December 30, 2021

Exercise-friendly Gaming

Over the past several years, I’d been watching educational YouTube videos while on an elliptical in a gym. During the pandemic, however, gyms closed down, and I had to figure out what to do.

Late last year I bought a cheap exercise bike that I’m actually very satisfied with. Instead of watching videos on my phone or tablet, I can just roll my bike in front of my computer monitor and watch whatever I want there.

This was a great replacement for my usual routine with the elliptical, but early this year I realized I could actually play video games while on the bike, too. The only requirement was that the games be playable with a controller.

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October 11, 2021

My First Quake Level

Some people are also natural tool builders instead of game builders. For them, the game is the reason for building game engines and tools, not the other way around, and their ultimate dream is to build engines and tools that are so efficient, so optimized, and so friendly that the game practically builds itself.

—Derek Yu, Spelunky

I have a tendency to drift towards coding in virtually any situation, even ones that aren’t initially technological in nature. One problem with this approach, as Derek Yu continues to write in Spelunky, is this:

To them, the engine itself is a work of art, too, and I’m inclined to agree. In practice, though, it’s easy for someone like this to noodle on their game engine ad infinitum.

This is precisely my problem, and it’s part of why despite being very excited about game development as a kid, I never finished any of the games I started making. I never really let myself have fun with game design because I was so preoccupied with building engines and tooling.

One of the things that attracted me to building a Quake level, though, was that–if I set the right constraints for myself–it would force me to focus on design. As I described in my previous blog post, the tools already existed and were easy and fun to use. I just needed to take the time to actually design something.

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October 8, 2021

The Tools of Level Design

If you had asked me about Quake a few years ago, I would've made a weird farting sound with my mouth.

—Robert Yang, Quake Renaissance: how to start playing original Quake today

This first sentence from Robert Yang’s final article on The Quake Renaissance resonated with me. Only unlike the author, I didn’t know anything about what had been going on in the Quake modding world since I last played the game in the late 1990s–and while I enjoyed it multiplayer, I had always wrinkled my nose at its palette of muted browns and greens.

Reading Yang’s short history of 25 years of Quake modding was inspiring, though, and its high praise for TrenchBroom, a newer open-source level editor renowned for its ease of use, piqued my interest.

Well, that’s a bit inaccurate: my interest had actually been piqued several months ago.

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June 18, 2021


I recently found Maria Konnikova’s The Biggest Bluff lying on a stoop and decided to pick it up.

It’s a compelling read. One of the chapters that particularly resonated with me described a concept called tilt, which is that “you’re letting emotions—incidental ones that aren’t actually integral to your decision process—affect your decision making” (page 253). This is something I’ve experienced a lot, particularly when things don’t go as I expect them to.

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January 29, 2020

The Stories Streets Tell

Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey.

—Colum McCann, Let The Great World Spin

Despite having lived in New York City for most of the 2010s and worked in Lower Manhattan for a few of them, I still didn’t know where these streets were when I was reading Colum McCann’s novel at the end of 2019.

Knowing the names of a city’s streets has always been meaningful to me, despite its waning utility. But aside from being useful if the internet happens to be down or if one’s GPS is on the fritz, streets somehow make me feel connected to a city in a way that I find important. The denizens of a place have so little in common with one another aside from their shared geography, and it sometimes disappoints me that the simple act of asking for directions is a dwindling reason to have a conversation in the age of the smartphone. But at least it’s still a valid one.

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February 1, 2016

Passage, Emscriptened

A friend and I were recently reminscing about a poignant 2007 game by Jason Rohrer called Passage.

It’s hard to describe the game without spoiling anything, but since it literally takes five minutes to play, I encourage you to play it online right now.

The thing is, until today, you couldn’t play it online.

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November 29, 2014

On Gaming And Media Narratives

On December 13, 2013, I sent the following email to several of my friends who play videogames:

Hey, if you're receiving this it's because you're on my Steam friends list. I don't send spam out often but right now I am frustrated with the collective hatred of the internet and this is the only way I can think of fighting back.

Earlier this year, I played a web-based game called Depression Quest. It's not particularly "fun", because it's about depression, but it is very good at building awareness about, and empathy for, a serious mental condition.

The creator happens to be a woman and has been harassed by the internet. The game, while free, is trying to get on Steam and a bunch of internet assholes are down-voting the game because misogyny.

So, if you either like the premise of the game or despise misogyny (or both!), I encourage you to vote for the game on Steam Greenlight using the link below:

That is all. Thanks for reading this, and apologies if this is spam to you.

The above email was the only “mass email” I’ve sent in at least the past two years. I was pretty frustrated at the time.

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August 15, 2011

Hacking The Web With Interactive Stories

I recently made The Parable of The Hackasaurus, which is a game-like attempt to make web-hacking easy to learn through a series of simple puzzles in the context of a story. The parable is really more of a proof-of-concept that combines a bunch of different ideas than an actual attempt at interactive narrative, though. The puzzles don’t actually have anything to do with the story, for instance. But I wanted an excuse to do something fun with the vibrant art that Jessica Klein has made for the project, while also exploring possibilities for the Hack This Game sprint and giving self-directed learners a path to understanding how the Hackasaurus tools work. ... Read more

January 8, 2011

My Minecraft Adventure

I did not expect to enjoy this game. My friend Mike was completely obsessed with Minecraft, and Dave Humphrey blogged a bit about all the amazing things people had done with it: creating replicas of the German Reichstag, the U.S.S. Enterprise, working CPUs. All creative uses of cognitive surplus. But I still didn't think that it was for me. When visiting Washington, D.C. in the last days of December 2010, I finally sat down with Mike and he showed me how to play. ... Read more

August 26, 2010


The New York Times recently wrote that The Web Means The End of Forgetting. I never kept a copy of my first public software project with me—yet because I put it on the internet, it eventually made its way into an FTP archive, many mirrors of which still host the files sixteen years later, when a casual conversation with a friend prompted me to search for them. In 1994, I didn’t like Macintosh computers, so I decided to replace the explosive barrels in DOOM with them. ... Read more

© Atul Varma 2021