I’ve been wondering about why I had such a great time reading Daniel Kahneman and Scott Alexander (of Star Slate Codex), and in the process I stumbled upon some important academic truths.
In many questions of more-than-trivial complexity, the closest we are going to get to actual answers is through scientific inquiry . For this reason, in informed discussions, we have a license to reference these academic findings as if they were truths. In this way, while academic work don’t directly answer some of the most complex and important questions in life, they take us much closer.
But all those discussions are based on the assumption that academic work is conducted in good faith – i.e. the numbers are correct and faithfully represented, the conclusions are reasonable and substantiated, etc. A good analogy for the value of academic work is the U.S. dollar, as both are based on good faith. As the USD would be worthless without the backing of the government, research would be useless without the assumption of academic honesty (and this honesty is somewhat reasonably connected to faith in the research institution).
The insistence of relying on primary source exist for the same reason. With each quotation, some information is inevitably lost. Worse, as most work attempt to make a point, the results may be misunderstood or deliberately misconstrued. The outcome of using information distant from primary source is largely the same as using bad research: your points will be inaccurate. While the chain of references used in academic may still cause some deviations from initial references, the decay of quality is much slower that way.
One of the reasons I like Daniel Kahneman and Scott Alexander is that they present surprisingly useful conclusions but are able to back their conclusions with research. This is worlds apart from the status quo psychology and self-help books in terms of reliability.
I remember being drilled on the importance of primary source in seventh grade, then at least two or three times more in the course of my K-12. The claims never appeared to be backed up, and I soon began to see the practice as some of formality. But now I my views have come around.
I still wonder though, did the teachers or the educators know? Four years of college education certainly taught me little on the subject. Concerning how the importance of these concepts hinge on persuasiveness, the failure of the concepts to latch on to students is ironic.
 This article deals with research, but first-hand interviews follow’s the same logic.
I. Man vs. self
Shmups embody the essence of the man versus the self. In few other genres are one-coin clears so emphasized, and mistakes so obvious to the gamer. The score mechanic, a decoration in most genres, thrives in shmups. The score in no uncertain terms communicate to you the worth of your play.
Other games are like miniature gardens, shmups are like miniature mountains. Their towering difficulty challenges all that passes. Most don’t heed it and continue their way. Some do. They stop in their tracks, beholds the peak of the mountain, dream up a journey to the top, and dedicate a part of their life to it.
In 2008 Kuro, a score-runner in Perfect Cherry Blossom, posted a screenshot showing over 2500 hours of gameplay spread over more than 36000 sessions.
II. What do you want?
I had once considered scorerunning in Touhou. Not far into the attempt, I realized that in order to do what I truly wanted to do, I could not afford to seek high scores. It’s the first time I realized that I can’t want and get every lofty goal in life.
In April 2010, AM, a renowned virtuoso in the Touhou scorerunning scene, quit scorerunning to reclaim other aspects of his life.
III. Ability and wisdom
The impressive players of the game are not always wise. In 2011, the Chinese Touhou community outed score-runner MSH when it became apparent that he had cheated to obtain world records. The ousting was a public one, as MSH had cultivated many followers at the time.
The truth is, MSH is a better player than you and I. He has the talent. But talent does not correlate with conduct.
Talent, creativity, persistence, perfectionism. Which ones make you nice, and which ones don’t? In the end, their score reveals little.
My old replays have a certain degree of ruthlessness to it.
When I had a goal in mind, I would ignore other conventions of “good plays”, instead abusing safespots, neglecting score, and otherwise bombing enemy patterns on sight to reduce the difficulty of the run.
Legendary player GIL was known to exaggerate his handicap for already-difficult challenges in order to produce awe-inspiring replays. In some ways I was the opposite of that.
I noticed that recently I’ve been playing shmups less ruthlessly. But I actually liked my old style.
Great score improvements in Touhou are made in billions. For the first years of a game, the high scores tend to barely pass certain thresholds: 42 billion, 52 billion, 21 billion, 10.1 billion.
This is because the pioneers has no one else to look up to, so they ask: is 30 billion achievable? What about 50 billion? They plot up a path and inevitably achieve their first milestones. New challengers seek to beat the best score, devising their own improvements on top of those milestones. They don’t ask “is 50 billion achievable?” but “how do I beat the current world-record?” Thus, world-records have a tendency to grows slower after passing certain milestones.
Eventually, when the state of art is near perfection, someone comes along and asks “what’s the theoretical maximum? This is the case when coa reached a score of 1.00002 billion in Mountain of Faith extra mode, 0.1% away from the theoretical maximum of 1.0001 billion.
A good replay is largely about execution, but sometimes creativity trumps. In this way, scorerunning is a bit like an art form.
In the demo days of Subterranean Animism, a player named UnKnown started submitting replays with innovative strategies, and consequently besting the then-highest scores by huge margins. But he did this to his own replays too, submitting new replays under alias like “U.N.None”, “#unexist”, and ” ” (blank) that introduce innovations on top of his own.
From one of his alias, “tongrentang”, we could trace him to the Chinese scorerunning community. Perhaps some top Chinese players know of his/her identity. But the alias seems to suggest that in the end, who it is doesn’t matter.
VII. Finding pure land
To score-run in Touhou is to stand between life and death. Most Touhou games have a “graze” mechanic, which rewards players for hovering near bullets (so-called graze zone). Most high-scores have tens of thousands of grazes, meaning tens of thousands of intentional almost-deaths.
The graze zone is a harsh and hostile habitat. Imperfections must be purged. The replays discretely showcase the scorerunner’s ability to survive under hostility.
But the players thrive and rejoice under such hostilities. They chose it over the leisure that most media affords, and devote thousands of hours to exploring the world and reaching for perfection. It’s a strangely haunting vision of what the world can be – a place of discipline, self-improvement, tackling limits, striving for the seemingly-possible – a pure land.
VIII. Monuments never-ending
The hundreds of replays on the Touhou high-score board and thousands made in an attempt to reach it are made permanent by the advent of the digital age. Even as a mild shmup player, I can trace the thoughts of the players as they weave through the bullets and improvise under unexpected conditions. These players are no doubt fully concentrated, and the replays capture their thoughts across brief moments in time.
But to earn that privilege to be seen, studied, acknowledged, admired, you must surpass all others before you and ascend to the top. Even then, there is no absolute security. No perfect replays has even been produced, no one has ever done everything that can be done. As long as Touhou is played. The monument of these scoreruns will inevitably be replaced by the scoreruns of the next generation of challengers.
In October 2010, Jack attained 1.002 billion in Mountain of Faith extra, breaking coa’s theoretical limit of 1.001 billion. In the comments section, he conjectures that 1.003 billion is theoretically possible.