November 30, 2004

Console Shopping

by psu

As I outlined before, a large part of my life is spent shopping. This is not to say that I buy a lot of stuff. Mostly I just make mental lists of what I would like to buy, in an ideal world, depending on what my current obsession is. Since my most recent obsession is game consoles, naturally I have been shopping for them latey.

This, of course, makes no sense at all, since the Xbox that I have is perfectly adequate. It is still what I would have bought first, and IMHO has the strongest collection of titles plus Xbox live. The purpose of this exercise is not really to aquire a new console (although that is is likely end result), it is to be able to answer the question what would you get if you wanted to buy a non-Xbox console right now. This, of course, depends on several factors. To me, the three most important are:

1. What does it cost?
2. Does the thing fit in my TV stand?
3. What games do I want to play on the thing?

This is a great time to be shopping for consoles. We are late in the latest cycle, so they are all dirt cheap. Also, there are tons of games available for basically every platform, and there is probably one more major round of releases before people start concentrating on the next cycle. This eliminates question (1) from the discussion. All of the major consoles are basically free. It also makes (3) much simpler, because all you have to think about are exclusive titles.

For a long time, these facts, plus the small and cute thing had basically locked me into thinking GameCube. The PS2 is just too big and clunky, and its exclusives are uncompelling. The GameCube basically makes its entire living off of excellent first party titles that I haven't played yet:

- Zelda
- Mario (Sunshine, Kart, Golf, Paper, etc)
- Zombies (Eternal Darkness, Resident Evil, etc)

All this in a nice small package that can also play my GBA games on the TV if I want. What could be better?

Sadly, all grand plans can be undone with time and more research.

Time brought us the small cute PS2. Curses. Research found a few titles exclusive to the PS2 that appear to be worth trying.

- Japanese cult games (Ico, Katamari Damacy, Rez, and so on)
- Ratchet and Clank (mmm, explosions)
- Crazy RPGs (Disegea, Shadow Hearts, Shin Megoosy Foobar: Nocturne(*), and so on)

In the past, I'd have written this stuff off as not likely to be enjoyed. But even the RPG has come into my field of vision as a fun thing to do from time to time so now the latent object syndrome kicks in and we are off to the races finding all of the cool strategic turn based titles that Japan can crank out.

Happily, the Christmas season can cure all ills. You can't find a new style PS2 anywhere. All sold out. So now I don't have to worry.

But, should the question of which console to buy come across your mind, here, at least, is the information you need to make an "informed" decision.

(*) I just made up that name, because Shin Megami Tensei is a stupid name and hard to remember.

Posted by psu at 08:06 PM | Comments (0)

November 29, 2004

Holiday Gamer's Gift Guide

by peterb

It's hard to know how to shop for a videogamer. How do you find something that's appropriate for their age, fun, and not too expensive if you don't play games yourself? The answer is: you bend to my will and let me choose your gifts for you.

My goal here is to recommend games beyond the "big names" -- the fact is, most gamers are more than happy to go out and buy the big marquee titles themselves; if there's a gamer in your family with an Xbox, for example, she or he probably already has Halo 2. Instead, I'm trying to find the more oblique, offbeat, and inexpensive selections.

Atari Anthology - $19.95 - Xbox or Playstation 2 - Perfect for the older gamer who used to own an Atari, this title will evoke feelings of nostalgia and guilt that will overwhelm the delicate and overjoy the unthinking. It contains 85 of the original Atari VCS games. Only in-house Atari titles are represented. Frankly, all of these games are available in more comprehensive collections for various computer systems, but there's something to be said about playing them on a TV with a reasonable console game controller. Available in both Xbox and Playstation 2 versions. Appropriate for all ages, but probably most appreciated by those over 30.

Katamari Damacy - $19.95 - Playstation 2 - If you can only buy one game for someone, and they have a Playstation 2, make it this one. You will instantly be transformed from whatever you are to this person -- friend, mother, gastroenterologist -- into "the glorious angel who bought me Katamari Damacy." "Odd" doesn't begin to describe this game. It goes through strange, past whimsical, and wraps all the way around into profound. The colorful graphics, the insanely infectious music, the oddball concept, and the straightforward yet challenging gameplay meld into the perfect game. You can read a review of it, if you'd like, but it's not necessary. This is the one. Buy it now. Appropriate for all ages; there's some cartoony violence, but it's as nonthreatening as an all-consuming ball sweeping up all in its path can be.

Harvest Moon - A Wonderful Life - $19.99 - GameCube - The Harvest Moon games can be a bit saccharine, giving a somewhat idealized view of farm life, but they nonetheless provide a view into husbandry of animals and crops that kids seem to adore. The game centers around doing chores and making schedules (rotating crops, for example). I find this sort of thing a bit tedious, but to kids under 10 it exerts a disturbingly magnetic pull. I wouldn't get this for a teenager, but for younger kids it's a good choice.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight - $24.95 (or $4.95 (!) with coupon) - Windows PC - It's become harder and harder with each passing year to justify using Windows as a game platform. Flight Simulators are probably the last class of games -- outside of text adventures, which are more of a boutique hobby at this point -- that realistically require a PC to play. MS Flight Sim is still best-in-class, and is beautiful to look at. Not really appropriate for kids, unless they're obsessed by airplanes -- this is a real simulator, and not so much a game. If the giftee loves to fly in real life, and doesn't have this yet, this is a no-brainer. Also, you can use this coupon until 2005 to obtain a mail-in rebate of $20, making this game, effectively, free.

Reiner Knizia's Samurai - $19.95 - Macintosh - Boardgames are different overseas. One of life's ongoing mysteries is why German mass market boardgames are interesting, clever, and fun for all ages, while American mass market boardgames -- like Monopoly -- are boring, stupid, and aren't any fun. Reiner Knizia is a famous German boardgame designer, and Samurai is one of his classics. Played on an iconic map of Japan, players play chits to try to exert influence over three different social groups -- samurai, peasant, and priest -- to gain domination. The computerized Mac version of this boardgame provides a decent single-player challenge via computer players, and also allows play over the Internet. The user interface is intuitive and the game is visually appealing. There is a demo available for download. Appropriate for all ages.

I hope you enjoyed this little list. If you've got suggestions, feel free to add them below. Extra bonus points if the game you suggest is under $25.

Posted by peterb at 05:44 PM | Comments (6)

November 25, 2004

Tiny Epiphany

by peterb

If you just eat turkey and salad, and green vegetables, and skip the mashed potatoes, stuffing, candied yams, and so on, Thanksgiving dinner doesn't actually make you feel so full that you might die.

I say that L-Tryptophan is just a convenient excuse to deny that gluttony makes you sleepy.

Posted by peterb at 11:30 PM | Comments (0)

November 24, 2004

Relish Not

by peterb

I listen to NPR, as required by my "urbane liberal" membership. If you listen to NPR also, you know that the passage of the seasons can be marked not only by the weather, but by the reappearance of certain set pieces, regular as clockwork, like old friends.

Or, in the case of Susan Stamberg's cranberry relish recipe, mortal enemies.

Stamberg recites this little bit of culinary performance art -- originally inflicted upon the world by food writer Craig Claiborne -- every Thanksgiving, without fail. She always talks about how her revolting concoction of cranberries, onions, and horseradish "sounds awful, but is actually delicious."

I am here to tell you: the woman is lying.

I'm an adventurous, nontraditional eater, who enjoys strong tastes and rough contrasts. The Stamberg relish recipe has no redeeming qualities. I would not feed it to a rat. It is so utterly vile that it transcends mere loathsomeness. It is the Platonic ideal of repulsive food. Through some sort of near-miraculous negative synergy, it takes three foods which are versatile and delicious and turns them into a foul brew that does violence to the very concept of food.

Here's a better cranberry relish recipe.

  • Cranberries, 2 bags
  • Walnuts (a bag of walnut halves is most convenient)
  • A few oranges and/or grapefruit
  • Sugar to taste (optional)

Peel the oranges and grapefruits and chop them very coarsely; you want 1 inch chunks about half the size of your thumb. Put cranberries in the food processor and pulse until coarse (you don't want to liquify them). Put cranberries, citrus, and walnuts in a large bowl and toss thoroughly; add the sugar at this stage if you want it, but I prefer this dish bitter (the juice from the oranges will give you some sweetness). Put in your refrigerator to macerate overnight.

Eat with a very, very large spoon. The longer this sits in the refrigerator, the better it will get. So make enough that you have lots of leftovers.


(Thanks to Stewart Clamen for the title of this article.)

Posted by peterb at 10:03 PM | Comments (0)

November 23, 2004

Can WRC Rally Be Saved?

by peterb

Around Thanksgiving, in my house, the pheromones that men emit while bonding flow thickly and freely. In the haze of their L-tryptophan enhanced post-prandial stupors, men move slowly, so as not to alarm their pack-mates. Belts are loosened. Talk of politics is avoided. Attention focuses, inevitably, on whatever sport is on TV. Often, this ends up being football, naturally, but every so often I'll walk into the room only to find all eyes focused in rapt attention on a golf match.

I have great respect for the skill required to be a competitive golfer. It is a subtle game. It requires more stamina and strength than you'd think, if you've never tried it. Put on a replay of an amazing putt and I'll be able to appreciate it, as long as I don't have to watch for more than about 30 seconds or so. But I can't understand the point of watching an entire golf match, or even a hole. As a spectator sport, it is composed entirely of interstitial pauses. Watching golf because you "like sports" is like listening to John Cage's 4'33" because you "like music." When a golfer is taking a shot, the game is interesting. At all other times, the sport is of merely academic interest.

Realize, then, the pain it causes me to admit that WRC Rally racing, which I love, is the golf of the motorsports world.

Rally is about timing. Drivers compete only indirectly. Each driver and co-driver attacks the course, and the best time wins. Unless something has gone very wrong, there are effectively no passes in rally, except for simulations created by compositing telemetry data after the fact. If you played the most popular rally videogames, you might not even realize this, since they typically offer an "everyone races the same dirt track at once" experience, a race format that would probably lead to molten flaming death in real life. The game manufacturers do this for an obvious reason: to most people, time trials are more boring than wheel to wheel racing.

There is not an obvious solution to this problem; which is mostly one of presentation and immanence. The networks -- for both golf and rally -- are increasingly moving towards highlight reels. Take all the action from a single day and compress it into ten minutes, or an hour. Viewed this way, both sports are marvelously dense with thrills and cliffhanger moments.

And yet, as a viewer, this treatment leaves me cold. A highlight reel is not a sporting event. Sports, like news, or a good chilli, is best served hot. As a spectator, I can't even stand watching a sporting event more than a few minutes lagged on my Tivo. Once the Steeler game is over, I could care less about seeing what happened. I want to watch in the moment. I want to be in the moment.

A few years ago, Speed Channel would broadcast a compressed highlight reel each night after the day's rallying. Last year, they moved to showing a single three-hour show on the day after the rally finished. This year, they are showing a one-hour highlight reel a full week after the rally ended. For that entire week, I creep around the Internet like a cat burgler, hands ready over my eyes, lest I find out that Petter Solberg and Subaru won in Wales, and therefore I won't want to bother watching the highlight reel. Most Americans have no idea what WRC Rally is. Speed Channel isn't helping; viewership is down.

Combine this with the fact that WRC Rally is a monstrously expensive sport, and you have a sport in freefall. Citroën and Peugeot -- the only two teams to have won the manufacturers title in the past five years -- have both announced that they are leaving the sport at the end of 2005. When even the team that is winning the championship is fleeing, how do you make a compelling case to other manufacturers that this is a value proposition they want to be a part of?

WRC Rally is not going to disappear tomorrow, any more than F1 will. But if something isn't done to improve the ratio between the expenses of running races where it's more or less expected that half the drivers will drive their cars off a cliff and into a tree, and the returns for participating in the sport, then the participating talent pool will continue to shrink. Colin McRae has already decided that the Paris-Dakar Rally is more worth his time than WRC. Who will be next?

Posted by peterb at 07:58 PM | Comments (2)

November 22, 2004

Metal Gear Stupid

by psu

I found out today that the title of this piece is sadly not original. In fact, much of what I have to say is even told more concisely here. But I figured, why let lack of originality stop a good rant. So here we go.

The new Metal Gear Solid game is out, and I noticed that aside from the exception above, all the game review sites seem afraid to tell their readers the truth, which is that if this game is anything like the other two in the franchise, then it completely blows. Since they can't possibly not think this, they must be talking in code. Luckily, I have broken their little code. What follows is a guide to translating the game reviews into rational language.

What they say: The game has an epic storyline.

What they mean: You will spend several hours in the game conversing with a motionless head over your in game radio.

What they say: The game is cinematic.

What they mean: For every twenty minutes of gameplay, you will watch three hours of cut scenes revealing a plot that could only make sense to a serious meth addict.

What they say: The game's controls follow the classic configuration and provide Snake with a great combination of stealth and action moves.

What they mean: You can walk, or aim your weapon, but not both at the same time. This makes you the world's most bad-ass super spy.

What they say: The game camera could be better, but it's not too bad.

What they mean: Worst third person camera ever. You will spend more time looking at the floor or the wall or the ceiling than actually being able to see your enemies and environment.

What they say: The enemy AI forces you to use those stealth skills to the limit.

What they mean: To avoid your enemies, you can walk around underneath a carboard box.

What they say: The game is has a high degree of difficulty.

What they mean: If you have to hear the screams in the GAME OVER screen one more time you will rip your ears off the side of your head.

I hope this simple guide will help you in understanding all the glowing reviews of Metal Gear Solid.

Posted by psu at 07:13 PM | Comments (7)

November 21, 2004

Halo 2: My View

by psu

Just finished the single player in Halo 2, so I feel like I can talk about the game in more detail.


The single player campaign improves on the first game in almost every way. For example, in the first Halo, there was a load screen for every large chapter of the game, but then none within each level until you got to the end. In Halo 2, there is a load screen when you start the game but then there isn't another one until you quit. Ever. Whoever implemented this gets super genius kudos.

At first, the enemies seem a bit too easy on the Normal difficulty level. While they seem to fall down easier, they also seem faster and meaner than in the first game. The new enemies are mostly enjoyable. By the end of the game, they were beating me up pretty well. I like the energy sword, and I like the shotgun. Dual wielding the plasma rifle is also useful.

The plot twists and turns much like the first one, but overall the pacing is much better. The stages were more linear, with no backtracking and fewer sequences of dozens of identical hallways to get lost in. There are multiple moments in the game where the action is so frantic that you will want to cower under the couch and sob like a little girl.

The ending is a bit abrupt, and hints at a sequel much more explicitly than the first game does. But the final stage is much less annoying than "the drive the warthog off the end of the earth" deathmarch that ended Halo 1.

People have complained that the game is short. These people are nuts. What they mean is, the game's pacing was not padded out with worthless backtracking missions and boring driving.

Not so good:

There were some rendering glitches in my game, especially in the in-engine cut scenes. What would happen is that textures, or sometimes whole objects would just pop in from nowhere after a scene change. These were relatively rare.

Checkpoints still suck. But there were only one or two sequences between checkpoints that were so long as to piss me off. Usually, these took the form of "you must kill these 10 things over and over again because you keep dying on the 9th one".

I still hate the Warthog, but the power sliding makes it less stupid.

Too many of the weapons are basically useless. Or maybe I'm just useless trying to wield them.


The multiplay rocks. I don't think much more needs to be said about it. My only gripe is that the respawn times don't give my hands enough time to rest between rounds.

Posted by psu at 08:25 PM | Comments (2)

November 19, 2004


by peterb

I have a friend who won't play The Sims. She won't even try it.

This is someone who likes whimsical videogames, who enjoys nonviolent, nontraditional games. So it seemed to me that even if this wasn't her cup of tea, it would at least be worth trying. I asked her why she was so sure it wasn't for her.

"It's like this," she said. "In Kindergarten, we used to play 'house.' Playing 'house' is fun, and you and your friends take on different roles and do different things. But inevitably, there would be that one person who took things to a level of detail that turned a fun game into drudgery. So you'd be playing 'house,' and you'd pretend to have 'dinner.' And then after dinner, if that person was playing, you'd have to wash every dish. And put everything back in the cabinets. And scrub the floor. And take out the trash. And so on. When I look at The Sims, it looks to me like it was made by that same person."

This isn't meant to trash The Sims (After all, I have already done that.) It illustrates the point that "realism" in games, like honesty in the face of the question "does this make me look fat?" can be an overrated virtue.

What most game players seek is not realism, but iconic verisimilitude. You want the game's settings and mechanics to seem realistic, but you don't usually want them to actually be realistic.

Examples abound. In Electronic Arts' Formula One racing games, you can turn off all the driver aids and turn on realistic crashes. For most players, this has the effect of making their car impossible to control. The very first time they brush into another player or a barrier, pieces of their car fly off, and their race is over. That's "realistic" -- if you've ever seen an F1 car lose a wing because of contact with another car, you know this -- but for the average player, it's not a lot of fun. Compare this with Project Gotham Racing 2, a game that some players call realistic, in which the typical online race may have hundreds of high speed collisions with no injuries and no retirements.

It's not fair to simply dismiss PGR2 as "not realistic." Rather, the effort to create realism is concentrated in certain areas and downplayed in others. Immersion in a virtual world is enhanced by realistically modeled environments, noticeable differences in the handling of cars, etc. However, there are plenty of places where realism is blown off: damage is "realistically modeled" visually, but doesn't make the cars harder to drive. There are no traffic lights. You don't get parking tickets. You don't have to send in monthly car payments.

Most people would distinguish Counterstrike from other first-person shooters by describing it as "more realistic." It has lovingly modeled weapons. Weapons are lethal -- getting shot has consequences. Dying means you are out of the mission. You can't magically grab a first-aid pack and be healed. On the other hand: dying is fast - no sitting in a puddle of your own blood, gut-shot and moaning, à la Reservoir Dogs, for 2 hours before finally expiring. There's no real negative consequence to being almost dead -- you can lose 99 points of "blood" and still aim just as well as when you started the round. None of the characters faint or vomit at the sight of blood. If the hostages you are rescuing get shot, there's no corresponding civil suit. Apart from the hostages, there are never any innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. You never have to wonder if your character has adequate life insurance to take care of the wife and three children he left behind.

And that's OK. Just like its kissing cousin "open-endedness", "realism" is best used in small doses (by comparison, you'll never hear someone say "There was a bit too much fun in this game, for my taste.") In the real world, there are no second chances after death. In nearly every videogame ever made, the character's death is quickly followed with another opportunity to try again. (There actually are some exceptions to this, but they are rare enough that we can name them: Wizardry 8, The Temple of Elemental Evil, and Angband each have an optional "ironman" mode where the death of a character is permanent. You are not allowed to revert to an earlier save; saves in that mode are for pausing only, not for backup. Steel Battalion for the Xbox will delete your savegame if you die while in a mission. To the best of my knowledge, that's the full list of current games that try to punish you "permanently" for dying.)

If the elements that the author brings to a videogame are ludology (the game mechanics) and narrative (the story), what the players bring is curiosity and a willingness to suspend disbelief. In this way, game players are like movie audiences. Filmmakers have had decades to develop a vocabulary that is detailed enough to create immersion but not so finely-grained that it annihilates the suspension of disbelief with boredom ("Let's make dinner," someone says, and then with just one simple cut, everyone is sitting at a table, eating.) Game developers are still working on their vocabulary; the medium is still in its youth. And unlike in film, where formalism without narrative has been completely, utterly rejected by the viewing public (and has thus become solely the realm of experimental artists), formalist games without narrative are still among the most popular (Tetris, anyone?)


Atari Football

Twenty-five years ago, videogame football was three white blobs and three pink blobs doing "the running play" or "the passing play." Today, nearly all the rules of the game are implemented, player movement is largely motion-captured, and even the trappings of the TV broadcasts are imitated. But despite all this realism, the game does not have the feel of real football. It is, to twist a phrase of Douglas Adams', something that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike football. The John Madden franchise isn't actually a football simulator; it's a simulator of being John Madden.

So go ahead, model the ballistics in your game, or the ragdoll physics of one player tackling another. Go ahead and motion capture and render the graphics at a higher resolution. Play the explosions in surround sound. But remember, the moment you forget that realism needs to be subjugated to the game's fun factor, and not the master of it, you run the risk that half of your audience will go play Tetris or Bejeweled instead.

Say, does this shirt make me look fat?

Posted by peterb at 08:22 PM | Comments (4)

November 18, 2004

Bonaguil source release

by peterb

Work has been super-busy, so I haven't had any time to hack on Bonaguil. Therefore, I'm releasing the source code for people to look at and/or play with. All right are reserved at this point; consider this free (as in beer) for personal use, but not in the public domain or GPLable. If you produce a derivative work based on Bonaguil, please give credit accordingly and include the URL of this weblog. Bonaguil may not be included on any archive of games or software being sold for profit; if you want to do this, you'll need to contact me and arrange a separate licensing agreement.

So if you care, you can download a jar file that includes all resources, including source code. The AI interface is fairly well-isolated, so it should be trivial to implement AIs that are much smarter than the two demo AIs I provided here. If you end up implementing an AI and send it to me, I'll include it in the next release, if you like.

Posted by peterb at 06:59 PM | Comments (0)

November 17, 2004

The Latent Object

by psu

There was a discussion on our local chat system a while back about the genesis of the frenzy over Halo 2. Pete suggested that the pre-release hype for a game such as Halo has its origins in the hard-wired obsessive addiction that hard-core gamers have for the next big hit, having been searching for the next big hit since their first exposure to games as young men.

This, of course, does not apply to me. My strange obsessive frenzy for Halo has a completely different source that Pete could not understand. After thinking about how to explain it, I came up with the following.

It is actually pretty simple. For any given hobby, there is always the object that you can see, but do not yet own, which will improve your experience in the hobby.

  • In photography, that one lens or camera body you do not own yet will make your pictures better.
  • In record collecting, you are always after that quintessential performance or recording.
  • In cycling, that new frame made out of unobtanium will make you ride faster.
  • In cooking, there is that one pan, or stove, or recipe, which will make your sauce, or soup or stew perfect.
  • And of course, in games, there is always the next new game which will be groundbreaking and excellent.

By analogy to photography, I'll call this object the latent object of desire. Back when we captured images on film, the undeveloped image was referred to as the latent image. Exposed film has the potential of an image on it, but the picture itself is not there until you develop it. Any photographer will tell you that exposed film only contains perfect images. It's only in development that you find out that you did it wrong. So the reality of the actual image is almost always a letdown compared to the perfection of the latent image.

Similarly, the reality of the real object is always a letdown compared to the perfection and bliss of the latent one. Therefore, it is usually much more fun to shop for things than to actually buy them. Not coincidentally, the way I tend to interact with hobbies, especially when I don't have much time to really do them, is in shopping for latent objects that will improve my relationship with the hobby when I finally have time later. Which brings me back to Halo 2.

The gaming industry, being full of talented sales people, are masters of manipulating the desire for the latent object. This is the reason that "journalism" in the industry concentrates almost entirely on previews of games that have not been released yet. The game not played is still in a state of perfection. The latent game, if you will, has no save problems, no glitches in the online servers, no gameplay foibles, pacing problems, or unbeatable boss battles. Gaming provides an almost unending stream of new latent objects to shop for, to think about, and to compare.

So of course this drives my natural addiction to shopping into a frenzy, and hence the psychological mania over Halo 2. Luckily, I mostly shop, as opposed to this guy.

My other little shopping project of late has been comparing the GameCube and the Playstation 2 as second console purchases. After weeks of painstaking research, it seems to me that it all boils down to Mario and Zombies against Final Fantasy and cult Japanese imports. But more on that another time.

Posted by psu at 08:12 PM | Comments (3)

November 16, 2004

Non Sequitur

by peterb

I have no point here, I just like saying "343 Guilty Spark".

Posted by peterb at 09:31 PM | Comments (0)

Ikon Angst

by peterb

Time at which I deployed the new, custom designed category icons for Tea Leaves yesterday: 7:38 pm.

Time at which the first reader complained that I took away their favorite icon: 7:49 pm.

I love the little fruit-lover as much as the rest of you, but he's not mine. I always felt a little guilty about my icons; they're grabbed from all sorts of random places. I wanted something that would give the site a little more consistent feel. I commissioned Elise to design some replacements, and I'm really happy with the results.

However, for nostalgia's sake, I have left the FF2000 as the miniature icon that should show up in bookmark lists, browser tabs, and the like.

Posted by peterb at 03:50 PM | Comments (3)

November 15, 2004


by peterb

If you're able to borrow someone's child for a few hours, you should visit the Pittsburgh Children's Museum. Although their web site is vile, the installations at the museum are nothing short of superb. Nearly everything in the museum is interactive, interesting, and playful in visual, aural, or tactile ways.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

There's a studio space where you, can make paper, silkscreen prints, paintings, or pottery. There are interesting interactive visual exhibits like the one pictured to the left. There's a floor with large pools, fountains, and lots of PVC pipe plumbing equipment to let you build little microinstallations of your own. There's my favorite section, the garage, with a car, some kinetic sculptures, a million switches, dials, and lights, and a small workshop with intermittent demos and lessons in woodworking and electronics.

It's somewhat sad that this is better than most of the museums I've been to that view adults as their primary audience, particularly with respect to the art installations. The idea that art can only be playful when it's targeted at children is depressing. That's not to say that art must always be playful, but seriously: when was the last time you went to an art exhibition and left with a smile on your face?

The exhibit I photographed above is a great little example. It's "just" a video projector showing an image of the people passing by against the wall. Various letters, in several colors, cascading down from the top of the screen. The exhibit engages viewers on different levels. Many people just walk by and look at themselves, wave, smile, or point. Others soon notice that the letters, through some clever programming, "land" on surfaces that are projected. Some people start playing with this; the woman in the center of the photo spent 5 solid minutes doing little soccer "headers," bouncing a letter off of her forehead. Another man realized that the letters weren't random -- they spell a message, Different viewers seek out different strategies for figuring out what it says. I was partial to sticking out an arm and letting the letters land on it; an older gentleman enjoyed walking from left to right and reading the message one syllable at a time.

To know what it says, you'll have to go visit the museum yourself.

Posted by peterb at 08:16 PM | Comments (3)

November 14, 2004

At Arm's Length

by peterb

Dear Robert:

Here's a question for you. It's inspired by the knowledge that the demo for Microsoft's upcoming Xbox release Forza Motorsport is circulating amongst the gaming press, but is not yet in wide enough circulation for any of the game bloggers I know to have played it yet. The question is "Why aren't demos like this going to the blogosphere first?

One of my primary interests is game blogging. I write intelligent, straightforward, in-depth, and (I think) fair commentary on video games, their design, and implementation. I must be doing something right, because quite a few game designers seem to read and enjoy my weblog, in addition to game players.

With one notable exception -- Pete Hines of Bethesda Softworks, who very courteously returned my phone call -- I cannot get the game developers' press or marketing liasons to give me the time of day.

Microsoft and a few other companies seem to have "gotten" blogging. They understand that the credibility they gain from letting some light shine in to what they're doing via sincere, honest communication beats a hundred press releases. So why are the game divisions of these companies -- and let's include Microsoft here -- still just sending review copies and demos to the same tired old media game magazines and sites, rather than trying to cultivate relationships with credible bloggers (and I humbly include myself among that number)?

I read the big online game magazines, sometimes. So do my friends. Everyone I know realizes that, barring a disaster of Ishtar proportions, they toe the corporate line. Gamespot, IGN -- these guys aren't credible. Every single reader understands that they are, generally, not reading honest impressions, but simply reworded press releases.

Guys like Tycho and Gabe at Penny Arcade are credible, and I think that Microsoft realizes it -- they understand that there's a risk that the Penny Arcade guys might disparage their product to their entire audience, but they take the risk on occasion because when the Penny Arcade guys say "This game rocks," their readers know it's not just marketing propaganda.

I doubt there are many game bloggers out there with the readership of Penny Arcade, yet. But a hundred (or more) credible voices talking honestly about a game's strengths and weaknesses, in detail, will carry more weight than yet another in an endless string of meaningless "9.2" ratings from Gamespot.

The word "game" doesn't appear once on the list at, although I've chanced upon the occasional article (for example, from the Flight Sim team). Electronic Arts is being drawn and quartered on Slashdot and elsewhere for their rumoured employment practices, and as near as I can tell they have no legitimate blogosphere presence to present another face to the world. What if there was a credible blogger at EA, who had a history, who had developed a trusted relationship with his readers, who could step forward and say "Hey, wait a minute. It's not like that. I love this company. Here's why."

So given that the game companies themselves aren't blogging, maybe I shouldn't be surprised that they don't understand how bloggers that don't work for them could be an important part of getting the word out about their games.

You get it. The .NET team gets it. The SMS/MOM team gets it. How do we get the game companies -- at Microsoft, and elsewhere -- to get it?

I want to say to them: "We're out here. We want to tell the world about your games. We want to talk about them. And we want to do it honestly."

Why not try talking with us, instead of at us?

Posted by peterb at 12:37 AM | Comments (3)

November 12, 2004

Halo 2: Variants

by peterb

Tonight I discovered that Halo 2 lets you define custom variants and name them. So, as a test, tonight I'll be rolling out Glock 19, a very simple variant: Players start with a pistol. There are no weapons to be found anywhere on the map, and no vehicles. And you have no shields.

It's about as close to Counterstrike as I could make Halo be. You also have the option of making players sit out for up to 2 minutes when they die, but I figure I'll see how the rest of the group takes it before adding that little rule.

We played it tonight; it was fun! Plus I did pretty well. Rare is the game when I can defeat TheEnglishman.

Posted by peterb at 08:24 PM | Comments (1)

November 11, 2004

Halo 2: The Good

by peterb

My praise of Halo 2 on this site has been pretty lukewarm so far. This is unfair, because it really is a great game. I think the issue is that some of the improvements from the first game are so subtle that they're hard to notice, and then once you notice them they're hard to describe to someone that hasn't played both games. Because of this, Halo 2 is perhaps missing some of the "wow factor" that some of us expected. The greatness of the game only becomes apparent after you play for a little while, especially in multiplayer. I'll try to enumerate some of those aspects here.

  • Weapons -- particularly the assault rifle -- have a definite kickback. If you unload on an enemy with a submachine gun in each hand, you'll have to expend considerable effort to keep your aim from kicking up over their head.
  • I like the lumbering pace of the characters, and the slightly reduced gravity. You can see your death approaching, slowly, deliberately, and methodically. I do wish gravity was configurable, though, at least for deathmatch.
  • The maps are better than in Halo 1. They're beautifully balanced. So is the weaponry; there's no one perfect tool in Halo 2. Regarding the maps, it probably helps that it's possible to get a game with 12 people started without lugging everything to a LAN party. Halo 1 had a bunch of huge multiplayer maps balanced for 8 to 16 players that were completely useless to the 90% -- actually, I'd guess 97% -- of Xbox owners who never once connected their Xboxes to another via System Link. With Live, those types of maps are useful.
  • Halo 2 lets my character's logo be a ninja. A ninja on fire.
  • The plot of the single player game is great.
  • The on-line statistics are a brilliant idea (and did not originate with Halo 2), and are well-implemented. As TheEnglishman observes, the graphical gameviewer means you can spend as much time analyzing your games as playing them.
  • Also noted by TheEnglishman: total cost of a PC capable of playing Half-Life 2 at reasonable resolutions: about $1,000 . Total cost of a Halo 2 dream machine is Xbox + Live + Halo 2 : about $250.
  • No stupid health packs.
  • Two words: sword deathmatch.

psu contributes a few items to this list, which I also agree with:

  • The interface for creating/joining games is a nice refinement of the standard xbox live stuff, which was already great. The business where the "host" of a game can quit, and control of the game session passes to someone else, is great.
  • Jacking vehicles is one of the best gameplay mechanics since jumping Mario

So I hope that when, in the future, I inevitably complain about this detail or that nit, you keep this list in mind. It's a great game

Posted by peterb at 08:24 PM | Comments (0)

November 10, 2004

Halo 2: Day One

by peterb

Apparently, I'm not that good at it.

And not just the online version, either. I started the single-player campaign of "Heroic," which is one notch above normal, and am now ruing it. I'm considering restarting on "normal," or perhaps even looking to see if there is some easier setting, perhaps named "creampuff Casper Milquetoast".

But it sure is pretty.

Now, don't get me wrong. I like Halo, a lot. It's pretty much a rock solid implementation of "the 3d multiplayer deathmatch shooter." It's Quake 3 with a pace that isn't stupidly painful, and with much, much better designed maps. But but but: I like the pace of Counterstrike better. I like that if you die in Counterstrike, you have to sit out for a good long time. It lends an air of gravity to the proceedings: actions have consequences. Whereas the 3-2-1-respawn we find in Halo and its ilk leads to a completely different style of gameplay.

I'm not whining that Halo has the gameplay that it has; I'm wondering why Counterstrike seems to be the only shooter that adopts the opposite position. Counterstrike is the most popular game of its genre. Wouldn't you think that someone else would at least try to imitate it?

Posted by peterb at 05:36 PM | Comments (2)

November 09, 2004

Halo 2 Tragedy

by peterb

Today, I bought the Collector's Edition of Halo 2.

In a cruel twist of fate, the box I got had only one disk in it -- the "making of" DVD -- and no game disk. So I had to trudge back to Huge Corporate Chain tonight to exchange it for a box which actually, y'know, had the game I paid for.

So, expect the first look review tomorrow, instead of today. Fortunately, I was able to try it out tonight with about 9 other people.


Fundamentally, the multiplayer is nearly the same as the original. But the ability to play on Live without having to muck about with getting a bunch of Xboxen and TVs and sweaty geeks in the same room is, in and of itself, transformative. There have been some gameplay tweaks (notably the addition of dual-wielding) that feel like they don't add much. The deathmatch levels feel much better designed than in Halo 1. In the first game, all of the levels were these huge, sprawling edifices that felt like they were made for 16 player system link. Unfortunately, we usually played with 4 players, which meant that 90% of our time was spent wandering around looking for each other. The levels in Halo 2, by contrast, feel much more tightly designed: most of your time is spent killing. And dying.

The graphics are brighter, sharper, and nicer than in Halo 1, but not such that you would write an essay about them. I haven't spent much time in the single player game. Given Bungie's history of writing good plots, that's what I'm most looking forward to.

That being said: 90 minutes of online play (in both deathmatch and capture-the-flag matches) has left me trembling from adrenaline overload. Which says something about the pace of the game.

More tomorrow. In the meantime, you can read a great description of the experience at Must Work Harder.

Posted by peterb at 08:06 PM | Comments (0)

November 08, 2004

Great Moments in Geography

by peterb

It was just this past summer, and I was in my favorite French bistro in Toronto: La Palette. It is small, comfortably crowded, and quirky. It was a wonderful day. Kensington Market was closed to auto traffic in a "take back the streets" sort of moment. Live music blared from three different bands. And a summer shower forced us all inside -- wet, but happy. I was looking forward to a simple plate of steak frittes. The beer list at La Palette is great, and I was able to enjoy a Hoegaarden Verboden Vrucht, which I haven't had since the last time I was in Antwerp, nearly 8 years ago now.

I struck up a conversation with the couple next to me, older, visiting Toronto themselves from Prince Edward Island. Talk turned to the recently opened -- and now bankrupt -- ferry connecting Toronto and Rochester. We all agreed that it was a great idea. My new friend seemed concerned, though. "We tried to get seats for the opening run, but they weren't organized enough for us to be able to buy tickets." "You mean they were sold out?" "No, they just couldn't figure out how to sell me a ticket." (No wonder the ferry is now shut down).

As for me, I've long wanted a warp gate that would make travelling to Toronto faster. And even if the ferry wasn't actually faster, it would be more interesting than driving the QEW. "Gee," I said, "Rochester is just a little too far away from me. I'm hoping they'll have a ferry between Toronto and Buffalo."

An uncomfortable silence ensued. The husband and wife looked seriously at each other. Then he looked back and, gently, said, "Well, you see, the difficulty with that would be that Buffalo is on a different lake."

Why, yes, in fact, I am American. How could you tell?

Posted by peterb at 07:24 PM | Comments (0)

November 06, 2004

Pot Stickers

by psu

Chinese dumplings, or the fried variation called Pot Stickers (more literally, the stuff that tears up because it is stuck to the bottom of the frying pan) were a fixture of my youth. My mom brought them from China to the U.S. and I remember huge get togethers where a dozen friends and family would crank out hundreds of these things for all of us to gorge on.

Although I was never much help making them as a child, one of the missions of my adult life was to figure out how they are made, and at least be able to create a reasonable facsimile of the dish in my own home. Ironically, my parents have moved on to the frozen sort, since the real stuff is too much work.

I don't like giving people recipes for this sort of thing, because this dish is one of those that you cannot make out of a book. Someone who knows how to do it has to show you (preferably someone's mom). But, I think I finally have a method that is tuned well enough to present here for those who are curious. Even so, you'll notice various parts of the recipe that defy precise description. So, the following description is more for my own records than something that I expect anyone to be able to use as an actual recipe. I don't know how to describe this so that you can do it without me around to show you once. But here we go.

If you make one batch of filling and two dough balls as below, this will net you maybe 60 dumplings. We usually do a double batch and get 120-150. This can feed 5 or 6 people and leave us with a tray or two to freeze. Yum.

The Dough

1. Start with 2-3 cups of flour and one cup of cold water.

2. You must use crappy bleached bad for you Pillsbury all purpose flour. The fancy-ass organic whole wheat stuff will make you crappy dough. Trust me.

3. Put 2 to 2 1/2 cups of the flour in a bowl. Add most of the water but not all and stir it around with chopsticks.

4. If the flour does not soak up all the water, add flour. If it is too dry, add water. Stir some more, check again. Turn the mixture out on to a board and knead it until it holds together. Don't worry about making the ball smooth.

5. Put the ball into a ziploc bag and stick it in the fridge for a few hours.

6. Pull the ball out of the fridge. The dough should be stiff but flexible. Knead it around a bit, adding flour if it is sticky. Put it back in the fridge for a few more hours.

Obviously I can't tell you how to tell when the dough is right. That is what you need my mom for.

The Filling

1. Put a pound of ground pork in a bowl.

2. Add 1-2 tablespoons of soy sauce, 4-5 tablespoons of minced ginger (more if you like more), a dash of sesame oil, salt, 5 or 6 turns of pepper. Mix it up.

3. Finely chop up 1 bunch of scallions. Mix that in.

4. At this point I give it a whiff, decide it needs more soy sauce and add another tablespoon or two.

5. Put this into the fridge until the dough is ready.

Now you have to get the chinese cabbage ready. This part is critical and tricky.

6. You use about half of a large chinese cabbage per pound of meat. Cut it up into small pieces, then chop it in a Cuisinart until it's a fine dice. The pieces should be around the same size as if you just diced a yellow onion to a nice size.

7. Put some cabbage into cheese cloth and squeeeeze as much liquid out of it as you can. This is critical. Keep the juice in a bowl. Salting the cabbage a bit will draw out the moisture and make this easier. Repeat this until you have worked through all the chopped cabbage.

When you have all the cabbage squozed, and you are ready to start filling, start mixing the cabbage into the pork. The mixture will dry up a bit. Add a couple of tablespoons of the cabbage juice back into the pork. You should be able to mix 2 or 3 cups of chopped cabbage back into the pork mixture. One pound of meat will make enough filling to use up between one and two batches of the dough recipe depending on how much flour you end up with in the dough.

Rolling and Filling

This is the part I can't really tell you how to do.

1. Take the dough ball out of the fridge. Work it a bit. Cut it into thirds.

2. Form each third into a cylinder about 1/2 inch in diameter. Then cut it into 1 inch pieces.

3. Flatten these pieces with the palm of your hand. Then take a small rolling pin and roll the dough out into small flat circles.

The goal is to have a skin that is a bit thick in the middle and thin on the outsides. Each disk should be around 2.5-3 inches in diameter or a bit bigger, and reasonably thin. Take a look at a package of frozen dumplings some time. Those skins are about the right thickness.

This is where having the dough be soft enough, but not too soft, is key. If it is too soft, the skins will have no bite. If it is too stiff, you won't be able to roll and fill.

Assuming you are right handed, here is how you fold the dumplings: take one of the rolled out skins and hold it in the palm of your left hand face up. Put a small amount of filling in the middle. Now with your right hand, pick up the skin in the "middle" and fold it over the filling and pinch it together on the other side. Then turn the thing over to the left, pinch the left ends together, and work your way back to the middle. Then do the same thing from the right end. When you start at this, you usually end up with something that looks like a ravioli. But, with practice, you'll get stuff that looks more like a pot sticker and can "stand up".

Take the filled dumplings and put them on a tray. I like to use sheet pans with floured wax paper. Don't let them sit around too long before cooking. An hour or two at most. Anything you don't cook should be frozen on the trays, then put into freezer bags.


To make the boiled dumplings, fill a large pot with water. Bring to a boil. Drop the dumplings in one by one. Cook until they float, then a couple of minutes past or until you are sure the pork is cooked through.

To make pot stickers, get a large non stick frying pan. Heat it up. Add a couple of tablespoons of oil. Put the dumplings down in a single layer in the pan in the spiral. Mix a little water with a little vinegar. Pour this into the pan (you don't want too much liquid, or the things will boil, just a thin layer on the bottom of the pan). Cover, turn the heat to medium and cook 10-15 minutes or until the dumplings char to the bottom of the frying pan. This is where the name pot stickers comes from.

Posted by psu at 09:36 PM | Comments (0)

November 05, 2004

iTunes OCD

by peterb

You'd think that having an iPod would be an endless parade of musical bliss. And, mostly, it is. But the one worm in the apple is that now that you have 5,000 songs in the library, and you have to rate them.

"Oh, come now," you say. "You don't have to rate those songs." And maybe you'd be right in a sort of narrowminded, positivist, literal way. But when you're talking about me, you're talking about someone who eats all of the green M&M's first, and is convinced that they actually taste better. The robots demand that I rate my music; therefore, I must rate it. I am a man without free will.

So the first problem you face is what the ratings actually "mean." iTunes lets you rate songs anywhere from 0 to 5 stars. I quickly disposed of the "0" rating -- with 5,000 songs, I needed some way to distinguish those that I haven't rated at all. So a zero rating means "not rated yet."

It only took me a few days to assign semantic meanings to each of the ratings:

  • 5 stars: A song that I love, and would consciously add to a playlist and want to hear.

  • 4 stars: A song that I love, but for some reason don't ever think of until the randomizer picks it for me. Then I enjoy it until it's over, and promptly forget about it again.

  • 3 stars: I like this song. Sometimes I might skip it, and sometimes I might listen to it.

  • 2 stars: I don't really like this song, and am likely to skip it if it comes on, other factors notwithstanding.

  • 1 star: This is unlistenable, and I probably won't even sync it on to the iPod.

The rating isn't everything, of course. Ratings are focused on songs, and that doesn't tell the whole story. For example, The Ex's Joggers and Smoggers album is composed of bits of found sound and rhythm that, considered on their own, are probably 1 or 2 stars no matter who is "rating" them; but taken as a whole, the album is a masterwork -- the songs need their neighbors. This is true also for the brief, nameless interstitial audiocollages on The Loud Family's Days For Days. But at least for your average pop song, it's a workable system. I just took a look at the distribution of ratings, and it is pleasingly bell-shaped, with perhaps a slight bias towards low ratings.

The next problem is what to do with the ratings. Sure, I made the inevitable smart playlists and such, but fundamentally I've generated this mass of data, and I'm a geek, so: I want to data mine it. What music do I like? Off the top of my head, if you said "Who are your favorite artists?" I'd say: Aimee Mann, Loud Family (a.k.a Game Theory), Nick Cave, Tom Waits, and Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. Does the view of my library I get when I look at my individual song ratings match what I would say that I like if you asked me?

It turns out that iTunes doesn't have any built-in way to do this easily. Lots of people have written scripts to do various things, but I was only able to find one script that came close to what I wanted to do: a script which ranked albums, rather than artists. So as a first cut, I decided to run it and see what it said.

Rank Artist Album Rating
1 David Bowie Scary Monsters 4.2
2 Aimee Mann Bachelor No 2 4.08
3 Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds Live Seeds 4.0
4 They Might Be Giants Lincoln 3.78
5 Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds Let Love In 3.7

Hmmm, not too bad. It's a deceptive view, though. The album ranking script is brittle. In particular, it will only rank albums for which you've rated every single song. Since I know for a fact I haven't even come close to that yet, I know it's missing a lot of data (and by the very nature of rating psychology, there's probably a bias to rate songs that you like before rating songs that you don't like). Furthermore, the "album" is the wrong unit of measure for this sort of averaging. Going back to my Loud Family example: Days for Days has 10 superb songs that I rated highly and 10 little interstitial pieces that I gave low ratings because they don't really stand on their own. This kills the curve. The end result is I have a script telling me that I think, subconsciously, that The Proclaimers' Sunshine on Leith is marginally better than Days for Days, which isn't true at all.

So, I decided to take the script and see if I could use it as a base to generate some more interesting views of the data. This meant I had to play with Applescript. Have you ever used Applescript? It's like Cobol, but less versatile. Oh my God, what an ugly language. Basically, you can have your script interact with iTunes, sending iTunes commands asking it to give you the ratings for all the songs by such and such an artist. Really, if you want to do something like this, I think a better way would be to just parse the iTunes Library XML database directly, rather than using Applescript. But, what can I say, I was lazy.

So with just a little tweaking, I got a list of artists and rankings, rather than albums. The invariants were a bit different: you didn't have to have rated every song by an artist, but only rated songs count towards an artist's score. Artists with fewer than 10 rated songs weren't included at all:

Rank Artist Rating
1 Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds 3.85
2 Aimee Mann 3.81
3 DJ Z-Trip & DJ P 3.8
4 Kate Bush 3.64
5 Me First And The Gimme Gimmes 3.42
6 Nick Cave 3.35
7 Paola & Chiara 3.33
8 Michiru Oshima 3.29
9 Billy Bragg 3.29
10 Jane Siberry 3.26
11 Richard Thompson 3.25
12 Tom Waits 3.22

Better, but still some odd results. Fundamentally, I started converging on the idea that using the mean of the score in number of stars is broken. The stars have a semantic meaning which doesn't really map smoothly on a real 0-5 scale. So I gave it one more try.

This time, I decided that what I really wanted to know was: which artists have the strongest repertoires (subjectively) in my library? So I decided to use the idea of "hot songs." If I gave a song a 4 or 5 rating then -- by my personal scale, described above -- it was a song that I'd be glad to listen to nearly any time. Whether it's a 4 or a 5 doesn't matter while I'm listening to it. If a song is below that threshold, it doesn't really matter whether it's a 1, 2, or 3. Back to the Applescript editor once again (oh, the pain, the unending pain) to generate a list of artists. This time, the score is an integer between 0 and 100, which is approximately "number of 'hot' songs by that artist in the library, divided by the total number of songs by that artist in the library, * 100". So an artist for whom I rated every song a 4 or 5 would get a score of 100, and an artist who got no 4s or 5s would get a 0. I also decided to actually display the number of songs affecting the calculation, rather than just showing the score. I find this a bit more interesting:

Rank Artist Rating # Hot Songs # Songs
1 Aimee Mann 59 22 37
2 Bob Mould 55 6 11
3 Billy Bragg 52 11 21
4 Nick Cave 45 14 31
5 Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds 44 18 41
6 Lou Reed/John Cale 40 6 15
7 Indigo Girls 40 4 10
8 DJ Z-Trip & DJ P 39 9 23
9 Pixies 38 36 94
10 Game Theory 37 10 27
11 Tom Waits 36 49 135
12 Karl Hendricks Trio 34 23 68
13 Talking Heads 33 5 15
14 The Ex + Tom Cora 33 4 12
15 Me First And The Gimme Gimmes 33 4 12
16 Mary's Danish 33 4 12
17 Los Straitjackets 33 4 12
18 Paola & Chiara 31 8 26
19 Wall Of Voodoo 30 3 10
20 The Sisters of Mercy 30 3 10

Now we're starting to approximate my subjective worldview much better. Kate Bush drops completely out of the top 20 (thank God, my hipster status is secure, unless people notice that Paola e Chiara are there also). Furthermore, it's immediately apparent which of the top 20 members are outliers, just by seeing the low number of tracks that have been rated. I have one Indigo Girls album; it's the one that is universally known as "the good one," and it has 4 songs on it that I really like. That's enough to give them a probably unjustly high position in the list. So this version of the script is unfairly generous to artists who only have a few tracks in the library. Probably the next step is to give a bonus to artists who have many tracks in the library, and a penalty to artists who only have a few (David Bowie, for example, has pretty much the same rating as Roxy Music, even though they only have 2 highly rated songs in my library, and he has 30. That's unjust. Unjust, I tell you!)

And, of course, I'll need to continue with the arduous, backbreaking work of listening to all my music. And rating it.

The original Applescript that I used as the pattern for all of this stat generation can be found here. If you've got a script that you like that does something similar, please mention it in the comments below. I can't possibly be the only person in the world that is obsessive-compulsive about this.

Posted by peterb at 07:20 PM | Comments (12)

November 04, 2004

Prince Of Persia

by psu

Last week I found I was in my local GameStop and happened to browse past Prince Of Persia: The Sands of Time. Since Pete was pretty hard on this game and I tend to believe Pete, I had avoided it until now. But I figured (1) it was cheap and (2) I could return it in a week if I hated it, since it was used.

Prince of Persia is not the type of game I usually get into. This is because it requires two things that I do not possess in abundance:

1. Hand/eye coordination.
2. Timing.

In addition, the game has a third person real time combat thing going on that is also the sort of thing at which I do not excel.

But, the game sucks you in because the main character, the Prince, is one nimble acrobatic badass, and except for some camera issues, the controls make even the most unlikely moves really easy to pull off. It's also damned pretty.

However, none of this is my main point. If you've played the game, you know that fairly early on in the proceedings, there is a long and difficult sequence involving a fight with many zombies and the zombified remains of the Prince's father. Let me summarize. Between savepoint A and savepoint B (ah yes, stupid savepoints), the Prince must

1. Run up a wall and hit a switch to make a pillar appear.
2. Run up the pillar and swing on to a pole.
3. Jump over to that platform over there
4. Wall run over to that other platform.
5. Jump down and crawl around to that ledge.
6. Run into the scary spacey area and drink the magic water.
7. Swing through 3 poles to get over to that other ledge.
8. Evade the knives of doom.
9. Wall run under the saws, hit switch on the floor then wall run back under the saws to get through a door before it shuts.
10. Pull out a lever which opens a door one level above me.
11. Evade the knives of doom.
12. Run up the wall to hit a switch which brings up a pillar so I can jump up to it and climb this shaft.
13. At the top of the shaft, wall run through the hall over another set of saws and slide under the door which is closing.

After all this, the Prince is then treated to a long fight with several zombies. This fight is much harder than the zombie fights that have come before it, and you will die several times before you figure out how to finish it. When the fight is done, you get savepoint B. Then, to get to savepoint C, you run outside, jump into a courtyard, and kill 10 easy zombies. That's it. The game timer shows me that it took me 45min to get from savepoint A to savepoint B. It then took me 5 minutes to get from savepoint B to savepoint C.

Here is my main point: whoever designed this sequence of the game should be taken out in the back yard and tortured until he cries like a little girl.

The interval between the savepoints A and B is ludicrously long, especially since the time to savepoint C is so short. This long interval is combined with a level of difficulty that is much higher than anywhere else in the game. I can't imagine any rationale for this design, especially when the rest of the game is so excellent. Is Ubisoft saying "if you aren't hard core enough to get through this, then you may as well just throw the game away"? Why would they do that?

Game difficulty is admittedly tricky to tune. It seems to me that the ideal game is one that lets you win while making you think you had to work for it. This is something that a game like Madden Football does really well. You can tune the game so you win the Super Bowl every year and your team kicks CPU butt, but it always feels like a challenge while you are doing it.

Prince of Persia also does this very well, except for this one sequence. It leaves me wondering why the game designers, after doing so well everywhere else, would give us this one wart which is so ugly that it make people who want to love the game hate it enough to quit. Which brings up my main question. What are Boss Battles for? Boss battles in every game from Mario and Luigi Superstar Saga to Half Life have this sort of "ha ha, you better be hard core to get past THIS" character. You are coasting along, loving the game, and then you hit this wall.

Why are these walls here? What's the point?

Posted by psu at 09:38 PM | Comments (4)

November 03, 2004

Preemptive Strike

by peterb
I Blame Ohio
I promise, I promise, the political articles will stop, soon.

In anticipation of the continuing disaster that is our electorate's (apparent) choice, I present, for your delight and consumption, the I Blame Ohio line of fine clothing products. Coffee mugs, T-shirts (for you or your budding little politicians), mouse pads -- if you're bitter, have we got the products for you. Just stop by and visit the store.

If you haven't tried blaming Ohio yet, start today!

Tea Leaves: Profiting from everyone's misfortune since 2004.

Posted by peterb at 12:39 AM | Comments (3)

November 02, 2004

The Id Parade

by peterb

Today's the day. Place your bets, make your choice, and vote.

Four years ago, the cant among the hipper-than-thou was that it didn't matter whether Bush or Gore was elected, because they were both corporate drones with indistinguishable policies.

Today, it is clear to everyone: it matters whether Bush or Kerry wins this election. It matters a lot.

Posted by peterb at 08:43 AM | Comments (2)

November 01, 2004

Northern's Pie

by peterb

As American as apple pie

Not a lot of sugar, an amazingly fantastic whole wheat crust, and a ton of Northern Spy apples. It was yummy. Still, I maintain my position that sour apples are perfectly fine to eat out of hand.

When I was a kid, we had a sour cherry tree in our backyard. Every summer, we were overwhelmed with baskets, buckets, crates of sour, tangy cherries that would make you pucker like a persimmon. Eventually, over the years, the tree grew old and stopped producing.

I haven't had a sour cherry since.

Anyone know where I can buy some?

Posted by peterb at 05:52 PM | Comments (1)

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