GreedFall

Right now, the PS4 game that everyone is talking about is The Last of Us, Part II.

So I’m going to talk about GreedFall.

GreedFall, published by the French game company Spiders, is a story-based role-playing game in the same vein as Bioware’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises. The flow of GreedFall is the same:

– The game is story-driven, and you make decisions that affect the outcome of the story.

– The story is quest-driven, with both main-story quests and plenty of side quests.

– As you progress in the main story, you unlock sections of the world map. You can return to any section you’ve previously visited if you choose.

– In classic RPG fashion, you go up in level as you accumulate experience points from completing quests and defeating enemies. As you go up in level you gain points that you can spend on skill and talents.

– There are several skill trees from which you can choose abilities. You can specialize in one or two, or spread out your skill points. You can respec if you choose.

– You are introduced to a set of companions, from which you can select two to go along with you on your adventures.

– Each companion has two or three quests of their own. Completing those quests improves the companion’s relationship to you. You can establish a romantic relationship with one of your companions if you choose to pursue one. After completing a companion’s quest chain, they boost one of your talents if they’re in your party; this can be very useful.

– At the time you create your character, you have control over your character’s gender and appearance. Neither has any effect on game-play, except that some companions may have gender-based preferences for romantic relationships.

The story: You play De Sardet, a legate from the Merchant Congregation. The Congregation is one of the continental factions trying to exploit the resources and natives of the island of Teer Fradee. Your job is to balance the needs of the different factions (including those of natives, who have factions of their own). However, your primary goal is find the cure for a plague that’s ravaging the continent; since none of the natives contract it, the hope is that the island holds the key.

As you might guess from the name GreedFall, the spine of the story is the needs of colonizers versus the needs of the natives. The way the story is presented is… OK. It’s pretty easy to always choose the natives’ side, and that leads to generally favorable outcomes. That made the story fairly predictable, though there were occasional surprises.

One bonus in the story implementation is that each of your companions is associated with a different faction. If you think a bit about a mission, you can determine which companions might provide diplomatic solutions or additional options; e.g., bring Kurt of the Coin Guard if you’re on a mission that involves the Coin Guard. I don’t recall the Bioware games offering this benefit if you weren’t specifically on a companions’ particular quest.

I’ll idly note that if you choose to romance one of your companions, the resulting “bed scene” is rated PG. This contrasts with the soft-core porn of the romance scenes in Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Who would have suspected that a French game developer would be more restrained than a Canadian one?

At the start of the game, when you create your version of De Sardet, you get to choose an initial skill path: Melee combat, Magic, or Technology. I chose the last one, and gained some starting expertise in traps and rifles. This was a bit rough at the start, since those skills involve consumables (compounds and bullets) that I had to purchase. But as usual for these types of games, after a while the money started flowing and the defeated enemies dropped better stuff to sell.

By the end of the game, I had increased my skills and gear to the point where I was tossing long-distance large-area multi-effect grenades in battle. Not too shabby!

Companions in combat: The companions automatically level up as you do. You can improve their gear, but you can’t select the skills they have. You also have no way to control their tactics; they simply rush into battle and use whatever skills they’ve got. In Mass Effect and Dragon Age, you can coordinate your companions’ skills with your own to deliver combos; in GreedFall there are no combo effects.

As usual, I played the game on its easiest setting. As a result, I rarely had any serious difficulty getting through any of the combats. I explored every side quest I could, in an effort to level up and see as much as I could. It took me 62 hours to complete the game. I just hit level 37 at the very end, when the game concluded and the consequences of my story choices were revealed.

The end of the story does not suffer from the controversy of Mass Effect 3. In my game, all the factions liked me (and the companion I romanced (Siora, of course) loved me); I got the best possible ending or darned close to it. A few glances at YouTube videos shows a wide range of possible endings depending on your choices.

Overall: the next game in the Mass Effect or Dragon Age franchises is years away, if there will even be any more. GreedFall provides a reasonable light-weight substitute while we wait.

(Yes, I will have a review of The Last of Us, Part II in a couple of days.)

Watchmen – The TV series

At the time I’m writing this, the Watchmen HBO TV series is available on Hulu, and possibly other streaming platforms.

That first sentence was for the web-link summary. Let’s step back a bit.

I stated in an 2009 blog post that I felt that Watchmen was the finest comic I ever read. Part of the reason I got out of reading comics on a regular basis was I didn’t think I’d find anything better. It’s 11 years later, and I stand by that statement.

When I first heard that a sequel to Watchmen was being made for HBO, I was skeptical. The graphic novel told its story and was done. What more could be said? The answer, it turns out, was plenty.

The main theme of the Watchmen graphic novel was what might happen if people in our “real” world put on costumes to fight crime. It explored that idea and many practical consequences, including the reality of public reaction, government intervention, and the fact that underneath the costume there were still human beings. But the story was basically a self-critique of the “costumed superhero” concept, using and abusing the tropes of comic books to tell human stories.

The theme of the Watchmen TV series is racism. It’s clear why HBO has made the series available outside of its normal channels so that a wider audience can see it. Though the story involves costumed crime-fighters to some degree, this is definitely not a series for children, no more than the Watchmen was.

In particular, the series begins with a harrowing depiction of the Tulsa race massacre. I knew about the incident before I watched the series, but only because a friend had mentioned it at one time on his web site. It’s not a comforting sequence. Like the Watchmen comic, the TV series is not meant to make people comfortable.

As a fan of the comic, I have a few caveats:

– If you’ve never read Watchmen comic or seen the Zack Snyder movie, some of the plot points will seem opaque: Why is everyone so obsessed with “Dr. Manhattan”? Why are the Rorschach masks significant? Why should anyone care about the old guy in the manor?

– This is a sequel to the Watchmen comic, not the Watchmen movie directed by Zack Snyder. If you’ve only seen the movie, then you may have to get around the differences: Why do people keep talking about squids?

– The series has clever visual cues that readers of the comic will get, but will just slide past everyone else. These details are not critical.

I claim that the Watchmen comic is the best I’ve ever read. I won’t say that the Watchmen TV series was the best one I’ve seen. However, it does make a timely statement about the long-term effects of racism; the Tulsa massacre reverberates throughout the series.

This must be said: The series drops the ball on how law enforcement reacts to racial issues. In particular, the show only gives lip service criticism of suspending rights and due process when you’re the “good guy” and you’re fighting the “bad guys.” In that way, the Watchmen TV series is no better than the old pulp comic books that the Watchmen graphic novel condemned.

The interviews are done!

Today I had a new signal about my project to write a biography of Isaac Bonewits.

From a post I made on Facebook:

I was cleaning out old stuff from a bookshelf, and I found a pile of Isaac Bonewits’ papers that I never got around to sending to the University of Santa Barbara. In an extra dose of irony, these papers were located right next to Deborah Lipp’s autobiography.

Could this be a reminder that it’s time to get my rear in gear and resume the biography project?

The Gods answer, “YES!”

It’s time to wrap up the research phase entirely. I have all the information I’m likely to get. In particular, I’m going to stop seeking out interviews.

There are three periods of Isaac’s life I wish I knew more about: His interaction with the Creole woman who first introduced him to magic; his time at Grayhaven in the early 70s; the founding of ADF. At this point, I have what I have and I don’t think I’ll learn anything more.

Any future suggestions of the form “You should interview X” will receive a smile and nod from me, but that’s it. If you’re able to get X to contact me, that’s great, but I’m not going to chase after them.

If you are X, that is, you want to say “You should interview me,” then I’m willing provided we can both rapidly work out a schedule for the interview.

As always, I can be reached at bonewits.research at gmail.com.

Part of the reason I’ve procrastinated is that the next step is listening to the interviews and selecting sections for transcription. I’ve already got computer-made transcriptions; now I have to edit them into human form. I’ve got over 70 hours of interviews and it will probably take twice as long to review the recordings. It will be a tedious task.

Oh, well. The journey of a thousand steps begins with the first mile.

When Backups Fail

Whenever someone tells me, either personally or professionally, that they’re getting a new computer, my first words are “What about backup?” I liked to think that I took my own advice and that I was well-protected against hard drive failure. This is the story of how I was wrong.

Almost.

The bold beginning

Let’s start with my backup arrangement that I used for the past year, ever since I had a major file loss.

Slide1

Here’s the breakdown of that picture:

  • Macintosh HD – a 3TB Fusion Drive (combined solid-state drive (SSD) and hard drive); the main hard drive of my iMac.
  • Data – a 3TB hard drive inside an Apple Airport Express; my Time Machine backup.
  • Dropbox – a cloud service remote backup for my /Users/seligman/Dropbox folder.
  • Backblaze – a second cloud service remote backup of Macintosh HD.

Three layers of backup coupled with fast SSDHD (solid-state drive/hard drive). What could go wrong?

Signs of trouble

Occasionally over the past few years I’d get a warning from Time Machine that the Data drive in the Time Capsule needed to be erased. I didn’t think much about it, because of the way Time Machine works: It duplicates the contents of the main drive, and saves any replaced files for as long as it can. But if the size of a file it wants to copy is greater than the amount of free space remaining on Time Machine, the backup process can get into trouble. As I used up more space on the main Macintosh HD drive, there was less space on the Time Machine backup to work with.

At this point, you may ask: The main drive was 3TB, as was the Time Machine backup. 3TB is a lot of storage for a personal computer. What was taking up so much space, with such large files?

Answer:

Disc Collection

In other words, most of it consisted of digital media files from the DVDs and Blu-Rays I collected over the past twenty years. Not shown is a massive collection of CDs going back forty years (which I keep in an otherwise-unused huge drawer at work). Also not shown are digital media that I downloaded over the years, mostly purchased via iTunes.

The biggest remaining chunks are video files associated with creating YouTube clips for the Nevis Labs channel.

Much of it, at least in theory, I could recreate. In practice, it would mean a massive amount of effort. Spread over decades, it wasn’t much. To build it all up again seemed to painful to contemplate.

In 2019, I got at least two warnings about needing to rebuild the Time Machine drive. I clicked on the “go ahead” button and let Time Machine do its thing; that’s supposed to be the big advantage of Time Machine over other backup methods.

It occurred to me that this might mean the Time Machine hard drive was failing. I ran what tests I could; a drive in an Apple Airport Express is not directly visible to programs like Disk Utility. But those tests said that the drive was fine.

Still, I had a notion in the back of my mind that the Airport Express drive was 8-10 years old and it might be time to replace it. I had a thought about using an external drive instead, but I didn’t follow up on it… then.

The last time I received a warning that the Time Machine drive needed to be erased and rebuilt was in December of 2019. I automatically clicked “go ahead” and went blithely along.

Main drive failure

Early in January 2020 my iMac became slow and unresponsive. If I clicked on some user widget on the screen, it might take up to a minute to respond. It was a big shift from the usual fast speed from just a couple of weeks before.

At first I thought this was a font issue. The least time I saw a sudden slowdown of my Mac it turned out to be fonts that were the problem. At that time, about ten years ago, I used FontExplorer X Pro to deal with them. When I looked this time, I saw that I had more than a thousand fonts installed.

Of course, I don’t need a thousand fonts; I’m not a graphics designer. These fonts were the accumulation of a couple of decades of software installs: multiple version of Microsoft Office, graphics programs, Adobe products, and so forth.

So I tried to remove fonts that I didn’t need. It made things worse than before; did you know that a Mac system won’t function unless all its Arabic fonts are installed? I had to reinstall the OS twice to recover… and still everything was slow.

I checked my memory use, and according to Activity Monitor I had plenty of free RAM.

I finally decided to go to my area of expertise. I started to use the Terminal instead of fancy graphics tools to solve the problem. You already know it turned out to be a hard drive problem. Specifically, it was the SSD portion of the Fusion Drive.

Diagnosis

Here are the technical details of how I came to this conclusion. If you don’t like to deal with sysadmin stuff, skip this section.

First, I wanted to check how much memory I was using. The command-line program for this in Mac OS X Darwin is vm_stat. Here’s the result on my iMac just now, after the problem was solved:

# vm_stat
Mach Virtual Memory Statistics: (page size of 4096 bytes)
Pages free:                              114622.
Pages active:                           1039899.
Pages inactive:                         1083290.
Pages speculative:                        14319.
Pages throttled:                              0.
Pages wired down:                        652636.
Pages purgeable:                          22198.
"Translation faults":                 782461912.
Pages copy-on-write:                    6341973.
Pages zero filled:                    457651989.
Pages reactivated:                     17660655.
Pages purged:                           1912200.
File-backed pages:                       510632.
Anonymous pages:                        1626876.
Pages stored in compressor:             3224421.
Pages occupied by compressor:           1289005.
Decompressions:                        13590655.
Compressions:                          19332473.
Pageins:                              484431874.
Pageouts:                                136862.
Swapins:                                      0.
Swapouts:                                     0.

Except that, when I executed this command on my busted Mac, the last two values (“swapins” and “swapouts”) were 9-digit numbers. That works out to roughly about a TB of memory swapped in and out.

Modern operating systems structure their memory in “pages”, chunks of memory that are handled as a unit. When all the physical chunks of memory in the computer are used up, pages are written out to disk. My iMac has 16GB RAM, so the number of pages to swap in and out should be zero, or at least very low. In fact, the only time I’ve ever seen those numbers non-zero is that one time I described above.

What was swapping all those memory pages in and out doing to my Fusion Drive? I used smartmontools to find this out. (This utility is part of standard UNIX, but it’s not part of the normal Mac or Windows OS. I strongly recommend installing it.) When I use it on the SSD part of the Fusion Drive, there’s a lot of output that ends in this:

/usr/local/sbin/smartctl -a /dev/disk0 -s on
[...]
Vendor Specific SMART Attributes with Thresholds:
ID# ATTRIBUTE_NAME          FLAG     VALUE WORST THRESH TYPE      UPDATED  WHEN_FAILED RAW_VALUE
  1 Raw_Read_Error_Rate     0x000f   100   100   000    Pre-fail  Always       -       0
  5 Reallocated_Sector_Ct   0x000f   100   100   000    Pre-fail  Always       -       0
  9 Power_On_Hours          0x0032   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       9027
 12 Power_Cycle_Count       0x0032   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       98098
169 Unknown_Apple_Attrib    0x0022   100   100   010    Old_age   Always       -       751793342176
173 Wear_Leveling_Count     0x0022   148   148   100    Old_age   Always       -       5871324366268
174 Host_Reads_MiB          0x0030   100   100   000    Old_age   Offline      -       131266311
175 Host_Writes_MiB         0x0030   100   100   000    Old_age   Offline      -       84080554
192 Power-Off_Retract_Count 0x0032   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       96
194 Temperature_Celsius     0x0022   062   062   000    Old_age   Always       -       38 (Min/Max 21/88)
197 Current_Pending_Sector  0x0032   000   000   000    Old_age   Always       -       0
199 UDMA_CRC_Error_Count    0x003e   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       0
244 Unknown_Attribute       0x0002   000   000   000    Old_age   Always       -       0

I identified which drive (the /dev/disk0 in the command line) by using the Terminal command diskutil list.

Compare the above result with the similar output on the SSD in my SSDHD on my computer at work:

ID# ATTRIBUTE_NAME          FLAG     VALUE WORST THRESH TYPE      UPDATED  WHEN_FAILED RAW_VALUE
  5 Reallocated_Sector_Ct   0x0033   099   099   010    Pre-fail  Always       -       2
  9 Power_On_Hours          0x0032   088   088   000    Old_age   Always       -       58608
 12 Power_Cycle_Count       0x0032   099   099   000    Old_age   Always       -       320
177 Wear_Leveling_Count     0x0013   092   092   000    Pre-fail  Always       -       430
179 Used_Rsvd_Blk_Cnt_Tot   0x0013   099   099   010    Pre-fail  Always       -       2
181 Program_Fail_Cnt_Total  0x0032   100   100   010    Old_age   Always       -       0
182 Erase_Fail_Count_Total  0x0032   100   100   010    Old_age   Always       -       0
183 Runtime_Bad_Block       0x0013   099   099   010    Pre-fail  Always       -       2
187 Uncorrectable_Error_Cnt 0x0032   099   099   000    Old_age   Always       -       3290
190 Airflow_Temperature_Cel 0x0032   066   060   000    Old_age   Always       -       34
195 ECC_Error_Rate          0x001a   199   199   000    Old_age   Always       -       3290
199 CRC_Error_Count         0x003e   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       0
235 POR_Recovery_Count      0x0012   099   099   000    Old_age   Always       -       44
241 Total_LBAs_Written      0x0032   099   099   000    Old_age   Always       -       117217270543

The most obvious thing to note is that drives from different manufacturers can return different attributes.

Fortunately, both of these SSDs return the amount of data written to the drive, though in different units. The SSD on my iMac has the values:

174 Host_Reads_MiB  =   131266311
175 Host_Writes_MiB =    84080554

The unit “MiB” (which I believe is pronounced “mibibyte”) refers to exactly 1,000,000 bytes, as opposed to a MB (megabyte) which is 1024*1024*1024 bytes. For the purposes of this discussion, it’s sufficient to treat both these units as the same.

So during the seven years I used the SSD in the Fusion Drive, the OS read 131TB and wrote 84TB. That latter number seemed a bit high to me. It’s a 3TB drive, so that value says I wrote to the drive 44 times its total size. Considering that I never did much serious video editing or any other activity with a lot of output, it seemed like something was wrong.

My SSD at work reports the total written in “LBAs” (LBA = Logical Block Address), which are 512 byte sectors. So we have:

241 Total_LBAs_Written =       117217270543

This comes to about 54.5 TB over roughly the same seven-year period. This is more plausible, since over the past five years I’ve done a lot of video downloads, conversions, and editing.

The real kicker is the “wear leveling” parameter. A given sector of an SSD can only be written to a finite number of times. To prevent any given sector from wearing out, the hardware in the SSD automatically distributes sector writes across the entire range of the SSD. A typical SSD, even after many years of use, might have a wear level down to 90%-95% range. If an SSD gets to 50%, it’s worn out and needs to be replaced.

For my SSD in the Fusion Drive at home, I have:

173 Wear_Leveling_Count =   148

For the one at work:

177 Wear_Leveling_Count =   092

Again, for different manufacturers the way this value is displayed can vary. If the value is greater than 100, then you have to subtract 100 to get the leveling as a percent. So the SSD at home is at a 48% wear level, while the one at work is at an expected 92% wear level.

Something wore out the SSD on my iMac. That’s why the Fusion Drive was so slow. I’m not going to copy-n-paste the values, but you can see that the power-on hours for the home SSD is much lower than that of the work SSD, further adding to the conclusion that something anomalous happened with my home computer.

That’s the analysis of the SSD part of the Fusion Drive. What about the hard drive part?

For my computer at home:

ID# ATTRIBUTE_NAME          FLAG     VALUE WORST THRESH TYPE      UPDATED  WHEN_FAILED RAW_VALUE
  1 Raw_Read_Error_Rate     0x000f   090   074   006    Pre-fail  Always       -       227218413
  3 Spin_Up_Time            0x0003   095   094   000    Pre-fail  Always       -       0
  4 Start_Stop_Count        0x0032   037   037   020    Old_age   Always       -       65535
  5 Reallocated_Sector_Ct   0x0033   074   051   036    Pre-fail  Always       -       32432
  7 Seek_Error_Rate         0x000f   056   056   030    Pre-fail  Always       -       1808362289149
  9 Power_On_Hours          0x0032   061   061   000    Old_age   Always       -       34995
 10 Spin_Retry_Count        0x0013   100   100   097    Pre-fail  Always       -       0
 12 Power_Cycle_Count       0x0032   057   037   020    Old_age   Always       -       44830
184 End-to-End_Error        0x0032   100   100   099    Old_age   Always       -       0
187 Reported_Uncorrect      0x0032   001   001   000    Old_age   Always       -       2138
188 Command_Timeout         0x0032   100   036   000    Old_age   Always       -       332 332 407
189 High_Fly_Writes         0x003a   087   087   000    Old_age   Always       -       13
190 Airflow_Temperature_Cel 0x0022   049   043   045    Old_age   Always   In_the_past 51 (Min/Max 43/52 #5)
191 G-Sense_Error_Rate      0x0032   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       0
192 Power-Off_Retract_Count 0x0032   098   098   000    Old_age   Always       -       5029
193 Load_Cycle_Count        0x0032   045   045   000    Old_age   Always       -       110367
194 Temperature_Celsius     0x0022   051   057   000    Old_age   Always       -       51 (0 13 0 0 0)
197 Current_Pending_Sector  0x0012   001   001   000    Old_age   Always       -       32712
198 Offline_Uncorrectable   0x0010   001   001   000    Old_age   Offline      -       32712
199 UDMA_CRC_Error_Count    0x003e   200   200   000    Old_age   Always       -       0
240 Head_Flying_Hours       0x0000   100   253   000    Old_age   Offline      -       39388h+11m+48.323s
241 Total_LBAs_Written      0x0000   100   253   000    Old_age   Offline      -       46269392914
242 Total_LBAs_Read         0x0000   100   253   000    Old_age   Offline      -       163923486796

What I’ve not shown is a bunch of error messages from smartctl that basically said there was an error in reading some of the parameters.

Other things to note:

  • Total_LBAs_Written = 46269392914 means that 21.5 TB were written to the hard drive. Compare that with 84 TB written to the SSD. The SSD was definitely bearing the brunt of sector refreshes.
  • Offline_Uncorrectable = 32712 means the drive is definitely going bad. Either the drive has 32712 bad sectors, or the count is wonky because it’s counting backwards from 32767. It’s bad either way.

I won’t bore you (at least, not more than you are already) with the disk report on my computer at work, partly because its list of attributes doesn’t point to any direct problems with the drive.

It’s worth noting that if Apple’s utilities included some kind of SMART test and warning, I would have known there was a problem weeks or months ago. Instead, I had to find out about these problems the hard way.

What caused this? I’ll never know for sure. Here’s my guess:

  • Some process or program went wonky on my iMac. Possibly this was related to problems in hard drive portion of the Fusion Drive.
  • That process started consuming massive amounts of RAM. It did so in such a way that the Activity Monitor couldn’t detect it, but vm_stat could.
  • The memory use overflowed the RAM and memory pages started being swapped out to disk. In this case, this was the Fusion Drive.
  • The excess memory use just kept on growing, memory pages kept being written to the Fusion Drive, and hence to the SSD.
  • This kept up through reboots of the computer and upgrades of the operating system.
  • Finally, the various sectors of the SSD had been accessed so frequently that the wear level got extremely low. That made the effective speed of the system glacially slow.
  • Once the SSD wore out, there was nothing I could do to restore it, except for completely replacing the drive. We’ll get to that below.

The last gasp of a dying drive

I could still work on my iMac, after a fashion. Right after (yet another) OS reinstall or a reboot, the system would respond just well enough to run Terminal, Thunderbird, and (maybe) Firefox. But it was becoming clear, especially after running the diagnostics I describe above, that a new hard drive was in my future.

The straw that broke the camel’s back and caused me to take action was a dialog box that popped up on my screen: “studentd quit unexpectedly”. I didn’t know what that was and didn’t care, so I hit the “OK” button (or whatever acknowledgement there was). Seconds later it showed up again. And again. And again.

It didn’t matter how many times I acknowledged that studentd had quit. The dialog box would helpfully inform me of studentd’s non-functioning status.

I looked up studentd. It had to do with an Apple service called Classroom. I never used this service, didn’t want it, didn’t need it. But the arrangement of Apple’s daemon services was such that this process always automatically launched and was automatically rerun if it wasn’t running, even if it wasn’t needed.

Whatever studentd was supposed to do, it was clear that my failing Fusion Drive wouldn’t let it run anymore. Once again I reinstalled the OS, but I still kept getting the “studentd quit unexpectedly” dialog. I finally just left the dialog box on my screen unacknowledged.

It was time for an action plan.

I thought I had a backup. Does that count?

My first idea was to get the hard drive in my iMac replaced. My Applecare Plus warranty had long since expired, so my guesstimate was this would cost $500-$600, given the labor involved and the premium prices Apple charges for its hard drives. Also, Apple would only replace the Fusion Drive with the same model the iMac originally came with; if I wanted to contemplate a 4TB SSD I’d be out of luck.

I contacted a friend of mine who used to work at the Apple Genius Bar. He suggested an alternative: Use an external drive and boot from it instead. That way, I could be in control of the drives I used. If I ever felt the need to purchase a new iMac, I could plug the external drive into the new computer and not worry about copying or reconfiguring anything. (The only issue is whether a new Mac could run Mac OS 10.14 Mojave, since I don’t want to upgrade to the latest, Catalina; I may write another blog post someday about this.)

Either approach required me to restore from backup. So I examine my options:

  • I had a Dropbox backup, but it only included files in my ~/Dropbox folder. My media files were not part of it. Neither were some personal files that I badly wanted to preserve.
  • The Backblaze backup was current as of a few days prior to the massive drive slowdown. It was only then I discovered that Backblaze only copies a Mac’s /Users directory; the files in /Library and /Applications are not included, for example. This lack of knowledge was my fault for not reading the Backblaze web site carefully enough.
  • The Time Machine backup. It must be complete by now, right?

When I checked the status of my Time Machine backup, I saw it was still not complete. Remember how I refreshed my Time Machine backup in December of 2019? Now it was January 2020, with a failing hard drive. As I watched Time Machine’s progress, I saw it would take at least 10 days to finish.

Time to get practical:

  • I knew I’d need some kind of complete backup. So optimize completing the Time Machine backup.
  • To that end, I rebooted my iMac in Safe Mode, to suppress any background processes that were accessing the Macintosh HD drive and slowing things down. In particular, Dropbox and Backblaze were running at glacial speeds that would take years to complete, and Adobe Creative Suite kept attempting to repair itself unsuccessfully.
  • When in Safe Mode, I still got the repeated “studentd quit unexpectedly” dialog. A bit of research showed that the following Terminal command would prevent the execution of studentd entirely:
    sudo mv /System/Library/LaunchAgents/com.apple.macos.studentd.plist \
            /System/Library/LaunchAgents/com.apple.macos.studentd.plist.bak
    

    … and reboot to Safe Mode again.

  • Turn off desktop background and screen savers. There was no reason to waste the CPU cycles or cause the system to access the hard drive more than necessary.
  • Make sure Spotlight was off, again to minimize any drive access.
  • Order the complete restore from Backblaze. Since that was about 2TB of files, they had to send me a USB drive. They charged me $189 to create the drive’s contents and ship it to me, but that was refundable if I sent the drive back to them.
  • Preserve my personal files:
    mv ~/Documents ~/Dropbox/
    ln -sf ~/Dropbox/Documents ~/Documents
    (cd ~/Dropbox; tar -cf - ./Documents) | \
        ssh remote-computer "(cd ~/Dropbox; tar -xvf -)"
    

    The net effect of the above commands was to place my Documents directory into my Dropbox area, make sure that any program referring to something in ~/Documents would now find them in my Documents folder, and copy the Documents folder to a remote computer that was also running Dropbox. That gave me a copy of my personal files in my Dropbox area without having to run Dropbox on my failing computer; it would sync the Documents folder from the Dropbox process on my remote computer.

  • Renew my license for the latest version of Carbon Copy Cloner, since I planned to make more backups. As we’ll see below, CCC proved to be an even more useful tool than I planned.
  • At work, use Diskmaker X to make a Mojave USB-key installer. While I thought I might use it to reinstall the Mac OS on >Macintosh HD from external media, this also proved to be a more useful tool than I planned.
  • With permission, ask to borrow a laptop to take home so I could continue to work from home while my iMac focused on making the Time Machine backup.
  • Order 4TB hard drives and a two-drive disk enclosure. I’ll get into this below.
  • Now, with all background processes halted and nothing else to do, set my iMac in Safe Mode to copy from Macintosh HD to my Airport Express.

Here was my goal:

Slide2

Alpha would be my new main drive. Beta would be a nightly clone of Alpha made with CCC. Gamma would be my new Time Machine backup.

As I waited for this new hardware to arrive, I saw the Time Machine backup was running more quickly since there were no background processes accessing the slow Macintosh HD. It was going so fast that I cancelled the Backblaze restore drive after a couple of days, before it was shipped to me.

By this time the hardware arrived. I had an old OWC miniStack that I purchased in 2008. It could connect to a Mac using USB 3.0. I installed a 4TB drive into the miniStack, and used the laptop and that USB Mac OS installer to install Mojave on the drive. I named the drive Beta. I then set that hard drive aside, but it was comforting to know that I had a system drive I could potentially use to boot my iMac.

After four days, the Time Machine backup was scheduled to complete. I watched the progress, got to when the last MBs should have been copied… and it wouldn’t terminate. In the progress message of “Copying XXX MB of YYY MB”, both XXX and YYY would increment.

Researching the web showed a number of potential fixes to this problem, none of which worked for me. I found a trick to look at the time machine log:

printf '\e[3J' && log show --predicate 'subsystem == "com.apple.TimeMachine"' --info --last 6h | grep -F 'eMac' | grep -Fv 'etat' | awk -F']' '{print substr($0,1,19), $NF}' 

It seemed like the number of files to be backed up was monotonically increasing, even though the iMac was in Safe Mode and I wasn’t doing anything with it. Was this a problem with Macintosh HD or the Time Machine backup drive? Probably the former, based on what happened later.

So I did not have a single coherent backup of my hard drive.

Let’s try again

I installed a fresh 4TB drive into the miniStack, plugged it into my iMac, named it Gamma, and started a Time Machine backup onto it.

I calculated it would take 10-14 days to complete. I used the time to reorder the Backblaze USB drive again, just in case. It should have taken another five days to make, but they shipped it to me in two. I speculate that they never stopped creating the initial drive; perhaps they’ve grown used to fools like me changing their minds about the need for a remote drive.

I waited, watching the Time Machine progress onto Gamma. After about 10 days, it was almost at the end… then it went into the “Copying XXX MB of YYY MB” loop again.

I couldn’t make a finalized Time Machine backup at all.

The two-drive enclosure I purchased was an OWC Mercury Elite Pro Dual with Thunderbolt 2. I put Alpha and Beta into the enclosure, installed Carbon Copy Cloner on Beta, and booted the iMac from Beta.

Wow! An iMac working at normal speed!

I used the Mac OS USB install drive to install an OS on Alpha, then as part of that process tried to initialize Alpha from the Time Machine backup. No go. I got the message that the Time Machine “could not be used.”

OK, Time Machine was no longer an answer. How about Carbon Copy Cloner? While running the OS on Beta, I ran CCC to clone from Macintosh HD to Alpha.

Again, no go. After about two days, CCC terminated due to too many read errors from the bad drive.

Backblaze to the rescue

So I couldn’t make a backup of all of Macintosh HD.

By this time the Backblaze restore USB drive had arrived, with everything from the /Users directory on down. So I set up another Carbon Copy Cloner task, but this one would copy everything except /Users from Macintosh HD to Alpha. That copy took only about 12 hours to run, 6 of which were just comparing the files on the two drives to only copy over the new files. There were some drive errors, but not enough to stop the process.

The CCC task ran to completion. I had the contents of /Library, /Applications, /opt, and so on copied. Then I copied /Users from the Backblaze drive to /Users on Alpha. At last, I had my complete hard drive.

Well, not quite…

When I first booted from Alpha, I got a repeated dialog box that stated macos needs to repair your library and required me to enter my password. As soon I hit “Use password…” and typed in my computer’s password, the dialog box would pop up again.

Eventually I ran the Mac OS USB installer again. That resolved the issue. Finally, I could reboot my computer into a working OS again.

And so the saga was over… NOT!

The reason why I went through the exercise of restoring all the non-/Users files is that I want to preserve all my applications and their settings. This mostly worked. A couple of apps gave me problems, but they were minor by comparison:

  • I had to completely reinstall Microsoft Office. Even so, there was something wonky associated with permissions to access the template files. I never use templates, but MS-Word insisted on displaying an error message anyway. Fortunately I found a fix for this problem.
  • Adobe Creative Suite insisted on being reinstalled. No big deal, since I use it infrequently. I just let it download in the background.
  • Time Machine, Spotlight, and Backblaze were giving me problems. For the first two, I saw they were trying to archive 6TB of files! I finally figured it out: These utilities were scanning and backing up Macintosh HD and Beta in addition to Alpha. I fixed that in System Preferences… mostly.

That last “mostly” was due to Backblaze, which made it hard to exclude Macintosh HD from its list of drives to back up. This makes sense in general; most users want backups of their main internal drives and Backblaze wanted to be a thorough backup. But aside from being unnecessary at this point, any attempt to access Macintosh HD would slow down the computer. In addition to Backblaze’s performance, this was evident in Open/Save dialogs that might have to scan all drives.

I lived with Macintosh HD‘s performance for a couple more weeks, just to make sure there weren’t any lingering files to copy. There weren’t, apart from some forgotten and unused podcast files that I mostly copied so I’d have a “complete” restore. Then I found a way to make sure that Macintosh HD wouldn’t even be mounted when I rebooted the computer:

Create the file /etc/fstab if it doesn’t already exist (you’ll have to use sudo), and edit it to add the following line:

LABEL=Macintosh\040HD none apfs rw,noauto

Now it’s as if Macintosh HD doesn’t exist. I could still mount it using Disk Utility if I had to, but so far I’ve never had to.

I mailed back the Backblaze USB drive. It had done its work admirably. As promised, I got the money refunded by Backblaze.

Are we done yet? Close, but not quite.

OWC Mercury Elite Pro Dual mini-review

I purchased this in haste, as I watched my existing hard drive fall into the long, dark twilight. My funds were low after the party the previous month, so I needed something inexpensive. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

The OWC Mercury Elite Pro Dual has two major flaws:

  • It is noisy. It’s not so much the fan, although that’s a bit louder than most drive enclosures I’ve seen. It’s that there’s almost no dampening of vibration or sounds coming from the hard drives. I had to listen to constant clickety-clacking as the drives’ heads moved over the drives’ disks.

    In comparison, the OWC miniStack I purchased in 2008 is almost noiseless. It’s the same manufacturer, and was make 9 years earlier, but it emitted less noise than its newer dual-drive cousin.

  • It has the worst hardware RAID controller I’ve ever seen.

    If you asked yourself why I didn’t configure the two drives in the Mercury Dual into a RAID1, the controller was the reason. The Dual Elite hardware requires that for a RAID1 (mirroring) or RAID0 (striping), the two drives must be the exact same model with the exact same firmware. What happens five years from now when one of the drives breaks down and that exact model is no longer available?

    It also removes one of the fun things you can do with a RAID1: Replace one drive with a better one, wait for the two drives to sync, then replace the other one; in other words, incremental upgrades to the RAID1. Other hardware RAIDs I’ve worked with (including the two-drive Synology NAS and various low-end 3ware and LSI cards) have this ability.

    In fact, I would have bought the Synology instead, but it can only be used for network-attached storage, not as a boot drive for a computer.

I purchased the Dual Elite because I liked my old miniStack, I trusted OWC as a company, and I wanted Thunderbolt 2 (this was probably unnecessary, since at the max speed of the Dual Elite, USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 2 would have the same performance). I would still buy a miniStack from them, but I’ll never again purchase an OWC multi-drive enclosure.

If you’re wondering why didn’t I buy a four-drive enclosure and put Gamma in the same box (saving both table space and power outlet), it’s because I wanted to protect myself in case of a hardware failure. If either the miniStack or the Dual Elite fails, at least I’ll have something to fall back on and get running quickly.

Backblaze to the un-rescue

I listened to the clicking and clacking of Alpha for a month. During that time, I also became impatient with the speed of the 4TB hard drive compared to the Fusion Drive I used to have.

I could only find one model of 4TB SSDHD. While it was still available, the last one had been manufactured five years ago. In light of my difficulties, this did not seem a wise purchase.

So I bit the bullet and got a 4TB SSD. A month later, my finances weren’t quite so dire and I could afford it.

The procedure for the switch was straight-forward:

  • Do one last duplicate of Alpha to Beta using Carbon Copy Cloner;
  • remove Alpha from the drive enclosure and replace it with the SSD;
  • boot from Beta;
  • use CCC to clone back from Beta to Alpha.

Simple, right?

I had my quieter and faster drive, but the procedure confused the heck out of Backblaze. Cloning drives can cause Backblaze to treat a drive as brand-new and never-before copied. Alpha was a clone of a clone. Backblaze wanted me to pay a new annual licensing fee to maintain a backup of a second drive.

I went through a mini-saga of consulting websites, fiddling with the /.bzvol directory on both Alpha and Beta, and even reinstalling Backblaze twice. Finally Backblaze would allow me to click on the “inherit previous backup” button without giving an error message.

So it’s over, right?

I dunno. In the last hour as I’ve typed this post, I’ve only been able to type about a dozen characters before there’s a long pause. It only affects this particular WordPress composition page.

So I can’t even write about this problem before a new one crops up somewhere.

For now, I’ve got a working computer. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Murder Mystery Masquerade Party – the Report

It’s been two weeks since the party. I said it then, and I’ll say it again: It was the best party I ever hosted. I don’t think I’ll host a better one for the rest of my life.

This is one of my longer blog posts. I want to get all the details down so that if I ever do this again, I can learn from my successes and failures.

I’m mindful that people doing web searches on “Ravenwood Mystery Party” might find this post. I’ve done my best to avoid major spoilers.

Privacy note: I’m going to refer to individual guests by their characters’ names. This is to preserve their privacy in a public blog post. The exception will be the characters who were the victim and the murderer; I’ll refer to them as V and M.

Background

Let’s back up a bit.

For my prior two birthday parties, I hosted a LARP. They were at best moderately successful; some people just didn’t get the hang of improvisational role-playing.

A few years ago a friend of mine hosted a professionally-written murder mystery party. She offered me the role of the murder victim, since it required someone who could role-play well. In the game as written, the murder victim could come back as a ghost. I decided to take it to excess (a typical pattern in my life) and use the murder as an excuse for a role switch.

Before the murder, I was a tough take-no-nonsense gangster:

11083589_10100753469428159_7101832204975601746_n

After my character was murdered, I went into the bathroom, shaved my beard, changed my outfit, and became the victim’s older brother. He was a total milquetoast:

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As my 60th birthday approached, I became more enamored of the idea of hosting a similar mystery party. There was no reason to suspect a LARP I wrote would be any more successful than what I’d done before. Let a professional do the writing!

When I searched for murder mystery parties one could purchase on-line, I found a different company from what my friend chose. On their front page was a masquerade party. I felt that was a concept everyone would understand.

The guests

I wanted to get some idea of how many people wanted to come. The mysteries from MyMysteryParty have three levels: the basic mystery with 18 or so characters, an expansion with 6 additional characters (who can also be team leaders to accommodate more guests), and a second expansion to accommodate up to 16 more characters.

I wrote an initial blog post to get an idea of how many people were interested. I got enough of a response that I knew I’d have to get the base mystery and expansion #1 immediately. I followed that post with another more formal invitation. I got enough RSVPs that I purchased the second expansion as well.

MyMysteryParty offers a web site that hosts can share with the guests to so the they can see what other characters might come to the party. I didn’t like it. Mystery parties of this sort have “key” or “required” characters who must be there for the story to work; every other character is optional. On that web site, it doesn’t take much insight to realize that the key characters were listed first. I didn’t want any of my guests to feel they were second-class citizens.

So I copied over the character information from the mystery’s list of characters, but put the characters in alphabetical order by last name, from Omari Black through Riley White. It was a bit of an effort, but it also acted as a bookkeeping device so I could see which roles were available as more people RSVPed.

After I knew who was playing which character, I sent out materials via postal mail. It included:

  • a colorful invitation that was supplied in the mystery party kit
  • a description of the character (along with costume suggestions and optional pre-game activity)
  • a copy of the newspaper cover page from the bottom of MyMusteryParty’s Ravenwood page
  • the party kit’s guest instructions so they’d know what to expect
  • for most of the guests, a copy of a ticket to the party

A couple of “uninvited” characters did not get tickets: John and Jane Doe. I knew they’d be there anyway.

I quickly discovered that I needed some way to keep track of all the guests, their characters, their email addresses, and their postal addresses. I used Microsoft Excel for that. For repetitive documents like the invitations, mailing labels, guest badges, and game envelopes, I used Swift Publisher 5. These tools showed their worth as I handled late-comers who asked to come after the RSVP deadline, and when I had to deal with a last-minute substitution.

To communicate with everyone, I set up both a Facebook event page and a mailing list. Every time I sent an email to the list, I also posted it on the FB page. This was to handle both those folks who were not on Facebook, and those who never check their email.

At its peak, the guest list had 37 people, more than any of my other parties! As we got closer to the date, 3 of them could not make it, leaving 34. That was a better attendance rate than my previous parties; typically a third didn’t show up. Thanks, folks!

Masks

One of the reason I chose a mystery set at a masquerade party is that it made costuming fun and simple. The characters all had last names based on colors (Mel Mauve, Izzy Maroon, and so on) so all you needed was a mask of the appropriate color. I knew better than to insist that everyone wear a mask, but as it happened everyone wore one anyway. (Again, thanks for that, folks!)

Most folks got or made their own masks. Ashton Jade went on a business trip to New Orleans, and offered to get masks for folks from the Land of Masks. She got some nice ones. Here are a couple:

Drew Golden's mask
Drew Golden’s mask.

Once meant for Pram Peach
The mask originally intended for Pram Peach. Pram couldn’t make it, so now the mask is mine! Muahaha!

There were people for whom finding a mask of the right color was a challenge; it’s not easy finding one for Furen Copper or Carney Cobalt. So I purchased a set of white masks and offered to airbrush them in an appropriate color. Several folks took me up on this offer.

Airbrushed masks
Most of the masks that I airbrushed. At the time I took this picture, the masks were intended for (left-right, top-to-bottom): Frankie Vermillion, Furen Copper, Tele Taupe, Finn Burgundy, Pizzy Sapphire, Bat von Aqua, Carney Cobalt, and Dylan Salmon. Some of these masks were later repurposed for other characters. Others I made just in case someone wanted to attend at the last minute, but that didn’t happen; Frankie, Pizzy, Bat, and Dylan were not there.

Mustard mask
Front and center is the mask for Mickey Mustard. He could not attend. I got my revenge as you’ll read below. Behind that mask are a couple of white masks, one for Bruno Ivory and one for me to wear as Riley White.

The pictures above show the masks before they were decorated. The Guest Formerly Known as Robyn Teal (see below) came over and added details with glitter glue and metallic paint markers.

Looking at Masks
These are masks I purchased rather than made. I originally planned to wear the one at the top, but I discovered that the paper masks were far more comfortable than the plastic ones. For the fate of these unused masks, see the next picture.

Leftover masks
After the party, I was left with about a dozen masks. I mounted them on my walls to join other mementos. Here I show as many as I could conveniently fit in a single photo. Riley White’s fully-decorated mask is on the far right. Freddie Fuchsia’s mask is on the far left; she left it behind after the party.

For over a decade, my Wicca group has wanted to do ritual work with masks. Now we’ve got the tools to do it!

Party prep

Like most mystery party games of this sort, the Ravenwood Masquerade had a series of cards for each character. Each card is revealed in three successive rounds.

I purchased the game as a set of PDFs. MyMysteryParty offers pre-packaged kits with all the cards printed out and rolled up with a ribbon. I chose not to use that, and went with something fancier: I printed out the cards and created sets of envelopes, one set for each round. Each round’s cards were in envelopes of a different color, so both the players and I could tell which envelope applied to which round. All the envelopes were labeled with the character’s name, player’s name, and round number; Swift Publisher was handy for this.

I created another set of “pre-game” envelopes that I gave to the guests as they arrived. Each envelope contained the character’s name badge and a starting amount of play money (more on that below).

The PDFs came with images to be used as name badges. They weren’t bad, but I chose to use my own. I created these with Swift Publisher:

A stinkin' badge

I got badge holders that came with clips. I also put double-sided fabric tape on the back of the plastic so the guests could choose the way they wanted to wear the badges.

In the PDFs from MyMysteryParty, they have suggestions for additional games to play along with the mystery. I took one of their suggestions, and offered an award for the player who had accumulated the most play money by the end of the evening. I told the players, “We shall be shocked (shocked, I tell you!) if this encourages bribery, blackmail, extortion, or illegal gambling.”

I had decks of cards and social tabletop games at the party just in case someone wanted to play poker or something to get money. In the end, no one touched the cards.

I also created a trivia contest. All the questions had to do with real-life lives of the people at the party; e.g., “How many have taken a martial arts class?”, “How many have been to Australia?”, “How many have fed a tiger?”, “How many have been in a shipwreck?”

I created a sheet with the trivia contest, instructions about the play money, and space for people to vote for various awards: Most Suspected, Most Amazing Costume, Best Role-Playing, and so on.

I’ll tell you how well the money and trivia games worked below.

Since I knew these questions and votes (and later on, notes on the mystery) would require writing, I purchased a couple of packs of pens, both black and colored. Getting clipboards for each guest would be expensive, so I went with getting a pack of chipboard. I even got some of the colored pens back at the end of the party. I’ll use those for my own art projects.

I also arranged for a photography station, since I knew a lot of folks would want to preserve the memories of their costumes. I got a photography backdrop. Wolfe Indigo was kind enough to set it up at the party. He warned me that a backdrop of that size would accommodate only two people at most. As you’ll see from the photos, he was right.

Surprises

The expected

The victim

If you remember the start of this blog post, I did a complete costume change when I was a victim at my last murder-mystery party. I considered being the victim to do the same thing again, but after 15 seconds of thought I realized that as the host I couldn’t be away from the party long enough for a costume change.

I glanced through the cards in the PDFs just enough to determine which character was the victim. There was one potential guest who I knew was as into costuming as I was. When “V” RSVP’ed, I contacted them and asked if they’d consider playing the role of the victim. They enthusiastically consented.

V decided to play the victim role in the manner MyMysteryParty suggested: To come back as a non-speaking ghost. After V’s “body” was discovered, V changed into an all-white version of the same costume they’d been wearing. They then proceeded to creep out other guests through silent stares and body language.

The drumming

I knew that I was going to end the evening with a drum circle, and told the guests in advance. To transition into it, I worked out a bit of theatrics with Peyton Pewter: At the end of the awards, I said, “And now, the final award, for the most persistent drummer goes to–“. Peyton didn’t let me finish the sentence; he just started drumming. He got the drumming started and won an award at the same moment!

There was one more fun surprise. This one involved Ashton Jade, and I’ll describe it below.

The unfortunate

There was one unwelcome surprise: As I mentioned above, some roles in the mystery are “key” roles; the story can’t proceed without them. When casting the roles, I tried to be sure that the most reliable people I knew were given those roles. (I myself took a key role, to be sure.)

On the day of the party, one of people with a key role tole me they couldn’t make it. It was a health issue, and I wished them well, but it left me a slot to fill. The role was Reese Cerulean, so I started by looking at those guests who might have already purchased a blue costume. I contacted the first one I saw on my list, and she accepted.

That was how the Guest Formerly Known As Robyn Teal became Reese Cerulean. She only had a couple of hours to prepare, and she did an excellent job, really getting into the role!

The unknown

There was an unexpected surprise: a stranger showed up. I was confused; I thought she might have come to dispute the hall rental. It turned out that she’d seen in the event in the hall’s rental list and decided to check it out.

I left it to others to describe what was going on. At one point I overheard her say with anticipation, “Is it possible that I could be the murderer?”

As it turned out, she could have been. Finn Burgundy had to leave just before we started read to the cards for Round Three. I asked the stranger to read Finn’s card in Finn’s stead.

During the drumming, the stranger danced with us.

In no way was this advertised as an open event. I’m not sure what she expected or if there might be consequences down the line. But she did leave her email address and asked to be notified of any future events like this.

She might have to wait ten years.

The party

Before the mystery

Most of the guests arrived a bit early; I’d said they could if they wanted to help me set up. At my previous parties, many guests had a problem absorbing the idea of role-playing. At this party, to my delight, the guests got into their roles the moment they walked through the door.

The trivia contest went better than I hoped. I did not anticipate that the players would form teams and share whether the answers applied to them. It gave people something to do for first hour of the party, before the mystery started: “Yes, I’m taking Tae Kwon Do. How about the rest of you?”

Photos

Charlie and friends.jpg
At left is Charlie Periwinkle. He would win the award for the most Amazing Costume. In middle, Brad Olive chats with Danny Magenta. To the far right, Drew Golden lounges.

Riley White Pontificates
Mayor Riley White pontificates. On the left, Ashton Jade and Gary Gray look on.

Listening to the Mayor
The guests listen to the Mayor as he speaks. Who is that person in the lower right-hand corner? Does anyone remember inviting a “Jane Doe”?

Celebrity guests
Mayor Riley White introduces the celebrity guests. From left-to-right: Bruno Ivory, Omari Black, Deadbee Cyan, Brad Olive, Ashton Jade, Tele Taupe.

Clue Reference #1: “I’m sorry that astronaut Mickey Mustard could not make it. But after that interview he gave in Playboy, I’m not surprised. He’s now in big trouble. It seems that on the International Space Station, for the first time in space, “Colonel” Mustard did it in the lounge with a lead pipe.”

Brad Olive

Brad Olive.

Clue Reference #2: “Why do I have a problem with Brad Olive? Last year, Finn Burgundy put on that great production of Beauty and the Beast. Cass Chocolate did the amazing set design, and Izzy Maroon worked on the make-up effects. Well, that ham Brad Olive played Lumiére. His costume and his attitude caught the eye of my wife. And… well… Mrs. White did it in the bedroom with a candlestick.”

Scarlet and Black

Madison Scarlet and Omari Black.

Clue Reference #3: “We all know how kinky that federal agent is in her private life. In fact, just last week, Miss Scarlet did it in the kitchen with a rope!”

Bruno Ivory

Bruno Ivory.

Bruno Ivoey's card

Bruno Ivory got so into his role that he had cards printed up and handed them to other guests!

Scarlet and Mint

Madison Scarlet and Dr. Brin Mint. I was told that Brin also had cards printed up, but I didn’t get one.

Pewter and Scarlet

Peyton Pewter and Madison Scarlet. Peyton won the night’s award for Most Gentlemanly Costume.

IMG_9315

Freddie Fuchsia. Freddie won the night’s award for Most Ladylike Costume.

Lou Violet

Lou Violet captured our attention with her card tricks and her conspiracy theories. She wove an elaborate tale of corruption involving Riley White, Omari Black, and Reese Cerulean. Her paranoid ravings were absolutely accurate, but we didn’t have the heart to tell her.

White and Charcoal

Mayor Riley White and Alex Charcoal.

Carney Cobalt and Furen Copper

Carney Cobalt and Furen Copper.

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Avery Lemon and Wolfe Indigo.

Wolfe won the award for gaining the most play money at the end of the night. It was a beautiful bluff: He walked up to everyone and said, “I don’t understand how we’re supposed to get more money.” So people handed him money to show him!

78655642_482604882377899_2736448222628151296_n (1)

Deadbee Cyan was so cool that he didn’t bother to wear his mask. It stayed in his pocket most of the time.

IMG_20191207_190629-02

Logan Plum and Charlie Periwinkle. Logan Plum would win the award for the Most Likely Suspect.

Acorn Garden gang 2

A special circle of friends. Counter-clockwise from the left: Stevie Pink, Izzy Maroon, Mel Mauve, Cass Chocolate, Reese Cerulean, and Riley White. Note that Cass Chocolate’s mask is actually made of chocolate!

IMG_20191207_210907026 (1)
Oh no! There’s been a murder! And one thing’s for sure: Someone’s responsible!

What’s that money lying about? Is her hand holding a piece of paper with the number “1” written on it?

Whodunnit?

As the evening progressed, something fascinating happened: Whole new stories developed that had were not on players’ cards. Examples:

  • Charlie Perwinkle made a deal with Maria Lime to dump well-wrapped six-foot-long parcels out at sea and not ask any questions.
  • Riley White paid Furen Copper to tell Freddie Fuchsia that there was nothing wrong with her horse Dark Sail.
  • As Riley White, I made a deal with Danny Magenta to handle my social media presence for the next election.
  • I pointed out to Mel Mauve that if Omari Black got the lead anchor role at CBC news that she (Black) would have influence on what new shows got on the network.

With all the role-playing, I think few folks made a serious effort to solve the mystery. I shared the clues on my card to whomever asked. I remember Tele Taupe, Drew Golden, and Madison Scarlet trying to put the facts together.

As we sat down for Round Three, I asked for a vote for who people thought was the murderer. Most people picked me, but I declined the award since I was the host. I gave the award to the second-most suspected character, Logan Plum.

We then read the Round Three cards. Whodunnit? “M”, of course!

The big finish

There were some other awards, then we went over the trivia contest. The answers surprised me: It turned out there was more than one person who had fed a tiger. There was some friendly debate over what constituted a shipwreck; my final decision is that if someone made jokes about a three-hour tour, it was a shipwreck.

When we got to “how many at this party had LARPed” one of the guests (I believe it was Maria Lime) pointed out that everyone here had LARPed… at this party. I realized she was right. Brad Olive objected, saying that the question clearly was about the time before the contest. I had to reply, “You were role-playing at the moment you walked in through the door. You were LARPing! You are a LARPer! I call thee LARP!” He conceded the point.

But the trivia discussion was, in part, a smoke-screen. Its purpose was to give Ashton Jade a chance to sneak off and change into a belly-dancing costume. When the drumming started (remember the theatrics with Peyton Pewter?) Ashton Jade jumped into the circle and started dancing.

IMG_4935 (1)
If you look a bit left of center in this photo (stop staring at Ashton for a second) you’ll see Jane and John Doe. They rivaled Ghost V in their ability to creep people out.

I pulled out my drums and other percussion instruments and started handing them to people. Some joined in the music, others in the dance, and others watched or talked or whatever. In other words, a typical finalé to a party, though a standard beginning to a pagan celebration.

The awards

I created award certificates using Microsoft Powerpoint. They came out fairly well, I thought.

Certificates sample

After printing them all out, on the day before the party I realized I spelled the word as “EXCELLANCE” on the seal in the lower right. I quickly revised the certificates and used Staples to print them out on card stock. A couple of folks commented that misspelling “EXCELLENCE” was a cute joke, but I wanted it done right.

To the best of my recollection, here’s who won the various awards:

Celebration Dedication [1] Finn Burgundy
Masquerade Support Madison Scarlet
Masquerade Support Wolfe Indigo
Masquerade Support Reese Cerulean
Portraying the Victim V
Most Suspected Logan Plum
Being the Murderer M
Best Role-Playing Brad Olive
Most Gentlemanly Costume Peyton Pewter
Most Ladylike Costume Freddie Fuchsia
Most Amazing Costume Charlie Periwinkle
Gaining the Most Money Wolfe Indigo
Most Trivia Questions Answered Correctly Izzy Maroon
Cleaning Up After the Party Too many to remember, but they all got awards

[1] “Dedication” in this case meant she was at my 40th, 50th, and 60th birthday parties. Such a long time putting up with me surely deserves an award.

Cleaning up

It was in the rental hall contract to leave the place at least as clean as we found it. About 10 people stayed late and made sure everything was spic-and-span. (If any of those folks did not get a certificate, let me know.)

It was only when I got home that I discovered that the clean-up crew had put almost three trays of leftovers into my car. SO MUCH FOOD! I spooned it into plastic Chinese take-out containers I’d saved and put it in my freezer.

It’s almost two weeks later and I’m still having the leftovers for dinner. I’ve got at least another week’s worth to go.

One last thanks

I’ve thanked a lot of people for helping me out. It was an amazing experience, and it was my guests who made it so.

My final thanks goes to Dr. Bon Blossman, the author of the Ravenwood Masquerade Murder. We didn’t play the game the way you intended and we didn’t follow the solution to the mystery. We still had fun!

60th birthday – the invitation

I invite my friends (new and old, near and far) to my 60th birthday party.

Date: Saturday, December 7, 2019
Time: 6PM – 11PM
Location: This is a public blog post, so I’ll send the address separately. It’s the same place as my 40th and 50th birthday parties, and a few Yule celebrations.

The event: A professionally-published murder mystery, set during a masquerade ball.

If you’d like to come, please respond by Tuesday November 5 (Election Day!) with the information below. You can reach me via email, send me a message via Facebook, or text/call; my contact information hasn’t changed in 20 years. (I advise against replying directly to this WordPress blog post, as it’s visible to the public.)

Guests are welcome, especially those friends who did not see this invitation either via Facebook or email.

For each person who’s coming, I’d like to know the following information.

  • Your postal address, so I can send you game materials in advance.
  • An email address so your fellow players can contact you in-character before the party. If you only want to be contacted some other way, tell me; bear in mind that some of the other guests don’t use Facebook.
  • Your level of commitment to the mystery:

    • Category 1: “The show must go on! Neither daemons pouring from the gates of hell nor hosts of angels with flaming swords shall bar my way to Ravenwood Castle!”

      People in Category 1 will receive key roles. One of them may be a tragic victim. One of them may be a foul murderer.

    • Category A: “Stuff happens. I plan to be there, but I can’t make a firm commitment.”

      If you choose Category A, you’ll be in a role that offers clues to solving the mystery. You’ll be missed if you’re not there, but the other guests can forge on.

    • Category Alpha: “It’s hard for me to commit in advance. I might not even know if I can make it until a few hours before the party, or I could be late.”

      Those in Category Alpha will have auxiliary characters. If you can make it, you’ll be able to participate and provide more clues. Who knows? Your character might even be innocent of any wrong-doing.

  • The characters have color-based names (e.g., Finn Burgundy, Reese Cerulean). The game suggests people wear costumes and masks of that color to identify themselves. Let me know if you’d like me to help out with your mask.

    (You don’t have to come in costume, or even wear a mask. I’ll have name tags for everyone.)

We’ll coordinate food (it will be semi-potluck) and rides (e.g., more than one person may be coming from Philly) as we get closer to the date of the party.

Remember: NO PRESENTS! My response to any presents will be Shakespearean.

I look forward to seeing you there!

60th birthday – interested?

For my 20th, 30th, 40th, and 50th birthday parties, I organized events centered on gaming. As you’ll see if you click on the links in the first sentence, for my 40th and 50th I set up a LARP party. For my 60th birthday party, I’m going to take a simpler approach and host a murder mystery.

This is not an invitation to that party, at least not yet. This is to get a general idea of how many of my friends would like to come.

All I know right now is the date of the party: Saturday, December 7, 2019; the place is somewhere in the Rockland County/Bergen Country area. The exact location, the setting of the mystery, and other details depend on how many are coming. I’m leaning towards a masquerade party, but we’ll see.

If you’d like to come to my 60th birthday party, please let me know.

Fiddly bits

  • Please let me know before mid-October.
  • You can reach me via Facebook, or send me e-mail, or text me, or call. None of my contact information has changed in the past 20 years.
  • If you reply to this WordPress blog post, please leave your name. Otherwise the only thing I’ll see is the IP address, which won’t be enough for me to know who you are.
  • Guests are fine, but please let me know how many would be coming with you. The total number of people affects the location of the party and possibly the mystery’s setting as well.
  • I’m not asking for a commitment to attend, just general interest. I will ask for a commitment when I start assigning roles for the mystery.
  • Unlike the adventures of my last three birthday parties, which I wrote, the mystery will come from a professional publisher. Even I won’t know whodunnit.
  • NO PRESENTS!

    I was a dick about this at my 40th. I was a total dick about this at my 50th. I’m prepared to go completely Richard III at my 60th.

    I don’t want stuff. I have enough stuff. Friends and laughter and back rubs are what are important to me at this point in my life.

    One more time:

    NO PRESENTS!

Geela

I first met Geela Naiman in the early 1980s. There was an SF fan gathering at my house. Sherry Nehmer, an editor at Analog, was the featured speaker. Near the end of Nehmer’s talk, a friend of hers arrived to drive her home. That friend was Geela, though I didn’t hear her name at the time.

After he rose to fan prominence, I joked about Geela’s name: We had to keep Geela Naiman from ever meeting her anti-matter duplicate, Neil Gaiman. According to a Star Trek episode, if they ever met the universe would be destroyed. Since the universe still exists, I guess we dodged a bullet.

A few years later, in 1987, I was working on my thesis experiment at Fermilab near Chicago. One of my fellow grad students was Walter. After I moved to Nyack to perform the data analysis of my experiments, I met more of Walter’s friends and became a part of that circle: Geela, John, Deborah, and Jon. Typically we played D&D together and visited Ren Faires.

John and Geela got married. They held two wedding ceremonies, one for their family and friends in the NY/NJ area, and another for those in the Chicago area. I was one of the few who attended both ceremonies.

As an outgrowth of our D&D games, I suggested that we join a LARP. Here we are:

bronze-rose
This is the Bronze Rose adventuring group at what was then NERO-NJ, circa 1991-1992. (NERO-NJ later became LAIRE, the Live-Action Interactive Role-playing Explorers.) Clockwise from the left, here are Janet, Jon, Paul, Bill, Geela, and John.

Geela played a Halfling Rogue, Periwinkle Pipe. For her role, Geela wore a gray hooded cloak and sneakers that she covered with fur. The fun thing about adventuring with Geela is that she didn’t need any special “rogue skills” for the game. When she walked through the woods dressed in her costume, you really couldn’t see her, even when she was part of our party and we knew where she was!

After a few years, the Bronze Rose group faded and they stopped coming to LAIRE.

Geela entered a more difficult time in her life. She’d had bouts of mental illness before, and they finally reached a point where she had to go on full disability. She occasionally stayed in hospitals during that time. John stood by her and did what he could.

Eventually Geela and John got divorced. It was not only mutual, it was better for both of them. In the years afterward, they’d describe themselves as “happily divorced” and say they were a much better couple now than they had been when they were married.

I hosted my 40th birthday party in 1999. It was a LARP party. Geela came dressed as her character from LAIRE, but in a more colorful outfit suitable for celebration. Here she is, dancing during a Bardic Circle we held:

dancing5

A couple of weeks after that party, Geela invited me over to her place. John was there, but he left early and I was a bit surprised. Later, I achieved understanding when Geela made a pass at me. I joyfully intercepted.

We dated for a year or so. During that time she attended some Wiccan events with me. She liked the people and the mood, but there were elements of the rituals that bothered her; for example, everyone saluting the Quarters in unison. I accepted that Wicca was not for her. It surprised me in 2002 when she attended Free Spirit Gathering, but in short rations: she stayed with Sherry Nehmer (who lived nearby) overnight, and only attended the bonfire once. For her, the wild moment of the event was when Vann painted a few simple vines her arm.

She was the one who ended our relationship. She was growing closer to her family and community, and they were Orthodox Jews. They’d never accept her dating a Wiccan. Even if I’d been willing (and I was not) to pretend to be Orthodox in their presence, for years she’d told them stories about her friend Bill the Wiccan. A switch on my part would simply not be believable.

We remained friends, though.

With her LARP experience, I thought Geela would enjoy attending Mystic Realms. She attended an event and enjoyed it, though not enough to come back. What I remember most about her visit is her leaving early and getting into difficulty. She was in the parking lot and getting her car out, when she suddenly felt weak and disoriented. I went to her, and we raided the kitchen to get her something to eat. Presently she felt better and was able to drive home.

At a later visit to my place, she commented that what she experienced at MR was one of the symptoms of her mental illness. She said it most often occurred when she was in a supermarket. She’d be a food aisle and trying to make choices, and then gray out or feel disassociated.

I commented, “To a diabetic everything seems like diabetes, but what happened at MR and at the supermarket sounds an awful lot like low blood sugar. May I use my kit to measure it?” She consented, and I got a reading of 50. For comparison, 80 is normal for most people who haven’t eaten, and we had eaten a little while before. I strongly advised her to see a doctor.

She did. The doctor took her blood sugar, saw the reading, then immediately walked out of the office. He came back with a muffin and told her “Eat this now!” She was diagnosed with hypoglycemia and was given medication for it.

I was glad I was able to help her, but I was also furious. Geela had real mental problems, and I don’t mean to diminish them. But she was also being treated as if her physical problem of low blood sugar was a psychological disorder. She was in a hospital and being treated by doctors. Why didn’t they recognize the symptoms when Geela described them? Were they so focused on mental illness that they couldn’t recognize the obvious?

Let’s shift the focus back to Geela and her love of Judaism.

I’d invite Geela every year to my Passover seder. She came to my first one in 1994, but since then she attended the one given by her family. For some reason, she was available just once in the early 2000s. She came, and my seders forever changed.

My seders are based on the practices of my family that I learned in the 60s. Geela brought ideas with her that I’d never learned: Miriam’s Cup (an acknowledgement of women in Judaism), the orange on the seder tray (an acknowledgement of gays and lesbians in Judaism). But what made the greatest impression is what we later called the “Rocky Horror Plagues.” My family had solemnly listed the ten plagues and left it at that. Geela brought with her a “ten plagues kit” with props for us to play with and scripts for us to read.

Since then, I’ve had my own kit that I bring to each Passover. For a while the hosts of my seders could look forward to cleaning up plastic locusts for a few days after each ceremony. I’ve since graduated to ten-plagues finger puppets. None of that would have happened without Geela.

Going into the 2010s, I saw Geela less frequently. We’d make plans to visit, but most of the time she had to cancel due to illness, mental or physical. I got the impression that life was getting harder for her. The last time I saw her was when she and John paid me a visit during my medical convalescence.

Last Sunday, John wrote me to let me know that Geela passed away on the evening of Saturday, September 14, 2019. She will be buried in Israel on Tuesday, September 17.

So it goes.

Postscript:

One of my students learned a few years ago that they were technically Jewish through matrilineal descent, even though none of their family in that line practiced Judaism. That student had become more interested in their Jewish heritage.

On the night Geela passed away, there was a Wiccan gathering at my place. The discussion had turned to hamsas. I had a hamsa sitting on a cabinet. It had been a gift from my mother. It was pretty, with a ying-yang symbol in the palm and several pieces of colored glass around the base of the palm. It had a Hebrew inscription, which I did not know how to read. On the back was printed “Made in Israel.”

I picked it up. I told the student, “I’ve had this for years, and I’ve never used it or carried it. If you’d like to have it, to connect you with Judaism or for any other reason, please take it.” They did.

I think Geela would have been pleased. I am saddened that my student will never get a chance to meet Geela and share their heritage with each other.

11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica

My father is giving away one of his prize possessions: the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1911.

According to my father, this was known as the “scholars edition” because it was the last edition that could be used as a primary resource. For example, the article on penicillin was written by Alexander Fleming; the article on Communism was written by Leon Trotsky.

The taker would have to pay the postage if they wanted it shipped to them. That would be substantial since technically the 11th edition had 33 volumes, though I don’t know if my father has all the supplements. If a library wanted it, my father would consider paying for the shipping.

The volumes are not bound uniformly. My father assembled the collection over the course of years, and the books come from at least two different printings.

Any takers?

Sky: Children of the Light

thatgamecompany is known for making computer games for people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in computer games. Sky: Children of the Light is their attempt at making a MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online) game for people who would otherwise not be interested in MMOs. In my opinion, they did not succeed; if you’re not already a gamer with some experience and/or aren’t willing to face some bitter disappointments, you’ll find Sky a difficult game.

The rest of this review contains spoilers, so: SPOILER ALERT! Since the game is meant to be played over and over again, at most I’m only going to spoil the experience of the first run-through. Or maybe I’ll spoil the game by giving a critical review to what is may be a delightful MMO if I got over my own limitations. Once again: SPOILER ALERT!

Background

In the first thatgamecompany game I played, Flower, you play a breeze guiding a flower petal to gather more flower petals. It was delightfully non-competitive. You could revel in the beauty of the environment, blowing past flowers to make them bloom and collect their petals. For the most part, you were playing with the game and not against it.

Their follow-up game, Journey, had you making an epic journey through several worlds to get to a light on a distant mountain. It introduced player interaction: In the second world, you met another player who could accompany you on the trip. You could only communicate through simple beeps. Your behavior options were limited: you could help the other person progress, or you could ignore them and proceed solo. There were hazards to avoid in a couple of the worlds, but the worst that could happen is that you’d lose the ability to fly somewhat and you wouldn’t be able to get some of the achievements.

When you complete Journey, you can play the game again. The incentive (apart from achievements) is that each time you’d meet someone else. Their behaviors could make each run-through different: Would they help you? Could you help them? Would they go off to journey solo? It didn’t matter that much from a game-play perspective, since the game didn’t require much skill to give a sense of satisfaction and completion. There was a zen-like quality to the worlds and the journey that made replays rewarding even if you didn’t meet anyone else.

Sky is similar to Journey: You travel from world to world, heading towards a light in a distant mountain. Your key mode of transportation is based on your cape; as you travel, you collect items (in Sky these are the Children of the Light) to improve your cape and let you fly longer. The design of the worlds in Sky is very similar to the worlds of Journey: the desert world; the skiing world; the world where monsters attack you; the world of the tower; the struggle to reach the summit of the mountain.

Children of the Light

The differences between Sky and Journey begin with your cape. In Journey the cape was useful but not required; in Sky it’s almost essential. Therefore visiting the Children and collecting their Light is a key component of the game. You can’t even visit the final world in Sky without collecting at least 20 of them, and if you consult the hint guides they suggest collecting at least 40 or more because of the difficulty of that level. My own experience is that you’d want at least 50.

Collecting all that Light is important. As you might guess, some of the Children are easy to find. Some are in locations so obscure that even with a hint guide you might not be able to find them. And some are in locations that are difficult to reach unless you have very precise control of your character.

In Journey, controlling your avatar wasn’t difficult. In Sky, the difficulty of controlling your avatar is a complex function of environment, world, cape energy, and whether you’ve just been slammed by a creature (more on that below).

More than once I’ve tried to do some precision flying in an environment and just clip some surface. The avatar starts ping-ponging all over the place, zooming uncontrollably, only able to turn slowly. If you were in the room at the time, you’d hear me screaming at my iPhone: “Why are you going over there? I didn’t tell you go there! Why aren’t you turning when I’m telling you to turn? Go up! I’m pushing the up button! Why aren’t you going up? Why are you flying when I’m telling you to jump? Why are you jumping when I’m telling you to fly?”

It makes me glad my cat is almost deaf.

As you might have figured out from the paragraph above, right now Sky is only available for iOS, on iPhones and iPads. When iOS 13 is released later this year, it will be possible to use a PS4 controller with iOS games. Perhaps then I won’t experience the frustration of trying to do precision movements on a touchscreen.

Hostile environments

As I said above, Journey had creatures that could damage your flying cape, but that wasn’t important to the overall trip. Sky also has creatures that can attack you and steal your Light, and gathering Light is basically the goal of the game. If your avatar loses Light and therefore flying power, you might have to start the game again from the first world.

Unlike Journey, in Sky these creatures are in dark environments where the screen contrast is very poor, even when when I crank my iPhone’s contrast to maximum. It can be hard to see the creatures, places you can hide, even exits from the area you’re in. There are worlds where standing in water drains your Light away.

Once, I was knocked by a creature into a dark area, my flying gone. The pit was filled with water, surrounded by blobs of blackness. I watched my Light disappear. I didn’t know what to do. (There’s a Sky equivalent of a Hearthstone in World of Warcraft, but I didn’t know about that option at the time.) I splashed around desperately, but there was no escape. Finally my avatar “died.” I found myself in another world of darkness, though with stars in the night sky at least, until I finally figured out the direction I was supposed to go.

If you play a game like Dark Souls, this sort of thing is par for the course. It certainly doesn’t match the zen-like joy of Journey or Flower. It’s as if thatgamecompany was trying to appeal to both hard-core gamers and the audience for their other games.

Other players

In Journey, you could meet with at most one other player in a given world. In Sky, when you enter an area there can be up to five players initially, and up to eight total (there’s a way to teleport to the location of one of your friends).

In the first couple of minutes of Sky, you’re limited to the same level of communication with your fellow players as in Journey: beeps and sitting down. That rapidly expands as you encounter Spirits, also known as Emotes for their basic reward. A Spirit takes you on a small trip across the landscape, with varying degrees of difficulty depending on the world. At the end of the trip you receive a new gesture, pose, or sound effect for your avatar.

There are something like 36 Emotes in the game, so potentially you have access to a wide range of expressions. Often you’ll see a group of players standing around in a common area showing off the Emotes they’ve acquired to each other. This sort of “playing around” is certainly not possible in Journey!

For more direct communication, there are chat benches in all the vendor areas of the game and scattered throughout the rest of the worlds. If two players sit on the same bench, they can type text messages to one another.

Another annoyance: The “microphone” key is not available on Sky‘s keyboard, so you can’t use the iPhone’s dictation feature.

For my part, I only found someone willing to sit on the bench with me twice. The first time they typed in Japanese. I tried to apologize for not understanding them, but they promptly left. The second time I was seeking help to get through one of the monster-laden worlds; the other player expressed ignorance and left before I could say more.

The next level of social interaction is to become Friends with another player. This costs a Candle (more on currency below). This allows you to assign a name to that player. For the few couple of Friends I took the time to compose names for them. After that I just hit “Randomize” for a quick name, so most of my Friends have names like Ewotuka, Acoc, Oyes, and Isefa.

The game is easier when you travel with other players. When you’re close to another avatar, the cape energy passively regenerates. When you’re Friends with another player, you have the option for one of you to hold the other avatar’s hand and lead them, guaranteeing the energy regeneration. You can even form chains of up to eight avatars, each one clasping the hand of the next one. There are Children of the Light that are almost impossible to reach unless someone else is there to help you regenerate.

You can see an example of this in the (spoiler-laden) videos available in the Sky wiki: https://sky-children-of-the-light.fandom.com/wiki/Sky:_Children_of_the_Light_Wiki. In those videos, the player forms her own chain by playing Sky with four devices at once, regenerating cape energy rapidly.

All of this sounds wonderful, but there’s a communications gap: Without text and with the range of Emotes available, you can’t tell if someone wants to accomplish a game task or just wants to play around.

Here’s an example: Someone offered to become Friends with me. I accepted. They offered to clasp my avatar’s hand, and again I accepted. They promptly dragged me into the initial area of the most monster-laden world. Then they go of my hand. I interpreted this as they were asking for a guide to get through it. I knew something about the region. As I alluded above, I’m crappy at dodging the monsters and precision flying so I couldn’t give them a complete tour, but I could offer something. I offered my hand, they accepted, and I took them deeper into the world.

It wasn’t until we were deep into that world that it became clear that the other player wasn’t looking for a guide, they had been looking to play with Emotes or something and had picked the most dangerous world at random. In a dark area, they activated a spell that made their avatar glow. This is a purely cosmetic effect; it does not illuminate your surroundings in any way. But in a dark zone, it made my iPhone’s screen wash out with the bright glow. I could no longer see the dark terrain and the dark exit to get out of the dark zone. There was only the glow of my companion.

I didn’t want to abandon them in a zone they didn’t understand, but I was stuck fumbling around blind. I tried to initiate a text communication with them, but they refused. (I later learned that Japanese speakers are often embarrassed that they can’t communicate with English speakers.) I continued to try to find a way out, but finally we met up with someone else who knew what they were doing and I joined them, leaving my first companion behind.

That’s just one incident, and I’ve experienced others. The bottom line is that there’s no way to express ideas like “Please, I need some help” or “Please, let me help you” or “I just want to dance” directly. You only have guesses based on behavior. In the incident I described above, I tried to be helpful only to come across as rude in the end.

Of course there are ways around this, but they’re the standard MMO tricks. In this spoiler-laden video (https://youtu.be/Ah_-W3XKEfY, recorded just last night as I type this) you can see a Sky expert coordinating with her friends using some communications program; I can’t tell if it’s Twitch, Discord, or something else.

Eventually this will all shake down. Some standards will emerge and communities will form. Perhaps there will be default communication channels for each language. Something like this happened with World of Warcraft, except that WoW provided open text communication from the beginning, and servers were already segregated by geographic region. Maybe a sort of pidgin will evolve based on the available emotes.

This is far from the contemplative joy and basic companionship in Journey.

Currency

There are five currencies in Sky: Candles, Hearts, Ascended Candles, Seasonal Tokens, and Seasonal Candles. The last two are for cosmetic improvements only, so I’m not going to discuss them further.

Candles are the basic currency. Once you’ve interacted with an Emote and gained a new expression, that Emote becomes a vendor in a world’s social area. Candles will let you purchase some upgrades for your avatar.

Candles are also the basis for social interactions between avatars. When you make an offer to become someone’s Friend, the cost is one Candle. To upgrade interactions with that Friend costs more Candles. To be able to text-chat with that Friend costs yet more candles.

Candles can be forged by collecting wax from other candles in the environment (something I do in real life) and from other sources. It’s possible to spend time in the game each day grinding for wax. According to one of the videos I linked above, you’d get about 15 Candles for two hours of work each day.

Here’s where the real-world money comes in the free-to-play app: You can also pay for Candles. For example, for $20 you can get 60 Candles (actually, it’s presently 72 for $20 as a new-game promotion). That lets you make Friends freely and purchase quite a few minor improvements for your character.

You may ask, given that my critical review of the game thus far, did I resist paying for Candles? I’ve already confessed that I’m a former WoW pet collector, so you can guess the answer.

If you want serious cosmetic improvements to your avatar (hairstyles, masks, trousers, capes), you have to move to the next level of currency: Hearts. These costume items have no effect on the game. They’re a digital good, like WoW pets, that solely affect the appearance of your character. The cost of new trousers might be 5 Hearts; the price for a really nifty cape might be 30 Hearts.

Hearts can’t be directly purchased through real-world cash. You can purchase them from the Emotes/vendors at a price of three Candles for one Heart… once for each vendor. Since not every vendor sells a Heart, you might get 35 Hearts this way (at a total cost of 105 Candles, which takes us back to spending real-world money for Candles).

You can also get Hearts from Friends. If you send a Friend a bundle of three Candles, they’ll receive a Heart. So the way to get Hearts is to give them. You send Hearts to your Friends and hope they’ll reciprocate. Of course, there’s no guarantee that this “investment” of Candles will pay back in Hearts, especially if you haven’t paid Candles to initiate a text chat with that Friend to arrange any deals. You send out bundles of Candles and hope for the best.

This leads to another my criticisms of Sky, in the choice of their iconography. Suppose a newcomer to the game meets me. I could use someone else when visiting a difficult world, so I offer to be Friends with them. They accept, we travel around, I show them where some hidden Lights are. Later, I send them a Heart to see if we can work out an exchange.

Is this how they perceive it? There’s nothing obvious in the game about the informal Heart economy. You can read about it in fan-based web pages (that’s how I learned it) and it may be implied in the optional game tutorials (I haven’t checked).

In other words, a newcomer adventures with a stranger for a brief while and later they get a Heart from them. It might be perceived as a creepy gesture. I wish the Heart wasn’t a “heart” but some other icon without the same connotations.

That leaves Ascended Candles. They are a reward for going through the final world successfully; if you recall above, that’s the one that requires at least 20 Light to enter. The more Light you enter that zone with, the greater the potential reward… if you can manage a challenging environment.

The Ascended Candles can be used to purchase “permanent” cape upgrades from the Emotes/vendors; most vendors offer one such upgrade and a couple offer two. Each upgrade means that when you start the game again, your cape starts out with additional Light. Overall, this gives Sky some of the visceral feel of Diablo: You go through the same adventure each time, but you get a bit more powerful and maybe you can handle some tougher challenges.

Ascended Candles can also unlock the most potent Friend option: To be able to Warp to a Friend’s location within the same game world. Since Ascended Candles are so hard to get, I’d only use this option on someone I really, really trusted.

Unskippable Cutscenes

I wanted to mention the unskippable cutscenes in this review. Have I talked about the unskippable cutscenes yet? There are unskippable cutscenes. They’re annoying after the first playthrough, especially if you’re in the middle of a complicated maneuver that gets interrupted by an unskippable cutscene. There are skippable cutscenes, but not enough compared to the unskippable cutscenes. If you think this paragraph is wordy and annoying, just wait until you have to deal with the unskippable cutscenes.

Conclusions

I investigated Sky because a friend of mine was a big fan of Flower and Journey. They were looking forward to another game from thatgamecompany that echoed the meditative qualities of those two. I offered to test the waters for them and walk them through Sky when they were ready, as I had when I introduced them to Journey.

Sky: Children of the Light is not the game I think they were expecting. When my friend finally has the chance to sit down and play the game with me, I think they will be disappointed. It’s not likely that they’ll read this review (my blog is so obscure that not even my good friends read it), but I’ll keep the critical tone out of my voice and let them make their own judgements.

I’m neutral on the monetization of the game. You can play Sky without spending a dime. You can forge your way through the game solo, get the 20 Light to be pounded in the final zone, emerge to see the game’s ending, then never play again; I think you’d have more fun doing basically the same thing in Journey. You can also make Friends and gain Hearts by grinding for Candle wax, but you’ll spend time instead of money.

I think my WoW friends would perceive Sky as a very light MMO. I can easily see some of them playing Sky with one hand as they tank Ragnaros with the other… if they cared to play Sky at all. There’s definitely a market for people who like light MMOs; Second Life is one example. But I believe there’s more to do in Second Life than there is to do in Sky.

Sky is too much of an MMO to be like Flower and Journey. I’m turned off by its occasionally frustrating controls, difficult environments, and player communication issues. I hoped for better from thatgamecompany.