The Casual Gamer: Destiny First Look Alpha

June 18, 2014 ::
tcg-Destiny

For a week and a half, I was privileged to be able to play BUNGiE’s First Look Alpha build of their upcoming new title Destiny. This has been one of my most anticipated gaming titles, and being able to get a sneak peek at their next big thing was an amazing experience. With the lifting of the media embargo last week, there are already a lot of resources out there to get a sense of what Destiny is all about, so I won’t rehash those. A quick Google search will turn up a wealth of information about this new IP. I do, however, want to add my own take on the game with regard to what I most enjoyed about the Alpha and what I’m most looking forward to about the finished game.

1. Activities for Any Mood

One of BUNGiE’s goals for Destiny is that it would contain activities to fit any mood. If you’re looking for something narrative, run a story mission. If you want something a little more challenging, form a fireteam and head into a Strike, or double up with another fireteam and taken on a Raid. If you want competitive multiplayer, head into the Crucible and match your skills against other Guardians. Or just free roam the world in Explore mode and see what kind of trouble you can get into. As someone with not a lot of time to game, this formula works very well for me. For much of the limited time I had to play the Alpha, I was in Explore mode, roaming across the wastes of Old Russia, taking out Fallen patrols and taking on Hive whenever I encountered them. Loot chests were scattered throughout, as well, making the exploration both profitable and interesting. Public Events added to the fun whenever they popped up, and it was highly enjoyable taking on the challenge of destroying a Devil Walker or defending an objective alongside other Guardians.

Forming fireteams is easy and fast, so whenever I needed support, it was a simple matter to pull two other Guardians into my party with me and head out toward an objective.

2. The Crucible

Destiny’s competitive multiplayer can be found in The Crucible. You form a fireteam of up to six Guardians and head into matchmaking. The Alpha provided only two multiplayer maps — one on the Moon that provides long sightlines and vehicle recreation, and one on Earth that’s more close-quartered and fast. I did not spend much time in the Crucible. All total, I think I played maybe three games there. Competitive multiplayer has not been my personal cup of tea in years, not since Halo Reach, and I doubt that The Crucible is going to pose much interest for me, either. That’s not to say that Destiny’s competitive multiplayer is a bad experience because it’s not. It’s fast-paced and challenging, and with the vast array of weapons, vertical movement, and the addition of class Supers, it’s a very different experience from Halo’s multiplayer environment.

3. The Tower

Destiny First Look Alpha_20140610223259

One of the things that differentiates Destiny from any previous BUNGiE title is the social aspect of the game. The Tower is your Guardian’s safe haven, the place he can go after a fight to relax, chat with friends, restock his inventory, and find new gear. It’s the one place in the game where your point of view shifts to third-person, so you can admire all that sweet loot you’ve acquired. The Tower overlooks The City, which resides below the Traveler and is the last safe place on Earth, indeed, in the whole system.

4. The Director

Navigating between missions is accomplished by using The Director. It’s a navigation menu that you access while in orbit that gives you the choice of which locations you’d like to visit. The Alpha limited access to the Tower, Old Russia, and the Crucible, but even so it gave us a nice taste of things to come. Within Old Russia, three mission types were presented — the story mission, which is the same mission you play when you first create your Guardian; the Strike, which you can play on two difficulty settings, Brave and Legend (make sure you have your very best gear); and Explore, which allows you to freely roam the countryside.

TheDirector

Destiny also features both public and private spaces throughout the game. Public spaces are freely accessible by anyone. Most of the free-ranging areas in Explore mode are public, and it’s very common to run across other Guardians in these areas as they explore or head toward other missions. Public events take place in these areas, drawing Guardians from all around to tackle the latest group challenge. Private spaces occur whenever a fireteam is on a story mission, a Strike, or a Raid. The fireteam will travel in public space for a while until they reach their objective, at which point the public space transitions seamlessly into a private one, and you’re alone for a little while. The only visual clues you have of the transition is a brief fuzziness that creeps in around the edges of your HUD and the absence of any Guardian other than your fireteam on your radar.

5. Classes

Of the three classes presented in the game, the Hunter is one I spent the most time with. It’s also the last one I took for a test drive, primarily because I already knew it was going to be the one I gravitated toward and I wanted to give the other two classes a fair shake before I did. I started with a Warlock build but found it not much to my liking, so I soon switched to a Titan. This one felt more familiar to me, since it’s the closest thing Destiny has to a Spartan (Halo). Shortly after, I switched to a Hunter, confirming my choice of favored class. One of the things I love about the Hunter is the focus on precision. My gaming style is more of a distance fighter rather than a brawler. I tend to get my head handed to me more often than not in close-quarters combat, so I tend to prefer to hang back and snipe from a distance. The Hunter’s Super is the Golden Gun, a three-shot insta-kill that requires precise aiming (though it is more forgiving than firing a non-Supered weapon), where both the Titan and Warlock Supers are more area-of-effect, explosive types. The Hunter also has a throwing knife that can be used as a sort of melee attack from range to inflict massive damage, but again, it requires some degree of precision to use effectively. Otherwise it can go wide and you have to wait for it to recharge again before you can use it. All three classes have their own distinct combat styles, but the Hunter is going to be my go-to for the long haul.

6. Gear

There are a lot of weapons, gear, and other collectibles to be found throughout Destiny. Loot chests sometimes yield up more than just Glimmer (the in-game currency). Enemies frequently drop weapons, engrams, and other equipment. Vendors in the Tower sell guns, armor, ships, and more. Nearly everything is upgradeable and customizable. Each class has its own sets of armor and flair (though weapons can be used by any class), all of which becomes more flashy as you gain higher levels or complete difficult quests. The very best gear is found through completing difficult objectives, so that your favorite items are more likely to have interesting stories attached. The Alpha put a lot of gear on display, which is exciting because there’s so much more to come in the final version.

Below you can see the progression of some of my Hunter’s gear as she moved up through the four levels available in the Alpha:

7. Vertical Movement

Destiny also introduces vertical movement to a BUNGiE shooter, which is something I learned very quickly to love. Each class has its own version of vertical movement: the Titan has lift, the Warlock has glide, and the Hunter has double-jump. Each allows your Guardian to get to places they might otherwise not be able to and also alters the flow of combat, both PvE (Player versus Environment) and PvP (Player versus Player). It’s possible to get the jump on an enemy by coming in over their heads and laying waste to them with a well-place Nova Bomb or sneak up on another Guardian in the Crucible by jumping up through a gap in a wall behind them. I found myself using my Hunter’s double-jump a lot to get to places that would normally be just out of reach or as a means of taking shortcuts as I traversed the countryside.

8. Vehicles

Every Guardian comes equipped with their own ride. She starts with stock hoverbike called a Sparrow that, like nearly everything else in the game, can be upgraded and customized. You can summon it at anytime (provided the space allows it) by calling up your Ghost. You also have your own personal interplanetary transport, which can be similarly customized. Each of these items allows you to tailor your Guardian’s personality.

9. Clans

ttl_demag0gue

Destiny is also being built with support for clans. Groups will be able to form on Bungie.net that will serve as something akin to an alliance, which can then split down into smaller groups that will be more intimate clans. Having built-in clan support is something we haven’t seen in a BUNGiE title since the Halo 2/Halo 3 days, so I’m very much looking forward to having this feature built into Destiny.

(Fast-forward to 7:07 for the relevant bit about clans.)

10. Story and Lore

The one thing that I am probably looking forward to the most about Destiny, though, is the fiction that drives it. I’m not generally a first-person shooter type of gamer. That’s part of why it surprised me so much that I became such a hardcore Halo addict. I attribute part of my love for that franchise to the way BUNGiE builds shooters. They’re fun and competitive so that even gamers like me who aren’t particularly good at shooters can have a good time. The larger part of that formula, however, is the fiction around which the Halo franchise was built. The story drew me in and kept me engaged in that universe, kept me vested in the outcome of the story itself.

Destiny has already had that same effect on me and will continue to do so. The lore that has been created for this game is deep and rich and incredibly complex. The little bit of information we know has served only to whet my appetite for more, and I can’t wait to dig deep into this universe this fall.

One of the additional benefits from the Alpha was being able to take BUNGiE’s alpha site for a test drive and get a sneak peek at some of the features that will be coming to Bungie.net in the future. The Grimoire is one of those features that adds to the lore behind Destiny.

The first introduction I had to the Grimoire was when I was roaming the Tower. I stumbled across a faintly glowing object and when I drew near it, a prompt appeared on my screen to revive the dead Ghost. (More dead Ghosts can be found scattered Easter egg style throughout the world.) Once I did so, it activated, hovered into the air for a moment, then disappeared in a flash. A message appeared at the bottom of my screen that mentioned unlocking a card in the Grimoire and that more details could be found at Bungie.net. Once I had access to the alpha site, I learned that the Grimoire is an encyclopedia-type reference composed of digital cards that can be unlocked through a variety of methods. Finding dead Ghosts is one of those methods. Hitting benchmarks in terms of enemy kills is another, and I assume there are other ways than these. And while many of the cards in the Grimoire were redacted to prevent spoilers, each one that wasn’t revealed a little more about the Destiny universe, including tantalizing tidbits about the Guardians’ origins.

Conclusion

If it has done anything, the Alpha has increased my excitement for Destiny. It was clear to me many times throughout that what the Alpha showed us about Destiny was just the very tip of the iceberg. There was so much more below the surface that I suspect there will be hundreds of hours of exploration that will go into unlocking all of its secrets. BUNGiE knows how to present a gripping story — they demonstrated that time and again with the Halo franchise — and already their presentation of Destiny has me asking for more. Every facet of the game is wrapped in lore, and I can’t wait to start weaving all those disparate threads into a cogent tapestry. September can’t come soon enough!

See you starside.

Gallery:

When Melancholy Becomes Something Else

June 3, 2014 ::

Earlier this morning, I sent this to Twitter:

It seems I spoke too soon because my mood has deteriorated since then. Tears have been threatening — and occasionally more than threatening — to spill over all morning. It’s frustrating and maddening because feeling like this is so completely pointless. It’s wasted emotion because it’s directed at… nothing. What’s worse is that it’s crippling and destructive, which makes it all the more scary to me because of the way it interferes with daily living.

Depression, when it’s not flattening my affect and overwhelming every single other thing I feel, makes me angry. I feel like I should be above this, better than this, able to mash down on this with ferocity and conviction, able to banish it to the darkest reaches of my mind whenever I like. And yet, I can’t. The damnable thing rears its ugly, vindictive head at the most unexpected — and unwelcome — of times and makes me think and feel things that aren’t actually true. Depression, among its multitude of other vices, is a liar. But even knowing this doesn’t make it any easier to shove aside. Depression also has teeth, and claws, and it has no problem sinking them into the soft, sensitive tissues of my brain and heart where it will hurt the most.

Therapy for me, then, is to write, when I can summon the strength to shove depression aside long enough to do. And so I write, exposed and vulnerable (which is scary in its own right), because it helps me process some of the things I’m feeling. Plus, it’s something I can actually do, instead of allowing the depression to simply have its way with me. So much of depression is about being passive and letting it do whatever the hell it wants to — which is why physical activity is also such good therapy. Activity, doing, is fighting back and refusing to allow the depression to win.

I wish there was more I could do because even doing feels passive when it doesn’t make the depression go completely away. The best I can hope for is survival and subsistence and hope that this thing will not kill me. My mind says it won’t, but my heart declares otherwise. Apparently depression is also cognitive dissonance.

The Casual Gamer: Console Wars

June 3, 2014 ::
Xbox One vs. PS4

This past week I entered the ranks of next-generation gamers. What’s remarkable about this, at least for me, is that this is probably the earliest in a new console cycle that I’ve acquired a next-gen system. When I received my first-gen Xbox as a gift, that system had already been on the market for two or three years. The Xbox 360 had been out for nearly two by the time I acquired one. This time around, both the Xbox One and the PS4 have been out for just a handful of months. It’s… odd being a (relatively) early adopter, and the decision about which console to purchase first was not an easy one.

I’ve been an Xbox fan for years. I originally acquired an Xbox because I wanted to play Halo, which was surprising in itself. Shooters aren’t typically my bag. When the 360 came out and the Halo franchise continued on that system, upgrading was a no-brainer. I barely even looked at the Playstation line. Sony had few exclusive titles for its console that interested me, and the few that did still didn’t make it worth investing in the Playstation ecosystem.

Then this past year, Microsoft and Sony both revealed their next generation consoles, along with several titles that would be appearing in the first year’s library (and beyond). Most of these titles were cross-platform, and both consoles touted powerful features that made them highly attractive options. For the first time, I actually found myself actively interested in both consoles. The decision to upgrade was suddenly vastly more complicated, since the individual price points for the consoles would make it impossible to adopt both at the same time. Whichever one I purchased first meant it would be a while before I could acquire the other.

Ultimately, the decision came down to a single game, ironically one that will be available on both systems. Which, of course, is the reason why I ended up acquiring a PS4 first.

1. Destiny

The one title I’ve been looking forward to for the better part of two years has been the forthcoming Destiny from Bungie. Ever since Bungie passed the Mantle of responsibility for the Halo franchise over to Microsoft and 343 Industries, I’ve been eagerly awaiting their next Big Thing. Destiny is that thing. Originally, I’d planned to follow with tradition and play Destiny exclusively on the Xbox One. I’m already well invested in that particular ecosystem, after all. But the more I’ve learned about Destiny over the past few months, the more I’m convinced that the premium Destiny experience will be found on the PS4. All other things being more or less equal, this ultimately was the final tipping point in my choice of next-gen systems.

2. Tied the Leader

One of the factors in this equation that made this decision so difficult was considering the clan I’ve been a part of since the Halo 2 days — Tied the Leader. The Gunslingers have been like a second family to me for years, providing an armed escort that is focused on sportsmanship, camaraderie, and teamwork whenever venturing into the killing fields. TTL has taken a casual stance of adopting the Xbox One as our clan’s primary next-gen console, which meant that if I went with the PS4 first I would potentially be cutting myself off from my allies on the battlefield. Many of the Gunslingers have stated, however, that they plan to keep at least one Guardian in the PS4 ecosystem, so I’m optimistic I’ll still be able to have my Gunslinger escort whenever I go out to reclaim our lost worlds from the encroaching Darkness.

3. Time Is Scarce

With a full-time job, a farm to run (which may as well be a second full-time job), a family that includes two small children (one currently less than three months old), and various other obligations, my time to game is sparse. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve gotten any games in with my fellow Gunslingers, who have themselves moved on to other shooters. TTL is no longer a Halo-exclusive clan, and that’s a good thing. What that translates into, though, is that, even if I had more time to game, I probably still wouldn’t be playing much with TTL. The shooters they play aren’t generally attractive to my own interests, so I feel like what little time I have to game is better spent on titles I’ll actually enjoy. Trying to ramrod gaming sessions into an already busy schedule just to have a little face time with the Gunslingers doesn’t make sense. Destiny will, of course, be the exception to that rule because A) it’s a Bungie shooter, B) it’s going to be a rich mythic sci-fi story, and C) it’s a multiplayer game I’m actually interested in. Knowing there will be Gunslingers playing Destiny on the PS4 made it that much easier to move in that direction first.

Conclusion

There are a dozen other little factors that played into my choice, ultimately, very few of which would be interesting or relevant to anyone but me. I’ve had my PS4 for just under a week now, and I’m already very happy with the decision. I do plan to acquire an Xbox One sometime in the next year, hopefully before Halo 5: Guardians launches (which, incidentally, is another case of a single title driving a console purchase decision). Most of the games I buy for that system are similarly likely to be single-player games, because that’s what I can fit into my busy schedule. It’s an interesting time to be a gamer, and I’m looking forward to seeing what new titles are added to the libraries for both systems in the next year.

This Weight Upon My Shoulders

May 30, 2014 ::

Every couple of weeks or so I go through a spell of feeling like the weight of the world is resting solidly on my shoulders. During these times I feel tired and overwhelmed, certain that I’m doing too many things, that my hands are in too many projects. These are the times when I most seriously consider scaling back my activities and obligations in order to retain my sanity (such as it is), such as cutting out certain portions of our farm operations or dropping optional obligations to which I’ve committed.

Photo: rawlands under a Creative Commons license

Photo: hannah k (rawlands) under a Creative Commons license

For some reason, it always takes me a couple of days of this to realize that what I’m experiencing is a mild bout of depression. The thing is, it doesn’t feel like the deep, crippling depression that pushes me into suicidal ideation, and so it takes me longer to identify what’s going on. It also settles in slowly, a bit at a time over several days so that, at first, it simply feels like the kind of exhaustion born out of a busy lifestyle. To add insult to injury, this usually coincides during times of actual sleep deprivation, which is indicative that the two things are actually related. Either way, the feeling of being tired masks the fact that this is really the onset of depression, albeit a minor case. (That really soul-crushing depression typically only happens to me once or twice a year, the first always in January/February during the deepest, coldest part of winter, and once sometimes in the middle of the summer.) These smaller episodes occur more frequently — every two to three weeks — and are usually easier to bear up under, gritted teeth and shortened temper not withstanding.

These minor depressive episodes almost always pass within a couple of days, but while they’re here, this weight — it’s an actual, physical sensation — never leaves my shoulders. Identifying it and talking about it sometimes helps it abate more quickly, sometimes it doesn’t. At the very least, it is always something of a relief to recognize it when it’s happening.

Responsive Design

May 23, 2014 ::

I’ve been playing around quite a bit with responsive web design the last few days as a result of a recent client requesting their new site be mobile-friendly. I’ve had to read up quite a bit on responsive design, but I’ve learned a lot both about what makes it a powerful tool to have and also about the various frustrations and pitfalls that come with designing a site that’s mobile-friendly. Not all themes make good candidates for responsive design, as I quickly discovered.

Responsive design is something I haven’t been altogether concerned about with my own sites since I was more or less content to default to the Jetpack mobile theme that comes bundled with that plugin. Building this design for my client, I realized how nice it would be if my own site was more mobile-friendly and customized to match my current style. So, yesterday, I rolled out version 2.1 of my theme.

responsive

If you’re viewing this on your mobile device, you should see a layout similar to the one above. This version of my site also got a couple of simple tweaks to its layout. I put a new social media bar at the top of the page for those links as well as for the search form, which frees up some real estate in my nav menu and sidebar. Everything else is built with relative dimensions, so the site should scale well on most mobile devices. The desktop and smartphone layouts work pretty seamlessly; some tablets may see a bit of jankiness. As it turns out, building a layout that accounts for every viewport size on every device is a large and daunting task. I’m not entirely convinced I’ve got everything in the middle quite right. If you see something odd on your device, I’d appreciate it if you could shoot me an email with a screenshot and the device you’re using so I can try to correct any issues.

That said, I’m chuffed about the updates to the mobile feature set of my site. Responsiveness is something I’ve had way in the back of my mind for a little while, but I honestly thought it was going to be more difficult to implement (i.e. building a whole separate theme; I didn’t even know media queries existed until this week) than it actually ended up being.

Next iteration of the site will be almost completely behind-the-scenes: shifting my stylesheet to SASS.

Backing Slowly Away From Facebook

May 16, 2014 ::

So, everyone knows that Facebook has been on a tear the last couple of years to force their user base to use Facebook the way they think you should use it. (Right? This is pretty much common knowledge at this point, yes?) Every design update and developmental decision they’ve made in the last who-knows-how-many iterations of the service have been centered not on improving the user experience but on making more money for Facebook. They’ve thumbed their collective noses at us and jabbed their fingers in our eyes and basically told us that they know better than we do what information and updates we actually want to see. Nevermind the fact that there are dozens of browser extensions out there designed to force Facebook back into a more user-friendly format. Facebook knows best, and we’re supposed to just shut up about it and let them serve us.

When Facebook implemented Top Stories into the news feed in the mobile app, it was frustrating because, even though it gave you the option of showing the most recent updates (well, some of them, anyway), it wouldn’t allow you set your feed that way permanently. It still doesn’t. Because Facebook knows best, remember? But at least they put the option to change views in a relatively easy to access location. Just pull down slightly on your news feed to reveal the toggle, select Most Recent, and let the feed refresh.

In the latest update for the Facebook mobile app (iOS), they decided to do away with that option. Sort of. Oh, you can still choose to view the Most Recent version of your feed, but now you have to work at it a little harder. That easy-to-use toggle? Gone. Now if you want to view the Most Recent items, you have to dig for it.

fb1

The path to Most Recent is now about three layers deep. In order to find it, you have to tap on More in the lower right corner, then scroll down the screen until you find the Feeds section. It’ll be below the Favorites category, the Pages section, Groups, Apps, and Interests. Facebook really doesn’t want you to find it. To the right of the Feeds subheading is a tiny little arrow that points to the right. Tap this and a list of all the different feeds you can view will drop down. In the screenshot below, Most Recent is at the top of my list. That probably won’t be the case for you, at least not for the first few times you select it. It took a good half dozen times to get it float to the top of my list because apparently that’s how many times it takes before the app decides I’m serious about viewing it.

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This is just one item in a long list of complaints I have about Facebook. I’ve written about them before, at length (see the Related posts below, if you’re interested), and very few of my concerns have ever been corrected. If it wasn’t for the fact that Facebook is so entrenched in the social media stream, I’d delete my account right now. As it is, I’m starting to back away and use it less and less because A) I find it so gosh-darned frustrating to use and B) they’ve demonstrated time and again that they exist not for their users but for lining their own pockets. Which is good for them, I guess, but I’m tired of supporting a social ecosystem that I loathe and despise, and that loathes and despises me in turn.

I keep waiting for someone else to step and provide a competing solution that actually puts the users first. Google’s attempted to supplant them with their G+ service, even going so far as to ramrod it down their own user’s throats, with only minimal effectiveness. And Google has data privacy issues of their own in certain areas. Nothing else really exists. WordPress has a great little social media system called BuddyPress that you can set up and customize to your heart’s content, and I’ve been more than a little tempted to try going that route myself. What BuddyPress lacks, however, is the reach that Facebook (and even G+) has, and there’s no way you’re ever going to get your entire social network on Facebook to convert to a new, smaller network.

So here we wait, hoping something better comes along or that the Facebook executives will finally decide they don’t like making money hand over fist (yeah, right) to make a product that users actually like. Anyone wanna built a better social network with me?

ViHart on Net Neutrality

May 13, 2014 ::

If you’ve been watching the recent events on Net Neutrality like I have been (my job literally depends on the continuing existence of the policy), then you might be interested in the video below. I have a great deal of admiration for ViHart and her ability to take complex topics and distill them down to their basic concepts. She draws a fantastic parallel in this video between the delivery of books you order online and the way your Internet service works. The FCC’s latest push to end Net Neutrality is a significant threat to quality, cost-effective Internet service. Check out the video, then contact your local congressperson.

Out of Darkness, Unto Destiny

April 30, 2014 ::

New piece of Destiny fan fiction I wrote last week. This one merits a bit of explanation. I wrote it as a kind of transition piece for my clan, Tied the Leader. The TTL Gunslingers were founded on and modeled a bit after Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. At the time we were a Halo-exclusive clan, so the moniker was appropriate for the kind of game we played. Now with Destiny, the title of ‘gunslinger’ still holds (especially since there’s a particular build of Hunter that carries the same name). This story is meant to represent TTL’s passage from one Bungie title to the next.


Out Of Darkness, Unto Destiny

He stands on a low hillside, looking out over the grassland stretching before him. The night presses in on him, wrapping around him like a cape, cloaking him in darkness. It is late, and the moon has not yet risen, but still his sharp eyes can pick out every detail of the landscape below. The wide brim of his hat hides his eyes in complete darkness, shielding them even from what little starlight filters down through the clouds above.

He stands straight and tall, despite the burden of his passage to get here. A pair of six-shooters — the last of their kind, for all he knows — hangs low and heavy on his hips. He barely notices their weight. He has carried them for so long that they are now almost a part of him, an extension of his own body. They have not been fired in a dog’s age, yet they have been meticulously cared for. He suspects they will not be out of place here.

Echoes of the words that brought him here (“There are other worlds than these…”), spoken not to him but to a distant ancestor, still ring inside his skull like a bell. They repeat like a geas, driving him onward, urging him toward… something. He knows the truth of those words, though, knows them all too well. He has passed through more than one doorway, portals through space and time. They have brought him here now, to this “where,” to this “when.” He is not certain yet what his appointed task will be, but he knows he will not have to wait long to find out.

A burst of gunfire draws his attention, and his hands reflexively drop to his pistols. He does not draw them, for one does not draw iron unless one intends to kill (I kill with my heart, that old, familiar creed whispers in the back of his mind), but he readies himself for action. He looks in the direction of the gunfire, and sees a figure running as though all the hounds of hell are on her heels. He absently notes with approval her resourcefulness; her gear has clearly been scavenged from whatever cast-offs she has come across in her travels. A tattered cape flutters behind her as she runs. She wears a helmet that glows faintly with a low blue light, a kind of new technology that he has not run into before.

The six low creatures that pursue her are like nothing he has ever seen. They are fleet of foot and deeply alien. They too bear helmets and armor that have seen better days. Most have four arms, giving them a vaguely insect- or spider-like appearance that he finds unsettling. All have weapons of their own and are using them now to fire on the figure that runs before them.

He takes a step as though to enter the battle, the champion within him rising to her defense — then stops. She dives forward just as one of the creatures fires on her. She hits the ground with a roll, coming up holding a pistol so much like his own that he starts with surprise. Three time she fires, and three times the bullets find their mark. Her pursuit has been reduced by half. The corners of his mouth turn up appreciatively, the closest his lips have been to a smile in years. The woman is a gunslinger in her own right — not unheard of, of course, but not common from where he comes, either. He relaxes his grip on his pistols and leans back on his heels to observe, confident that she is more than capable of taking care of herself.

Her counterattack has reduced her lead substantially, but the remaining creatures are more wary now, more cautious, and are giving her a wider berth. They have seen what she can do and are reluctant to give her an excuse to unleash more of her fury upon them. It doesn’t matter. The night is lit briefly by a ball of purple energy that falls out of the sky, as though a piece of the sun has been hurled Earthside. It explodes on the ground near the figure, obliterating two more of the creatures. A moment later a second figure descends smoothly from a gliding arc to stand next to the first, this one wearing a cloak that would not have been out of place on one of the gunslingers of old. A heartbeat, and a third figure emerges from the darkness to stand next to the other two, this one enormous and covered head to toe in steel like one of the knights of Arthur Eld’s court.

The sole remaining creature roars defiantly before turning and loping off into the darkness. The three figures let it go without pursuit. Word of what has happened here will pass among others of the creature’s kind, and perhaps they will be more reticent to attack these figures in the future. They are gunslingers, to be sure, but they are also something more. It is these, he is sure now, that he was meant to find.

The three of them appear to confer for a moment, and one of them produces a glowing orb that takes flight and moves rapidly around their heads. Whether magic or technology he cannot determine, not from this distance, but he suspects it is probably some combination of the two. It would not be the first time a civilization had used one to harness the other.

This is why he is here now, he is certain of it, but the time is still not yet right for him to reveal his presence to these people. That moment will arrive soon, but there are other things he must do before then. He turns and slips away quietly before he can be discovered, an aura of golden light glowing faintly around each of his pistols.

Designing with SASS

April 7, 2014 ::

This past week, I ported the stylesheet for a web design project I’m currently working on from the traditional stylesheet to one formatted with SASS. And holy crap, y’all, how have I not started doing this sooner?

I’d heard about CSS preprocessors a little while back, and shortly after that WordPress added support for both SASS and LESS. Since I wasn’t working on any design projects at the time, I didn’t devote any attention to learning more about them. But I did read a couple of brief overviews, and a couple of items piqued my interest. The first was the ability to use variables to set a value once, use it multiple locations in your stylesheet, and then be able to change all the values at once simply by adjusting the value of the variable. This is a particularly handy tool with colors, since many elements in a site design use the same color values. Where before you might have:

.example {
     color: #ffffff;
     }

With SASS, you can create a variable called $font-color: #ffffff; and use it in place of your color value, thusly:

.example {
     color: $font-color;
     }

Now you can use the $font-color variable on any element that will use the same color in your design, and if you decide later that a different color will work better, just swap the value in the variable and the preprocessor will apply it to every element. Huge timesaver, that.

Another thing I appreciate about preprocessors is the ability to nest styles. Child elements in the nest automatically receive the parent classes, selectors, or identifiers in the rendered output. This eliminates the need to type those identifiers repeatedly the way you would in traditional CSS and makes your stylesheet easier to read. Instead of:

.main-navigation {
     margin-top: 5px;
     }

     .main-naviation ul.nav-menu, .main-navigation div.nav-menu > ul {
          border: 0;
          }
	
     .main-nvaigation li {
          font-size: 1.5rem;
          }

You can nest your elements like so:

.main-navigation {
     margin-top: 5px;
	
     ul.nav-menu, div.nav-menu > ul {
          border: 0;
          }
	
     li {
          font-size: 1.5rem;
          }
     }

The preprocessor then renders the output like this:

.main-navigation {
    margin-top: 5px; }
    .main-navigation ul.nav-menu, .main-navigation div.nav-menu > ul {
      border: 0; }
    .main-navigation li {
      font-size: 1.5rem; }	

Again a huge timesaver.

One of my other favorite features is the ability to split the stylesheet out into individual files, which the preprocessor then builds during processing. There’s still only the one HTTP request, and so any overhead normally incurred from the @import call is eliminated. For my project, I broke my stylesheet in six smaller files — one each for my variables, site body, header, content area, sidebar, and footer. Breaking my stylesheet down this way accomplished two things: 1) it made my stylesheet more manageable by reducing the amount of scrolling I needed to do, and 2) it made it easier to organize the elements for each individual section. At the final result, my based stylesheet ended up looking like this:

/*
 Theme Name: New theme
 Theme URI: newtheme
 Description: Twenty Twelve child theme
 Author: Jim Stitzel
 Author URI: http://jimstitzel.com
 Template: twentytwelve
 Version: 1.0
*/

@import url("../twentytwelve/style.css");

@import 'variables';

@mixin search-border-radius($radius) {
	-webkit-border-radius: $radius;
	   -moz-border-radius: $radius;
	    -ms-border-radius: $radius;
	        border-radius: $radius;
	}


@import 'body';
@import 'header';
@import 'content';
@import 'sidebar';
@import 'footer';

Technically, I could have split off the mixin into its own file, as well, but since there’s only the one, I opted to leave it where it was.

As I said above, WordPress now includes preprocessor support for both SASS and LESS inside its Jetpack plugin. You can also use a desktop preprocessor, like Koala, to do all the heavy lifting and then just upload the final stylesheet to your site.

I’m very pleased and happy with the result of my first experience with SASS. It has already saved me a lot of time and effort, and I plan to use it for every design I do in the future. If you want to read more about either SASS or LESS, I highly recommend you check out their respective sites. It’ll change the way you design.

210 (Weight Loss and Health)

March 29, 2014 ::

I’m delighted. For the past couple of days, I’ve been able to stand on the scales and see a number I haven’t seen since last fall — 210.0. Ever since I started losing weight a couple of years ago when my daughter was born, I’ve had a goal to hit at least 200 pounds. At the time I weighed in at 260, and I was experiencing significant health complications. The extra weight was adversely affecting my already very troublesome back and made my depressive episodes more likely to occur frequently and to last longer with greater severity. And since I am a comfort eater, the thing I tend to do when depressed is the very thing I shouldn’t do.

Within a year of my daughter’s birth, I’d trimmed 35 pounds off that initial 260, thanks in part to five months of what I call “New Daddy Freak-out.” As it turns out, one kind of stress causing me to pack on pounds, and another causes me to nearly stop eating altogether. Fortunately, I was able to use that to my advantage to get the weight loss process started and to change the way I eat.

I felt healthier than I had in years. It’s amazing to me how much of a difference shaving a few pounds off can make. Over the next year and a half, I managed my diet better and was able to be more active around the farm. I burned off more the fat stores I was carrying around and converted some of it into muscle, which itself helped with the fat-burning process. This last fall, I was consistently down to between 205 and 210 pounds on a regular basis.

Health professionals often tell you that you shouldn’t weigh in every day when you’re trying to lose weight because the numbers tend to change slowly over time, which many people find discouraging. For me, I’ve found it serves very well as a general measure of what I’ve eaten over the past 48 hours. If the numbers tick upward a pound or two, I know I need to manage what I eat a little better over the next couple of days to make up for it. Where before I had a very difficult time managing my weight, I found that after a year I could do so almost without even thinking about it — a far cry from where I started.

There was an unusually large amount of food over the holidays this past year (Thanksgiving through New Years). Our family was exposed to a number of delicious delicacies we don’t normally get to see, and by the time the calendar flipped over to the new year, I was weighing in consistently around 220. And of course, this has been the longest, hardest winter we’ve seen in decades, and my depression always becomes worse in the winter. More so this year due to the severity of the weather. Getting those ten extra pounds off was simply not going to happen. The best I could hope for was to keep from gaining anymore, so for the past couple of months I’ve been trying to actively rein in my eating habits a bit more so that they more closely resembled the habits I’d established over the past couple of years. And it worked! I didn’t lose any weight, but I didn’t gain any more, either.

My son arrived in the world nearly three weeks ago, and along with it some significant family changes. I was more prepared this time, though, so the stress I experienced for five months with the arrival of my daughter lasted a matter of mere days with my son. But it was enough to push me in the right direction. I backed off on my eating again — partly because I was too tired most of the time to be interested in food — and started shedding the weight. Now I’m hovering around 210 again, and I’m delighted. With any luck Spring will actually arrive soon (though Winter is certainly making a bid for sticking around as long as possible this year), and I can get more active around the farm once more. Being able to move and work will burn those extra calories, rebuild and retone some of the muscle I’ve lost over the last few months, and put me back on the path to fitness.

My goal is to hit 200 or lower before the end of the year. I’m anxious to see that number at my feet.