Monday, March 30, 2020

more math, more games: lumines, abstraction, operators

Lumines Remastered (via The Verge

I've had a lot of time on my hands lately.

During the first week of social distancing, I was hitting the calculus textbook pretty hard; a thirty-six-hour moratorium has been placed on the calculation of antiderivatives in my household. It wouldn't surprise me to learn the standard calculus course's "strategies for integration" unit is the pons asinorum of the college-level math student. It's been kicking my ass. So I'm gonna collect my wits, maybe develop a flowchart (for the sake of testing the elasticity of last session's "game is math" metaphor, we could liken this to drafting a map for an NES- or DOS-era RPG), and come back to it in a few days.

So when I haven't been editing the n-v-l, making myself go on bike rides, or informing myself into a low-key panic attack, I've been playing Lumines Remastered on Steam. I love the game as much as I did its PlayStation 2 iteration, Lumines Plus (in 2008–9, it was my go-to after coming back from smoking spliffs in the woods on hot summer nights), though even now I couldn't clear the board to save my life.

As perhaps you know, Lumines is a brainchild of Tetsuya Mizuguchi, and like his cult-hit rail shooter Rez, Lumines evinces  Mizuguchi's fascination with synaesthesic experience. Its exogenous marriage of block-puzzling and input-synched audiovisual sparklepop make Lumines a rare bird in an expansive aviary of Tetris clones.

Comparing Lumines to Tetris—as I heard myself doing when trying to convince my roommates to stop playing Animal Crossing and get the Switch version—is almost unavoidable. Tetris is the fountainhead of geometry-puzzle video games; without it, Lumines wouldn't exist. Dr. Mario, Puyo PuyoPuzzle Bobble, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, and the rest can each be conveniently summed up as "Tetris, but with [blank]." In light of this ubiquity, it's tempting to attribute a universality to the Tetris experience. There's something almost primordial about its format and function: simple forms composed of four unit-squares in seven different spatial configurations, an evolving problem of optimization, and a time limit imposed by simulated gravity.

In truly excellent instances of minimalist design, the object imparts a sense of inevitability, as though it could not have taken any other form without violating an irrefragable principle of its conception. Tetris is so elegant, so elemental, that it might not be entirely crazy to conjecture a timeline without Alexey Pajitnov eventually producing something a lot like it.

Since its 1984 debut, Tetris has been playable on more platforms than I care to look up and list, many of which were quite basic by modern standards. If the endurance of the tune to "Korobeiniki" in the ears of American millennials is any indication, the lime-and-grey, blooping and crunching Game Boy version was for many years the title's most popular iteration. I first played Tetris on the NES, and an MS-DOS version snuck onto the family PC at one point. Every now and then, I used to see a coin-op version in a diner vestibule or a lonely corner in an arcade. My roommate is currently playing Tetris 99 on the Switch. But no matter what format, Tetris always recognizably performs as Tetris, and can be enjoyed as Tetris.

But it's difficult to imagine Mizuguchi signing off on a version of Lumines with four colors, four sound channels, no stage skins, and two songs on the soundtrack. The project was predicated on the availability of a platform that could interweave spatial reasoning imperatives with vivid, high-definition splashes of color and sound—the intent being, as Mizuguchi puts it, to braid left-brain logic with the emotional content that buzzes the right hemisphere. Tetris, on the other hand, was initially developed and ran on a Soviet-era IBM desktop computer, and most of the changes that came afterward were more aesthetic than functional.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

math & games: presentation & functionality

László Moholy-Nagy, Q 1 Suprematistic (1923)

In case anyone's keeping track: I acknowledge the very late update (and thank you for noticing). Revisions for the new n-v-l are on page 460 out of 700-ish, and proceeding slowly. I'm beginning to doubt it'll all be worth it in the end, and it's getting to where I'd almost rather be writing a series of essays on Dissidia Final Fantasy.


This awful project's been cutting into my other hobbies and projects, too. It's been a while since I last read any meaty 700-page nineteenth century novels. My backlog of short story ideas is becoming less of a queue than a clogged sewer pipe. And it's been at least a few months since I last picked up the ol' calculus textbook.

Yes, yes—I'm still working through James Stewart's Single Variable Calculus: Concepts and Contexts after like eight years. In my defense, I have zero congenital talent for mathematics. I consistently scored D's in Algebra II, and I'd still blanch at showing an actual math student my scratch paper. What's more, I've been proceeding in fits and starts, and whenever I take a break for a while and pick it back up again, it takes at least a week to reinstall the mindset, to go back and make sure I actually learned the contents of a previous chapter, and reacquaint myself with all those damn formulas. (Come on, like you never forgot that cos x cos y = 1/2 [cos (x − y) + cos (x + y)] and couldn't be satisfied until you'd worked it out for yourself.)

I'd be more ashamed of advancing so slowly if I weren't pursuing this study (if you can call it that) on a purely recreational level. I'm not good at this stuff, but I have fun doing it. Somehow or other, it became a de facto substitute for video games. Instead of playing Metal Slug III, Einhänder, or Half-Life after dinner, I'll attempt to work through a few implicit differentiation problems or work out the volume of a three-dimensional form created by rotating a curve around a given axis. It can get pretty intense, let me tell you.

People in my life tend to find it odd that I do math for fun—possibly because most of the people in my life are arts and/or humanities people. Tonight I'd like to try explaining how and why I've been getting my kicks from calculus, as opposed to video games, in my latter years.