January 2008 Archives

The Wedding's Off

The fiancee and I closed on a new house this past weekend (thank you, Meredith). We moved all her stuff over on Saturday, and my stuff follows this Saturday. And by "we", I mean "the packers and movers we hired."

You learn a lot about a person when you go throughunpack their things, and I discovered something about her this morning that might just be a deal-breaker for me. I was unpacking a box of CDs, filing them in a storage unit, when my eyes were opened to the kind of person she really is.

She owns a Milli Vanilli CD.

How can there be trust after this?

Now if you'll excuse me, I must go and quietly dispose of my carton of Star Trek novels.

Comments (7) | last by Roger, Jan 31, 8:33 PM

"Awesome Blog"

I'd like to think that it's not anal-retentive to expect people to use proper grammar and punctuation, especially on professionally printed materials-- signs, packaging, etc. Improper use is one of my pet peeves.

Yes, anal-retentive. Already covered that.

Turns out I'm not the only one. This is a brilliant blog.

Comments (2) | last by RichM, Jan 26, 8:36 AM

Torchwood

When the BBC brought back longtime favorite Doctor Who a few years ago, they made some very smart changes. Instead of a serial format where stories extend over multiple half-hours, stories became self-contained one-hour episodes. Production values were upgraded from what can only be called laughable to something much more in tune with what modern viewers expect-- ie, CGI instead of rubber masks. The baggage of thirty years of mythology was largely pitched, with key elements slowly reintroduced for modern viewers. But fundamentally, Doctor Who remained a family program suitable for early evening viewing.

Enter Torchwood. If you live in the United States and don't get BBC America, you've been missing out on the best new science fiction series since Battlestar Galactica. Torchwood spins off both a guest character and its name from Doctor Who (the two titles are anagrams), but ventures into darker, sexier territory than the Tardis ever explored. I like to describe Torchwood as Britain's answer to The X-Files, but without the endlessly strung-out government conspiracy / alien invasion hoo-ha dragging it down.

An impressive feat, since Torchwood itself is a secret government conspiracy. It's an agency established by Queen Victoria who, upon meeting The Doctor, realized that aliens could pose a threat to the world (and by extension, Britain). Torchwood exists "outside government" (much like the Bush administration) to monitor alien threats, recover alien technology, and prepare humanity for the 21st century when, according to the show's intro, "everything changes." The Cardiff branch of Torchwood is led by Captain Jack Harkness, an openly bisexual man with a mysterious past who, thanks to some shenanigans in the first season of Doctor Who, cannot die. His support team includes medical officer Owen, computer specialist Tosh, and admin Ianto. Police officer Gwen joins up in episode one and becomes the viewer's point-of-view character.

Torchwood isn't as cerebral or philosophical as Battlestar Galactica, nor as juvenile as Doctor Who-- it's a more mature detective-adventure romp with sophisticated storylines and character development. Even the sophomoric premise of episode two-- alien sex-fiend possesses humans and anyone copulating with it dissolves into dust-- is treated with surprising style and depth.

The good news is, the complete first season of Torchwood has just been released on DVD, and season two begins on BBC America this week-- so now's the time to jump aboard and see what you've been missing.

Comments (6) | last by Jesse, Jan 26, 11:01 PM

Untenable Business Models

Does anyone ever buy Toblerone outside of airport duty free shops?

Comments (10) | last by Craig, Jan 23, 4:57 PM

Alarmed

I've been in England on business all week, and something's not right in London. Since when do London police sirens sound just like American ones? According to years of British television, London sirens should have a two-note "eeeeeeeeeeOOOOOOOOOeeeeeeeeeeeOOOOOOOOO" sound, not a rising-falling thing going. Look, London, I'm paying twice as much for everything here as I would in the States. I demand you get your sound effects correct, or I'm afraid I'll have to speak to the manager.

Going to Eleven

Christmas arrived a little late at our house last night, in the form of the fiancee's gift to me: Rock Band: Special Edition for the 360. Having saved no money for presents in the wake of our pact, however, I'd been forced to sell the 360 to get her a hair comb. An ironic chuckle was had by all, you can be sure.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game (hi, Mom!), a brief explanation is in order. Rock Band is the successor to a series of games called Guitar Hero which allowed players to simulate the experience of being a rock guitarist in much the same way as Dance Dance Revolution simulates dancing. Equipped with a special controller the size and shape of a real electric guitar, players pushed colored buttons on the neck of the guitar to "play" notes that moved down the screen. When a note reached the bottom, players had to press the corresponding button and "strum" a lever on the body of the guitar. By doing so in rhythm to the song, players scored points and were ultimately rated on their accuracy and consistency. The game used rock songs from the 60's through the modern era, so many players had emotional connections to the music and were able to immerse themselves in the fantasy of being a rock star. Guitar Hero became something of a phenomenon and a remarkably successful party game, with many people as content to watch others play as to play themselves. Players could purchase a second guitar for two-player play, with one playing lead and the other bass.

Rock Band, by the original creators of Guitar Hero, ups the ante by enabling not just guitar and bass, but also drums and vocals. The game ships with a guitar (only one-- you still need to buy a second guitar separately), a drum kit with four "drums" and a foot pedal, and a hand-held vocalist microphone. And all four of these instruments can be played simultaneously, supporting up to 4-player experiences. Players create avatars for themselves and, with "money" earned by playing successful gigs, can purchase for their avatars new hairstyles, tattoos, clothing, and make-up to customize their look. It's way more fun than it has any right to be, and it's supplemented by a very smart marketing plan which releases new songs for purchase every week, so there's a constant flow of new material to keep things fresh.

So. Rock Band arrived in my living room last night, and I can see that this game will figure prominently in my recreational schedule for quite some time. Having played both Guitar Hero and Karaoke Revolution before, I was most curious about the drums. It turns out that playing them is super fun. As long as you're on EASY. Bumping up to medium demanded a level of coordination that I don't profess to possess, and I was soundly trounced by the game for my hubris. The source of my downfall is the foot pedal.

The first order of business is figuring out how to position myself so that the foot pedal becomes part of a musical instrument and not a cruel medieval instrument of torture. I have a similar problem with the gas and brake pedals in my car-- holding my foot off the pedal is painful. The proper rest position involves a delicate balance where my foot muscles are relaxed and supported, yet not exerting sufficient downward pressure to activate the pedal. I'm still working out that balance in my living room. I can already see why bands don't put a comfy couch on stage for their drummer. I don't think I need to go so far as some players have and purchase a drum stooI-- an adjustable office chair should do the trick nicely-- but clearly the furniture currently deployed for TV-viewing and conversation is inadequate.

I can handle 4 drum pads easily. I can handle using the foot pedal. I get flummoxed when simultaneous foot pedal / drum pad combos start popping up. Isolated combos aren't a problem-- it's when they come in groups, and the color of the pad changes, that I get into trouble. Or the walk-and-chew-gum sensation of RED-and-YELLOW, YELLOW-and-PEDAL, YELLOW, repeat. Ack! In seconds I go from drum impresario to utter spaz.

I'll also be testing out Electronic Arts' free guitar replacement program, since about three songs into my ownership of the game the tilt sensor in the guitar stopped working. That doesn't render the guitar useless-- you can still activate the overdrive function with the BACK button-- but tilting the guitar is both easier and more fun, and there's no excuse for the guitar not working as expected from the get-go. Supposedly a new guitar is on its way via second day air, so bully for EA. In the interim I will embark on a solo tour until the next time members of my band, Contestants' Row, get together.

Comments (6) | last by mamagotcha, Feb 16, 10:33 AM

Japanimosity

I've been playing computer and video games for ages, but I never owned a console other than the XBox. So in all that time, I managed to bypass most of the Japanese game phenomenon. And make no mistake, games produced in Japan are an entirely different animal from their American counterparts. U.S. games go directly for the gameplay and the Hollywood visuals. As befits a culture that put a name to a previously unknown fifth taste (umami), Japanese games careen madly in directions you never thought existed. They appeal to a sensibility that is completely alien to me. The demo for Beautiful Katamari, with its incongruous dream-wizard and rainbow text, was like being led by a small child's hand into a mysterious village whose society was based on some fundamental principle or value beyond my ken.

One thing, however, is abundantly clear-- the Japanese have far more patience than I do. When I pick up a game, I want to play. Judging from two Japanese titles I've played recently-- Zack and Wiki: The Legend of Barbados' Treasure on the Wii and Blue Dragon on the 360-- the Japanese like to be told a story. A very long, slow-moving story. Skipping the story and moving on to the game would apparently be an insult to the artists who crafted the story, and is therefore not allowed. This is the best I can figure, because both games feature an interminable and mandatory introductory sequence. Both attempt to break them up a bit with fleeting tastes of interactivity, as if holding a glistening slice of cake in front of your mouth and then, Lucy to your Charlie Brown, tauntingly yanking it away in the moment you attempt to bite.

Both games are fun once you actually reach the gameplay, if you haven't lost interest before getting there. Zack and Wiki takes a full 15 minutes to bring you to the main gameplay screen. Want to show the game to a friend? If you start from the beginning, you'll have to sit through that 15 minutes all over again. No skip for you! Blue Dragon's intro is more cinematic and pretty, and also more interactive, but yegads can those kids talk! It's like the Japanese enjoy lines and lines of meaningless dialogue. Blue Dragon is an RPG, so at least it has an excuse-- the story is part of the point. But Big Brain Academy? When I finish a game, do I really need to endure screen after screen of pre-canned platitudes before getting to my score? Are the Japanese so starved for positive reinforcement that they need to get it from an algorithm?

I'm led to believe that this talky, cutesy-for-no-reason, we-interrupt-your-game-to-bring-you-a-few-screens-of-gobbledygook school of game design is quintessentially Japanese, and I'm at a loss to understand how an entire civilization's taste can be so different from mine. Ok, I can understand the cute. I've watched enough Star Blazers and Battle of the Planets in my day to be down with the doe-eyed, all-the-adults-look-like-they're-twelve aesthetic, and cute probably skews broader than gritty and real. And in the end, that's art direction. But the rest just feels like bad game design to me. It's a wedge between the player and the gameplay. Is this, like vegemite, something you have to grow up with to appreciate? Or do the Japanese just have a longer attention span than we do, and less desire for instant gratification?

Comment (1) | last by mamagotcha, Feb 16, 10:47 AM