July 29, 2005
Regular readers may recall an article from last summer where I mentioned some PC games I picked up from the bargain bin. At the time I wrote that article, I had started playing through one of them (Myst III: Exile) and was enjoying it.
Shortly thereafter, I stopped playing it. This week, I bought Myst III: Exile for Xbox at The Exchange. I had also bought Silent Hill 3 for the PS2, another game I already owned for the PC.
The reason is simple. I can play the console versions of these games from my couch.
It is impossible to overstate how important this is to me and, I suspect, to many other people. I have never, ever, found a way to integrate PC-based gaming into my household social life.
My gaming PC is in the office. If I have guests or family over and I'm playing a game, then either they're in my office (which is uncomfortable for everyone involved), or they're downstairs talking, and I'm in another room ignoring them. This makes me feel bad.
I tried moving the gaming PC into the living room. Then I had a huge desk in my living room with a noisy PC, and even then I found I was still playing whatever it was with my back to whomever was visiting.
The consoles fit naturally in the media center. They play on the TV, so everyone can easily watch. I can sit on the couch with whomever is visiting and we can share the experience. If no one is visiting, I can lay down while I play the game instead of sitting in a desk chair. I can turn the games on in 15 seconds or less. If I'm playing a game where the developers aren't retarded idiots who put stupid console-style save points in their game, I can shut the game down nearly instantly. Many games on the console are well-suited to in-the-same-room multiplayer, so I can just hand someone else a controller.
This one simple facet of the console gaming experience trumps nearly everything else for me. "But the latest PC games have better graphics if you buy this $600 graphics card!" I can play the console games from my couch. "I don't like first person shooters where I can't use a keyboard and mouse!" I can play the console games from my couch. "You can play user-developed content only on the PC." I can play the console games from my couch.
And don't talk to me about laptop gaming. Yes, some games work in that context. But most don't. And you know it.
If other people feel the same way about this that I do — and I bet they do — then there is one thing that worries me. As the market for PC games continues to shrink, great little Indie game developers may find it harder to make money. But who knows? Maybe as competition in the console market heats up, console manufacturers will be forced to loosen their stranglehold on licensing (OK, OK, I admit it. I don't believe that for a moment, either.) Or perhaps major publishers will simply abandon the PC market, leaving more room for the indies. But somehow, I don't see it going that way.
In a way, this is the "media center" problem in a slightly different context. There's no technical reason why PCs can't replace the DVD players, Tivo machines, and even game consoles at the center of most home entertainment centers. But PC and OS manufacturers' attempts to penetrate this marketplace have met with abject failure. Whether this reflects a lack of commitment on the part of the players, an inability to design acceptable user interfaces, or simply fear of entering a market without airtight digital rights management, I don't know.
But it sure would have been nice to play the PC version of Myst III: Exile from my couch.
July 28, 2005
Yesterday's article by psu about the importance of only showing your best photos really struck a note with me. That's why I have added a Tea Leaves™ Decisive Moments™ photostream to the sidebar. This will let us
subject you to unedited garbage share the immediacy of our vision with you.
First up: three weeks of cat pictures. Tally-ho!
For now, I'm using Flickr to host the pictures, until I find enough free time to write a proper template hosted at tleaves.com. Overall, flickr hasn't impressed me. As my friend Alex said, "It seems like the sort of thing that joshua would do in an afternoon, only he'd do it better."
July 27, 2005
Henri Cartier-Bresson has a lot to answer for. Renowned for a photographic style that brilliantly balances meticulous composition with apparently split second timing, Bresson brought hundreds of iconic images into the photographic literature. Unfortunately, his style and artistic rhetoric (The Decisive Moment) became so influentional that it inspired legions of would be photojournalists to march into the streets on a desperate and largely futile search for their own decisive moments. Sadly, these armies of would-be auteurs do not understand two fundamental principles: most of your pictures are crap, and you have to know how to edit.
Before the interweb, the fact that there were thousands of crappy photographers toiling in their little darkrooms producing thousands of inconsequential wastes of emulsion didn't really have any effect on our quality of life. But now, with digital cameras and easy web hosting, you can't turn around without being hit in the head with collections of "street pictures" shot by people whose lack of talent as photographers is exceeded only by their lack of talent as editors of their own work.
Gazing upon these collections, you can only wonder what their creators see in the pictures, and why they can't see past it to the truth: that the stuff is crap. Actually, not all of it is crap. There is one shining beacon of photographic talent stuck into this pile of otherwise craptastic creations. This is because Mr. Dixon actually knows a good picture when he sees it in the viewfinder and also has the sense to only show you the ones he got when he didn't miss.
So, don't let this happen to you. Don't let me get my hands on your crappy, crooked, out of focus, underexposed and barely composed drek. Shoot a lot, learn how to edit out the bad ones, and don't show them to me. If I only see your good ones, I'll think you are a genius.
July 26, 2005
Random notes, from about 4 years ago, on peterb's theory of computer role playing games and why designing fun CRPGs is so hard.
"I don't consider anything the Japanese do to be RPGs. Those are movies with extra special boring parts put in the middle for obsessive-compulsives."
Why do most RPGs suck?
There are basically 3(*) elements that go into making a computer RPG.1) Plot.
2) Conversations with non-player characters.
3) Combat mechanics.
4) General interactivity with the world.
(*) I said 3 because it sounds better.
I've ordered those elements from most to least important. Designing games where each of these elements is fun requires entirely different skill sets.
Plot, surprisingly, might be the easiest element to get right. A decent writer can create an interesting plot that isn't silly. There is a simple test you can apply to determine if the plot sucks:
If a chick in a chainmail bra appears in any of the box cover art or the magazine ads for the game, the plot will suck. I call this the "EverTest"
The only RPG with a truly superb plot in recent years would, in my estimation, be Planescape: Torment. And even that was probably incomprehensible to anyone who didn't grow up steeped in the minutiae of Dungeons and Dragons. The game suffered from its milieu, rather than flourishing from it.
Conversations with non-player characters are tough, also, because you run the risk of confusing the player if you have lots of unrelated stuff. But the benefit of having lots of unrelated stuff is that you can create a more immersive world.
The best game of its type for conversation was Ultima III.
The worst games for conversation (of games that have any at all) are any of the Japanese games. The particular way in which they're horrible is they have a tendency to design where NPCs either say nothing useful at all or tell you something that directly advances the plot. There seems to be no middle ground.
Combat mechanics are the easiest element to screw up. This is where the Japanese RPGs both excel and fail, in different ways.
Designers are caught in a conundrum: if the combat mechanics are too simple, the player will not find the game interesting because it will seem too simplistic. But if they are too complex, then the game has the potential to be oh my God I want to die of boredom level boring. (This doesn't apply for "pure" combat games such as Final Fantasy Tactics. Presumably, anyone who buys a game whose entire raison d'etre is tactical combat knows what they are getting themselves into.)
The formula for determining boredom can be expressed as followed:time required to resolve combat * number of non-plot-advancing combats = boredom
Probably my favorite way of preventing this formula from increasing the Boredom Quotient is to at a certain point just accept that the player is going to win stupid little combats and resolve them automagically. (To make up for how much bashing I'm doing of Japanese RPGs here, I'll point out that Earthbound for the SNES did this. Some day I'll write an article about Earthbound and how it transcended the boundaries of its medium by being self-aware in an almost postmodern way. But not today.) Of course, as a designer you should be asking yourself: if the combat is meaningless or the outcome predetermined, why bother subject the player to it at all? If the answer is simply "to increase R", then you have a fundamental design flaw. One idea I like is the thought that perhaps the enemies will recognize that the player is driving a Sherman tank and that their javelins won't hurt him much, so maybe they should run away.
A good game lets you do things that have nothing to do with the plot, and has some sort of log or reminder system to allow you to get back on track if you forget what you should be doing. Baldur's Gate (like all of the Bioware games) is pretty good in this regard. Examples of "bad" include most of the Zelda games(*) (which have "side quests" but no feeling of a world that exists independently of the player), Final Fantasy whatever, and Wizardry for the Apple ][.
(*): These notes were originally written years before Wind Waker, which did a slightly better job, narratively, of making the player feel that they were a part of a world, rather than the world's reason for being.
Some designers have chosen to interpret "interactive" to mean that the player should be able to break or steal anything. This is indeed one definition, but it's an unadventurous one. Like "realism" and "immersion", other loaded terms, interactivity is something that you only want part of the time. You want the exciting, fun things you'd like to do to be interactive. You want the boring, stupid parts of the world to not be interactive. As much as I personally dislike the Grand Theft Auto series of games, they seem to have a sense about this: you'll never have to stop to pay a toll to use a highway, or put gas in your Ferrari.
Any game that makes you replay a substantial portion of it when you die sucks and the designers are going to hell. Canonical example: all of the Zelda games.
The question of what a CRPG is is itself hotly debated. In the years since Wizardry first codified the D&D-style level-up progression form of play, little new ground has been broken. Most CRPGs are, for the most part, still about wandering around monster infested areas and hitting "fight fight fight parry parry parry" once a round. The future of the CRPG as a genre depends on those pushing past the "show the user a spreadsheet full of numbers that slowly gets bigger over time" model of interaction. The best possible case is probably the disappearance of the genre as a separate recognized class (except among retrogaming fans), and for its best attributes to simply be absorbed by mainstream games, leaving the drudgery, such as inventory management, behind.
July 25, 2005
As anyone who isn't living on Mars probably knows, Lance Armstrong bowed out of bike racing this weekend with his unprecedented seventh straight in the Tour de France.
Back in 1995, in the Indurain period, the long time cycling journalist Samuel Abt wrote a book about the transition in U.S. cycling as Greg Lemond was getting ready to retire. At the time, Lance was quoted as saying that he was tired of being called "the next Lemond", and would rather be called "the first Lance." I think that history will now show that Lance was right about that.
At the time, the statement seemed apt for a different reason. Lance was a very different bike racer than Lemond had been. He won one day races, not the long tours. He had not yet developed the physical skills he now has in the mountains and in the time trials or the mental and tactical skills that he has used to dominate the rest of the race. His first few trips to the Tour had always ended in planned early exits although he did get the occasional stage victory. When he dropped out again in 1996 I remember thinking that this didn't seem too unusual, although the truth was, of course, much different.
I didn't follow his progress after that day too closely until July of 1999 when seemingly out of nowhere he won the opening time trial of the Tour de France. This, I thought, was strange. This was a different Lance. And indeed, the last seven years have shown us the second Lance. Meticulous, mature and a master of the details necessary to win the world's biggest bike race. Part of me still can't believe he can suddenly climb that well, but there it is.
But some of the old Lance was still in there. That look he gave to Ullrich before riding away from him on Alpe d'Huez in 2001 was a classic example of his attacking style. Here was the first Tour champion in a while who actually won stages in addition to the overall. A perfect mix of the old one day racer and the new stage race champion.
The next few years in the Tour will be interesting ones as all the riders who have been second to Lance all these years fight it out. It will also be interesting to see which, if any of the new crew of American riders, many of whom rode on Lance's teams, manages to come forward and compete for the top spots. Finally, it will be interesting to see whether Lance's preparation methods will be adopted by other teams, and whether they will be successful in applying them. I suspect that Lance's training works so well mostly because it is Lance who is doing the training.
I guess I can go get on my bike now that the race is over. But man, it's too hot.
July 22, 2005
I always thought it was a mulberry bush, but apparently I was mistaken. I parked underneath one of these trees outside one of my favorite bars — The Sharp Edge — the other day, with hundreds of perfectly ripe (and overripe) berries of a kind I'd never seen before. They looked like blackberries. They looked really good. Risking instant poisonous death, I gingerly tried one. They tasted good.Upside-Down Pear who instantly and fearlessly identified them as mulberries. (Later, at home, Wikipedia concurred, thus proving once again that Laura is always right.) I resolved to pick and eat some more. And, just in case, to save one for the emergency room.
Thus, as I left the bar, I stopped to pick some berries. This proved to be a small tactical mistake, because, ripe as they were, they were raining down on me like hailstones, and it turns out that mulberry juice is very red, very dark, and very, very hard to wash off. I did eventually get clean, but my car may never be the same again.
The taste was sweet, but gentle, with almost an orange rind aroma. The texture was less pleasant; the berries fell apart in my mouth like head cheese. I'd eat them again.
But next time I'm going to make someone else go pick them.
Addendum and Question
I decided that this article would be the first one in which I would serve the included photo from Flickr. Unfortunately, it has taken so long to upload the above photo to flickr that in the interim, I have written the article, postprocessed the jpeg by hand, uploaded that to the tleaves.com server, and posted it. And made some edits. And made tea.
Is this a common Flickr experience, or am I just exceedingly unlucky tonight?
July 21, 2005
Those who can, write code.
Those who can't, wank about Open Source Licenses.
July 20, 2005
Tonight, in a pensive mood, I did something I haven't done in a while: I picked a direction, started driving, and got myself good and lost. I ended up in Clairton.
Clairton is a burned-out husk of a steel-town along the Monongahela river, 8300 residents and dropping fast. If you approach it as I did, on route 837 from the north, you enter one of those curious areas created by Pittsburgh's hilly, riparian geography: a two-lane road with almost no turn-offs, a retaining wall on one side, and the river on the other. This may sound picturesque, but it is merely claustrophobic.
Once you've gone a certain distance down Route 837, you're going to Clairton. There is no escape.
A sign announces your arrival and introduces Clairton, without irony, as the "City of Prayer." The altar at which much of the praying is done is that of steel. On the edge of the river, sprawling across nearby islands like a metastasized tumor, is the U.S. Steel Clairton Works, the largest coke manufacturing facility in the US. The first indication that you are approaching the plant is the aroma, which weaves itself into your hair and clothes. You will carry the scent away with you when you leave. Next, if it's night, you'll see the lights. Finally, you will round a bend and see the plant, stretching for what seems like miles ahead of you and above you.
Next to the plant are two or three nameless bars, concrete bunkers with no visible names, but just a lone Budweiser or Miller sign in the window. Anyone who has ever worked in a plant has also been to one of these bars. The rules are simple: these are the places that will cash your paycheck. They will serve cheap food. There might be a local girl dancing for tips. And if you don't work at the plant, you are very much not welcome there.
I worked in a factory, long ago. I didn't go in to the bars in Clairton.
That is the heart of Clairton. The tattered streets lead away from the Works, a network of small appliance repair shops, funeral homes, shuttered hotels, and convenience stores. Up on the hills above the Works sit small houses (median value: $38,500) where the families (median income: $25,596) live. Some men lurk on streetcorners, making oblique gestures at cars that stop near them. The town is overshadowed by the Works. It is an afterthought. It is as if some small mammals have built a nest in a thicket of dinosaur bones.
The juxtaposition of the reality of places like Clairton and the party line that the Pittsburgh region is revitalizing (thanks to Pittsblog for the link) is jarring. Perhaps someday the Clairton Works will be gone, and something rich and strange will take its place. But for now, it is simply industrial carrion. It is a place that was.
There may be residents (about 20% of Clairton's residents are below the poverty line) who have dear and fond memories of growing up in Clairton.
But to me, it does not feel like a place to live. It feels like a place to drown.
July 19, 2005
A recent feature at The Armchair Empire takes the gaming world to task for accusing Nintendo of being "only for kids." I think the piece makes a series of good points, not the least of which is that the current crop of so-called "mature" games are really nothing more than juvenile power fantasies for the 17 year old set. This is not to say that I don't enjoy the odd juvenile power trip, I did, after all finish both Resident Evil and God of War.
I think, however, that the article misses the real point. The real point is not that Nintendo "just for kids". The problem with Nintendo is that they only make games for fans of Nintendo games.
This puts Nintendo into a sort of insular niche where they just keep cranking out the same games with the same characters in mostly the same situations. I mean, how many different sports do we need Mario to be playing? Admittedly, Nintendo does very well in the little area that it has carved out for itself. They sell games, and they make profit.
What they don't do anymore is excite anyone outside of their core audience. As this core shrinks as a percentage of the whole gaming market, it gives Nintendo less room to experiment. This results in an even stronger concentration on the core franchises, which in turn results in the Nintendo niche shrinking even further. Maybe this is OK. Maybe Nintendo can live and prosper in its own little world. But I think that the Nintendo fans, and maybe everyone else, would be happier if they could break out of the bubble and really do something new again. There ought to be a life after Mario and Zelda. I'm rooting for Nintendo to find that and then it won't matter if they are "just for kids" anymore.
July 18, 2005
The other day, someone was taunting me on our local chat system. He said something to the effect of "If Pete is so down on cliché and repitition, why does he watch the Tour de France year after year when Lance always wins the same way?".
First of all, in the years that I've watched the race, there have been four or five different winners (Indurain, Riis, Ullrich, Pantani, Armstrong). Second of all, while the three week race has been pretty much the same every year, every day is a different one day race. The race within the race is what makes the Tour interesting for me, even if the overall is following the same old script.
Consider two stages from this week.
In the first, we have an American named Chris Horner who gets into the breakaway and stays away for more than 100Km, only to be caught 300m from the line, just missing the stage win. Here is a guy who until this year was riding on some little-known American team for the last ten years and won a stage of the Tour of Switzerland to make the Tour de France team. In his first tour, he has managed not only to survive, but come within ten seconds of winning a stage, something that most riders spend their entire lives only dreaming about.
And, until yesterday, George Hincapie was one of those riders. Hincapie has been a support rider for Lance Armstrong throughout his current run in the Tour. In earlier years, he helped Lance through the flat stages, protecting him from wind and crashes, and just surviving over the mountains in the hopes of winning a flat stage late in the race. More recently, one noticed that George stayed on the front in the mountain stages for longer and longer periods of time, pulling Lance all the way to the last climb on many days. Every year, he seemed to get better in the big mountains.
So yesterday, Hincapie found himself 18 minutes ahead of the peloton in one of those breakaways that do not need to be chased. But instead of a flat stage, they were riding the hardest mountain stage of the Tour. In epic fashion, Hincapie stayed with the break, covered two or three different attacks, and was finally first over the line at the top of the last mountain. It was an incredible individual win for a rider who has always been the consummate team player. There is no one on Lance's team who deserves it more than George. Bravo. Go George.
If you ever go to the Tour, don't do what this moron did.
July 15, 2005
A few weeks ago, someone apparently posted a link to my review of Gran Turismo 4 on some Internet forum. This has led to a steady stream of people flooding the comments section of that article and informing me that I'm not any good at the game, I'm homosexual, it's impossible for a popular game to be bad, I probably didn't actually buy it, and I am a moron for saying, publicly, that I didn't enjoy a game.
This led to a conversation among friends about the nature of game reviewing. One person suggested that I'd get the same response if I gave a good review to a game people hated. I disagreed. My friend Nat, who somehow always manages to be the Most Quotable Person In The Room, then observed that for a reason none of us understand, some people take bad reviews as deep personal insults:
I mean, Pete might as well have said "I don't like GT4, plus I banged your mom and she was terrible". He'd get the same response.
That was then. This is now. And now, I have a problem. My problem is that just a few days ago, psu finished (and reviewed) the PS2 beat-em-up God of War. Then he lent it to me, and I played it a bit, and it really wasn't to my taste. Which means that if I speak openly about it, I run the risk of opening yet another can of worms. Since I am reasonably sure I'm going to get hammered for this anyway, I may as well go all out and do something to deserve it. So:
I don't like God of War, plus I banged your mom and she was terrible.
Okay: I exaggerate. To be perfectly fair, one could say that I disliked God of War less than I disliked Gran Turismo 4. I love driving games. I live driving games. I breathe driving games. So for me to not like a driving game is, I think, an indication that the driving game has reached a certain significant level of Suck. On the other hand, I merely tolerate beat-em-up games. God of War is a better beat-em-up than Gran Turismo 4 is a driving game. I just don't like beat-em-ups as much as I like driving games. That's why I'm not doing a full-on detailed review of God of War. I merely want to use it as an excuse to talk about the fanboy experience, and to contrast my (incomplete) evaluation of the game with psu's.
I'm fairly neutral on the mechanics of beat-em-ups (I don't mind pressing "square-square-triangle" for 3 hours on end, but I don't love it either). Therefore, whether or not I like a game of this type has a lot to do with its narrative and setting. Since I am a mythology geek, I was predisposed to like God of War. Spartans! Greek Gods! Athens! The Aegean Sea! How could I not like the game?
It turns out it didn't take much. Who knew?
The first reason I was disappointed is that various reviews led me to expect more. When some people discuss the game, they talk about the combat being innovative. But apart from the "finishing moves," which are indeed gloriously bloody, I don't see anything in the actual combat that distinguishes the game from, for example, the Lord of the Rings games. Or Koei's Dynasty Warriors. If I cared about the "finishing moves" I could see that making a difference, but it turns out I don't.
Secondly, I had to endure a 20 minute Boss battle at the end of the first level. And even after reading the walkthrough on Gamefaqs, it was still a deathmarch. I'll admit that this might be more an indication that I'm old and slow than a reflection of the difficulty level of the game, but I don't care. All I know is that it felt like hours of drudgery and carpal tunnel for a meagre payoff.
Lastly, the mythology geek in me was disappointed. The portrayal of the Gods felt weak, not even up to Clash of the Titans standards. And let's not even mention the girls in Kratos' bed. He's a Spartan. There are girls in his bed. Of course he's depressed.
The bad-assitude of the anti-hero didn't offend me by its violence, but by its predictability. (Come on. Be honest. Did you think for even a second that Kratos wouldn't drop the Captain down the Hydra's gullet?) Also predictably, this is yet another game where the label "mature" indicates "has blood and boobs." I blame the ESRB for that, and not Sony. It just makes me a little sad and tired. I wrote recently in this space about Wrath Unleashed and how its design sensibility reminded me of the movie (and geek stroke magazine) Heavy Metal. God of War makes me think of that too, albeit with higher production values. Can't you just imagine the story of Kratos placed frame for frame in the pages of Heavy Metal magazine, circa 1981?
It is not a mature sensibility. It is a sensibility by, of, and for seventeen year old boys. And it bores me to the point of tears. Again: it is not the fact that God of War has this sensibility that I find existentially exhausting. It is the fact that this sensibility is the norm. This, apparently, is what sells. So for every game like Katamari Damacy that brings us something fresh, something different, something that didn't come out of the sketchbook of a stoner in shop class, there are thirty games with pouting, juvenile antiheros who can only relate to women by turning them in to sex toys, or corpses, or both.
None of this makes God of War a "bad game." It just makes it a game I didn't enjoy.
- If you want to know more about the ancient Greeks, my favorite resource is Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe, Book 1. There you'll find lots of detail on the Spartans in particular ("Our only pleasures are a job well done, a glorious death, and humping little boys!")
July 14, 2005
For your edification, a few food places you should try if you find yourself on the road in upstate New York or Vermont.
Shwabl's: Buffalo NY
This is the original "beef on weck" place. Beef on weck is carved roast beef served on a bun that has caraway seeds and salt in it. The top half of the roll is dipped in the beef juice. The sandwich is given to you on a plate with slaw or potatoes or potato salad. The beef was really good. The sign says the place has been open since 1897. You should go.
The Beef and Barrel: Olean NY
This a "beef on weck" place (presumably inspired by Shwabl's) which started out as a single room over 20 years ago and is now most of a city block. They serve big roast beef sandwiches on salty rolls with various sides and various other American dishes which are nowhere near as good. Don't bother, just get a sandwich. I think Schwabl's is better.
Oasis Diner: Burlington VT
Here is an old style diner with a New England accent. Great eggs (they make their scrambled from scratch, no mix), good pancakes, good muffins, good coffee, nice coffee mugs. Home fries were only OK. They have an interesting single queue with an exclusive lock order processing system. Yummy. A bit expensive.
Penny Cluse Café: Burlington VT
Here is a breakfast place where you can observe the Burlington Liberal in their native habitat. Great omlettes, potatoes, pancakes and biscuits. Their famous gravy, however, is not made with sausage and so is sort of morally wrong, although it is peppery and tasty. It's a dilemma, but I'm not one to let such things get in the way of enjoying some biscuits.
The fruit plate was also wondrous.
July 13, 2005
If you find a URL that you think would be of interest to Tea Leaves, one way to bring it to our attention is to use del.icio.us, which I have written about in the past. Simply tag a link with for:peterb or for:psu, and we'll look at it when we get a chance.
I particularly encourage and ask for people to tag exciting indie games that they think we should be reviewing.
I have this problem with cheese: very often, I'll encounter some super cheese, and then finish it, and then the next time I'm at my cheesemonger I have completely forgotten what it was that I was enjoying so much the other day. I have this problem with wine, too.
Of course, sometimes I have the opposite problem, which is that I try some cheese, and it's
revoltingly awful not at all to my taste, but then I forget about it, and I see it at the cheese shop and say "Hey, I've never had that, I don't think. I'll get some." And then I bring it home and taste it and remember that I've hated it before, and then I'm bitter.
I have this problem with wine, also.
Obviously, the solution is to create a checklist of cheeses I've either tried, or haven't tried and need to try, and carry it with me at all times. I'm considering just tattooing it on my back, and then having a friend read it off to me. The only trouble is that then I'll need to carry needle and ink with me to fill in checkmarks in case I find a nice cheese when I'm out.
Fortunately, Piero Sardo has already created the checklist for me: Italian Cheese: A guide to their discovery and appreciation is a great reference, even if most of the time it just makes me upset that I will only be able to sample about half of these cheeses by visiting my friends in Italy.
Hmmm. On second thought, maybe that's not such a tragedy, after all.
July 12, 2005
If you haven't watched today's stage of the Tour, then move along.
On the other hand, if you have watched the race, and you want some insight about how bike racing is both a team and individual sport, then go and find video of the stage and watch the clinic that Discovery put on this afternoon in France. After a weekend where a lot of people where aghast and wondering what happened to Lance's team on that first stage in the hills, Discovery came out today and completely destroyed the entire field. Lance brought his entire train to the bottom of the final climb and then that team proceeded to just ride the entire race off their wheel. They then handed the race over to Lance, who rode even faster. 22K later, Armstrong leads the race again, and every other major contender is minutes back.
So the script from the last six years is on the way to be repated again. Still amazing to watch.
July 11, 2005
I worked my way to the end of this game last night. Action/Platform games usually are not my thing, but this one received nearly unanimous effusive praise both from the gaming press and sources you can actually trust (ha ha). I think the title is similar to Resident Evil 4 in that the core gameplay is really fun, but that core is brought down by a mindless adherence to annoying game design conventions that make the game less fun than it could be.
Note: This review contains minor spoilers.
The combat in this game is, in a word, awesome. The controls are tight and responsive, and every hit is solid and well-defined. Combos easy to pull off, and the most useful combos can be created from natural sequences of button presses. Different attacks are animated beautifully, especially the ones that involve grabbing enemies and breaking them into pieces. When you find a good rhythm playing this game, you turn the main character into a nearly invincible whirling cyclone of bloody death. I wish the combat in Jade Empire had been half this good.
The game also provides an interesting twist on finishing moves via a little mini-game mechanism. These are more of a mixed bag for me, because the timing required to both initiate and continue the mini-game is hit or miss, especially the moves involving the analog stick. Of course, the fact that I can't pull them off is more of an indication that I am old and slow, I suppose.
The magic system is somewhat less interesting, and in practice is more of a safety valve, to be used only when you would otherwise be overwhelmed.
God of War is at its bloody best when hordes of enemies surround you and force you to dance and weave and cut them to pieces. Luckily, you get to do this a lot.
Unfortunately, you don't get to spend all your time in the good parts of the game. Mixed into the combat are platforming levels that range from reasonably fun to so frustrating that you feel your very soul being sucked away through your eyeballs. The most insulting part of this is when, after you've missed the jump for the tenth time, the game asks you if you want to switch to easy mode. This is especially insulting because the easy mode does not make the jumping easier. In the entire game, I can only think of perhaps one occasion where I died enough to want easier combat. Meanwhile, the record for the number of tries I needed to clear some of the more hateful jumping puzzles was greater than thirty.
I put the blame for the hateful quality of the platforming on the decision to give me a camera I cannot control, and to put this camera in places that make the jumping puzzles harder rather than easier. For example, if I'm inching across a thin wooden beam and jumping over rotating blades, and any hit from any object and any missed jump makes me die instantly, the last place I want the camera is on top of my head where I can't see my feet. It's hard for me to believe that a design team that can create such an incredible fighting engine could be so stupid about the camera. This is especially mystifying because it is clear that they know how to place the camera well. Throughout most of the rest of the game the camera does not get in your way. I conclude that they have done this sort of thing on purpose and therefore they hate me.
My two other complaints about the game are the same two complaints I have about most games: stupid save points, and stupid bosses.
The Bosses in God of War are classic old school weird puzzle Bosses. The fact that the combat is fun almost makes them not boring. But not quite. The savepoints in this game are too far apart. The checkpointing system helps, but not if you need to stop playing and come back to the game later. Also, while checkpoints are usually well placed, there are some mistakes. Save-anywhere would have been better.
The final Boss in this game is a classic example of Bad Boss Design. Make sure you have a good hour set aside before you start, because the fight is a three stage deathmarch with no saves between the stages. I will again claim that this is because the game designers hate me. The first stage also has a bug where the mini-game trigger fails because it first asks you to mash Circle, but to transition to the next phase, you have to instantly know when to stop mashing and hit a different button. This means you spend twenty minutes completely mystified about why the mini-game is not working.
The final insult is that when you get to the last stage, the gameplay is completely changed. Instead of the fluid, visceral combat that you get in the rest of the game, the last battle is nothing but a boring dodge and hack-fest. The only saving grace is that after you die a few times the game finally asks you to go to easy mode, which gives you a way to escape the brain-sucking hell that the game has become by that point.
The game looks good, especially for a PS2 game. In general they avoided the normal PS2 "looks-like-ass" filter, although the in-engine Kratos doesn't look so good from the front.
The game is short. This is good. The game feels about the right length. I've played it for a couple of weeks and got to the end before I was completely burnt out. I could use nice leisurely turn based game now though.
Some of the monsters all make the same noise. That's a bit boring.
The game has some puzzles that are easy without being stupid. If that makes any sense.
After beating the game, you get to watch all the movies. I like this feature. The cut-scenes are pretty.
The story is reasonably interesting, though nothing great. The game re-interprets Greek mythology in the same way that Oliver Stone re-interprets American history in the late 20th century.
Overall, I think the fighting engine more than lives up to the hype, but the rest of the game drags it down. It's demoralizing to pulverize an army of enemies only to fall to your death over and over again because you can't jump from one perpetual motion machine to another or because the game decides to throw a mind-numbing Boss in your way. God of War is good, but not great. It's certainly not good enough to play twice, except maybe in Easy mode.
July 08, 2005
We drove from Pittsburgh to Burlington for a friend's wedding over the 4th. We drove through 3 states and stayed in 3 hotels and one cousin's house in 4 different towns. The towns ranged from medium sized college towns to a small Albany suburb, to a rural population center in the middle of nowhere in northern New York. This last place was small enough to not even have a Starbuck's.
Every single place we stayed had high speed network. Two of them wireless. Two out of three hotels gave us the service free (ok, the cousin's house doesn't really count). Surely this is a commentary on our times. A geek toy like the interweb, which only a few freaks had heard of a little more than ten years ago, is now more ubiquitous than a triple venti two pump decaf vanilla no whip mocha with sprinkles.
July 07, 2005
Today I have a simple question. I was playing the GBA port of Zelda: Link to the Past and was searching the interweb for clues into the flow of the game. What I found was a universe full of material about another matter entirely. You will recall that when Wind Waker was originally released, a lot of people complained about the "childish" look of the game. Having never seen any of the other games, I hadn't thought much about this, and figured the kids were just pissed off because the new game was different. But apparently I was wrong.
As always, I had completely underestimated the psychotic idiocy of the true fan-boy. So here is my question. The Zelda games all tell the same basic story of a small man/boy who wears green tights and runs around a fantasy land after a Princess who, apparently, has been kidnapped over 15 dozen times in order to find magic items and save the world from pure evil. In addition, as far as I can tell, Wind Waker is a game with literally dozens of little design problems. There is the stupid camera system, the awkward combat mechanics, the annoying inventory management, the endless sailing, the stupid jumping puzzles, the slavish adherence to the same old tired form and plot, the sloppy controls, the boring boss battles, and most of all, the evil and idiotic save system. And, in the face of all of this, the main complaint that you can muster is that the look of the game is not "mature" or "realistic"? Are you fucking nuts? It's a child's fantasy story, and all of the games look like just that, a child's fantasy story. Get over it.
Yes, I realize I am a bad person for not liking this game that much.
July 06, 2005
It's the first week of July, which means the Tour De France has started again. The Tour, of late, has taken on a certain sameness. Lance starts, Lance stays out of trouble, Lance wins in the mountains, Lance takes more time in the time trials, Lance wins the race. While some would want you to believe that this makes the race boring (and they are, to a certain extent, correct) one should always keep in mind exactly what it takes to be the guy that does what Lance is doing.
As we pointed out last year, the Tour is made up of three types of races, day by day:
1. Flat road stages.
2. Mountain road stages.
3. Time Trials.
So, the first thing the guy who wins needs to be able to do is always do well in each type of stage. He doesn't have to win every stage, he just has to not lose time to anyone "important", that is, anyone else who might be able to win the race. He has to be strong enough in the time trials to either win or not lose time. More importantly, he has to not lose time on hills. Miguel Indurain won the race five times while never winning a road stage by doing these two things. But people who can do these two things don't come around a lot. That's why in the last decade, there have been basically two major strong men in the Tour: Indurain and Armstrong.
But, there is more to this than just the physical. To win the race, you also need to avoid the myriad of little things that can take you out of the race, or make you lose enough time that you may as well quit. You need to avoid bad days.
Now, if you watched the race at all, you know that this is easier said than done. The early road stages in particular are plagued by high speed crashes that will lose you the race immediately. Every single one of the major players who might have won the race in the last few years have crashed out of it in one way or another, sometimes more than once. If you think back, Ullrich has crashed in both a road stage and a time trial. Levi Leipheimer crashed out on the second day of the tour a few years ago and has never really made an impact since. Tyler Hamilton crashed and rode most of the race with a broken collarbone. Beloki crashed coming down a mountain.
Don't get caught in the back
A few years ago, half of the contenders for the GC got caught in the back when the field split in a vicious cross wind over a road that got flooded. They lost around ten minutes, and therefore the race, by not paying attention for a critical twenty minutes. Lance never does this.
Lance has actually done this a couple of times. But each time, he managed to limit his losses and make them back later.
Don't get sick
Every year you hear about people dropping out because of food problems, stomach problems, or other health problems. Somehow Lance avoids this.
Don't have bad days.
So, think about it, in six races over (say) 15,000 miles and 120 days, Lance and company has only ever had maybe four or five bad days that I can remember. A few minor crashes, bonked on a mountain once and in a time trial once. He has had his share of good luck (i.e. being able to avoid Beloki that day), but for the most part, the most amazing thing about this run is the consistency of the Lance and his team in winning the race year after year. In the face of hundreds of potential problems every day, they pull through and manage to make it a race where all Lance has to do is ride faster than the other people. Nothing else gets in the way.
This, I think, is an amazing fact that the day to day coverage of the race doesn't really illustrate.
Six years, never two bad days in a row. That's how you win the Tour.
Forty-five minutes after I wrote the above text, Team CSC came within a few seconds of holding on to the race leader's jersey by almost beating Lance and Discovery Channel in the team time trial. But, coming into the last kilometer the yellow jersey, Dave Zabriskie, crashed. So another good day for Lance, another bad day for someone else.
July 05, 2005
In my family, growing up, the men played Pinochle and the women played Mahjong.
Later in life, this became a source of vexation to me, because the men so clearly got the short end of the stick. First of all, to play Pinochle you have to use a stupid Pinochle deck, which isn't any use whatsoever when playing War or Go Fish or other card games that normal people play. Secondly, there was some sort of unwritten law that said that in order to play Pinochle, you have to have at least one guy smoking a really stinky cigar, which is gross. Lastly, if you're playing Pinochle instead of Mahjong, then you don't get to play with the cool, clicky tiles that you can use to build pretend igloos if you tire of the game. Verbally, the games were about a wash, each with its own special brand of nonsense words ("meld" and "trump" versus "chow" and "pong").
Because of all this, and because, let's be frank, I was a mama's boy, I asked my grandmother to teach me Mahjong. She did. Thanks to Grandma, and thanks to the miracle of modern computer technology, I'm still playing today.
I don't actually play the exact same game today. As an adult, I've become enamored of the traditional Chinese rules which are much purer than the ones Grandma used. What I was taught by the bevy of very amused old Jewish women were "American" rules, which involve making hands that are published each year by the National Mahjong League. This version of the game has several innovations, all of which serve to make the game worse, in my opinion. First, in order to "really" play American Mahjong, you need the card that lists the winning hands, which change annually. So right off the bat, a game with simple winning conditions is complicated. Second, in American Mahjong there's a "trading round" where you pass off unwanted tiles, as in the card game Hearts. Most significantly, the American deck has jokers. I think all of these rules are bad on their face, so for the rest of the article you can assume that I'm talking about Chinese Mahjong (specifically, Hong Kong Old Style. There are many other variants of Mahjong. See some of the links below for more information.)
The simplest way to describe the game is "Gin, with tiles." A summary of the rules — and I'm omitting many details for brevity — is as follows. Each player's hand has fourteen tiles (more can be accrued during play). The Mahjong tileset consists of three "suits" (circles, bamboo, characters) with tiles numbered 1 through 9; there are four of each numbered suit tile, four dragons of three colors, and four of the four winds (East, North, West, and South). The goal is to compose a hand that consists of four "tricks" and a pair. A trick can be a numerical sequence of three tiles in one suit (a "chow"), three of any tile (a "pong"), or four of any tile (a "kong"). Tricks can be hidden in your hand or, if created by picking up someone else's discard, exposed. You can pick up a discard to complete a pong or a kong from any player. You can only pick up a discard to complete a chow if it was thrown by the player sitting to your left. You can pick up a discard from any player if it completes your hand (at which point it is considered proper etiquette to shout "Mahjong! In your face!" and do an amusing little dance involving pelvic thrusts. This dates from the Qing dynasty.).
Most of the complications in Chinese Mahjong come during the scoring phase, where there are many complex rules to determine how many "points" the winning hand was worth, which translates directly into how much cash everyone else has to pay you.
The biggest problem with Mahjong is that if you're not a Jewish grandmother or Asian, there aren't many people you can play with, in person. So that means you'll want to either play other people online or play against the computer. Or browbeat your friends into learning to play, but that's beyond the scope of this article.
Which brings us to the present day, wherein if you google for "Mahjong computer game," you will get approximately 8 billion hits for "solitaire mahjongg". This game, which I believe was made popular by the game "Shanghai," has absolutely nothing to do with Mahjong except that it uses the tiles. It is a variant of Concentration, where you match tiles, except the tiles are visible — let's call it "concentration for really, really stupid people." The only analogy I can come up with is that it's like people developing games called "poker" that involved building houses of cards with Poker decks.
There are, and I assure you I do not exaggerate, hundreds upon hundreds of these "solitaire mahjongg" games. There are so few true Mahjong games that you can enumerate them.
Q. - Will there ever be a version for the Mac?
A. - Sorry, no.
Nine Dragons has a demo of Hong Kong Mahjong available for download, so if you're on the Windows platform, you should check it out. The game also includes a very nice tutorial. Four Winds Mahjong also has a devoted fan base on the PC side of the room. I prefer HKMJ because of its wall-centric view — it feels a bit more like you're actually "there."
If you are on a Mac, you're out of luck unless you're able and willing to run in Classic or Java. There are a bunch of Classic applications, none of which are superb. The best of the lot is probably Mahjong Parlor, which amusingly lets you set the tile voice calls to English, Cantonese, French, or Spanish. Because the thought of being without Mahjong on my Mac is mortifying, I am working on an OS X native Mahjong app in my ample spare time. It should be done by about September, 2016.
There's also SmartMahjong, a Java application that runs on OS X as well as Windows. It lacks the polish of a native app and hasn't been updated in quite a while. And it wants to be run as root, which means I have to press two buttons to get it to work, which means I hardly ever do it.Jade Dragon Mahjong. If you can get past the creepy looking chicks on the homepage and the overall sleazy Taiwanese gambling house aura, the applet is fairly attractive, if slow.
Mahjong can seem intimidating because of the number of tiles, and the scoring rules, but just remember this simple fact: If you can play Gin Rummy, you can play Mahjong. So the next time you encounter yet another uninspired reimplementation of Shanghai, why not spend some time playing real Mahjong instead? You'll be glad you did.
- If you'd like to play true Mahjong on your computer, this list of true Mahjong computer games is the first and most important resource to use. The Yahoo! Games in-browser Java applet is pretty good. The Internet Mahjong Server works too, but I found the (native) interface even uglier than Yahoo's.
- If you want to play the wrong kind of Mahjong, you can visit the National Mahjong League
- If you want to play the really wrong kind of Mahjong on your mac, this list of stupid "solitaire" Mahjong style games should help. For Mac or Windows. On the Mac, at least, I'd say my favorite game of this kind is Aki.
- I've been kind of cruel to "Solitaire Mahjong" in this article, even though it is actually an interesting game in its own right. I think the reason it gets under my skin so badly is the breathless descriptions of it being from antiquity, a prime example of Orientalizing something in the name of profit. Really, the game was invented by an American in 1981.
- Here's a fair summary of the Chinese Mahjong rules, although it leaves out discussion of the flowers, which impacts scoring.
- One of the nicest things about playing Mahjong in real life is enjoying the texture and sounds of the tiles. The Mahjong Museum has many nice photos of different sets made from different materials.
- As always, Wikipedia has a good general reference article on the game.
- There are many variant ways of spelling "Mahjong" in the Roman alphabet. If you're going to get all pedantic on me in the comments, I will preempt you by pointing out that really it should be spelled "麻将"
- Lastly, the Sloperama Mahjong FAQ is simply superb from top to bottom. I especially enjoy their selection of antique books on the game (this one is particularly brilliant, make sure you get past the intro), and their detailed section on determining what your Mahjong tiles are made of.
July 04, 2005
Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed, a long-time couple.
How the hell did that happen?
July 01, 2005
The last few months have been filled with a steady stream of hype, drool, drool-induced hype and general nonsense about the coming of the next generation consoles. The "next gen", we are told, will bring us unprecendented processing power which will allow us to create fantastic gaming vistas full of particle effects, physics engines and environments that are normal-mapped and pixel-shaded out the ass. All of this, it is said, will provide an unprecedented level of "realism" and therefore "immersion" in future games.
This is, of course, stupid. Even without looking at the tech demos, I can safely predict that hardly any of the new games will be any more realistic or any more immersive than Mario and Luigi on my GBA.
First of all, the position that game worlds are in any way realistic is ludicrous on its face. I can easily think of two examples that support this fact. First, crates that contain health packs (or, if you prefer, plants that contain money). Second, consider The Chronicles of Riddick. This game takes place in a really crappy looking prison full of really mean people. So, do this experiment. Walk up to one of these mean people and do this: jump, jump, jump, jump, jump. At no time in the game does doing this cause your character to have the living crap beat out of him. In other words, game worlds are such a primitive model of reality that they can't even get basic interactions correct. It doesn't seem to me that a single hardware generation will be enough to bridge this gap.
Second of all, we don't really want the gap bridged. See, it's a game. Building a game world that models every detail of the real world would result in a game world that is really boring. Games are generally an escapist fantasy that we use to leave the real world for a while. The last thing that we want is to be put back into it. That's like putting people in THE MATRIX and telling them to have fun. The trick to designing a realistic game environment is to have just enough realism, but not too much.
This is because it is exactly the differences between the game world and the real world that make the game immersive and make you want to keep playing. You don't have to walk around the game world on your own, you push two sticks and various buttons to move at amazing speed over great distances. In the game world, a flick of your wrist and a couple of button taps are enough to send 15 really mean enemies to horrible bloody deaths. In the game world, a small green plant, or a little box with a red cross on it heals your injuries, because it would be pretty boring to have to go to ER instead of playing the game more. In the game world, it's easy to leap across huge chasms or high over the basketball hoop. It's even easy to jump into the air, and then jump again to go a bit further. In the game world, you never get lost because your GPS ran out of batteries, because a good game always shows right where you are on the map and how far you have to go to get to the next area. In the game world, you always have something interesting to do, some important mystery to solve, dozens of zombies to shoot in the head, or a galactic civilization to save from violent and war-like races.
In other words, "realism" and "immersion" in games are not only not correlated, they are actually working at opposite goals. Truly immersive games allow the player an escape from the real world by manipulating the reality of the game world in strategic ways so that the world is always fun and you never want to leave. This level of immersion comes from the game design and the implementation of the mechanics of the gameplay. It does not come from the game engine any more than great user interfaces come from the window manager rendering primitives. This is why, for all the fancy hardware, graphics engines, parallel processing engines and mega-memory bandwidth, hardly any of the games on the new consoles will be any more immersive than Mario and Luigi, which runs on hardware that would have passé in 1990. This is probably as it should be. New hardware comes around every few years, but truly excellent games are more rare.
This interesting presentation turned up in one of my google searches on this subject.
Here are more thoughts on the subject.