Kistaro Windrider, Reptillian Situation Assessor (kistaro) wrote,
Kistaro Windrider, Reptillian Situation Assessor

Beat Hazard and related forms of meditation

Because I'd been curious about it, and yesterday's sale kicked it down to $2.50, I picked up a copy of Beat Hazard on Steam. This turns out to have been a tremendously good decision, and knowing what I know now the original $10 price would have been well worth it. Steam's frequent sales have me used to paying nowhere near list for download-only software purchases, though- and given that I can't sell them off when I get bored, it's for the better.

Beat Hazard is what you would get if Audiosurf had sex with Geometry Wars and the offspring decided it wanted to kill as many people with epilepsy as possible. It's a game where you get a significant score penalty if you turn down the visual effects, which are accurately described as "full-screen strobing" in the seizure warning screen. It's the only game I've found where turning on vsync is strictly required because you otherwise get a striped mess of pretty much the entire screen. Once you have enough power-ups (which you start out every round with if you've played the game enough, which took Rakeela and me about three hours combined, mostly consecutively), the sweeping majority of the screen is strobing, because every shot, piece of shrapnel, and UI decoration is doing it.

This is a game where, by design, a very significant part of it is dealing with massive visual overload. Motion-tracking instincts do no good here- actually, the easiest way to be able to see where the (large floods of) enemy ships are is to track the non-strobing silhouettes over the violent chaos of pretty much everything else. It cannot be played on mute- besides defeating the entire point (which is to generate this top-down arcade space shooter mess from your music of choice), positional audio for shots is the only way I've been able to reliably identify power-ups from bullets: I don't have time to figure it out, but the sound queue from when it was launched pretty much tells me.

And that massive visual overload is interesting. I ordinarily have fairly poor visual processing- not poor vision, but poor ability to synthesize what I see into a coherent whole. Sound is actually my most important positional sense, followed by touch. Vision is third. (This may be why I had so much trouble trying to learn to drive [a skill I never picked up, for those who didn't know]; sound is echoed and muffled seriously, and if you're using touch as a navigational sense, You're Doing It Wrong.) This is probably part of why I spend as much as I do on a good audio system, actually- and why it makes no sense to me that people who pay $500 for a video card are as likely as not to be using onboard audio.

Beat Hazard is an interesting exception to this. It is an extremely intense game, in the sense of "violent assault on sensory processing capacity". And, like many such games, it tends to be excellent as a form of meditation, and making me aware of what the process of that is, and what it feels like. Well, it does when I'm paying enough attention to notice it, at which point I'm halfway failing to meditate anyway, and usually losing as a result.

This directly illustrates that "meditation" is not anywhere near similar to "relaxing"; it often is, but that's largely coincidence. I guess "seeking an altered state of consciousness" is really the best term, maybe "meditation" is wrong; but in any case, it's a useful and valuable state of consciousness to be aware of. It's the classic state of "letting thoughts be"- specifically, thought without attempting to clarify the thoughts other than anything abstract. If I try to concentrate on the game, I get overwhelmed and fail to see incoming threats. If I perceive the game, then I am completely aware of every single element on the screen with ease, and the strobing is quite useful as a warning about the timing of the game.

It's probably worth explaining this state of mind a little better. Ordinarily, when I think about something, I'm aware of what my thoughts are. Every thought that comes through, I seem to insist on stopping it in its tracks, seeing what it is and what its related concepts and sensory impressions are (such as "name", "appearance", etc.), and only then letting it go on. This gives me a full picture of what I'm thinking about. This turns out to almost never be useful, despite my brain's dogged insistence on doing that. Much more efficient is to just let thoughts be; I don't need to stop them to understand them, I'm already understanding them and using them as accurately as ever by merit of thinking them. Loading the "related information" does me absolutely no good unless I've reached a stop point; it lets me articulate my thoughts, but I much prefer to just think and let myself simply connect the concepts. I already know what they are, I don't need to examine them to know more thoroughly than knowing; it just slows me down.

That, in and of itself, can be a valuable thing; when I hit that kind of flow in any context (like, say, computer programming) for a very extended period of time, besides a very distorted sense of time I usually become completely exhausted, lose all sense of time, and my body temperature fluctuates out of control. I think I'm overclocking my brain somewhat outside of safe limits, but I've never been one to do things by half measures. But I think I'm getting better mental endurance over time, like with any exercise; I need to develop better habits and stop dissecting every thought just so it can have a nice clear image and label with it when I really don't need either of those the sweeping majority of the time; I don't need to be able to articulate a thought to have it.

Beat Hazard isn't alone in this, it's just the one that illustrates the most dramatically how it changes my abilities. (I'm incapable of playing competently without this state of mind, because otherwise the game easily overwhelms my visual processing capacity.) One of my earliest video game loves was Tetris Attack, and I still love it today, and it induces that state of mind even more reliably, probably because I've been practicing for 15 years now. That's probably a large part of why I love high-speed puzzle games, actually. (And why I'm irritated that Nintendo's been turning down the speed on Tetris Attack ever since it was first released.)

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Tags: consciousness, games

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