Tuesday, July 3, 2012

New home for Clearing The Backlog

I recently signed up with SquareSpace and registered timespike.net. Clearing the backlog's new home is timespike.net/backlog See you there!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Off the List: Introverts in the Church

Content notes: this post reviews a work of non-fiction. There's nothing to "spoil" here, so read on. I would normally put a warning here about how if you find discussions of faith to be uncomfortable, you may want to give the post a pass, and I suppose if you find the very concept of faith disturbing, that may still apply, but I'd encourage pressing forward for all but the most hostile unbeliever. This was a very important read for me, and if you're here because you're interested in what I have to say, well, this is something I'd really like to share. I will warn you, however, that this post is long.

I grew up in a variety of churches (my family moved through several as I was growing up) but they were always fairly similar doctrinally. My family attended a lot of Evangelical Free and non-denominational churches, one Assembly of God church, a Free Methodist church, and a couple of Bible churches. These churches had some common themes to them - they shared an informal and gregarious type of worship, they tended to reject mainstream scientific and intellectual thought, they believed in Christian Exclusivism (the belief that humans are inherently "lost" or damned and therefore consigned to Hell until they consciously and possibly even formally accept Christ into their life) and that Christians were inherently "nice" people - saccharine, grinning, always-cheerful, and outgoing.

Like many people raised in the church, I experienced a crisis of faith in my twenties. I ultimately concluded that yes, I do believe in God, that Jesus was the Messiah, and that through his sacrifice sins are forgiven, but I had some real difficulties with church culture and the way modern churches operate. I (and my wife, who had similar concerns) eventually withdrew almost completely from the church until about three years ago when she started feeling a gnawing need to get back into the church and started researching different denominations "from scratch." Her searching eventually led us to a small United Methodist church in our town, and about the same time, I reached the depth of friendship necessary to start discussing matters of faith with my good friend James, a Catholic turned Unitarian.

It was with considerable relief that I found that my concerns were far from being unique to me and my wife. In fact, there were huge swaths of Christianity practicing what I found to be a far more authentic faith than that of my youth out there, just waiting for me to stumble into them, much like a person looking at his feet can stumble into the wall of a huge building without noticing it. In particular, a sermon series from Rev. Adam Hamilton called When Christians Get it Wrong really galvanized me and propelled me into far more reading and thinking on my faith than I have done in over a decade.

This, in turn led me to start reading to "catch up" on what I'd been missing, as it were. Suddenly being a Christian was exciting and, dare I say it, intellectually satisfying again. I read and worked through with our small group the book version of When Christians Get it Wrong, and I realized that being a Christian didn't translate into anti-intellectualism and that (to my shock) Genesis is far more consistent with modern scientific understanding of the origin of both the universe and life on Earth than I'd ever have thought. I read Wild at Heart and No More Christian Nice Guy and breathed a sigh of relief that I could be a bit more rough and gruff as a Christian man and probably wind up as a more authentic and effective (if controversial) Christian for it. I read Love Wins and while I don't agree with everything Rob Bell has to say, I at least have come to believe that the Bible is far less eager to condemn people to eternal torment than most modern American churches are. I read, I thought, I compared to scripture. Things rang truer than what I'd experienced as a child and a young man. Suddenly I understood why Paul could say he was "not ashamed" of the gospel.

All of this has been wonderful for me, but I still had the gnawing feeling that as an introvert, I somehow didn't measure up, that my being drained by social situations and deeply valuing solitude and time to myself like I do, feeling occasionally "not up to" going to church and so forth were at the best, disappointing to God and at worst, outright sinful. And it was at this point that I had a conversation over a meal with my Evangelical, but deeply introverted, parents and I became aware of Adam S. McHugh's book Introverts in the Church. I sat on the recommendation for quite a while until I remembered it one evening while wasting time on the internet. I popped open a browser tab, pulled the book up, called my work (I work for a bookstore) and had them special-order me a copy. The book came in on Tuesday, and despite having to work, take care of various other business and share the book with my voracious reader of a wife, I have finished it.

The contents of that book were, to put it bluntly, profound, at least to me. (It bears noting, by the way, that the author is only about two years my senior, so his language and experience are not that far removed from my own in some ways). McHugh described in great detail not only the behavior of introverts in the church (spiraling into involvement, then retreating for a while) but the tremendous value that they can have to the church. Introverts are, as a whole, a more contemplative and slow-thinking group of people, more inclined to the internal and cerebral than the external and exciting. McHugh calls out examples of deeply introverted individuals including Mother Teresa, Jonathan Edwards, and none other than Moses(!) who were incredibly valuable to God not in spite of their introvertedness, but arguably because of it.

McHugh also outlines why the more traditional "heritage"service that my wife and I pry ourselves out of bed (entirely too) early on Sunday mornings for is so much more meaningful to us, and outlines a number of other things that can be done to make worship more comfortable for introverts.

Most importantly, however, McHugh points out that a lot of what introverts have to offer is incredibly meaningful and important, rather than just "look, I'm helping!" tasks you'd give to a toddler and that (to my great and surpassing relief) that the "sales pitch" form of evangelism that's always made me deeply uncomfortable and embarrassed is far from the only form of witness, and indeed may be (as I've often suspected) more harmful than helpful in many contexts. Direct from the book:

After a hasty introduction, the Christian student asked a question to the other student about his religious background, and before he had time to give much of a response, the Christian had launched into a rambling presentation of the gospel. He preached and testified his way through the two-and-a-half-hour flight, much to the chagrin of his fellow student who only managed a few sentence fragments during our soporific trip-not to mention everyone in the surrounding rows. As I disembarked from the plane, I remember drowsily praying "God, please don't let this interaction forever close this guy off from the gospel."
McHugh's sentiments there could have been extracted directly from my own memory, and in fact, I've actually been confronted with the behavior of rude Christians by unbelieving friends and had to stammer my way around a denouncement of what I like to call "Sledgehammer Christianity" that attempts to (thankfully usually verbally) pound people into the kingdom. Never mind that other reading I've done seems to make this "turn or burn" mentality erroneous on its own. That kind of approach shouldn't be used to sell children's toys or cars, much less belief systems. People need to accept what they believe, not capitulate to it if it's going to have any lasting value. McHugh instead argues (and I agree with him) that introverted evangelism more closely follows St. Francis of Assisi's "Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words." That is something that is both easier and far more difficult at the same time.

 It should come as no shock that I'd recommend this book to pretty much anyone. If you're an introvert and a believer, this is a valuable, healing, validating read. If you're a believer and an extrovert, this book will solve a lot of mysteries about the introverts in your church and your life. Finally, if you're an unbeliever, you may take some comfort in knowing that there are a lot of Christians out there, some of whom you may not even realize are Christians in the first place, who would much rather be kind to you and help you through difficult times than try to bash your ideological head in.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Unfinished: The Binding of Isaac

WARNING: Not only is this post going to contain spoilers for The Binding of Isaac, it's also going to get into some personal religious and philosophical beliefs that I possess. If you're an atheist that's offended by professions of faith, this might be a post to skip. Similarly, if you're huge fan of a lot of the more famous and legalistic modern fundamentalist figures (Pat Robertson and John Hagee, for example) you might also want to give this a pass.

Before I get into any sort of content commentary on The Binding of Isaac, I should preface everything else by saying that it's a very, very well-executed game. The controls are responsive, there's plenty of variety in the items and maps. It plays like a seamless mix of a fast-paced all-ranged Zelda-like game crossed with a roguelike. There's steadily-increasing difficulty and permadeth, and lots of randomly generated loot and maps. The game plays very smoothly and I didn't see any bugs. The controls are responsive enough to translate intent into onscreen action almost perfectly, but the game does get very hard on later levels. (So much so that I finally gave up after about 11 hours of banging my head against it.)

However, the thing that makes this game interesting and difficult in a very non-gameplay way for me is the content, not the mechanics. The Binding of Isaac takes aim at the more fanatical and fundamentalist brands of Christianity. Isaac's mother first deprives him of everything (even clothes) and then decides to kill him because she thinks god wills it. Most of the items in the game are either based around fundamentalist Christian tropes for either good or evil things and the rest are based around child abuse or gross-out themes.

This put me in kind of a strange, unpleasant place. On the one hand, I think a lot of modern American Christianity is just plain wrong. The obsession with the end of days, the pharisaical legalism, the anti-intellectualism, the hatred and bigotry justified in the name of religion and the "prosperity gospel" seen all over the place in modern American Christian culture all make me deeply uncomfortable and angry. I don't see established scientific theories such as evolution and carbon dating as antithetical to my faith, and I certainly find nothing in the gospel that tells me that following Jesus should make me wealthy and comfortable on Earth, nor do I see anything that commands me to strike down and hate those who don't believe as I do. So poking fun at a branch of Christianity where a fat, lazy wellfare mom decides that she can abuse and murder her own child in God's name is perfectly fair.

On the other hand, while I see some of the criticisms as justified, I also think the game is almost utterly tasteless. It makes monsters out of child abuse victims and birth defects, blocks unexplored areas off with piles of feces, and generally fills itself with tasteless, disgusting references. Instead of being intelligent about its critique, it's juvenile and disgusting. However, then it wraps back around to the fact that this is a really well-executed, playable game. 

It's hard for me to say what to do about this game. I didn't purchase it alone; I instead got it as part of one of the Humble Bundles back some time ago and had heard some buzz and controversy around it, so I installed it to see what all the fuss was about since I had it anyway. That deserves a quick pause, by the way, because Humble Bundles are charitable ventures, and I've heard some interviews with the lead designer on podcasts and he seemed like an okay guy. This and Dungeons of Dredmor were responsible for teaching me about the roguelike genre, which I've found I can enjoy quite a bit. I can't really recommend it, but I really don't feel comfortable telling people to stay away, either.I suppose if it sounds or looks interesting, you'll get your money's worth, but it is a fairly offensive piece of IP, and that's by design.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

List Maintenance, Part 1

I'm going to start doing these in batches of ten or so every couple of days until I'm happy with my current list.

Brigade E5: New Jagged Union: I acquired this game as part of the 1C complete pack. Apparently it was originally supposed to be Jagged Alliance 3, but it didn't meet with the approval of the owners of the IP (Strategy First, I believe) and they pulled the name. I've hear that it's actually somewhat fun, though. I'd like to see how this plays, but the scaling doesn't work properly with my monitor resolution. Maybe someday, but it's not going on the pile now. With the glut of stuff I have, my motivation to screw around with video card scaling just so I can play something I might like is pretty minimal. Verdict: Not making the cut.

Unstoppable Gorg: This one is a tower defense game with a twist, literally. You place your defense towers on rings that you can then rotate to move your defenses around as the incoming enemies take different routes. It's also got a hilarious retro sci-fi theme to it that should make playing it very enjoyable. Verdict: Added to the backlog

Botanicula: Botanicula is a brand-new point and click adventure game that released straight into the humble bundle. I have no idea why the creators did that, but I'm not complaining. The game is hilarious and charming - it reminds me of a Pixar movie. The trailer is entertaining enough to function as an animated short whether you even want to play the game or not. Verdict: Added to the backlog.

Darksiders: I lost my save games in a system rebuild. I'm NOT playing through all the ridiculously difficult boss battles I completed just so I can get back to where I was. The game's fun, but not THAT much fun. It's been sitting on the list for over a year now and I still haven't finished it. Verdict: Pulled from the backlog, will get a "the unfinished" entry later.

The Binding of Isaac: I lack the patience to get through this unforgiving real-time roguelike/zelda game, but I will definitely have some things to say about its deliberately-controversial content later. Verdict: Pulled from the backlog, will get a "the unfinished" entry later.

El Matador: I also got this in the 1C complete pack. It's a single-player cover shooter from the looks of it. It looked interesting enough to try, but it has a crash on launch bug. With all the other stuff waiting to be sifted through, I'm not going to bother right now.  Verdict: Not making the cut.

Toki Tori: Toki Tori is the Windows version of an android game of the same name. It's a casual puzzle game/platformer about collecting eggs. Though the mechanics are very different, it reminds me a lot of Angry Birds. While the game is fun and entertaining, it's not deep enough for any sort of real thoughtful review from me on completion. Verdict: Not making the cut.

Zeno Clash: I have some much better first-person melee games in my collection (Dark Messiah of Might and Magic and Dead Island) and this game is just too weird. I'm not going to spend the time it takes to finish a really difficult game about punching weird animal people and shooting them with fish guns. Verdict: Pulled from the backlog.

Dead Island: Dead Island is a first person shooter/melee game with some heavy RPG elements about surviving the initial stages of a zombie outbreak on a tropical island resort. I got this on sale with a gift card. It's really well-done, but it's getting nasty difficult. I'm putting it on the backlog, but it may sit there for a while, and/or it may become an eventual The Unfinished entry. Verdict: Added to the backlog.

Borderzone: Yet another thing from the 1C complete pack, Borderzone is an RPG about, as far as I can tell, a medieval fantasy setting colliding with a sci-fi one somehow. That sounds fun and interesting.Not enough for the list, though, until I get the low-res scaling issues cleared up. Verdict: Not making the cut.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Cleared: Orcs Must Die!

W00t! I knocked something that wasn't Mass Effect off the list! I realized tonight that I only had two more levels left in Orcs Must Die, and while I was having some difficulty with them on the normal difficulty level, I had no trouble once I knocked them down to easy.

SPOILER WARNING: As is normal with these posts, I'm going to "spoil" the game a bit. However, I will say this: there's not a huge amount of plot in Orcs Must Die!; this is one of those games you play for the actual gameplay rather than the storyline.

Orcs Must Die! (and yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title) is an interesting hybrid of tower defense and straight-up action game. You take on the role of a lone Warmage defending magical rifts from an onslaught of orcs, ogres, kobolds, gnolls, and other assorted fantasy cannon fodder.  You accomplish this with a combination of traps, spells, and weapons, and once you start building up to higher levels, the game gets complicated quickly. Initial maps just have one entry point to cover, but later ones have several, and the last map has four arranged around a central rift. In the early parts of the game, it's mostly strategic. You set up a network of traps and pick off anything that gets through with your crossbow. However, that only gets yo so far, especially in the later levels. By the final level, you learn to set enough traps to slow the enemy down long enough to make running around and engaging groups individually feasible.

It's a fairly simple formula, but it's executed really well. The game's graphics, sound, and level design are all top notch, especially for a small indie title, and even the frat boy character you play grew on me after a while. The traps are devilishly fun, too. My favorite, I think, was a huge, ceiling-mounted swinging mace that could cover three adjacent tiles and tore through lines of advancing orcs with great efficiency, but I was also a fan of the barriers and tar traps that held my foes in place for more efficient extermination.

The story is fairly simple and certainly won't win any awards, but there are a few great moments in there, especially when you realize just what humble beginnings your PC rose from. The ending also seems very solid and conclusive, so much so that I'm interested to see what they do with the upcoming sequel.

All of this adds up to a game that's very much worth playing. It's challenging, but not maddening, fast, but not out-of-control, and the levels all seem to be just long enough to really get a strategy going, but not so long they start to drag. In addition, you can take newly-unlocked traps back to prior levels and experiment with them there, so there's a lot of potential replay value. This is one of those shining examples of just how great an indie game can be. I'll be very interested to see both what the sequel and anything else Robot Studios (the developer) dreams up looks like. Definitely one I'd recommend.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Pile Paring

Okay, so I've been doing two things lately that have to be addressed in this blog. The first is, uh, slacking. The second one is accumulating way too many new games. I picked up the 1C complete pack a couple weeks back, and I've also been hitting the Humble Bundles, Indie Royale, Groupees, and Indie Gala. I am well and truly buried. In an effort to pare things down to size, I'm going to do some quick impressions of various things, probably several to a post, and give impressions of them and whether they make any sort of lasting cut, because this is just plain ridiculous.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Archive: What Cops Know

I first read What Cops Know back in the late 90s when I was originally pondering the now-abandoned idea of a career in law enforcement. It informed a lot of my impressions of what police work was like at the time.

For those that haven't read it, it's a hard book to spoil, so I'd feel fine reading from here. The reason why it's hard to spoil, by the way, is that it's not one story, but a collection of lots and lots and lots of stories. Connie Fletcher (the author) basically took a bunch of Chicago PD guys out to dinner, threw a tape recorder on the table and said "tell me stories."

The stories the various officers tell range from the hilarious to the grim and bleak, and paint an interesting picture of what life is, or at least can be, like as a police officer in a large city. It also gives you an idea of what the officers are like themselves, as people. It's a fascinating character study in both police and the difficult members of society that they interact with on a daily basis.

Fletcher has laid out the book by topic and the stories are rarely more than a page or two, so it's the sort of book you can literally open to a random page and find something entertaining to read. Because of that, I've probably read it two or three times in chunks but never cover-to cover. It's also the sort of book that I've hauled around with me to read when I'm waiting on various things, a role in which it excels. If you read the book yourself and like it, she did two more in the same "Series" one called "Pure Cop" about specialized officers and one called "Breaking and Entering" about female officers.

It was a formative book for me in many ways. It presented an unromantic but not unappealing picture of law enforcement during a specific era (the 80s and little of the 90s) when I was thinking about getting into it and helped push me into getting my AAS in criminal justice. In retrospect, that was a huge waste of time, but in this case, the old saw about 20/20 hindsight applies, I think.