Meditations on Life and Happiness: The “Simple” Triad of Health

A conscious life, to be well-lived, must have a guiding principle. Else, that precious gift of the universe is squandered in a reactive cycle with its environment, and the unique control of a conscious mind – free will – lies unused and wasted.

There are many guiding principles, but one that aligns with the zeitgeist of the 21st century — and indeed with human biology – is thus: seek to maximize happiness. Be vigilant that you do not idle on local maxima, but instead use all the resources around you to seek the highest peak on the invisible, unknowable terrain of the future.

Vigilance and wisdom are also needed to avoid the other trap: throwing away a great thing in pursuit of even greater heights, and in doing so losing sight of the goal: to maximize happiness. This metric is a summation across your entire lived life, and a life spent in miserable pursuit of happiness is a poor life indeed. In this way, life is a calculated gamble. You try to hike along a ridge of success to find the mountain peak of bliss and hope that any descent is merely one side of a narrow mountain ravine; a blip, rather than a steady slope down into the foothills of mediocrity.

It must be noted that there are other guiding principles to choose from. Prosperity for your descendants, maximization of total global welfare, establishing an eternal legacy for your name in history, seeking to live in accordance with your religion. Life is meaningless without assigned value, but any principle will do. Indeed, you could try to live all of them. But maximizing happiness has the added benefit of feeling good – a circular argument, but we must accept that our consciousness runs on an imperfect substrate of hormones and neurotransmitters.

What resources can we harness in the pursuit of bliss? We live in a time of near-boundless knowledge, and one must simply be willing to reach out and grasp it. Happiness is of the mind, and the mind is of the body, so we should first begin with the body. How can the mind thrive if the body is sick?

Scientific research confirms some ancient principles and gives them falsifiable form. Bodily health is surprisingly simple, despite the complexity the body. After all, we have evolved to be healthy in as many situations as possible. Catch enough good sleep, eat and drink properly, and exercise. Following these three straightforward principles yields massive results, yet nearly everybody fails to do it.

Roughly 50% of people report not getting enough sleep. 35% of people report their sleep quality as “poor” or “only fair”. 67% of people who aren’t getting “good” quality sleep also report “poor” or “only fair” overall health. Getting enough sleep increases your expected lifespan increases by 10 years, and lack of sleep is heavily correlated with mental health issues.

36% of Americans are obese, and 75% of Americans have an eating pattern that is low in vegetables, fruit, dairy, and healthy oils. Nearly everyone exceeds recommendations for added sugars, sodium, and saturated fat. Only 50% of Americans meet the suggested level for aerobic exercise: 150 minutes of moderate-level exercise a week. That sounds like a lot, but that is only 20 minutes of walking a day, or 10 minutes of running a day. All-cause mortality is 35% lower for these physically active people. Conversely, obesity is a horrible condition that lowers your quality of life across the board.

Yes, these statistics are not rigorous, nor definitive. In addition, there are many difficult-to-change factors that confound execution of the “triad” of sleep, diet, and exercise. Men are more likely to have sleep apnea, and women are more likely to have insomnia. Lower income and less educated people are more likely to have low quality sleep. It is easy to see that this can become a vicious cycle, considering that nearly half of Americans are medically underinsured, and 40% of underinsured individuals report delaying required care. Health problems cause lack of high quality sleep, and not getting enough good sleep hurts the body’s ability to heal. Meanwhile, mental ability and willpower are reduced by lack of sleep, which when combined with health problems makes it difficult to hold a steady, well-paying job. And thus, this theoretical individual remains poor, underinsured, sick, and tired. Being poor sucks.

But even among the educated, liberal techno-elite of West Coast cities, we fail to consistently follow the simple triadic principles. We spend money hand-over-fist on “healthy” food, all while gaining weight. We constantly tell ourselves that we need to hit the gym more often. We may even blame our mental shortcomings on missed sleep the night before. But there is no excuse for squandering the monumental privileges of this life. We are college-educated, we make at least 2 to 3 times as much as the impoverished individual previously described, and we typically have had adequate medical care throughout life. Not only have we been led to water, as the proverbial horse, but we are being met with a deluge; we have been thrown bodily into a pool of clean, delicious water. All we must do is open our mouths and drink. And yet, we don’t.

We stress-eat, or we eat out of boredom. We eat too much of our purported health food because we lack the discipline to stop. We skip sleep to medicate away our profound emptiness of purpose with alcohol and psychoactive drugs, or hyper-stimulating entertainment. We complain that we lack the time to exercise, or moan about the wrist, back, and neck pains that come with our jobs. Instead of seizing the obvious and easy solutions before us, we commit our time, energy, and money to a secular religion of consumption. We fritter our days away praying in sad cathedrals of our own construction: buying the latest iPhone, seeing the latest blockbuster movie, playing the new popular videogame, spending an afternoon scrolling through the endless stimulation of Twitter and Facebook. Better yet, we seek to resolve our guilt by insisting that obesity isn’t a problem and that mental health issues are an inevitable result of a broken social order.

An unhealthy body leads to an unhealthy mind. In the new generation of upper and upper-middle class adults, mental health issues like depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and loneliness occur at more than twice the national average rate. These issues then generate new somatic issues like headaches, stomach aches, and body pains.

Despite personal wealth, despite being well-educated, despite living in a wealthy society, we do not live in an environment conducive to health or happiness. Just as the archetypical impoverished fellow in America is trapped between poor education, low income, bad parenting, bad childhood habits, unhealthy food options, and untreated chronic health conditions, so is the archetypical member of the tech elite trapped by FOMO, social media algorithms, society’s metrics of success, and ubiquitous advertising. Fortunately, we have the good fortune to be able to control our environment.

Is sitting all day at your job giving you back and neck pain? Is staring at a screen destroying your eyesight? Some of that may come with the territory, but much more of it is avoidable. Get up and walk around the office at regular intervals. Get a standing desk. Take a twenty second break to rest your eyes. We’ve heard it all before, and yet we don’t do it.

Perhaps your job won’t allow you to switch between sitting and standing as your body desires, or you are simply too busy to take five minutes to walk around every hour. Ok, so go walk for twenty minutes when you get home. Too tired? Do it anyway. Even that brief exercise will boost your energy levels when done consistently. Better yet, take that walk in the morning, which also helps align your circadian rhythm and improves sleep quality and consistency. Improved sleep will bring more energy and better health, which will make the regular exercise even more invigorating and enjoyable. We’ve heard it all before, yet we don’t do it.

Stop drinking soda, control your insulin cycle. Wean yourself off caffeine to enable a regular sleep schedule and to boost your sleep quality. Limit your alcohol and drug consumption and wean yourself off any chemical sleep aids (including THC and CBD); they near-universally decrease your quality of sleep. Drink more water. We’ve heard it all before, yet we don’t do it. We’ve literally been led to water, yet fail to drink more of it.

If you don’t already pursue a healthier, happier life by implementing these simply practices, dear reader, you probably aren’t going to start as a result of reading this. Many people will agree with the goal of maximizing happiness and agree that all of the things I’ve mentioned are good, healthy habits. People are educated on the necessity of sleep, diet, and exercise. But we live in a local maximum of happiness. Alcohol and drugs feel good, while exercising the discipline to drag your ass out on a 20-minute walk is hard. Enjoying the hyper-stimulation of a movie or videogame feels awesome, while getting an extra 30 minutes of sleep is incredibly boring. Eating good food activates neural pathways that look an awful lot like those activated by good sex. So, why shouldn’t I eat a delicious “healthy” snack that is still packed with more sugar and fat than occurs in any natural food, thereby hyper-stimulating my caveman limbic system?

Well, if your life’s guiding principle is to maximize happiness, and you know for a fact that a glorious peak of bliss lays just across a small gulley of effort, then you should not rest on your small mound of dopamine no matter how high it feels at the time.

Fortunately, in a psychosomatic miracle of free will, we are not bound to continue this unfulfilling trudge. We can exercise conscious discipline and jump the track. We can push slowly but surely on the flywheel of happiness. Soon, a healthy lifestyle will turn from sheltered flame to raging fire, from an endeavor we must actively foster to a pillar of life we can lean on. We must simply make the decision to escape the biological determinism of our current situation and work around our psychological and physical shortcomings. Let’s use our big brains and avoid being controlled by our dumb bodies.

Defining Life

I’ve had this conversation a couple of times recently, because it poses an interesting question: can we create a definition for ‘alive’ that encompasses not only known biological life, but also any theoretical lifeforms we can imagine? This might include alternative biochemistry, artificial life (nanites?), and even digital lifeforms.

Obviously there is an inherent problem in this discussion; we are assuming everyone shares a similar definition of life. However, even a skin-deep probing can reveal divisive philosophical questions. Are computer viruses alive? How about self-replicating structures of dust particles in a plasma? Is the Earth alive? We can’t truly resolve this problem without first clearly setting a boundary for what things are alive and what things aren’t alive. For example, scientists seem to have resolutely decided that biological viruses are not alive. Similarly, its clear to our human sensibilities that a car engine is not alive, even if it is highly advanced and has all sorts of sensors and regulatory mechanisms.

For the sake of discussion, I’m going to skip over this roadblock and dive in. Wikipedia gives these criteria for calling something ‘alive’:

  1. Homeostasis: Regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state.
  2. Organization: Being structurally composed of one or more cells.
  3. Metabolism: Converting chemicals and energy to maintain internal organization.
  4. Growth: A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter.
  5. Adaptation: The ability to change over time in response to the environment.
  6. Response to stimuli: A response is often expressed by motion; for example, the leaves of a plant turning toward the sun (phototropism), and chemotaxis.
  7. Reproduction: The ability to produce new individual organisms, either asexually from a single parent organism, or sexually from two parent organisms.

There are some good ones in there, but a few need to go. Let’s throw out Organization (this can almost be seen as tautological — things made of cells are alive because they are made of cells — and exclusive of otherwise potential candidates for life), Growth (one can imagine an organism which is artificially constructed, but then maintains itself perfectly, or a mechanical organism that starts life by being constructed externally, and slowly grows smaller as it sacrifices components to stay operational), and Reproduction (again, imagine a constructed organism that cannot reproduce). This leaves Homeostasis, Metabolism, and Adaptation/Response to stimuli.

However, its clear that Metabolism is important: an organism must take something from its environment and consume it to maintain an internal state. Metabolism and Homeostasis are where biological viruses fail the ‘life test’. While some advanced viruses meet the Adaptation and Response to Stimuli (arguably the same thing, just at different scales), no virus can use resources from its environment to perform internal upkeep. It requires the hijacked machinery of a cell to do that.

Unless you say that living things are part of a virus’s ‘environment’. Then you could argue that in some sense of the word, viruses are alive, because they use resources present in the environment to perform internal upkeep. This raises an important question about context. Indeed, all definitions of life seem to hinge on context. For example, a computer virus’s environment is the computer system. Resources would be computing time and memory, perhaps.

Is a computer virus alive? Advanced viruses can modify their own state (metamorphic code), respond to stimuli (anti-virus, user activity, etc), and metabolize resources from their environment. They also reproduce, although we cut that criterion so the point is moot. If a computer virus meets the requirements for life (albeit unconventionally), then do we have to accept it as a lifeform?

Moreover, there are things we wouldn’t normally call a single entity that fulfill the requirements for life. These are often termed “living systems”. The Earth is a prime example. It has systems that regulate its interior, it absorbs sunlight and that helps fuel the regulatory cycles on the surface. It’s debatable whether the Earth responds to stimuli. Sure, there are feedback loops, but the Earth doesn’t really respond accordingly to changes (say, changes in solar luminosity or meteoric impacts) in order to maintain homeostasis. Quite the opposite, in fact. For example: a decrease in solar radiation produces more ice, lowering albedo, thus lowering albedo further.

So maybe the Earth isn’t alive, but we have to consider nonetheless that systems can be alive. In fact, its questionable whether humans are single organisms. Several pounds of our weight are gut bacteria, independent organisms which share no DNA with us, but on which we rely for survival. We are a system. Call it a colony, call it symbiosis; the entity that is a human is in fact a collection of trillions of ‘independent’ organisms, and yet that entity is also singularly ‘alive’.

Can we trust our initial, gut reaction that tells us what is alive and what isn’t? Moreover, what use is there in classifying life in the first place? We treat cars that are definitely not alive as if they are precious animals with a will of their own, and then squash bugs without a second thought. Is it important to define life at all, rigorous criteria or not?

Boosterspice

I wrote this short story over the summer for a writing course.

Boosterspice

In the media room of their modest estate, Stephen and Jane sat watching the news.

“Another spice riot. Just what we need: poor people complaining about things that aren’t any of their business.”

“What I don’t understand is the idea that the booster treatment is a God-given right. Just imagine if we gave it to everyone: they keep copulating, but don’t die themselves. We’d be overrun!”

The TV showed a news anchor.

“The biggest discussion of the century is still ongoing in Washington: should the prohibitively expensive treatment known as boosterspice be included in the Medicaid program? Advocates are claiming that current research indicates the treatment is capable of extending a person’s life for up to forty or fifty years; some are even claiming it could let a person live forever. We have with us here a researcher from Kurzweil Technologies to explain the latest breakthroughs in his lab.”

It transitioned to a scientist.

“Well, as you know, the boosterspice treatment was designed almost eight years ago. It uses a fairly common drug, but the method of deploying the compound into patients using nanobot boosters is a radical advancement. So far, in human testing, we’ve seen powerful regenerative cycles. As far as we can tell, most cellular processes are refortified with almost 100% effectiveness. Essentially, the procedure restores the subject to the vitality they were experiencing around age forty.”

The anchor returned.

“The Medicaid inclusion movement suffered a major setback last week when the Catholic Church officially denounced boosterspice…”

The noise faded into the background when Jane spoke up, “Oh, Stephen, did you call Mark yet today?”

“Yes. He and Kathy are meeting John and us tomorrow at the hospital. I don’t know why he’s coming to the intervention. It’s not his dad. It should just be Kathy, John, and me.”

“Well, I’m coming.”

“Yes, but you aren’t bad news. I still can’t understand why Kathy married Mark of all people.”

“Just be polite to him. Remember that we’re there for your dad.”

* * *

The group of five sat in the waiting room, praying. Last week they had met and compared speeches, decided on a tone. Now an attendant came, showed them the room.

On the bed lay William Rowe, father of Stephen, Kathy, and John. A photo of Christie, their late mother, stood on the bedside table.

Kathy began. “Dad…”

Stephen stepped in, “This is an intervention. We want you to take the boosterspice treatment.”

William looked at his children, and then broke out in a wheezy laugh, which turned to a convulsive cough. He finally settled back down, but his face still glowed in amusement. “What the hell are you going to do to me if I don’t? Kill me? Stop paying for my care?” And he laughed again, this time more of a giggle to avoid straining his lungs.

Stephen looked to John, who looked down, with nothing to add. Kathy looked to Stephen. Stephen just stood there, flapping his mouth. They hadn’t really thought this through, Stephen realized. This entire venture was ill-conceived and even worse planned. Jane stepped forward, putting her hand on Stephen’s shoulder, and said to Bill, “We just want you to be happy.”

“I’ve lived a full enough life, and now I want to spend eternity with my wife. I wouldn’t blame you for taking the treatment, but as I’ve said many times before, I won’t.”

Stephen took over again. “But we haven’t lived full lives, and we want you around for as much of it as possible.”

“Sorry, son, everyone dies eventually.”

Kathy muttered, “Not anymore.” But the group turned and started shuffling out of the room. Stephen stayed behind, and heard Kathy explode at Mark in the hallway. “Why didn’t you speak up?”

“Well, I never really found a good time to intercede…”

Jane glanced at Stephen and left as well. Stephen knelt beside the bed. His eyes kept falling to the oxygen tube running into his dad’s nose.

“You won’t reconsider? Not for anything?”

“A new age is dawning, son. But I don’t want to be there for it. I belong in the past.”

Stephen put his hand on his dying father’s shoulder and left. In this day and age, nobody should have to be dying. A thought like that used to be entitled, or naive. Now it was… fact.

* * *

Later that day, Stephen was having coffee with two friends.

One of his friends said, “Those boosterspice riots are a pain in my ass. I had to drive twenty minutes out of my way to get around the mob.”

“It’s kind of ridiculous for people to demand it,” agreed Stephen.

“It’s ridiculous for them to block the streets. What, like we’re gonna pay for them after they get in my way?”

The second friend butted in. “400 million treatments. I really don’t think they understand the magnitude of that order.”

“The only order they understand is a double cheeseburger with fries, am I right?” Stephen’s two friends chortled.

“Maybe they wouldn’t want it if we told them they couldn’t have kids anymore,” Stephen suggested.

“Or jobs. No, I guess they can have one: kids or jobs. But not both.”

“Well, they already don’t have jobs.” Again, the friends chuckled.

Stephen coughed after a vaguely uncomfortable pause. “So, are you guys going to get the treatment?”

“Well, yeah, of course.”

“It would be wasteful not to.”

Stephen nodded and followed up, “My treatment is in a few days. Actually, it’s gotten me thinking about death. Now that we’ve cured it, it’s even scarier–”

“Well… nobody is certain that the treatment ʻcuresʼ death.”

The other friend jumped in. “All they can predict now is that it extends life by forty or fifty years. Maybe it works indefinitely.”

“You can still get diabetes and blood clots from lifestyle choices after the treatment.”

“And prostate cancer. Although it’s less likely.”

“And obviously it doesn’t protect against bodily harm. It doesn’t make you invincible.”

“But even so, it’ll still stagnate the economy, et cetera, et cetera,” Stephen replied.

* * *

It was ironic, considering the state of things, that as Stephen’s car accelerated onto the freeway, time slowed down and Stephen glanced sideways out the window to see Death looking back at him. To the serenade of screeching rubber and twisting metal, Stephen’s eyes watched the sky vanish and a tractor trailer spin by, seemingly miraculous and counter to all worldly physics, passing Stephen again and again. Finally the sky ceased to be a blur and became concrete. Upside down, next to a twisted guardrail, Stephen passed out.

He awoke slowly, painfully. He was in a hospital room, a bandage across his midsection. How much time had gone by? A vague dream, or memory, of waking in Intensive Care, with a tube down his throat. Stephen’s stomach roiled. The only thing he could think about was how close to death he had come. Internal bleeding, concussion, rib fractures: the works. Miraculous that he had survived. Was it miraculous that the accident had come days before his boosterspice clinic appointment?

When Stephen arrived at his home again—after furiously protesting his being driven home on account of a newly developed fear of cars—the first thing he did was reschedule the appointment to the next open slot: the following week. For the interceding days, Stephen kept off work with sick-leave and refused to depart the house. Often he stayed in the bedroom, away from the stove and stairs. He paced the room for exercise, wary of catching pneumonia or having his muscles atrophy.

Jane tried to reason. “There’s no point in living longer if you’re just going to spend that life hiding here.”
But Stephen would have none of it. He took the bus (the safest form of transportation) to his first boosterspice treatment. He wore a surgical mask on the bus. At the appointment, Stephen sat before a desk, with a paper in front of him, and a doctor talking to him.

“The actual application of the process is fairly extensive and time consuming. We’ve performed all the necessary pre-tests. This is your point of no return. If you sign this, we will move you into our care facility and perform the treatment over the course of the next 12 days. Afterward, your natural lifespan will grow by at least 45 years with your current lifestyle. The decision lies fully in your hands at this point: do you want to receive the metabolic retro-senescence treatment?”

Stephen rocked slightly in his chair. He looked at the paper. The signature line stared back. For the first time in weeks, Stephen really thought. Stephen thought about his father. A lifetime of memories began to come to him, of good and bad times with his parents. Then Stephen thought about his wife. About the terrible car accident. About the hospital, about his job, and about his lack of children. It was his life. His life. No matter how he felt, the accumulation of events is what composed the entity known as Stephen.

In all this thinking, Stephen entered a world of imagination. A world of undying people, afraid of death. Liability was no longer the drive behind safety measures. This world had rounded corners (too easy to hurt oneself on a sharp edge), no fallible machinery. A world abandoned by the adventurous, who would escape to humanity’s frontier among the stars. Such a world would succumb to a slow death by fire, or poison. Centuries of climate change and overpopulation would slowly choke the planet to death, because the inhabitants couldn’t look farther ahead than the dangers of today. Ethics would become twisted, and humanity would become a shell of itself. There would be no war, no violence, only inevitable decay from the relentless march of entropy.

“I’ve decided to forgo.”

* * *

Stephen entered a bagel shop, accompanied by two of his buddies. He ordered and pulled a third chair up to a round table.

“Wow, it’s been a while, Stephen. What, a little over a year since your big accident? How has it been going?”

“It was rough for a while. The car crash and my dad’s death did a number on me. I was in therapy for six months, I think.”

“And then the divorce… wow. When was that?”

“Three months to the day.”

“How are you holding up?”

“Fine, you know. Jane didn’t want to be with a ‘purist’. It would get awkward real fast with her taking boosterspice. I thought I might have trouble letting her go, but she’s dead to me. Rather, I’m dead to her. In my mind, she’s already faded into the mists of the future.”

“Stephen, that’s a little messed up.”

Stephen shrugged amiably, and rose to claim his order. When he sat back down and the group started in on their food, the conversation paused for a moment. One of his friends idly asked, “So you really gave up boosterspice?”

“I’ve come to believe in purity more than anything else.”

“Think of it: last year, nobody even dreamed of purists. There were the initial rejects, but certainly no culture. Now… it’s crazy. No offense.”

“I don’t care about that. It’s the philosophy, not the culture.”

The conversation continued.

Suddenly Stephen rocked in his chair and pressed his palms to his forehead. A wooziness, cold on his insides, pulsated. He felt his sense of direction go.

His body fell to the floor; his mind seized for tense, terrifying moment, and then it seemed to drift away. For a split second, his mind was in a timeless ether. Then he returned to consciousness hours later, in his own body, in the hospital. Stephen hated hospitals. The décor always threw him back to the night of the crash.
The doctor came in eventually. He took some readings before breaking the news.

“You are suffering from kidney failure. The waiting list is too long. The only viable option is to have the boosterspice treatment applied as soon as possible. It will rejuvenate your body long enough to receive a transplant. I see you were initially slated for a dosage last year, but you rejected it. Are you morally opposed to the treatment?”

“I’ve become a purist—” the doctor wrinkled his nose at the term “—as a result of that time in my life.”

“But do you reject the treatment as a medical procedure, rather than a cosmetic, non-essential measure?”

Stephen hesitated, just a moment. It had been a long time since the belief system he had built up around himself had been questioned.

The doctor interceded before Stephen could work out a response. “I’ll check back tomorrow. You have until then to make up your mind.”

Stephen had come to accept an existence without immortality. When a person comes to terms with a reality that may scare them at first, it becomes a building block of their life. If Stephen accepted the miracle drug back into his life, it would wreck the philosophical barriers he had constructed to protect himself. Tomorrow he would deliver his answer to the doctor: no.

* * *

During visiting hours, Kathy and John showed up. Stephen eyed them. The family had fallen out of touch after Bill’s death. John, with a newly acquired air of sureness, approached Stephen.

“This little experiment of yours has come back to bite you. I told you it would never work out. That you would come back to your senses after a while. You’re a fool for not getting the procedure done earlier. If you had gone much longer, you could have died before anyone diagnosed–”

“John!” Stephen broke his brother out of it before a rant precipitated. “I’m rejecting the treatment.”
Kathy started. “Wait, what? Stephen, how can you do this to us? Also, how can you do this to yourself? If you don’t get the treatment, you’ll die!”

“Yes. I know. That’s the point. Look, I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

John stepped forward, jaw high and imperious. “I know you took dad’s death hard, and that you’re somehow punishing yourself for his death, but you need to think about this.”

“I see you’ve been going to those ‘make the most of an endless life’ seminars. Too bad those don’t teach you how to use your brain. Death is a choice now, brother. You’ve decided one way, and I’ve decided the other. It’s as simple as that.”

John snorted, stood up, and walked out.

Kathy also turned and began walking out. She paused at the door.

“You are unbelievable, Stephen.”

* * *

That night, he woke up in pitch black. The lights from his bedside monitors were out. The hospital must have even lost its backup generators.

The light in his room flicked on. His father stood in the doorway, the pall of death bearing heavily on his face. “Stephen,” his dad spoke. Stephen was hanging, held upside down by the thousand tentacles of a nightmarish seatbelt. He hung above a beach of shattered safety glass. Beyond the walls of his world sat a semi and a guardrail, both clinging to the ceiling of the universe. William Rowe crouched down by one window, dressed in his finest Sunday clothes, fresh from the coffin.

He began to speak, slowly and deliberately. “When you have time, you may decide that you don’t want immortality. But when you are stuck with the hard choice between death and life, you always choose life. You think of that one lifetime activity you never got around to: swimming in bio-luminescent algae right after sunset, nobody around for miles; parachuting into the Grand Canyon; having the love and respect of all your neighbors; raising a kid who goes on to be wildly successful and happy. Procrastination turns out to be the ultimate life-saver.”

The world rotated and hardened into the topography of a hospital room. The doctor stood before Stephen. “Oh good, you’re awake. Now, have you made a decision about taking the boosterspice treatment?”

Stephen groaned a long, hard, satisfying groan into his hands. “Yes, fine, I’ll take the treatment this time.”

The Future of the Source Engine

Valve’s Source and GoldenSource engines and Epic’s Unreal engines have had a long, acrimonious feud. Both Golden Source and the Unreal Engine debuted in 1998 in Half Life and Unreal, respectively. Both were considered revolutionary games at the time. Unreal blew technical and graphical expectations out of the water. Half Life left a legacy as one of the most influential games in the FPS genre.

Unreal Engine screenshot Unreal Engine screenshot
i2Zan0DmFkTfy Golden Source screenshot

Fast forward 6 years. Valve, in the meantime, has released Team Fortress Classic and Counterstrike, both extremely revolutionary games. The Unreal and Unreal 2 engines (the latter was released 2 years prior) had become extremely popular platforms for game developers, mostly because of the engines’ notable modularity and room for modification.

In 2004, Valve debuts the Source engine with Half Life 2, a ground breaking game that completely demolishes competition and sets a long-lasting legacy in terms of story, gameplay, and graphics. For comparison, Unreal Tournament 2004 was published the same year.

Unreal Engine 2 screenshot Source screenshot

In another 7 years, Unreal Engine 3 has been released and games like Gears of War and Batman: Arkham City have been developed using it. Valve has just published their first widely supported game, Portal 2. The Source engine has been evolved over the years, and many graphical upgrades have been applied along with compatibility with major game consoles.

Batman: AC screenshot
screenshot-2

However, it becomes readily apparent that the visual styles of these two engines have diverged in the years since 1998. The Unreal line of engines have supported games like Bioshock and Mass Effect, but have also bourn the brunt of AAA games. Such games are known for their muted brown-grey color pallete, uninteresting story, and factory-made gameplay. Unreal Engine games are commonly criticized for having character models that look “plastic” (a result of game developers setting specular too high on materials), awkward character animations, and overuse of lens flares and bloom.

Games on the Source engine, on the other hand, consistently revolutionize some aspect of gaming. For example, Team Fortress 2, Portal, and Left 4 Dead are widely known for innovative gameplay. Unfortunately, Valve has lagged behind in terms of pushing the graphical frontier. Half Life 2 was smashingly good for its time, much in the same way that Halo stunned the gaming world back in 2001. However, every Source game since its debut has looked more and more aged.

Even worse, developers are driven away from using the Source engine due to a set of tools that have barely evolved since they were developed in 1998. Hammer, the level creation program, and Face Poser, the character animation blender, are unwieldy and unfinished; Source SDK tools are notorious for their bugs and frequent crashes.

Conversely, the Unreal toolset is streamlined and easy to jump into. This appeal has drawn more and more amateurs and professional developers alike. The editor allows you to pop right into the game to see changes, whereas the Source engine still requires maps to be compiled (which can take minutes) in order for the most recent revision to be played. Unreal’s deformable meshes dwarf the Source engine’s awkward displacement system.

However, I have a feeling that a couple of factors are going to come together and boost both engines out of the recent stigma they have incurred. The biggest factor is that at some point the AAA game industry is going to collapse. The other critical event is Half Life 3.

Yes! Do I know something you don’t? Have I heard a rumor lurking the Internet about this mysterious game? No. But I do know history. And that is more useful than all the forum threads in the universe.

Half Life was released in 1998. Half Life 2 was released in 2004. Episode 2 was released in 2007. Half Life 2 took 6 years to develop, despite being on a side burner for some of that time. By extrapolation, Half Life 3 should be nearing release in the next 2 years. However, circumstances are different.

The Source engine was developed FOR Half Life 2. Graphics were updated. But the toolset remained the same. In the time between HL2 and now, Valve has been exploring other genres. Team Fortress 2, Portal 2, and Left 4 Dead 2 all took a portion of the company’s resources. In addition, that last few years have been spent intensively on developing Dota 2 (which, by the way, was the cause of the free release of Alien Swarm). The second Counterstrike was contracted out. So Half Life 3 has been a side project, no doubt going through constant revisions and new directions.

However, unless Valve is going to release Day of Defeat 2 or Ricochet 2 (yeah right) in 2013, production on Half Life 3 is going to kick into high gear. There is one fact that drives me to believe even more heavily in this theory.

Since 2011, and probably even earlier, Valve has been pumping a huge amount of effort into redesigning their entire suite of development tools. It had become readily apparent to everyone at the company that the outdated tools were making it impossible to develop games efficiently.

“Oh yeah, we’re spending a tremendous amount of time on tools right now. So, our current tools are… very painful, so we probably are spending more time on tools development now than anything else and when we’re ready to ship those I think everybody’s life will get a lot better. Just way too hard to develop content right now, both for ourselves and for third-parties so we’re going to make enormously easier and simplify that process a lot.”
-Gabe Newell

Because both TF2 and Portal 2 have been supported continuously since their release, they have been the first to see the effects of this new tool development. Valve seems to have used these games as testing grounds, not only for their Free to Play business model and Steam Workshop concept, but also for new kinds of development tools. First, the Portal 2 Puzzle Maker changed the way that maps were made. In the same way that Python streamlines the programming process, the Puzzle Maker cuts out the tedious technical parts of making a level.

The second tool released was the Source Filmmaker. Although it doesn’t directly influence the way maps are made, its obviously been the subject of a lot of thought and development. The new ways of thinking about animation and time introduced by the SFM are probably indicative of the morphing paradigms in the tool development section at Valve.

Don’t think that Valve is going to be trampled by any of its competitors. Despite Unreal Engine’s public edge over the Source engine, especially with the recent UE4 reveal, the AAA game industry is sick, and no other publisher has a grip on the PC game market quite like Valve does. And although 90% of PC gamers pirate games, PC game sales are hardly smarting. In fact, the PC game market is hugely profitable, racking up $19 billion in 2011. This is just a few billion shy of the collective profits of the entire console market. Yet the next best thing to Steam is, laughably, EA’s wheezing digital content delivery system Origin.

Numbers Source

Anyways, here’s hoping for Half Life 3 and a shiny new set of developer tools!

Map Design

I’ve always been highly interested in creating levels for games. Computer games enchant people with their story, gameplay, and graphics. Some designer created everything I see in it. It would be incredibly fun and rewarding to wield the same power as the game designers.

Ever since I was a little kid, level design has occupied me as much, if not more than, the game itself.
I started out with games that came with easily accessible editors. Strategy games such as the Age of Empires (and Age of Mythology) have drag and drop editors accessible from within the game. Command and Conquer: Generals has an easy-to-use editor, accessible through its root directory. As I grew older I began to experiment with triggers more, crafting a crude story or giving a gratifying gameplay experience.

Most of these maps were for single-player games, with one exception. I would often hang out at my friend’s house and invite he and his siblings to compete in map-making competitions. We would take the turns crafting Super Smash Bros. Brawl maps, with a rather short time limit. The we would play a quick match on it. The best would get saved and played often. I made quite a few enticing designs in those sessions. My levels created unique gameplay situations that weren’t achieved in the default maps.

My attention slowly fixed on a new game. While I had been familiar with Halo: Combat Evolved for a while, it suddenly occurred to me that I could create single-player levels with story as interesting as the game’s campaign. I looked into it and discovered Halo: Custom Edition. I got involved in the community, and tried my hand at non-drag-and-drop map creators. While I didn’t know it at the time, Halo’s utilities are extremely obtuse. I never had much success in creating my own levels, although I experimented with new kinds of enemy formations and scripting on pre-existing custom multiplayer levels, although I met with little success in the latter. I had an entire 5-part campaign planned out, including overhead sketches, concept art, the beginnings of a 3D model (although I was still a newbie at modeling), and enticing characters. Needless to say, it never got off the ground. To this day, I dream about how cool it would have been.

A step up from Brawl, but a step down from Halo, came Halo 3 Forge. Although it was purely multi-player and was not very powerful, Forge let me create a blend of the epic Brawl maps I had forged and the Halo campaign I had brawled with. I would Forge until my friends got tired with me (I am a PC gamer to the heart, and don’t own any consoles). The recent Halo: Reach called me back to that, although the Reach Forge was so much more powerful that I never had the time to truly explore it.

After Halo, I discovered the Orange Box. Boy, did that open up a whole new world to me. I soon after discovered the Source SDK and began to explore the glorious world of Source map-making. To this day I have a campaign planned out for Half-Life 2 that follows a rebel operative as he subverts Combine operations in the American heartland. The only thing that disappointed me about HL2 was the limited capacity for storytelling (no first-person dialogue, cutscenes, or interaction). TF2, on the other hand, tells a great story, despite being purely multi-player. I am in the starting stages of figuring out how to bring a single-player story experience to TF2.

In addition to Source, Steam let me find Crysis. The Sandbox2 editor truly lives up to its name. I spent hours in that editor, sculpting tropical islands and scripting helicopter fights, beach assaults, and stealth insertions. The great thing about Sandbox2 is that it was extremely to pick up, requiring only a few tutorials from someone like Xanthochori. Crysis 2 with Sandbox3 was disappointingly more complex.


To check out some videos of maps I’ve made and other videos (I’m also into video production), see my YouTube channel.