Friday, May 8, 2009


Michel Gondry/Leos Carax/Bong Joon-Ho, 2009, Japan/France/South Korea

This month's member's screening at the Loft pleased much more than last month's. This is essentially a collection of three shorts, (Well, 30-minutes anyway), unified only by their setting: Tokyo.

Up front it is odd that a Japanese studio wanted to make a film about Tokyo and so asked three foreigners to do it. I think, however, the idea is that you are getting an outsider's perspective - appropriate for a cosmopolitan melting pot.

Michel Gondry comes as the most recognizable name to American audiences. I must say that his short "Interior Design" is surprisingly the most normal, (Or I should say least unusual), of the three. It is also, I feel, the most well-written and well acted.

The quick summary is that a young couple move to Tokyo. The man is an aspiring filmmaker, the woman is directionless. They are crowded into a friend's tiny apartment while they search for one of their own. Relationship drama. Comedy. The freefalling woman starts to fall apart, and then she transforms into a chair.

A chair.

She can switch back and forth, thankfully, and so hijinx ensue. Ultimately she seems to find happiness as a voyeuristic piece of furniture in some young musician's house. The end.

This is a quite enjoyable piece, but I must criticize it for two things. First, the transformation seems completely unmotivated. This is more or less a normal film about normal people until all of a sudden *bamf!* chair.

After that there is of course the subtle misogyny of turning a woman into a goddamn piece of furniture. Well, let me rephrase that a little: You have a woman who is doing nothing with herself, who is being pushed by everyone to have more ambition. She seems on the verge of some personal transformation, which is a cue for this quirky film to use the metaphor of literal transformation, but instead of redeeming herslf and becoming something greater, she only reinforces her failure by becoming a goddamn piece of furniture.

This seems like something Margaret Atwood would write, except Atwood would be rife with bitter irony. Here Gondry seems to just be playing a thoughtless joke on his female protagonist. The vibe you get is "Ha ha! Silly woman turned into a silly chair. Women are silly." This lady is actually happy that she is furniture. It's all she ever was!

The second short by Leos Carax, "Merde," is easily my favorite, not because it is objectively the best of the three, but because it appeals to my odd sense of humor and absurdism. If I had been asked to make a short for this movie I would have come up with something like this.

Essentially it is a riff on the giant-monster movie genre, but without any giant monsters. Complete with old Godzilla music, Tokyo is terrorized by an extremely eccentric man who lives in the sewers and comes to the surface and acts like an asshat. Brilliant.

Funny news bulletins. Candid public reactions. Utter weirdness. I'm just goingto leave it at that. In its way it is the least meaningful of the shorts, but also the most perfect, as it completely succeeds at everything it tries to do.

The last short, "Shaking Tokyo," is also quite good, but much more somber than the other two. It follows a hikikomori - what we in America might call an agoraphobic - through his strange, isolated life. His world is disrupted when a pizza delivery girl faints in his appartment and he has to try to wake her up.

Where it goes from here is actually quite unexpected and surreal - apocalyptic, yet absurd. My only disappointment is the typical heteronormative narrative thread of man + woman = love = story. Still a good film.

Anyway, if you like these sort of "city shorts" movies like Night on Earth and Paris Je T'Aime then this one comes highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Plants vs. Zombies

by PopCap Games

Huh? I review something the day after it comes out? Pure chance. A quick surf around the intarwebs tells me that this game came hotly anticipated, and yet here I was, in my cave, completely unaware.

I logged onto Steam yesterday and literally just stumbled onto to this, still not realizing that I was looking at it on the day of its release and that a gajillion people everywhere else were slobbering all over it. I just thought, "Hmm, could be fun," and downloaded the demo.

Thirty minutes later my wallet unhinged and money changed hands. 10 dollars is a hard price to argue with when the game is so damned fun.

I have never played tower defense games before, so the concept is still fresh to me. Someone with more experience in the genre might find this game a little less exciting, but from what I hear, it's got enough innovation to please even the most jaded stalwart.

The concept and gameplay go as follows: You defend your cartoony house from hordes of cartoony zombies through the cunning placement of plants. Vegetable-flinging hilarity ensues.

It has a lot of the elements of ye olde real-time strategy game, but the resource management and tech-tree aspects are simplified, while strategic focus is on defense and careful positioning.

Where this game really suceeds is in its immense variety. Playing through adventure mode yields five different environments, each with their own rules and considerations. Every ten levels, just when things are about to get repetitive, you change scenarios and the game changes dramatically. Outside adventure mode are even more gameplay options. In fact, the game's 50 levels are really just prelude to all the other modes of play, (Yes, I already played through adventure mode - I got that hooked. I haven't devoured a game like this since 5th grade when all I played were rentals).

In all you have up to 48 different plants to fight with. Yes, with that many weapons there is some overlap and imbalance, but PopCap really has done a good job spreading out the utility. They found an awful lot of design space in what is a terribly straightforward genre. It helps that the Zombie horde is similarly varied, offering up new problems to be solved and anticipated by the player.

With all that said, the game is a little, well, casual, which doesn't bother me but might bother others. It's really not very hard and for all the variety in the game certain basic strategies still emerge as dominant. Most of the game's problematic units can be solved with emergency one-time-use explosives or something similar, leaving you to wallow in your repetitive horde strategy if you want to. It isn't until you play survival mode on hard difficulty that you are thrown enough curveballs to actually necessitate playing a more well-rounded defense.

And yet I'm still hooked. This might be a product of it being my first tower defnse game, in which case I'm still thrilling with the discovery of a fun new genre.

Certainly the demo could be better. It sucked me in because the concept was so fresh to me, but I think it is a huge, almost arrogant risk to limit your player to 30 minutes (Total! Forever!) when you could just give them the first ten levels and let the game sell itself.

Monday, May 4, 2009


by Klei

Got this one off Steam. This game is about three years old so I'm breaking exactly zero ground by writing about it. I told you timeliness was not going to be my strong suit. All I know is I'm so sad that I showed up late to this party.

I feel it's still worth writing about now, however, because it was just released to Xbox Live Arcade. Also, I feel like this was 2006's World of Goo - (Which I will be reviewing eventually) - a weird, beautiful, unique puzzle game that makes your brain work in ways it hasn't before.

Eets is touted as "Lemmings meets the Incredible Machine" and as high-concept sales pitches go, this one hits the mark dead on.

It's a puzzle game, like I said, and a completely bizarre one at that. In fact, perhaps the greatest criticism one can levy against this game is that it might be a little too weird. Strangeness can have mechanical implications in gaming: In this case the pieces you play with can be counterintuitive. It's not a big problem, mind you, but I can't say I wasn't a little baffled when I stepped away from this game and came back to it weeks later.

The game is like Lemmings in that you are guiding a hapless creature, (named Eets, if you can believe it), to an exit point. Unlike Lemmings you are given only one hapless creature to save, so there is no exploding him or turning him into a wall or shrugging your shoulders when an acceptable percentage of him falls into lava. Unless of course you like failure. Or comedy.

The game is like Incredible Machine in that you place objects all over the level in an attempt to construct the Rube Goldberg Device of Hilarious Victory. In other words you alter the environment so that a series of objects will bonk your stupid Eets over to where he stupid needs to stupid go.

Of course, a la Incredible Machine, you are free to solve puzzles wrongly in the name of playing Hilarious God of Physics. I spent a chunk of 7th and 8th grade seeing exactly how many bumpers I could make those little men hit before they died, laughing maniacally the entire time I did. (Admit it! You did it too!)

The game's formula is enhanced by Eets' emotions, which range from scared to happy to angry. Depending on his mood he will interact with the environment differently. Things can be done to change his mood, the most basic of which is to feed him different foods. Part of the puzzle becomes knowing when and where to change his mood so that he will behave in the way you need him to, (Hence the game's subtitle: Hunger. It's Emotional). This emotion mechanic is simple at first, but has increasingly dramatic effects as you progress through the game.

The game develops nicely as more and more contraptions and challenges get thrown your way. I will say the early worlds are a little repetitive and maybe too easy, but once the game ramps up the stakes it gets to be quite fun.

Where this game really succeeds is in its art-style and goofy items. This goofiness lends the game much of its appeal, but I must say that mechanically speaking, this game isn't quite as odd as it first appears. Allow me to explain.

In a "normal" puzzle game you might have a catapult that propels your character in an arc. Here instead it is a cranky looking whale that swallows you up and ejects you out his blowhole.

Elsewhere you might have a cannon that fires explosives when touched. Here it is a pig that, um, farts out a smaller pig-with-a-cape that soars through the sky until it hits something and explodes. Mechanically these things are normal, it's the crazy art concept placed on top of them that makes the game feels so strange and wonderful. Bear in mind this isn't exactly a complaint.

The music fits the game's art style very well, but could be better - and more varied. I keep wishing there were more songs in rotation as the ones I keep hearing are getting bland. The music is still a major strong point here, but if I am to draw more comparisons to World of Goo, Eets loses the music competition.

Finally I come to the demo. Considering that I bought this game the demo clearly does what it is supposed to. You are given the game's first "world" which does an admirable job showcasing the game's many weird concepts. I will stress like I always do that more might be gained by making the demo even bigger. Two worlds? So maybe I can see the game's puzzles outside of a "tutorial" setting? Am I so hard to please?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Hitler's Pope

by John Cornwell

Alright, I just finished this one last weekend.

First, the title is inflammatory, which bother's me. It's a common publisher's trick: Put "Hitler" or "Shakespeare" in your book's title and it will sell more. The actual text of this book is much fairer to the character of Pius XII than this title implies.

Anyway, Pius XII became Pope in 1939 and therefore bears the brunt of historical scrutiny in regards to what the Vatican did and did not do during the Holocaust. The author of this book points out the dishonest back-and-forth that has gone on between this Pope's supporters and detractors, with most texts being extremist reactions to the other side, making them either unfairly judgmental or blindly supportive.

Because Cornwell purports to offer a more balanced assessment of Pius XII, the title seems dishonest. But enough about that.

In the end Cornwell does indeed come down on the side of condemning Pius XII and calls him "Hitler's Pope" not because he was Hitler's pawn per se, but because his attitudes, personality, priorities and circumstances made him an inadvertent enabler of Hitler's rise to power. In other words, there couldn't have been a Pope more suited to Hitler's agenda.

These are, of course, controversial things to say. Bear in mind that I am not saying them, just reporting on a book that I read.

I am inclined to take Cornwell's position, however, but not because this book says things that I want to believe. I am not Catholic, but I am also not some anti-religious cynic who latches on to every bit of slander thrown towards the Vatican. I am inclined to believe Cornwell because he has written a fine piece of academic history: rigorously researched, well-organized, includes many interpretations of events, admits faulty knowledge, and supports arguments by finding suitable examples and counter-examples. I believe what this book says because it is very convincing, and not emotionally tainted.

This does mean the book is a bit dry. I can stomach dry history. Maybe you can't. I found it fascinating at first because I was learning so much about Vatican politics and history, subjects I knew basically nothing about before now. This is one of those books that reminds me that history is so much more intricate and intersting and nuanced than your war-obsessed high school teachers ever let you realize.

Anyway, Cornwell takes a different approach to the Pius XII controversies in that he writes a biography of the man, not so much a chronicle of the events. This is a useful approach because Eugenio Pacelli, the man who would become Pius XII, was an influential Vatican politician well before he ever became Pope and his influence on Church history - and the Vatican's relationship with Germany - began decades before World War II.

There is a lot of content covered in here, and even summarizing it would exceed the scope of this blog post. I feel the most important points to stress are that Pacelli is painted as a driving force in the Vatican's push for autocracy and heirarchy. This coupled with a legitmate fear of violent, atheistic communism caused him to make the same mistake nearly every world leader made during that era: They assumed Facism was the lesser of two evils when compared to Communism.

After that, Pacelli's silence during the holocaust is a many-layered thing. First there was the reality that the Vatican, being surrounded by Facist Italy, simply did not have the diplomatic freedom to speak its mind without fear of reprisal. The Pope certainly had no military solution against Mussolini or Hitler if they ever decided he was causing too much trouble by weilding his moral authority, and this is fair enough.

Second, however, is evidence of mild anti-semitism in Pacelli, distorted as it was by the mistaken belief that a Jewish conspiracy lie behind international Communism. The argument that Pacelli kept quiet against the Facists for the sake of peace falls apart when compared with his vocal stance against oppressive Communist regimes after WWII. In the years after the Holocaust, Pius XII demonstrated the Catholic Church's historic ability to resist inhumane oppression on a global scale, so why not the Nazis? (Bear in mind I am oversimplifying matters in ways the Cornwell does not).

Anyway, if you like your history dry and well-researched, and want a definitive volume on this subject, I highly recommend this book.

Friday, April 24, 2009

On Newspapers

At the beginning of this month, Penny Arcade posted this comic.

I suggest you read the accompanying blog post too, at least the first few paragraphs before the subject changes. If you're really feeling adventurous, read the articles/pages he links to as well.

I already slammed newspapers in my post about Bill Bryson's book. We're beating a dead horse at this point to reiterate how they are relics of the old 20th Century paradigm. What is stunning is how the people behind these decaying social networks still, even as their ships sink, just don't get it. Like Tycho says, these people shouldn't be completely without our sympathy, but sympathy is hard to dole out to the people who continuously fail to understand how and why the world has changed.

I'll start with this cartoon by Mike Lane, originally published in the Baltimore Sun on April 3rd, 2009 and made available at Cagle Cartoons. This cartoon actually borders on intelligent. In discussions of "the economy" the connection is usually drawn between the "fat cats" getting their bail outs and every one else - "the little guy" - getting stiffed.

But this cartoon gives us something a bit more meaningful. We are not often made to recognize that while the sowers of economic peril are getting rewarded, an historic part of our democracy is struggling and getting no help from the government.

But the connection is a fraudulent one. Newspapers are failing for one reason: they are no longer necessary. Their function isn't leaving our democracy, it is just being replaced by something better. This process has been ongoing. The current economic crisis really isn't changing the trajectory of anything, just hastening the failure of businesses and industries that are not fit for the 21st century.

Some people do recognize this change, as below:

This one comes from Mike Keefe of the Denver Post, originally published on March 27th, 2009 and again made available from Cagle. A couple weeks later Keefe has another comic ridiculing Twitter, this time juxtaposing it with the failure of newspapers.

Keefe is guilty of what I call "Ivory Tower Liberalism." I add the word "liberalism" not because conservatives are any less guilty of whining from the moral high ground, but because when liberals do it like Keefe does it, it is patently hypocritical. A liberal is ostensibly accepting of change, but an Ivory Tower Liberal attacks all evolutionary segments of their medium such as Keefe has done above.

People my age will one day grow up to be curmudgeons and the nature of the Ivory Tower will change. Right now the defining characteristic of the Ivory Tower Liberals, if their is one, is their intense hatred of anything popular. They have this false sense of "high culture" and believe they belong to its exclusive halls. They want to see society change, and yet when their ideas evolve into something more accessible to the masses, they dismiss it as tainted and low brow.

These people crop up in most liberal and artistic movements, from feminism to film theory. Justify themselves how they will, they are in fact the conservative old guard of a progressive movement.

These people are neither stupid nor insane, just wrong. Penny Arcade linked to an article about cartoonist layoffs and a thoughtful quote came out of Ed Stein, cartoonist for the bankrupt Rocky Mountain News. The emphasis is mine.

I believe in journalism. That's the great sadness of watching newspapers dying. This country is strong because we have an argument built into the system and that takes place in the press. I've been blessed to have had a voice in that argument. That's what I'm really mourning.

Mr. Stein does not strike me as stupid nor callous nor jealous of the success of others. He seems like he'd be a good candidate for my hypothetical barbecue in which I invite pleasant-baby-boomers-who-are-wrong over for some burgers and beer. What he fails to recognize is that in a society of genuine free speech, you shouldn't have to be blessed to have a voice.

Thankfully, we aren't losing our voice nor our ability to argue. What's changing is the accessiblity to this voice and argument.

I have here another quote about journalism. This is Phillip Converse from his famous essay "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics." Bear in mind this is 1964 we're talking about here. 1964.

A member of that tiny elite that comments publicly about political current (probably some fraction of 1% of a population) spends most of his time in informal communication about politics with others in the same selct group. He rarely encounters a conversation in which his assumptions or shared contextual grasp of political ideas are challenged ... It is largely from his informal communications that he learns how "public opinion" is changing and what the change signifies, and he generalizes facilely from these observations to the bulk of the broader public.

Newspapers are doomed because the barriers to publication are crumbling and business models that rely on the denial of information and the denial of speech are increasingly unviable. The void between the insulated newspaper pundits and the bulk of the broader public has become increasingly small, almost nothing.

What the cartoonist and journalists of today need to understand is that there is more room than ever for their talents, they just have to come out of their shells and *gasp* interact with the very public that they have been smugly throwing bones to from their Ivory Offices. The News Room Tower is not the place to stage your career anymore. Come out into the open and get over it.

Friday, April 17, 2009


Nikita Mikhalkov, 2007, Russia

Three negative reviews in a row? Sorry. No, actually, this movie is good, just very much less good than I had hoped.

Saw this at the Loft tonight as it was this month's member screening, so we were treated to a few details about the film before it started. One thing that was said was that director Nikita Mikhalkov is touted as the "Russian Steven Spielberg" which can be seen as both compliment and insult. Regardless of how you interpret the comparison, I think it offers as good an analogy as any to frame your expectations.

As was said at the Loft, being a popular, accessible film director does not preclude you from being talented and artistic, and I think that's a fair thing to remember when considering either director, Spielberg or Mikhalkov. However, much like Spielberg, Mikhalkov ultimately hung on to too much sentimentality to the detriment of this film.

The story is a loose reimagining of 12 Angry Men, which means nothing to me because *gasp* I have yet to see the alleged classic. Basically a locked jury argues for many hours over the innocence or guilt of a young man. It's straight drama with emphasis on character. Successful comic relief abounds.

The best parts of this film are the flashbacks detailing the life of the accused murderer, a boy whose life has been torn apart by the Chechnyan-Russian conflict in the Caucasus. The main body of the film - the 12 sometimes-angry men arguing in a school gymnasium - pales in comparison to these segments.

I suppose it is emblematic of Russian story-telling to group 12 strangers together and give each of them a sob story that they trot out one by one. Personally I found the process a bit tiring. At length we are made to stare at the faces of each actor while he relates the tale of his life, and each time this story fits neatly into the jurors' interpretation of the crime. By the end it all feels a little too neat and constructed for my tastes, and after a time it gets boring to just stare at a man's face while he describes events that are far more interesting than the face telling it.

Yes, there is something to be said for the acting talents on display, but if I am to watch a series of dramatic monologues, I would rather share that experience with actors on a live stage. Again, I'm only speaking for myself.

All in all we are left with something that is well-constructed, well-acted and well-shot, but also a little too slow, heavy-handed, and unnaturally over-constructed. A good film, but not a great one. I can still recommend this movie if what I have described here sounds like your cup of tea, but I could take or leave it myself.

UPDATE! (4/19): Local Roller Derby Superstar, Peaches Rodriguez, saw this the same night I did and she hates it. Hates it. So there's another gauge for you.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Maw

I'm about to make a few enemies, because what I did was download the demo of this game and then promptly refuse to purchase it. Oh I know, everybody just lurves this game and it won the Pax10 and it's cute and innovative and cartoony. I'm sure it's great. Its demo is awful.

We have a cinematic cutscene with high production value and a plot that is sort of a knockoff of Lilo & Stitch. By the developers own admission, the characters and ideas are meant to be easily marketable. That's not a bad thing in itself, but I also find the charming nature of the game to be a bit forced. Maybe I'm just being a grouch, but I'm also not the sort of person to hate something popular just because it's popular, (Come on we all know a few of those people).

Anyway, the real problem is that the demo ends well before the game reaches "interesting" status. What on Earth is the risk of letting me play more of your game than the first 10 minutes? Couldn't I have at least finished the first level? Given the community response to this game, I have faith that it is everything they say it is, but the demo proves nothing. Somebody who just glances at this on Steam is not likely to be impressed.

In fact, the demo demonstrates so few mechanics that you don't even use all of the controls listed on the help screen. And the weird control-two-characters-at-once-with-a-leash thing is potentially awesome, but so underproven in this tiny demo that you feel like you are fighting against it before you even get to understand why it could be so fun.

So in conclusion, I kept my ten bucks. I imagine I will have reason to purchase this game later - it's just too well received to ignore, but right now I want to hold it up as a perfect example of how not to do a demo. Developers, heed my words: There is nothing wrong with giving away a lot of content for free.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I'm a Stranger Here Myself

by Bill Bryson

Meh. It is rare that I bother to start, much less finish, a book I don't end up liking, but lo! it happened here. To compare this offering to yesterday's author, Bill Bryson loses the Battle-of-the-Baby-Boomers-Who-Complain-About-Society, (Which is a very serious competition I just invented).

I don't want to sound too hard on Bryson, really, because I can't read this book and tell you that he isn't a good writer - he is. I can't tell you that he isn't funny either because I certainly got worked up to a proper LOL from time to time while slogging through this. This is the only book of his I've read, so if a fan of his were to assure me that any of his others was much better, I would be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. And certainly Mr. Bryson comes off as charming. I'm sure I'd absolutely love to have a barbecue with him sometime. It'd be a blast.

But this book still sucks. Allow me to explain.

I picked it up because the premise sounded great: A man grows up in America, spends twenty adult years in Britain, then moves back to America and chronicles the culture shock. By all accounts this book should, at worst, make for good fluff. But too much is going against this thing.

First, unbeknownst to me when I started reading, this is a collection of newspaper columns. Y'know, newspapers? Those hoary old ink-and-paper jobs? No matter how smart Bryson is, you can't change the fact that newspaper columns, especially newspaper humor columns, are basically watered down pap designed to incubate people who still haven't discovered the Internet.

To compare him with another popular humor columnist, Dave Barry, I will say that he is less formulaic, though still prone to the overuse-of-hyperbole-for-comic-effect, and much more thoughtful. But that only goes so far.

The real problem is that these columns were written in the nineties. This is a bigger deal than you think it is. If you're a Baby Boomer in the nineties and not an unashamed technophile like my father was, chances are you're going to write a bunch of columns that smugly dismiss new technologies. Baby Boomers in the nineties talked about computers like they were pogs, and waited impatiently for them to go out of style.

What this means is this book will subject you to such dead horse jokes as "Computers are supposed to save us time, but I can't get the printer to work." "Cell phones make me uncomfortable." and the immortal "VCRs are hard to program." Hur hur hur.

What I'm getting at is this book is only ten years old and it has already fallen down the abyss of antiquity. One's inability to program a VCR has already achieved old-timey camp status, a joke meant to place us squarely in 1991.

Much of this book has no cultural currency anymore, even to people the author's own age. The Baby Boomers aren't complaining anymore. They all have Netflix and Blu-ray and small business websites. Bill Bryson himself is, right now, deftly programming his TiVo while uploading twitter feeds to his Facebook profile from his Blackberry cell phone, (It might be something like "Bill Bryson isn't going to miss an episode of House this season!") In 2009, Bill Bryson is awesome. In 1999, he's an idiot.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Year at the Movies

by Kevin Murphy

Here's the premise: the author vows to see a movie in a theater every day for an entire year, (The year in question, as it happens, is 2001). To ensure that an interesting book falls out of this idea, Kevin Murphy, (Yes, that's Kevin Murphy), travels the world while he's doing this and many shenanigans ensue.

I picked this book up thinking it would make for some light entertainment. I suppose it is that, but it's also quite a bit more. I was very pleasantly surprised at the intelligence and wisdom on display here. It also makes for some good travel writing, if you're into that sort of thing.

The format is 52 chapters, one for each week of the year. Each week has some sort of theme, so when he's not traveling far away he's ruminating on something ridiculous or interesting, like the multiplex phenomenon, or holiday films, or kung-fu film clubs or whatever.

Regardless of where he is or what he is doing or what he is watching, he spends the bulk of his time critiquing the theater-going experience itself, not so much the films he watches. If you're picking this book up as a Mystery Science Theater fan hoping to read what good ol' Kevin Murphy has to say about a bunch of crappy Hollywood films then you'll be sorely disappointed. He does have a few choice words to say about the likes of Jurassic Park 3 and Dude, Where's My Car? but that's not really what this book is about. What you get if you read this is something much richer. (Besides, there are only so many ways you can creatively label something as crap before you sound repetitive).

To pique your interest, a partial list of the countries and events Murphy attends includes:

Australia - for the world's smallest movie theater.
Quebec - for a theater made entirely out of ice.
Sundance Film Festival - for a diatribe against Hollywood jerks.
France - for the Cannes film festival.
England - for a Sound of Music sing-a-long in London!
Finland - for the "Festival of the Midnight Sun" - an event staged in northern Finland during summer, where the sun never sets and the audience never sleeps.
Italy - just because.
A tiny Pacific island - which is where he is during the September 11 attacks.

What makes this book so good is how Kevin Murphy's personality comes through. He's a very mature and wise person, with a broad palette and great skill at expressing his thoughts and feelings. He's opinionated without being preachy or imbalanced. He's also good at writing setting. I don't count myself a travel fan, but he certainly makes me want to visit all the places he did.

Also, I like that Murphy is a man brave enough to criticize mainstream films for being misogynist. And actual use the word "misogynist." It make me, the feminist male, feel like less of a freak.

I think all this book was intended to be was a simple little trinket to be sold to MST3K fans, but that process was subverted by the fact that Kevin Murphy is actually a good writer and thinker.

Like any good book, there are many parts that have stayed with me after it has finished. (Let me step down for a moment - I don't want to oversell this thing. This book is not a paragon of literature. It is good, however). In fact the most memorable content can have nothing to do with movies at all.

For me I'm struck most by an account of his trip to Finland where he encountered the "real" Santa Claus - that is, the one from Scandinavian folklore. By this I mean he encountered a talkative naked man in the frozen woods wearing antlers. Awesome.

Murphy was also after my own heart when he complained of the egregious misuse of the word "ultimate" in modern marketing. I will now fairly use a quote from the book:

Here's one such menu's description, exactly as printed, of the ultimate nachos:

Tortilla chips toped with your choice of beef, chicken or plain, covered with Monterey jack cheese, lettuce, tomato's, onions, black olives with Jalepenos and salsa on the side.

Ultimate nachos tend to appear everywhere, and once again I'm reminded that nobody knows what the word "ultimate" means, or it wouldn't be on a menu. "Ultimate," even broadly defined, means last, final, altogether remote in the universe. That's not how I like to think of my nachos. I don't want to look at that massive platter of corn chips, "toped" as they are with beef, chicken, or plain, thinking they may be my last nachos. ... I don't want any food I put in my own personal mouth to be described by any restaurateur as the last of that particular dish I'll ever eat.

The above is also a good preview of Murphy's humor at its most sarcastic. He succeeds at other modes of humor and other emotions as well, just so you know.

Monday, April 13, 2009


If you've ever played Magic: The Gathering and enjoyed yourself more than a little, stop reading and just download the demo. If you watch the game trailer offered: it will garner one of two reactions from you.

1) WTF is that? This game makes no sense. This game is nonsense.
2) That is the coolest thing I have ever seen.

If you're in category 1, you might as well just not even read this blog post. Just move along. It's okay I've got nothing against you. CCGs and CCG-esque computer games are, no bones, extremely nerdy. But if you are this nerdy, download the demo now. The worst that will happen is that you will not enjoy it and you will not be out any precious monies.

The demo offered here is perhaps the benchmark that all demos should be modeled after. You are given fully a third of the single-player game, but limited to playing as only one class. When I sat down with this demo it devoured my soul for about 3 hours until I had run out of content, at which point my wallet unhinged and money changed hands. A major feat, really, because for as much as I like this game, I feel that it is overpriced at 20 dollars. 10 would have been the magic number for this one, I feel. But that's what happens when you make your demo really big.

Want to know more?

This is a card-based strategy game, with mechanics and designs very reminiscent of early M:TG. Fans of the old Microprose computer game will also note the single-player game's similarity to Shandalar, in that you are traveling the countryside, dueling a series of wizards in bizarre situations, and earning new spells as your reward for victory.

Anyway, either you "get" this sort of game or you don't. I've had a lot of fun with it, and will continue to have a lot of fun with it, but it is not without its shortcomings, so here are my criticisms:

The production value is a little low, even for an indie game. While the art and music are not bad by any means, and any turn-based strategy game relies on its design more than its visuals, just about anything on Steam that costs $20 is going to look damn near retail quality. In fact, most things that cost $20 on Steam are retail titles.

Worse, however, and much less forgivable, is the fact that a lot of the game text is filled with typos and errors. Enough said there. Bad copy editors, bad.

A mechanical departure from traditional CCGs is that there is no deck-building, which is too bad for me because deck-building is my favorite part of the CCG process - I find it more fun than actually playing the game I'm building for.

Instead each duel sees you with a hand of 20 cards randomly selected from the available pool, all of which can be played over and over again at any time, provided you have the resources to play them. This approach makes for a well-balanced game in some regards, but it can also feel too pernicious. Randomization helps prevent abusive combo-building, but in truth the abusive combos will sometimes appear in your hand anyway.

Also, a player's class has only a small impact on what you can do. Spells of five different "colors" are made available to you at all times, with four of them always being Earth, Air, Fire or Water themed. The fifth color is determined by your class. The end result is that the bulk of what you do is the same from class to class.

Admittedly your class spells are more efficient at what they do than similar cards in the elemental colors so you play them more frequently. Your play choices from the elemental colors will also vary to create synergy with your class-specific spells, but the end result is that a lot of duels play out the same way regardless of your class.

What this last complaint really comes back to is deckbuilding: The player is not given much control over what resources they can bring to a battle. I understand that the game as-is would be unbalanced if the player was given this control, but I feel like the better choice would have been to balance the cards to a point that the player can be trusted with more strategic options.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

by Charles Seife

It's history! And science! It's the story of the number zero! Did you know that the number zero wasn't always around? That's why the Gregorian Calendar is so bad! For that matter, did you notice that you never had to use it in Geometry class? Neither did the Egyptians nor the Greeks, because plots of land are never nothing! And did you know that Greek cults would kill you for discussing irrational numbers in public? Or that Arabic numerals are actually Hindi? Or that the Babylonians had a sexagesimal number system? (That means base-60!) If you're not bored yet, maybe this book is for you.

I found everything about the history of zero fascinating up to the invention of Calculus, but then this book got a little tedious. Once zero had shouldered its way into the dominant paradigm, all the conflict and sexiness was gone. Seife did not need to spend some 60 pages talking about blackholes and string theory and the big bang and how zero is integral to all these ideas. There are better books on holes and strings and bangs to be read, if you ask me. However, Appendix E: Make Your Own Wormhole Time Machine is pure gold, the kind of stuff your light-hearted high school science teacher dreams of.

There is a lot of good stuff in here about how math and science can influence culture and vice versa, and it makes for a good story. In many ways the history of zero is the history of math, and glimpsing the zero-less world does make you realize how much we really take for granted. Math used to be so clunky! (Case in point: Roman numerals).

I want to summarize the book, but doing so would probably qualify as the geekiest plot spoiler ever. I'll leave it to you to discover yourself.

My biggest criticism of this book would be its occasional sensationalism. Seife makes broad cultural claims sometimes to dramatize the idea that zero stood in stark opposition to dominant social institutions. Some of this conflict rings true enough, and indeed the Aristotilean paradigm did hold back the acceptance of zero, but Seife very often paints the picture that Kings and Churches were shaking their fists directly at the concept of zero, when the reality was probably different.

The void and the infinite were certainly controversial subjects for a time, theologically and philosophically speaking, and the introduction of Algebra, (and therefore, the number zero), to Western Civilization had a huge cultural impact, but Seife manufactures his own conflict by pretending that the two things are one and the same. He leans too heavily on the relationship between zero the number and the philosophical idea of nothingness and often implies that one was the harbinger of the other.

It makes for a more entertaining read I suppose, which is important when trying to make your dorky math book more accessible to the public, but this discerning reader sniffs the taint of a lie.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Left Hand of Darkness

by Ursula K. LeGuin

I only just read this book recently, after years of wanting to. I had no doubt that it would be good, but I also feared it would be preachy. It has notoriety as a "gender-bender" and the people who recommend this book can seem very attached to that notion. One typically has to be in the mood for such things.

What I forgot to take into account was that LeGuin is an excellent writer. I don't know why I keep forgetting. I don't read her often enough. Each time I do I go through the same shock, like I have stumbled upon this great unknown talent. Her prose is so good it makes me want to stop reading and go write something of my own in challenge.

Maybe this book was preachy back in 1969 when "grudging tolerance of homosexuality" was an edgy enough idea, let alone something crazy like "an entire planet of genderless hermaphrodites." Forty years later we, (thankfully), live in a more libertine society where vampiric romance is not only acceptable for kids, it merits bank-busting mainstream acceptance and success. Nowadays LeGuin's ideas can seem sort of par for the course, especially in the arena of speculative fiction.

To use workshop parlance, The Left Hand of Darkness is neither a mileu story nor an idea story, and thank goodness for that. If it were it might not have endured the way it has, perhaps instead finding itself banished to the reading lists of Women's Studies courses alongside the likes of Charlotte Perkis Gilman's Herland - remembered for being feminist, but not for being particularly good.

As is the charge of any speculative fiction author, LeGuin puts a lot of effort into fleshing out her world, (a planet named Gethen in this case), using the idea of a genderless society not as a plot device, but as color. Equally important to the Gethenian cultures, (that's plural), is the fact that the planet is amidst an ice age, and LeGuin explores how harsh climate on a global scale might influence society just as much as she examines the gender issue. Factor in religion and government and architecture and how they all affect social mores, and Gethen really comes to life.

Additionally, LeGuin may explore the idea of genderless society, but she does not make it seem especially Utopian. Gethen is a far cry from perfect, from its two-faced propaganda machines to its debilitating government bureaucracies to its Soviet-style gulags. Even at the social level there still exists sexual prejudice - Gethenians who, by genetics or by choice, become permanently one sex or the other are labeled as perversions and, while not completely ostracized, are subject to the same fringe treatment homosexuals, transgenders, androgynes and the like are on our heteronormative planet Earth.

The plot is at turns political suspense and survival adventure. The early parts of the book are more plot oriented and world-building, but by the end we are left to focus more on the relationship between outsider protagonist Genly Ai, (gendered male), and Estraven, a Gethenian politician-turned-outcast. Here is where gender issues touch the plot most directly, as Genly is made to examine his feelings for Estraven as both a friend, romantic partner, and most importantly, the idea that maybe those two options are a little limiting - that there can be love without the qualifier of romance.

LeGuin herself has lamented that she did not explore feminine behavior more in this novel and that is not an entirely unwarranted concern. I say nothing's perfect, this book is still excellent, get over it. I also say that the female gender is more constructed than the male, and many feminists might agree with me. I think there is much less missing from Gethenian behavior than LeGuin might fear.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Strange Attractors 2

I wanted to start with this little game because I think it is emblematic of independent games. Not only is it mechanically unique but it is perfectly executed. It is nice to look at and yet democratic enough to run on any computer. It is also a rarity in that it is available at the Greenhouse and not on Steam.

Ludologists might call this a "pure" game - that is it is narrative free and nearly devoid of all metaphor. I have been assured that I am in command of a "ship" that flies through "space" - that is to say a "spaceship" - but in all reality this "space" is just a Cartesian plane. There is no greater purpose. This game is a toy. You manipulate the game state and things change. And that is all you do. In its way it is wonderful.

This game isn't about what you do, but about how you do it. What you do is patently basic video game nonsense: You navigate an environment, collect collectibles, avoid hazards, unlock doors and move forward toward a finish line. This formula has been perfected since 1985 so it sounds like a laundry list of boring until you get to the control scheme.

You can do three things: Turn gravity on, turn gravity off and reverse gravity. Mind you these are not bonus powers that you get in addition to traditional options such as "go left" and "go right" and "stop" Gravity manipulation is the only thing you can do. You play this game with two buttons.

How it works is that the playing field is replete with objects that have gravity potential, (and others that don't). You turn gravity on and you begin moving according to the rhythms of science - mass and distance factor in. You get up some speed, find yourself going in a direction you like and you let go, turn gravity off, and sail straightwise through inertialess space. Maybe you bounce off something. Maybe you tap gravity back on for a second so you can briefly sink into a tight orbit and turn a corner. Maybe there is a door to your right and a source of gravity to your left so you reverse gravity and push yourself on through. Maybe you miss your target by a hair and end up ricocheting down the halls of some neon labrynth, hurlting far from your goal, shouting "nooooooo!" and wondering why I recommended this game to you.

Basically the game is physics homework. Wonderful physics homework. There is a learning curve, but after some time with the game the controls start feeling intuitive. You begin to feel like a sucker for all that time you squandered playing games with characters that move under their own volition instead of with all the grace of gravity.

The graphics are firmly grounded in what I call the "Tron Aesthetic" - everything is bright neon on black. I generally eschew nostalgia of any kind, but I'm a sucker for this look. You might not be. It is conducive to interpreting the environment, but it is not the most innovative design. The soundtrack is techno-ish, mellow and atmospheric. I only find one track memorable at all but it is never grating.

The game is never "addicting" which is good or bad depending on what you want from a game. I'm never dying to play this game, just generally pleased when I do. I'll play one level and call it quits for the day. It hits all the right notes on difficulty. It frustrates and challenges without punishing. The game will continue to surprise you with new mechanics and designs.

The demo is lacking, but I like things that look like Tron so much I bought it anyway and am glad I did. Developers need to understand that it is safe to reveal much more content in a demo. This game gives you one lousy level, the purpose of which is just to demonstrate the basic mechanics of the game. While it succeeds at doing that much, I will say that if I had been given the first nine levels instead I would have been irrevocably hooked.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How I Purchase and Review Indie Games

As of the writing of this post, I ingest Indie Games on two platforms: WiiWare and PC. XBOX Live and the PS3 are fine services, but my narrowness is defined both by personal taste and financial restriction. I'm not here to play every game ever, just offer my opinion on the games I do choose to play.

I obtain these games via three avenues, ordered by preference thusly:

1. WiiWare
2. Play Greenhouse
3. Steam

If a game is available for both WiiWare and PC, I will play the WiiWare version, (though I might demo it on the PC first), for two reasons: 1) I like playing games on the Wii console, (duh), and 2) I want to support Nintendo's Internet efforts. Yes, Nintendo is already a big successful corporation without my dollar votes, but they have that oh-so-Japanese tendency to completely misunderstand and fear the Internet so I want to encourage these baby-steps.

On the the PC, I want to encourage the Greenhouse because of its relationship with Penny Arcade, a pair of men who have become an important voice in the gaming world. So if a game is available on both Steam and Greenhouse, I'm purchasing it from the Greenhouse because that's where I want my dollar votes to go. After them, however, Steam is still an absolutely wonderful service, and insanely comprehensive.

In the case of PC games, I will not purchase a game that does not offer a demo. In this day and age, not offering a demo is patently stupid. If grocery stores can hand out free samples of food, game developers can hand out free samples of game. Why ignore the opportunity to get shoppers excited about/addicted to your product?

Further, my reviews will discuss the merits of the offered demo, and how well it sells the game. I will also review demos that fail to sell me on a purchase. I want to blog about this because nobody else is, and I think it is an interesting discussion to have. The point of reviewing Indie Games is that I want to help expose the industry, so it follows that I want to see it improve. Proper use of demos is a skill some small game developers lack.

Beyond all this, my standard rules for reviewing apply. My love of games is really a love of problem solving, and games are simply an artistic expression of that activity. Like with everything, I have broad tastes, but I gravitate toward certain genres.

I like strategy and puzzles most, most often in a turn-based environment. This is not a mainstream inclination, I know, which should explain my investment in Indie Gaming, where my tastes are rewarded more often. I'd like to say I like RPGs, but that is a complicated matter, one to be expounded upon in later posts. After that there really isn't any kind of game I don't like, but they have to be mechanically interesting and innovative in some way, and I have to be asked to think and problem solve or I'm going to glaze over and get bored.

About This Blog

At the end of the day this is just a personal blog, but to say so might be misleading. This will not be a place for me to dump my sorrows or my joys or my cat pictures. If you want that, check out my Facebook profile.

At its heart, this blog is two things:

1. Intellectual release for myself.
2. Intellectual stimulation for you.

At this beginning, the content of this blog is going to focus on reviews of media I happen to ingest. I am not looking to be an authoritative nor comprehensive voice. If it is something I read, watch, listen to or play with, I will jot down my thoughts about it here and that will be that. I will try to be critical and thoughtful, but ultimately this blog is just my personal perspective. Think of it as an archive of word-of-mouth.

Now, I will potentially write about anything, but anymore most of my brain-time is used either reading books or playing games, so that is what you will find in most abundance here. Movie reviews will appear with the next highest abundance, but they will be a distant third.

For more detailed information on what I am doing when I review something, read my other posts on the matter:

What My Reviews Are and Are Not
How I Purchase and Review Indie Games
How I Purchase and Review Books

This blog is not really meant to be timely. It is timely only in that it chronicles what I, personally, am doing with my brain at a given point in time. As I mean this blog to be more or less an archive of personal thought and not a news feed, I have labeled some posts as "Essential" and offered them with links on this blog's sidebar. These essential posts are meant to give you the ground rules on my opinions and train of thought so that you can dive into whatever posts you want in whatever order and still understand how to interpret them, distorted as they are through the lens of my mind.

Bear in mind that the scope of this blog will expand as time goes on. The real focus is "intellectual release" - which means that even in these early stages I will sometimes do "the blog thing" and write about what other people are blogging/doing and what my moral/political/artistic/etc thoughts on it are. At the end of the day I'll still just be sharing "what I do with my brain."

How I Purchase and Review Books

I have a reserve of books that I intend to read left over from my days working in a used book store. Used book stores, ultimately, are the primary source of my books. I read both fiction and non-fiction. My criteria for purchasing a book is that it looks interesting to me. What you are left with is eclecticism.

Sort of.

My non-fiction tastes have narrowed to history first and science second. I'm not just reading "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" over and over again, however. Sure, war can be interesting, but there is much more to human civilization than its occasional fits of self-destruction. I try to keep things a bit more broad. In general I'm guided by a desire to know more about the things I don't know anything about.

My fiction tastes generally see me reading science fiction and fantasy. If you are unwilling to accept these as literature, than you and my blog are probably not going to get along. Not to say that some of the books I read aren't fluff, (this goes for non-fiction as well). God forbid I ever enjoy myself.

I move from book to book guided simply by what I feel like picking up next. Often this is influenced by some little idea the previous book got in my head. In fact this thread of thought might yet make for an interesting post some day.

The early days of this blog will give off the impression that I am a reading machine. I am not. I simply have a backlog of books to review. Given my goal of making this place an "archive" I can't imagine a problem.

What My Reviews Are and Are Not

Let's begin by hewing off the edges and defining my reviews by recognizing what they are not:

Current - I review media as I ingest it, not as it is released. Currency may occur. It will be coincidental.
Numeric - I will not give anything a score. This isn't some protest against hierarchy, but recognition that the content of my review is the score. I'm not an industry mag. My goal may be exposure, but not sales.
Comprehensive - I am not out to read and play everything. I'm just sharing my thoughts on the things I do. Similarly, I am putting as much effort into each review as I feel like. Sometimes I will gush. Sometimes I will give you two paragraphs. Or two sentences. Sometimes I will analyze a piece of art like I'm writing a term paper. Other times I will say that it is "neat."
Singular - I might review the same thing more than once, or more than one thing at a time. The former will happen a lot with games, as I might opine differently after more play, (you are never truly finished playing a game). The latter will happen more commonly with movies and books.

As for what they are, my reviews are meant to be useful or interesting. I'm not trying to sell you a game or a book, but I'm hoping my thoughts on the matter might better inform you. Personal tastes will vary. I will try to frame things with comparisons so that I am easier to interpret. I will always balance fun and entertainment with mechanics and form. I will recognize the value of both novelty and chaos, and of discipline and execution. I will not be fair. Instead I will be honest.