Wednesday, December 26, 2018

My Psychosomatic Pain: How I fully recovered from RSI/Tendonitis/Carpal Tunnel in 2009

Hi.  I'm DDRKirby(ISQ) and I am a survivor of "Repetitive Strain Injury/Tendonitis/Carpal Tunnel Syndrome" (emphasis on quotes).  I suffered from chronic debilitating wrist pains from 2008 to 2009, to the point where I could not operate a computer for any reasonable length of time without feeling severe pain, and seriously considered dropping out of my university's Computer Science program (or at the very least taking a sabbatical/medical leave to recover), as well as never using a computer again.  I recovered in June 2009 over the course of about a week.  That's right, my year-long pain took 1 week to heal from.  Over the course of that week, I FULLY healed, 100%.  Since then I have been typing and using computers for hours daily and remained been pain-free for the past 9 years (and counting).  It turns out that [spoiler alert!] my chronic pain was actually an instance of psychosomatic pain (caused purely by mental facilities).  This is the story of how that all came about.

I have shared my experiences with a few people personally, but I have never shared it publicly on my blog because I feel that it falls into a certain social gray area that is looked upon with a certain stigma.  However, I feel like this issue is being brought more and more to light as time goes on.  Recently, Otto "SilentWolf" Bisno, a former prolific Super Smash Bros Melee player, shared a video detailing his own personal experiences with a very similar pain recovery.  This video inspired me to share my own story in the hopes that it will at the very least, spread awareness of these issues.  If I can help even one person recover from debilitating pains, then it is entirely worth suffering this social stigma.  Mental health issues such as these are still treated with much less attention and respect than they deserve, but hopefully by talking about them more we can start to change that prevailing attitude.

This is a somewhat personal story, so please read it as such.  Thank you.  I really do apologize for the length of the story, but I felt like I should retell it as a whole to really give everyone the entire context.  This was quite some time ago so I apologize in advance for any details which I have mistakenly gotten wrong.

The Onset of Pain

My wrist pains started in the Summer of 2008, when I started working at my first summer internship.  I was typing and using a mouse during this 40hr/wk internship in addition to using a computer at home, so it "made sense" that I would start suffering some side effects from the increased usage.  The pain started in my right wrist and manifested most frequently when I was using my mouse at work, but also persisted to some extent during other activities.  One of my co-workers used a Kinesis Keyboard for ergonomic reasons, and I reasoned that this whole ergonomics thing was quite serious business.

First Measures (Unsuccessful)

Wanting to start take proper care of my wrists immediately, I switched to using my mouse with my left hand at work to decrease the usage of my right wrist (I kept it on the right hand at home to balance my usage).  Taking breaks from continuous usage was unanimously agreed upon to also be vital to recovery, so I also installed Workrave, a program which reminds you (and/or forces you) to take routine breaks from keyboard and mouse usage.

In addition, I started to diligently research into ergonomics articles online to figure out how I could best alleviate any possible root causes of my wrist pain.  What I found was frustrating and confusing, as most of the literature online offers entirely conflicting viewpoints on what is actually ergonomic vs not ergonomic.

A basic question such as "should I use a wrist rest" had no reliable answer from any reputable source, as far as I could tell.
- Some articles claimed that using a wrist rest helps "cushion" the tension placed on your wrist.
- Some articles claimed that using a wrist rest applies extra pressure to the underside of your wrist, which can compress the carpal tunnel and pinch the median nerve
- Some articles claimed that using a wrist rest can help with achieving a better wrist angle, prevengint you from bending your wrist and cutting off blood circulation.
- Some articles claimed that you are supposed to rest your PALMS on wrist rests, not your wrists themselves.
- Some articles claimed that you should not be resting your wrist on ANYTHING, and instead "hovering" your wrists above the keyboard or mousepad.

Regardless, I tried as best I could to do things that seemed "sensible".  At least I was trying to do =something= about it.  I hoped that the mouse switching, keyboard breaks, and increased focus on ergonomics would help me recover. didn't.  The pain continued, and even worse, my left wrist was now being affected.

Physical Therapy

My internship ended, and I went back to school.  My pain was annoying and I had to constantly monitor my computer usage and take keyboard breaks, but I could still more or less function normally.  At around this time I started to undergo physical therapy to help my wrist muscles and tissues recover.

During my first round of physical therapy I was given several wrist-stretching exercises to do on a regular basis to help improve circulation as well as loosen up any tension I had in that area.  I did these quite religiously and regularly in addition to everything else I had been trying so far.  I had also switched to an ergonomic-type keyboard at this point.

The pain persisted, and began to get progressively more severe.

The Specialist

At this time things were really starting to become a serious problem, so I went to go see a specialist doctor/physical therapist.  The specialist identified all manners of problems that they said were causing my pains.  They told me my posture was all wrong and I wasn't sitting up straight, which was cutting off the circulation to my wrists, causing the wrist tissue to be inflamed.  The specialist did all sorts of things to help me, including:
- Putting my hands into heated parafin wax to help blood flow and circulation
- Using electrical stimulation (literally running electricity through my wrists and arms) to encourage muscles to relax
- Administering (painful) pressure point massages to my shoulders and back to loosen up my posture and tight muscles
- (Probably more things that I'm forgetting about)
They also gave me more stretches to do, as well as the homework of improving my posture.  In addition, they had me soak my arms alternatively in hot and cold water baths.  I also stopped using a mouse altogether and switched to using a trackball, to avoid having to move my wrists around as much.

By this time my physical "rehab" was pretty much a major factor in my daily life.  Most of my (sympathetic) friends were well acquainted with my condition since I was constantly doing arm stretches and trying to shake the tension out of my wrists.  Between the hot/cold baths, physical therapy sessions, arm/wrist stretches, ergonomics advice, keyboard breaks, and posture exercises, I was spending a LOT of time dealing with this problemThis was starting to adversely affect almost everything else in my life.  I couldn't play computer games (playing on my nintendo DS still seemed fine, thankfully).  My Computer Science homework took significantly longer to do due to the fact that I could only type for a minute at a time before having to take a break.

To make matters worse, I was also in the middle of one of the most (if not THE most) work-intensive CS class in the undergrad curriculum (CS140 - Operating Systems).  I had to ask the course staff for extensions on several of the projects, explaining to them that I was severely impaired in my ability to work.  At this time in my life I was also dealing with depression, loneliness, struggles with gender identity, and a crisis/conflict over my major (my parents wanted me to be a EE major, which made no sense).  At the recommendation of a close friend and RA, I had started undergoing counseling services at the university.

At this time I continued to do research into ergonomics, this time focused on maintaining good sitting posture.  Unfortunately, I received just as many conflicting pieces of information as before.
- Some articles claimed that sitting up straight is bad for your back and that you should lean backwards at a 135-degree angle to your legs.
- Some articles claimed that you should instead be bending forward by 10-20 degrees.
- Some articles (and basically all Asian parents, for some reason) claimed that you should place one or more cushions on either the seat or against the back of your (already-cushioned) chair to "help" with posture (this has never once made sense to me)
- Some articles claimed that you should avoid using cushions or chairs that have too much cushioning, as they don't offer enough actual support

Drastic Measures

At this point it probably seems like things couldn't really get any worse.  But they did.  I somehow managed to survive until the end of the school year and told myself that I would use this summer to REALLY cure myself once and for all.  I stopped blogging.  I installed speech-recognition software on my computer and started dictating in lieu of using my hands at all.  I was really trying everything I could. didn't work.

At this time I was enrolled in my university's Summer research internship program.  It was not going well.  I felt completely incompetent as well as intimidated of both my peers and mentors and despite my efforts to brute-force my way through it, at the end of the day it wasn't just impostor syndrome -- I really didn't know what I was doing and I was stressed out of my mind.  To make matters worse, the program was quickly becoming a liability for my physical health, as it was preventing me from being 100% computer-free.

This was honestly one of the lowest points I have had in my life thus far.  My wrist pain had taken away not only some of my greatest passions in life, but also potentially my future career and trade.  My friends remained sympathetic, but my parents tended to focus instead on what I did wrong.  Why did I let things get this bad?  Why did I not stop using the computer earlier?  This is really bad now.  Like rubbing salt in fresh wounds, this didn't help my sanity or happiness.

At this point I really didn't know what I was going to do with myself.  I'm pretty sure I started to cry when I realized the very real possibility that this was not something that I would ever cure in my life.

Finally, a Light in the Tunnel

I resigned from my internship program, informing them that my pain was getting severely worse and that I was unable to continue working without jeopardizing my physical rehabilitation.  At the very least, I wouldn't have to think about that anymore.  At this time, one of my seniors in the program told me they wanted to chat with me about possible ways to recover.

This person (who quite honestly turned my entire life around) told me about an alternative approach to recovering from RSI/Tendonitis/Carpal Tunnel/etc.  He informed me of a condition called "Tension Myositis Syndrome" which it seemed like I was probably suffering from.

The intro page to TMS says:

Have you struggled with chronic pain or another medically unexplained symptom for a long time? Have you tried everything to alleviate your pain, but nothing worked? Have you had doctors tell you they "just can’t find anything wrong?"

Then you may have Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS). TMS is a condition that causes real physical symptoms that are not due to pathological or structural abnormalities and are not explained by diagnostic tests. In TMS, symptoms are caused by psychological stress.

Some Disclaimers

Let me make some things to you right off the bat.  The very existence of TMS has not been rigorously proven and is not accepted by the medical community at large.  While there are literally HUNDREDS of success stories (including this one) about TMS-related issues, peer-reviewed medical evidence that proves that TMS techniques are effective, and even a Harvard RSI Action Group that endorses this approach, the general opinion is that this pseudoscience at best, and hogwash at worst.

I will address some of this at a later point.  For now, let's continue with my story as it happened in 2009.

I have TMS!

The idea behind TMS is that repressed emotions and/or psychological stress triggers a distraction mechanism which manifests itself as psychosomatic pain, which is then misdiagnosed as any number of chronic pain symptoms (RSI, Tendonitis, Carpal Tunnel, you name it).  Essentially, your mind and body create real, physical pain as a way of distracting you from your repressed emotional issues.

The more I read about TMS, the more convinced I became that this was what I was affected by.  TMS occurs frequently in perfectionistic, people-pleasing, "Type A" people (like me).  It claims to be closely correlated to repressed emotions, and especially, external and internal stress.  The onset of pain frequently occurs along with a significant and stressful life event, such as a new job (ding ding ding), marriage, death of a loved one, and so on and so forth.  The pain typically gets more and more severe as it begins to control and affect one's life, and becomes even worse in times of stress.

- The onset of my pain occurred at the start of my first internship.  I was quite intimidated and afraid of screwing things up at this time, which was quite stressful.
- I had several emotional issues throughout the year as I mentioned earlier.
- The pain got more and more severe the more I tried to do about it.  In fact, it seemed that the pain was directly proportional to the amount of time and energy I spent thinking about it.
- The WorkRave keyboard monitor program, in particular, exacerbated the pain incredibly as it constantly reminded me that using the computer was BAD and causes PAIN.
- The pain reached its worst point during my summer internship, when I really felt like I was worthless and didn't know what I was doing.
- It made very little logical sense that certain activities involving my fingers and wrists (using keyboards and mice) caused me pain, but others (playing with my game boy, writing with a pen, using an arcade stick controller) didn't.

Immediate Relief

This was it!  This explained literally everything I had been going through for the past year.  My initial skepticism was quickly replaced by incredulity, then hope, and finally a feeling of reliefThis was the first time in literally 12 months that I had felt genuine HOPE in curing my pain.  And this hope was an incredibly powerful feeling.  Literally as I read the information on the TMS website, I literally began feeling my pain subside.  Knowing that the pain was not "real", and knowing that I could heal from it, knowing that I could go back to living my LIFE, instantly reduced my pain by over 50%.  Maybe even more.

I excitedly started typing an email reply to the person who had linked the site to me.  I typed it on my shitty, unergonomic laptop keyboard.  I typed and typed and typed, and for the first time in months, it didn't hurt.  I knew then that I would be cured.

It still took me some time to fully recover from my pain (as I said, around one week).  Knowing that the pain is psychosomatic is literally half the battle (50% of my pain went away instantly), but I still had to go through the other half -- affirming myself, fully convincing myself that the pain really was psychosomatic, addressing my mental health, and of course, dealing with my repressed emotions.  I bought a book to learn more about some ideas behind psychosomatic pain.  But honestly, the first step was the most important of all -- simply reading about the idea of TMS on a website.  There are several sites dedicated to helping people who may be suffering from TMS and other related psychosomatic pain disorders.  This page is a fantastic place to start.

And that was it!  It really was that simple.  After all of those ergonomic changes, physical therapy, lifestyle changes, keyboard monitors, stretches, and posture exercises (none of which helped), the one thing that actually worked was literally just reading a website and reading a book.  That's it.  I educated myself, changed my way of thinking, and stopped letting my pain control my life.

And I've been 100% pain-free for the past 9 years.  I'm not talking about "oh, yeah, sometimes it comes back, I just have to be aware of it and keep it in check so it doesn't resurface".  I'm saying I literally have zero worries about wrist pain whatsoever now.  I can type or play games or do anything as much as I want and I won't feel pain.  THAT is what is means to recover from TMS.

My Personal Viewpoint on TMS and Psychosomatic Pain

Psychosomatic pain, as it relates to Repetitive Strain Injury, is a very contentious topic, because it directly opposes traditional practices behind treating RSI.

- In a traditional approach to RSI, you need to immediately STOP all activity that involves the strained muscles/tissues, to give them time to heal and recover.  If you continue to use these muscles, the physical condition will become more severe.
- In the TMS approach, you should RESUME normal activity directly involving the painful areas.  The idea is that you should not be letting the pain control your life.  The pain in this case is psychosomatic, so it is NOT indicative of a real physical debilitation, and will not get worse.

This is where TMS gets into a lot of trouble.  For example, if someone twisted their ankle, you obviously would not tell them "keep walking and playing sports like you normally do" because that is clearly going to worsen their condition and endanger their health.  Similarly, if someone has a real, physical debilitation with their wrists (a tumor, a fracture, an infection, a pulled muscle), the TMS approach would make things worse, not better.

This brings us to the question...

How do I know whether I have Psychosomatic Pain or "Real" RSI?

Unfortunately this is a very difficult question to answer at this time, with the little that we know about the mind, body, and how they function together.  The first and most important thing I will tell you is this: Please consider both possibilities.  I firmly believe that awareness and mindfulness will serve you better than anything else.

The way that most people tend to think about differentiating psychosomatic pain from "real" RSI is:
"You should first get a physical examination from a traditional doctor, to rule out the possibility of any actual physical debilitation.  If that doesn't find anything, then maybe you can try the TMS thing."
I wish that this was the right answer.  But when I went to a specialist, they specifically told me that there WAS something wrong with my wrists.  They pointed to "inflammation" or "microtension" or whatever else they called it, something about tendons and soft tissue and blahblahblah, but they made it sound like a very real problem affecting the muscles and tissues in my wrist.  But their diagnosis was incorrect, because my pain was 100% psychosomatic.

And I think a lot of people often get these sorts of explanations from doctors, about "inflammation" and "micro-tears" and the like.  But based on my experience, I don't think we can always take them at face value.  I'm not saying that these doctors are trying to lie to you, or scam you into costly procedures.  Most likely they are genuinely trying to help you, but unfortunately our current medical knowledge about this type of chronic pain seems to not always be able to diagnose these issues accurately.

So personally, I think it's important to consider both possibilities, get a second opinion, and more importantly, logically go through some important questions to ask yourself regarding the nature of your pain.

- How legit does the medical explanation sound?  Is there an actual structural anomaly in the affected area? (e.g. "your bone is literally fractured.  You can see it in this X-ray")  Or is it something more nebulous? (e.g. "soft tissue inflammation")
- Was the onset of my pain associated with a stress-related event or change in my life?
- Is the level of pain correlated with emotional health and stress, or with the physical use of the related muscles?
- Are you a very perfectionistic person who is hard on yourself?
- Has the level of pain worsened as more time is spent attempting treatments?
- Has the pain moved around to different areas of the body, or been prone to suggestion and/or worries? (ex. "oh, you think the pain is bad now, wait until it spreads to your elbows!" followed by pain in your elbows very shortly afterwards)

Alternatively, you can see a doctor who specializes specifically in TMS, which may be a great second opinion to get.

My personal recommendations would be to mindfully look into both approaches (traditional and psychosomatic) and make informed decisions based on what comes out of each of them.  If you have been trying physical therapy for 2 months and nothing seems to work or provide lasting relief, maybe your pain really is psychosomatic after all.

One last note on this subject: In the case of an actual physical issue, I always like to tell people that I think mental health is always very important regardless of whether your issue is psychological in nature.  Even if you don't have or even believe in psychosomatic pain, traditional medicine still tells us that it is very clear that mental health affects physical health and vice-versa, and it can only do you good to ensure that you are taking care of yourself mentally as you try to fix your physical issues as well.

TMS is Pseudoscience

There is a lot of evidence that psychosomatic issues in pain and chronic pain are very real and that the treatments prescribed to victims of psychosomatic pain are often extremely effective.  However the mainstream medical community has not accepted the theories around TMS.

The original theory by Dr. Sarno goes something like this:

"According to Sarno, TMS is a condition in which unconscious emotional issues (primarily rage) initiate a process that causes physical pain and other symptoms. His theory suggests that the unconscious mind uses the autonomic nervous system to decrease blood flow to muscles, nerves or tendons, resulting in oxygen deprivation (temporary micro-ischemia) and metabolite accumulation, experienced as pain in the affected tissues."

I personally don't feel confident in this entire theory.  While it may (?) be true that chronic psychosomatic pain is caused by some sort of oxygen deprivation, my impression (as someone who is totally unqualified to actually judge these issues) is that we really don't have enough understanding into how the mind and body are connected to tell what the exact mechanism for psychosomatic pain is.  For this reason, when I discuss these issues, I tend to use the more general term "psychosomatic pain" rather than the specific theory of Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS).

Regardless of whether or not TMS is the "right" explanation for psychosomatic pain, we know that psychosomatic pain is very real, and is something more people should be aware of.

Ergonomics may as well also be Pseudoscience

This whole experience has understandably made me much more doubtful of our knowledge of ergonomics as a whole.  I already outlined earlier how frustrating it was to find conflicting advice and studies that disagreed with each other in terms of best keyboard/mouse practices and posture.  Perhaps several of the ergonomics and posture advice that we are accustomed to is just old wives' tales, just like some of the most faulty common cooking advice that has been passed down through generations ("Flip your burgers only once", "Searing locks in juices" -- both of these have been proven incorrect by scientific studies).

This is one of the reasons why I think we should consider both psychosomatic pain and ergonomic root causes when diagnosing chronic pain.  People often argue that TMS is a load of crap because it's not very well understood, but I honestly think that a lot about ergonomics and posture are also not very well understood.

That said, I do think posture and ergonomics do =matter= and there are some things that are clear, even if not everything is fully understood.  For example, I know that for me, sitting on the floor for extended periods of time (as opposed to in a chair) tends to make me physically uncomfortable, so I try to avoid that.  "Lift with your knees not your back" is another thing that is both sensible and important.  And if I have to use the edge of my thumb to click with a trackpad over and over and over again, it starts bothering me simply because it's uncomfortable to keep pressing the side of my thumb against the trackpad constantly.  So it's not like physical pain is a lie or anything or that there is no such thing as bad ergonomics.  You still need to do things in a way that makes you physically (and mentally!) comfortable.

However, it seems like there is this weird cultural belief that if you sit with anything less than a 100% straight back, then you'll get idiopathic scoliosis or something, which is simply not true.  I personally think mindfulness is the most important rather than adhering to an extremely strict or rigid set of rules or restrictions on what you should and shouldn't do.  The way you stand and sit and hold yourself ought to mindfully facilitate both physical and mental happiness.  Think positive, not negative.  For example, taking a deep breath and stretching your muscles, reminding yourself to smile and relax instead of tensing your shoulders -- these things sound great!  You will probably feel happy both physically and mentally for doing these things.  Constantly worrying that you are sitting in the same position for too long, or forcing yourself to adopt a sitting or standing position that does not feel natural to you -- these sound more like things that could lead to trouble.  Always feel free to try out different postures at your own pace, but in the end, if something is causing you pain, it's might not be right for you.  For example, if you tried a standing desk and started to feel pain in your legs or back, maybe it's not right for you (of course, you can try using it a different way).  I know there is this prevailing black-and-white view that "sitting too much is the root of all evil" or whatever, but I think we should try to be a little more open-minded about these things.


I know I wrote about a ton of different things and probably rambled for too long so I will try to wrap up with some tl;dr bullet points.

- If you think you have chronic pain that may be psychosomatic in nature, please educate yourself and read up on it!
- Psychosomatic pain is a very real thing and should be carefully and seriously considered in conjunction with traditional approaches to chronic pain.
- I think we should really do a better job of spreading awareness of mental health issues such as psychosomatic pain.  I had no idea it existed and I bet many other people could benefit from this knowledge.
- Unfortunately, it seems that mainstream medicine can be unprepared to properly diagnose psychosomatic pain, so it is important to be mindful of pain and consider second opinions.
- Ergonomics is still a gray area in many regards, so mindfulness is important here too.
- Above all else, don't forget that mental health is important!  When we ignore our mental health, it can progressively worsen to the point that we become physically ill.  We ought to not let things get to that point!

Thank you for reading!  If you have any questions about any of this, feel free to contact me personally.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Ludum Dare 43 work continues...

For me, Ludum Dare is "the 72-hour-long game jam where you work on a game for 4 weeks."

Yep, LD43 was at the beginning of this month and I am still working on the game we made...I guess this is why I always have work to do.  Maybe it's not such a bad thing that Ludum Dare is moving to twice-a-year instead of 3 times each year!

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Smash Ultimate's (lack of) Visual Readability

I've been dipping my toes into ultimate recently, and while I could of course comment on the gameplay, mechanics, characters, and everything else of that nature, I'd actually like to instead take a moment to comment on the (lack of) visual readability that I'm experiencing in the game.

There have been quite a number of times that I've been visually confused by what's going on as I play Ultimate.  Losing track of my character position in a 2v2 team battle, confusion over items and projectiles and in more general terms a sense of visual overload from what is going on on the screen.  At first I reasoned that this was just because I was unfamiliar with the characters, movesets, projectile types, and items, but after thinking about it some more, I realized that it's simply because the game is way harder to read visually.

There are a few big reasons for this, which I'll try to illustrate in visual form since that will be the most helpful to understand what I'm talking about.

Balloon Knockback

There was a substantial shift in how knockback works in Ultimate when compared with other smash games.  To illustrate, lets first look at a high knockback scenario in Super Smash Bros. Melee:

Nothing special here, Luigi gets hit by the Falcon Punch, gets sent flying, and travels for over a full second before his momentum stops and he can start drifting back to the stage.  Even though Luigi gets sent an entire screen distance (roughly the length of FD), it's still very easy to track.

Now let's look at how knockback works in Ultimate:

In Ultimate, knockback velocity is very nonlinear -- instead of traveling at a constant speed, you travel REALLY fast initially, and then slow down dramatically after a little bit, like you're an inflated air balloon with a lot of drag.

Notice how much more jarring this effect is.  In particular, pay attention to how Sonic's initial knockback velocity is SO fast that he goes off screen for a moment before the camera does a massive readjustment.

This is significantly harder to track, and that's not just my personal opinion:

"According to a translation by Source Gaming, Masahiro Sakurai considered applying this change to knockback during Super Smash Bros. 4's development. He concluded that it would've been too difficult to keep track of the launched fighter on the small 3DS screen." (source)

This is the reason why in Ulimate we have these large obnoxious smoke trails every time you get sent flying.  The smoke trails at least provide a visual path for your eyes to follow as you try to relocate your character again.  But what if you are in a 2v2 or FFA situation and multiple characters get sent flying at the same time?

I'm assuming that the change to knockback was done for gameplay reasons, or for "visual cool" factor.  The big smoke trails certainly look "cool", but it's a real problem when every time a high knockback move hits I lose track of one (or more) characters.  I'm not even sure which direction to hold on my control stick when this happens because I'm not sure which end of the screen I ended up on.

Character Visuals

It's pop quiz time!  Let's look at some screenshots of standard 1v1 matches.  In each of these matches, one player will be using a RED character costume, and their opponent will be using the same BLUE character costume of the same character.  Your exercise is to figure out which player is on the LEFT side of the screen and which one is on the RIGHT side of the screen.  Got it?

Here we go!  Let's start with this one:

Too easy?  Okay, sure, you're right.  DK's entire body may as well be colored in bright paint, so of course he stands out clearly (hint: many of the characters in smash 64 are like this).  Let's try a more difficult character, and I'll even reduce the size of the screenshot.

Pikachu's entire body is just yellow!
...but this was relatively easy too, wasn't it?  Not only is his entire body tinted, but each one of them has a distinctive, uniformly consistent colored party hat that you can easily reference to figure out which color they're associated with.

Okay, now what about this one?

One of these Falco costumes is "red" and one of these Falco costumes is "blue".  Can you tell which one is which?  Because I sure as hell can't.  These two costumes are supposed to be contrasting primary colors, yet they look virtually identical.  I kid you not, this is literally from a highlight video that I was watching earlier this afternoon.  The blue falco is on the right, by the way, though both of them have red shoes and share the same white jacket.  I'm sure the front side of blue falco's jacket is probably tinted a little differently.......not that I can actually see it since it's not facing the camera.  See the problem?

There is a ton of detail crammed into these characters (not that I can see most of it in the screenshot above since the lighting is dark), but somewhere along the way we lost a strong silhouette and color keying.  These two things are why pixel art and 2D art in general (when done well) are such a strong visual language for games: because it reads so clearly and consistently.  As a game player, I need to be able to take in an image and break it down into contrasting blocks of color to read what is going on.

Let's try converting the image from before into grayscale and blowing up the contrast:

Notice how there's some very good effort being done to make sure that the stage itself is readable.  From a quick glance at this image it's immediately obvious where the main stage and platform are because there's a nice fill light on the flat portion of the stage, along with a horizontal neon light on the side of the platform.  Nice!

But look at what happened to the characters themselves.  Falco on the left is blending into the shadows, while Falco on the right is blurring into the Mako reactor in the background.  These characters are THE most important thing in the game, yet it's impossible to read a clear silhouette from them.  If I'm looking at this image the only thing that really stands out to me is a BLINDING WHITE CLOUD OF SMOKE that tells me that someone is starting a dash...

Don't even get me started on trying to differentiate two similar characters on the same team, or when Inkling paint gets into the mix...

"But DDRKirby!  Of course the lighting is going to be bad, you picked a super dark stage for your screenshot!"

But see, that's the thing -- Smash 64 doesn't HAVE these sorts of lighting problems -- the characters look great on all the stages (okay, maybe not on Kongo Jungle, but that one is the exception to the rule).  But you know what, since you asked, let's try a brighter stage in Smash Ultimate!

There are 4 different characters in this Smash Ultimate screenshot.  Can you find them all?

When I tried this exercise myself, my eyes went to the dark black smudges at the bottom of the screen ("is somebody exploding in the middle of there?"), briefly thought that Toon Link's portrait was a character in the game ("oh, it's just a ui element"), and wandered around before finally realizing that Inkling wasn't just part of the tree in the background.

Does adding back in the colors help?  Well.....

....sort of.  At least Inkling stands out against Whispy Woods (the tree) now.  But there's no focus to the image here.  Colors are just everywhere and my eyes really don't understand where I am supposed to be looking.  Try squinting your eyes and looking at the image.  Can you make out anything that's going on?

Now let's look at a 4-player match in Smash 64:

This image is ridiculously low quality (please excuse the watermark).  Yet it's much easier to tell where the 4 characters are, even if you squint your eyes.  Why?  Well, that brings me right to my next point...

Stage Visuals

Just as important as the character designs, palettes, and silhouettes, are the background against which they are set.  In the above two images, notice how much more subdued and desaturated Hyrule Castle is compared to Green Greens.  In fact, the background of Hyrule Castle has a blurry "haze" effect that makes Fox stand out extremely well.  Meanwhile, in Green Greens, color, saturation, and detail is EVERYWHERE in the background, so the characters don't stand out nearly as much.

Let's look at some more examples to illustrate the point.

Here's Battlefield from Super Smash Bros. Melee:

Very clear definition -- the platforms are again highlighted -- and even though there's a weird glowing orb thing on the bottom of the stage, it's not distracting because it's on the underside of the stage -- which is usually not in view!  The background uses smooth dark gradients so that the characters will stand out against it.

Here's Battlefield from Smash Ultimate:

It looks gorgeous.  But good luck finding your fighter in the middle of all that mess, particularly with that giant ice sculpture thing on the right there.

See the trend?  We have all of these detailed stages with tons of color and contrast everywhere, which looks great, but greatly hurts readability.

And it's not just Battlefield.  MANY stages have received the same treatment, where everything is brighter, more contrasty, more detailed, and generally more busy.

Here's Mushroom Kingdom in 64 vs Ultimate:

In Ultimate, the stage looks much more "fresh", pretty and new, but look at how much harder it is to distinguish the platform on the left against the background!  The pulley platforms in the middle also blend right into the similarly-colored mushroom top in the background now.  Even within the stage itself, it's hard to distinguish what is in the foreground and what is in the background because everything in the entire game is just bright and vivid.

Peach's Castle is more of the same -- again, everything just got brighter and more contrasty:

And let's not forget Venom, where all of a sudden the most eye-catching element of the stage is GIANT LAVA IN THE BACKGROUND that has no bearing on gameplay:

I'm not saying that you can't have interesting, beautiful, detailed backgrounds.  It's just that those backgrounds need to be designed with readability in mind.  In fact, the Battlefield version of Fourside in Ultimate actually manages to execute this perfectly:

Look at all that gorgeous detail in that background!  And yet, the platforms and main stage are super readable, and the (well-lit) characters pop out instantly against the dark night sky.  This is what readable stages should look like.

Anyways, that's the end of my rant.  I'm always disappointed when higher fidelity graphics and technical capabilities end up leading to worse visual design (Street Fighter IV and Starcraft 2 come to mind) and I haven't seen anyone really talking about it with regards to Smash in particular, so hopefully this post illustrates my feelings effectively.  Again, don't get me wrong -- Smash Ultimate is definitely a beautiful game -- it's just that I think more care and attention needs to be paid to these sorts of readability issues, especially for a fighting game whose primary strength has always been ease of play for newcomers.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

But how could I ever forgive myself now that I am not the same anymore???????

It is unforgivable.

It's been a while since the last time, but we are going off the radar again.  I mean, I could just write this somewhere else.  Maybe that was the point of my diary all along, and perhaps that's why I stopped writing in it.  Maybe I'm just being silly.  But I guess it's also nice to just continue writing here.  In a way it feels almost like it was many years ago, when I complained and wrote sad words about so many things, so many things that people probably didn't care to hear.  But it didn't matter because barely anyone would hear in the first place.  And true to that, it's nice knowing now that I can write in here properly, and what does it even matter what I write if nobody will hear it?  Perhaps, being alone in this space by myself, I can actually start to be honest with my feelings.

If I'm really being honest, though, I feel like I am faced with the choice between climbing uphill to a better place or just jumping down the pit of self-loathing and let me tell you, the pit seems much easier to jump down than to go up.

Let's just take it step by step, day by day.  Let's call today day 1, and reckon that today I don't think I will make it up the hill.  But maybe I can at least just try to sit down and calm my thoughts of madly scrambling towards the edge and leaping off.

When considering whether I am worthless or not, I don't think that is really a question that I should be trying to think about.  Because thinking about it makes it too "obvious" that I am of course super messed up.  I mean, that is only natural, not only am I viewing things from a distorted lens but also viewing it at its worst point.  It's not even a fair judgment, so how could I ever expect to see differently?  It's the choosing of what to do in spite of what already exists, I think that is the only way forward.  Or at least, the only way to avoid leaping back.  There is no easy way to just accept what I said, what I wrote, what I thought, what I felt, because after all is said and done perhaps I should not accept it after all.  But I could at least say something different the day after.

I don't really know how I feel about anything.  My first instinct is that whatever I feel is "bad", so perhaps I can think about it with more of a straight head...later.  Maybe.  I guess nobody cares about what I did in the past anyways, so I better just say "sorry" to myself rather than anybody else.

I guess for today, I can just try to do things that I think are good.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Well, at least I seem to have gotten very good at recognizing when I am in and out of depression.

Rest in peace, Meowmie.  Dec 9, 2017