Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘computer games

Frozen-bubble II

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After a recent text relating to frozen-bubble ([1]), I have spent some time actually playing the game again.

During play, a number of other observations (mostly: re-)occurred to me, many with a wider applicability, including:*

*While I give examples, understanding the examples is not necessary to understand the individual point. Note that levels mentioned are not necessarily the best illustrations, just ones found through quick checks. Moreover, note that while levels with higher numbers tend to be harder, individual levels can deviate considerably, e.g. in that level 70 is likely the hardest, while some of the 9x levels are reasonably easy.

  1. An intensive involvement with a certain activity, including computer games, can be a great source of self-knowledge, e.g. how one reacts when, what errors one tends to make, how one handles stress, … Similarly, it can be a form of training for at least some of the discovered problems. I have learned particularly much about myself from playing “Battle of Wesnoth”. This strengthens my opinion that it is important to build depth first and breadth second (cf. e.g. [2]).

    (I strongly suspect that something similar is behind some Japanese activities that straddle the border between activity and mediation.)

  2. Looking at levels, there is a difference between “average” difficulty and difficulty when having good or bad luck—something notable in many other games too. Some levels are just plain difficult, irrespective of luck (unless it is absolutely outrageous), while others are easy or difficult depending on random events. For instance, level 65 can be completed with two single shots—if the first two (randomly colored) balls in the “gun” happen to be orange. (And if the player happens to have good nerves…) On the other hand, with a more typical series of balls, it can be quite hard—and with “poor” balls it can rival level 70.

    Level 86, in contrast, is very easy on a “normal” day, with even somewhat reasonable balls, but can turn into a nightmare when no blue shot appears over a prolonged time.

    Similarly, an easier level can be less tolerant of errors than a harder level, especially in the first few shots—something that seems to correlate mostly with how low down the balls reach at the beginning of the level. (Something that might be a partial explanation for the “cursed” games from [1]: An early screw-up and a bit of poor luck leads to a first failure, I make a second attempt with a little more adrenaline, and see a repeat, etc.)

  3. The best sign of greater skill is not manifested through being able to complete a level at all, but to be able to do so with more consistency and even when playing poorly (relative a base level). Even a comparatively poor player can get by level 70 with the right mixture of luck and “being in the zone”—but the better player is much more likely to do so with few attempts.
  4. The best approach to a certain level can depend on the amount of luck. For instance, look at level 65 again: If orange balls appear fairly early, the best approach is typically to just avoid blocking the orange “line of fire”, and then to let the two orange balls kill half the field each. However, if orange balls come later, the best approach is to play the level more-or-less like any other. The problem: The set of balls to fire is (excepting the next two) not known in advance, making a perfect choice of approach impossible, which forces the player to find some compromise between using an approach suitable for more likely eventualities, hedging his bets, and risking failure when sufficiently “wrong” balls appear. (In addition to, obviously, adapting as the level develops.) In the case of a sufficiently hard level, where more than one try is usually needed anyway, it might even pay to play under the assumption of a certain set of balls, and then play the level repeatedly until this set actually does appear. (But I have no recollection of actually having done so myself.)
  5. Some of what I have learned about game play has had an accidental component, in that I have seen the fired ball do something* unexpected, which I have later been able to duplicate deliberately.

    *A trivial example is the first time I saw a ball bounce of a wall—likely on the first or second level of my very first session. A more notable is firing a ball between other balls, when there is a one ball space, but even a slight imprecision causes the ball to “stick” rather than pass through. A quite surprising one is that, on level 98, either one of the two lower “bunches” can be taken down with a single shot, even in the state at the beginning of the game (assuming that the ball to fire is white respectively blue).

  6. A shift of perspective has often led to an unexpected, temporary improvement in level of play, e.g. playing with the game at an unaccustomed screen position*. This might be a result of increased concentration and less self-confidence. I have similarly made the experience that I can (in general) work quite well when a bit tipsy, because I am more focused than normally—I know that I am not at the peak of my mental capacity and try harder to compensate. (Not to be confused with the misjudgment of ability that can also follow drink. Of course, the best approach is to be perfectly sober and focused…)

    *There is a full-screen mode, but I prefer to play with a smaller “windowed” game that covers just a quarter-or-so of the screen area.

    This overlaps with e.g. a text on how easy tasks can be harder than hard tasks.

  7. In at least one case, which shot is hard and which easy has changed places: In my early days, I had great problems with shooting a ball through a one-ball gap—normally, it just got stuck in the gap. Today, I have great problems making it stick—it often goes through even when I want it to stick. (Note that getting through is what I want to do in the clear majority of cases, which makes this the more accustomed shot and might also cause an unconscious thought of a sticky shot being poor.)

    A similar effect is present on the entire level 39: With some experience and skill, I could easily shot off the most of the elongated bunch with my first shot by bouncing a ball on the wall and into the right “slot”, and be done in a very short time. With much more experience and skill, I find myself constantly missing the easy-on-paper shots involved, making it take longer than in the past. (But I cannot recall the last time I actually failed on this level.)

    (Through an unrelated effect, I am less likely to get through level 70 today, despite being a better player: with less experience, I usually played it again and again until I got through; today, I rarely bother to give it more than a single try.)

  8. While playing faster is usually good, and being able to play faster with quality is a sign of greater proficiency, play can easily become too fast: Choosing a better shot and reducing the risk of failure just a little can have a major impact on results, especially because (a) the effects can accumulate, (b) there is often a great difference in value between a great choice and a merely good one. If an increase in speed leads to worse play, this can often overcome the gain through having more shots per time frame.
  9. When playing for a longer time, especially on easier levels, I occasionally zoom out mentally, and have my thoughts wondering while playing. To some degree, this is a problem, because my play suffers; to some degree, it can be a very nice, relaxing, meditative state.

    On rare occasions, I can even lose the focus of my eyes on the game—and continue to play with no obvious problem. (Possibly, because movements are detected more by the “fuzzy” parts of human vision.)

  10. Especially when playing fast, decisions are not necessarily made based on the playing field as it is but as it will be in a few shots time. This is mostly good, because it allows faster decisions; but can lead to complications like a missed shot causing one or two other poor shots, e.g. because they aim at a target that is not reachable. It can also lead to gross errors like shooting the one ball where the next should have gone, because the brain “jumps the gun”.
  11. Deficits in one area can be partially made up by another, e.g. in that (for frozen-bubble) a beginning player can compensate a lack of precision shooting with a better strategy. This can even promote a better understanding of a level, and I do in part find myself having a lesser understanding of how some levels work now than I did at earlier times–despite having played them more often.
  12. Skipping lower levels because they are too little of a challenge can backfire by removing a great training opportunity. With the greater security margins, a player can try out a lot of hard shots with little pressure, and will not have to improvise them for the first time when there is pressure. In some ways, lower levels can be seen as training sharp-shooting while higher levels train speed-shooting.

    To boot, the lower tempo and lesser stress can be a very pleasant change.

  13. General ideas for good tactics apply differently to different levels. For instance, many levels benefit from “going deep”, trying to hit ball clusters far away from the player (e.g. level 70 or, when having early orange balls, level 65), while others benefit more from trying to hit balls close to the player and to work oneself upwards (including level 65 without orange balls).

    (Not to be confused with those levels, where going deep simply is not possible or only possible after having already made considerable progress.)

The above does not include observations on good approaches to the game it self, e.g. the benefit of having a free center of the field, or things that the game makers could have done better, e.g. by not having that annoying, unskippable animation after a loss—for the simple reason that this is not a text about frozen-bubble, just on experiences and thoughts caused by playing frozen-bubble.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 29, 2019 at 10:03 pm

Frozen-bubble

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Looking at my backlog, I find a few thoughts on “frozen-bubble”*, that I originally thought too short and uninteresting to publish. However, they do in part give a different perspective on things that I have written about tennis** (notably item 2 of [1] vs. item 2 below), so what the hell:

*An arcade-style game that I have played reasonably often over the years, especially since it comes for free with Debian. The exact details of the game are not that interesting for this text, but involve firing balls of varying colors onto other balls of the same color to eliminate them from the playing field, before they reach the ground.

**Especially because (a) I have never played tennis, (b) the two have in common that the player has to make many very fast decisions based on incomplete information and then execute those decisions with a high precision. (However, frozen-bubble is likely considerably more extreme, and likely more akin to playing at the net than at the base-line.)

  1. Situations often arise when I am under extreme pressure for some time, where even one false shot will virtually ensure a loss. When (and if…) those situations are overcome, there is a very great danger that I lose my concentration and/or become over-confident and thereby get myself into trouble again. Similarly, I have often had a feeling of “I have as good as won already”, even without preceding pressure, and then somehow ended up losing. (Vice versa, I have often had the opposite feeling and the opposite result.)

    This is possibly most interesting in light of the constant accusations on the Internet that a certain player “choked”, as e.g. with Federer in the recent Wimbledon final. Might it be that certain-looking-victories-after-a-hard-fight are not lost due to e.g. nerves—but do to loss of concentration or over-confidence in the unconscious belief that the victory is already finalized? This would be understandable in someone very used to winning, like Federer, and matches the above final very well—a long, long fight, and then two championship points that he both burned. (With the remaining items, I will leave potential applicability to tennis as an exercise for the reader.)

  2. It is often the “safety shots” that go awry. Indeed, I do not know how many times I paused, thought “I am no hurry at the moment, let’s go for safety”, and then missed a normally trivial shot—sometimes in such a manner that I soon found myself in hurry.
  3. In contrast, when playing under high stress, I can often pull off a series of shots that I would have considered near impossible as a beginner—and at a rate and with a decision time that I would have considered impossible. When having no time to think, the brain can do some really impressive things, and training certainly pays. (But do not construe this as “I am a great player”—I suspect that there are those who would still make me look like a beginner.)

    A wider lesson, well matching my observations in other areas, is that training and experience does not necessarily or solely result in the ability to reach better decisions—it is often a matter of reaching the same decision faster and with less effort.

  4. I have often found that I am a noticeably better player after a prolonged break, e.g. in that I play very intensely for two or three days, take a six month break, and then play at a higher level than before the break. (This is a fairly typical rhythm for me and frozen-bubble.) Likely, the brain has received enough stimulus to, in some sense, re-wire it self, and after the break the re-wiring remains.

    This is not to be confused with the drop of ability that can occur simply through playing for too long without interruption and how this drop disappears after a break or a good nights’ sleep.

  5. There are situations when the game seems cursed, when I suddenly put three, four, or five important shots just half-a-step off, whereby I not only miss the benefit from making the shots, but also often found that important later shots are blocked. Worse, I have sometimes gone through level after level in the first attempt—and then suddenly become stuck on one level for five to ten attempts, where I would normally go through in one attempt or, on a bad day, two or three.* This can usually be resolved through just taking a quick break, clearing my head, and re-starting—but doing that is hard. My instinctive reaction is just to try again and again, with a continual decrease in both my mood and my playing level. Often, the issue is not resolved by success in the umpteenth attempt—but by me just closing the game before I lose my temper.

    *Not to be confused with getting stuck on a hard level—if I got through level 70 in five attempts I would consider it a good day… Indeed, usually I give it one attempt, and then just skip to level 71. (With the side-effect that my mastery of level 70 likely trails that of other levels, even difficulty aside.)

  6. It is very easy to “blame the game” when things go wrong, at least in the moment. When I gain some distance, I usually see what I did wrong, which has been an important real-world lesson: Do not blame others for everything that goes wrong in a blanket manner. Instead think things through and blame them for the problems that they have actually caused. (Which is plenty enough…)

    However, in my defense, there are a few quirks that can cause a loss out of mere bad luck, notably when a needed color does not manifest for ten rounds or an “extinct” color is re-born again and again at the end of the game. (Players will understand what I mean.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 27, 2019 at 10:53 pm

Follow-up: Revisiting verbosity based on Wesnoth

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A minor unfairness in my recent text on Wesnoth was the use of an outdated version (1.12), instead of the latest (1.14).

I have since installed and briefly tried 1.14 through use of Debian’s “backports”. My experiments were cut short by the fact that it was unplayable on my computer for performance reasons. Specifically, the game used up an entire processor core even when doing nothing* and was slow as molasses—click somewhere and the reaction took place ten seconds later…**

*Including when being on the start screen and when having all animations deactivated.

**Note that this is a different type of delay than discussed in the original text: There we had artificial delays deliberately introduced by misguided developers; here we have delays as a side-effect of a too resource-consuming application.

If (as it likely was*) this performance delay was caused by changes to Wesnoth it self, it demonstrates a disastrous attitude so common in today’s software—the assumption that any type of performance waste in order to gain minimal benefits is acceptable. Notably, nothing that this game does should cause such performance delays. That the display part can be handled much more efficiently is proved by older versions of the game, the amount of calculation needed during user interaction is negligible, and the observed delays were by no means restricted to the AI’s/computer’s play**. And, no, neither 1.14 nor the older versions use graphics of an impressive kind—strictly 2D, a mostly static map (especially with animations off), no fanciful textures, …***

*It is unlikely-but-conceivable that some version incompatibilities or other problems in/with/between the simultaneously backported libraries and/or the original setup led to problems that are not the fault of Wesnoth. (The backports are typically nowhere near as thoroughly tested and come with far less guarantees than the “regular” Debian packages.)

**If it had been, it might be explained by deep analysis, simulation, or whatnot preceding the AI’s decisions. However, considering how trivial and fast the AI had been in older incarnations, this would have been a surprising development.

***Which is good: There is no true benefit to be found from such features in a game of this type. Equally, chess is played just as well with a simple wooden board and wooden pieces as if diamonds and rubies were used—likely, better.

I did manage some minor comparisons with 1.12 before giving up, however, and must amend my original criticism slightly: The blend-in of text and movement-to-and-from-a-war-council in 1.12 were not as slow as I perceived them when writing the original text. (However, both are still entirely unnecessary delays. Also note that at least the latter is sped up by a factor of four in my settings, compared to the default.) Here we likely see an effect of different standards of comparison: During regular play, I am used to things happening very quickly; coming straight from experiences with 1.14, I saw the contrast to the truly slow.

(As for differences, they appeared to be mostly optical. However, I did not manage to do any non-trivial game play nor test some of the features at all or more than very superficially, and there might have been significant changes that I am not aware of.)

Excursion on performance:
It is true that processing power is quite abundant today, with even a low-end cell-phone comparing well to the first computers that I knew. However, it is still not a limitless resource; not all computers have top-end processors (graphics cards, whatnot), notably because even an outdated low-end notebook can handle almost any task with ease;* and there are still factors like environmental impact and battery life to consider when a heavy workload increases energy consumption. In some case, even heat might be a factor to consider—what if a game is not playable on a hot summers day?

*For instance, my current notebook has a quadcore processor topping out at 2 GHz and only “on-board” graphics—and that is more than enough to watch even HD movies, play older versions of Wesnoth, listen to music, browse the Web, etc. Indeed, the average load on my processor is often below 1 %…

It is also noteworthy that some of this computing is a complete waste, e.g. because (as with 1.14) there is no benefit to it. Often, it is based on faulty assumptions about what the user wants.* Often, it is a pseudo-optimization; sometimes, it is even contra-productive.** It is particularly infuriating when an idle application (as with 1.14 above) runs the processor up—by rights, it should have a negligible processor load. Even as a professional software developer, I have problems understanding how they manage the opposite: Is it amateurish “busy waiting”? Is it a polling multiple times per second for an event that takes place every few hours? Is it a hidden malware that tries to spy on me? Is it an equally hidden bitcoin-mining operation? …

*For instance, many applications leave background processes hanging around after they are (ostensibly) terminated. This is usually with the intent that the application should start faster the second, third, fourth, … time around—but what if this does not happen for several weeks or only after a re-boot? Worse, there are some applications (especially on Windows machines) that insist on starting such background processes before the first application start. What if the actual application is then never started?

**A good potential example of contra-productive “optimization” is the “save_index” file of Wesnoth: Interacting with the saves is usually faster after deleting it… (I have not studied its exact purpose, but based on the name, it is likely intended to speed up said interaction. I note that I have never experienced any negative side-effects of the deletion.) And, no, this is not a unique example: I first deleted this file because I knew that emptying a cache (or a similar measure) often had led to a speed-up in other applications and thought that I should at least give it a try. Indeed, while caches can have major benefits in the right situation, they are often more a hindrance than a help. For instance, it only rarely makes sense for an application to add its own file caching on top of the file caching done by the operating system and other mechanisms. (And the introduction of SSDs have created many situations where the value of any file caching is strongly reduced compared to the past.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 2, 2018 at 1:39 am

Revisiting verbosity based on Wesnoth

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Since writing a text dealing with verbosity (among other things), I have dabbled with Wesnoth*, which well illustrates the problems with undue verbosity, lack of tempo, and similar:

*See an excursion for some information and a few notes on terminology beneficial for the non-player’s understanding of this text.

  1. Most campaigns contain an undue amount of narration and dialogue*.

    *Which is fixed in advance. Only very rarely can the player influence the development of the dialogue, and then only within a small set of fix choices.

    Now, a good story can make a campaign more enjoyable*; however, the point of the game is to play the game—if I want to read an extensive story, I can just grab a book.

    *Especially, through adding aspects with no correspondence in the “pure” game, e.g. character background or a romantic sub-theme.

    Worse: Most of the resulting text is pointless. It adds no value to the story or the overall enjoyment; is repetitive; states what should be a given; or is otherwise a waste of time. (That the text is very often poor by criteria relating to prose, effectiveness, story-telling, …, does not help—but that is an unrelated topic.)

    For instance, very many scenarios start with multiple enemy leaders saying variations of “I will crush you, puny humans!” or “Victory shall be ours!”—which reminds me of German sports writers, who do not tire of headings like “X will den Sieg!” (“X wants to win!”). What had they expected that made that news-worthy?!?

    Another complete idiocy is “war council” scenarios where various characters make mostly pointless statements, sometimes leading up to half-a-dozen characters, one after the other, saying “Agreed!” (or something to that effect)—where a simple “(All agree.)” would have done just as well, with a fraction of the player’s time wasted. Usually, the entire council could have been compressed into just a few lines of dialogue or replaced by a simple narrative message.

    The bulk, however, is lost on unduly long narration, mostly amounting to filler.

    To boot, if a campaign is played more than once, the value of the (textual parts of the) story are diminished further (while the non-story parts remain similarly interesting to the first time). What might be acceptable the first time around, need not be so the second, third, or fourth time.

    Sometimes, it is so bad that I skip entire sequences of story (which is, fortunately, possible as a lesser evil)—but am then (a) left with no benefit at all from the story, (b) often lack context,* and (c) can miss various hints to optimal game play given in the text**.

    *E.g. in that I do not know why I suddenly have an ally or why I am suddenly trying to defeat a band of orcs, instead of those undead that had hitherto been the main enemy.

    **E.g. that a wooded area contains hidden enemies or that some aspect of the standard game-mechanisms has been temporarily altered.

    Most campaigns would be better by cutting the text in half; some would be better by cutting it to a tenth. (Note that I do not say that the story should be cut—only the text.) Generally, it is important to understand that different types of work require different types of writing—a game is not a novel, a play, or even a comic.

  2. The previous item is made the worse by limitations in the way that the game displays text: A longer piece of narration is displayed with no more than a few lines at a time (the next few lines following after user confirmation) and in an annoying manner, where each line is slowly blended in, one after the other. (Fortunately, this blend-in can be skipped by pressing the space key; however, this risks skipping too far, and a setting to skip the blend-in as a matter of course is not present.) Similarly, dialogue, even single words, is always displayed individually for each character speaking. Both imply that the user (even when wanting to read) has to hit the space key every few seconds; both have negative effects on strategies like getting a cup of coffee between scenarios to read the narration and dialogue at the beginning of the next scenario in a fully relaxed state.

    A particular annoyance with dialogue is that any utterance causes the view of the “board” to be focused on the speaking character, which leads to an additional delay and implies that the focus will usually end up at a different portion of the board than before the dialogue.*

    *Since the original focus is not restored. This is OK for pre-scenario dialogue, but problematic with in-game dialogue: Consider making a move to attack, having that attack interrupted by a triggered dialogue, and then having to scroll back to attempt the attack again… This leads to yet another unnecessary delay.

  3. The problems are not limited to text. For instance, some war-council scenarios contain sequences of half-a-dozen characters moving across the board, saying something, and then moving back across the board. These movements bring no value, appear to be unskippable, and take an excruciating* amount of time, during which the player can do nothing within the game. Still, some campaign makers have deliberately taken the effort to add these “value subtracted” moves…

    *I play with the animation speed increased by a factor of four (and have all unnecessary animations turned off). Even so, such sequences are horribly slow. With default settings, the best bet would be to grab a book until the movements are over—which really shows how redundant they are. (Another interface quirk is that the next faster setting is a factor of eight, which would be beneficial here, but might make other portions of the game move too fast.)

  4. A related scenario-error within regular game play is to involve too many units at the same time. For instance, there are a some battle scenarios (e.g. in “Legend of the Invincibles”) with more than a hundred AI-controlled units on the board at the same time (almost all of which are moved every single round)—and where it takes several rounds for the player and the AI-controlled enemy to even make contact.* The ensuing (mostly) unimportant movements, can go on for minutes… Even after contact is established, it takes quite a while before the majority of the units are actually involved in fighting—and that often occurs because sufficiently many of units have finally been killed off…

    *A better way to handle so large battles is to give the opponents less “starting gold” and more “income” or otherwise delay the “recruitment” (without reducing the total number of units eventually involved). A partial improvement is to reduce distances between opponents, but this could lead to a too fast defeat of some of the enemies or increase the influence of luck.

    In such cases, I have even made my own moves, done something completely different while waiting for the computer to make its moves, and then just checked whether the outcome was sufficiently satisfactory* when it was my turn again. Of course, this work-around is often foiled by some random dialogue in the middle of the battle, e.g. when an important enemy unit died. I then have to click through the dialogue, restart the battle, and go back to my “something completely different” for another few minutes…

    *With an eye on two things: Firstly, the loss of some specific units can lose the game outright. Secondly, if too large losses of other units occur, an eventual victory would by Pyrrhic. In both cases, it is time to start the scenario over with a better approach.

In the defense of these campaigns, they are contributed by various users and, therefore, rarely written by professionals. Then again, the more “professional” a campaign appears in other regards, the more text there tends to be (both in general and with regard to “pointless” text).

Excursion on Wesnoth, background information, and terminology:
The games is officially called “Battle of Wesnoth”. It is a turn-based strategy game, mostly played against an AI, which I played very often some years back—before frustration with too great an influence of luck, a poor user interface, and many idiocies in campaigns eventually drove me away. (The issues discussed here relate to literal or metaphorical verbosity—the overall list would be much longer.)

A “campaign” is a series of linked scenarios, roughly equivalent to the overall adventure or war. A “scenario”, in turn, is roughly a sub-adventure or a single battle. A “unit” corresponds to a piece in chess. I have otherwised tried to be low on “technical terms”, in favor of what those unexperienced with computer games and/or Wesnoth might find understandable.

Note that some descriptions above have been simplified compared to actual play. (For instance, even the large battles scenarios discussed above will typically start with only a handful of units, and see armies rapidly expand through “recruitment”.)

Those interested can download it for free from the official Wesnoth website, which also provides more detailed knowledge than given here.

Disclaimer: I played using the latest version available in the standard Debian repositories (1.12), which is not the latest version released. However, this should only affect general game-features, not individual campaigns. Further, the user interface has never improved* much in the past, leaving me pessimistic concerning later versions.

*Add more unnecessary or even annoying animations—yes. Tweak the looks of various units—yes. Improve actual usability—no.

Excursion on reading speed:
I suspect that some of the above is worse for those who read or process information faster, e.g. in that the “coffee strategy” will work better for a slower reader, who will hit the space key less frequently and have more time to relax during an individual portion of text. (On the other hand, a slower reader will, obviously, need longer to reach game play, and might grow more frustrated with the length of the delay.)

Excursion on “The Elements of Style”:
“Omit needless words” is likely the most famous claim in that book. Examples like Wesnoth and Der Untergang des Abendlandes really drive home the point. Notably, the main problem with both is the sheer quantity of needless words (and needless movements, etc.). The latter also shines a different light on this recommendation, in as far as “The Elements of Style” was written in a different era, when texts like Spengler’s were far more common than today, and the advice correspondingly more beneficial: Looking at typical writing back then, it was likely the single most important advice to give; today, it is “merely” good advice. For instance, my recent criticism of Stephen King’s novels (as too thick for their own good) is not rooted in individual formulations being unduly long*, but in problems on a higher level, e.g. individual scenes that could be cut out or shortened without loss.

*His sentences are reasonably compact—certainly, more so than my own…

Written by michaeleriksson

November 18, 2018 at 11:43 pm