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June 21, 2017videogames

Wrote this on my devblog the other day, a tribute to the artists behind SimTunes and the core of Magic Pengel, reposting it here:

I've always liked software that let the user make something - from Bill Budge's Pinball Construction Set to the make-a-game fun without programming Klik N' Play, there have been some great examples of that over the years.

I want to write briefly about two creators, Toshio Iwai and Takeo Igarashi both of who made original UIs letting users exercise their creativity. Each creator's work was then used in separate commercial products in the 90s and 00s, products that deserve more recognition than they get.

Toshio Iwai is a multimedia artist. He may be best known for Electroplankton, a fairly early but very limited release for the Nintendo DS- his name appears on the packaging for it, an unusual-for-Nintendo recognition of singular artistic creation.

Electroplankton is not quite a game, not quite an instrument... it consists of ten different interfaces for making music and sounds of various types...



This was not Iwai's first multi-part collaboration with Nintendo - that would be the 4-part Sound Fantasy. One of those parts was based on his earlier work Musical Insects. This concept, 4 musical bugs, each one playing a different instrument that sounded at various pitches as the bug waddled over different colored tiles laid out on a blank canvas, got parlayed by Maxis into a nifty package called SimTunes. I guess this trailer gives you the overview about as well as anything:


This program was a terrific and playful mini-sequencer and paint program. Kids and Adults could focus on the sound, the look, or both. Just out of college, I remember setting it up with versions of Groove is in the Heart and "Alphabetter", a replacement for the alphabet song that I hope catches on but I'm sure never will. I appreciated that it had different palettes - for example, limiting the painted notes to a specific scale or modality, such as my favorite "Blues Scale" and an aspiring kid or adult could easily apply music theory they had or learn something new.

More recently Iwai collaborated with Yamaha to make the Tenori-On, a sequencer grid of lights. (I was almost ashamed at using a ThinkGeek knock off called the Bliptronic 5000, 'til I realized it was about 1/10 the price... and about 1/10 the functionality, but still.) I also found this overview of his art installations.

Takeo Igarashi seems to be more of a computer scientist than an artist, but his UI implementations are at least as impressive.  His academic homepage is of the ancient variety, and sadly most of his demos are a serious pain to get running in this day and age where Java on the desktop is all but forgotten. Still, his Smooth Teddy interface is remarkable; the user draws basic 2D shapes that then get rendered into 3D shapes.

The most straight forward descendent of the "Smooth Teddy" family is MagicalSketch 3D for iOS, a somewhat pricey (by app standards) tool, but one that promises to be an easy path to modeling for 3D print. (I haven't played much with Microsoft's "Paint 3D" but I think they would be well-served licensing out the core model.)

The finest rendition of this concept, however, is Magic Pengel: The Quest for Color for the Playstation 2. I feel it's a shame it didn't go by a more direct translation of its Japanese name, "Doodle Kingdom", because this project (a joint production with some collaboration from Studio Ghibli (of "My Neighbor Tortoro" and "Spirited Away" fame) deserves more attention than it ever got. (A "Pengel" is a Pen-Angel, I think a little helper sprite in the game. I'm not sure to whom they were trying to market with a name like that.)

Because not only can you doodle in 3D - your creations come to surprisingly charming life. Here's a Let's Play of it:

The editor works by letting you indicate what you're drawing (body, arm, wing, etc) - this knowledge is then incorporated to inform various animations (Walk, Tackle, Jump, Dance, etc) and the effect can be stunning- here's what a talented artist can make with its editor:


It's so delightful to sketch something out and then have it frolic around the "practice field".

Unfortunately, the game is horribly marred by ... well, too much game-ness. In some ways the body you construct doesn't do much to determine how your creation interacts with its virtual physical universe, it's just raw numeric material for a probability based monster battler ala Pokemon, with Rock-Paper-Scissors type strengths and weaknesses. Also, they limit the amount of "ink" you have to draw lines with, and then make the game about fighting monsters so you can get more ink to make your own creations that much more powerful, rather than creative.

There was a semi-sequel for the Game Cube called Amazing Island and one for the PS2 called Graffiti Kingdom. I remember getting absolutely stuck early on in Amazing Island and some utterly crap minigame, and if memory serves, Graffiti Kingdom tried to codify its editor too much, and lost much of the organic charm of the original.

Finally, I'd like to make one honorable mention for a game with a kind of brilliant editor built-in (though I don't believe there's a singular artistic vision behind it) - Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts + Bolts:



 This is by far the best "game" of everything I've talked about here - it starts with a gorgeous Mario 64-esque hub (looking like someone said "what if we ran all those pretty colors of the N64 into the kind of engine we can make today?)  with all these delightful themed subworlds, but each as if you can see the gears behind the walls work. Each subworld has multiple challenges that you build various vehicles to beat: cars, of course, but also boats and planes and flying balloons and sumo-karts etc. At first I thought all the creations were ugly and orthogonal-looking (VERY reminiscent of the old Capsela toys) but then the delight of making a car where the design really matters in a cartoon-physics kind of way takes over (and you can put on enough bolt-y bits to improve the look quite a lot.) And as you get more parts (there's that game-ness) you can go back and try for higher "medals", but the challenge level is generally well done, and the level of backtracking needed is negligible.

(And a small group of super-hard-core fans have really stretched the editor system to the limit, making these absurdly heavy jet-powered walking mechs in a game that was never meant to have any such thing...a joy to behold.)

Anyway, I love stuff like this, making a easy enough for a beginner but rich and engrossing enough to reward continued play (rather than a quick doodle and a "meh") is a tremendous feat. (Though I did once get a few people digging my own online Jack-O-Lantern maker) Both of these people and their works (and Banjo-Kazooie) deserve much admiration.

June 20, 2017

The Museum of Failure.

"Failure starts early on, when you break something as a kid, nobody goes 'yay [claps] good for you, you're learning about your environment', so failure is something that gets internalized quite quickly as something negative. We deal with failure and other painful sort of memories by ignoring them. Same way that the companies do... they fail with the product, and instead of learning from their failure they move on to the next big thing."
--Dr. Samuel West
"With self driving cars becoming more popular it's just a matter of time before country songs include their truck leaving them too"
--/u/Jneebs

June 19, 2017

I took this photo of Cora a week ago... just realized the light in it is a little odd, like she's being the sun is in two places making a cradle for her head... I guess maybe it's the reflection off the water?

Melissa points out that the first minute of this just about perfectly describes my relationship with cooking:

June 18, 2017

Panorama, waiting for Kellie (and Anna) at Kellie's Surprise Party...

It was true I always had trouble listening and remembering, trouble hearing people when they explained simple facts to me. When I read, my head seemed to go diagonal, and I swore I saw things in the sentences--not what I was supposed to see. When I read the words "moonlit swim," I saw the moonlight slicked all over the bare skin. The word "sunshine" had a washed look, with the sweep of a rag in the middle of it. The word "violinist" was a fig cut in half. "String quartet" was a cat's cradle held between two hands. "Penniless" was an empty copper outline and "prettiness" seemed to glitter. "Calamity" was alarm bells, and in "aristocrat" there was the sharp triangle of a cravat, and in "sea serpent" one loop of the green muscle. It was as if I could read the surfaces of words, and their real hearts, but not their information. Even "word" had a picture--I saw a blond hostess in a spangled dress turning black and white letters over one by one. When I read, the meaning swam and the images leaped out and the words gave up their doubles. When I wrote, the same thing happened with the paper.
--Patricia Lockwood's "Priestdaddy", memoirs of the poet, taking its name from her father's situation, who via an odd loophole of priestly conversion was a married-with-children Catholic Priest. Funny and sometimes heartbreaking I'd recommend it. I liked this passage, kind of a synesthesia of words.

June 16, 2017

Diane sent me this brilliant book by one her neighbors: Bull by David Elliott- it's billed a "novel" but its form is a series of poems retelling the myth of the Minotaur, and would easily make a great dramatic reading, since each speaker has a distinct voice and meter. Great stuff that captures both the humanity and the grandeur of the old myths.

June 15, 2017

Just found this dinosaurs "Everything's Going to be OK" comic in a folder I had forgotten about, of scans of old office decorations... I think from an ancient copy of "Funny Times"

I like it better than This Is Fine Dog which stresses me out tbh.
Quotes from Dan Dennett's "Consciousness Explained" - I just reread this book, one that I've considered most critical to my understanding of my own sense of self...

If the resolution of our vision were as poor as the resolution of our olfaction, when a bird flew overhead the sky would *go all birdish* for us for a while.
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The juvenile sea squirt wanders through the sea searching for a suitable rock or hunk of coral to cling to and make its home for life. For this task, it has a rudimentary nervous system. When it finds its spot and takes root, it doesn't need its brain anymore, so it eats it! (It's rather like getting tenure.)
(paraphrase of neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás.)
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Consciousness is gappy and sparse, and doesn't contain half of what people think is there!
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"We speak, not only to tell others what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. "
--J. Hughlings Jackson
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"How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?"
--E.M.Forster
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"Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness.... Since I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state with another."
--Helen Keller
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"Sometimes I am, sometimes I think."
--Paul Valéry

June 14, 2017


--François Schuiten, via White Space Conflict tumblr with more examples