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Jul 31, 2019

10 Calvin & Hobbes Strips I Don't Understand

Bill Watterson is one of my dearest heroes. His adherence to the integrity of art over merchandise, his excellence in the execution of comic drawing, his sense of humor, and his reclusive nature as an author all resonate with me and have been key points of inspiration for Knight Guy. And being a dreamer myself, Calvin & Hobbes's topic material focus on imagination, childhood, and nostalgia have always brought me joy and made me feel like I'm a kid on summer vacation again.

I had all of the Calvin & Hobbes books (or at least all the cartoons—some were collections of two books) by the time I was about 15 years old, and I've made it a tradition to read through the entire series chronologically every other year or so. I'm amazed at how year after year I can find new strips to laugh aloud at and other ones that bring tears to my eyes as I read the same strips at different points in my lifetime.

Despite my lifelong love for Calvin & Hobbes, there are still some strips that—even after all these decades—I just don't get. Going through the series this time, I decided to compile all the strips I don't understand here with a request for anyone who knows* they understand a strip to explain the humor or punchline of it to me in the comments below.

For the strips that are part of a longer story arc, I've put contextual information in the text that appears when you hover your mouse cursor over the picture. I look forward to your enlightenment!
*Please do not speculate. I've done plenty of that over the years. I want to know if it's something obvious I'm missing or if there's some context you can point out to clear it up.

A substitute teacher came to class, showing disdain at a note that Miss Wormwood wrote about Calvin.
Is Hobbes saying eighteen million, or just $18.00? Either way, why is that the punchline?
At first I thought they're just "going" home because the hill is so bad, but it looks like they're walking farther up the hill.

His expression in the final panel is utterly unreadable.
What in the world does honesty have to do with anything in this situation?

Jul 16, 2019

3 Inspiring Game Design Tips I Learned from Hollow Knight

A few weeks ago I purchased the game Hollow Knight during the Steam Summer Sale, and I can not stop thinking about how perfectly it caters to the human mind's idea of fun, progression, mystery, and challenge. I spend a lot of time compiling resources for being a Dungeon Master for Dungeons & Dragons, and this game was so inspiring, I just have to write a blog post about it. I hope I can do justice to my thoughts about the game in picking apart exactly what is so awesome about it.

There are probably spoilers here, so be warned.

1. Gradually decrease and increase the difficulty

Like any other game, Hollow Knight increases the difficulty of the game gradually. As your power grows, you are able to access more and more dangerous areas. This is important for any game—it feels good as a player to get a new sword (or in this game's case, nail) so that the enemies you've been struggling with are much easier to deal with. But Hollow Knight goes a step farther with this. It makes sure that even early-game challenges don't become totally meaningless to you.

When you first get into the game, you enter a place called the Forgotten Crossroads. It's an area with fairly basic enemies and obstacles that more or less let you practice the gameplay with few resources. You return often to the Crossroads, since it's the central hub of the entire game world. Eventually, especially when you upgrade your nail, the enemies become nuisances and nothing more. They also drop less Geo (money), so they're not even worth fighting, and your mobility abilities you gain allow you to ignore them completely at that point.

At or around the point where the Forgotten Crossroads become, well, forgettable, something happens.

Mmmm-hmm-hmm-hmm-hmmm-mmm, mmmm-mmm-mm-mm....There you are, completing a task in one of the outlying areas and heading back to the Crossroads, when you notice a strange orange bubble you haven't seen before at the area's border. When you enter, you see that the place is now called the Infested Crossroads. The enemies you used to fight are still there, but they're bigger, angrier, and orange-er. When the challenge rating of the Forgotten Crossroads gradually gets down to zero, the game upgrades the area to be a new, infested challenge! The enemies are similar, but more dangerous. Some areas are blocked by infesting vines, making some of the convenient travel points or shops more difficult and time-consuming to access.

Just as the difficulty increases gradually so the game never gets boring, it also lets you overcome difficulties so the game never gets frustrating. When you enter a new area, you don't have a map to look at. So you explore somewhat blindly until you see map scraps on the ground and hear the pleasant humming of Cornifer, the map maker. When you find him, he makes the area much easier to
navigate by selling you a map. Similarly, you may have to brave a dangerous string of challenges to get to a certain point in an area, but once you complete it, there is usually a wooden support you can break that opens the hallway back to the starting point, so you never have to go through that particular challenge again!

In short, Hollow Knight never becomes boring. When you feel like a god, the game smoothly turns the familiar into sinister, and you feel like you are meeting your match once again.

2. Balance long-term progress with short-term progress

Every game has a primary goal that requires lots of steps to reach. In order to save Princess Toadstool, Mario has to jump through Worlds 1-1 to 8-4, possibly skipping areas if the player is good enough. In order to win Uno, you must gradually get rid of your cards and pile cards on others until you can play your last one. Some games need this kind of simplicity, but truly engaging games need something more: side goals.

The storyline in Hollow Knight is vague, but you can tell basically what steps you must take to win the game. What makes the game more fun than the long-term progress, however, are the short-term side goals that break the long progress up. You collect Charms that give you special abilities, and you can see in your player menu how many there are left in the world for you to find; you can collect Mask Shards and Vessel Fragments to increase your health and mana ("Soul"), making it easier to achieve the primary goal over time.

I think what makes this so much fun is that it simulates real life. My primary goal to "win" the game of life is to grow old with my wife having raised strong, independent children and having reached my spiritual potential. But on the way to that goal, I have a myriad of daily, weekly, monthly, and even yearly goals that occupy my attention. Even if my side goals of making money and surviving from day to day were met, I don't think I could physically stand to only focus on growing old, raising children, and being spiritual 24/7 for 80 years or however long I live. Having that goal in the background while I try to make a delicious meal for dinner, plan out my productivity at work for the week, or save money for my trip to the Renaissance Faire next month makes it all the more meaningful. It fills my life with memories and grants me skills that make it easier to be happy.

I think every meaningful game needs to have side quests that the player cares about, even if it's just knowing there are 100 hidden items and trying to find every single one. 

3. Let hints speak for themselves

I'm beginning to hate games that hold your hand and tell you exactly how to play and what to do when you first start playing a game. Hollow Knight proves that you don't need to do this, and in fact, letting your player discover how to play by themselves is infinitely more satisfying. Of course the only way to defeat Uumuu is to wait until Quirrel makes it vulnerable and then hit it with your nail. But rather than having Quirrel pop up and say "Its gelatinous shell is too strong for your nail! Wait until I weaken it so you can attack its core!" The game simply starts the boss fight, lets you fight uselessly against Uumuu for a minute or so, and then makes Quirrel appear and hit it, visibly showing that its core is exposed and ready for you to hit it.

Look at it! Doesn't it make you want to comb every corner of the game to free them all?Obviously, hints should be clear enough so that players don't get frustrated or confused, but it's more worthwhile to work on making clear hints than it is to make overly-clear detailed instructions. And this rule goes for secrets in the game as well, not just mandatory quests.

For example, the first area of significance I found in the game was a giant room filled with holes, and
a weeping caterpillar creature poking out of one of the holes at the top of it. He was too far away to talk to, so I had no idea why he was crying. So I just left. Soon afterward, I heard a high-pitched sad sound and discovered a grub trapped inside a glass container. When I broke it, the grub jumped for joy, and then promptly burrowed into the ground out of sight. I sat there for a few moments wondering if I was going to get some kind of reward, but nothing happened, so I moved on.

Later, after freeing some more grubs, I decided to revisit that room to see if I had missed something or could use one of my new abilities to talk to the weeping caterpillar. When I entered the room, I saw all of the grubs I had freed poking out of various holes in the room, waving and cheering with joy. The caterpillar who had once been crying was now leaping for joy, and though I still couldn't talk to him, he threw down handfuls of Geo for me as a reward.

How amazing is this as a way to present a discovery? Hollow Knight's developers could have easily made the caterpillar able to be talked to, with some kind of dialog like "Oh, boo hoo, I just don't know what to do! My poor children have all been captured and locked away throughout the kingdom. Will you find them and free them for me? I will reward you for your efforts!" but instead, they let me discover each step of the side quest without explanation, letting me put together the threads of the story together in my head. Letting these hints speak for themselves makes all the difference in making playing Hollow Knight a satisfying experience.

* * *

There are probably more things I could talk about, like the aesthetics of the game and how the balance of dark, funny, adorable, and epic blend so beautifully; or the challenges of the unique boss fights and how you can customize your Charm combinations to feel in control. And maybe I will. But these tips in particular are the ones that have been most inspiring to me of late. They make me want to implement similar things in my D&D games, like a personal side quest for each player character, clearer hints in dungeon puzzles that make the players feel smarter, and making challenges of lower-CR creatures fresh and challenging in new ways to make them feel more powerful.

At any rate, I can't recommend this game enough. It is well worth the on-sale price I paid for it, and I would have gladly paid twice the normal price for how much fun I've gotten out of it. And I also can't wait to purchase the sequel!