Science, Fiction, Life

Month: May 2022

Game review: 7 Days to Die

If you were to sit down and precision engineer a video game to be hopelessly addictive to me, you would probably end up with something like 7 Days to Die. It’s a strange mash-up of several different game genres – shooter, RPG, survival/crafting, tower defense, voxel-based, sandbox/open world – but somehow it not only works, it is incredibly compelling and has basically hijacked my brain for a significant chunk of the past year. Now, I’m susceptible to becoming addicted to almost any new game, but as you’ll see, this game hits a magic combination for me that takes it above and beyond.

The premise of the game is that it’s the zombie apocalypse and you wake up naked in the wilderness and have to find a way to survive. You gather resources and loot the remnants of civilization to craft clothing, weapons, and eventually build yourself a base where you can live safely and eventually thrive. You have to find food and water and clothing appropriate to the weather. And importantly you have to do all of this while not being eaten by zombies. But the core mechanic of the game is that every 7 days, there is a “blood moon” where the zombies go berserk, can find you no matter where you are hiding, and attack you in increasingly difficult waves. This weekly “horde night” gives the rest of the game an urgency: you need to repair, fortify, and improve your base in time for the next horde, because the hordes keep getting more and more powerful.

What’s really impressive is how irresistible I find the game despite the fact that it has no story whatsoever, and that it is not even a finished game – it is still technically in alpha, meaning it is actively being developed and is prone to bugs, lacking polish, and is generally rough around the edges. It was released in 2013 and is currently on its 21st alpha version, with no final release date in sight. I was hesitant to try a game that was still in alpha at first, and there have been some annoying bugs to deal with, but the benefit is that the game is constantly being improved, and that every year or so a major update is released, essentially providing a “new” game. I started playing last year on alpha 19 and enjoyed it very much (except for when a bug caused my vehicle and all of my possessions to mysteriously disappear…). Then when alpha 20 came out around Christmas time, I started a fresh game and have been thoroughly enjoying it again, appreciating all the various changes. The constant tweaking annoys some players but to me it’s kind of fascinating to watch. I am much more invested in the game because I can see it growing and changing.

It may seem weird for me to get sucked into an open world style game when in the past I have talked so much about how I like games with stories. I do think video games are a powerful medium for telling stories that only very rarely use their storytelling potential to its fullest. But a couple years ago I started to rethink that position when I got hooked on Fallout 4, and actually had a better time when I replayed it and mostly ignored the story and embraced the open world experience, the gameplay itself, and the little stories that naturally arise as you set your own goals and try to achieve them. 7 Days to Die picks up the evolution of my thoughts about games where I left off in Fallout 4, and has officially convinced me that my tastes in games are not actually what I thought, and that I’m perfectly happy without any story at all, in some cases. 

Story is one way that games can be great, and I still wish more games would invest more in good writing and storytelling, but it is not the only way. Games can also be great through compelling gameplay that puts you into a “flow” state where all other thoughts fall away and you know what to do, how to do it, and are enjoying the process of doing it (a combination that can be sorely lacking in real life…). 7 Days to Die definitely achieves this. It has that “let me just do this one more thing” feel to it that characterizes the most addictive games.

Games also can be great by just providing a rich secondary world for you to have interesting experiences in. That’s what I most enjoyed in Fallout 4, and the even greater freedom in 7 Days has been a blast. 

7 Days to Die is a voxel-based game, meaning that the whole game world is based on discrete blocks that you can destroy or build upon however you want. Minecraft is the most well-known voxel game, and makes very little attempt at looking pretty. 7 Days to Die actually manages to look good much of the time, in comparison. The game world is based on 1 meter blocks, but it does a lot of clever things to make this less glaringly obvious. The a20 update significantly improved the random world generation. While it’s still not without bugs (notably, water in the game is a mess, and you can end up with roads cutting across lakes making it look like Moses has been through recently), it generates some pretty believable terrain and cities, which with vegetation, weather, and lighting effects, can be downright scenic. Most importantly, it generates worlds that seem to cry out to be explored. That distant mountain? Not only can you go climb it, you can dig a tunnel right through it, or build a castle on top of it, or carve your initials into it. That distant city? Full of zombies but also potential resources to salvage.

My first glimpse of the new and improved cities in Alpha 20.
Not bad looking considering you can modify everything you see.

7 Days to Die actually has a lot in common with Fallout 4. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world where you have to loot ruins to find weapons and supplies. You level up as you play and gain more skills so you can become more powerful and craft better gear. On the hardest difficulty in Fallout 4 you have to find food and water and avoid disease, all of which are a core part of 7 Days to Die. Fallout 4 is definitely a far more “polished” game, with a great user interface, tons of actual quests with actual storylines and non-player characters. It’s also much prettier because it is not voxel-based. And in both games you can build a base. I enjoyed this in Fallout 4, but it didn’t really serve a very vital purpose, it was more just a cool thing you could do if you wanted. In 7 Days to Die, building yourself the ultimate base (in a game world that is completely modifiable by you – or destructible by the zombies trying to get to you…) is an absolute blast.

When I was a kid, I built a lot of forts. Snowy outside? Build a snow fort. Rainy day? Build a pillow fort. Got some legos? Build a fort. My dad built me a wooden fort in the basement. In high school, when left unsupervised in the north woods of Michigan, a friend and I scavenged materials from an abandoned hunting shack and built a fort. We cut (most of) our timber by hand using a dull hatchet, and even attempted a makeshift forge using a cinder block as furnace and anvil (turns out that, when heated, aluminum curtain rods just flake and crumble and cannot, in fact, be hammered into swords). We made an arsenal of wooden swords, staves, and bows instead. It was never quite clear who we were defending against, but there’s something about building a safe place for yourself and your friends that I apparently find really fun.

Yes, that’s correct, one of my fondest memories from my teens involves harvesting resources, looting ruined buildings for supplies, crafting weapons, and building a fort in the wilderness. I told you, 7 Days to Die is practically laser-targeted to make my brain happy.

In my latest playthrough, after surviving for a while as usual, I decided to get creative. I scouted around until I found the perfect location for an enormous Lord of the Rings-inspired base carved into the mountainside. To avoid disrupting this post with dozens of screenshots I’ll make a separate post to show it off, but here’s a taste.

Sunset over my epic base, complete with Orthanc-like tower.
My own personal, hand-crafted Mines of Moria. Now there’s an eye-opener and no mistake.

Another reason this game was particularly ideal for me is that I love the post-apocalyptic genre. I don’t know what this says about me, that I enjoy thinking about scenarios where the world falls into ruin and almost everyone dies and I need to repurpose the tools in the hardware store into weapons, but the genre’s popularity suggests that I’m not alone. If I had to guess, I would say it’s probably a symptom of the overwhelming complexity of the modern world. I think many of us sometimes wish we could strip that all away, and imagine what it would take to survive. 

We fundamentally have the same brains that our ancestors had 40,000 years ago, and those brains evolved to help us survive in a hostile world, creating tools from the materials we can find around us to provide shelter, food, and defense for ourselves and a small group of kin. It’s not surprising that a genre that considers a return to that sort of life might be appealing.

As an aside, one thing I dislike about the post-apocalyptic genre is the assumption that with the collapse of civilization, people will degenerate into roving bands of maniacs. Actual evidence from disasters shows that the much more likely outcome is that the apocalypse would shatter social and class barriers and that, at least at first, people would work together to help each other survive. (Check out A Paradise Built in Hell for more on this.) I’d love to see more in the genre that explores that perspective, rather than the common assumption that we’re all a bunch of murderers and rapists under a thin veneer of civilization.

The nice thing about a zombie apocalypse is that it gives you a convenient “other” to defend against, while sidestepping some of the interesting but messy questions that can be explored in the genre. Zombies = bad. No negotiating, no moral grey areas. Those are good for thoughtful stories, but if you are more concerned with gameplay, defending against mindless zombies makes for a very fun game. If the last few years have taught me anything, it is that sometimes you just need dumb fun.

The final thing I’ll mention about the game is that it can be played as a cooperative multiplayer game. It’s actually how I first came across it. I have a weekly video game night with my brother and friend from high school (the same friend I built that fort in the woods with) and we came across it while looking for a new game to play together. It’s a fun single player game, but building and surviving with friends makes it even better.

Looking down at the entrance to our cooperative game base. On horde night zombies follow the easiest path to you, but they are dumb so they don’t avoid things like giant spinning blades…

7 Days to Die is by no means a perfect game. It’s still in development, it has a mediocre user interface, occasional bugs, and if you’re used to cutting edge graphics it’s voxel nature will leave you disappointed. It can have the feel of a game designed by and for adolescent boys, with its “busty nurse” shopkeeper and often crude humor. It completely lacks anything like a story.

But it is incredibly fun. It combines what works from multiple game genres into a seriously addictive, creative, and amazingly flexible gaming experience. And it has cooperative multiplayer so you can do it all with friends. I have found myself pouring hour after hour into it and thinking about it nearly constantly. I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas for how to improve my base, either practically or aesthetically. I am finally reaching the point where I feel “done” with my single player game, but I’m still having a blast in multiplayer, and am still eagerly watching the development notes for the next version. I have no doubt that when alpha 21 is released, I’ll be sucked right back in.

Talking to Myself About Writing

Me: “It sure has been a long time since you wrote anything. What happened?”

Also me: “Well, you know. It’s hard to find time.”

“Oh really? Seems like you’ve found a lot of time to play video games in the last… What has it been, 9 months since your last blog post? And another 4 before that?”

“You know it’s different with writing. You need a decent block of time to really get into it.”

“Yeah, I seem to recall saying that before about gaming too though. You claim to want to be a writer but when push comes to shove, you make time for video games but not something that is supposedly very important to you. What gives?

“Well, video games are easier right? You play a video game to mentally relax. And they’re all about guaranteed competence. You know that if you keep playing, you’ll get better and more powerful and eventually you’ll win.”

“You do realize that if you wrote regularly you’d get better at that also, right?”

“Yes, but it’s hard.”

“What’s hard about it? Just put the words on the page.”

“It’s easy to put words on the page, but it’s hard to do it well.”

“Who cares if you do it well?”

“I do. I have these ideas in my head, and when they’re there they seem so great, but the moment I try to put them on the page, I realize that they’re not as good as they seemed.”

“But once they’re one the page, then you can make them better. If they’re just rattling around in your head you can’t see where they need to be improved.”

“Yeah, I know, but it’s also scary.”

“What is scary about writing? It’s not like someone is making you do it and they’re going to punish you if you don’t do it well. You’re not being graded. You don’t even have to show it to anyone until you’re ready. Or at all! You can write stuff down and not show it to anyone!”

“I know. But I build these ideas up in my head so much that it’s hard to finally see their flaws when I write them down. One of the main reasons I want to write is to get some part of myself out of my head and into the world. So when I build these ideas up in my head, they get tangled up in my sense of self and self-worth. It’s a lot more pressure when the words that I’m dumping on the page are in some way a part of me.”

“So you’re scared to work on writing that you find important or meaningful, because if it ends up not as good as you hoped, then in some way, you’ve immortalized that you yourself are not as good as you hoped.”

“Yeah. That’s why for a long time I was just doing blog posts here. Blog posts are lower-stress. I especially liked writing reviews of things because I could just jot down my opinions and move on. Not a lot of self-worth caught up in my opinion of the latest video game or TV show or whatever.”

“But you basically stopped writing here on the blog too…”

“Well, toward the end of 2020 I started writing a follow-up to my previous two very personal and philosophical “Finding Balance” posts, trying to figure out the extent to which I actually believe in all the nice things in those posts, and how much of it was trying to justify not working as hard. But that grew into a whole series of posts trying to pin down my own personal understanding of the meaning of life, and whether I am living the values that I claim to believe in. And it got to the point where working on those posts would often ruin my mood and send me into an existential crisis.”

“Sounds like they stopped being low-stakes blog posts and became something very personal, and therefore scary to work on.”

“Yeah. I still want to finish them, but it’s daunting. And it’s not like I have new insights. People are probably better off just reading Sartre.”

“Well, but the point is to get your personal take on these big philosophical questions. But if it’s hard to make progress on this project, take a break and write something else. You have other ideas.”

“Yeah, there’s a novel idea and a nonfiction book idea that have been rattling around in my head for years, but working on a “real” book project seems even more daunting than the philosophical blog posts. It’s much longer, much more work and then when all the work is done I know that I might face rejection trying to get it published anywhere. I have made small starts on both ideas, but never got very far. The self-doubt just kills all motivation.”

“Yeah, I get that. But let’s look at this rationally. What is the worst case scenario if you write?”

“I guess the worst case would be I spend a bunch of time on something that turns out not to be any good, and it doesn’t get published. It’ll feel like I wasted my time and I’ll be embarrassed by how it turned out.”

“And what’s the worst case scenario if you don’t write?”

“I’ll be disappointed in myself for not achieving one of my life goals. I’ll never know if I could’ve gotten something published. My thoughts and ideas will be stuck in my head.”

“The con for writing is interesting: You’ll feel like you wasted your time if what you write isn’t any good, but you’ll at least have something to show for it. Which is more of a waste of time, writing something that ends up not getting published or is not as good as you hoped, or spending that time passively consuming media with no end result to show for it?”

“I mean obviously writing is better. But it doesn’t change that it’s hard and scary and hard to get started and stick with it.”

“So how do we get over it and write anyway?”

“Momentum helps. I should try to write as often as I can. And probably need to get away from the idea that writing can only be done in big chunks. Little bits here and there can add up.”

“And lower the stakes. Everything you write doesn’t have to be the last or most important thing that you write. Especially on a first draft, you know it’s more about getting the words written so that you have something to edit. Writing the first draft is creating the lump of clay, not the finished statue. Nobody just sits down and writes a finished novel in one go.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“And the best way to do good creative work is to do a lot of it. Instead of agonizing over one thing, write ten things instead. Maybe nine are crap but one might be great, and you can’t really know until you do it.”

“Yeah, I recall a quote along those lines. Something about how it’s not the writer’s job to judge what they write, it is their job to write it. But I can’t find it.”

“Oh well. There’s always this one. Seems like a good place to end this post. Let’s write.”

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Ira Glass

AGU 2021: Initial Major Element Quantification Using SuperCam Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy

The virtual poster interface for the AGU fall meeting leaves something to be desired, so I thought it might be worth posting the contents of my poster here, where it is easy to access and share.

Audio recording walking through the poster.
Figure 1: Distribution of compositions in the laboratory spectral library. Orange bars represent the Training set, Green bars represent the test set.
Figure 2: (Left) All library points (grey dots) projected onto the first two PCs with selected sample types denoted by a range of colors and symbols (see legend). The dashed line represents the convex hull of all the library points. (Right) Same data without the SCCTs highlighted. Approximate groupings of samples are shown by shaded regions.
Figure 3: Test set predictions for the selected multivariate models. Perfect results would fall on the line.
ElementRMSEP wt.%Model
SiO26.1Average (GBR, PLS)
TiO20.3RF
Al2O31.8Average
FeOT3.1GBR
MgO1.1GBR
CaO1.3Blend RF+PLS
Na2O0.5Blend GBR+LASSO
K2O0.6LASSO
Summary of 3 m test set RMSEPs and selected models.
Figure 4: Histograms of Mars predictions through Sol 239 for each major element.
Figure 5: PCA plot of Mars spectra with convex hull of laboratory data superimposed (dashed line). Most Mars data plot within the space spanned by the lab data. Points that plot outside are indicated in red.
Figure 6: Local RMSEP indicates how accuracy is estimated to vary with predicted composition. Black points are the unsmoothed values calculated using the nearest 60 test set predictions. Blue curves show the result of smoothing and extrapolating.

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