I was on the right track. Surely, now, the solution is apparent to everyone with a brain?

Apparently, I don’t have a brain. I spent a few minutes walking aimlessly walking around the library, wondering what I was supposed to be looking for and how it would lead me to the cache. Finally, a spark of inspiration – I should look up the book that features Mr. Toad! If I find the book, surely I’ll find the cache. I was pointed towards the children’s portion of the library and walked over.  I found the book and combed through the couple copies the library had in stock and found… nothing. Confused, I stood up and looked around. Suddenly, there it was.


Looking around to make sure no one was looking, I reached to the top of the shelf and pulled down the box. I sat on the floor, and, hoping no one would want to walk into the aisle, opened up the cache.

The cache! Full of trinkets of every shape and size.

The caches always contain a log on which to write your name and the date of your find. Many, like the one above, also contain a host of tchotchkes, knick-knacks, and the like. You never know quite what you’ll find when you open one up, which is part of the fun. The bigger draw though, to me at least, is the challenge of the game. It’s fairly easy to get to the location listed online, but going from a pin on screen to a cache in hand takes intelligence, skill, and patience. Each and every new cache you attempt to find will challenge you; I’ve been geocaching for years and still have to work to find them. Sometimes, you’ll have to go home without finding a single one, but that only makes the successful finds all the sweeter.

Challenge, in my mind, is what keeps Geocaching fun for cache after cache. In contrast, Pokemon Go didn’t die for no reason, it died because it lacked challenge and as such got boring. In the end of the day, it just isn’t difficult to walk to a spot, flick my finger on the screen a couple times, and move on. Every catching attempt, regardless of the Pokemon I found, was exactly the same. Even the illusion of challenge (in the form of higher CP) is just that: an illusion. Your success has more to do with the internal probabilities determined by the game than your skill at playing it.

Geocaching couldn’t be more different. Each puzzle has a set level of difficulty based on where and how it is hidden. You (not the game) determine if you are able to find it. Each successful find adds to your ability to play. Rather than aimlessly looking around the listed location, you begin to learn where caches are likely to be. Is the cache listed as very small? It’s probably magnetic, check everything metal. Are there a bunch of fist-sized rocks near the listed location? Roll them all over to check if any are actually plastic. In an urban setting? Check the free local newspaper dispensers, no one ever opens those. The list goes on and on, and only grows as you continue to play.

Moreover, Geocaching as a game has a host of positive qualities that Pokemon Go attempted to exemplify. It actually requires you to interact with the world around you (as opposed to simply going somewhere and then spending the whole time looking at your phone). You can actually work with other players to solve a puzzle, rather than just play along side them. Best of all, Geocaching is essentially FREE. You can pay to be a premium member, but so far I have found my basic member experience completely sufficient. There are official apps for both iOS and Android, though for Android I use and greatly prefer c:geo (as usual, Apple restricts what can be created for iOS through the App Store, so I am unaware of a free unofficial app for iOS). The only reason I never spent any money on Pokemon Go is that I was never so invested in the game as to actually be willing to pay for more resources, which are sold in the form of micro-transactions.

Geocaching is one of my favorite outdoor activities. Everyone I’ve shown it to has loved it, and has requested to accompany me on future caching trips around the area. It’s challenging, it’s truly outdoors, and making an account couldn’t be easier.

So what are you waiting for? Get up and GO!

Beginning’s End – Good Morning Sun

Like many of my Ramah friends, I elected to spend my summer preceding college as a junior counselor. The administrative powers-that-be assigned me to Ilanot, the youngest true age group (8/9/10 yr) for the camp. Although I had initially wanted a slightly older group, I could not have been happier with my experience, and elected to return to that edah for the following summer.

It’s about to be four years since that amazing summer, as I prepare go through yet another graduation. In many ways, my first summer on staff at Ramah began the college journey that I am about to finish, and I certainly mentally consider it more a part of this stage of my life than the prior one. Because it has been so long, I have now lost most of the day to day memories. That in its own right is sad; I can remember that it was a truly amazing and transformative summer, but not much more than that. I constantly worry that my more recent memories will one day go the same route.

Ironically, I will never be able to forget one tiny and arguably inconsequential detail from that summer. It was during staff week, the seven-ish day period preceding camp that we spend preparing as best we can for the rest of the summer. In between all of the official activity planning, my co-counselor and I took a few minutes one day to make a very important decision: what song would we be using to wake up our bunk every morning? After some discussion, we settled on Still Fighting It, by Ben Folds. (For the first few weeks I was absolutely convinced the song was called Good Morning Sun, as was everyone aside from my Co. Our bunk plaque depicted a sun with a bird above it. I’m only now realizing that it’s “Son” and not “Sun”. Whoops.)

Here are the full lyrics, for those who don’t know it. I highly recommend listening to the song as you read the lyrics, especially if you haven’t heard it before.

Good morning, son.
I am a bird
Wearing a brown polyester shirt
You want a coke?
Maybe some fries?
The roast beef combo’s only $9.95
It’s okay, you don’t have to pay
I’ve got all the change

Everybody knows
It hurts to grow up
And everybody does
It’s so weird to be back here
Let me tell you what
The years go on and
We’re still fighting it, we’re still fighting it
And you’re so much like me
I’m sorry

Good morning, son
In twenty years from now
Maybe we’ll both sit down and have a few beers
And I can tell you ’bout today
And how I picked you up and everything changed
It was pain
Sunny days and rain
I knew you’d feel the same things

Everybody knows
It sucks to grow up
And everybody does
It’s so weird to be back here.
Let me tell you what
The years go on and
We’re still fighting it, we’re still fighting it
You’ll try and try and one day you’ll fly
Away from me

Good morning, son
I am a bird

It was pain
Sunny days and rain
I knew you’d feel the same things

Everybody knows
It hurts to grow up
And everybody does
It’s so weird to be back here.
Let me tell you what
The years go on and
We’re still fighting it, we’re still fighting it
Oh, we’re still fighting it, we’re still fighting it

And you’re so much like me
I’m sorry

It’s a very unorthodox pick, to be sure. We could only get away with it because our kids were young and thus didn’t think about the words very hard as they went about brushing their teeth and putting on clothes. My co and I thought about it every morning, though. We watched with sad smiles as our campers rushed around the room, trying to remember what it was like when we were in their shoes. Our hope, I believe, was that they would remember a line or two of the song, someday far in the future. In order to sate their curiosity, they would have to find it on the internet, causing them to indulge in a brief recollection of the carefree summer days that dominated their younger years. I can see their faces now, bearing small smiles.

To me, the song embodies the struggle of getting older. It taps into the sadness that can only come from the end of something so filled with happiness. The experiences were finite, but they left happy memories that will be with me as long as I am able to recall them. Even though we know that the unstoppable advance of time is natural and unavoidable, we nevertheless fight against it with everything we have.

I’ve been humming through the lyrics a lot over the past few days, now that I find myself in essentially the same position as my campers on the last day of summer. Packing up my room has been especially hard (which is why I’m currently not doing it), as I have to go through each ticket stub and empty bottle of wine and decide if it is meaningful enough to hold on to. I know that I am heading towards a new and exciting phase of my life, but that doesn’t mean I will simply flush the past four years away.

If there’s a lesson to be learned here, I think it is one that comes directly from the lyrics of Still Fighting It. It hurts to grow up. Almost every happy thing that happens to you will eventually end. That’s simply an occupational hazard of living, and one you can do very little about. Because of that, however, there’s nothing wrong with sadly reminiscing on those good times. Keep on living, doing new things and meeting new people, but don’t beat yourself up for taking a moment every so often to remember what used to be. It would be a shame if I locked away my happy memories simply because they are now in the past.

I really should get back to packing, but instead I’m going to go plan my trip for the summer to Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand! I’ll continue sadly reminiscing later, for the moment it’s time to plan ahead for new happy memories.