Monday, October 31, 2011
The last two scheduled post days, I've been unable to sit down and write. Friday I collapsed right after work and fell asleep until the middle of the night, and tonight basic maintenance type errands just plain ate up all my time. I said I'd swap from M-W-F to Tu-Thu if I had to, and it has become clear that is the case right off the kick. I'll be back tomorrow with a full size post (which will replace this one,) and we'll move forward from there. If I'm dissatisfied with posting only twice a week, I may throw a weekend post together when the mood strikes.
Back to adjusting to the schedule. 6 hours of sleep per weeknight, three weekly WoW raids and three trips to the gym on non-raid nights is quite a shock from my unemployed life routine. I'll likely elaborate before raid tomorrow. Blog Gadgets
Back to adjusting to the schedule. 6 hours of sleep per weeknight, three weekly WoW raids and three trips to the gym on non-raid nights is quite a shock from my unemployed life routine. I'll likely elaborate before raid tomorrow. Blog Gadgets
Posted by DocStout at 10:28 PM
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
I like horror a lot. It is frequently lumped in with fantasy and science fiction, so this is entirely natural, but I don't blog much about scary movies for two reasons. One, unless I am specifically enjoying them for how awful they are at a Bad Movie Night, I'm pretty picky. The second reason is that there are a lot of horror bloggers out there, and many of them do it better than I could ever hope to. (In particular, I recommend Wreckhouse Magazine, many awesome articles there.) I have my own taste in what I find scary, like anyone else, and these films are ones that got to me when I first saw them. I'm leaving out a few films that I personally love, but which didn't scare me (specifically, The Shining and Nightbreed) and a TON that others might call horror, but I'd classify under another genre (the Aliens series is science fiction, as far as I'm concerned.)
Counting down from 10 to 1 without further ado...
10. Suspiria (1977, Italian)
Okay, I'll admit, some people find this one dull, and most find the plot ridiculous at best, nonsensical at worst. For me, this is classic italian gore-splattered horror, with quality kill scenes. The filming of the individual scenes, the effects and use of color, light and music make the incoherent mess of a plot concerning witches at a dance academy entirely irrelevant. The mood created is disturbing and deeply unsettling, and even where the effects are subpar, the kills stuck with me.
9. Friday the Thirteenth, Part Two (1981)
The first of two sequels to get love on my list where I snub the original film, the sequel to Friday the Thirteenth is the first to have Jason Voorhees as the actual villain, as his mother is the killer in the first picture. He's missing his signature hockey mask in this one, preferring instead to hide his features under a sack with holes cut, and the disfigured being under that mask will forever be my preferred vision of the man behind the mask.
8. The Thing (1982)
Paranoia, extreme cold, an environment where something has gone horribly wrong, no one is coming to help you, and the creature could be any one of the people around you. John Carpenter touches a few of the triggers that get to me in this one, and the effects are spectacular, even if they almost killed several of the actors and burned down the set at least once in the filming. I actually think The Thing is at its scariest when we aren't looking at the monster, and don't know what (or who) it is at any given moment.
7. Hellraiser (1987)
Clive Barker has a problem. He writes great horror that, in general, doesn't translate well onto the screen. My love of Nightbreed doesn't excuse how far it falls short of the short story, and the less said about Lord of Illusions, the better (how you perfectly cast such a great story and screw up the script that bad is beyond me.) Hellraiser is the exception. This is Clive Barker's first movie as director, and he knocks it out of the park with demons, blood, a cursed puzzle box, and a twisted torturous sadomasochistic take on a tale of horror and revenge.
6. The Devil's Backbone (2001, Spanish)
A spanish ghost story from Guillermo del Toro, the story of an orphanage in the middle of the Spanish Civil War and a young boy who is plagued by an apparition of one of the boys who died there, saying many of the other children will die soon. Between the horrors of war, the menacing adults and their secrets and an unexploded bomb in the center of the school, this film drips with tension, and I actually like it as much or more than later del Toro films like Pan's Labyrinth.
5. Freaks (1932)
I'll just say this, Freaks is flat out great. A simple tale of revenge is made incredible by the supporting cast comprised entirely of actual circus freaks. The climax, with the Freaks closing in on the beautiful but treacherous trapeze artist who only marries the minute sideshow leader for his money, as they chant "One of us, one of us..." is still chilling today. Tod Browning cast the Barnum and Bailey troop members when actors of the day balked at sharing billing with "sideshow attractions" and the resulting film was considered so shocking it was banned by law in much of the United States and all of Australia.
4. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
As far as I'm concerned, this is the zombie movie. It is the first to address the perils of what to do once you are safe, as boredom and complancency set in once the survivors are holed up in a shopping mall. It most effectively also shows how dangerous other survivors can be, and is the least preachy of all of George Romero's zombie films. Though it has a bit to say about commercialism and the monstrous nature of man, it doesn't jam those things down your throat while you are trying to watch a horror movie.
3. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 3: The Dream Warriors (1987)
A controversial choice, I know, but I've always liked the third Freddy Kreuger movie better than the first, mainly because each of the kids who he kills are the best developed in this one. In the first attempt to solidify a coherent mythology for the series, each of the Dream Warriors realizes that Freddy can only kill them in their sleep, and that they can fight him with aspects of their own personality. Most of them lose, but it is one hell of a story along the way to the final showdown.
2. Halloween (1978)
Slasher films may be overdone, but Michael Myer's first appearance holds a high place on my list. From the creepy piano theme to the spray-painted mask of William Shatner's face, the escaped lunatic stalks his prey on the night he can move about when no one would find his costume odd. What makes this film is how subtle it is, and how it builds tension by showing the killer in the background, lurking... and he doesn't strike. Every time we think he'll make a move, he disappears, and the audience is left wondering when and how he'll kill.
1. The Exorcist (1973)
This movie has been parodied, analyzed and studied for years, and with good reason. This is the archetype for all other stories of demonic possession. Quick cuts to build unease, great performances from all the principal actors, creepy music and a story so scary that the Rev. Billy Graham claimed that the film's reels contained an actual demon, this is a classic without parallel. I highly recommend the DVD re-release with restored footage that corrects a few technical glitches and adds the cut "spider walk" sequence. If adjusted for inflation, this movie would be the highest grossing R-Rated film of all time.
Barely missing the cut is the only horror movie I own on DVD, The Ring, and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the first Saw film and the Amityville Horror. I'm not a huge fan of all the remakes going around, and I despise the campy, self-aware horror films of the 1990s and 2000s, and this list shows it. Happy Halloween!
Monday, October 24, 2011
So another annual convention from the developers of World of Warcraft, Diablo and Starcraft is in the books, and there were a few highlights of interest to those of us who couldn't make the trek to the convention. There was the ever-popular costume contest, the announcement of the next WoW expansion, and a deal for people willing to sign up for a one-year "tour" for the popular MMORPG, that is seeing a decline in subscription numbers. Personally, I was excited by this year's announcements, and I'd like to talk a bit about them and address my feelings on the controversial elements, specifically about the next World of Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria. But before we get into any of that, let's take a look at the convention as a whole.
Outside of the WoW-Universe, there were a couple of major announcements with the debut of the trailer for Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm and the release of Blizzard DOTA. The Starcraft trailer gives us a bit of a teaser for next year's expansion, showing that even though Sarah Kerrigan has been rescued and looks human again, all is not well with the former Queen of Blades. We get a preview of a bunch of new units and a brief look at the continuation of the story from Wings of Liberty, with a gorgeous trailer rendered using in-game technology. On the DOTA front, it is exciting to see the original Action/RPG/Realtime Strategy mod Defense of the Ancients get an officially supported release, with many of Blizzard's greatest characters as champions. The original DOTA spawned a subgenre of games including League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth, and it'll be great to see the original game return with updated graphics and gameplay, and with Blizzard's official blessing and support.
This year's costume contest continues the tradition of moving away from "sexiest costume wins" and rewarding amazing craftsmanship. The top three this year included a great-looking Deathwing in human form, a decent representation of a WoW Paladin with Ashbringer, and the grand prize winner, one of the best costumes I've ever seen outside of a Hollywood movie. The costume, a note-perfect representation of a Starcraft Adjutant android was worn by Avery Faith of Los Angeles, CA. The combination of technical excellence in the fabrication of the costume pieces with the simultaneously creepy and beautiful aesthetic makes the piece something that really needs to be seen to be believed. (Which is why I picture it below.)
There wasn't a lot more that could be said about Diablo 3, aside from a new teaser trailer, since we've already seen a glut of preview videos and the news that it won't come out until 2012 broke before the convention. However, there was one thing they could do to make Diablo 3 news my personal favorite bit of the con. They made it free. Of course, there are strings attached to the deal. With the imminent release of Bioware's Star Wars MMORPG and some frustration with current raiding content, World of Warcraft is losing subscribers. The solution? Offer a free copy of Diablo 3 to anyone willing to commit to a 1-year subscription to WoW. The offer also comes with an automatic beta invite for the next WoW expansion and an exclusive in-game mount. For me, it was a no-brainer, since I hadn't planned on canceling my subscription this year anyway, and I was a guaranteed sale for Diablo 3, so reducing that game to my favorite price was a bonus.
Then we have the next WoW expansion, raising the level cap to 90, introducing a new zone, a new playable race and a new base class. Mists of Pandaria will be centered on the forgotten home of the reclusive masters of brewing strong spirits and practicing asian-style martial arts, the Pandaren. The race will be available to be played by either Horde or Alliance, and will have a strong connection to the new base class, the Monk. The developers are changing up the formula a bit, focusing on the conflict between Alliance and Horde instead of a single "last boss" like the last three expansions. The Pandaren will be drawn into the conflict, creating a brutal civil war in a land that once knew only peace and meditation, with the "main villain" as war itself. The announcement of a battle minigame system for non-combat pets, along with the "cutesy" look for the Pandaren has the neckbeards of the internet lighting their torches and sharpening their pitchforks, declaring WoW forever ruined.
...Really? We have talking walrus-men, cow-men, bird-men, fish-men, but pandas are somehow crossing the line? I get that none of those races has be the central character for an entire expansion, but people have been begging for Pandaren since the beginning of World of Warcraft. The accusations that the next expansion is "Kung-Fu Panda and Pokemon," and therefore is designed with small children in mind insults the intelligence of the average gamer. Pandaren have been present in the Warcraft lore for sixteen years, long before there was a Kung-Fu Panda, and gamers were outraged that they weren't a new race way back when The Burning Crusade was first released. I'm completely willing to check out the next expansion (and with my guaranteed beta access, I certainly will) before I declare it to be childish and stupid. If the game becomes something I no longer want to play, I'll stop. I don't see the point in being insulting and jumping to conclusions on the basis of a few videos and some sketchy details, however.Blog Gadgets
Friday, October 14, 2011
There's a game out there that is so difficult, so merciless and unforgiving of mistakes or poor planning and so punishing of failure that I'm almost afraid to play it. I am, of course, talking about Dark Souls, the action RPG that is as much an exercise in masochism as it is a hardcore gaming experience. Dark Souls is a sequel to Demon's Souls, an earlier game that I completely missed when it came out in 2009 because it was a PS3 exclusive and I draw the line at two consoles I rarely play. Dark Souls was released by Namco Bandai Games in the US on October 4th for both the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360, and the relentless blend of action and frustration provides an answer to the gamers who believe that quicksaves and infinite lives have made gamers soft. This is clearly not a game for everyone, as people who want a more casual experience to relax and unwind will no doubt be very, very frustrated with this game, because it kills you the instant you let your guard down. And then it kills you again, and again, and some more, until you wonder if the game is mocking you.
|Expect your character to die several times before you even get the package open.|
If you are thinking "That doesn't sound like much fun," one thing I neglected to mention is that despite the relentless, even punishing, difficulty... the game is (almost) never cheap or unfair. Every death is due to a mistake in either choice of weapon, where and when to fight an opponent, or just plain old-fashioned not being careful enough. The setting starts out without a massive amount of background information or plot to get you going, as the world is corrupted and all but lost to the demonic hordes, and your motivation is simple: destroy evil. Dark Souls, unlike its predecessor, is an open-world game, with freedom left to the player to go in whichever direction they believe they can survive, with no indication of where that might be, as death waits around every corner. Every time you die, you learn something new. Death is a strict teacher who shows you your mistakes immediately and demands perfection, and the lessons are well-learned.
The combat system rewards care, patience and selection of the correct tools for the job, whether that is a nasty two-handed weapon, heavy armor and shield for defense, or magical abilities, all are available to the player but none will suffice in every situation. You cannot gain enough magical power to run through sections of the game blowing things up at will, and you will find the predictable result of trying is, of course, another death. When you die, you lose your corporeal form and your collected souls, which are used to upgrade your character and equipment, and you respawn as undead... with half a health bar. Get back to your corpse, and you can retrieve what you've lost. Checkpoints come in the form of bonfires which can be lit to rest and make camp, but when you rest, the foes you have defeated rise again, meaning use of a checkpoint is a strategic choice.
|The beacon fire. A place to rest and reflect on what lessons repeatedly dying has taught you.|
On its surface, Dark Souls is a single player experience, but online play has been incorporated into the experience in several unique ways in keeping with the themes of the game world. First, it is possible to leave scrawled messages for other players in certain sections of the game, though whether you choose to heed the warnings or suspect they might have been left by a player trying to lead you to a quick death is up to you. The spirits of other players can occasionally be glimpsed moving through the same sections of gameplay as you are working your way through, seeing these damned souls in action reminds you of the consequence of failure. You can also summon spirits of other players for co-op play, but who is brought into your game world is random and communication with your spectral ally is extremely limited, a very different experience from loading a game and jumping in with people from your friends list. Also be warned that PVP players may, while you are in your living form, invade your game to assassinate you to regain their own form. In practice, you'll spend so much time as undead that this won't happen very often, but it is not optional or consensual, further adding to the danger for players who are doing well.
So much more of the game is meant to be discovered through play that I feel it would be a disservice to spoil it in a review here, but I can mention in passing a few other features. Despite being thrown into the world with only a very basic understanding of what is going on, that doesn't mean there is no lore or story going on in the game. By design, the player must earn tidbits by peeling away at the surface of this fantasy/horror world, and not telling you too much all at once helps keep the disturbing and disorienting tone of the place intact. For replay value, there is the covenant system. Without spoiling too much, I can say that covenants are the combination of faction/guild and alignment system in the game, and joining one will significantly change the play experience beyond the typical "good" or "evil" playthroughs in other RPGs. Every covenant comes with its own advantages and price to pay for membership, and some may make sections of the game easier or harder, or affect objectives.
|Breathtaking environments and deadly foes are literally around every corner.|
Is this a good game? The graphics are gorgeous, most reviews agree that the gameplay is incredibly tough, but in a fair sort of way barring one or two scenes that drift close to unfairness. The starting class is more like declaring a play philosophy than committing to a single set of options, as weapons, armor and abilities can be swapped out as needed to progress. If you are the sort of gamer eager to overcome challenges and believe firmly that modern games are too easy, this may just be the game for you. If dying over and over until you struggle toward the goal of hitting a beacon sounds too much like inflicting pain on yourself because it feels so good when you stop, I'd give this one a pass.
Fair Warning: I mentioned here that I planned to take a week off from posting as I get adjusted to a full-time job again, I plan to take that week from 10/15 through 10/22, so my vacation starts... now.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
The inexpensive personal computer used as a tool for education is something we once had, and many machines like this started the computing lives of geeks who lived in the 1970s and 1980s. The Commodore 64, TRS-80 and to a lesser extent, Apple's earliest computers took a hobby interest in computing and deveoped it for people who would later use computers their entire lives. Network administrators, computer programmers and many game designers grew up with these sorts of machines and they are indirectly responsible, in part, for the breakthroughs in computers over the last two-plus decades. Now that we have computers everywhere, however, the cheap hobbyist machine that can be used to teach programming and tinkering for students and geeks who want to learn more by doing just isn't around anymore. Most computers in homes cost between several hundred and several thousand dollars, and for fear of ruining the family PC, experimentation is frequently discouraged. This is a problem, and the designers behind the Raspberry Pi project have a solution: the $25 PC.
While it is true that most laptops and desktop models can only come so far down in price, there are computers in many other devices that rival their desktop cousins from only a few years ago in terms of performance. Mobile phones and tablet computers have taken miniaturized components and packed quite a bit of processing power into a small space, and the SD memory cards and flash drives made today have storage capacity larger than full sized hard drives did only six or seven years ago. The Raspberry Pi was built with these sorts of components in mind, using a small mainboard with several dataports out for USB, HDMI and audio, and open source Linux builds as an operating system on flash memory. The goal is to have a reasonably fast and powerful basic computer that can handle media, programming and internet that can be manufactured at a price low enough to be sold at the same price as a standard textbook.
The original prototypes for the project were a little larger than the average flash drive, but the features that the developers wanted to include couldn't fit comfortably in that configuration. The charitable Raspberry Pi Foundation, headquartered in the UK, moved development to a board slightly larger than a credit card. The CPU will run at 700Mhz, with 128MB of SDRAM, HD-Quality video with both HDMI and Composite output for connection to either a monitor or a television set, with about 1W power requirements allowing for power through an adapter or about 4 AA size batteries. Peripherals can be attached using a simple USB hub, and the overall package is impressive given the price of the components and size of the completely functional computer. The hardware will ship with all open-source software, the Debian GNU/Linux distro, Iceweasel, kOffice and Python, and storage will be upgradable based on the size SD/MMC/SDIO memory cards purchased to be used as a hard drive.
Once units are ready to ship, there will also be a second model with more RAM and built-in ethernet for wired networking for about $10 more. The prototypes have been shown to audiences running Quake 3 at 1080p and full-HD video for other media, and the finished product promises CD-quality audio as well. With all these basics in place, this is not intended to replace a main PC, or to run any Windows software (or even WINE for emulation,) but this computer isn't for gaming or for a household's daily use. This is a small, cheap and functional PC that can be used to teach computing in places where budgetary restrictions have made educational computers a pipe-dream. Worldwide access to a machine designed for experimentation and learning could very well bring up a whole new generation of brilliant developers and programmers for tomorrow's advances in computer technology.
|The speed for basic operations and media on this little PC is really something.|
This is exciting for me, as I've always been fascinated by the idea of Linux as an OS, but as a gamer I can't ever really sever ties to Windows as an Operating System. I love the idea of tinkering and getting into the nuts and bolts of computers, but I wouldn't dare mess with too many things under the hood of my main PC. I've already "bricked" several devices, and I remember the panic and frustration that can come with having to rebuild the machine I use daily (which is also why I stopped building my own Pcs, hardware conflicts are no fun.) After the initial rush of orders from people curious about the project, if they can continue to manufacture enough of these mini-computers to keep up with demand, I may well pick one up to mess around with. By design, the price of these things encourages the "get one and play with it a little" sort of thinking, and answers my reservations about really getting into Linux. I've heard that putting together a Linux PC is a little like getting a car from IKEA, you have a bunch of parts and instructions on how to put it all together, but there's a lot of effort in figuring out how to assemble it so it all works. At 25 bucks, a lot more people would give it a shot, which is what the Raspberry Pi Foundation is counting on.Blog Gadgets
Monday, October 10, 2011
This past weekend I managed to celebrate my imminent return to the workforce with an activity I haven't been able to participate in for a while now. My wife and I had a few friends by to play board games, and I got to play favorites of mine that have collected dust for years. Among these was one of my very favorites, Fantasy Flight's version of Warrior Knights. Not so long ago, I wrote about the difference between Eurogames and "Ameritrash" or Thematic board games, and Warrior Knights straddles the line between these extremes neatly. As a result, its design heavily influenced several popular games currently in production including RuneWars and Chaos In The Old World. It is a complicated looking game that is actually pretty simple, though it is not without its flaws, as I'll get into later. This is a revamp of the original published by Games Workshop, with European Game designers brought in to make the mechanics more appealing to modern audiences.
|Parallels have also been drawn between this and A Game of Thrones (the Board Game.)|
The layout, board, counters and pieces are classic Fantasy Flight. They are well made with solid artwork and plenty of components, but none seem unnecessary. The game is intimidating, as there is a lot going on, and the first turn will take so long unless everyone is a veteran that you'll lose sight of the fact that using standard rules, it'll be over inside of 5 turns. In a generic medieval country that has knights and lords with French, British, Italian and German sounding names, the king died without an heir. Without a clear line of succession, the Barons maneuver for the power to delare themselves monarch. This means that influence must be accumulated, and the easiest way to do that is to bring cities under your control, and keep those cities. Every player must plan six moves from strategy cards in their hand with a little control over what happens first, and then see how fate and the plans of other Barons make their plans all fall apart.
Each turn, players choose six general strategies which allow them to move and/or attack, serve the church, gather political support, levy taxes, draft mercenaries or allow for a less powerful but more versatile strategy. The players put the two orders they'd like to see happen first in a stack marked "1", second in the "2" stack and then third in the "3" stack. Two neutral strategy cards are added to each pile, the three stacks are shuffled and then orders are executed one at a time in a random order. When orders are executed, the strategy cards are temporarily discarded to one of three piles which will trigger sub-phases when those discard piles fill up completely. The piles are labeled Taxation, Wages and Assembly, and when each triggers, income from captured cities is given out, soldiers must be paid or released from service, or Barons convene to vote on legal matters, respectively. Until those piles clear and trigger their phases, those cards are unavailable to use again by the player who spent them.
|Game in progress at CABS in Columbus, OH.|
To build an empire, players must supplement their own loyal troops with a mercenary army, levy taxes to pay for army upkeep and build a stable economy. Hiring mercenaries and outfitting all troops is difficult to do with taxation alone, so there are several other options to get money rolling. Players may choose to invest in trade expeditions to the far east, gather support to have trade concessions legally assigned to them, or conquer cities in foreign lands. Balancing income versus military might is essential, as the most lucrative options for making money don't typically directly contribute to victory, and large armies are expensive. Getting new soldiers is handled through a mercenary "draft" where anyone who chose to use the "draft soldiers strategy" is allowed to pick, in order from the new units ready to be assigned to nobles.
Taking cities and fighting with these armies is fairly simple. Each player has four commanders to move around the board, each has a special power. Cities can be assaulted at the risk of damaging the defenses and/or taking casualties for a quick (1-turn) capture, or with a large enough army a city can be besieged for 2 turns and it will automatically fall without any damage to defenses or the attacking army. Sieges may be lifted by any player attacking the besieging forces, and in a game where victory points are calculated at the end of every turn, risking two turns to maybe get nothing is significant. Armies and cities get to play one Fate card per 100 troops, with armies led by a noble (anything except an uncontrolled city) getting two extra draws to choose from to represent tactical ability. Fate cards may inflict 100 casualties, prevent 100 casualties or generate 1 victory point. Resolving fights is simple, if either side took enough casualties to wipe out all the troops assigned to them, they lose (and casualties to cities also represent broken walls, etc.) If neither side is wiped out by casualties, whichever side has the most victory points wins, and the opposing force is killed (but buildings take no permanent damage from this phase.)
|Each noble may command an army and move about the board, while the Baron|
(representing the player) only fights if the home Stronghold city is attacked.
Nobles limit how many places you can be at once, as there are only four of them and all your troops must be assigned to any nobles on the board or to defending your home base. When a noble dies, they are off the board for a turn and a card is pulled to see if any mercenaries under their command desert (by nationality.) The next turn, the noble's heir commands his dead father's forces and rides out again. If nobles don't stay at a captured city, that city may revolt, so rapid expansion comes with risk as well. The power of each of the four nobles either allows them to prevent 100 casualties, deal 100 extra casualties, generate +1 victory in battle or to not have to pay wages to any army smaller than 450 troops. Figuring out how many troops to assign to each and where to place the nobles helps determine who wins.
There are also two roles that players fight for throughout the game, the Chairman of the Assembly and the Head of the Church. Assembly Chairman gets to choose where trade expeditions are started and breaks ties in votes on agendas. Agendas may grant extra income, grant titles (with free troops) to nobles, or put rules into effect for the rest of the game. The Head of the Church may decide to bless trade expeditions to increase their chance of success, and also spends faith to influence the events deck. The events deck may grant free influence, have nobles assassinated in the field, affect plague or revolt, or even declare that a noble has no heir and may not return with his troops to the board when killed.
|The game has an expansion that addresses some of the flaws I talk about below.|
The biggest problems with the game are that a runaway leader in early turns is hard to catch, as everyone gets influence from all cities every turn, so a player in the lead must be attacked quickly, or everyone else falls behind. Experienced players can deal with this by keeping the game close through a lot of aggression, if people play passively, the outcome is determined almost from the very beginning. Also, the amount of influence in the pool determines game length, and the default number of 10 per player means the game tends to end abruptly just as it is getting good. Adding more influence per player fixes this, but it also makes the game take quite a bit longer. I think that the default shorter game is good to teach it, but after learning the rules, 15-20 influence per player makes the overall play more satisfying. I'm looking forward to giving it another go, as I don't play often enough to not have to play the shorter default version to re-learn it every time.Blog Gadgets
Friday, October 7, 2011
I'll just come right out and say it. Like so many others, The Princess Bride is one of my all-time favorite films. In fact, on my personal top 10, it beats out The Empire Strikes Back, any of the Lord of the Rings films and Ghostbusters. I put it at a solid third place, only behind Raiders of the Lost Ark and Casablanca. I've never been much for purchasing DVDs, and in the last few years I've just about completely forsaken them in favor of streaming, yet I find that it bothers me that I don't know where my copy of this movie is. I've done stage fighting choreography directly ripped off from the non-acrobatic portions of the duel between Westley and Inigo, and like so many others I've quoted this film enough over the years to be thoroughly annoying. As a huge fan, I was excited to see many of the surviving cast reunited this week for interviews and a photo shoot with Entertainment Weekly for their annual reunions issue. After all these years, Billy Crystal and Carol Kane almost don't need makeup to play Miracle Max and Valerie anymore, and in contrast, I firmly believe that Cary Elwes has a painting in his attic somewhere (dude seriously hasn't aged since the 1980s.)
|Some of the surviving members of the cast, gathered to talk to|
Good Morning America. Billy Crystal is wearing the original Miracle Max hat.
The movie, released in 1987, is a loose adaptation of the William Goldman (who also wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) novel of the same name, published in 1978. I've read the book, and this is one of those amazing instances where there are really very significant differences between a source novel and its screen adaptation, but both are very, very good. The book contains elements that could only have really worked on the page, as the framing story of Goldman's Grandfather is there, but the book presents itself as a writer trying to re-tell a story the way his grandfather told it to him. As an adult, he realizes that the actual book his grandfather read to him from wasn't very good, it was a dry political satire disguised as a fairy tale, and he explains at points where the "original" deviates from the story the way he knows it. By the end of the retelling of the fictional original work that Goldman is "translating," we have a story that is hilarious and bittersweet, with nostalgia, love and the sadness that comes with life not turning out the way you wanted it to by the ending.
The film is an expert blend of comedy, adventure and romance, with the story of a Grandfather reading to a young boy remaining as the framing device. The classic story of Westley the stableboy and his love, Buttercup has pirates and conspirators, duels, monsters, a miracle maker, a six-fingered man and a giant from Greenland. I've found that there is no single other film with quite as many lines I routinely quote without even thinking about it anymore. It was marginally profitable upon release, but not a mega-hit at $30.8 million on a $16 million budget. The studios had no idea how to promote it as it didn't fit neatly into a single category that could be distilled into a short trailer. Director Rob Reiner said at the time that he didn't want to make a "Wizard of Oz," a film that, while venerated as a classic, was underappreciated commercially in its own time. Despite this, The Princess Bride really came into its own as a cult classic in the years following its release and is now recognized as one of the great films of the 1980s.
|Please, quote responsibly. I love this film, but even I roll my eyes when |
someone says "Anybody got a peanut?" whenever two words happen to rhyme.
In interviews given with the reunited cast, interesting and obscure facts concerning the production came to light. Robin Wright, who played Buttercup, spoke fondly of Andre the Giant, who passed away in 1993. She mentions that when filming outdoors in cold locations that the exceptionally large man helped keep her warm by literally palming her head in his gigantic hand. Wallace Shawn had his career defined by his role as the Sicilian criminal mastermind Vizzini, but he filmed the movie in fear that he'd be fired because Danny DeVito, who was Reiner's first choice for the part, would become suddenly available. Among the actor injuries on the set were Mandy Patinkin who literally hurt himself trying not to laugh at Billy Crystal, whose mostly improvised performance as Miracle Max had to be continually reshot because the other actors would break character, unable to control their laughter. Cary Elwes also had to be hospitalized when he told Christopher Guest to hit him for real in a scene where Count Rugen knocks Westley out, and he suffered a very real head injury.
The story was being developed for a possible stage adapation as a musical by Tony Award-winning composer Adam Guettel in 2006, but unfortunately the project was abandoned by 2007. William Goldman and Guettel had a falling out which broke the deal apart, though some of the completed music has survived. People close to William Goldman say that he was dissatisfied with the pace of completed work and the lack of progress after a year's time on the project. Other sources close to Adam Guettel say that the real reason the musical didn't happen was simpler, it was all about the money. Despite Guettel writing all the music and lyrics, and Goldman's contributions being slight aside from his writing for the book and film, the deal finally broke down when William Goldman demanded a 75% share of the revenues for writing. This was bad news for fans who were awaiting a show in the same vein as "The Producers" or "Spamelot," both stage musicals adapted from classic comedy films. At the end of the day, the story concerning the production of any new Princess Bride material matches the bittersweet notes in the book's ending, and we're reminded of something the film told us explicitly. "Life is pain... anyone who tells you differently is probably selling something."Blog Gadgets
Thursday, October 6, 2011
NOTE: The text of this article was originally set to publish September 30th, but I couldn't publicly announce a few things until after a phone call I had just last night. I've changed some dates and updated a few events to reflect the change in publication date, but this is the article that should have gone here. The last few weeks have been incredibly busy for me, but I've managed to keep to my rigorous 5-day a week publication schedule here. This past weekend, I took the Foreign Service Officer Test, and next week I recertify to return to work with troubled kids in a therapeutic day school. I will be shortly rejoining the workforce, while I go through the process of trying to get a government job. This would normally be the place where I announce that this blog will be shuttering its doors and joining the many, many sites that don't make it a full year once life gets in the way. I promised way back here that I wouldn't be doing that, and I meant it. My studies and responsibilities have limited my time to read and comment on other blogs, and for that, I'd like to apologize to longtime supporters and faithful readers. I hope to make some time real soon, but things are going to get worse before they get better.
|My XBox Live Avatar, inpiration for this site's FavIcon.|
I have to make a few changes. For one, I'll be swapping to a different template for the blog to make it look a little different. Bloggers who have played with the new "Dynamic Views" have a pretty good idea of what this page will look like in the near future. The title "Unemployed Geek" will be kind of inaccurate by next week, so I'll be keeping "What's Next?" but changing the rest shortly, and I'm open to suggestions, though I'll muddle through if I don't get anything that really grabs me. I also will have to adjust my self-imposed publication schedule, as five days a week while holding down a day job and preparing to transition to a new career isn't realistic. I've had a few articles where I felt I kind of "phoned it in," and I don't want that dip in quality to become the new norm. I'll be shooting for Monday-Wednesday-Friday as of 10/10 and will see how that works, and if I absolutely have to, I'll move instead to Tuesday/Thursday, but I'd like to avoid that if I can.
I started this blog on a very personal note, nearly all text, before I figured out that pictures break up walls of words nicely and that my writing was at its best when it was about a subject with wider appeal than...well, me. In the last seven months I've had two guest posters, 165 articles and almost 100,000 pageviews, and I learned a lot from working on a project that was originally something I thought no one would read. I started it to, as the URL says, "Get my head on straight" and maintain some sort of schedule and preserve my sanity while figuring out what to do next. This post feels like a goodbye, and in a way, it is. I've figured out what I want to do, I've started doing it, and this blog has to change along with me if I intend to make good on my promise to keep doing it. I've also recently started putting up shorter articles as a writer over at Technorati.com (my first published one is here,) but writing for another site doesn't affect this blog in any significant way. Eventually, I plan to add a custom domain address, but continue to host and publish through Blogger.
|I imagine the site will look something like this sometime next week.|
Starting over this coming weekend, October 8-9, I'll start rolling out visual changes to the blog. (Safety Tip, this site looks weird in a few of the dynamic views, but I think it looks AWESOME in "Magazine".) I may not officially change the title until I go in for my first day of gainful employment to give myself the longest possible time to get it right. I also will likely do something I haven't done at all since starting this site back in February. I may take a week off. Then, content-wise, we're back to business as usual with tabletop roleplaying, board games, video gaming, fantasy novels, comic book, tech and science fiction/fantasy/horror TV and film reviews all turning up, just a few less times per week. To not risk offending anyone by leaving them out, I won't be too specific in my thanks, but I'd like to thank everyone who has turned up to read this blog since the start, and hope you'll bear with me as things shake up a bit.
Josh "Docstout" Brown – The Unemployed Geek, October 2011.
|The current "classic" layout for the site, for posterity. Let me know if you prefer this to the|
slick site redesign. It may not change anything, but I'd like to know.
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
What would you do if your existence was reduced to a walking punchline? You'd live as easy target, butt of many jokes, everyone knows you, no one likes you save close friends and family. This is the existence for a lot of D-List Celebrities, as you can't be a universal comedy punching bag without being famous. Now, imagine the same scenario only bullets bounce off you, you can jump over your neighbor's house, lift thousands of pounds without breaking a sweat and mentally influence millions of animals. You'd be Aquaman. He gets a bad rap for being a lame superhero, mostly from people who have never read an issue of one of his comics. In addition to the powers I've mentioned, he, of course, wields an ancient trident of great power and is the ruler of most of the planet, considering that the majority of the surface of the earth is covered in water. When DC Comics relaunched its entire line in the "New 52," Aquaman #1 was on the list for a reboot. What do you do with a character whose name inspires cheap laughs?
|I never thought I'd say it, but Aquaman is awesome.|
Aquaman has, since his introduction in 1941, partially earned the scorn and derision of comic book fans over the years. He's had more than a few lame villains, including one of his archenemies, The Fisherman, and by the Silver Age of comics, he was saddled with a crippling weakness (touch water once per hour or die.) Over the years, the character has been re-interpreted and rebooted, from aquatic training and science, through half-atlantean powers and a retcon in the late 1980s to combine all of his origin stories. In the mid-1990s, the character was given a "dark and gritty" makeover with gladiator-style armor and a retractable harpoon hand, as well as a violent and tortured temperment. No matter how many times his style and origins changed, the snarky comments from casual comic book fans and people who haven't picked up an issue in years persisted.
Instead of ignoring the scorn heaped on the one time leader of the JLA, in Aquaman #1, written by Geoff Johns, it is embraced. Aquaman seems to have returned to his Silver Age roots in terms of origin stories as an atlantean prince and heir with a human father. Police, criminals and the average person on the street sneer at the powerful and noble figure, laughing in his face and making cracks about "talking to fish" and asking if he needs a glass of water. He's torn between the surface world and the sea, and despite his reputation as a laughingstock, he defends the surface world that mocks and scorns him. We get to see his powers in action, brief flashbacks to his time with his father, and his origin story is woven in subtly and mostly shown to us, not told in hamfisted expository fashion. We even get a partial answer to the question that is begged: If people laugh at you on the surface, why stay up there?
|Aquaman vs. Hipster. Oh god, "The Hipster" is a terrible idea for a villain.|
I've read, mostly out of curiosity, a handful of DC's New 52, and of the titles I've made it through so far, Aquaman #1 is by far my favorite of the bunch. The writing is superb, artwork is in line with the best DC can bring to A-List titles and the pacing through the panel layout it just about perfect. By acknowledging the character's reputation for being lame and demonstrating why it is an undeserved label, the audience instantly sides with Aquaman and develops an attachment to the character, mentally defending him against the slurs of the ignorant. I will go so far as to make an extremely controversial statment, in a series of words I never thought I'd type. If all I was considering was the strength of their respective first issues in the DC reboot, completely ignoring decades of character history and associated mythology and art, I'd look at Aquaman and Batman. Then I'd say "Aquaman is better than Batman." Something in my stomach lurched at typing those words in that order, but there it is.
The setup, as far as I can see it, may face a problem that Aquaman has always faced, and the criticism is worth mentioning. Aquaman has mostly pretty lame villains. In the first issue, the foes presented are generic criminals and a preview of stock undersea beasties gearing up for a showdown to come. With the possible exception of Black Manta, the new Aquaman doesn't really have anyone to fight who can make him continue to earn his newfound status as a cool superhero. I have faith in the writing at this point, and we'll see if new foes or new interpretations of old villains can step up to the challenge of inclusion in the bold new direction for a classic character. With one issue that isn't really focused on defeating bad guys (though there is some action in the pages) it is far too early to call out the series for a lack of cool villains, that is just a lingering concern.
|Bulletproof? Not 100%, the one that hit him in the head|
made him bleed a little, and pissed him off.
With the streamlined version of a Silver Age Origin cleaning up the murky waters of Arthur Curry's origin and solid writing, this title has serious potential to be a standout success story in the mixed reviews from the New 52. We've got a character that is badass with a new direction that fans are likely to accept, because it doesn't discard or ignore what came before, we're just shown it in a new light. This is in stark contrast to the misogyny disguised as female empowerment in Catwoman #1, gaining headlines through strip clubs and casual sex with Batman in-costume, and other missteps in DC's move to remain relevant in years to come. For years, Aquaman may have been the target of bad jokes, but this first issue is showing who is getting the last laugh.Blog Gadgets
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
I've got more than a few video games awaiting my attention at the moment, so noticing that there was yet another Humble Bundle being offered was not great, in terms of timing. A further glance revealed that the bundle consisted of just one game (though several days later a second game was added, and paying more than the average of about USD$4.75 also gets the Frozenbyte Bundle.) When I noticed what the single game was, however, I snapped it up immediately. The game in question is Frozen Synapse, indie developer Mode 7's simultaneous turn-based strategy game. I loved X-Com, it's spiritual descendent Laser Squad Nemesis and Jagged Alliance is still one of my favorite games of all time, setting a tactical plan and then letting the violent results play out is really a thrill, especially when your plans work as you think they will. In my experience, that is rarely, so I find myself saving a whole lot in this sort of game and grinding through the more difficult levels. Frozen Synapse solves the issues with these sorts of games that made me do that, and made that cheesy "strategy" impossible at the same time.
|Happy, sunshiny, soul-crushing Dystopia. But the internet is not only high-speed,|
it is literally everywhere.
Frozen Synapse is set in a complicated and somewhat confusing cyberpunk dystopia, the City of Markov Geist. In this city, a complicated network called the shape that has features of both augmented reality and virtual reality overlays the real, physical architecture of the buildings and streets. The city is ruled by the megacorporation Enyo: Nomad who own everything in both the real and the shape, including armies of "vatforms," cloned humans capable of noting more complicated than moving about and firing a weapon. The player is called only "Tactics," as giving orders through the shape is his specialty. Tactics has been hired by the splinter resistance movement Petrov's Shard, a group funded with technology and funds stolen from Enyo: Nomad when its founder left the conglomerate. The goal is to liberate the city, with the help of a rogue "shapeform" (A.I.,) several double agents and members of the unwashed fringes of humanity, as well as an army of your own vatform soldiers.
The game is played through a tactical display connected to the shape, giving buildings, units and cover a stylized "Matrix meets blueprints" look. Tactics is only called in at difficult "chokepoints" in various sections of the shape where things get rough. These chokepoints are procedurally generated, so the terrain and tactical possibilities are different with every time a mission is played or retried. Orders given to the vatforms can be micromanaged to an insane degree, and freely tweaked until the final order is committed. There is no "I go, then you go" as all orders execute simultaneously. The play feels like the tactical display and command found in the Rainbow Six games, but with one huge difference. Nothing is random. Depending on cover, aim, range of weapon and movement, a unit that has the advantage gets a kill. There are short range shotgunners, medium range riflemen, long range snipers and the terrain-destroying rocket launcher troops.
|The interface shows everything you need to know to plan your next move.|
Every move, shot, choice of aiming or hiding can be simulated before making orders final, and if you can guess where your opponent will move to counter you, you can give that order and see what happens if you are right. Simulate several possibilities and see which plan gives the maximum advantage, commit the order and see if you were right. The single player campaign offers escort missions, traditional "kill all the guys" scenarios, objective defense and many other scenarios. However, the true replay value in this game is the multiplayer. All the same tools and possibilities used against the AI can be used against a human opponent in a tense game that resembles a version of chess where pieces are heavily armed psychopaths that all move at the same time. Multiplayer games play like an online version of a "Play by e-mail" as you submit your next moves whenever you are ready, even if your opponent is not, and get a notification when the system is ready to display results of the last turn and accept new orders.
The developers set up an excellent lobby/matchmaking system with advanced tracking of statistics and the ability to watch games in progress or archived replays of past games. Particularly good matches are easy to export to YouTube with a click of a button and though the graphics are stylized with blue walls, red opponents and green friendlies (with yellow NPC allies in single-player missions,) the violence of headshots or rocket launcher explosions is almost more graphic in how it has been abstracted. There is a wide variety of multiplayer scenarios, each with "light" and "dark" variations depending on whether both sides can see all units at all times, or if an opponent is only on your screen if one of your units has line of sight. I particularly like the scenario where players "bid" on how much terrain they can keep their opponent out of based on the random tactical situation presented by the procedurally-generated map.
|A strategic view of the fight for Markov Geist.|
This game is well worth the normal price of USD$25, but through October 12, 2011 the game can be downloaded for whatever price you choose at the Humble Bundle Site. Like other bundles, you choose what to pay and how much goes to the developers, the guys running the hosting site and to charity. You also get the soundtrack to the game (the music is quite good) and a Flash adventure game about a woman recovering in a hospital named Trauma. Both games work on PC, Mac and UNIX, and can be redeemed with Steam or Desura if you like, all DRM-Free. If you want to try before deciding what the game is worth, it is easy to pay a price low as $0.01 and then go back later and increase your donation to whatever you feel is appropriate.
Monday, October 3, 2011
So, this should be my last full-length article on the subject for some time to come, as the process of becoming a Foreign Service Officer takes many months, but I'd like to report on how the event I've been preparing for since here actually went. This version, also known as the long version of the story, is one where I don't think even my wife has all of the details. For those unfamiliar with my other posts on the subject, I have decided that what I really want to do in terms of long-term career goals is a position in public diplomacy with the United States Foreign Service. It may not be the immediate next job I take, but I plan to keep going after it until I am there or they make me stop applying. The hiring process takes 12-15 months, and the first step is a written exam. I've been studying for the test over the last month or so, and I went into this past weekend feeling woefully underprepared. I had trouble sleeping the night before, got up groggy, showered and dressed, made coffee and poured a bowl of Frankenberry cereal for breakfast.
|The actual test room is a cross between something like this and a police interrogation room|
straight out of Law and Order or The Wire.
I'd gotten my directions the night before, and the expected travel time was 37 minutes according to Google Maps. I mention this detail because it will shortly become important. I left at 8:00 AM for my 9:00 appointment for testing. Traffic was normal, but I started to feel nerves kicking in, muscles in my shoulders knitting themselves into intricate celtic knotwork patterns and I felt vaguely lightheaded. Despite no serious delays, I noticed that I had several turns left in my route at 8:35 AM. Twelve minutes later, I could at least see signs for the college where the test would be administered. My stomach was boiling with acid, Frankenberry suddenly seemed a very poor choice, and I realized that it wasn't clear at all where I could park. At 8:53, I overshot the turn for parking and started shrieking obscenities like an heiress on meth. Panic was overwhelming me, as every road had a concrete center divider and I couldn't turn around.
One marginally-legal U-turn later, I screeched into the parking lot that is about 1.5 blocks from the college at 8:56 AM. I grab everything and immediately break into a run, which is not a graceful or easy process for a man my size. I hoof it up stairs, across a walkway and past a desk where I wheeze out my name for a guard who tells me I need to go down the hall to the left and around. Amazingly, I enter the small room out of breath in the closing seconds of 8:59 where people ten years my junior are filling out paperwork. There is a guy standing at a desk while a distracted heavyset woman has her back to me, trying to work out something on a computer for him. She eventually turns around, apologizes to him for the wait, and seeing me for the first time, marks my arrival as 9:01. I protest weakly, but drop it, take my arrival paperwork and knock it out. I have to lock my phone in a little locker with a borrowed quarter and my stress level hasn't gone down, I'm officially late and still hyperventilating.
|The prisonlike facility that is most definitely not 37 minutes from my house.|
Damnit, Google Maps.
As the computers are set up for my testing, in polite conversation I realize everyone else taking the test in my group is a college kid who doesn't seem particularly serious about the process. Several computer glitches later, we're all seated at old-looking PCs in a room monitored by cameras and microphones, with a little whiteboard and a Staedtler Lumocolor marker (love those things for D&D battlemats) as our only aid. I wince as I see how slow the network moves and glimpse a flash of "Internet Explorer" as the test environment loads. The timed test will be accepting my answers and logging them at a speed slightly above dial-up internet from 1996. I'm answering multiple choice questions about politics, culture, economics, history, geography, management and basic computer skills, and I'm likely disturbing the college kids as my hyperventilation has turned into a deep, wet-sounding cough. The section goes by pretty quickly, and I have to guess in the spots I feared I'd have to, nail the questions I thought I would. I really need to read "Economics for Dummies" or something.
On to the next section with plenty of time. This one is one of those "rank from agree to disagree how you feel these statements apply to you." No problem. I got this. I have tons of relevant skills and experience and don't plan on being modest. I realize with horror that 2/3 of the questions will make me elaborate in 200 characters or less. My wide qualifications are backfiring as I'm running out of time. I type furiously as the time is running out, frequently running out of space and having to edit my responses, finishing with about 2 minutes to spare. Next up is the English Grammar section... here I get a breather. I'm good at these. The most annoying thing is that I am asked to correct sentences in a paragraph, then later read the whole sample for content and answer comprehension questions. Problem: my edits aren't featured in the sample, so I have to read it for content as written, errors and all. Still, no worries... I'm done coughing and finish with 17 minutes to spare. Foolishly, I don't take a break, I've been here over 2 hours already testing and watching the delay between clicking "Submit your answer" and the software updating the page. I really should have stretched my legs or something.
|What I imagine the test center computers recently upgraded from. This,|
or a series of Speak-n-Spells bound together with twine.
The essay. Oh, God. That damned essay. I went into this preparing to write a 5/5 structured argument and really blow them away. (5 paragraph, 5 sentence, with an introduction, Three points and a conclusion.) I see that I have 30 minutes and one prompt, and the prompt is a complex issue. I take it on head on, road less-traveled with a complex position and my structure in mind. I make notes on the dry-erase board and start typing. I re-word for clarity and get an awesome first sentence for my three points paragraphs and a great five sentence introduction structuring my argument with those points in mind. I write and edit my first two points, and glance up at the time left... 4 minutes. OHSHITOHSHITOHSHIT... The pressure is on, and I fear I may not actually finish, might blow the test right here. My third paragraph is weak, and only three sentences, but mostly coherent, and I have 1:39 left.. I type as fast as I can "In conclusion..." and follow with a messy sentence each restating my previous three paragraphs. With less than 20 seconds on the clock, no time to proofread, Dr. Jones... I hit submit and pray that the test accepts the undercooked essay before time runs out.
In retrospect, I don't know how well I did. I suspect if I bombed it, I either missed too many in the first section or my essay turned out as total crap. I'm still getting used to the idea of being able to read for pleasure or play video games without lingering guilt. I was so brain-burnt after the essay and the adrenaline leaving my system that when I got home, I wandered about aimlessly. Everything seemed too hard. I couldn't play games, surf the internet or read. I turned on the TV, flipped around, stopped briefly on "The Jersey Shore," realized I'd gone too far in the other direction and settled on "Women of Ninja Warrior" to let my overheated brain return to functional. I'm mostly better now. I'll get my scores in 5-7 weeks, and then I have to prepare for the next phase if I made it. Luckily, this part is simple pass/fail, with scores being meaningless. If I didn't make the cut... well, there's always next year.