March 31, 2006
Once again, Tea Leaves is proud to be one of the few sites on the web that doesn't have a stupid and irritating April Fools' joke.
I say "Bah, humbug!" and I'm proud to do so.
March 30, 2006
For two years in graduate school, I lived in North Carolina. One of the things you learn about when you live in North Carlina is what good pulled pork tastes like. Good pulled pork is pork shoulder, or the whole pig, cooked over a low smokey fire for many many hours. In the part of North Carolina where we lived, the meat is also marinated in a vinegar and pepper sauce. The result is meat that is textured but tender, and is infused with the flavor of the smoke.
I moved from North Carolina to Pittsburgh almost 15 years ago, and have never had passable pulled pork in the city limits until tonight.
There were a few places that came close. But in general, what passes for pulled pork in this part of the country is chopped up tasteless meat dunked in liquid smoke and about a gallon of bad sauce. Good pulled pork has taste even if it is not sauced at all.
Tonight I went to the new Red Hot and Blue franchise at the Waterfront, and although they do not serve the most sublime BBQ pork that you can get, the stuff is decent, and it at least tastes like real meat instead of a mashed up saucy pudding.
Red Hot and Blue is a chain that originated in Washington DC and has several stores in that area and along at East Coast. There was even one in North Carolina that we used to go to. I had feared that the place would not be very good because the last couple of times I had eaten in the Red Hot and Blue in Rockville, the meat had been a bit marginal.
But tonight, the pulled pork was tender, and tasty. My only complaints are that some pieces were dry and overall the meat was not quite as smokey as the best stuff. The corn muffins were also stupid. These problems are easy to overlook, because at least we can now say that there is decent pulled pork in Pittsburgh. All lovers of well cooked meats should rejoice. But, if I catch you going to this place and ordering the chicken, I'll hurt you.
March 29, 2006
There are a few funny things about my craving to play Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
First, I won't really like it. I had this problem with Morrowind, the previous Elder Scrolls game. I mean, I played it. It was "interesting." Mostly, I think I was in awe of the sheer audacity of the game — the scope and size of it, the varied environments, and architecture, and clothing styles. The intricate magic system and the wonderful, wonderful books scattered all throughout the land.
But, y'know. Let's be honest. As a game qua game, playing it was sort of like watching grass grow. I expect Oblivion to be more of the same, only with a higher polygon count. (If I'm wrong on this, feel free to correct me)
Next, I don't have a machine to play it on. My PC is woefully underspec, and I somehow, mysteriously, lack the motivation to drop $1500 to get something capable of playing it even marginally well. I was also holding out on buying an Xbox 360 until Oblivion came out, but now that the moment is here, I feel "meh." If I am going to buy another game machine, I want to buy a good one, which means a Nintendo DS, probably.
My best estimate is that I am doomed to not play Oblivion until someone gets 3d acceleration in Windows emulation working on the new Intel iMacs. Then I'll buy a copy of Oblivion, install it, and then complain bitterly that tilt mislead me with his praise of it.
So, in summary: I really don't want to play Oblivion, because my left brain tells me it will suck, but at the same time I feel like I have to play Oblivion, because my animal brain is afraid that I might be wrong, and then other people might be having more fun than me, which means I MIGHT BE A BAD PERSON.
March 28, 2006
Over the weekend, the New York Times published this depressing profile of a growing service in the food industry where you pay someone to be your prep cook. Apparently, the way this works is that for a nominal fee, you are given use of an industrial kitchen space and told how to "assemble" your dishes from the vats of ingredients that are given to you. This article is just the latest indication when it comes to food, certain Americans suffer from three pathologies: sloth, ignorance and denial.
We can cover these one by one.
The obvious motivation for using a prepared food service is that the client does not want to spend the time to purchase and prepare the food himself. I can understand where this motivation comes from. The modern life is a busy one, with multiple conflicting requirements filling our days. But, I have a problem with the claim that someone's life is so busy that he can't cook the occasional meal. The main argument I can make about this is a personal one. Anyone who knows me also knows that I am the laziest person on the planet and yet I manage to crank out a few meals a week for me and my family. Admittedly, my wife does much of the planning and shopping. But I do most of the preparation and cleanup. The main trick here is to replicate what the prepared food service would do for you, but in your own kitchen. Cook large dishes that amortize the work across multiple meals. Cook a lot of lazy food.
And, for those nights when you have to do something from scratch, fall back on quick and easy dishes, like Chinese meat stir fry (make the rice ahead with your Zojirushi). There are dozens of great dishes you can make in twenty minutes with some practice.
Finally, the NYT piece quotes some ludicrous statistic indicating that men still don't cook. I say, kick their ass. Make sure the load is shared. In this day and age, a man who can't cook is a pathetic creature indeed.
If laziness gets people in the door, then ignorance is what makes them pay the rent. Consider this quote from the piece:
So Ms. Robbins now goes to Dream Dinners in West Seattle, where she spends just under two hours assembling dishes like cheesy chicken casserole and Salisbury steak from ingredients that have been peeled and chopped for her. She does not have to pick up a knife, turn on a stove or wash a dish.
Chicken casserole? The chicken casserole that I used to cook when I was an undergraduate went something like this
1. Put rice in a baking dish.
2. Add cream of chicken soup.
3. Mix in cream of mushroom and cream of celery soup.
4. Put chicken pieces on top. Mix around.
I find it hard to believe that someone would need a service to make this dish for them. But I've been surprised before.
The Salisbury Steak is equally mind boggling. You will recall that Salisbury Steak is a mainstay of not only elementary school lunches, but also Swanson frozen dinners and such, where the nondescript meat is always accompanied by a white gluey "potato" product and some desiccated apple "cobbler."
The question I have is: how can anyone in their right mind pay prices comparable to what you would pay at the prepared food deli at Whole Foods for something that is basically what you can pull out of the freezer at the 7-11? Ignorance.
In the end, the value proposition for one of these prep-cook services is something like this: you pay them premium prices for food that you could probably buy at the deli for not much more. In return, you go to their house and help them finish the dishes for you. While paying hard-earned cash for food like this is confusing, I can understand the motivation. People are busy, they'd like to avoid cooking. That's fine. What I truly can't understand is the level of self-delusion that one needs to buy this fancy takeout, and then go actually to the place to assemble the food in some pathetic attempt to preserve the feeling of having actually cooked something. The truth is, no cooking happened. What happened was that someone took food, and put it in a box so they could then take it home and heat it up. This is denial of the highest order.
Let me be absolutely clear. I understand why people don't want to cook. I can even forgive people cooking crappy food or buying crappy food at the takeout counter to take home and feed their family. I would not prioritize my life this way, but people have disagreed with me before. What I cannot forgive is people lying to themselves about what their true motivations are.
If you want to avoid cooking, then avoid cooking and be happy with yourself for having done so. You should be at peace with your life decisions, and you should structure your life around your priorities not mine. What you should not do is deny that food and cooking are worth your time, while at the same time trying to convince me that you want to preserve the family meal as an institution. You are buying fancy takeout food. If you claim anything else, you are just lying to me and yourself. Stop that.
March 27, 2006
This issue's topic: everyone's favorite Playable Classic, Ultima IV.
March 23, 2006
I picked up the new Metal Gear Solid 3 special edition because the promise of playing the game with a real third person camera intrigued me. You have to give Kojima credit. If nothing else, he has a sense of style, and he does not take himself too seriosuly. Things happen in the latest Metal Gear game that you just can't imagine happening in, say, Splinter Cell because the latter game puts up a pretense of being a serious take on the action/stealth genre.
In Metal Gear, you can kill snakes and frogs and alligators and eat them later to heal yourself. You can do field surgery on bullet wounds in the middle of a firefight without taking cover. You can hide in cardboard boxes. The main bad-ass hero looks sort of like a green monkey when he runs through the jungle with his gun and knife. All of these things, give the game its own unique feel and style. And that's sort of fun. It makes the Splinter Cell games seem stiff and pretentious.
The same can be said of the cut scenes. And oh boy do you get to watch cut scenes. Here's what happens at the end of one section of the game:
1. Short cut scene introducing a main character in the game.
2. You walk out the door.
3. Longer cut scene introducing major villan in game.
4. You walk down a hill.
5. Even longer cut scene establishing main plot conflict in the game.
6. A 5 minute radio tutorial on field surgery.
7. Another short cut scene.
8. The opening credits roll, James Bond style, and thus you find out that the level you just played was the tutorial.
9. Then, you start the first actual chapter of the game with another long cut scene.
In all, the gameplay content of this 45 minute segment of the game consisted of running across an empty field and using the surgery menu.
But, this isn't really the problem with Metal Gear Solid. The real problem with the game is that these cut scenes are more fun than the actual gameplay. I had forgotten that camera problems aside, the gameplay in Metal Gear Solid is just broken.
Here's how the introductory level played out for me.
1. Come into an area.
2. Look for enemies. Spot one over there.
3. Crawl around in the grass to get closer. Stand up, oops, didn't stand up enough so I start crawling again. Stand up again. Move a bit. As I pass by a tree, I turn 180 degrees around and stick my back to it. Get unstuck, turn around, make too much noise, alert the guard who starts shooting me with a rifle. Run up to the guard, stick to the tree again, taking dozens of rounds to my body. Unstick from the tree, grab the guard and cut his throat. Hide in the grass until the alert music stops. None of the other guards seems to take any notice of the bloody corpse of their comrade lying there in the mud.
Lather, rinse, repeat. The stealth gameplay is not only completely hopeless, it's also completely pointless. You don't really need to hide, because you can be shot hundreds of times without falling over, and your health regenerates automatically. This gives you plenty of time to knife everyone in an area and then heal up after your killing spree. I can't decide if this is by design. It would be in line with the style of the game to sort of wink and knod at "stealth", and then make it possible for you to get to the next cut scene any way you see fit.
Of course, combat is no better. The only effective third person attack you have is the grab-and-knife thing. Using ranged weapons is just as tedious as in the previous games. You must use the first person view to aim your gun, but every time you do this your view completely resets in some random direction.
Targeting grenades is equally futile as there is no easy way to control the distance the object is thrown. Burning yourself up with your own grenade is depressing.
It's true that the new re-make of the game at least fixes the third person camera to not be actively hateful. It's too bad they didn't modernize any of the other parts of the gameplay engine. Just imagine if the main character in the game could really aim his weapon quickly and fluidly like he does in the cut scenes.
In the end, I used this "run and knife" strategy to make my way all the way to the first big Boss in the game. Strangely, it was very similar to the first Boss fight on the boat in Metal Gear Solid 2. There was the Boss, over there, running back and forth in a simple pattern shooting me. There I was, on the other side of the screen in an endless search for a way to both stay behind cover and actually aim my weapon so I could hit the Boss.
Eventually, after following the pattern a few dozen times I'd have shot him enough to kill him. But there didn't seem to be much point. I would have been really bored by then. And all it would lead to is another cut scene. I turned the PS2 off and went and found my copy of Madden.
March 22, 2006
It was, quite arguably, the best game of its era: X-Com: UFO Defense. It had everything. A gripping plot. An approachable, iconic art style. Furious, deadly combat. An easily-learned user interface.
It spawned a number of official sequels, and a few imitators, but none of them had the impact of the original. And you can understand why: if you want to play X-Com, you can play X-Com. It's a game that comes so close to perfection that it's hard to argue that you even need a sequel.
I could probably write a long article on why X-Com is such a wonderful game. I'm not going to write that today. Today, I'm writing a review of X-Com's spiritual sequel, UFO: Aftershock. UFO: Aftershock both is and is not a sequel to X-Com. The developers clearly want to tread the line of enjoying the aura of the earlier product, while not actually getting sued for it. Judged as a substitute for X-Com, UFO: Aftershock (inevitably) comes up short. But judged on its own terms, it brings some intriguing things to the table. Let's take a look at what they are.
X-Com is a turn-based tactical squad combat game where you operate a secret intergovernmental authority that investigates and fights a growing space alien menace. Only one of your squad's soldiers (or the enemy aliens) can move at one time. Some time ago, I suggested that you could categorize strategy games by the intersection of their control quantum and how movement occurred. In that article, I said "I'd love to see more squad level games where combat is resolved simultaneously."
Well, UFO: Aftershock is at its heart a squad level game where combat is resolved simultaneously. It is the direct sequel of an earlier game, UFO: Aftermath, that was released several years ago to decidedly mixed reviews. The good news is that Aftershock is more interesting than Aftermath.
Combat is implemented as a curious mixture of X-Com and Baldur's Gate. On the one hand, you need to direct your squad members explicitly. By default, the game will pause when a squad member has no orders. On the other hand, you can also pause the game at any time and issue new orders for a squad member, adding to or superseding previous orders. Unlike X-Com, all movement and combat is resolved at the same time: you give orders to as many of your men as you like, unpause, and they go forth to conquer or perish.
In UFO: Aftershock, your squad members are a bit more resilient. They can take more damage, they can heal each other more effectively, and they are modeled with more personality. In X-Com or Jagged Alliance, it's perfectly common for one lucky shot to blow away a squad member. In UFO: Aftershock, it's more typical that either everyone in the squad survives, or everyone dies.
Furthermore, as the game progresses they level up, and you decide their career path and specialization. This starts happening almost immediately, at a much faster pace than in similar games, such as Jagged Alliance. So it's easier to create a vision in your mind of who the character is, and why you don't want him or her to get killed.Laputa, can project power over an area about as large as western Europe. Moving the base around takes substantial time, adding another strategic element to the game.
The strategic game shows promise, and is certainly more involved than that in similar games, but feels somehow tacked on. It's troublesome, because the strategic and tactical games are so different, the overall effect is that each feels like it is interrupting the other. X-Com had this problem too, but combat (at least in the early part of the game) happened much less frequently. This gave you some time to adapt to the strategic game and get some production underway. UFO: Aftershock, on the contrary, rarely allows a single day to pass before forcing you to send your exhausted marines out on another assault. The end result of this is that the strategic game was complex enough to intrigue me, but the game never allowed me to play it enough to feel confident that I was learning its subtleties.
But, of course, a gritty, oppressive mood does not by definition make a squad combat game bad. Many designers strive mightily to impart just such a feel to their games. The problem here is that I — and, let's face it, everyone else — are comparing the game to its spiritual predecessor, which had a cartoonish, anime style, and a sensibility that came out of the British UFO TV series. Viewed as an attempt to recapture this feel, the game falls short. But viewed as a birds-eye alternative to games such as Rainbow Six, it works quite well. It's all a matter of perspective.
There are a few bugs that are annoying, though not crippling: ammo sometimes disappears, the geosphere screen will pause for no apparent reason, and teleporters and hot spots that were extremely finicky about where you had to be standing for them to activate. None of the bugs I encountered were crippling,
The bottom line? Hardcore fans of tactical squad combat games may very well want to try UFO: Aftershock for its unusual real-time combat resolution. Players looking for the second coming of X-Com are probably better served by a Gameboy Advance and a copy of Rebestar: Tactical Command.
March 21, 2006
"With an iSight, some chlorine bleach, and two pairs of latex surgical gloves, nothing is impossible."
More context would just ruin it, I think.
March 20, 2006
I'm 4 or 5 hours into the new Shadow Hearts. Currently, I am breaking Al Capone out of Alcatraz, only Alcatraz is in Chicago and I'm with Al Capone's bodyguard, who is a gigantic talking white cat. Who knows Drunken Master Kung Fu. Did I mention the talking cat? I can't really say any more without spoiling the more unique aspects of the plot.
March 17, 2006
Hi. Glad you could drop by so we could have this little chat. Have a seat. Yes, that one there, right next to the Playstation 2 console. Here, have a cup of coffee. It's my special blend.
Now, if you could pick it up — no, don't put that in your mouth — and look at the front. Yes, the front. That's the part with the buttons. Right. Good. Take a look at the lower left part of the console. Do you see that piece of plastic sticking out?
Why yes, that is a memory card. I'm glad you recognize it. This is so exciting! I can see why you were top of your class. Now, can you see what's right next to it? Yes! Right again! That's another memory card! You're two for two so far.
Now, about this game you've developed. It's quite fun. No, no, I'm not teasing you. Yes. Yes, really! I especially like the lava level. And the way you spaced the save points so far apart, to increase the difficulty. Excuse me? Yes, the coffee is quite good, isn't it? Oh, yes, that bitter almond taste is quite distinctive — I believe it comes from the roasting. Well, about this game of yours, there's just one problem. Oh, it's hard to explain it in words. I happen to have your game right here. Let's turn it on and I'll show you.
Now, here, let me just take this memory card out of the first slot, and just leave the one in the second slot. And now just watch...loading...splash screen. Ah, here we are. Main menu. Continue game.
Now, notice that your game freaks out because it can't find a memory card, even though the card is right there, in slot 2. Your game, in other words, only works if a memory card is in slot 1.
Oh my, you don't look at all well. Here. Another cup of coffee should perk you right up. Bottoms up!
What? Why would I only have a card in slot 2? Well, there are quite a few reasons. First off, it's not immediately apparent to a user which slot is which. But if you insist on a more practical reason, many Playstation 1 games, which aren't compatible with PS2 memory cards, were also written by retarded developers, and require a PS1 memory card to be in slot 1. So if I want to switch between PS1 and PS2 games, I need to constantly be switching cards back and forth. Because you, like a disturbingly large number of developers, are too much of a twit to write a game that recognizes a card in either slot. Today. In 2006. In the twenty-first century.
You still don't understand what I'm getting at? Well, to tell you the truth, I suspected that would happen. But don't worry. I have no doubt that by the time you've digested my message fully, you'll never write a game that doesn't use either save slot again. Oh my, you really are looking quite peaked. I've called you a cab. It should be here quite soon.
Here. Have another cup of java for the road. Isn't this stuff wonderful? It's just to die for.
March 16, 2006
Why do we go to Toronto? Mostly to eat. Sure, there are other attractions and cultural activities. But we go there to eat. And we've been there enough to develop some favorites.
Bonjour Brioche (psu and peterb)
This is a French breakfast and pastry place which is a couple of miles to the east of downtown on Queen. The neighborhood is a bit iffy, but the croissant and baguette are not. Their tarts and other fancy breakfast items are also excellent. Somehow I have never managed to try their potato pacakes. Also, they are always closed on Monday when you want to get there on Monday for one last pastry orgy. This makes us bitter.
Despite the name, their brioche is only so-so. But their croissant can kill you with how good it is.
King's Noodle House (psu)
This is a Chinese breakfast and noodle joint at Spadina and Dundas. Excellent congee of all types. They also do the long rolled rice noodles stuffed with beef or shrimp or roast duck or roast pork. They have the deep fried dough that I like, but apparently you have to have grown up Chinese to like those. In the morning you can also watch the guy hang the whole roast pigs, ducks and duck parts in window. That rules.
LAI WAH HEEN (psu)
Simply put, this is among the best, if not the best, regional Chinese food and Dim Sum that I have had in North America. Yank Sing in SF might be as good. Nothing I've had recently in NYC or Boston even comes close.
There are no carts, which will keep the purist snobs away, and it is on the expensive side, but you cannot deny the excellence of the food. They serve up a wonderous assortment of dim sum standards and original dishes that are all perfectly prepared and wonderfully presented. The Shanghai soup dumplings have a tasty meatball and magical soup inside. The crab dumplings are shaped like crabs, and have tiny little fish roe eyeballs. There are dozens of different kinds of steamed dumplings. This is probably one of two restaurants at which I'll order pot stickers.
To go along with this, they also serve huge fancy multi-course banquets with a range of dishes that is too large to even start listing here. We always get stuck on the dim sum, and the last two times we had dinner there, we ordered Peking Duck for two, which, while luxuriously excellent, is too much food. So we've never managed a proper exploration of the rest of the menu.
When we told them we were from Pittsburgh, they said "Oh, no good food there." Given the level at which this place works, I think that's a fair statement.
Wanda's Pie in the Sky (psu)
This place is a few blocks north of Bloor in a little gentrified retail area. They have, as you might expect, really good pie. I don't know who Wanda is or how she got started in pies, but you can pick up her cookbook and find all that out if you want. Good crust, good fillings, good pie. I like the Lemon Meringue.
The Hot Dog Guy Near Sam the Record Man (peterb and psu)
This guy is grumpy and Russian, but his sausages are nicely grilled to a slightly burnt crust. This gives them a nice texture and character. He even has sriracha chili sauce to put on your dog. Avoid the similarly grumpy Russian guy on Bloor street. His hot dogs are lukewarm and have no character.
Nami and Hiro Sushi (peterb)
We've raved about Hiro Sushi before. Hiro's sushi is the best I've ever had in my life. But I eat there less than I like: this is because every time I come to town, Hiro goes on vacation back to Japan, and when he's not there the food isn't as good. Nami on Adelaide is an excellent alternative. The sushi is very good (although not on the transcendent level of Hiro), but the appetizers and the grilled dishes are what you should focus on here. Their "robata" menu offers various fishes and vegetables grilled to order: the black cod saikyo-style, marinated in miso, was particularly superb. So if you want sushi, go to Hiro. If you want a non-sushi Japanese meal, go to Nami.
Yummy BBQ (peterb)
On Yonge, a few blocks north of College, is a completely boring storefront that looks like every other vaguely asian eatery on Yonge, of which there are 8,315. Yummy BBQ is better than at least 8,310 of those. This place serves Korean food, specializing in barbecue. I don't really have the words to describe how wonderful it is. It is inexpensive, tasty, and every dish comes with a few banchan, or side dishes, that are great. One of the side dishes is inevitably kim-chee, of course, but as often as not you'll also get a little dish of macaroni salad that is disarmingly good. And the rice is great. This is one of those places where most of the clientele is Korean, so it's always a good strategy to just go in, sit down, and say "We'll have what they're having."
Strictly speaking, this isn't fair because Ambassador is out in Richmond Hill, a huge Chinese suburb of Toronto. But, you want to come out here to go to the surreal Pacific Heritage Town Shopping Mall and Food Paradise, and also to the Ontario Science Center.
Ambassador has dim sum on the level of Lai Wah Heen for much less money. All the standards are here. Ethereal dumplings, soup, seafood, rice noodles, and some simple kitchen dishes too. What's missing are the extra signature dishes that Lai Wah Heen has, and the huge fancy multi-regional menu of the more expensive place. Sadly, they didn't have the Shanghai Soup dumplings when we went this time, but the egg custard tarts made up for it. They were warm.
Oh. There are also no carts here. But that lets them pack more people into the place.
There are, to be fair, some problems with Toronto, too. Here are some things to avoid while you're there.
Every Restaurant in Little Italy (peterb)
After three separate trips, we have concluded that there is no good food in Little Italy in Toronto. How this is possible mystifies us, but it's true. If you ever think you might want to go to Little Italy, just go to the hotdog guy on Yonge and pay him $20 for your hot dog. It'll still cost less than a trip down College St., and the food will be better, too.
Don't Drink the Coffee (peterb)
We were just on the verge of writing an entire article about how consistently undrinkable the coffee in Toronto is. The lack of good espresso, in particular, is becoming somewhat infamous. As we were sharpening our pens, however, we found one place that makes an espresso (and cappucino, and so on) that is almost good (by which we mean: it didn't taste great, but they got the texture just right): Bulldog Coffee, just off Church St. about a block south of College. Unless you can get to this place, just don't bother with coffee at all, if you can help it. If you absolutely must have coffee somewhere else, your best bet is to just go to Coffee Time, or (gasp!) Starbucks. Everything else is undrinkable swill. Bonjour Brioche's coffee is OK too, but they don't count, since they're never open.
If you think we're wrong, please feel free to tell us where in town we should go for coffee, and we'll be glad to visit the next time we're there and find out that it sucks.
March 15, 2006
Here we are, six months into the "next generation" of game consoles, and what should be a headlong charge into a future of gaming nirvana now seems more like a head first dive into a concrete wall. Without a helmet. The Xbox 360 came out of the gate almost stillborn. There were shortages. There were hardware problems. There were no games. Sony's new machine is nowhere to be found, no doubt bogged down by Sony's quest to exploit "convergence" in the living room. What "convergence" means in this case is that you give Sony a lot of money for the right to have your living room stereo system be extremely difficult to operate. Microsoft is playing this game too, but from the PC side of the world, which means that their solutions are even more expensive and harder to use.
Sony and Microsoft appear to be convinced that the way to win the next round is to build tons of features that nobody really wants.
HD Graphics. Nobody really cares. Actualy, I should rephrase. Anyone who cares spends his time in his basement figuring out how to liquid cool his new AMD Superthong-64 and ATI Xtreeeeeme quad-screen SLI 800 video card. In other words, no one who really matters cares. Sony has sold 200 million Playstation 2 and Playstation consoles, neither of which can render a decent textured and antialiased polygon. They'll probably sell another 100 million PS2s before it's all over.
Online "Community". A place where 12 year olds call you their gay bitch.
Media Center. In a world where a device that is as smooth and well integrated as Tivo is still not easy enough for most people, what hope do these network streaming media boxes possibly have? None.
Downloadable Retro. I've griped about this before. Expecting me to be happy about spending $400 on a machine to download clones of 10 year old games is not the best business move.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, Nintendo has shown a controller no one cares about. Who knows what they are thinking, but at least you can count on them to concentrate on, you know, games, instead of synergystic multimedia cross-licensed digital entertainment platforms. There is no doubt that the Revolution will do well in the traditional role of the Nintendo console: being a showcase for Nintendo's game production genius. Also, everyone thought the DS was nuts too, and look how that turned out.
The DS actually points out one way the next generation should be moving. This is because smaller machines are always better. Unfortunately, the industry at large doesn't seem to believe this. Despite the fact that sales of portables saved the industry from an overall down year in 2005, you can say with confidence that the next large scale AAA title is not coming out on your DS or PSP. Where is Final Fantasy 13 for the PSP? Where is the next great Zelda adventure for the DS? Why is it that, with a few exceptions, the handhelds are relegated to ports, smaller scale games and especially novelty and puzzle titles?
The problem can't be hardware. Both of these machines have graphics that are decent by home console standards. The PSP has decent analog control, and the DS has the cool touchscreen, so lack of good controls should not be an issue. Both machines have networking capabilities that are superior to any of the current home consoles. No wires needed! And, both machines have a true next generation feature that is so critical, and so important that the fact that the industry continues to ignore it defies comprehension:
You can start and stop the game instantly and at any time.
I've harped about this before, but system-provided instant sleep makes your gaming experiece so much better that once you have it you simply can't understand why you would play a game that doesn't support it. With all the copies of Madden that I have in the house, which do I play most? The PSP. Why? Because I can just pick it up and play it. I can start a game when I get home, flip the switch when I need to cook dinner, and then pick the game up again when the kid is in bed. No booting, no loads, no menus. I just flip the sleep switch and I'm back in the game. For once, I have complete control over my gaming experience.
I want all my games to do this. I want it more than shinier graphics, more memory and bigger hard disks. I want it more than more online modes. I certainly want it more than a controller that I can fish with. So my challenge to the industry is for you to get off your collective self-important asses and rather than making me games with higher resolution artwork and not much else, give me some real games for the handhelds. I don't want to hear excuses about platform limitations, control problems, or resource constraints. These are the best and most modern machines that I currently have for playing games. I'd like something big to do on them.
March 14, 2006
It was a game I had been looking forward to playing for quite some time.
When my review copy arrived, I was thrilled, simply thrilled. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. That evening, I perused the manual as I installed the game on my PC, ready to be transported into an exciting new world.
And then, as the install process finished, a window popped up informing me that the "StarForce" copy protection software/malware had been installed, and that I should reboot to complete the installation process.
How quickly a tranquil Christmas can turn into horrifying Halloween.
"StarForce," for those of you not in the know, is a set of programs designed to interfere with the proper operation of your Windows PC. The stated goal is to prevent copying, but given that the company that makes it is based in Russia, I think we can safely assume that their real motivation is simply they hate freedom, and want to destroy us and contaminate our precious bodily fluids.
The truly pernicious thing about StarForce is that it is installed with kernel privileges, thus allowing it to do more damage than your average program. And it's not as if it's a shim program that runs only when you're running the game: it's a device driver that is in operation all the time. Now, whenever people criticize StarForce, their PR team shows up talking about how it doesn't decrease the reliability of systems it is installed on, how it is rock solid, and so on. This is a lie. Allow me to explain how this sort of thing actually works, drawing on my many years as a software developer.
1. Every program that has ever been written since the beginning of time is a buggy pile of garbage.
2. All modern operating systems run most programs in user mode, not kernel mode. This means that the lousy programs you run can, generally, only hurt themselves.
3. When you run a program with kernel or administrator privileges, it can now screw up the other processes on your machine.
4. And not only can it do so, it will do so, because it, like every program ever written, is a buggy pile of garbage.
Now that the StarForce infection was on my system, I had two serious problems. First, I needed to remove the malware. I'll explain how I did that, below. Second, I needed to decide whether to pan the game because it installed a virus on my system.
Occasionally, I read a hand-wringing article on gamasutra or elsewhere, lamenting that PC gaming is dying, and wondering why. Allow me to explain why: I am reasonably confident that any random crack written by a Ukrainian hacker, downloaded from gamecopyworld.com is less likely to sabotage my computer than simply installing a game off a storebought CD or DVD. I'm no marketing expert, but I think that this just might be part of the problem.
"But wait!" I hear the game publishers whine. "Game consoles have copy protection, too! Why aren't you criticizing them for it?"
That's a good question. There are two good answers. First, disc-based copy protection on a PC shrinks the market for your game substantially. Second, I use my PC for work. If your stupid game interferes with my work, I will rip your arm from its socket and beat you with the bloody stump until you die.
Let me explain what I mean by "shrinking the market." As compared to a game console, a PC has precious few advantages. PCs are heavier, more complex, and more expensive than game consoles. The one advantage PCs have is that many of us lug around laptops with us so we can do our work. When I get on a plane, I have to remember a lot of stuff. I have to remember my wallet, my keys, my passport, my laptop, my hotel reservation, and so on. If you think I'm also going to remember to lug around a case of CDs or DVDs so that I can play your game, which probably isn't all that good anyway, you are sadly mistaken. Game publishers (and, of course, StarForce) are fond of claiming that crack sites like gamecopyworld are intended to help people "steal games". I'm sure that some of this goes on. That being said, most of the people I know who use those sites use them so that they can play their legally acquired edition of your stupid game on their laptop without having to travel with their entire library of discs.
In other words, those of you in the PC gaming industry who promote disc-based copy protection schemes are trying as hard as you can to sabotage what may be the only advantage your platform has. This is so moronic that it practically defies comprehension. This, of course, is in addition to the fact that all of the disc-based copy protection schemes make your buggy, crashy programs even more fragile and less reliable. In our group of Neverwinter Nights players, for example, all of us at one point or another installed cracked binaries because it was the best way to make the product not fail so much.
The second reason copy protection is acceptable on consoles, but not on PCs, is equally simple: I use my PC to get work done. If a braindead copy protection scheme goes horribly wrong on my Xbox, the only harm done is that I can't play a game. If your kernel-privileged copy protection scheme is installed on my PC, you are threatening my livelihood.
Recently, I uninstalled a program — Etherlords II — from my system, and also removed the StarForce drivers that it left behind. I then rebooted, and one of my disks was trashed, and lost gigabytes of data (most of it backed up, thankfully).
Maybe it was just a strange coincidence. Certainly, it's not enough evidence to go around saying "StarForce trashes hard drives!" But whether or not it's rational, I absolutely believe on a personal level that StarForce is to blame.
My kernel is not a toy for you to screw around with. Keep your hands off. And game developers, stop wondering why no one buys PC games anymore. We don't buy them anymore because you keep fucking us over.
Here's a thought: spend less time and money deploying software intended to keep people from stealing a product that isn't worth stealing, and spend that time and money figuring out how to leverage the advantages of the platform you're using, rather than trying to cripple and defeat them.
And, of course, the funniest thing — I don't mean "funny ha-ha" but "funny pathetic" — is that StarForce doesn't actually work. Anyone who is actually motivated to pirate a given game will be put off for no more than five minutes. The main effects of StarForce (and similar schemes) as copy protection are twofold: they cost developers money, and they frustrate and punish the legitimate consumers of the product.
What To Do?
None of this dicussion, however, helps me answer the question of whether I should pan the game that installed the malware on my system. It is however engaged, in a roundabout way, with my other favorite question: "Why are video game reviews so uniformly terrible?" Returning to Neverwinter Nights as an example, I'd say about 1 out of every 4 people I knew had difficulties with it, early on, as a result of its Safedisc copy protection.
I cannot recall reading a single review that talked about this. Plenty of discussion about it on internet forums, plenty of discussion among my friends (particularly my laptop-using friends), but in commercial game reviews? Not a word.
So: either game reviewers are shining, magical beings made of pure light whose Quantum Luck Field prevents them from encountering problems such as these, or they simply don't think this matter is worthy of discussion. Whatever the case, it is clear that these game reviewers live in a different world from the rest of us.
So, here's my promise to you. I'm not going to automatically pan a game just because it uses StarForce. But from now on, every Tea Leaves review is going to at least mention the copy protection scheme used by a given game. If I had trouble with the game because of the copy protection, I'll mention that, too. I hope other reviewers will do the same. And if game publishers don't want to be criticized for using copy protection schemes that degrade the quality of their product, then I guess they'll have to make their choices a little more intelligently.
If you lay down with dogs, don't be surprised when people notice that you have fleas.
How To Remove StarForce
Here's how to remove StarForce 2 from your system, assuming you haven't rebooted after it has been installed. Fire up a command shell and remove these files: %SystemRoot%\system32\drivers\sfsync03.sys, %SystemRoot%\system32\drivers\sfhlp02.sys, %SystemRoot%\system32\drivers\sfdrv01.sys. Next, remove these registry keys using regedit: HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Services\sfsync03, HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Services\sfhlp02, HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Services\sfdrv01. Lastly, google for a "crack" for your game so that you can run it without having it try to reinstall StarForce on you. If you rebooted before doing these things, then the malware will have installed some device drivers that are a bit stickier to remove. You'll need to do some more work to get rid of those, but that tutorial is beyond the scope of this article.
March 13, 2006
If there are two things dorks like to do more than anything else in the world, it's tell you why their favorite widget is the best one to ever grace human existence and why your thing is just barely better than the organisms breaking down the compost pile. They will back up their opinions with arguments that use repitition and vociferousness to make up for what they lack in facts. Usually, they all boil down to putting up a one or two aspects of a product's performance over all others as the sole determiner of quality.
Since I have, at one time or another, been an dork enthusiast about nearly everything, I have a humble list of examples here.
Imaging and Warmth
Back in the late 80s and early 90s when people still cared about LPs, I was a poor graduate student and bought a turntable and a lot of used records to build up a collection of jazz albums on the cheap. Of course, you can't chuck a rock an few feet from a turntable without hitting a a balding slightly overweight former electrical engineer who will declare to anyone who listens that digital is horseshit.
When pressed on the subject, the most important reason that he will provide for devoting your life to the church of the turntable and the tube amplifier can be summed up in two words: "imaging" and "warmth". Warmth refers to a combination of frequency response distortions in analog recordings, and most typically has to do with a gradual roll-off in the high frequencies. This does not interest me so much as "imaging" or "soundstage".
Imaging refers the mystical ability of a two channel sound system to recreate a sense of the space in which original performance occurred. The claim is that a particularly excellent two channel recording played back on a particularly excellent two channel system will have this magical sense of space.
They call it a "soundstage" because, well, you can't see it, you can only hear it. All those instruments perfectly localized right to left and back to front, right there in front of your ears. Of course, there is a problem with this. Do the following experiment next time you go to the PSO. While the Brahms fourth symphony washes over you, close your eyes and listen to the soundstage. Quick, where is the first cello sitting? I bet you can't tell. That's because without specialized training, we just aren't very good at localizing specific objects using sound alone. That's why we have eyes.
My advice: if you want imaging from your stereo, hire the PSO to play in your living room. It's probably cheaper on a one time basis than what the High End wants you to spend on that turntable and tube amp. Meanwhile, the High End guy should remember that whatever digital may or may not lose in terms of imaging, it more than makes up for in ease of use, portability and resilience against damage to the media.
Wow, That's Really Black
From audio, we move to video. The purchase of a large television has permanently damaged my brain, and I'm taking it out on you. Here is how I know. We took a long weekend in Toronto, and I put a video into the DVD player in the hotel room and was amazed by what the crappy hotel TV did when the screen went black. The screen went black. This is something my new TV doesn't really do. Actually, I am saying that wrong. The TV does go black, it just doesn't go totally black. A live black screen is more like a slightly non-uniform cloud of very very dark blue. This is normal for rear projection sets, because to go black the display engine has to block all the light from that bulb. CRT sets like the one in the hotel room can go all the way black because they just turn off the electron gun and send no beam whatsoever. The fact that I even care about this is clear evidence of my new insanity.
There are those in the home theater world who point to this one fact as the crucial reason why rear projection CRT displays are still superior to all the new-fangled big TVs. Never mind that I you can put a 50 inch digital projection TV into a space barely larger than my old 30 inch direct view. Never mind that you never need to fuss with the alignment of three CRT guns. Never mind that you can watch HDTV football in full daylight with the sun hitting the screen itself (something that doesn't work on my direct view CRT). Never mind that you don't have to call the calibration guy every few years to put everything that's drifted out of adjustment back into place. You simply must buy a CRT set for one reason and one reason only: it can really get black.
Now, don't get me wrong. I would love it if my fancy TV's blank black screen looked exactly the same as if the TV were off. But I'm not willing to give up its other advantages to make this happen. I want a screen that is larger than the 34 inch limit on direct view CRTs and I don't want a TV that takes up the entire volume of my living room the way a rear projection set would. Our new TV is already stupidly big, I can't see buying a larger cabinet.
So, there are two things you can do to make yourself stop worrying about this:
1. Turn a light on. Any ambient light in the room, and I mean any, completely masks the blank screen black level advantage, especially if it reflects off the CRT screen.
2. Don't watch the credits. Dark scenes in movies generally look good. It's just the completely black screen that is distracting. Just don't watch it.
Meanwhile, we can all wait for SED, which will give us thin, large, TVs that do blacks perfectly.
The Camera is just a Light-tight Box
I had a hard time choosing a camera fallacy, because there are too many. My favorites are this one, and the one where the guy who mostly takes pictures from a tour bus while on trips worries that his $4000 EOS-1D Mark II feels too "plasticky", and that maybe he should buy a Leica instead. Never mind that the toughest camera I ever owned was an Olympus Stylus Epic, which was mostly made of plastic.
Ironically, this statement is usually used to justify the purchase of a particularly expensive camera. The camera dork will examine his purchases and say to himself, "well you know, the important thing is these excellent lenses." The worship of lens tests is particularly strong among Leica dorks, since the alleged technical superiority of the lenses is the only thing Leica really has going for it since it forgot how to make camera bodies that anyone really cares about. But, the Leica people are by no means unique. The internet forums for all of the major brands are filled with people with much more money than photographic experience agonizing over whether the "L" series Canon lens is worth the 2x or 3x cost premium to get that extra half a stop for the dark places or slightly sharper corners, or less vignetting when wide open, or whatever.
Then they will go off with their new toy and shoot handheld, with direct flash, a noon, and come back to the forum and ask why their pictures don't have that pop like their favorite photographers. The truth is, the reason those pictures that they love are so great has nothing to do with the magic of the glass. The optics don't read the light, pick the angle, expose the shot at the right time, and finally make the print look good. The optics just sit there. The truth is that the best lens you have is the one that's on the camera when the picture is in front of you. The worst thing you can do is spend $2000 on that "Professional Caliber" zoom lens that has that delicious constant 2.8 aperture and works great wide open, only to leave it in the hotel room because it weighs more than your child.
These days, I have two lenses, a wide zoom and a not so wide zoom. I generally only carry one at a time though, and just take the pictures that work with that lens. That way, I think less while shooting, which is always good. The sage photographer/printer David Vestal always said, don't think while shooting, thinking is for when you are not shooting. I say that's good advice. I would add: when in doubt, don't agonize about lenses.
March 09, 2006
We're going to Toronto for a long weekend, so this is the perfect time to flush out the state of my game playing and mix it up with small nuggets of confusion. In other words, a "clip" article.
Recall that the "M" and the "M" in MMORPG stand for "Massively" and "Multiplayer." With this context, consider the following complaint that I have read in multiple gaming forums and web sites: World of Warcraft sucks! There aren't any solo missions.
So, let me get this straight. You want to pay for the network connection, the subscription fee, the price of the game and the PC to play the game on so you can play a single player campaign mode? In a Massively Multiplayer game? Can someone explain this to me? Or is this in the same bucket in which rationales for savepoints are stored?
Once again the zombie hordes have been vanquished. I even finished the extra PS2 side mission. The main game would have been cooler playing as Ada I think. The zipline gun is fun. Next, there is Professional mode, and maybe a handgun-only speed run.
XBox 360, Still Meh
The Xbox 360 is so lame that a major shiny military shooter with a strong online component can be released... and I still can't get interested. I think the DS-Lite looks cooler. It seems to me that the PS2 can actually complete pretty effectively with the 360 for at least another year. This is because the core market force behind people adopting a console is not so much features, graphics, performance, online marketplaces, or media convergence abilities. All that really matters is what all your friends own, and no one I know has a 360 (well, except sprang).
The new Shadow Hearts hit today. To get in the mood, I also got Dragon Quest VIII. I think with these in hand along with Shin Megami Foobar and my small collection of retro PS1 releases for later, I'll have enough to keep my busy until the Xbox 360 isn't completely pathetic.
I've played a bit of DQ, and I predict I will get tired of the savepoint studpidity. But the fights and the cartoon art style are fun.
I fired up Shadow Hearts: From the New World just to go through the first area. Gay merchant couple: CHECK. In the first ten minutes of the game there are three obvious references to the previous game. This is going to be fun.
I don't think I will get past the end of the medium song list in Guitar Hero. They need to make a special edition for old guys with retarded hands. Still, I can get a lot of mileage from the quest to get a perfect score on Smoke on the Water. I think another year of practice will get me there.
March 08, 2006
We all have them. Maybe you wore a denim jacket all through Junior High school. Maybe you think, when no one is looking, that Cyndi Lauper is actually pretty cool. Maybe you memorized the order in which Star Trek episodes first aired. Whatever your particular secret shames are, rest assured that everyone around you has their own as well.
We spend a lot of time and effort on this weblog talking about food. In the process, we radiate megawatts of attitude about things that you should care about, such as authenticity, honesty, simplicity, and quality ingredients. We have even been called "food snobs" or "foodies", although I maintain I am actually more of a "chowhound."
Occasionally we try to defend ourselves by pointing out that we like hot dogs. But let's face it: the hot dog is too indie, too hip, too ironic a food to be truly shameful. Saying you like hot dogs is like wearing a Quisp t-shirt at a Fugazi concert: "Look at me, everyone! I'm so square, I'm hip!"
So today, I'm not going to screw around. Here, for your enjoyment and horror, are my real, honest-to-goodness, secret food shames. Most of them do not form a large part of my day to day diet; most of them I avoid for various reasons. But not eating and not liking are two different things.
10. Port wine cheese food. I don't actually buy this, but every time I walk past it in the store I feel this tug, this pull to get it. Sure, it's crap. Sure, it is extruded from a space alien spore farm. But it has the salt, and it has the sweet, and it has the crazy colors, like a lava lamp that has been somehow alchemically converted to food. If you have this stuff at a party, I will wait until I think no one is looking, and then I will eat it.
9. Ritz crackers. Well, you gotta have something to eat the port wine cheese food on. Oh, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. How you fulfill me.
8. Bacon-flavored textured soy protein bits. It's a very simple equation: one small leaf of iceberg lettuce + an entire bottle of Bac-Os ® brand fake bacon bits = crunching until your head explodes from happiness. Normally I'm first in the line against fake foods, but I heartily endorse this use of astronaut technology to imitate the taste of bacon.
7. Any sugared cereal with all three primary colors. But especially Fruity Pebbles. The fact that they're so tiny lets you maximize both the surface area which can be covered in sugar, and the rate at which the sugar hits your bloodstream, making you feel like a tiny god.
6. Soft pretzels that have been injected with cheese food, and then deep fried. I'll die young, but I'll die happy.
5. Donuts. Not boutique donuts, not beignets, not churros, not homemade donuts. American donuts. Donuts made in a store, by a megacorporation, by the millions. The more soulless and institutional they are, the better they taste.
4. Coca-Cola. Yes, it's disgusting acidic sugar water. I used to drink three or four a day, and now I only drink perhaps three or four a year (typically, with pizza. It's the morally correct thing to drink with pizza). But it is, by this point, part of my DNA. I can't even imagine how many of my neurons are devoted to detecting the subtle, almost nonexistent taste distinctions between various colas.
3. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. I can more or less eat these until I go into a diabetic coma.
2. Dairy Queen Blizzards. As cheese food is to cheese, so Dairy Queen soft-serve powdered and reconstituted ice cream product is to real ice cream. I don't actually like their ice cream cones very much; when it comes to fake ice cream, the east coast Carvel chain has my heart under lock and key. Is there any child from New York that doesn't know that in Heaven, you can eat Carvel vanilla cones with rainbow sprinkles all day long? I think not. But no one outside of the eastern seaboard knows who Carvel is, so I'll use Dairy Queen as my example, with their Blizzard shake, which was the answer to the question "Hey! How can we possibly get more sugar into this thing?"
All of this goes to prove a few things. First, what you like and what you eat are not necessarily the same things. Second, to some extent our taste (or at least my taste) for foods exists at least partially on a preconcious level. It doesn't really matter that I know that Fruity Pebbles are garbage — that doesn't make me not like them on that gut level. Lastly, it proves that the next time I recommend some hypersophisticated Italian cheese that costs $26/pound, you should snarkily comment "Oh, sure, right. Like I'm going to take advice on cheese from a guy who likes port wine cheese food."
Since I'm going to Toronto this weekend, and will buy cheese there, you'll probably have a chance to do that next week.
I am now completely out of the
closet pantry. Those are my secret food shames. What are yours?
March 07, 2006
Today two short notes based on reader feedback.
First, in the area of crackers, I was finally at the Geagle and remembered to look for the special British crackers that Kim mentioned in a comment on cookies. McVitie's Digestive Biscuits are, indeed, the real thing. They are slightly sweet, and wheaty without being grainy. They are also less crumbly than the Carr's knock off. I love this kind of cracker for blue cheese and such. You can pick your favorite application.
Second, thanks to Stephan for reminding me in email that the people who bought out Chopstick Inn opened a new smaller place in that space called China Star. Rather than Cantonese seafood, it looks like China Star has a mostly Americanized Szechuan and Mandarin menu. But, it also has a menu written only in Chinese with some specialties on it. I can't read Chinese, but Stephan was resourceful enough to provide translations. The twice cooked pork belly and the beef tendon in the Szechuan pepper and chili oil were both yummy, if a bit oily. I think they have that dish that is supposed to be tripe and lung in the same pepper sauce, although my mom says you can't really get lung in the U.S. You should go just to try the cool Szechuan "ma-la" sauce. It has a very distinct flavor and mouth feel.
China Star reminds me of a similar small place in Wexford called LUCKY which was open a while back but changed owners or something. It's not quite on the same level as Rose Tea, but good for a change of pace.
March 06, 2006
...And, in an amusing bit of synchronicity, my copy of the abridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo arrived in the mail today.
It confirms my prejudices. Read the full version of the book, or don't read it at all.
March 03, 2006
I was going to rant and foam at the mouth tonight about the sorry state of the current battle in the consumer electronics industry over "convergence" of entertainment devices in the living room. Unfortunately, I'm just not interested enough in the problems to really build up to a good froth.
So instead, I'm going to write about something light, friendly, and enjoyable. A couple of weeks ago, we went to see Curious George. Here we have something rare in modern Hollywood: an adaptation of a well known and beloved character that is not so offensive as to make you want to disembowel the production team.
Adaptations like this must be really really difficult to do well because in recent years almost every attempt resulted in something that should have been melted down and turned into soda bottles. You have to applaud the people who made Curious George for doing several obvious things right:
No Live Action
You can't take a book that is illustrated in a cartoon-like style and turn it into a live action film. It just doesn't work. This seems obvious, but apparently someone as intelligent as Mike Meyers didn't understand this.
Happily, not only is Curious George not live action, it is drawn in a style that is a throwback to classic animation and fits perfectly with the style in which the books were illustrated. This is the first animated film in a while that actually looks like a cartoon. Seeing the pastel shaded little monkey get up and start walking around was just magic if you grew up with this book.
I'm going to unfairly pick on Shrek now. This is mean, but I think it is critical that someone hears this. I think this because the trailers that ran before Curious George started point out a disturbing trend children's cinema. People seem to think that all you need to do to make as much money as Shrek did is to take zoo animals and transplant out of their normal habitats on the flimsiest of narrative excuses and then equip these animals with a combination of utlra-detailed rendering and a constant stream of hip cultural references. I counted no fewer than four upcmoing movies in this batch of trailers that were cut out of this mold.
Apparently the thought is that if you render the animals in a way that is stupid enough, you will entertain the children. Especially if they make fart noises. Also, as long as one character spends the whole movie doing an Eddie Murphy standup routine, you will be able to keep the parents from remembering that they are in a room full of screaming children who are not really paying attention to the movie (because the movie is stupid).
Here is what I have to say: STOP. Instead of just making Shrek over and over again, you should find a story someone wants to watch and then build an art style around that story rather than just aping the latest Pixar or Dreamworks magic.
Respect the Material
Don't be condescending to either the audience or the original story. The audience are not morons and the original story has held up for longer than some of the filmmakers have been alive. Therefore, don't dumb it down or dress it up.
Curious George followed this rule well. Some aspects of the story that were anachronistic were adjusted, a few new details and subplots were added to make the film hold together, but the film resisted the temptation to add gratuitous "complexity" or "maturity" to the story. This made some critics complain that the story was shallow or simplistic. These critics are stupid. This is a children's movie. You don't need a complicated and mature plot in a children's film (see "No Shrekisms").
Use good music
Having done nothing horribly wrong, the place where the film does something extremely well is in the music. The soundtrack by Jack Johnson hits just the right tone, and is light, clever and swinging without being sentimental or saccharine. I love the music in this movie, and buying the soundtrack reminded me how much fun I had watching the film.
You should go and have some fun too. Bring a kid, or don't. Just sit there in the dark and let your feet dance to the songs.
March 01, 2006
Like everyone who suffered through high school English classes, I have always maintained a healthy disrespect for "the classics." What I learned from English class is that, for the most part, literature is a form of punishment, where drab and joyless works are held up as exemplars to be studied, dissected, and ultimately emulated. In college, our freshman English classes were run by disaffected Marxist TA's. They showed me that when examining a text — among grad students, even a cheeseburger is a "text" — worrying about the quality of the writing, as opposed to its political significance, was the sign of a stunted bourgeois mentality.
So it came to a shock to me when I read Treasure Island as an adult, and found that it was a thrilling, vibrant read: not simply a great story, but a well-written book. Where was this book all my life? Why subject students to The Scarlet Letter and stamp a boot into the face of their urge to read, forever, when you could give them a book they couldn't put down?
This month I began reading The Count of Monte Cristo and am having that same feeling all over again. It is a book that is so superbly crafted, so honed, so polished, that — to borrow a phrase from Douglas Adams — every few pages I have to suppress the urge to break into spontaneous applause.
"I mean to propose a meeting in some quiet corner where no one will interrupt us for ten minutes; that will be sufficient -- where two men having met, one of them will remain on the ground." Danglars turned pale; Cavalcanti moved a step forward, and Albert turned towards him. "And you, too," said he, "come, if you like, monsieur; you have a claim, being almost one of the family, and I will give as many rendezvous of that kind as I can find persons willing to accept them."
And now, having read the book, I see that he was right.
We are children of Hollywood. Any story can be pitched in 10 seconds or less. If the story has heart, and we can get Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis to star in it, it doesn't matter how shabby the writing is. Anger over this was, I believe, one of the factors underlying A.S. Byatt's blistering excoriation of the Harry Potter books in the New York Times. I enjoy Rowling's books very much. I think she's a wonderful storyteller. But being a wonderful storyteller is a different thing than being a wonderful writer. Rowling, however powerful her stories, does not write beautiful sentences. To give a more extreme example, Frank Herbert's Dune is a book with a compelling story but that is so badly written that you should read the Cliff's Notes version instead.
The inverse of this problem, to find a piece of writing with beautiful sentences but a stupid, dull, or boring concept, seems to me to be more rare. Perhaps this is because good writing, to some extent, is its own excuse. But it does happen, as in Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which is an endless succession of beautiful sentences wrapped around a moral and intellectual vacuum.
Dumas writes beautiful sentences. That they maintain their beauty in English is to the credit not simply of the translator, but to the directness of his prose. He was a 19th century Frenchman who, with his ghost writers and collaborators, wrote clearly and simply, yet with great subtlety. Compared to his contemporaries (consider Dickens), Dumas' writing was as sharp-edged as Raymond Chandler's. Monte Cristo works today because it is the convergence of both great writing and a timeless story of love, loss, and revenge. Subsequent expressions of boyish id-birthed fantasies, such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, James Bond, and Batman, all have their roots in Monte Cristo's Edmond Dantés. One hundred and fifty years after this book was written it still reverberates in Western culture.
"I am brutal, — I not only allow it, but boast of it; it is one of the reasons of my success in commercial business. Why did he kill himself instead of you? Because he had no cash to save. My life belongs to my cash. M. Debray has made me lose 700,000 francs; let him bear his share of the loss, and we will go on as before; if not, let him become bankrupt for the 250,000 livres, and do as all bankrupts do — disappear. He is a charming fellow, I allow, when his news is correct; but when it is not, there are fifty others in the world who would do better than he.
As I said, I began reading it about a month ago. I checked it out from the library, and about halfway through realized that I wanted to own a copy, because I will surely re-read it. Upon searching for one to buy, I noticed something odd. The book I was reading was just under 1500 pages. Nearly every edition I could find was about 500 pages. The version that most English-speaking people read is terribly abridged.
I have nothing against abridgements in general. There are many books that should only be read after they have been judiciously edited. For example, I'd pay good cash money for a copy of The Lord of the Rings that simply had all the poetry excised. And I wouldn't cry crocodile tears if, say, you erased every third word from Umberto Eco's Island of the Day Before. But I cannot for the life of me imagine how you remove a thousand pages from this book and preserve its soul. Perhaps one could tighten up the first few chapters a bit, but beyond that, I don't think I could remove fifty pages without feeling like I had done violence to it. Every page, once the story proper gets underway, is superb.
And the count burst into a laugh; a terrible laugh, that showed he must have suffered horribly to be able thus to laugh. However, the struggle still continued, and it was dreadful to witness. The people all took part against Andrea, and twenty thousand voices cried, "Put him to death! put him to death!" Franz sprang back, but the count seized his arm, and held him before the window. "What are you doing?" said he. "Do you pity him? If you heard the cry of `Mad dog!' you would take your gun -- you would unhesitatingly shoot the poor beast, who, after all, was only guilty of having been bitten by another dog. And yet you pity a man who, without being bitten by one of his race, has yet murdered his benefactor; and who, now unable to kill any one, because his hands are bound, wishes to see his companion in captivity perish. No, no -- look, look!"
I don't have any deep point to make here. Perhaps writing this paean to Dumas' finest work is my way of channelling all that energy created by repressing my urge to cheer while reading it. If you've never read The Count of Monte Cristo, do yourself a favor and pick it up.
Just be warned: you may have trouble putting it down.
- A.S. Byatt's article Harry Potter and the Childish Adult enraged many readers. In places she is terribly, terribly wrong, but to dismiss her points entirely would be a mistake.
- There are people who will comment on this article to say that I am wrong about Dune, that in fact the writing is not that bad. These people are utterly mistaken. Consider that a hilarious parody of Dune was written which got most of its power from lampooning Herbert's turgid, repetitive style. ("So young, she thought. They too, play a dangerous game. And that broad-woman...their mother ? She plays a dangerous game. Everywhere you look, somebody's playing a dangerous game. Yet, if we are to bend these Freedmenmen to our will, and hire them as help for the business, we must play a dangerous game, too. Yet it is........dangerous.")
- The full text of The Count of Monte Cristo is online, both in English and en français. If this doesn't motivate you to learn French, nothing will. ("[J]e veux vous proposer un rendez-vous dans un coin écarté, où personne ne vous dérangera pendant dix minutes, je ne vous en demande pas davantage ; où, des deux hommes qui se sont rencontrés, il en restera un sous les feuilles")
- Or, you can buy the book at amazon
- Amazon also carries the Japanese anime version. It's an interesting work in its own right. It is visually bold and unique, has wonderful music, and makes some interesting narrative choices (for example, converting Albert's relationship with the Count from vigorous admiration into an overt homosexual crush was a bold move.) But it's telling a fundamentally different story. Enjoy it if you will, but don't fool yourself that you "know" the book just from seeing the animated version.
- A different, more informed perspective on what makes good writing: Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing. (Summary: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.")
- I'm told that The Master and Margarita is effectively untranslatable into English. I enjoyed it nonetheless.