Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer (#3)

I finished the main dungeon in Shiren on Monday night, and it was a fun, satisfying experience.

Many games just don't give much of a payoff when you win, but Shiren gives a nice reward in terms of narrative. And what I said earlier this week about thinking being more important than gear is true--I finished the dungeon with a Katana +5 and an Armor Ward +1, which is pretty weak in terms of gear.

In terms of your item inventory, here a few things to remember if you're a new player.
--dragon herb is incredibly powerful early in the game, but it's much less effective in the last ten floors of the dungeon.
--if have a jar of change, remember to collect the weeds that field bandits create before you get to Mountaintop Village. Turning weeds into possibly valuable items never gets old.
--the "happy" armband is incredibly valuable early in the game. Wearing it gives you experience points as you walk, and instead of being L9 when you get to Mountaintop Village, for example, you'll probably be around L15. Like dragon herb, this is much less effective as you continue, so what I do is wear the armband until Mountaintop Village, then leave it in the warehouse. Sometimes you'll get lucky and a courier will ask if you have anything for Canyon Hamlet, which means you can just send it back with him and it will be waiting for you on your next playthrough.
--monster meat is one of the most powerful items in the game. For instance, if you see mamel (those weak little blue and white creatures on the first two levels) meat in Bamboo Village, it will only cost 300 gitans. That's the best bargain imaginable, because if you throw that meat at a monster, it will turn into a mamel. That's saved my hide more times than I can remember. Now if you have the meat of a powerful monster, eat it and you will turn into that monster, but I prefer to weaken enemies instead of changing myself.
--staffs, staffs, staffs. Almost any staff is going to be more powerful than a single item (with the exception of the Scroll of Confusion, which is essential for surviving Monster Houses), so put as many in your inventory as possible. Particularly useful are Knockback Staffs, which get monsters away from you for a few turns (unless they're next to a wall).

In terms of combat, here are two techniques that I found very useful. The first is when you come upon a Monster House. There are risks to doing this, but I always use a Scroll of Confusion if I have one. That makes monsters attack each other for several turns, and by the time their heads clear (after I've taken advantage and killed a few myself), 2/3 of them may be gone.

Here's the risk. Those remaining monsters have leveled up each time they've killed, so what's left will probably be very strong. That's when I head to a corridor, so that I only have to face one at a time, and I'll start shooting arrows as early as possible. In conjunction with Knockback Staffs, Staffs of Sloth, or Staffs of Paralysis, you can buy enough time to shoot plenty of arrows. And if monsters are lined up in a corridor, one swing of the Doppelganger Staff will turn the lead monster into a copy of you, and he'll be the one who gets attacked.

In general, Knockback Staffs are outstanding, particularly in the Ravine of Illusions. Believe me, you don't want anyone near you on that level, and Knockback Staffs and arrows can get you through with almost no damage.

There's a Wiki (and I can't remember if someone sent me the link, so if you did, I apologize) for Shiren which has quite a bit of information, and you can read it here.

Code Four

We were listening to Okkervil River on our way home from dinner Sunday night.

One of their most interesting songs is basically a mashup of a funeral dirge mixed in with "Sloop John B." Then I heard lyrics I'd never noticed before:

...and his balls removed

"Whoa. Did he say 'balls removed'?" I asked.

"I think he did," she said.

"I had no idea that Okkervil River were balls-unfriendly artists," I said.

"I don't even know what means," she said.

"What is this album called--'Balls of Our Fathers?' " I asked.

We started listening again.

Well, I hear my father fall...

"Watch out! That could rhyme with 'balls'!" I said.

And I hear my mother call

"Phew," I said. "A second balls-related crisis averted."

We stopped at Walgreen's to pick up some soda. While we were there, we heard an announcement on the in-store speaker:

Cosmetics, code four. Cosmetics, code four.

"Officer down!" I said.

"Cosmetologist down," Gloria corrected.

Game of the Quarter: Addition

I can't believe I forgot to mention No More Heroes when I made that post last week about the best game of the quarter. I think Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer is still #1, but No More Heroes was a close second. There's an exuberance running through the entire game that is entirely unique, and it's incredibly funny as well.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

GTA IV (360) Impressions

Before I tell you what I think about this game, you should know two things: one, my biases in regards to this series, and two, that the average Metacritic score after 27 reviews is 99.

My biases: here's an excerpt from the impressions I wrote for GTA: San Andreas in 2005 (full post here):
I am so tired of trying to like this game.

There's your review.

Everything, and I mean everything, can be found inside this game: freedom, constraint, brilliance, stupidity, immersion, detachment, laughter, frustration. It’s all there. It’s both exhilarating and shitty, often within seconds of each other. It’s fantastically creative and entirely undisciplined.

That’s Grand Theft Auto: a gaming Rorschach. It’s everything and it’s nothing at all.

The environments are phenomenal. The controls are lousy. The radio stations are unbelievably funny and brilliantly done. The mission difficulty is totally unbalanced. There are more things to do than in ten other games combined. The A.I. is horrific.

See what I mean?

I also said this in a later post about San Andreas: one of the strangest combinations of fantastic and shitty that I've ever seen.

Well, after three hours of GTA IV, I can say that all of those comments still apply. I hope that changes.

If you liked the GTA III and all that followed, I can promise that you will be 100% golden with GTA IV. It's going to be a great experience for you.

Those people all bought the game already, though. What about the rest of us?

Let's do a bit of level-setting first.

On the 360 version, at least, the aliasing is incredibly bad. The game looks quite good when it's not moving, and it looks better with overcast skies or at night, but some of the daytime environments have unbelievable aliasing issues. This game is Exhibit #1 when someone says we don't need another generation of consoles.

The PS3 apparently has fewer aliasing issues, but it's not even running at 720p (according to Beyond 3D, which is 100% credible, it's 1120x630). I'm not knocking how the PS3 version looks--many people have said it looks better than the 360 version--but when this generation of consoles strains this badly with open world environments, there's no way that we've reached the end of the road in terms of the horsepower needed.

The Liberty City environment is interesting and expansive, and it's well-populated. It's just that these people seem to have remarkably similar A.I. to the idiots that populated San Andreas. It still boils down to a bunch of pissed-off people who seem to run into each other with remarkable frequency, and it's so over-the-top that it's not immersive, at least to me.

Here's an example. Everyone seems to be dropping f-bombs in Liberty City. It's so frequent, though, that it doesn't seem edgy at all. No More Heroes, in contrast, used obscenity for punctuation, and used it brilliantly. Here, it's like a cursing buffet--lots of it, but none of it tastes very good.

Then we have the controls, which are ass. Again. The fighting controls seem to lag, yet the driving controls are so responsive that it's really difficult to drive a damn car. I've been told this "gets better" later in the game, as you acquire better cars, but right now I'm driving on ice with pogo sticks for a suspension, and it's exactly zero fun.

Oh, except cars look great in mid-air, and they land really, really convincingly.

I'm going to give you three examples of how badly immersion gets broken in this game, and believe me, they're not the only three I have.

The first is an early mission where I was supposed to throw a brick through a plate glass window. No problem. So I run down the street and pick up a brick from a trash pile, come back to the store, aim, and fire.

The brick goes through the plate glass window, but nothing happens.

Damn. I have to run back to the trash pile and get another brick, then I run back and stand in front of the glass doors this time. I throw the brick and it boinks off the doors. So I pick it up and throw it again.

Boink. Boink. Boink. Boink.

The guy inside? I'm bouncing heavy bricks off his front door frame, several times, and he's completely oblivious.

Finally, I move back in front of the plate glass window and try throwing it there again. This time, it breaks and the next cut scene is activated.

In a word: yuck.

The second is a mission where I'm supposed to chase someone with a car, then enter a construction site on foot and hunt them down. I run through the construction site like a complete idiot, blundering around for a ladder, but I quickly realize that it doesn't matter. The guy I'm chasing is shouting the same insults, and I know nothing is going to happen until I find that ladder and ascend.

That happened a second time during that mission, and it's a total atmosphere killer. If you're lucky enough to do the mission at just the right pace, it would be very exciting, but if you make a mistake, there's no coming back--it's going to seem ridiculous from that point forward.

How could it have been different? Well, if I'm blundering around like a fool, shoot at me. Push some construction materials from above. Do anything besides wait for me to find the trigger.

It's not that the missions can't be fun. They can be, certainly. It's just that there's a certain "slot" in terms of speed of completion. If you're inside that slot, there are moments where it can feel very immersive. It's a narrow slot, though, and if you're outside the slot, it feels fake and stupid.

Here's the last, and it's an example of how something really cool turns out to not be very fun at all. At various places through the city, there are food stands, and if you buy a hot dog, for example, it will restore your health.

That's a very slick idea--organic to the world and very immersive. I'd like it even better (in a gameplay sense) if the main character was an amphetamine addict, and he had to buy speed to replenish his health. The catch, though, is that while it would restore his lost health, it would slightly reduce his max health each time. That would make for some difficult decisions.

Sorry. Off track again.

So I was low on health after finishing a mission, and I walked to a hot dog cart to buy food. I accidentally bumped into the cart, though. No big deal, right? Oh, no--it was a huge deal, and I got some message about how the vendor wouldn't serve "unruly" customers or something like that.

I walked back into my cousin's apartment, then back into the street, thinking that it would reset the message. No dice. I had almost zero health, so what I wound up doing was having to reload a save, then walk back to the vendor and buy food.

Is that a big deal? No, but it's not seamless, and there are many things in Liberty City that initially seem cool but aren't seamless at all. There are so many clunky moments like that where something should be fun and immersive, but instead it's a reminder of just how thin the world really is, and it's frustrating.

That describes the game in a nutshell. It's vast, and detailed, and paper-thin. Put your hand on that paper and push, even gently, and your hand goes right through.

Let's go to the good stuff. The script is interesting. The use of the cellphone as a hub is an excellent piece of design, and it's well-executed, too. The radio stations, as always, are very clever and very entertaining. Auto-target has improved. The animation has improved. The architecture of the city is extremely detailed.

If you're wondering how I would compare this to the first three hours of games I've written about favorably in the past, I would put GTA IV well below Dead Rising, Crackdown, and No More Heroes.

That doesn't mean it doesn't get better, and maybe it gets great, but right now, not so much.

I'm going to keep playing, and I'll put up more impressions after I hit ten hours, so look for another post early next week.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Grand Theft Auto Tuesday

Here's the plan for tomorrow. I'll be at EB at ten to pick up my copy of Grand Theft Auto IV. I'll play until I hit the five-hour mark, then I'll write up initial impressions.

Gaming Links

A new version of the outstanding PC game Mount&Blade was released today. It's version 0.95, and the announcement and download links are in the TaleWorld forums.

If you've never played Mount&Blade, it's fantastic.

There are two interesting articles over at Gamasutra about narrative and meaning in games. The first is Why More Games Need Subtext, while the second is Ken Levine on BioShock's Narrative Drive.

N'Gai Croal has a blizzard of interesting items over at Level Up, as usual. First is a guest column by Keith Boesky: Why Society At Large Seems Games And Porn In The Same Light--And How We're All To Blame . I don't necessarily agree with his conclusions (and I may write about that later this week), but it's a thoughtful article. Justin Blankenship also has a column that updates his previous examination of the possible SEC obstacles to a purchase of Take-Two by Electronic Arts.

I'm waiting for this press release from the SEC:
We have tentatively approved the merger, provided that we can get some more *$#damn camera angles in NCAA and Madden.

Also, Bing Gordon (Chief Creative Officer) is leaving Electronic Arts after twenty-five years, and N'Gai has both the scoop and an interview.

I'd recommend a story from the front page of Gamers With Jobs, but it's impossible--they're all interesting. Those guys really are amazing.

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer (#2)

Here are a few more notes about Shiren, and after another 20+ hours with the game, it's still just as much fun as it was for the first 30.

I've mentioned on many occasions that great games generate memorable stories, and Shiren generates a ton of them.

Yesterday, I was on the 18th level of a run, but I was in sorry shape. The drops from defeated monsters just hadn't been good enough, or of sufficient quality, to survive for much longer. That happens sometimes, and the variability in each run is one of the big reasons the game stays fresh--you have to work with what you get.

For a few days, I'd been trying to build up my weapon and my shield. I got to the point where I had a +22 Mastersword, as well as an Armor Ward +12 with melding buffs for blast, rust, and hunger.

That kind of gear is more than powerful enough to finish the main game, but it's missing the point, really--the dangerous enemies in the game are the ones that can cause status abnormalities. So, for example, if your character is hypnotized because you didn't stay back from a Gaze, your shield strength isn't going to matter. On the higher levels, your weapon and shield can just get knocked out of your hands, and sometimes they can get knocked off a wooden bridge and they're gone for good.

So weapons are nice, and so are shields, but this game is much more about understanding the nature of enemies and which ones can render you helpless. Intelligence, not brute force, is what gets you through the game, and when I lost that gear in about five seconds after I got hypnotized, the point was driven home.

Back to the story. I took the stairs to the 19th floor and was greeted by a monster house. There were red dots on the map EVERYWHERE, and I had nothing to counter, not even a Scroll of Confusion or a Scroll of Sleep.

In technical terms, I was screwed.

I used a switching staff to get closer to the door, and my health was flashing red (6 out of 86) as I took my final step.

That final step, though, was into a pitfall trap, and I plunged through the floor to the 20th level.

I made it to the 22nd level, where I ran into a Gaze and got hypnotized. There was a monster on either side of him, so again, I was finished--a Gaze can just hypnotize you on each turn.

A Gaze also forces you to use random items in your inventory, and I was burning through inventory items on my way to certain death. Again, my health was flashing red, the Gaze hypnotized me again--and the random item I used was a hiding jar.

Which caused the monsters to leave, of course, and incredibly, I'd survived again.

I didn't last for much longer, but both of those accidental survivals were epic moments.

CNN Wins WTF Award 2008

This reads like an April Fool's Day post, but it's all too true.

CNN has started one of the strangest, most bizarre commercial ventures in history. On the front page of CNN, some stories will have a t-shirt icon beside them. For $19.95, you can get a t-shirt with that headline. So if you want a t-shirt that says "Deadly snake found slithering on beach" or "$5.40/gallon gas comes with a great view," your dream has finally come true.

Dear CNN: are you high?

I realized after reading a few of these headlines that adding the phrase "in my pants" really makes them sing:
Deadly Snake Found Slithering On Beach--In My Pants
Stimulus Checks To Go Out Early--In My Pants

Shark Suspected in Swimmer's Death--In My Pants

I just pulled up CNN and saw this headline: Gator Grabs Guy Diving For Golf Balls.

I think you know what to do.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Friday Links!

Close your door so that your co-workers don't hear you shouting in glee. Well, not glee, maybe, but something better than being bored to death at work on Friday morning.

One note before starting with the links. In my post on King Leopold's Ghost, I mentioned that the population of the Congo was decimated, then said it was estimated that up to half of the population had been killed. Brian Witte emailed this note:
You referred to the 'systematic decimation' of the Congo. 'Decimation' refers to the Roman practice of killing 1 in every 10 people of an occupied area as retaliation for attacks against occupying legions. Awful as that is, a 50% mortality rate is well in excess of a decimation.

Then he added the zinger:
Amusingly, the dictionary agrees that I am a pedant.

Now, on with the links!

Leading off this week, Don Barree sent in a link to a NY Times article titled Tests Confirm T-Rex Kinship With Birds. The confirmation this time, though, is on the genetic level. Here's an excerpt:
In fact, the scientists said, T. rex shared more of its genetic makeup with ostriches and chickens than with living reptiles, like alligators. On this basis, the research team has redrawn the family tree of major vertebrate groups, assigning the dinosaur a new place in evolutionary relationships.

Next, it's a story sent in by Nate Carpenter that can't help but spawn (that's a pun) some legendary headlines. Curious? Try Penis Theft Panic Hits City. Next: penis surveillance security cameras.

Steven Kreuch sent in a story about the Large Hadron Collider and the doomsday fears of Walter Wagner and Luis Sancho, who believe the LHC might generate a black hole that could swallow the universe. Wagner also filed suit in 1999 to stop operation of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, which has been remarkably humanity-ending-free.

From the New York Times, an article about Stern Pinball, the last of its kind.

From Sirius, a link to a story about scientists producing natural gas from ice-like gas hydrates. Also from Sirius, a link to a story about Santo Daime, a religion with origins in the Amazonian rainforest that is now growing in popularity in Britain. Oh, and there are hallucinogenics. Finally, it's The Geyser Riders, and it's all about the "sand hogs." Here's an excerpt:
Today hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers ride the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan everyday, but it was not so long ago that such a thing was still a dream. Tunneling through the Manhattan Schist (I think everyone can agree that Manhattan sometimes feels like a big pile of schist…) was a tough job. It was dark, dirty and extremely dangerous. It was the job of a very special group of men: the sandhogs.

From Jessie Leimkuehler, an article about a clean room. A very clean room.
Astronauts will travel to the Hubble Space Telescope this summer, installing new instruments and other components during Servicing Mission 4. But before these components are cleared for launch, they go through one final checkup in the world’s largest clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

...all these features afford the Goddard clean room a Class-10,000 rating. That means any cubic foot of air in the clean room has no more than 10,000 particles floating around in it larger than 0.5 microns.

How small it that? A micron is one-millionth of a meter, and typical “outside” air has millions of such particles. (A human hair is between 20 and 200 microns wide.) If an inch ballooned to the size of the Empire State Building, a 0.5-micron bit of dust would still be smaller than a penny on the sidewalk.

Also from Jessie, two links about the mishaps on the recent Russian Soyuz spacecraft landing. The first details some of what happened as well as the risks involved, while the second is about the ongoing investigation.

From John D'Angelo, a link to When Galaxies Collide, and the pictures are amazing.

Michael Stedman sent me a link to a phenomenal John Coltrane video.

From Dan Quock, a link to Dancin' the Boogie, and boy, their feet are moving.

From the Edwin Garcia links machine, some real gems this week. The first is a Portuguese barn barn full of vintage cars. Next is an article titled Moondust and Duct Tape, and it's an article about how Apollo 17 astronauts repaired the fender on their moonbuggy--with duct tape. While on the moon. Then, in an entirely improbable coincidence, there's antother moondust link--this one, to scientists growing plants in moondust.

From Simon, a link to Pachelbel Hell, which is of particular interest if you ever played Pachelbel's Canon in D on a cello.

Bill Abner put a White Stripes video in a post on The Nut And The Feisty Weasel, and I started poking around YouTube and found an outstanding series of videos from a guest performance on "Jools Holland." Here are two, and you can type in "White Stripes Live Jools Holland" on YouTube to find several more.
My Doorbell (this is absolutely killer)
Effect And Cause

From Andrew Martin, a link to Rare Book Room, "an educational site intended to allow the visitor to examine and read some of the great books of the world."

Keith Schleicher sent in a very funny link about Superman titled super-child-neglect. You'll never look at the Man of Steel the same way again.

From Nate Carpenter, a link to a beautiful display--of poetry. Take a look and you'll see what I mean.

Yes, that was the same Nate Carpenter that sent in a link to the Penis Theft Panic story. That has to be some kind of record for conceptual distance between links.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

This Cost One Of You Ten Million Dollars

Hold off on buying that limo.

Jonathan Arnold sent me a link to RUWT?Sports, and here's what it does:
Meet RUWTbot, our game-watching robot that searches for games going into overtime, ranked teams getting upset, no-hitters through 7, or anything else you need to get your butt on the couch for.

Sure, you could catch the
SportsCenter recap, but wouldn't it be better to get an email or text message from RUWTbot about a 2 point game with 30 seconds left on the clock that you can watch right now?

Four different levels of alerts, and you can choose what levels actually get sent to you (via e-mail or cellphone). You can also customize it with your zip code and programming provider, as well as picking which sports.

Yes, yes, and yes.

Rock Band #108: Drum Lessons (3)

I totally forget to mention this in the previous post.

One of the most difficult things about changing how I played the kick pedal is that it totally changed my balance point. I didn't realize this, but being able to press down on the pedal made it my anchor point--my balance was really centered around that leg.

With the pedal up, there's nothing to press against, and I had zero balance at first. I couldn't lean into the kit like I used to, either. I told my instructor this, and he said that balance is correctly centered around the drum throne and your butt. It makes sense, but it is really, really difficult to do at first.


1.the part of the wreckage of a ship and its cargo found floating on the water.

You guys send me so much excellent e-mail, and give me so interesting things to link to, that sometimes I lose something in the shuffle, and by "shuffle" I mean "my shitty organizational skills."

So here are some assorted items that I've been meaning to mention for a while.

Over two years ago, Ed Quinn e-mailed me and recommended a film called "'Tom Dowd And The Language Of Music." I ordered the DVD, lost it, and it took me over two years to finally see the movie, but it's terrific. Tom Dowd was a legendary recording engineer and producer for Atlantic Records, and it is just amazing to see how the process of recording an album has evolved. If you're interested in music, this is a fascinating film.

Amazon link: Tom Dowd & The Language Of Music.

I typed "coal slaw" (so smooth) into a post a few months ago, and Ashley Crum wrote in and said it was an "eggcorn." He sent me a link to The Eggcorn Database, and there are some very funny entries.

I mentioned Louis Theroux at some point (I think), and Joe Wojitas sent me a link to a quote from Theroux about his trip to America:
"'Have you ever argued with a member of the Flat Earth Society?' a self-help guru named Ross Jeffries once asked me. 'It's completely futile, because fundamentally they don't care if something is true or false. To them, the measure of truth is how important it makes them feel. If telling the truth makes them feel important, then it's true. If telling the truth makes them feel ashamed and small, then it's false.' My experience on my trip has borne this out. On the list of qualities necessary to humans trying to make out way through life, truth scores fairly the end, feeling alive is more important than telling the truth....We are instruments for feeling, faith, energy, emotion, significance, belief, but not really truth."

That quote is so brilliant that I've been meaning to work it into a longer post, but it always seems to veer heavily into politics, so instead I'm just going to put it up here.

I mentioned Bob Sapp becoming a celebrity in Japan as a wrestler/kickboxer/MMA fighter. Joshua Zatkin-Steres sent me a link to Gajin Smash, which is a blog written by an American teaching in Japan. I've read it in the past, and it's a fascinating look at Japanese culture as written by an outsider. It's often profane, frequently hilarious (any story about "kancho") and generally very entertaining. He has another perspective on the celebrity of Bob Sapp, and it's a much more complicated story than the "American guy hits it big in Japan" profile that I linked to a few weeks ago.

Rock Band #108: Drum Lessons (2)

In my lesson last week, I learned two things:
--the basic drum beat for "Hell's Bells" by AC/DC is the same as the basic drum beat for "Cocaine" by Eric Clapton.
--using a real kick pedal is totally different from playing Rock Band.

Trying to hit a bass drum with a kick pedal and produce a loud, fat sound is very hard. I was particularly anemic. Plus, the kick pedal on the real drum kit felt so different (less spring tension) than the Rock Band pedal that it was very tough to adjust to.

A week before that lesson, I'd ordered the Omega pedal. It's a turnkey mod for the Rock Band drum kit that uses a real Pearl P-120 pedal and just plugs into the Rock Band kit.

As it turns out, that was the same pedal that I use in my lesson.

So I got the pedal early this week and picked out a few songs that have really frustrating (for me) bass beats: "Maps" on Expert, and "Waves of Mutilation" and "Celebrity Skin" on Hard. I haven't passed Maps on Expert, and I haven't been able to 5-star WoM and CS on Hard.

I decided to start out by playing "Gimme Shelter" on Hard as a test. I can 5-star that song with no problem, and it has a steady beat, so I though it would be good as a warm-up.

718 notes later, I had my first FC on Hard, and it was my longest note streak ever.

The pedal felt absolutely great.

Maps? Passed it on the first try. Maps has this incessant bass drum line--just totally relentless--but I was in the green for almost the entire song. Then I 5-starred Celebrity Skin and almost 5-starred Waves of Mutilation. I really, really have trouble with 4-beat measures where there's a note on 1-3 and the bass drum on 2-4, particularly if it lasts for a while.

I can manage those sections now, and while I'm not giving 100% credit to the pedal, it's certainly helped.

Yes, the pedal is $89. Don't try to talk logic with me about Rock Band. But over half that price is the cost of the Pearl P-120 itself. Plus, like I said, it's a turnkey mod. All you do is plug it in and it's ready to go.

So when I went in to my drum lesson today, I was very confident that I'd be much improved on the kick pedal. And I was, except I found out something else about technique.

The way I've always played in Rock Band is with the pedal pressed down and my heel up. I let the pedal up and press back down for a note, but the default position is with the pedal down.

It's very comfortable to play this way--great for reducing leg fatigue--and it's worked really well.

Today, though, my instructor noticed what I was doing and he stopped me. On a real bass drum, if you play this way, the beater is always against the drum, and the beater doesn't rebound after a note.

In other words, I was really doing it backwards. And this doesn't matter in Rock Band, but when I needed two bass beats in a row on a real kit, the second beat sounded very weak.

He told me to try heel up, but with the pedal in the up position.

That resulted in much better sound from the bass drum, and about 5x more fatigue for my leg. Seriously, how in the world does anyone have the stamina to do that? Damn, it was brutal in terms of fatigue, and I was playing a song with 5 base notes in an 8-note measure. After three minutes, I felt like my leg was going to fall off.

It was very boom boom boom, though.

Other Option: A Warehouse

Several of you e-mailed to say that Gloria's purse should be referred to as a "bag of holding." Duly noted, and I'll notify her that "purse" is an outdated and inaccurate term. In Shiren terms, it would be a "holding jar (0)," although, when empty, it would be a "holding jar (147)."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ignore the Cheery Purple Color

Friday night was a "date night."

"It's a beautiful day," Gloria said about 5:30. "Let's go somewhere to eat where we can sit outside."

"Outside?" I asked. "Do I need a sleeping bag?"

"What?" she asked.

"Camping gear," I said. "Tent, Coleman stove, a skivvy bag or something? What about those special goggles for bright conditions that mountain climbers use?"

"All right, you can bring your DS," she said. "And I'll drive."

This was a landmark moment. That sentence "You can bring your DS" has never been uttered in this house.

"I'll be happy to sit outside," I said. "And thank you for volunterring to drive in hellish rush hour traffic, which is suddenly no longer my problem."

The drive to the restaurant was surprisingly smooth, at least for me, because I was playing Shiren the entire time.

"Thiefwalrus! Bitch!" I shouted.

"Did you say walrus?" she asked. We were stopped dead on the highway.

"Ignore the cheery purple color," I said. "They steal."

We pulled into the parking lot and I put the DS into the glove compartment. "Key, please," I said.

"Key? What for?" Gloria asked.

"I need to lock the glove compartment," I said.

"You're kidding," she said. "I'm locking the car."

"I've got a shield stashed in Mountaintop Village that's plus-fourteen armor ward plus half hunger and protection from thiefwalruses," I said. "I have to take the proper precautions. If the car got stolen, we have insurance, and but if I lose the game card, all my career data will be lost."
"And...," she said.

"It would be like being a carpenter for seven years, then one day you wake up and someone says 'Hey! You were never a carpenter.' That's devastating."

"We're both devastated," she said.

An Idea

I taped one NBA game and two NHL games last night and really only had time to watch part of one game.

In the "old days," we had one game a night to watch, if we were lucky. Now, during the NBA and NHL playoffs, having four in one night isn't uncommon.

We're overloaded, and we all have less time than ten years ago. I already never watch sports live, because the commercials are time spent that I just don't have. Everything is recorded and watched later.

So last night, as I tried to decide between three games I had recorded, I had an idea.

[Please note that when one of you makes ten million dollars from this idea, I won't ask you for a cent. You are hereby fully in the clear for a lifetime of limos, hookers, and blow.]

What we need is a sports website that doesn't tell us the scores--it tells us how interesting the games were to watch.

Here's how it would work. There would be ratings (1-10), by period or quarter, for individual games as well as comparisons between games. So, for instance, last night I could have gone online and seen that the Toronto-Orlando NBA game was an "8-8-8-9", but the Mavericks-Hornets game was only a "6-4-4-1."

Too much detail? You'd also have an option just to get a rating for the full game. So the Orlando game would have been an "8", but the New Orleans game would have been a "4".

That gives me enough information to know what to watch, but it doesn't give me any details. I don't know the score or anything that happened, but I do know which games were most exciting. Sure, not everyone defines excitement the same way, but I'll take my chances.

Here's a twist. Let's say I started recording a game an hour ago, and now I want to start watching. It's an NHL playoff game, for example, and it's the middle of the second period. I could look at ratings by period, and if I see that the first period is a "2", for example, I just saved half an hour of my time, at least.

This is true (for me, at least) during any sports season--there will be several games to choose from that I'm interested in, and if I could tape them all, then know which one would be most interesting to watch, then I would be getting maximum utility out of my sports viewing time.

If He's Correct, Then Kindle is Doomed

Andrew Martin sent me this picture with a subject line of "Scientists unearth best reason to own an Amazon Kindle."

I'm sure he was kidding, as I've verified that he's not living in a mental institution, which was the only other possibility.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Gaming Links

Chris Clarke sent me a link to an excellent article about Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer. It's an installment of John Harris's @play column over at GameSetWatch.

The new issue of The Escapist has a ton of interesting articles. My favorite is Kieron Gillen's profile of Mucky Foot. I will always maintain that Startopia was one of the most underrated games ever made.

There's also a profile of David Jaffe and Heartland by N. Evan Van Zelfden, and an article by Erin Hoffman titled Cyberpunked: The Fall of Black9.

Alex Corvino sent me a link to Milliways: Infocom's Unreleased Sequel to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Take a look:
From an anonymous source close to the company, I've found myself in possession of the "Infocom Drive" — a complete backup of Infocom's shared network drive from 1989. This is one of the most amazing archives I've ever seen, a treasure chest documenting the rise and fall of the legendary interactive fiction game company. Among the assets included: design documents, email archives, employee phone numbers, sales figures, internal meeting notes, corporate newsletters, and the source code and game files for every released and unreleased game Infocom made.

It's pretty amazing, and the discussion in the comment section (which seems to include most of the mentioned principals) is just as interesting.

Here's a link from George Paci that should strike a chord in Starcraft fans: Bot Fight. Here's an excerpt:
About a month ago I wrote a Starcraft scenario which allowed you to observe a game between AI players. I’ve been curious about the quirks in the Starcraft AI and I’ve wanted a chance to see them do their thing in a deterministic environment. I learned some surprising things about this ten-year-old gem. While the races themselves are very nearly balanced in the hands of humans, it turns out the AI is a lot better at using some races compared to others.

As a last note, there's apparently a sequel in development for Majesty, which would also be on my list of most underrated games ever made. Thanks to Lenard Burgess for the tip, and you can read about it here.

Dr. Strangepurse

The contents of Gloria's purse, listed as unearthed.

HEBuddy plastic bubbles with prize inside (2)
"Moral Disorder" by Margaret Atwood
Gas Bill
Prescription notes from Walgreen's
The Seven Flags of Texas (decals)
Bottles of hand sanitizer (4)
Boy's socks (1 pair)
Instructions for the "20 Questions" electronic game
Peanut butter chocolate chip granola bar
eye drops (2)
Travel-size toothpaste tube (in box)
Small notebook (notes from parenting class)
Shipment receipt from UPS Store
Nail file (in package)
Scrunchy (red)
Nail file (2, loose)
Ipod with armband and earphones
Mometasone cream (for poison ivy)
Nail file (larger)
Screwdriver (Phillips)
Hair clip
Orbit gum, poorly wrapped (1 piece)
Cortaid cream
Lipstick (4)
Chapstick (4)
Shrunken human head
Tylenol (bottle)
Glue stick
Flexible bracelet (shiny)
Hair brush
Unknown key (boyfriend's house)
Car keys
Crayons (5)
Broken pen
Stamps (2)
Used tissue
Bottle of perfume
AAA key-ring card
Pens (15)
Pencils (4, 1 with grip)
Hard candy (1, orange)
Coins (63, total value $6.99, including commemorative quarters from Vermont, Arkansas, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Hampshire, Idaho, Rhode Island, and Washington)

I might have added two items that weren't actually in her purse. But only two.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Console Post of the Week: Using Numbers To Hide Numbers

Before we get started on NPD analysis, here are a few pieces of forensic work and commentary from you guys.

First off, Daniel Willhite had an interesting angle on the rumored Microsoft motion-sensing controller. I asked "WTF is Microsoft doing?" and he wrote this:
With respect to the rumored contoller - experimenting for their next console? Working out the bugs, so to speak.

It’s a pretty smart decision (if that’s the reason.) Microsoft creates a “waggle” API, developers explore the API and report back to Microsoft, and Microsoft adjusts the API and the “waggler” for the next console. Microsoft is very good at APIs and controllers, but not on the first pass at either. But they’re persistent and they learn and they update (I almost said “improve” but that wasn’t quite what I wanted to say.)

I’m willing to bet that Microsoft knows this won’t dent the Wii’s momentum, contrary to what their external face might say. I think they’re positioning themselves for their next console generation.

That's an excellent thought, particularly with the 360's successor coming out no later than November 2010 (only two and a half years away), I'm guessing.

Skip Key had an interesting theory in regards to 360 shortages and Wistron:
Microsoft assumed that they could get the OEMs to lower their prices because the cost always goes down over the lifetime, but the OEMs this time couldn't do it, mostly due to the fact that the dollar has totally tanked, squeezing out any increased margin. So as long as Wistron picked up a big contract to offset the loss, preferably paid in something other than US dollars, they'd be OK.

So I did a little searching, and found out where their manufacturing capability probably went. From July of last year, when the negotiations would have been going on: Wistron to manufacture Wii.

Given a couple of months to set the lines up, the timing's almost perfect.

Another excellent piece of analysis, and this Forbes article suggests that Wistron was going to begin manufacturing the Wii before the end of last year.

Several of you guys sent me a theory about Wii supply in the U.S. (and I apologize, but I can't remember who was first), and I think it's worth mentioning. The basic theory is that Nintendo, with unfulfilled demand in both Europe and the U.S., was trying to sate Europe first due to the favorable currency valuations. Victor Godinez (an excellent writer for the Dallas Morning News) sent me a link to a story he posted about an interview with Michael Pachter in which Pachter also subscribes to this theory.

Again, I don't know if this is true or not, but that was one hell of a spike in March sales for Nintendo, so maybe they've increased manufacturing capacity after all, but we just couldn't see it because the delta units were going to Europe.

Okay, on to the NPD's. Here are the raw numbers:
Wii-- 721,000
Xbox 360--262,000
PlayStation 3--257,000
PlayStation 2--216,000

First off, remember that March is a five-week data period, not four. So for Sony and Microsoft, their per-week average actually fell quite a bit in March. Here are February and March numbers, but on a per-week basis:
Wii-- 108,000
Xbox 360--63,750
PlayStation 3--70,250
PlayStation 2--88,000

Wii-- 144,200
Xbox 360--52,400
PlayStation 3--51,000
PlayStation 2--43,200

That's a clear picture. Wii sales were up 33.5%, but the 360 was down 17.8% and the PS3 was down 27.4%. The indefatigable PS2 was down over 50%. Still, though, the 360 and PS3 are up significantly from last year.

It's always interesting to see how these companies respond to the numbers, and it's easy to tell when they're using one number to hide another number. When a company is winning, it never pollutes the numbers--it just announces them. If a company is losing, though, they'll talk about percentages instead of absolute numbers, or they'll talk about a different timeframe--"shockingly", one that gives them an unfair advantage.

For instance:
Consumers continue to make the ultimate vote for Xbox 360 as the console of choice by investing $9.4 billion to date this lifecycle in the Xbox 360 experience, far outpacing that of other game consoles.

Nice. Microsoft uses a timeframe where they have a twelve-month advantage over their competitors and claims a total revenue victory!

Well done, calendar shufflers.

Then, in the same press release, Microsoft scores again:
Xbox 360 sales in Europe have more than doubled in the wake of recent retail price changes, solidifying its leadership position as the number one next-generation console in EMEA, owning 42% of the market in terms of life-to-date revenue.

Hey, sales have more than doubled--off some number that wasn't given. Plus, here comes that life-t0-date revenue number again.

Oh, and here's why they wanted to use that "doubling" number:
Microsoft this week claimed to have more doubled the Xbox 360’s European sales thanks to its recent price cut, but that still hasn’t been sufficient to put it ahead of the PlayStation 3 or the Wii in the UK.

...UK console sales monitor Chart Track confirmed that for the past 15 weeks the PS3 has largely kept ahead of the Xbox 360. However, a spokesman admitted that the two machines' units have been "extremely close" in some weeks.

I guess a press release that says "Microsoft this week claimed to have gotten "extremely close" to PS3 sales in the UK after a recent price cut" wouldn't quite sound right.

Sony also uses the math to hide math strategy:
This represents a year-over-year sales growth of over 98%. More than 1.9 million software units were sold for PS3 in March, representing a year-over-year growth of 139.2%.

Oh, yeah, be sure to focus on year-over-year growth, which has absolutely no relationship to your competitors. We're going to hear the year-over-year comparisons for the PS3 all year, because prior to the $399 40MB model being introduced in November, last year was shit.

Sony also loves to focus on "the brand" and give you "brand" revenue instead of information for individual consoles. Again, it's a way to avoid direct comparisons with a competitor.

Both Microsoft and Sony seem to be in disarray, and the math is just a symptom. Let's take a quick look at the highlights.

Microsoft, in particular, seems to have forgotten how to market their product. For one, it would have been a slam dunk to send out Falcon consoles to every person of note in the gaming press so that they could see the improvements. Then they would have gotten a slew of "it's quieter, it's cooler," articles written, and it would have drawn attention to how "bad 360" was in the past. Plus, it would also have seemed like another slam dunk to announce when all new units going forward would be Falcons.

Then there's Grand Theft Auto. Microsoft spent 50 MILLION DOLLARS to obtain exclusive Grand Theft Auto content from Rockstar. Given that there will be plenty of people buying consoles to play Grand Theft Auto, it would seem logical for Microsoft to let people know that their console will have exclusive content not available anywhere else.

In fact, they should be shouting it from the rooftops, and giving us as many details as they can, because it would make more people purchase 360's.

Instead? Almost complete silence. No special console bundle, no teasers, nothing. Even if they announce something this week, they've waited too long.

Sony has its own problems. Don't expect Sony to mention Japan anytime soon, because they have a giant pile of vomit on their sweatshirts. In the last eight weeks in Japan, the PS3 has sold 107,137 units. Last year, in the same eight-week period, it sold 180,880, and those numbers last year were ugly to begin with.

Cheaper than last year and sales are off FORTY percent?

In the U.S., at least, Sony's strategy is back from the dead. Even the PS3 is clearly going to fall far short of the record numbers of the PS2, at least it looks viable in the U.S. In Japan, though, it appears that they've completely failed.

Plus, if Sony is trying to establish a foothold with the PS3, it would seem reasonable to expect exclusive games, but in the first quarter, the only game Sony released was MLB 08: The Show. It's a superb game, but that's it? Oh, wait, we also got Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds. Woo!

And now, in April we get Gran Turismo 5: Prologue, which is a $39.95 DEMO. Excellent.

On the positive side, Sony is doing a much better job of in-store marketing. I've been in several retail stores in the last month and seen eye-catching Blu-Ray demo displays with big HD screens. That's a big positive.

Here's the question with Sony, though, at least in the U.S.: how badly is the installed base for gaming "polluted" by people buying dedicated Blu-Ray players? That's of huge importance to developers, because no one buys a 360 as a dedicated DVD player--the installed base is the game-purchasing base. With the PS3, though, there's a huge amount of fog.

For now, I think Grand Theft Auto IV will probably be the best test case we have available.

Think about it. GTA IV will probably be purchased by a higher percentage of PS3 owners than any other title in the console's history, and GTA has such an established reputation that it will pull in plenty of people who never intended to play a game on a PS3. So that should at least be a decent set-up to get an idea of real gaming demand for the PS3 in the U.S.

We will also be able to compare what percentage of the PS3 installed base buys GTA IV compared to the percentage of the 360 installed base. If it's the same, or close, that's a huge win for Sony. If there's a sizable gap, it's going to be tough to spin.

I always want to write more about Nintendo, but what can I say? They own the gaming world right now and they print money. Mario Kart Wii will sell a bajillion units, and so will Wii Fit.

Friday, April 18, 2008


Where the heck did this come from (thanks Level Up)?
Harmonix and MTV Games have just announced that the first complete album for their popular rhythm game Rock Band will be released next week. Even though last year Harmonix cited The Who's 1971 record "Who's Next" when it first revealed that entire albums would be made available through its online store, its inaugural full-length release will be Judas Priest's 1982 hit "Screaming For Vengeance," boasting such classic songs as "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" (already featured in Guitar Hero and SingStar Amped, according to MTV News' own Rhythm Track Finder) and "Electric Eye" (already featured in Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s).

Each of the ten tracks on "Screaming For Vengeance" can be purchased individually for the standard price of $1.99 per track (160 Microsoft Points on Xbox 360), while the entire album can be bought for $14.99 (1200 Microsoft Points on Xbox 360).

That's about as far out of left field as anyting I've ever seen.

Oh, and here's some more left-fieldery. From "hmxsean" (Sean Baptiste), more info in the Rock Band forums:
We're also happy to announce two more albums that are in the pipeline and coming in the near future- The Cars album The Cars and the Pixies Doolittle.

...We'll have updates on upcoming DLC soon, including The Who, as information becomes available.

Friday Links!

From rivets to lobotomies to skateboarding dogs, we've got it all this week. Close the door, forward the phone, and say hello the weekend.

From Don Barree, and it's a bombshell, even 96 years later:
Researchers have discovered that the builder of the Titanic struggled for years to obtain enough good rivets and riveters and ultimately settled on faulty materials that doomed the ship, which sank 96 years ago Tuesday.

The research is remarkable, and you can read about it all here.

Here's a fascinating link from Jonathan Arnold, although it's a difficult read: one of the youngest patients to be lobotomized by the infamous Walter Freeman decided to find out everything he could about why the procedure was performed on him.

From Sirius, a link to a story about the Difference Engine, and it's a stunner:
The Computer History Museum, in Mountain View, Calif., will unveil a new construction, the first in the United States, of the 19th century British mathematician Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2, an improved version of his earlier mechanical digital calculator.

It will weight five tons, which is about the same weight as that calculator I needed in high school.

A second link from Sirius, and this is totally cool: a fourteen-year old named Anshul Samar has created a science-based fantasty card game called Elementeo. Here's an excerpt:
The game is based on a 121-card deck of chemical elements, compounds and catalysts. Every card has an explanation of the element or compound's uses and chemical properties. For example, the Oxygen card can rust neighboring metal cards and the Copper Conductor card can shock any metals. The oxidation state of an element is used as its attack power, and its physical state determines its movement on the board. The goal of the game is to reduce the opponents electrons to zero through strategic use of each card's chemical properties.

Here's a link to Miles Davis and John Coltrane performing "So What".

From David Gloier, links to two videos of Conrad Oberg, a remarkable twelve-year old musician who happens to be blind. First, a video of his remarkble piano-playing skills, then a link to his rendition of Voodoo Child on electric guitar (which is huge fun to watch). Oh, and if you want one more, here's Conrad playing Little Wing, and it's fantastic.

From the Edwin Garcia links machine, a link to I Guess You'll Do, one of the darkest looks at adult life ever. The female narrator, though, makes it very, very funny. Next a link to Digger FAIL, part of The FAIL Blog. Next, NASA has a new science website, and it's excellent.

From Scott Zimmerman, a link to an article about the decoding of Aztec mathematics. Also from Scott, a link to "Hubble", "a system that operates continuously to find persistent Internet black holes as they occur."

From Curtis Moore, a great project to do with your kids: a table-top biosphere. It looks excellent, and I'm sure Eli 6.8 will be up for doing this.

From Garrett Alley, it's Mario Drums. That's right--someone who looks to be an excellent drummer took the time to write a drum score (I'm sure I'm using that word wrong) and play along with the Mario theme.

Here's a link from George Paci, and I'm pretty sure it's NSFW, unless a group of naked men wearing Mickey Mouse masks passes for acceptable in your office. The title of the article really says it all: German staging of Verdi's A Masked Ball on 9/11 with naked case in Mickey Mouse masks.

From Lael Jones, a link to a video that, incredibly, exponentially surpasses International Dance Party in sheer cheesiness. It's an informercial for the Beamz Music System. This video is a classic, and what makes it so remarkable is that every single person in the video has the look of a complete loser. Now these people are actors, which means the director was directing them to look like that.

From Mike Jacobs, a link to some unique art: the visualization of computer viruses. MIT Media Lab's grad student Alex Dragulescu used algorithms to find recurring patterns in the source code, then put the results into a visualization algorithm.

Pete the skateboarding dog. I think that says it all.

From Keith Schleicher, a link to an article on the best band (all-time) from each state, as determiend by Jeopardy Whiz Ken Jennings.

From Jonathan Arnold, a link to a website called #1 Song on This Date in History, and that's exactly what it will tell you.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Game Secret

Gamers With Jobs, which is one of the most consistently entertaining and engaging gaming sites ever created, has scored again with a new feature called "Game Secret." Take a look.

It's an offshoot of the unpredictable PostSecret, I'm guessing.

March NPD

Analysis on Monday, but here are the numbers:
Wii: 721,000
360: 262,000
PS3: 257,000
PS2: 216,000

Wow. That's a total of 1,456,000 units. Last year? 865,000.

I have NPD data back to November of 2001 (thanks PCV Console), and if you're trying to put the Wii's numbers into perspective, the second highest March total for a console since 2001 is 500,000 (PS2, 2005). That's also the biggest non-holiday (November or December) month since 2001 as well.

Resident Evil 5: More Thoughts And Your E-Mail

I want to thank you guys for the intelligent, thoughtful e-mail you sent me about the Resident Evil 5 trailer.

By far, the most common question was "So if that trailer was racist, how could Capcom have done it differently?" That's a fair question, very fair, and I thought about that for a few hours yesterday.

What I think Capcom entirely missed in the trailer was the opportunity to make us feel real fear. Yes, the first 90 seconds, from a cinematic viewpoint, was powerfully done, but as soon as the trailer focuses on the mobs, the last minute was totally repetitive.

Plus, this is Resident Evil. Do we need to see any gameplay? Don't we all know how this series works? In a trailer, aren't they just trying to establish a mood?

So here's what they could have done.

In the opening of the trailer, they still show the village, and they still show people walking around, but these people aren't threatening in any way. They're having fun, laughing and smiling. Most importantly, they're relaxed.

It's a safe, happy place.

In a back room, though, an attack is taking place. Two of the infected are killing a man (in particular, we see a bite), and when they're done, they sit and watch the body. In a few seconds, it begins to twitch.

Think about the process of becoming a zombie. Living flesh and blood, freshly killed, must reanimate. How incredibly painful must that process be? And since this new virus is incredibly rapid, it happens in less than thirty seconds, an entire physical transformation.

It's agony. It's incomprehensible agony. And we watch it, and we hear him scream.

Then we cut back to the main street of the village on another day, one in the near future. Now, Chris Redfield looks down main street, but no one is there. All he sees is dust and the relentless sun.

Just like the Wild West.

He begins to walk, slowly (his gear jangling like spurs), and then he hears a scream. And another. And another. It's a cacophany of agony as villagers turn into zombies, but he can't see any of them. He can't see anyone.

We see the dust beginning to blow even harder, then shadows. As Redfield looks up, he sees storm clouds, and then a hard rain begins to fall. We see lightning and hear the crashing thunder.
But we can still hear the screams.

That's when the trailer ends.

There are all kinds of ways you could shuffle those images around, but the central element of the trailer is not the mob--it's the unbearable agony of becoming a zombie. And the people in village are the innocents. They're not ominous. They're victims.

Do the trailer that way and Chris Redfield isn't going in to fight a bunch of black mobs who are portrayed as disturbingly sub-human--he's fighting the horror, the unspeakable horror, of men who are undead.

I think that's much more dramatic, much more frightening, and much more effective. And it clearly establishes the populace as victims.

So that's how they might have done the trailer differently, yet still stayed faithful to the theme of the series. It removes the malevolance and replaces it with fear, which I think is a far more powerful emotion. But I still maintain that the zombies need to be more easily distinguished from the uninfected.

This week has made me think about the Jim Crow era and how few people today could even partially explain what that time was like. That, to me, is a great sadness, because that era speaks so deeply to what it means to be human. It asks fundamental questions about our character, questions that all of us, even today, must answer.

Some of the questions are angry. That doesn't mean they don't need to be asked.

So I was thinking about this, and thinking about the impact that games have had on our culture, and I remembered something I'd written about years ago. I think it still matters, and I'd like to mention it again.

Perhaps the most difficult feeling to gain from a study of the Jim Crow era is closeness. It's not distant history, really, but forty years in our accelerated world feels like a long, long time. We can read facts, and those facts can make us feel, but they can't create immersion, and real immersion would create a much greater sense of empathy.

You could, however, do that in a game.

Create a mod for the Source engine, for example. Recreate a Southern city in 1960. It's important to use actual photographs from that period as a guide, because this isn't intended to be propaganda--it's history. It would be a meticulous simulation of what it was like to be black and live in a small southern town during the Jim Crow.

The Source engine is first person, so we would be seeing that era through our own eyes. We'd experience the segregation ourselves. We would suffer countless indignities, both large and small, in the course of a normal day. We would also, on occasion, see kindness.

There are a wealth of source materials available to accurately recreate this period. As an example, we might see a newspaper from that period, and we would be reading the same stories. I think many people are unaware of the sheer hatred that existed in much of the Southern press during this period, particularly after the Brown v. Board of Education SCOTUS decision in 1954. Well, this is a chance to experience it--first hand.

The most poignant anecdote I've ever read about racism involved a young boy and his friend. The boy was ten years old, and black. His friend was ten years old, and white.

One day in summer, the friends decided to go swimming, and the white boy took him to swim at "his" pool. The black boy was allowed entry, and the friends began swimming.

One by one, the white parents began pulling their children out of the pool.

Within fifteen minutes, the boy and his friend were the only ones left.

A historical simulation that allowed us to feel that moment would be a service to us all.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Game of the Quarter

I thought I'd start a new feature, and by "feature" I mean something that I'll do once and forget about unless you guys remind me. The idea is that at the end of each quarter, I'll write about the best new game I played during that quarter.

Today, it's the best new game of Q1 2008, and it's Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer (Nintendo DS).

It's a game about a samuari and his weasel.

I'd tell you about the story, but it doesn't matter. It's a journey through a dungeon full of mystery to solve another mystery blah blah blah. No matter--the design decisions and gameplay mechanics are what make this game impossible to put down.

You start off in Canyon Hamlet, a tiny village, with your pet weasel. Here's your objective: don't die.

That's right--no loading of saves. If you die at any point while you're fighting your way through the thirty levels, you get sent back to Canyon Hamlet, your character gets reset to level one, and you lose all the gear that was on you at the time of your death.


In this game, though, that's the point, and it forces you to use different strategies than you'd use in a regular RPG. For instance, in this game, you don't really level your character--you level and protect your gear. And in addition to leveling your gear, you level your knowledge of how the game works.

You have to, because there are literally hundreds of scrolls and staffs and weapons and miscellaneous items, and knowing how to use them is the difference between surviving or returning to Canyon Hamlet. And the game is turn-based, so deadly encounters turn into mind-twisting mental challenges.

Here's an example. Let's say your're facing, well, anything, and your weapon/shield aren't strong enough to defeat the enemy. There will probably be several staffs in your inventory, and here are some of the strategies you could use:
--a Knockback Staff would drive the monster back, unless it was already against a wall.
--a Doppelganger Staff would turn the monster into a copy of you (if there are other monsters in the room, they'd attack the copy instead)
--a Staff of Postpone would transport the monster to the exit, but it also levels it up, so it's harder to defeat when you do get there
--a Pain-Sharing Staff takes as many hit points away from the monster as it takes away from you.

Other staffs cause paralysis or confusion, so they'd be options, too. Or you could use one of many possible scrolls.

In other words, every encounter provides you with almost infinite strategic options. And that much choice means the game generates great stories, particularly involving your own death.

If there are a thousand ways to live, there must be ten thousand ways to die.

If you think losing your gear and your experience at death makes the game more gripping, you're right. Here's an example, and it's my current trip through the game. I'm on level 26, but my gear is all wrong. I've got a +12 katana, which is wicked, and some solid armor, but the scrolls and staffs haven't fallen my way this time (their distribution in any one game is wildly random, which greatly enhances replayability). Plus, you can find jars along the way which hold multiple items (which lets you carry many more items in total), and I'd usually have at least four or five "holding" jars at this point, but this time I have a grand total of one. So not only do I not have the right scrolls and staffs, I don't have enough of them, either.

I just walked into a monster house, too. A monster house is where you walk into a level and you're suddenly in one big area jammed with monsters--in this case, there were twelve. Without a Blastwave Scroll (which would cause huge area damage), I was in big, big trouble. Much to my shock, I survived, and now there's a ton of loot in that room.

Even with the loot, I'm not going to survive, because I have to trade out what I find with what I have (no free inventory slots). The quality of the loot, though, makes it well worth my while to do something that is rarely done in a game.

I need to go back.

Back through the dungeons, back through a few small villages, all the way back to a town with a sizable warehouse. I can store all that gear, cash in what I don't need, buy jars of holding, and triple my available inventory slots. But I can't die on the way, or I lose everything.

That makes for a tense, tense trip. [update: and an amusingly short trip as well, because I completely forgot that I COULDN'T go back--once you're past a certain point in the dungeon, if you continue forward, you either finish or die. In my case, you could add "quickly" in front of the die.]

In case you're wondering, I haven't finished the main dungeon yet. I've made it to the 28th floor, and I can make it into the twenties fairly consistently now, but I'm not quite there yet. A single run to the 25th floor takes me two hours or longer, depending on how I choose to play

So big deal, right? So death takes you back to level one, and you play through a bunch of times until you win.

Well, that's not all.

For starters, there's a tutorial dungeon in Canyon Hamlet with fifty puzzles. Those puzzles teach you the game, particularly how to use many of the more powerful items. You're rewarded with a random item each time you complete a puzzle, and it's a terrific way to get introduced to the mechanics of the game. Plus, if you complete all those puzzles, there's a bonus dungeon available after you finish the main game.

There are several other bonus dungeons, by the way, each one offering a special challenge.

Plus, the layout of each level is randomly generated. The landscape type is the same, but the layout is always different, and that difference is interesting. So when you accidentally step into a monster house, it's always a surprise.

Then there's the world, and I think this is a wonderful piece of design. In the world there are many characters with unresolved stories. If you find these stories and help the characters reach a conclusion, those same characters may join you or give you items on your subsequent journeys. I have two companions now who almost always join me, and they're both powerful (although they never make it past the 20th floor or so). There are also special items that are only available after certain stories are resolved. So it may be Groundhog Day for you, but the rest of the world is going about its business and continuing to change.

Here's just one example. One of the most powerful items in the game is what's called a melding pot, and it's essentially the basis for a very powerful crafting system. It gives you the ability to merge certain items, particularly weapons, and almost all the best weapons and armor in the game are a result of using the melding pot.

This pot, though, isn't available at first. It's actually not available for quite a while, and you must revisit a certain person multiple times as his story advances until it gets to the point where you acquire a pot. His story is actually a bit funny, too. Most of the other stories are as well, and the game has a clever sense of humor in general.

One last feature (I'm sure I'm leaving a ton of things out, but this is so long already): when you die, you have the option of sending out a rescue request, either by Nintendo wi-fi or via a password. Someone else who is playing the game can then attempt a rescue, and if they're successful, you're revived and can continue onward. Again, that's a totally cool design feature in a game that's full of them.

If you've seen reviews of this game, you'll see most reviewers complain about how much "luck" is involved. I thought that, too, for the first ten hours. The more you learn about items and how they work, though, the less random it seems. Skill and good decisions are a much, much bigger part of this game than luck.

I stumbled on this game thanks to a forum thread over at Quarter to Three, so full credit goes to those guys in terms of discovery. It's a terrific game and it is totally addictive.

Honorable mention for Game of the Quarter goes to MLB '08: The Show, which is the finest baseball game I've ever played. It also looks utterly spectacular in HD, and it's more lifelike in motion than any sports game ever created.

In spite of that, though, I spent most of my time now playing on the tiny DS screen, trying not to get turned into a riceball.

Don't worry--you'll know what I'm talking about soon enough.

Bodyguard of Lies

DQ reader Steven Davis, knowing that I enjoyed reading about espionage, suggested that I read Bodyguard of Lies: The Extraordinary True Story Behind D-Day. I ordered it, then put it at the bottom of the stack, because it was about four inches thick.

Months later, I finally picked it up again, and I'm glad I did, because the book tells, in extreme detail, the history of espionage in WWII, and it's fascinating. The degree to which the Allies succeeded in deception is astounding, and every operation is discussed in detail.

Also astounding is the detailed recounting of high-ranking German officers who actively tried to betray Hitler. There were multiple plots, multiple assassination attempts, and it seems like several thousand people must have been walking around Germany wearing shirts saying "I TRIED TO KILL HITLER AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT."

If you think you know about WWII, this book will stun you with the story of what was going on behind the scenes. It's huge, but it's a huge subject, and it's filled with an extraordinary amount of interesting detail.

In short, our skill with intelligence (and the number of Germans trying to actively betray the Third Reich) quite possibly was the single most important element in winning the war. And if you like espionage, this book has so many cloak and dagger moments that it's just impossible to put down. This book makes a Tom Clancy novel seem downright pedestrian in comparison.

It's a brilliant, extraordinary piece of work, and here's an Amazon link:
Bodyguard of Lies: The Extraordinary True Story Behind D-Day.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I Totally Forgot To Mention This

Good grief, I didn't even mention this in the drum post, and it was one of the top things I wanted to talk about.

When the instructor asked me to play different patterns, he had me look at a note chart. Since drums don't have pitch, each line on the staff is reserved for a type of drum. That means that a horizontal drum note chart looks very similar to a vertical Rock Band note chart, just turned ninety degrees. The one difference is that the hi-hat (usually yellow) and snare (red) positions are reversed from what you'd see in Rock Band.

It's not really that simple, because full note charts can include all different kinds of instructions for playing a section, but at the beginner level, it will look familiar.


I would normally put something like this in a gaming links post, but it's so ridiculously cool that it's getting mentioned solo. From Kotaku, The Mario Theme, Performed By A Car And Some Bottles Of Wine.

Drum Lessons

Since so many of us are playing Rock Band, particularly the drums, I thought I'd give you guys some information on the drum lesson I took, just in case any of you are considering taking lessons yourselves.

Like I said last week, I signed up at a local drum shop and had my first lesson last Thursday.

I had two reasons for wanting to take lessons. The first was that I wanted to make sure I was using proper technique, because the issues I've been having with forearm tendonitis are probably at least partially attributable to how I play the drums. I wasn't sure my grip or physical alignment was anywhere close to correct, so I wanted to get evaluated.

The second reason is that I wanted to play enough on a proper kit to be ready when Rock Band-compatible electronic kits get released this fall (I'm hoping for this summer, actually, but that's probably too optimistic). Drum manufacturers are going to want to cash in on the Rock Band phenomenon, and I'm looking forward to playing the game on a better quality kit than what comes with the game.

The first thing we talked about in the lesson was grips. I've been playing with the American grip, which is a form of match grip (you hold both sticks with the same grip, unlike traditional grip), but I was so sloppy that I'm not even sure I was using the same grip all the time.

The instructor said that he taught German grip, and he said that he thought it would be very helpful with my tendonitis. Here's how he explained the difference: French grip is thumbs on top, and elbows in close to your body. German grip is elbows out and palms down. American grip is in-between the two.

The way he explained German grip, having your palms down is a natural position (the same one you use when dribbling a basketball, for example), and the stress on your forearm is less than with the French grip. If I use French grip and compare, I can feel more lateral stress in my forearm than I can using the German grip. You may not be able to feel the difference, but if you have tendonitis (like I do), I think you could.

He mentioned (and I should have known this, but didn't), that many drummers wind up having to retire because of physical issues, and tendonitis is one of the primary problems.

It didn't feel completely natural using German grip at first (having the elbows further out feels a bit awkward), but after a few days of practice, it feels fine.

Then he had me play for a while on a drum kit (traditional, not electronic), playing some simple beats, which I think was part of an evaluation.

The first thing I noticed was the hi-hat. Unlike the Rock Band kit, a regular kit isn't "lined up." Above and to the left of the snare (red in RB) is the hi-hat (a type of cymbal, which is either yellow or blue in RB depending on the song). So you're reaching across quite a bit, which is different, but it's not hard to adjust.
Here's where Rock Band experience comes in. What he was asking me to do was easier than even playing on Medium level, so we moved through different beats pretty quickly. No, it wasn't the same as playing on the RB kit, but I knew how to keep tempo, and I already knew how to use the kick pedal, which is a huge adjustment when you start playing.

I don't know how far along I am I compared to someone who's never played the drums (or RB), but I'm guessing it's at least 1-2 months, and most of that 1-2 months is probably deadly dull. So Rock Band is a fun way to learn some basic fundamentals without even trying.

I have an instructional book now, and in-between lessons I work on basic beats (I'm working on six this week, and I practice 15-20 minutes a day). I'm also learning different snare drum patterns.

All in all, it was a blast. I've never taken a music lesson of any kind before, so I was really intimidated at first, but I'm glad I went. So if you're thinking about taking lessons, and you can find a drum shop where you feel comfortable with the people who hang out there, I'd highly recommend them.


"Hey, these new animal crackers are unbelievable," I said. "What are they called?"

"Snackimals," Gloria said. "So they taste good?"

"Forget the taste," I said. "Have you seen the carvings?"


"Look at this," I said, holding up a hippopotamus for her perusal. "That's remarkable work. It might be Mayan."

"Good grief," she said.

"There was a Mayan animal cracker exhibit at the Smithsonian for almost three decades in the early 1900's," I said. "But it was finally determined that pre-Columbian lapidary tools couldn't be used with that degree of precision. I suspect that these are just clever fakes."

"I suspect that you are very odd," she said.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Race and the Resident Evil 5 Trailer

A curious firestorm developed last week over comments that N'Gai Croal made about the Resident Evil 5 trailer.

In short, he said the trailer was racist.

Now before we get started, if we want to intelligently discuss this, you need to go watch the trailer for yourself: Resident Evil 5 Trailer.

The Cliff's Notes version, because I know some of you can't access the trailer from work, is this: white protagonist walks into a dusty, ramshackle town. Everyone in the town is black. There are a few seconds of establishing shots, then we see a black man, a very black man, looking out from the shadows. For a split-second, all we can are the whites of his eyes, then his body is slowly revealed.

The white protagonist arrives. He strides down Main street with a "sheriff is going to clean up this town" vibe. Suddenly, he notices that the streets, full of life only a few seconds ago, are suddenly empty. He walks into one of the buildings and two men are killing a third man. He shoots and kills one of the assailants, who then turns into a zombie and attacks him.

From that point on, we see a succession of angry black mobs attacking the protagonist. What's particularly striking about these mobs is how un-zombie like they seem. This isn't Dead Rising, where every zombie can be clearly identified. Many of these people look almost normal. Just a bunch of black people trying to kill a white man.

Like I said, I strongly encourage you to watch the trailer for yourself, but I believe that's an accurate description of what you'd see.

Here's what N'Gai had to say:
The point isn’t that you can’t have black zombies. There was a lot of imagery in that trailer that dovetailed with classic racist imagery. What was not funny, but sort of interesting, was that there were so many gamers who could not at all see it. Like literally couldn’t see it. So how could you have a conversation with people who don’t understand what you’re talking about and think that you’re sort of seeing race where nothing exists?

And this:
It’s like when you engage that kind of imagery you have to be careful with it. It would be like saying you were going to do some sort of zombie movie that appeared to be set in Europe in the 1940’s with skinny, emaciated, Hasidic-looking people. If you put up that imagery people would be saying, “Are you crazy?” Well, that’s what this stuff looks like. This imagery has a history. It has a history and you can’t pretend otherwise. That imagery still has a history that has to be engaged, that has to be understood.

I encourage you to read the full interview, because his comments were meausured and thoughtful. In response, here were some of the comments posted at Kotaku:
"if there's a black person in anything it's automatically racist"
"I think this speaks more about Croal's own prejudices on what he sees than anything else. "

"This is ridiculous. I think people are paying more attention to being offended, rather than focusing on what they're offended by. I totally agree with Sweet Tooth -- "if there's a black person in anything it's automatically racist."
"i dont know who wrote this piece of shit about the game but im 100% he or she want to create a polimic or something ... just dont feed the troll ... eve if she has tits"
"what kind of namie is N'Gai?"
"clearly this fool has no idea what this game is really going to be about & is drawing idiotic conclusions from the most insignificant things that no-one gives two-sh*ts about..."
"Would he rather there be all white people in Africa? Who's the racist now?"

That's only a small sampling--there were hundreds like them.

So there are two questions to consider, really: first, what about the people making these comments, and second, is the trailer really racist?

I want to tread lightly here, because this is such a sensitive topic, so let me come up with a descriptive (but not offensive) term to refer to the people who made those comments:
ignorant dickheads.

I'd be more worried about those people, but they'll all starve to death soon, because they're too stupid to find food.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's move on to the trailer. What was N'Gai referring to when when he mentioned "classic racist imagery?"

He was talking about The Brute.

The Brute caricature was created in the U.S. in the post-slavery era, and it portrayed every black man as a dangerous animal--dangerous because he was no longer controlled by slavery. I'm going to warn you, the following passage is very painful to read, but it's important, so I'm quoting it at length:
The brute caricature portrays Black men as innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal -- deserving punishment, maybe death. This brute is a fiend, a sociopath, an anti-social menace. Black brutes are depicted as hideous, terrifying predators who target helpless victims, especially White women. Charles H. Smith, a writer at the end of the 1890s, claimed, "A bad negro is the most horrible creature upon the earth, the most brutal and merciless."1 Clifton R. Breckinridge, a contemporary of Smith's, said of the Black race, "when it produces a brute, he is the worst and most insatiate brute that exists in human form."2 George T. Winston, another "Negrophobic" writer, claimed:
"When a knock is heard at the door [a White woman] shudders with nameless horror. The black brute is lurking in the dark, a monstrous beast, crazed with lust. His ferocity is almost demoniacal. A mad bull or tiger could scarcely be more brutal. A whole community is frenzied with horror, with the blind and furious rage for vengeance."

During slavery the dominant caricatures of Blacks -- Mammy, Coon, Tom, and picaninny-- portrayed them as childlike, ignorant, docile, groveling, and, in general, harmless. These portrayals were pragmatic and instrumental. Proponents of slavery created and promoted Black images that justified slavery and soothed White consciences. If slaves were childlike, for example, then a paternalistic institution where masters acted as quasi-parents to their slaves was humane, even morally right. More importantly, slaves were rarely depicted as brutes because that portrayal might have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

During the Radical Reconstruction period (1867-1877), many White writers argued that without slavery -- which supposedly suppressed their animalistic tendencies -- Blacks were reverting to criminal savagery. The belief that the newly-emancipated Blacks were a "black peril" continued into the early 1900s. Writers like the novelist Thomas Nelson Page lamented that the slavery-era "good old darkies" had been replaced by the "new issue" (Blacks born after slavery) whom he described as "lazy, thriftless, intemperate, insolent, dishonest, and without the most rudimentary elements of morality." Page, who helped popularize the images of cheerful and devoted Mammies and Sambos in his early books, became one of the first writers to introduce a literary Black brute. In 1898 he published Red Rock, a Reconstruction novel, with the heinous figure of Moses, a loathsome and sinister Black politician. Moses tried to rape a White woman: "He gave a snarl of rage and sprang at her like a wild beast." He was later lynched for "a terrible crime."

The "terrible crime" most often mentioned in connection with the Black brute was rape, more specifically, the rape of a White woman. At the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the virulent, anti-Black propaganda that found its way into scientific journals, local newspapers, and best-selling novels focused on the stereotype of the Black rapist. The claim that Black brutes were, in epidemic numbers, raping White women became the public rationalization for the lynching of Blacks.

The lynching of Blacks was relatively common between Reconstruction and World War II. According to Tuskegee Institute data, between the years 1882 and 1951, 4,730 people were lynched in the United States: 3,437 Black and 1,293 White.7 Many of the White lynching victims were foreigners or belonged to oppressed groups, for example, Mormons, Shakers, and Catholics. By the early 1900s lynching had a decidedly racial character, that is, White mobs lynched Blacks. Almost 90 percent of all the lynchings of Blacks occurred in Southern or border states.

Many of these victims were ritualistically tortured. In 1904, Luther Holbert and his wife were burned to death. They were "tied to trees and while the funeral pyres were being prepared, they were forced to hold out their hands while one finger at a time was chopped off. The fingers were distributed as souvenirs. The ears...were cut off. Holbert was beaten severely, his skull fractured and one of his eyes, knocked out with a stick, hung by a shred from the socket." Members of the mob then speared the victims with a large corkscrew, "the spirals tearing out big pieces of...flesh every time it was withdrawn."

A mob lynching was a brutal and savage event, and it necessitated that the lynching victim be seen as equally brutal and savage; as these lynchings became more common and more brutal, so did the assassination of the Black character. In 1900, Charles Carroll's The Negro A Beast claimed that Blacks were more akin to apes than to human beings, and theorized that Blacks had been the "tempters of Eve." Carroll said that mulatto brutes were the rapists and murderers of his time. Dr. William Howard, writing in the respectable journal Medicine in 1903, claimed that "the attacks on defenseless White women are evidence of racial instincts" (in Blacks), and the Black birthright was "sexual madness and excess." Thomas Dixon's, The Leopard's Spots, a 1902 novel, claimed that emancipation had transformed Blacks from "a chattel to be bought and sold into a beast to be feared and guarded."

In 1905 Dixon published his most popular novel, The Clansman. In this book he described Blacks as "half child, half animal, the sport of impulse, whim, and conceit...a being who, left to his will, roams at night and sleeps in the day, whose speech knows no word of love, whose passions, once aroused, are as the fury of the tiger."13 The Clansman includes a detailed and gory account of the rape of a young White virgin by a Black brute. "A single tiger springs, and the black claws of the beast sank into the soft white throat." After the rape, the girl and her mother both commit suicide, and the Black brute is lynched by the Ku Klux Klan. This book served as the basis for the movie The Birth of a Nation (which also portrayed some Blacks as rapist-beasts), justified the lynching of Blacks, and gloried the Ku Klux Klan. Carroll, Howard, and Dixon did not exceed the prevailing racism of the so-called Progressive Era.

Beasts. Brutes. The black peril. Black devils.

That's what N'Gai was talking about when he spoke of "classic racist imagery"--the notion that black people represent a lurking evil that lives just below the surface.

You know, like they're diseased.

The trailer compounds its close similarity to classic racist imagery because the zombies look largely normal. This isn't Dead Rising, where zombies are clearly and easily distinguished. At times, you'll see a close-up of a face and something is clearly "zombie" about that person, but much of the trailer shows large groups attacking, and because their physical movements seem almost completely unaffected, it doesn't look like a zombie mob, it looks like a black mob. The mob has a beastly, predatory quality, not a zombie quality.

There was no allegation by N'Gai that Capcom intentionally did this, and I don't believe they did. When Capcom sells games into a different culture, though, the onus is upon them to have a basic understanding of what would be considered offensive in that culture, just as American developers must do when they sell games in Japan. And Japan has a conflicted history of its own when dealing with black caricatures--the popular Dakko-chan character (which is clearly a variation on the Mammy caricature) is just one example.

Anyone with an understanding of our own history will be repelled by what the trailer methodically evokes. Asking why more people don't understand our own history is a topic for another day.

Site Meter