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.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Path of Exile's Stress Test Weekend

This past weekend the upcoming free-to-play action RPG (Diablo clone, if you will) Path of Exile had its first stress test. The game's currently in closed beta, but they opened it up for two days and I pounced on the chance to try it out. I was glad I did, because I liked just about everything there is to like about the game and its developer, Grinding Gear Games. Allow me to elaborate.

First of all is the game itself. It bears mentioning up front that Path of Exile does not reinvent the wheel. It puts some better tires on the wheel, for sure, but at its core, PoE is a relatively standard Diablo-sytle action RPG. There's hacking, slashing, and loot. The game is pre-rendered in 3D, but the camera is locked and there's no rag doll effects. It feels very much like a high-res version of Diablo II, graphically-speaking. That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. The art direction is very solid and the nostalgia factor is palpable. The monsters in particular are very nicely done, and there's a noticeable lack of ridiculous or comical enemies. This gives the game a very dark, serious tone.

Even though a lot of the gameplay is familiar, there are a number of interesting refinements and tweaks to the popular Diablo/Torchlight/Titan Quest/Silverfall formula. The first one that I noticed while playing is that potions aren't consumable items in the same way they are in a lot of games of this type - that is to say that they aren't "use and lose" items. Instead you get five belt slots to fill with potions flasks and these automatically refill themselves as you kill monsters. This has two effects that I noticed and enjoyed. First, it cuts down on the clutter in your inventory, which is always a welcome thing in games like this. Second, and more interestingly, it allows potion bottles that have additional effects beyond just restoring hit points or mana points, and it also allows the restoration of points in interesting ways. For example, I had a health potion bottle that healed less health per use than other bottle of the same size, but healed it instantly. (That bottle was particularly helpful in boss fights.)

Another noticeable departure from the norm is the skill tree. Again, there are two really noticeable differences from the usual formula. First, all 6 classes share one enormous skill tree. And when I say enormous, I do mean it. The skill tree looks like a coll retro star chart with branches and forks everywhere. Here's the thing though; the entire skill tree is passive. Active skills are acquired in the form of skill gems which are socketted into your equipment. This means that, among other things, any character can theoretically use any skill, though some skills are better suited to a particular class than others. More importantly, however, this combination of a vast, complex passive skill tree and instantly-interchangeable class-agnostic active skills (that also level up automatically along with you so long as they're equipped) means that you can play exactly the type of character you want to play and it's very likely that even two characters of the same class and level will be significantly different from one another. Active skills can be further enhanced with augment gems which add useful additional effects to the active skill(s) they're linked to.

Pretty cool, isn't it?
All of this customizability feeds directly into my love of complexity in my games. (And if you doubt the seriousness of that statement, consider this: I play Jagged Alliance 2 with the 1.13 patch and the AIMNAS mod on top of it because "vanilla" JA2 isn't complex enough.) However, at the same time it's not particularly opaque, intimidating, or possessed of a steep learning curve.

This brings me to the business model. The game is going to be free to play and the pay elements will all be cosmetic things. I'm very interested to see what form those cosmetic pay elements take, because what I've seen and played of Path of Exile is a remarkably polished and enjoyable package all on its own. In addition, the weapons and armor pieces all look pretty nice on the characters in their existing form. Put simply, the free parts of the game are so good I'm not quite sure what's left to charge for, but I'm sure anxious to find out!

And that brings me to the developer, Grinding Gear Games. Every indication that I've seen (and some small amount of direct contact) points to them being an exceptionally talented, friendly, and ethical game studio. In that respect, they remind me a bit of Mojang. They are deeply committed to doing the game in an ethical way, which to them means not allowing people to buy power in their game with real money (the "pay to win" model) and instead seem focused on making the game itself as appealing as possible. Furthermore, after the stress test weekend, a lot of people (myself included) have been clamoring for a way to buy their way into the closed beta. It appears that they're going to do this by allowing pre-purchases of their paid content, which will come with a beta key attached for free. Think about that for a second. People have been clamoring for a way to donate money to them, and instead of just gleefully (and gratefully) taking the funds and handing out keys, they're still trying to figure out ways to get value into their customers' hands, even though the game's not even released or even in open beta yet! I just hope whatever they do lock behind a paywall brings in sufficient revenue for them to keep the game running, because from what I've seen so far, I'm going to want to play a lot of it.

 If any of this sounds interesting to you, I hope to see you in the beta when it opens up, either to payments or entirely. As a final treat, check out the Templar trailer for the game:

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cleared: Mass Effect 3

Well, it's time to put the defibrillator paddles on this blog, I think. Criminey, it's been a long time with no new content. Sorry about that.

Anyway, I finished playing through Mass Effect 3 earlier this week, and I've been ruminating over it a bit, along with a lot of the other folks who have played it, I imagine. One spoiler-free bit before I get to the spoilery part of the post: the multiplayer, while something I was initially skeptics of/uninterested in, has turned out to be a ton of fun and well worth playing if you have the game. I've found it very enjoyable, and that's playing with strangers. I can't wait to try it with friends. Anyway, onto the real "meat" of this post.

SPOILER WARNING: It's pretty much impossible for me to discuss Mass Effect 3 in the way I'd like to without going into substantial spoilers, so if you'd rather not have the game spoiled, you're going to have to skip this post entirely, I'm afraid.

Here's the thing (and this is a common theme around the web) most of the game is brilliant. In fact, I teared up a couple of times and not from frustration of disappointment. It bears mention that the game included every single thing I wanted the mid-game to contain and more. Jack, who I'd written off in the first game, is back as a biotics instructor at Grissom Academy and is fiercely protective of "her kids." The changes in her make her actually sympathetic, and that's very cool to see. Thane Krios single-handedly saves the Salarian councilor from Kai Leng, and then passes away peacefully in a hospital bed, praying for Shepard.

Those, by the way, are the more minor parts. The Geth and the Qaurians can finally make peace in one of the most tense and touching bits of game story I've ever seen. The depth to which the Geth are willing to forgive the Quarians is staggering. I don't think I've found any line in all my gaming history as touching as: "You are welcome to return to Rannoch, Admiral Raan. With us." It's both amusing and a little poignant to watch the almost paternal body language of the Geth Prime towering over Admiral Raan as that conversation happens, especially since the Geth are actually the Quarians' "children." This is made even more touching still when you talk to Tali on the ship afterward and find out that the Geth are helping the Quarians adapt to life without enviro-suits.

The situation on Tuchanka isn't quite as touching, but it's still really satisfying. Mordin sacrifices himself to put the old injustice of the Genophage right, and despite the fact that at the time it looks like you lost the support of the Salarians, it feels pretty fantastic to watch what looks like snow fall from The Shroud. Eve and Wrex make a great "first couple" for the new Krogan society, too.

There are some other bits as well, and by the time I made it to the final confrontation, I felt like I'd laid the groundwork for a golden age in the galaxy. A common threat did a lot to unite the disparate, bickering factions, and the one true wild card, the Batarians, had been mulched by the Reapers on their way to Earth, so they wouldn't be a problem in the future.

It was at this point that the game proceeded to pull the rug out from under its own story. There's not much that I can add to the discussion that hasn't already been said, but it was kind of a let-down to see so much of the preceding storyline disregarded in the final cutscene. I had also hoped for a more strategic show-down with the Reapers, with old crewmates leading special ops strike teams you could direct to accomplish various tasks in a manner somewhat similar to ME2's suicide mission. I can picture vividly Samara and some Asari Commandos or even the rest of the Justicar order, Miranda and some former Cerberus ops, Grunt and his Krogan unit, Liara and a squad of Shadow Broker mercs, Tali with a mixed Quarian/Geth strike team, etc.

Alas, however, my military/strategic ending was not to be.I still think I got my money's worth, though.

RPG notes: The Mass Effect universe just begs for a licensed series of tabletop RPG products. The setting could not be more perfect for adventuring in, and playing out "alternate histories" in which the Reaper War ended in whatever way a specific group would have preferred (possibly using something like Microscope to set up the post-war setting) would be amazing.

In addition, the themes of reconciliation and forgiveness present throughout the trilogy make for a very meaty and though-provoking bit of inspiration for any campaign, as does the concept of the Reapers themselves. Because they aren't annihilating all organic life, but rather "pruning" it, they make for a more nuanced villain than your typical omnicidal maniac elder evil thingy.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Mass Effect Run-Up, Post 1: Mass Effect (Therum, Feros, and Part of Noveria))

SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers for Mass Effect 1 and 2. Speculation about 3. 

Yesterday I began my run through Mass Effect 1 & 2 in earnest, starting with Mass Effect 1. I've so far completed Therum (Picking up Liara before moving on to other major plot points) and Feros, as well as a few side quests. This time through, I've been focusing on side quests that I think or know will have consequences later (or ones that I find particularly satisfying) so here's what I've got so far.

Talitha at the spaceport: I picked the Colonial and War Hero background options for my Shepard, which essentially meant that as a kid, he had to watch a horrible slaver attack helplessly and then as a young adult, saw the same thing starting to happen and said "Yeah, no. Not this time." That meant that when I got the side ques of talking down a deeply distraught survivor of the same slaver attack that cost Shepard his family, he was extremely empathetic. Very satisfying, but unlikely to have much affect on ME2 or 3 beyond a thank-you email.

Samesh/Nirali Bhatia: I have a really strong feeling that this will yield something cool in ME3; some armor or maybe a weapon. In any case, I let the alliance hold Nirali Bhatia's body for research after the Geth attack on Eden Prime. I went full Paragon with the dialog choices and had charm to a high enough level where I was able to get the body held with Samesh's consent. Samesh's line as he finally relents is still very touching to me. They did a good job of portraying his grief.

Scanning the Keepers: Why do I have a feeling that Chorban's research will be absolutely critical at some point in ME3? Call me paranoid, but I put a map on one of my side monitors and tracked down and scanned all 21 of the Keepers on the citadel. It's certainly not the most fun side quest in the game, but I really have a hunch.

Gianna Parasini/Mr. Anoleus: I helped Gianna Parasini take down Mr. Anoleus on Noveria. I don't think it'll make for a major plot point in ME3, but I'm really hoping she shows up again like she did in ME2. Gianna Parasini is probably my favorite minor NPC in the whole Mass Effect universe.

Romance: Planning to romance Ashley Williams.

 And that's it for day 1. I haven't had to do too much Mako driving except Therium and Noveria so far, which is a blessing. That's definitely the weakest part of the game. It's also interesting how much weightier and more powerful they made biotic and tech powers look and feel in ME2 compared to ME1.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Archive: Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent

And now for something completely different: a children's picture book.

SPOILER WARNING: Yes, it's true. I'm going to spoil the plot of a children's picture book. If you really don't want Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent spoiled, go to a library or bookstore, pull it off the shelf, and spend the five to ten minutes reading it takes. Better yet, take half an hour and savor Bill Peet's gorgeous colored pencil illustrations. 

Anyway, I should probably back up a bit, because the author, Bill Peet, isn't the world's best-known picture book creator, which I frankly see as a travesty. Bill Peet was an animator for Disney back in the day, and in fact you can see his influence very heavily in The Sword and the Stone and the original, animated 101 Dalmatians. He had a distinctive artistic style and an equally distinctive sense of warped, yet gentle humor. He also self-illustrated his books with absolutely gorgeous colored-pencil artwork. My Mom found out about him from a local librarian when I was just a little kid, and he's been a mainstay of our family and her classroom (she's a third grade teacher) ever since.

The thing that I have always liked about him, though, is that his books aren't just vacuous bubblegum-silly picture book claptrap. There's a message, it's a good one, and just because it isn't presented harshly doesn't mean it's not there.

I remember reading an Amazon review of Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea serpent years ago where the book is referred to as being a lesson about resisting peer pressure. There's an element of that, sure, at the very beginning. However, the book is much more about courage, duty, self-sacrifice, and protecting those weaker than you than it is about peer pressure. Cyrus actually fits into a category of characters that also includes Atticus Finch. Does that seem like an overly-drastic claim? Read on.

The book begins with Cyrus as a very, very bored sea serpent. In fact, the cover art and the picture on the first page depict him as looking like he's about ready to pass out from his boredom. Here's the thing, though, and pay attention to this: Cyrus is an incredibly powerful creature. He talks to a shark in the earlier pages, and he clearly dwarfs the beast. Given the appearance of the shark, it's probably a great white, and they're not exactly tiny. That conversation with the shark the catalyst for the whole rest of the story, however.

The shark (and this is where the peer pressure thing comes in) suggests that as a way to get some excitement in his life, that Cyrus wreck a ship and eat everybody. Cyrus is aghast at this idea, but the shark calls him a coward and this angers Cyrus who swims off to a harbor prove his "manhood." He slips into the harbor and picks out a ship getting ready to head off on its maiden voyage. The ship is clearly the Mayflower with the serial numbers filed off. (It's called the Primrose, and if you look at the clothes of the crew and passengers, they're dressed as puritans.) As the ship is setting sail, an old man standing on the wharf angrily curses them, telling the passengers they're doomed to die at sea and then rattles off a list of hazards: doldrums, a storm, and pirates.

At this point, the kind-hearted sea serpent's inherent nobility overrides his anger at being called a coward by a shark and he resolves to watch over the ship and protect her. It's a good thing for the passengers, too, because everything the old man said comes to pass.

The first hazard is the doldrums. The ship sails into an area with no wind and gets stuck. The passengers and captain all worry about this for a bit and retire for the evening. Cyrus, not sleepy himself, stays up and circles around the ship for a while, trying to figure out what to do about this problem, and then realizes that he can be the source of wind the ship needs. He swims along behind, puffing at the sails and pushing the ship along. This challenge requires little from him - just some ingenuity, but he rises to it nonetheless.

However, it's not long before a truly nasty, ship-wrecking storm blows up. Initially, Cyrus just hangs back and lets everyone tear down the sails and get belowdecks, but at some point, the waves are getting massive enough to sink the ship. Faced with this new hazard, Cyrus makes a snap decision, wraps himself around the ship, gulps in a bunch of air and turns himself into a huge life-preserver to help the ship survive the massive waves tossing it about. This takes considerably more out of Cyrus. The books doesn't get into the mechanics, but have you ever had gas pains? Know how much those suck? Imagine what the poor sea serpent went through. After the storm is over, Cyrus is understandably exhausted and decides to take a nap. Who can blame him, really?

Unsurprisingly, he wakes up to see that the ship has sailed off beyond where he can see. He momentarily contemplates calling it good enough and bowing out. And then he discards the idea and goes off in search of the ship, just in case. It's at this point that the sea serpent's true colors really shine through, because the next hazard is going to require more of him than anything previous. Before he'd dealt only with environmental problems. Now, however, he's confronted with an entire ship of armed pirates. Unfortunately, he can't catch up in time to keep them from wrecking the Primrose's sails with their first broadside, but he takes one look at the rapidly degenerating situation and chooses harm to himself over harm to the passengers of the Primrose who, at this point, still don't even know he's there. Lacking time or other apparent methods to defend the primrose, he does a deep dive and a very fast surfacing right under the pirate ship, cracking the hull in two with his skull and knocking himself unconscious in the process.

There are a few important things to note at this point. First is that he has, yes, now wrecked a ship, but he did it to protect some innocents. Second is that Cyrus, now that the threat is neutralized, shows mercy and doesn't do anything further to the pirates, not even splashing them. He does, however, not give up on the now-wrecked Primrose and her passengers. It bears mentioning that, at this point, the ship is still only something like halfway to the New World. There's a great exchange about the old man cursing the ship at the beginning of the voyage, and then there's this great bit of dialog from Cyrus:

 "Who could forget him?" Cyrus Muttered to himself. "He was right about the doldrums, the storm and the pirates. But he didn't figure on me. I just might prove him wrong."

It's also worth mentioning at this point that the passengers are afraid of Cyrus. They just saw him wreck the pirate ship. Cyrus, however, doesn't care. He grabs the anchor and tows the ship the rest of the way to the New World. The passengers are initially terrified that they're being dragged off as a snack, but the captain of the ship points out that the pirates would have likely killed them if the serpent hadn't shown up and that he's pulling them along in the right direction.

Fortunately for both Cyrus and the passengers, the rest of the journey is pretty uneventful. He pulls them along, day and night, as fast as he can and then hits a burst of speed to push the ship up onto dry land at the end. The passengers all climb onto a huge rock (Plymouth rock, perhaps?) and give him a rousing cheer, and then he swims off for a nap. He's certainly earned it. The book ends with Cyrus snoozing in some palm trees.

Now, let me ask you, readers - does that sound like a story about resisting peer pressure to you? Or is that a story about courage, self-sacrifice, and doing the right thing for its own sake? Cyrus suffered much, gained little, and wore himself out. But he saved the lives of dozens of innocent people. That's a pretty noble character and a pretty lofty message for a colorful picture book about a sea monster, don't you think?

Addition and the introduction of a limited series of posts.

Addition (PC Game): Mass Effect 3

Over my vacation, I had a problem with the SSD caching on my computer that required me to reinstall Windows. Among the things I lost in that transition were my Mass Effect 1 and 2 saves. This did not make me happy. At all. Whatsoever.

However, since I've been in a bit of a blogging slump of late, I think what I'm going to do is chronicle my rebuilding of said saves, namely by replaying ME 1  and 2. I'm going to try to build a "definitive" save at the end of ME2, which for me means a very solidly Paragon game. 

This may or may not even work, but since I don't really foresee consuming much other media until I'm done with ME3, I figured I might as well write about what I'm doing. One thing you can be sure of, however, is that anything I post about the first two games as I prepare for the third will be riddled with spoilers. You've been warned here, and you'll be warned again at the top of each of the new posts.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Archive: Jagged Alliance 2

It seems somehow fitting that if last night's post was on my favorite ongoing game series of all time, today's would be about my favorite single game of all time.

SPOILER WARNING: This entire post is going to spoil the living daylights out of Jagged Alliance 2, its expansion pack: Unfinished Business, the demo, 1.13, two 1.13 mods, and pretty much everything else about, or tangentially related to, the game. That said: it came out in 1998. I am well within my rights to include spoilers at this point! If you haven't played the game, you have missed out on what I firmly believe was the best PC game ever made, but I have a small gift for you. Following the link in the previous sentence will take you to a FilePlanet downloads page where you can download the demo, still available almost a decade and a half after the game's initial release. Better yet, if it turns out that you like the game, it's available from gog.com for $10.

Unlike Mass Effect, Jagged Alliance 2 was very much on my radar from the moment it was announced. I followed fresh news of it with great enthusiasm, and when I finally got my hands on the demo, I played the living daylights out of it for over a year while I waited for the game proper to come out. When the game was finally released, the closest place I could get it was half an hour away, so I drove out there, picked it up as soon as the store opened, and then tore open the box and sifted through the manual in the parking lot before excitedly speeding home and installing it.

Before I get into the game itself, however, the demo deserves its own mention. Jagged Alliance 2's demo wasn't so much a demo as it was a small, separate game that used the JA2 engine. It had a large secret area, a fair amount of depth, and the maps from it appear nowhere in the main game of JA2. You can easily drop ten hours into just the demo and barely notice. It has all the tactical depth of the full game, though obviously the story is absent, and the devs didn't put the strategic level in at all for the demo. It was still the coolest thing on my PC at the time.

But that demo, as it turns out, only held a small fraction of the mind-boggling amount of content that made the full game such a masterpiece. The premise of Jagged Alliance 2 is fairly simple on the surface. The benevolent and rightful leader of a small, insignificant nation has been unseated in a coup by his brutal ex-wife. She has turned the country into a nightmarish hellhole of cruelty and oppression, but he's finally built up enough capital to hire you to take it back for him. Your job is nothing more, and nothing less, than to manage every aspect of a guerrilla war to liberate the small, forgotten nation of Arulco.

Oh, and by "every aspect," I really do mean every aspect. You must hire your team, manage their contracts, direct them in battle, negotiate with the locals, and otherwise micromanage every aspect of the battle to take back Arulco. It should, by all rights, be a miserable, tedious chore. Instead, it's a challenging, rewarding, sometimes frustrating, at other times exhilarating job. Low on funds? Seize some precious metal mines. Mercs shot up in the last battle? Get a merc with a high medical skill in to patch them up. Just liberated a town, but don't want to hang around trying to keep it under your control? Train some militia. In tactical battles, your troops can fire single shots with varying degrees of careful aim, bursts, or full-auto. They can throw grenades or throwing knives, pummel enemies with their fists, set demolitions charges, launch missiles, walk, run, crouch, and crawl along prone, and do any of these either fast or stealthy. The game takes into account weapon ranges, rates of fire, elevation, cover, camouflage, and even morale. Mercenaries can like or hate each other. Your troops ask for more money as they get better at their jobs. It goes on and on and on, but JA2's user interface is so slick, especially for a game from 1998, that you may find yourself forgetting just how deep and complex it is.

The game's story is also very good, considering how little time the game uses on exposition. Early in the game you have the opportunity to recruit a woman named Ira who acts as a tour guide of sorts as you move around the country, giving you little tidbits of history about the area you happen to be in. One of the most chilling moments in the entire thing is when you come across the ruins of the university in Cambria about halfway through the game and she casually mentions that the queen shut the university down. As you move through the map, however, it becomes apparent that she didn't do this by locking the place up after hours. The unexploded ordinance, blasted-out walls, broken windows, bloodstains, and overturned chairs tell a horrifyingly grim tale. She sent in the army while class was in session and massacred everyone. It's not explicitly stated, but the scene itself doesn't lie. And as you move further and further South, you discover more and more evidence of atrocities. By the time I reached Balime, I wanted Deidranna Reitman's head not because it was my job, but because she was a horrible monster.

That's not to say the game is emo, however. In fact, there are a ton of moments where it is laugh-out-loud funny. In what is normally the second town you liberate, Chitzena, you'll find the bickering retired American couple, John and Mary Kulba. Your mercenaries pepper firefights and downtime alike with sarcastic quips, and some of the locals are amusingly unhinged. You can send the queen flowers to taunt her. The queen's military adviser, Elliot, gets more and more beat up as Deidranna slaps him around in cut scenes as your team liberates the country. Digging into mercenary bios on the various websites reveals not a little humorous content.

And then they released Unfinished Business, which introduced more mercenaries, a mission editor, more weapons, and an entire new, if smaller, country to conquer. Snipers came into their own, shooting enemies from all the way across the map with .50 cal rifles and you could now customize your experience by building whole maps from scratch and bolting them onto the existing game.

All of this would be more than enough on its own, but after SirTech folded, the game moved out of their hands and into the hands of the Jagged Alliance modding community. At some point along the line, the game went from excellent through amazing and straight into transcendent. The inventory system in the 1.13 mod is based on load-bearing equipment, weapon attachments are no longer limited to four per weapon, the already-considerable number of weapons in the game has been massively expanded, and the ability to dig into .ini files and tweak all sorts of settings has made the game into something even more than it already was. I'd liberated Arulco with a rag-tag group of mercenaries already, but 1.13 allowed me to say "screw it" and give myself six super-elite customized mercenaries and a budget of ten million dollars. At that point, it wasn't a bunch of merceanries any more. It was much more akin to sending in the SAD or even Rainbow. Six expert operators wearing dragonskin and ghille suits, hauling FN SCAR-H and H&K SL9SD rifles while a sniper team with CheyTac M-200 Interventions watches their backs can absolutely destroy even the Arulcan elite guard. While this eliminates almost all of the game's challenge, there is a certain grim exhilaration in feeling like an avenging god of war sending lead-spitting, black-clad angels of death to punish the wicked, especially after you've liberated Tixa prison a few times in the normal game.

And then you can take this even further by stacking the AIM or IoV mods on top. Even more weapons and equipment. Or put Wildfire on and get new, even better maps, but the same story. Or Deidranna Lives and get a whole new story. Or... ...you get the idea. Oh, and everything in this paragraph and the last one is free if you own a copy of the base game. If you're interested, check out the Bear's Pit. The community there is fairly friendly, and there are links all over the place to everything you need to get started. And the mod community is still very active, even 14 years after the original game's release.

With all of this going for it and no end in sight, is it any wonder that JA2 is my favorite game of all time? That I've installed it on every PC I've ever had since it came out? That I don't think I've gone more than 3 months without playing it at least a little since its release? I’ve never thought so. It’s a rare game that holds up this long, even with mods, but in a way, I think that makes it even more special.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Archive: Mass Effect 1 & 2

Since Mass Effect 3 is coming in just two weeks (NOT THAT I'M COUNTING) and its prequels have absorbed so much of my free time of late, it seems appropriate that the first of my new series of posts on notable pieces of media from my past would focus on the Mass Effect universe.

SPOILER WARNING: this post contains massive and extensive spoilers for Mass Effect 1 and 2, and some speculative spoiling for 3 based on the art book that's currently out.Those who have not played the games probably should not read this post at all. It contains both spoilers and the assumption that the reader has some knowledge that playing the games will provide. Also: I played both of the games as a male, Paragon ("good") Shepard, so my commentary and perspective are highly colored by this.

When Mass Effect first came out, I really didn't even notice it. I had nothing particularly against the game, it just wasn't on my radar. I wasn't really following the games industry that closely back in 2007 and so I missed it at launch. I did, however, catch the manufactured controversy over it and subsequent backlash and sheepish retractions. Out of curiosity, I picked it up in 2008 on sale (I want to say for about $20?) from a Gamestop and tried it out. The game "clicked" with me almost immediately. A lot of the things that I was skeptical of in the game, such as full voice acting and the dialog wheel, worked far better than I'd anticipated they would.

It wasn't until later that I really came to appreciate the universe. Mass Effect created a clean-looking, sleek future and then populated it with politics and flawed characters that ring true. All of the major races have good and bad people in them, ambiguous motivations, rivalries, friendships, and individuals that go against the norm. That plausible, believable feel absorbed me and then, just when I thought the game had nothing else it could throw at me, the encounter with Sovereign on Virmire happened. The whole cosmic horror angle gave me a whole new appreciation for the series and hooked me even more, because Commander Shepard's reaction to staring down an ancient being that is equal parts Cthulhu and Terminator is to spit in its eye.

That reaction, and the theme it implies, is something that has always stood out to me as cool about the Mass Effect series. The odds are stupidly high - Reapers have been exterminating advanced civilizations for at least 37 million years, and probably much longer than that. The cosmic horror is unmistakeable, and yet one of the central themes to the series is that there is, even in the face of that, some hope left.The Protheans, staring into the face of their own oblivion, peppered the galaxy with nuggets of aid for the next civilization that would follow. They identified some of the Reapers' few vulnerabilities and pushed on them in subtle ways. And they did this not to save themselves, which they knew was impossible, but to give those that came after them a fighting chance. And it actually makes a difference. It even seems to be the case from The Art of Mass Effect that one of the Protheans somehow managed to stay alive in stasis for 50,000 years so they could aid the next civilization.

There has been some interesting writing about how postmodern and progressive the games are, and there is certainly something to that, but equally interesting is how (especially for a Paragon path through the games) a lot of the plot revolves around rejecting or refusing to accept certain bleak "truths" in various ways. One of your potential squadmates, Ashley Williams, is an avowed theist (and it is possible for Commander Shepard to be one as well) and much of the plot for a Paragon Shepard revolves around themes of hope, compassion, self-sacrifice, and individualism. Mass Effect 2 in particular is practically an essay on the idea of individualism in game form. Commander Shepard is such a unique, singular individual that Cerberus, an agency that opposes him in the first and third games, retrieves his freeze-dried body and reconstructs him, his death and subsequent return making him into a messianic figure. In other words, despite the cosmic horror, the series is both in possession of traditional Western values to at least some extent, and is an archetypical Hero's Journey in the truest mythological sense.

Also interesting is that it seems like there is a definite theme of forgiveness and reconciliation to be found in the series. The Geth, basically a form of cannon fodder in the first game, are shown to be far more sympathetic than originally portrayed in the second game, and in fact seem far more interested in being allowed to keep existing than exacting any sort of revenge on the Quarians. If the player brings Legion along on Tali's loyalty mission and talks to the Quarian admiral pushing for peace, it becomes apparent that the Geth may be sort of an anti-Terminator. Terminators are summed up in the memorable quote of: "Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead." On the other hand, Geth can be bargained with, reasoned with, and while they don't seem to feel fear, necessarily, it is hinted at that one thing they certainly do not feel is hatred, or even a desire for revenge. Despite numerous attempts by the Quarians to wipe them out, the Geth do not wish to eradicate the Quarians. EDI also exemplifies this. Alternately mocked, distrusted, and used as a tool, "she" takes pains to save the crew and the ship and even demonstrates a willingness to help people - because she wants to. Squadmates forgive the player and occasionally even each other for making choices that they don't agree with, sometimes passionately. In the original game, Saren and Matriarch Benezia both express regret at what their actions have wrought, and it is possible for Shepard to forgive a race that had formerly been eradicated for their misdeeds and allow them to start anew.

With all of that and some really top-notch cover shooting besides (to say nothing of the fantastic dialog writing and voice acting) it's no small wonder that Mass Effect 3 is probably my most anticipated game ever. I am really happy it's coming out soon.

An Apology

Well, I went into February with all sorts of grandiose plans... ...and they fell apart. There's a week left in the month, and this is my only post so far. I'm not sure where I hit my tipping point, exactly, but at some point in there, I piled too much on my plate, and shortly thereafter I dumped most of what I was on it into the metaphorical trash can.

By polling for what I should consume and setting myself a large to-do list, I inadvertently just gave myself a pile of work to do that wasn't any fun in aggregate, even if the individual pieces would be, and since this isn't a commercial blog, and therefore isn't really a responsibility, I shirked it. My last week was spent on vacation, and that should have afforded tons of time to catch up on the backlog. But, I didn't. I played Mass Effect 2 instead. And that was fun. So I guess I'm going back to the old way of doing things, but I think I'm also going to work in some new posts about some of my favorite pieces of media over the years.

You see, I've got a ton of them, and they all deserve a shot. And while I may not have just read, watched, or played them, they had an effect on me, so I'm going to write about them. I might go back and revisit them, or I may write from memory. I'm still going to keep knocking new stuff off the list, but I think giving some of my old favorites a post here and there may make this blog a lot more fun for me to do, and hopefully, it'll also make it more fun for you to read. Here's a (partial) list of stuff that may eventually make the list of posts I'm going to call The Archive.

PC Games: The Fallout games, the Mass Effect games, the Baldur's Gate series, Half-Life 2, Diablo 2, Civilization IV, Jagged Alliance 2 (despite the fact that I've blogged it once already), Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, Syndicate, The King's Quest Series, the Dawn of War series, the Quest for Glory series, Silent Storm

Movies: Die Hard, Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan, Anne of Green Gables, Identity, The Matrix, Equilibrium, Tombstone, Ronin, Heat, Collateral, Black Hawk Down, L.A. Confidential, The Incredibles, The Dark Knight, Lord of the Rings, Les Miserables, Wanted, Braveheart, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Emperor's New Groove, Rat Race, Tremors, Taken, Thirty Days of Night, Cloverfield, Narc, The Fugitive

TV Series: The Shield, Firefly, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Sons of Anarchy, Kirk, Foyle's War, Batman: The Animated Series, 24, Lost, Band of Brothers

Nonfiction Books: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Wild at Heart, When Christians Get it Wrong, Nickel and Dimed, Sneaky uses for Everyday Things, What Cops Know, GURPS Basic Set, Third Edition

Fiction Books: Astro City: Confession, Night Watch (by Terry Pratchett), God's Demon, Wizard's First Rule, the Mistborn Trilogy, The Man Who Used the Universe, Slipt, This Present Darkness, The Tim Rackley series, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent, Rainbow Six

And like I mentioned earlier, this is a partial list. Some of it's serious, some of it's less so, and there are varying levels of depth, but there are a lot of things that have made an impression on me that I think I can pepper into this blog to jazz it up a bit. I will at least try to pad February out with some of these. Probably at least one every other day.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January After-Action Report and February's Monthly List

Well, the monthly list idea went... ...so-so. I was doing well for the beginning part of the month, but then I remembered that Mass Effect 3 is coming out in March and Mass Effect 1 and 2 have swallowed a huge amount of my free time as I've played through them in preparation for that. Here's the results for January:

Short Games: Bastion (cleared), Rage (cleared), Homefront (cleared) - made it through all of these.
Long Game: Dungeons of Dredmor (cleared) - Made it through all of that.
Nonfiction Book: The art of Manliness: Manvotionals - Not cleared. I'm about halfway through and am enjoying taking it slower. Because it's a collection of shorter things, its not really suited to plowing through, at least if I'm going to get any sort of real value out of it.
Fiction Book: The Alloy of Law (cleared) - Made it through in just a half-dozen sittings, I think. But Sanderson is one of my favorite authors.
Movies: Midnight Chronicles (cleared), Seraphim Falls - didn't clear Seraphim Falls, but I may watch that in February.
TV Season: The Walking Dead: Season 1 - I completely fell down on this. I just didn't watch it, or rather didn't watch beyond episode 1. I don't think I'm going to, either, despite how much I keep getting told I should. This has been on and off the list a lot, but I just can't get into it. I'm kind of tapped out on gruesome and depressing, no matter how well it's executed.

For February, I polled the Fear the Boot community and came up with some interesting results. This list is not entirely based on the polling results, but most of it is. In particular, the non-fiction book is based on my wife repeatedly asking me nicely to finish it and seeming a little hurt that I put that one to a poll, so I'm going to go with her preference there.

Short Games: Orcs Must Die!, Portal 2, and Bioshock 2
Long Game: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (Secondary long game: Avadon: The Black Fortress. I'm going to attempt to get through both of these, because I mentioned to someone I'd try to get them an impression of Avadon at some point in the near future.)
Nonfiction Book: A Theology of Inclusivism
Fiction Book: American Gods
Movies: Cowboys & Aliens and Salt
TV Season: Jericho, Season 1

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Off the List: Haywire

I got a chance to see this today with a buddy of mine that also likes action films. For years, the two of us have been catching movies together that our significant others would be less likely to be interested in, and this action-espionage movie was definitely something that appealed to us more than our significant others. The movie is surprisingly good. And not in the "I was expecting it to be bad, but it wasn't" sort of way. No, it was a bona-fide piece of real craftsmanship. The movie is very spare and minimalist and not terribly original. It's a standard "betrayed fugitive spy" plot that film viewers have seen dozens of times before. However, it really shines in its hand-to-hand combat scenes, which are some of the best I have ever seen. Let me elaborate on this a bit. First, the fights are not close-in quick-cutting things. The camera pulls back and shows all of what's going on, including the background, which is occasionally important and sometimes not. Things get broken, people push off of walls and furniture with limbs to get extra leverage, and the characters generally exchange a few blows and then move to grappling, just like a real fight. Absolutely everybody is a combat pragmatist. It's all incredibly visceral and very satisfying, and it's all very weighty feeling. The movie conveys a real feeling that getting hit sucks. I think one of the reasons this all works so well is that the lead actress, Gina Carano, is an MMA fighter of considerable skill. I'd never seen her in anything before and in fact didn't even know her name. While she's certainly as pretty as any other actress I've seen, she did a much better job of making me believe that she's actually as dangerous as she's supposed to be based on the script than any female action star I've ever seen. Curious, when I got home I looked her up on imdb.com and all of a sudden everything clicked. The authenticity of the fights, however, would be useless if the other actors, script, and/or directing weren't good, and I'm happy to report that they were all at least serviceable. Ewan MacGregor is never, ever bad, and Michael Douglas, Bill Paxton, and Antonio Banderas have pretty solid records themselves. Also deserving of special mention: despite its somewhat violent subject material, the movie shows considerable restraint. There's very little gore, very little foul language, and while the lead is stunning, there's nary a gratuitous T&A shot to be seen, which is refreshing. The movie was a lot slower-paced than I'd expected, but it was smart and even genuinely funny in a couple of places. Highly recommended and will probably wind up in my library. I'd like to watch this a couple more times, as it seems like the sort of film that would benefit from repeated viewings.

RPG notes: As usual, this will contain spoilers. Spoilery, spoileriffic spoilers. So stop reading if you haven't seen the film. First, anyone planning on playing any sort of unarmed warrior character should watch this film twice and take notes. The coffee ambush from the film's opening scene in particular stands out as the sort of combat ruthlessness that would make a Krav Maga instructor proud. The plot is fairly standard, so there's not much to pull from there, but I did like the idea that not all black ops types are ruthless, amoral, and disinterested in the safety of innocents around them. Mallory did a pretty good job of splitting combatants into groups of those who were genuine bad guys (like the ex-MI6 guy sent to kill her) and people who didn't deserve to be killed or maimed (like the SWAT team sent after her) and fighting appropriately. There's also an excellent case for characters trained in hand-to-hand combat even in these days of automatic weapons in this film.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Cleared: The Alloy of Law

It's been entirely too long since I finished a book, but at least that changed last night. The book in question was, as I'm sure the reader has discerned, The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson. I've previously read his original Mistborn trilogy, so when I heard that he had a new book in the setting, I was pretty excited. The book takes place about 300 years after the events of The Hero of Ages, and the world has transformed from a quasi-medieval setting to a quasi-Victorian one. All of the stuff that makes Sanderson's work so good is very much there. His characters are likable and interesting, his story has some great twists and turns in it, and his action scenes are phenomenal. The one thing that was a bit less present this time around was the whole sense of epic struggle - the story here was tighter and more personal, which was fine, just different. Sanderson has also left himself very much open for a follow-up novel. It's hard to go much more into the book's contents without going into spoiler territory, but I will say this: the setting has definitely grown and changed, but it's obviously the same world, which was a nice little bit of authorial craftsmanship. I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who has read the original series, and I'd recommend that someone who has read neither start with the original series, for two reasons: first, the original series is utterly brilliant. It's one of the best works of fantasy I have ever read, and second: there are a lot of little nods back to those three books in this one, which make the experience richer and more fun. I do find myself wishing that Vin and Kelsier had been using Bendalloy back in the original trilogy after having read this. In any case, highly recommended. Sanderson's work is very solid, as always, and as always he does a great job of handling things with intelligence and good taste without getting pretentious or pulling his punches.

RPG notes: Well, it bears mentioning at the outset that there is an official, licensed Mistborn RPG out there, though I have yet to see an actual copy of it, so I can't comment other than to say I'm glad someone got the Mistborn license and made a game out of it. Anyhow, as usual, there's an excellent chance that I'll spoil something you'd rather not have spoiled in here, so if you haven't read the book yourself, be aware that this is a potential likely virtually guaranteed source of spoiler content. The Alloy of Law does a couple of things useful to GMs: it makes an excellent case for how much you can change a setting and still have it be recognizable, and it also shows the value of having your players know their setting history. Having Marsh show up in the epilogue, especially since he is now the setting's equivalent of The Grim Reaper, was a very powerful and cool moment - IF you've read the first three books. Otherwise, half the impact of that scene will sail right over the reader's head. Likewise, the naming of the city after the characters from the first series, some of the house names carrying through, etc. add extra weight and continuity to the story. Interestingly, though, the world itself is a radically different place. The original series took place in a bleak, scorched world with red skies and black ash falling from the sky. The world in The Alloy of Law is the one Sazed created at the end when he set things right again, and yet, with Allomancy and Feruchemy (and I assume Hemalurgy - my money's on that being the real purpose of the kidnap victims) still around, albeit in a diminished form. But the magic system and a few proper nouns, albeit both used judiciously, are enough to make the setting recognizable. That's huge. And that's also something useful to remember when doing multiple campaigns in a common setting: a world can change, and change a lot, and still be the same world. Look at how much the map of Europe has changed in 300 years, and also how much technology has advanced. And yet Earth is still Earth. The same can be true of your homebrew setting. Don't be afraid to change it between campaigns.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cleared: Bastion

Well, that was amazing. And I have a feeling it's not done showing me cool stuff yet. Bastion, according to many, was one of the two best indie games of 2011. The other was Orcs Must Die (spoiler: guess what's going to be one of the short games for February?) anyway, it's an action RPG with fairly basic, simple (though not easy!) gameplay, but with one truly amazing twist: a reactive narrator that narrates your actions in the context of the larger story. Just hearing that description makes it sound like it could be obnoxious if it were poorly implemented. It's not. The narrator never repeats himself, doesn't babble incessantly, and speaks with a great economy of words. It also helps that the voice actor portraying the narrator is great at what he does, the story he's telling is fascinating, and the narrator never, ever repeats the same lines as you're working through an area. If you get stuck in an area, or take too long to do something, instead of jabbering away with the same old dialog, the narrator actually shuts up and lets you focus. It's wonderful, it's polished, and it adds more to the experience than I could ever have imagined it would before I played the game. The music is almost as important to the total experience as the narration is, and I'm very glad I have the version of the game with the soundtrack bundled in. I'm listening to the soundtrack as I type this out. Some great acoustic guitar music - it sort of reminds me of Firefly at times. And anything that reminds me of Firefly is great. The art direction is similarly excellent, and also unique - I don't think I've ever seen anything that feels quite like Bastion. It's got a little bit of a JRPG style to the art, but the story and characters, and world, really, are all very Western feeling. And it bears mentioning that while it's a post-apocalyptic story, the color palette is not just gray and brown. It's colorful, vividly and beautifully so. The game itself is interesting, too - it keeps unlocking new stuff all the way up to the end, which I thought was really cool. While it's doesn't have the smoothest control or the most in-depth combat system I've ever seen, both are well within the range of playably good. And once you finish the game, it opens up a "new game+" mode where you can start again with all of your XP and weapons. And while I won't get into spoilers, the game really makes you want to do that. This is an excellent argument for the case of video games as art, and not in a pretentious way. Highly recommended, and I'd even recommend paying full price. It really is quite amazing.

RPG notes: If you play video games, are reading this, and haven't played the game - GET OUT OF HERE. Why? Because the RPG notes are also the spoiler section, that's why! This is one story you don't want spoiled at all. So just to be clear: if you haven't finished Bastion, go play the game and come back. These posts are stored in the cloud by Google forever.  My "brilliant" thoughts on the game's spoil-able elements will still be here when you get back. TL;DR: SPOILER WARNING. Anyway, the game's world is unique and interesting. It's a fantasy setting, certainly, but there's no direct mention of magic. Technology is high enough for some fairly advanced firearms, but bows and melee weapons are still in use. I'd really like to see a prequel set in pre-Calamity Caelondia. Then there's the monsters: windbags, gasfellas, squirts, lunkheads, ankle gators, the list goes on. Nowhere is there a plain ol' dragon, or even something as easy to take for granted as a horse.  There's also the Calamity itself, the Bastion, and all the space-time warping inferred therein. But all that aside, there's still some great inspiration to be had. Rucks, The Kid, and Zulf are all deep, nuanced characters that would make fantastic NPCs. The post-Calamity world with its floating sky-islands is almost a character unto itself, and the plot of the endgame, with Rucks trying to fix the Calamity and Zulf trying to hold him to account over it could easily be used as the basis for an entire campaign.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Cleared: Midnight Chronicles

Netflix added Midnight Chronicles at some point, which saved me from buying it on RPGnow.com. I might still, though - it's part of a good bundle pack. Anyway, Midnight Chronicles is set in Fantasy Flight Games' Midnight universe, which is probably about the bleakest fantasy setting ever made. Imagine, if you will, what Middle Earth would have looked like if Sauron had won and then had a century to consolidate his power and you have some idea of what the Midnight setting looks like. Anyway, it's in this cheery place that Midnight Chronicles is set. Interestingly, this is obviously supposed to be the first in a series, and it only released in 2010, so there may be sequels coming - I hope so, for the sake of the very unfinished plot. The movie ends on a complete cliffhanger. All in all, the movie did surprisingly well for a) being very low-budget and b) consequently having no known talent whatsoever. The acting was serviceable, the plot was appropriate to the setting, and it was light years ahead of the terrible D&D movie. It still wasn't great, however. Directing and plotting could both have been tighter, and the film wasted a number of opportunities to show the nature of the setting to its fullest, but it still had a certain hard-to-pin-down charm. Unlike other movies based off of fantasy RPGs, this one wasn't campy, mocking, and/or exploitative, it was just a little slow-moving. That by itself makes it something special. It treated its subject material like something worth spending effort on, and that was great to see. I realize that this is sort of damning with faint praise, but this isn't the sort of thing I can recommend to everybody. However, if you're a die-hard gamer and want to see a movie based on an RPG setting that gives you some hope for the future of RPG movies, this is definitely one to see.

RPG notes: Well, considering that entire movie is based on an RPG setting, I suppose it's its own RPG notes on some level. But that's a cop-out. The one bit that I really did like was that the legate that much of the story revolves around seems to be some sort of destined hero. This is kind of an interesting problem, considering that he's on the bad guy's side. And that concept, all by itself, should be enough to get any GM worth their salt thinking. When the person you need to defeat the Big Bad is a loyal servant of said Big Bad, then what?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Cleared: Homefront

Well, that's another one down. It only took me five hours to play through Homefront, and that's with a couple of incredibly frustrating spots where I kept dying or failing mission objectives for some other reason. I'm a bit conflicted about Homefront, because on the one hand, the IP is solid. You could set some really fantastic games in the setting, and indeed, I have some faith that may indeed happen, but this was not that game. The scripting was so dominant and so rigid that I felt like I was playing an arcade rail shooter like Time Crisis, but more frustrating. Things like opening doors and the like always fell to my squadmates, but yet I attracted bullets like a huge magnet every time I popped my head up. This is actually even (unintentionally?) lampshaded late in the game when an attack helicopter ignores an entire armored column up on top of a bridge to come after the player down in the underscaffolding after getting blown off the bridge and landing on a catwalk. So the game is short and gives the player basically no agency, but I'm still kind of looking forward to the next sequel. Why? Two reasons. Reason one: Crytek. THQ has contracted Crytek, arguably one of the top 3 FPS developers out there today (the other two being Valve and Id) to make the sequel. Since Crytek also likes emergent gameplay and open world, one hopes the new game will actually be good. For the second reason, you'll have to read the spoiler-filled RPG notes section.

RPG notes: Spoiler warning, as usual. Okay, so here's the thing: I'd really like to see a Fallout (or even S.T.A.L.K.E.R.) style open RPG in the Homefront setting. The world is fairly consistent and plausible enough, the Korean army are vicious, murderous monsters (mass graves, killing parents in front of toddler-aged children, etc.) that are easy to hate. The various crazy survivalists, resistance cells, and others in the game would make a great patchwork world of shifting allegiances and battle lines that it would be great to travel through through as a lone wanderer of some kind. I could easily envision setting a really fantastic tabletop RPG campaign in the setting as well. My only real setting gripe is that weapons technology hasn't advanced at all in 2027? Really? Everybody's using the same exact rifles and accessories they do today? Some fun near-future stuff like caseless assault rifles, an OICW-style weapon of some sort, and so forth would be a welcome addition, but could be easily hacked in by an enterprising GM.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Cleared: Dungeons of Dredmor

I'm not sure I have ever felt such a sense of triumph after beating a game on easy. It took me 64 hours and I don't know how many times I died, but I finally made it to the bottom of the dungeon and took down Lord Dremor. (Then I deliberately died to him a few minutes later to get the achievement.) Anyway, I think this game probably gets the cost-to-enjoyment ratio award for the last 12 years. (I can't go back to '99, however, because that's when Jagged Alliance 2 was released.) I got this game as part of a humble bundle, and fired it up on a completely random whim. And then it hooked me. It hooked me bad. Getting to the bottom of the dungeon, even without permadeath, was quite the achievement, but it was fun, for several reasons. First and most importantly, the game has a sense of humor, and every bit as important - that sense of humor is clean. (Well, mostly. There's a few double entendres about wands and staves in there, and one monster, but the overwhelming majority of the game's humor comes from wit and ridiculousness. This would be worthless if the game itself wasn't any fun to play, however, and this game was a very satisfying experience. The skill trees always had something cool to offer, the loot was peppered with all sorts of cool things, including literary and media references. And the combat was surprisingly satisfying, given how simple it is. The game rewards cleverness and punishes carelessness, and especially towards the end, I felt like I'd gotten a lot better at playing it. Oh, and did I mention it's turn-based? Interestingly, I'm not sure this is going to get me into the roguelike genre, per se, but I'll happily snatch up any additional content the creators put out for this. It's well worth the full price of the game and its expansion, which, by the way, is only $7.49 on Steam. This is one of those "just go get it already" recommendations. I don't think I've seen a better value in gaming in ten years.

RPG notes: The anachronisms of the setting (vending machines in the dungeon, etc.) would be fun to play with, and the bolt council and its implied machinations are some fun lightweight inspiration for how a morally-ambiguous fantasy guild might operate. Not sure how many of the monsters I'd want to swipe, although a few of the ones on the lowest levels might be cool.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Cleared: Rage

Well, I must admit, I wasn't expecting to knock something off the list quite that quickly! As it turns out, I'd played up until pretty close to the end of Rage before I got around to adding it to the list. The game took me about 14 hours to complete, according to Steam. With a duration that short, I'm glad I got it on sale. That's not to say I didn't like it, though - far from it. In fact, I'd say it's one of the best shooters I've played in a long time. The controls are nice and tight, the weapons are very satisfying (particularly the wingsticks - oh how I love those things) and there's just enough RPG stirred in to enhance the game without bogging it down too much. Even the driving portions are fun. One of the things I also find myself liking was how optimistic the setting was for a post-apocalyptic world. Unlike the Fallout games, it really feels like people are not only trying to rebuild, but enjoying some measure of real success - there are a number of small settlements that seem to be doing fairly well in a small area, and three of them seem like decent places to live. The story itself is also fairly optimistic, which I enjoyed. My biggest gripe was that Id did some technical stuff to lock the frame rate at 60FPS, and my PC didn't always like that. I experienced weird freezes and some tearing (and turning v-synch on fixed the problem, but it wasn't sticky between play sessions - I had to re-enable it every time I fired up the game) but it's worth noting that the game never crashed, and most of the time, it was buttery-smooth.

RPG notes: Rage's setting is a good place to start if you want to make a post-apocalyptic game that isn't too bleak. There are also some fun ideas for weapons and gadgets in the game. Lock grinders, RC bomb cars, and of course, wingsticks could all be dropped into  multitude of modern and/or near-future settings.

Monthly list replacement: since I polished the game off on day 2, I'm going to drop Homefront into the other short game slot.

The Unfinished: Need For Speed: Undercover

Okay, so here's the deal: I am apparently terrible at PC racing games. I have thrown 8 hours into this game, and I have yet to even finish one of the first two missions from the open city part of the game. And not for lack of trying, either. So I've come to a realization: I can either spend an inordinate amount of time getting good at PC driving games... ...or I can stick a fork in trying to finish this and move on. That's not to say it's a bad game, though. I have a lot of fun driving around the open city, doing races and evading the cops, but the missions put you in cars that handle poorly, give you a tight timetable, and army on your tail, and the admonition that the car be in good shape at the end. Uh, no thanks.I think I'll just drive around town in my indestructo-car and run from the law. But here's the thing: that's a lot of fun to do. The game's good, I'm just not. So onto The Unfinished pile with this one, and on to other stuff for me.

RPG notes: Well, on the upside, there will be no spoilers in this, 'cause darned if I can advance the plot in this game! Anyway, the basic premise behind the game (doing wheelman jobs in a modern city and tuning up your car as you are successful) could make for a fun, if somewhat stereotypical game, but imagine porting it to another setting. In a post-apocalyptic game, being a wasteland courier would, frankly, rock. Take a little of The Postman, a little of Id software's Rage, and some Fallout and you've got a world dotted with isolated settlements that need reliable service between them. Also, in a fantasy game, the player could be a an extraction specialist for some Robin Hood style outlaws or a thieves' guild, and instead of a car, could use a magic carpet or even some unusually fast draft animals to get people and things around without being grabbed by the authorities.

The New Idea: Monthly Lists

So now that my Backlog has grown to an absolutely TITANIC size, I'm looking at it for this year and thinking: "What can I do to get this pared down?" Here's what I thought of. Each month, I'll pick 2 short games, a long game, a fiction book, a nonfiction book, two movies, and a TV season. Those items will become the focus of my efforts for that month. We'll see if this bears fruit or not, but here's my set of picks for January. Long games may take multiple months of hammering on to get through - some RPGs are LOOONG, so I'll pick a new one when I finish one. If I punch something off the list for the month, I may replace it with something, or I might just focus on other stuff - If I've learned anything doing this blog, it's that I need to keep it somewhat informal if I'm going to have any success.

Short games: Bastion, Rage
Long game: Dungeons of Dredmor
Nonfiction book: The Art of Manliness: Manvotionals
Fiction book: The Alloy of Law
Movies: Midnight Chronicles, Seraphim Falls
TV Season: The Walking Dead: Season 1