May 31, 2006

All-Clad Sale

by psu

For all of you out there who enjoy blowing that college fund on shiny pans that you don't need, here is a reminder that the twice-a-year All-Clad sale is going on this weekend, starting Friday.

You can typically get the same pans that you see in the mall at Williams-Sonoma for about half the price. The sale happens because the company is based in Canonsburg, and so twice a year they collect up all the factory seconds and put them in a big room in the South Hills. This year, the sale is June 2 and June 3 at the Washington County Fairgrounds. The directions are rather involved. But here is a google map.

Super-premium cookware is generally more about looks and the aspect of gratuitous consumption than any real advantage in functionality. But at these prices, the All-Clad stuff is a good value. My favorite pieces are the medium sized soup pots and the round saucier pans. The pans hold heat well and can take a beating and come back to life with just a bit of scrubbing. I've burned up my soup pots multiple times on the stove, and they always come back for more.

This year, I'm going to branch out and get a saute pan. I usually just use small non-stick aluminum omelet pans. But I've been feeling paranoid about the coatings that wear off, and I'm tired of not having any yummy brown bits to scrape off the pan when I make meat or caramelize onions.

Doors open at 9am. Be there with your small blunt weapons so you can get all the good stuff before it's gone.

Posted by psu at 08:07 PM | Comments (4)

May 30, 2006

Bitter Is Better

by peterb

It's gotta be 90 degrees here in Pittsburgh today. So here's a simple drink to beat the heat: Campari.

Campari

Campari

It's an odd drink, with a Shirly Templish bright red color and a citrusy, grapefruit sort of taste. Really, that taste is that of the chinotto, or bitter orange. But if it helps with your hipster friends, you can call it the Fresca of aperitifs.

You can mix it with soda, if you like. That dilutes the bitterness and turns it into something weaker, something fruitier, something lamer. Something French, in other words. Some people mix it to taste with orange juice. If you'll take my advice, just pour some on the rocks and add a twist of orange.

What Campari really tastes like, to me, is summer.

PS: Dear Cynthia: I stumbled across your entry on Campari while searching for images to use. So now you know three people that like Campari.

Posted by peterb at 07:17 PM | Comments (12)

May 26, 2006

Vivo

by psu

Six years ago, Karen and I heard rumors about a place in Bellevue that was serving up fancy food. For a long time, we regarded these rumors with some skepticism. Bellevue, after all, is a working class town that is pretty far out of the city. It seemed like an unlikely home for a wonderful high-end food experience. When we eventually hauled ourselves out there we found to our surprise that the rumors were true. Vivo served up an eclectic menu that was both varied and consistently excellent.

The place itself has an understated elegance. There is a bare iron awning over the door and a small sign in the window that says "Vivo". There is a large picture window that looks out on to the street. In the winter, this window is dark, but in the spring and summer it splashes the whole room witha nice diffuse light. There are nice tables and large comfortable chairs. The long wall in the back of the restaurant is covered with black and white photos which I assume are family snapshots from one or more generations back. As you sit down, Sam or Lori will say hello to you from the kitchen. If they aren't busy, they'll come over and chat about things. When we were in there last week, Sam asked about the Pittsburgh Magazine best restaurants party, and then kibitzed for 15 minutes about the state of the restaurant "scene" in Pittsburgh.

Later on, someone will come and recite the menu to you. Earlier in its existence, Sam had long hand-written menus with specials and all that. After a couple of years, he switched to essentially a weekly menu, filled with the interesting stuff that he found in the market at the time. Unusual ingredients is something of a speciality here. Sam does this in a matter-of-fact way that does not exude pretension. And yet this night we had great oysters on the half-shell, fiddlehead ferns, and the chance to order lamb with candied endive, which we had to pass up in favor of other things. Vivo is the first place in Pittsburgh that we ever had abalone, or halibut cheeks. There is always some interesting ingredient or preparation on the menu. But it is not presented to you as high art, or something that took a lot of inspiration and perspiration to create. It's as if you went over to his house, and Sam pulled the stuff out of the fridge.

The menus generally consist of five or six appetizers and five or six dinners. The dinners are a mix of meats and mild fish and other seafood. Each come with a pasta course ahead of the dinner and a salad course after. You can split dinners for an modest up-charge. The up-charge buys twice the grilled vegetable side dishes as the normal entree. This is a good deal, but does not really reduce the amount of food you have to deal with. The food is uniformly excellent. I think Sam's predilections for simple preparation and the use of the grill makes the meat dishes better than the fish. This might just be my imagination, or it could be a function of how hard it is to get fresh fish in Pittsburgh. In any case, I highly recommend the tenderloin, however he is making it. We had it with a simple red wine sauce, grilled mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns and taleggio cheese.

If, after all of this you still have room, the dessert menu is always populated with whatever Lori has recently concocted. She once made us a chocolate panna-cotta, a chilled, extra thick custard. We always forget to ask her to make some ahead of deciding to go to the place. There is also the obligatory four pound piece of flour-less chocolate "cake", a mix of gelato and sorbet, and anything else that she might have thought to make. The coffee isn't super, but it's made better by the large mug and the dessert.

Every time we go to Vivo, we seem to forget how good the place really is, and we come out of the experience almost as surprised as we were the first time. How can a place like this exist in a place like Bellevue? However they manage it, Vivo has been there for the long haul. What Sam and Lori have built here could survive in any food "scene" in the country. We are lucky to have them in Pittsburgh. You should go out there and thank them for it.

A Note

By Pittsburgh standards, Vivo is pretty expensive. The appetizers all go for about $10, and the dinners are in the $40 range for all three courses. I have seen complaints on the net that this is too much money, and that the portions are on the small side. The people who write such things are clinically insane.

Also, here is a map to the place.

Posted by psu at 08:03 PM | Comments (3)

May 25, 2006

The Alchemy of Meat

by peterb

"I want a hamburger. A really good hamburger."

This is me, talking to psu.

"Go to Tessaro's. They have the best burgers in town."

That's psu, talking to me.

But Tessaro's doesn't have the best burgers in town. In the abstract, yes, a Tessaro's burger is almost the platonic ideal of a great hamburger. The meat is cooked perfectly, over a wood fire. It's big and juicy. It's perfect. Except...

Except they don't have french fries. Therefore, their perfect burger sucks.

This is, perhaps, an entirely pre-rational belief. Obviously, I don't really think that the Tessaro's burger sucks qua sucks. But when I crave a hamburger, when I need a hamburger, that's not a mere desire for a certain type of food. It's a spiritual thing; it's the quest for the Great American Hamburger. And listen, the Great American Hamburger does not come with potato salad. It does not come with disgusting, soggy home fries that are some sort of punishment for all my former sins. It does not come with broccoli and cauliflower.

The Great American Hamburger comes with french fries, and anything else is second rate.

This is beyond issues of mere taste. It is magical, alchemical: even bad french fries make a good burger taste better. It's just like transubstantiation, except it actually improves your life.

We ended up going to the new burger joint (part of a chain) called "Five Guys", in Oakland. They made a good burger — very good. The meat was thin and cooked through, but still juicy. The buns weren't too big. They had fried onions, and good relish, and good mushrooms, and other things to put on the burger. It wasn't as good as the $11 burger at Eleven. But then, it didn't cost $11, either. And, most importantly, they had french fries.

Their fries weren't that good, but they were there, and that made their very good burger taste better than Tessaro's great-but-fryless burger would have.

What I somehow need to do is convince Tessaro's and Dee's to open up a shack somewhere midway between the two places. They'd serve Tessaro's burgers, and Dee's fries, and they would make a million dollars every night.

But until then, see you at Five Guys.

Posted by peterb at 06:59 PM | Comments (17)

May 23, 2006

Confusion and Disappointment

by psu

I took Madden '06 for the 360 to Pete's house the other day so he could get a look at the Zombie Peyton Manning. On a whim, I tossed in my controller, figuring that some head to head football goodness would be fun. After all, the controllers are wireless, they should just hook right up and go, right? Wrong.

One of the few good moments you have when opening and setting up an Xbox 360 is pushing the big button on the controller and watching the console light up from across the room. Some magic has happened, you reason, and the controller and console are just able to find each other in the ether. You then get to enjoy the freedom of playing with the gamepad, unhindered by any man-made constraints on your position or motion.

Naturally, after this, you expect that adding a second controller to the box will be similarly magic. So I sat down in Pete's living room, hit the big button, and watched as my controller flashed its lights, blinked, danced, and did everything but actually become usable as a gamepad. Were my batteries out? Was the Xbox confused? We turned the box off, and I hit the big button on the controller. Nothing. We changed the batteries. Nothing. Finally, defeated and demoralized, we did the unthinkable. We opened the manual.

It turns out that the console and the controller do not automatically discover each other. It turns out that you must power the console on, push a button on the console, and push another button on the controller (conveniently located on the back of the pad, where you can't see it, and labeled with, well, nothing intelligible), and only then will the controller and the console talk to each other. From an engineering standpoint, I can understand the edge cases that this mitigates. What if you have four controllers and four consoles in a room and they all power on at once? That sort of thing.

But, as a user, it is criminal that I need to read the manual to figure out how to hook up a second controller to my box, when the first one just worked. Surely, my inner user cries, there could at least be a user interface in the dashboard that would make the box discover a new controller. Surely there is some industry standard protocol for short range wireless devices that would allow the 360 and the controller to discover each other and pair up. Surely I don't have to walk all the way over to the box and hit a tiny little button on the front that isn't even labeled.

Then, an even more horrifying thought came to me. The controller and 360 in my premium pack had talked to each other immediately. Out of the box. How is this possible? As the answer dawned on me, my spirit fell. Somewhere in some back room of a dank Chinese factory, there is an army of people powering up a 360, hitting a button on the front, then hitting a button on the back of the controller, waiting for the lights, and then packing the console into boxes. All this, so the first time I hit that button, the console turned on. Maybe it wasn't worth it.

Posted by psu at 09:31 AM | Comments (2)

May 22, 2006

Best Of The Worst

by peterb
Note: Because of the formatting used in this article, it likely won't look quite right in an RSS reader. I suggest reading the entry in your web browser. If the quoted text below does not appear offset inside pink boxes, you might try doing a shift-reload of the page..

When I first invited psu to be a co-blogger, the thing he was most leery of was the fact that Tea Leaves had support for comments. His previous blog didn't. Pete claimed that he didn't like comments because he didn't want to read what people had to say, because most people on the internet were crazy anyway.

But really, the true reason that psu's old blog didn't have comments is that he is a gay lamer who doesn't know how to program and is stupid and gay and lame and probably uses a Mac.

Oops, sorry — I was channelling some of our more crude visitors there. It happens. In any event, psu is not alone in his opinion. I showed my sister what I think is one of my better pieces, and when she read the comments she asked, "Why are you letting these people put their words in a space meant for your work? What do you get out of it?"

That's a good question, and I am deeply ambivalent about the value of comments. On the one hand, we have a number of regular visitors who regularly contribute thoughtful commentary. For example, Green LA Girl manages to point out where I'm being a closed-minded snob about fair trade issues. Chris from Only a Game often points out some of the deeper reasons behind the videogame mechanics we complain about. There are too many to name here, really, but when I see that there are new comments by Adam Rixey, or Christina, or Brian Hook, or Zarf, or any of the ex-CMU Zephyr crew, I'm always confident that I'll read something intelligent, something thoughtful, something that brings a new perspective to the issue. Even when I disagree with them.

On the other hand — well, the other hand makes up the rest of this article. It turns out that the more you write, especially if you are an opinionated asshole ardent critic, the more you find people willing to hate you. Here are some of our "favorites."

People Who Love P.F. Chang's

Read the original article: PF Chang's: Why It's Evil

psu doesn't like the chain faux-Chinese restaurant P.F. Chang's. This is because he is a gay hippie intellectual loser.

umm yea .. iw ork at PF changs and i duna what PF changs u went to but to make a website up about how evil it is. thats pretty gay. u fucking loser

and...

Compare this to the hole in the wall places you seem to enjoy, usuually a 1 in 3 chance of diarrea 30 minutes later. U sound like one of the faggot hippie wanna-be intellectuals found in the Pitt/CMU area who think they appear more intellegent by the simple act of going against anything mainsteam. Or maybe you have some boring computer related job. And your probably ugly too. You should buy some stock in one of these national food chains, and then you'll appeciate the marketing tactics they use to feed unsofisticated diners, but that would probably violate some lame ethical priniple you made up.

People aren't shy about getting personal:

Reading the initial post reminds me of somone who really doesn't understand taste and/or class, and probably doesn't have a girlfriend because how would your girl feel if your idea of having a special night out included your traditional "hole-in-the-wall" special chinese hut instead of a respectable, clean, and wine and dine offering night at a P.F. Chang's? Of course you wouldn't really know, would you?


People From Iceland

Read the original article: Bj÷rky Had A Little Lamb

I wrote an article urging people to buy local produce instead of meat shipped in from another country. In return, the descendants of Erik the Red came for me. Most of them were polite in their disagreement, but one guy in particular took it very personally:

But hey, you are indeed a part of the American population and my experience is that the american mind has not been taught to critizise, or analyze.

No nation in the world kills as many whales as you Americans do, you can look for the facts yourself.

We did. It turns out Americans don't kill the most whales, and if you exclude the aboriginal catch, we don't kill any. Frailty, thy name is Gu­mundsdˇttir.


People Who Have Sex With Their Cousins

Read the original articles: O Cousin! My Cousin! and Cousin-Lovin' Haiku

We were mean to people who have sex with their cousins. They fought back!

I just wanted to say that your comments on cousin couples was very wrong! I am in a relationship with my 1st cousin, we are getting married in August. We live in England where it is not so taboo to have a relationship with your cousin. I just wish people like yourself would educate yourselves in the facts and not the myths. Maybe if you had spent a litte more time at the cousin couples web site you may have found the facts. I just hope that one day you can look back on your stupid comments and think how wrong you are.

And...

Peter peter peter, your cousin banter stinks ive been married to my 1st cousin for over a year and you have been here with you poems your facts and your tea. Its about time you and your crooners finished ya' tea washed ya cups out and excepted that cousin love is here to stay. All the tea in china will never make a blind diffrence to you your opinion. So im happy here with my cousin and you keep there with your empty tea pot of facts.

This thread took a turn for the seriously weird when some people read the article and apparently didn't understand that we were mocking them cruelly, and began actually asking us for advice:

im 19 from england and im in love with my 1st cousin i need to no is it ok for us to get married iv tryed to look everywer but no wer helps me plz someone email me with information on this subject also what about if we have a baby can there be any problems i want facts plz someone


Snow White and Other Fictional Characters

Read the original article: Idlewild

I wrote what I thought was a thoughtful reverie about childhood, growing up, and the nature of perspective. A bunch of people who worked at "Storybook Forest" decided I was a hateful bastard who hated all children. I can joke about it now, but I was truly scarred by this — for literally weeks I was saying, in wonderment, "Jesus! Snow White is yelling at me."

To Snow White's credit, she wasn't actually yelling all that much — in retrospect, she was quite polite — and she didn't call me a gay lamer who probably uses a Mac. Her manager (Cinderella!) was a little harder on me:

I am the current manager of Storybook Forest and am too in love with the place. I do not appreciate the view that you have of it at all. I could not stand reading this article because you know not what you speak of. So many people have fallen in love with Story Book Forest, I being one of them. I don't like the fact that you have such a horrible opinion of what our forest is like.

Others agreed with the manager:

Obviously you always thought that everything in storybook forest was a big joke, and never looked at the Forest through a child's eyes.. or even with a heart of a child. I know that your article wasn't intended to make fun of Idlewild, but it did offend us, especially us who work in Storybook Forest.


Vegans Who Feed Their Cats Vegan Diets

Read the original article: Vegan Cats

We're often a little bit mean to vegans, in a sort of offhand Tony Bourdain way, but frankly we're not that brutal; having to eat what they do is punishment enough. But an article I wrote pointing out that feeding a cat a vegan diet was immoral and unethical apparently touched a nerve. Like Snow White, the vegans were reasonably polite. The one comment that stands out is that of the person declaring that by recommending that cats be well-fed and healthy, I was simply projecting my bourgeois morals on to the poor carnivorous creatures:

A PS about the "torturing the cat" argument, the idea that vegans are forcing their ideals onto the cat without permission. I don't know of any cat that ever willingly ate the food put in front of them if they didn't agree with it. The food may or may not be healthy, but the cat has to find it acceptable or they won't eat it without a fuss. It's our human requirement that the food be longevity promoting. The cat kingdom has its own set of ethics. If the vegan cats have any objections to their tofu taurine kibble I'm sure they're yowling night and day for something different--subjecting their owners to a torture no human can withstand for long.


People Who Like (or Hate) Some Game We Said Bad (Or Good) Things About

Original articles: too numerous to list, but some of the better examples are Gran Turismo 4, Metal Gear Stupid, God Of Bore, and the sine qua non that inspired this article, Dumb and Dumber

It turns out that in certain circles, it is safer to call someone's mother a crack addict than it is to say that you disliked their favorite videogame. For instance, these fans of Gran Turismo 4, a game I panned, were quite clear about what they wanted to see happen to me:

Peterb - grow up. You bought the game - if you dont like it - deal with it and go and sit in the toilet and cut your wrists quietly and leave the rest of us in peace!

I think you hate this game because you like to perform angsty angry rants. I think you should take up crying in a corner as a hobby instead of taking large, steamy dumps on video games.

I think you've written so badly of it for one of two reasons;
1. You aren't very good at the game.
2. You haven't put enough effort into playing it.

Idiot Reviewer,
Lol really, u suck ^^ and Stop review great game. hehe Practice Practice ^_- one day, u will master car with traction control

Bugs Bunny?

peterb, you are a total idiot. I presume your favourite game is Bugs Bunny, no?
Maybe you should come visit one of the biggest GT sites on the net (87 thousand members, 13,000 threads about GT4, 400,000 posts about GT4)(click my name)(the Interceptor hails from there too) so we can bite your little obnoxious head off... we'll enjoy it, I'm sure...

"Go kill yourself" is one of the more popular sentiments.

If you hate this game so much, why dont you just go kill yourself, because there are sooo many other games that are nothing in comparison to GT4, and if you think there is a better simulator out there, then tell me so i can look for the fake game you told me.

I actually liked this one:

Geez, do you dislike everything this much, what did you want this game to do, wipe your ass too.

Metal Gear Solid fans are quite eloquent:

OMG!! u r like an idiottttt!! lololololooz.zz... just becux u dont lie the game doesn't mnea that it sucks u pissypoo. rmemeber to not be dumb anymore fooobutt munch.

Wow you are wrong son, you don't have any tatse son, your a moron son, your a fool son, lay off it son.

God of War:

The guy proves he's a genre snob, he told us like three times he loves driving games, well dont play other games if you know you'd rather be driving.

Usually people are offended when you say a game sucks. Recently we discovered that people can get incoherent and screechy when you say a game is good, too:

Mate, that article is about the most pretentious, inaccurate pile of crap I have ever had the misfortune of reading, bolstered only by your own belief that you a lot more about RPGs than you actually do.

I guess you're fairly young and have no clue whatsoever how limited those computers that ran arena were. if I recall corectly I played it on a 486 with 4 meg ram. quite pitifull. and limited. my current computer got 1GB ram PLUS 256 MB ram for the video crad. you obviously got no clue how to programm and about the space required for data structures, do you ? ... but I don't expect you to know any of that since *playing extensively* in your mouth is probably as deep as your article is. a couple hours is my uess. no one your age could stand those old graphics any longer than that.


The Punchline

Well, if you're still reading after all of that, I am impressed. You are truly hardcore. I think, on balance, the interesting people and their positive contributions to the comments threads here matter. I don't plan on shutting down the comments any time soon, for that reason. Rather than letting the bad chase away the good, it's important to find a way to let the good rise to the top.

To that end, we are, as of right now, adopting a rule from one of our favorite web sites, Gamers With Jobs. To wit:

"4) You Must Attempt to Follow English Standard - This is not a rule meant to squelch the voices of those who do not use English as a first language, but to remove those for whom English is their primary language but can not be bothered to form coherent sentences. We won't ban you if you choose to haphazardly split infinitives, but the basic conventions of the language are a requirement, I think, for intelligent discussion. That means employing punctuation, capitalization, sentences, paragraphs, subjects/verbs, and the recognized and proper use of alpha/numeric characters (meaning W is not \/\/)."

In other words: you may disagree with us. You may disagree strenuously with us. You may even make ad hominem arguments, up to a point, and call us gay lamers who probably use Macs.

But while doing all that, you have to spell correctly.

This post violates several of the meta-rules I have for the site: it is, quintessentially, "blogging about blogging." But sometimes it's important to take a break and review what you've done. If the quality of one's writing can be judged by the number of people it offends, then psu and I are kicking ass and taking names. We've been at this for a few years now, and it's still fun. Thanks to all of you who have come along for the ride.

Posted by peterb at 09:42 PM | Comments (11)

May 19, 2006

The Cycling Costume

by psu

All fitness hobbies require appropriate accessorization. In many ways cycling is one of the most accessory-intensive activities that you can be involved in. As a public service, I will provide you with a list of things you need, and the real reason you need them.

Gloves

There is no doubt that gloves are important. The gloves protect your hands from potential harm in a crash, and they have a thin and mostly useless layer of padding to shield your palms from too much pressure from the handlebars. But, none of these reasons are why you want the gloves. The truth is, you don't crash much, and if you are riding the bike correctly, you should not have a death grip on the bars anyway. So, you may wonder what the real reason for the gloves is.

It is this. All cycling gloves have a little patch of soft fleecy material on their back. You use this area to wipe the snot off your face. That's what the gloves are for.

Shirt

There are a variety of cycling specific tops on the market. These clothes seem to serve two purposes. The first is to make you look like an advertising banner. If you are female, the second is to give the males in the group something to stare at. Or at least that's what I assume the tightly cut sleeveless short mid-riff tops are for.

It is also important that the shirts are made out of plastic. This plastic is marketed as space age material that will suck the sweat and the wet off your skin and literally pour it out on to the road. Really it's just plastic that absorbs less water than cotton so you don't freeze to death in a cold rain.

Probably the only really useful thing that the cycling jersey provides is the pockets in the back. In the old days, these would hold tools, food, maps, and so on. These days, they can make the pockets smaller because all you need to bring is a cell phone and GPS.

Shorts

Bike shorts make you look funny. And, they have that padded area around your ass. The padding is not there to make your seat feel softer. Nothing will do that. The padding is there to be something slippery against your skin on longer rides, when something not slippery would cause, er, damage to your sensitive skin.

The truth is that if you are younger or you are not riding long distances (more than 20 miles or two hours at a time) you don't really need the shorts. But if you are going longer than that, they are really nice.

Shoes and Pedals

My first bike had plain pedals which I pedalled with plain shoes and no special attachments. Toe clips seemed tedious and annoying, and tricky to get in and out of. Then, one day I was riding to school, and my shoes were wet. My right foot slipped off the pedal, and an instant later, in one swift motion that I can still visualize in my mind, I landed on the top tube of the bike.

I got toe clips the next day.

There is a fundamental truth that it is more fun to ride the bike if your feet are bound to it tightly, and if you are used to this then having your feet dancing and slipping around on the pedals is just pure torture. These days, you can buy wondrous pedals that use spring loaded jaws to lock onto a special cleat and hold your feet to the bike like the it is an extension of the shoe. This is a great way to ride. You can get power into the pedals all the time, and clipping in and out of the pedals is much eaiser than toe clips. The nice ones even hide the cleats in the soul of the shoe, so you can walk around.

The only downside is that you need to buy special dorky shoes to take the cleats. You'd think that someone would make SPD compatible Birkenstock or something.

Shades

NIce sunglasses shield your eyes from the bright fireball in the sky that burns us. They also keep the wind and dust off your face and from getting into your eyeballs. These are all useful functions, but they are not worth shelling out the big bucks for fancy Oakley shades.

Really, people wear them so they can, er, observe the other people on the road and surrounding environment, shall we say, surreptitiously .

Final Thoughts

In addition to all of these items, you should pick up a helmet, for the obvious reasons.

With this information in hand, head out to the REI or you local bike store and load up.

Posted by psu at 07:32 PM | Comments (3)

May 17, 2006

Dumb and Dumber

by peterb

There is, as I alluded in my first article on the subject, plenty to dislike about Oblivion. If you read various reviews and comments on the game, you'll discover there are two rough sets of comments on the negatives.

First, there are the opinions of people who actually identify and discuss specific problems in the game. Secondly, there are the opinions of people who make the broad claim that the big problem with Oblivion is that it is "dumbed down."

This charge of "dumbing down" is — appropriately enough — pure fantasy.

In order to understand what "dumbing down" means, we first have to take a brief digression and understand what "Computer Role Playing Game," or RPG, means. There are plenty of definitions, but the one that is apropos here is "An RPG is the game that I played when I was 13 years old and didn't have any friends, and any game that isn't exactly like that I will complain loudly is not really an RPG." For me, that game is Wizardry, for younger people it might be Final Fantasy, or Fallout, or Baldur's Gate. The specific game doesn't matter. The important thing is to realize that the moment someone trots out the tired phrase "dumbed down" what they really mean is "doesn't suck in the precise way my 13 year-old self wants it to suck."

My personal definiton of an RPG is that anything with an epic plot redolent of adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies and "progression" of a protagonist qualifies. But if you want an even simpler definition, here goes: any video game that at any time, for any reason, shows you more than three numbers on one screen is a computer RPG. End of story.

There are two specific criticisms the Dumb Brigade frequently throws at Oblivion. The first one is especially hilarious. The claim is that Oblivion is really "just an action game" (and by implication, not an RPG), because of the real-time combat and the smooth animations and the dexterity required to play it. Oblivion, the argument goes, is a heinous betrayal of the deep, interactive role-playing offered by the previous Elder Scrolls games.

This, of course, is a load of crap.

The Elder Scrolls games have always been action games. I recently played Arena, the first game, for a significant amount of time, in preparation for a review. It is a game of mindless, nearly constant real-time combat, right down to having to "swing" the mouse in order to make your character swing his sword. Anyone who claims that Oblivion has more real-time action than the previous games in the series hasn't actually played them. The main difference between Oblivion and the earlier games is that the real-time combat isn't quite as boring and stupid and irritating and the terrain isn't randomly generated (by "randomly generated," by the way, I mean "boring and stupid and irritating").

Second, deep interactive roleplaying? Did these people live through the same 1990s as me? Compared to the canned, cookie-cutter, bloodless dialogues in Morrowind, the "Name! Job! Health!" routine from Ultima III seems like freaking Dostoyevsky.

The second complaint of the Dumbfgruppe is that there are fewer skills in Oblivion than in previous games. This, I suppose, is the expression of the belief that more content is always better; presumably these are people who are bitter that various scenes were deleted from the theatrical cut of Lord of the Rings. As for me, I know a good cut when I see one, and the "missing" skills were good cuts. I'm intimately familiar with the skill system from the previous Elder Scrolls games, and frankly I can't say that I miss any of the disappeared skills. The smaller number of skills makes it easier for me to get a vision of who my character is and how he is developing.

Which brings me to my real complaint about Oblivion. It is not that they cut too much, but that they cut too little. Why not get rid of levels altogether? You have all of these skills and a system for tracking them. Then you go and ruin it by coming up with some formula that determines how my exercising those skills, coupled with the phase of the moon, whether or not Saturn is retrograde in Aquarius, and the derivative of the previous week's changes in the Nikkei stock index affect my "stats." Why have non-skill stats at all? Why bother telling me how "strong" I am? Just use my skills to directly determine how well I do, rather than adding unnecessary and wanky complexit.

And make no mistake: the skill and levelling system in Oblivion is unnecessary and wanky. Put simply, you cannot understand it without reading about it on the Internet. That's really all you need to know to know that it is poorly designed.

But it is "poorly designed" in exactly the opposite way that the most vocal critics claim. And if Oblivion was changed to be the more contemplative, intricate, and baroque game these commenters claim to want, it would be less fun than it is. And, not coincidentally, wouldn't sell.

Developing software is always a tradeoff between the planned and the possible, between adding features and meeting the schedule. Oblivion demonstrates this. Many, if not most, of the features of the character system are in place not because they are "being true to the Elder Scrolls universe" or because they are "good". Rather, they were already implemented, were "good enough" and it was more important to get the game they could actually build released, rather than build the perfect game and never ship it. In the meantime, you have to feel sorry for Bethesda as, every day, they have to read complaints from obsessive-compulsives who shout to the rooftops that the game is ruined, ruined, because it won't let them collect candles.

Most of the problems in Oblivion come not from the innovations it introduced, but from the fact that it is the ultimate expression of what it means to be an Elder Scrolls game. The things that annoy in Oblivion annoyed in the earlier games. I don't blame Bethesda for not throwing the setting out — given their succeess with Morrowind, I'd probably think them stupid if they did so. The people I blame are those who, through some sort of mass hallucination, have convinced themselves that they once found Utopia in a buggy, crashy game, and who criticize Oblivion for not living down to that standard.

Every Elder Scrolls game has improved on the past by cutting out more and more. I can't wait to see what they cut out of Elder Scrolls V. It's going to be great. Lest anyone believe that I am being sarcastic, I assure you I am perfectly serious.

Cut deep, Bethesda. Show no mercy, and cut deep.

Posted by peterb at 06:06 PM | Comments (57)

May 16, 2006

Da Vinci Blows

by psu

We were in the local Border's a couple of days ago. I guess we hadn't been there for a while, because all the books were in different places, and the store had cunningly replaced inventory with empty floorspace in order to maximize profit in some way that only makes sense to someone who has studied modern retail more closely than I have. I also noticed that the name of the store should be Borders BOOKS and Music because the selection of available CDs has been constantly shrinking over the last few years, replaced by new shelves of basically nothing, and more floor space.

However, on this night, neither of these annoyances were foremost in my mind. This is because from entering the store until I paid for the couple of CDs that I did manage to find, it was absolutely impossible to avoid eye contact with some piece of the Da Vinci Code hype machine.

There were Da Vinci Code books, Da Vinci Code movie guides, Da Vinci Code travel guides, various treatises on the "truth" behind the Da Vinci Code, Da Vinci Code documentary videos, Da Vinci Code quick reference guides and geneologies. There were encyclopedias on the Sacred Feminine, Pagan Worship Primers, and Symbology compendiums. Finally, there were many other non-fiction tie-ins to Da Vinci Code all dealing in some way with the Early Church, the Knight's Templar, or the role of Lee Harvey Oswald in the single bullet theory of how Da Vinci, no wait, Jesus, was assassinated by the CIA back in the day. OK, I made some of those up, but I bet they really exist.

Here is my question: why.

My wife and I listened to this book on tape on a long drive a few years ago. To call the writing pulp is to insult the great pulp writers of, say, the Golden Age of Science Fiction. The writing is just bad. Not bad in a funny ha-ha way. Bad in a way that indicates that the writer is really going after something that is not bad, and is missing badly. The plot is predictable and moronic, the characters are paper thin and not particularly likeable, the dialog is wooden and serves no purpose than to push the plodding narrative forward through the mud to its ultimately unsatisfying conclusion. The book is B A D. Even worse, on tape you actually have to listen to every word. This makes you notice little things, like how all the expository passages are repeated over and over again in the scope of a single short chapter in case you put the book down on the toilet and then forgot where you were when you come back the next morning to take another crap.

What I can't figure out is why we ended up listening to the whole thing. The book was objectively awful even while we were listening to it, but there is something in it that keeps you pushing the button to listen to the rest so you can get to the end. Your right brain tells you that in the name of all good things you should shut the thing off, but the rest of your brain just can't do it. The book has a hook like a bad pop song that just will not exit your brain (I'm thinking of Hungry Like the Wolf by Duran Duran). This makes it an entertaining romp, while also being a complete piece of shit.

Which brings me to my real question. Not why would you like the book. I enjoyed the book. What I can't figure out is why in the name of Jesus this book should become the center of a national obsession over some shady conspiracy that allegedly happened in the first decades of the A.D. Seeing the displays at the Border's just makes you want to scream at the world: it's just bad fiction. It is not history. It is not archeology. It is not anthropology. It is not some journalistic exposé on the early Church. It is just a piece of pulpy entertainment. That people can read this book and assign to it some kind of truth is mind boggling in the extreme. So my message to you this day is: get over it. There is no secret code, there is no grand mystery, there is no hidden truth. At least not in this book. This book is strictly what you see is what you get. Here endeth the lesson.

Posted by psu at 08:14 PM | Comments (13)

May 15, 2006

Say "Goodbye" to all of this...and "Hello" to Oblivion

by peterb

I've spent a couple of weekends playing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and that means it's time to share my ignorant impressions of it with all three or four of my readers. The question is, since all of the cool kids have already discussed the game in depth, what more can I bring to the table?

Well, I have an angle. Let's see if I can run with it.

Actually, "running with it" is exactly what I want to talk about. One of the things people like to say about Oblivion is how incredibly huge the game world is — how it brings an entire province, a substantial portion of a continent, to life. "It covers an area of approximately 16 square miles," is a commonly heard claim.

Here's the thing: it's not true at all. Here's the other thing: that's OK.

Let's get this out of the way, first. You don't want to play a game that lets you travel across a continent. As anyone who has driven across Kansas can attest, travelling across a continent is something you should prefer reading about to actually doing. Travelling across a continent is an experiment in boredom, punctuated by occasional moments of pleasure or little travellers' epiphanies. When you get old, you only remember the good parts.

It turns out that those good parts are not enough to sustain a viable videogame. Consider True Crime: Streets of L.A., which merely modeled a single city, and which I found to be an excellent substitute for sleeping pills.

If you ignore rivers and mountains, you could probably walk from one end of Cyrodiil to the other in about 30 minutes of real time; the previous game, Morrowind, felt much much larger, even though it was supposedly only half as big.

The real achievement Bethesda should be lauded for here is not for creating a game space as large as a continent, but for creating a game space that feels both huge and interesting at the same time. The world in Oblivion manages to feel bigger than it actually is. Part of this is because of the density of encounters and interesting places to explore, and part is because of the subtle way the biomes and landscape types blend in to each other. Every time I walk to a new city, or set off across country, I am full of anticipation, because so far every single time I have done that, the game has managed to surprise me.

Trust me: you don't get that feeling driving across Kansas.

To give just one example: last night I walked from Lleyawin to Bravil. Lleyawin is a port town, a racially diverse town of some opulence in the middle of a swamp. The buildings in the nicer part of town are almost Georgian, solidly constructed, but with frescoed exteriors. Bravil is a frontier town that, apart from the inhabitants, could have been lifted from Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles: cheap clapboard shacks, flophouses, forts, and bars. As I left Lleyawin, I travelled along the river to search for plants to use in alchemy. Along the way I found a cave being used by bandits as a hideout (there are, approximately, 8 hojillion of these in the land of Cyrodiil). The cave turned out to be the site of a turf war between the Black Bows, who I have been hunting for bounties, and a group of marauders. So I could sneak in and pick them off as they fought each other. Further up the road (and past several bandit attacks), I came across the ruins of what might have been a small lighthouse on a tiny island. It had burned to the ground. No apparent plot significance, no great treasure to scavange from the ruins, but simply strange and beautiful in the evening light.

As I approached the walls of Bravil, I was attacked by a troll outside a ruin. Not having fought a troll before, I started to run, and had just changed my mind and turned to face him when a second troll came barrelling through the underbrush towards me. I ran back to Bravil with my tail between my legs and the trolls nipping at my heels, leaving the poor hapless guards to fight them off as I slipped through the city gates.

There are plenty of problems with Oblivion, and I will no doubt talk about them in irritating detail in the days to come. But it's important to not miss the forest for the trees. The game purports to offer a large and interesting game-world, and in this repect it meets and exceeds its promise. If the only thing the game had was empty cities with varied architecture, and different areas of the world with different ecologies, I would probably still play it. The fact that it offers a lot more makes that all the more compelling.

In the week I've owned my Xbox 360, I haven't once had the urge to put a different disc in the drive. A week may not sound like much to you, but to me, when it comes to videogames, it is an eternity. Whatever niggling issues I have with various game mechanics in Oblivion are dwarfed by the simple fact that I'd rather be playing it than any other game I own right now.

Lastly, for those of you who are waffling between upgrading your PC or getting an Xbox 360 to play the game, just trust me on this and spring for the Xbox. You're going to be playing this game for many, many hours. You'll want to be on the couch.

If you enjoyed this, be sure to read the next article in the series.

Posted by peterb at 06:40 PM | Comments (12)

May 11, 2006

Share a Gift, Share a Care

by peterb

Lately I've been in something of a food rut. A combination of too much to do and not enough time to do it has left me eating out for lunch a lot at work.

Typically, it goes like this: I tell myself I'll make lunch the night before and stick it in the fridge, but then I don't have time, and in the morning I only have time to pack something like a sandwich or some cold cuts, which for various reasons I find more depressing than spiritually fulfilling.

So: how do you, dear reader, solve this problem? Specifically, if you can suggest things that are a minimal amount of work to prepare in advance, and ideally can be stretched to cover several days, while still being yummy, I'm all ears.

I'm hungry. Feed me.

Posted by peterb at 06:06 PM | Comments (9)

May 10, 2006

Shooter Shorts

by psu

I took a couple of days off from Oblivion to play the two shooters for the 360. The two major franchise shooters currently available are Ghost Recon and Call of Duty 2.

Last night, I played the co-op missions in Ghost Recon with tilt. As others have already written, the rendering in the game is remarkable. There are thousands of little details that the artists must have toiled greatly over. Dust flies in the air, cars beep with alarms when you shoot them, the streetlights blink in a completely empty and zombified Mexico City. It's too bad that into this shiny shell, Ubisoft just poured the same tired sloppy, sluggish stupid Ghost Recon gameplay. I mean, Jesus, you can't jump.

The A.I. is horrendous. If they see you, they shoot you through the head instantly. If they don't see you, you can walk up to one of the bots and shoot it in the face point blank with a sniper rifle. There is no rhyme or reason to how the bots act. It's sad that three years down the line, no one has been able to make bots that are as fun to chase around and kill as the ones in Counterstrike. The bots in this game don't even look any better than the ones in Counterstrike since they all move in a strange way that suggests the motion capture is missing frames. They also all have the same face.

The rest of the game plays like Counterstrike in slow motion. Aiming is a chore that involves pushing the stick left and right, all the time fighting the "realistic" momentum that keeps bouncing the gun back in the opposite direction. Moving around the map is similar. It's like everything is stuck in quicksand. The result is that rare shooter that makes me completely motion sick. In addition, the HUD and map displays are so complicated, and the maps are so large that it is often impossible to figure out where the hell you are supposed to go next. I suppose this is designed to make the game feel "open" and "free", but the result is a lot of players running around lost.

The single player is no better, since now you have the stupid bots fighting for you and against you at the same time. I wish I had rented this, but at least I should be able to get enough in trade to get that baseball game for the PSP.

Call of Duty 2 is different. I bought it figuring that I should play at least one of these WWII games, and the last one I tried made Karen scream turn it of, turn it off, turn it off in 30 seconds. This game is doing better so far. But it's still too loud.

The controls, however, are tight and fast. No more quicksand aiming and the sluggish enemies. The A.I. in this game is not great, but at least it does not get in your way. Also, the character animations are smooth and not distracting. Call of Duty doesn't really seem to try and provide anything more than an on-rails experience where you shoot a lot of stuff, but at least it does this well. It's always fairly clear what you are supposed to do next, and if you are supposed to hit some waypoint, the waypoint is easy to find. In the middle, you pick up lots of different kinds of guns and fire them a lot. This is what a shooter is supposed to do, and so this game makes me happy even if it is a bit rote.

Summary: Ghost Recon goes back, Call of Duty is worth a quick runthrough.

Posted by psu at 07:02 AM | Comments (3)

May 09, 2006

360 Years of Solitude

by peterb

Well, that didn't last long. This weekend I gave in and bought an Xbox 360. Here's what you need to know if you've been considering one.

The Bad

The industrial design on the Xbox 360 is beyond bad: it is a goddamned abortion. There are absolutely no redeeming features to how the console has been put together. It weighs a billion pounds, has an external power brick the size of Finland, a power connector that would look at home on a 220v refrigerator, it sounds like an Airbus A300 when the disc drive spins up, and it puts out as much heat as a pottery kiln.

It sucks, from soup to nuts. Anyone who tells you otherwise is just suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and doesn't want to admit that they paid $400 for a game console that could be used, like a cast-iron skillet, for both murder and frying eggs.

In a previous job, I spent a lot of time obsessing over what we called "OOBE" — "Out of the box experience." The OOBE on the Xbox 360 is crap. If I didn't already know how to hook up a videogame console, the lousy packaging wouldn't help. My personal favorite here is that each set of cables comes wrapped in a green plastic sleeve which has something written on it in every language known to man. When you find your language on the package, after searching for an hour through the Japanese, Flemish, Farsi, Esperanto, Tamil, and Russian text, you discover that it is just some obscure, gnostic word (like "See" instead of "video cable"). Whatever art-school reject came up with this concept should be forced to clean Philip Glass's bathroom with a toothbrush for the rest of eternity.

The Good

I predicted a year ago that Microsoft's real goal with the 360 would be a 100% attach rate for Xbox Live. I think that has turned out to be true, and it makes me happy. Whatever you think about the Xbox as a machine, Live is the best thing since sliced bread. It is the cream in my coffee, it puts spring in my step, it gives me vim and vigor. The Live experience on the 360 is superb. I cannot imagine owning the box and not using Live, or not wanting to use it. Once I actually got the machine hooked up and turned on, I was able to transfer my Xbox Live membership over in a matter of minutes. I did, I will admit, snicker a little when the very first thing the machine did was download an update and reboot. But only a little — that's just life in the space age au go go 21st century. Instead of jetpacks, we get software updates. At least monitors made from huge vacuum tubes are finally on their way out.

The HDTV support is seamless and well done. If, during configuration, you accidentally switch to a video mode that isn't supported by your TV, it will switch back to the previous mode after a few seconds.

The Great

Wireless controllers. Completely wireless control of the console: I can turn it on and off from the controller. My ability to be lazy has been catapulted to new heights. I am a happy man. The controllers are much better designed than the previous iteration, and they have a magical glowing thing in the middle that I'm pretty sure has a genie in it.

One aspect of Live support that goes beyond the merely good into "great" territory is the Xbox Live Arcade concept. Xbox Live Arcade rocks my world. I hear a lot of people being snarky about the product. The typical line goes something like this: "Oh, sure, like you want to use your $400 HD-capable system to play Robotron: 2084." Well you know what? It turns out that yes, in fact, I do want to play Robotron from my couch. What people miss, I think, is how fabulous and seamless the transactions are. I can download free demos of the games, I know they're going to work, and I don't have to deal with some greasy rat at Electronics Boutique.

It even works better for online-only games. Let's compare. If I want to buy Popcap's Zuma Deluxe for the PC, I pay them $20 (somehow), then I download the binary, install it, and then I get to play their game on my PC at my desk with a mouse and keyboard. On Xbox Live, I can buy the exact same game for "800 points" (around $10). It's bought and installed with a single button push, and I can play the game from my couch, with a controller designed for arcade games.

Is PC gaming dead? We can only hope. I don't really mean that, but it's clear to me that Xbox Live Markeplace is a big part of how Microsoft will be competing with Sony in this generation. The likelihood that Sony will be willing to work with comparatively small software distributors like Popcap approaches zero. Basically, Xbox Live Marketplace brings some of the best shareware and casual games into the console market. It provides a massive incentive for small developers to hew the DirectX party line. It's good for Microsoft. It's good for those companies. And it's good for gamers.

The only thing I'd like to see happen is for the "microtransactions" to become even more micro. Instead of selling me Robotron for $10 (or whatever), let me play one game for $0.25.

I've talked to some people who are bothered by the constant whoring of products on Live. This is, indeed, an issue, and I can understand people finding it annoying. But after so many years of videogaming where getting a connection working involved sacrificing four goats (one for each player), I am so relieved to have an online game network that just works that I personally don't mind the whoring. Hey, Microsoft, you want to encourage me to "unlock" (read: Buy) Zuma Deluxe after each level I play on the free demo? Knock yourselves out. Just keep Live working smoothly, and I can ignore all the advertising you can throw at me. Since I grew up watching TV, I have lots of practice at that.

Yeah, Yeah, But What About the Games?

Games? You can play games on it? Oh, yeah, right. In dealing with the adrenaline rush of spending lots of money on a new toy, I forgot all about that part.

The only game I bought with the system was Oblivion. I'll have some notes on that later in the week, I expect.

On an amusing note, Tilt gave in and bought a 360 on the exact same day that I did. Sorry to disappoint you, tilt, but I got mine at Target, not Best Buy. Nevertheless, I still feel that in some small, special way, we have had a touching and intimate consumer moment. I will always treasure the special connection I had with you as we each handed over our credit cards at the exact same moment.

See you on Xbox Live.

Posted by peterb at 12:38 AM | Comments (5)

May 08, 2006

Road Bikes

by psu

Recently Jeff at work asked me where to go to buy a bike. As I recall, he didn't really ask what kind of bike he should buy, but being the self-absorbed dork asshole that I am, I could not help but provide my opinion.

My short answer to Jeff was: just buy a road bike.

The road bike is the perfect bicycle for almost all uses. The only use for which it really is not suited is riding around in the woods over ruts and logs and rocks. But only crazy people do that on purpose.

The road bike has several design features that make it the inherently superior animal:

1. Drop bars. I cannot stress this enough. It is a fact that drop bars are a superior design. Unlike flat bars, they give you multiple hand positions on the tops of the bars. Therefore, with your bars at the right height, you can be comfortable and fairly upright and still be able to move your hands around so they do not get sore. The bars also give you the occasional option to tuck yourself down to go faster if you want. With modern shifting systems, you can shift gears without moving your hands off the tops of the bars, so mountain bike shifters have no advantage anymore.

2. Light and Fast. Mountain bikes and hybrids are just too clunky and heavy. They don't accelerate. They don't handle well on the road. Riding them is like riding a bike chained to an iron ball. A good bike allows an old out of shape guy like me, who has not ridden all year, go 19mph with a tailwind over the flat without working very hard. This is the gold standard.

3. Versatility. With the right frame, I can ride the same road bike on the road, in the city, in a century, in a race, on the rail trails, over to La Prima, on a fire road, and on light trails. A mountain bike is good on trails and nowhere else. A hybrid is good for slow rides in the city, and not really anywhere else.

In addition, I like road bike brakes better than cantilevers and other brake-types. But that's my problem.

Unfortunately, most of the road bikes made these days cater to the weekend racer Lance Armstrong wannabe. The road bike you want differs from a racing road bike in several ways:

1. Relaxed fit. You don't need the fast steering and short frame of the average racing bike. You also don't need to ride around town all bent over and stretched out like pizza dough. You should be able to buy a road bike with higher bars, a more comfortable riding position, and a more stable ride. A person riding a good road bike and a good fit will be able to go longer distances in less time than on any other bike. There is a reason the Tour de France is 3,000 miles long. It's because the people can do it.

2. Wider tires. Racing bike frames lack the clearance for comfortable tires. No one really wants to run 20mm tires in the city. 28mm or 32mm are better. Allowances for fenders are also nice, but I've come to realize in my later years that the idea that I would actually ride a lot in the rain is only theoretical.

3. Better gears. This is not so much of a problem anymore. Thankfully, the road triple has made a wide gear range easy to find. Take advantage of this.

4. Tougher wheels. You do not want these newer carbon fiber bladed spoke aero-wheels that only have 8 spokes. You want decently made strong wheels. My road wheels are old fashioned and a bit heavy, but I can hit a railroad tie or a Pittsburgh car-eating pot hole at full speed and not damage the wheels. The myth that you need huge, fat, heavy mountain bike wheels to ride in the city is stupid.

Over the last few years, as Lance won all those races and the mountain bike has receded a bit in the market, there are more sane road bikes commercially available. But they remain a limited quantity item and are thus more expensive than other bicycles. The low end of the market still seems convinced that people only want heavy mountain bikes or hybrids where you sit straight up in the air. The result is that you will inevitably pay more money for a good road bike. This was true when I bought my last one ten years ago and I imagine it will remain true. In any case, I suggest you look at bikes by Bianchi, Jamis, and REI. For more money, look at Surly. For more money than that, look at Rivendell.

What you get for your extra money is typically a higher quality frame, lighter materials, and a better parts set from Shimano. When I say "better" here, I mean better than the truly crappy stuff Shimano sells to the huge Chinese manufacturers to put on bikes being sold at Costco. What this means is that the parts will last you forever, or 15,000 miles, whichever comes first.

If you are looking to get a good bike for the city, or that century ride later in the summer, or the MS150, here is me pleading with you to give the humble road bike a chance. You will not regret it.

Next time on bike rants: clipless pedals and lawyer nibs.

Posted by psu at 06:18 PM | Comments (10)

May 04, 2006

Big Universes and Tiny Games

by peterb

When it coms to computer game design, small is beautiful. Big is bad.

I've mentioned my recent foray into casual game addiction before. Today, I'm going to talk about it again, with regards to a specific game: Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space.

"Small is beautiful" is particularly true when it comes to user interface mechanics, where small things make huge differences. Recently I was talking to a friend of mine who just bought a $30,000 car, and the one thing he couldn't stop talking about was how the automatic windows would allow him to close a window with a single button press, as well as open it. I don't think he's being trite, either. Little interface changes can make a huge difference to our experience of a product.

You might ask, by the way, how I can claim "Small is beautiful" when lately this has turned into the Elder Scrolls: Oblivion weblog. You might argue that the Elder Scrolls games are huge, unbounded, complex games. I disagree. The game world may be huge, but the game proper is not. The game mechanics in Morrowind and Oblivion are trivial. You can move, hit, cast spells, jump, and use items. That's it.

Weird Worlds is a sequel to an earlier game, Strange Adventures in Infinite Space. The "casual game" moniker firts well. It is a joy to pick up — the typical game lasts no more than 10 minutes at most — and interestingly it's targeted right at the geek market. You have to be a space nerd to like Strange Adventures. It fits into what I would call the strategic space opera genre. Others refer to them as "3X" or 4X games — "explore, expand, exploit, exterminate."

The path down to Weird Worlds takes a slightly different path than that for tactical, ship-based games. It originates, as those games to, with Br°derbund's Galactic Empires, but the form of the game we find today probably owes the most to the 1983 SSG game Reach For The Stars. SSG, who would later go on to create the Warlords series of games, created something compelling yet still a bit clumsy. Reach For The Stars was cranky, and difficult, and felt like it was meant to be played on a hex board.

Many, many games have followed on in this tradition. Most of them are terrible, boring slagfests which consist of the player clicking the "End turn" button 3600 times until his head explodes from boredom. A few are worthy of special mention. The apotheosis of the genre, the game which gets everything right, is Spaceward Ho!. The most important design decision to be made in most games is that of abstraction. Abstract away too many decisions, and you end up with something where the player is a mere spectator, such as Dungeon Siege. Don't abstract away enough and you end up with something obtruse, unplayable, and unfun, such as Master of Orion III. Spaceward Ho! is a conquer-the-universe game abstracted to a nearly perfect level: the player is constantly required to make important decisions, but never has to actually micromanage.

The first Master of Orion game succeeds so fabulously because it is, essentially, Spaceward Ho! with better graphics and sound bolted on. Sure, sure, there's a tactical combat screen, but who are you kidding: you know before every combat exactly who is going to win. Either you have more ships and better guns, or you don't. Subsequent games in the MOO series added on more and more game mechanics, which is why each successive game is less and less fun.

Strange Adventures in Infinite Space is Master of Orion writ small. There are only 10 or so stars, not 100. You don't research technologies, you trade for them. Combat involves two to maybe six ships, not thousands. And there is a hard time limit on the game: it's difficult to stretch a single game out longer than about 10 minutes. And, like Nethack, every game is different.

In other words, the game is absolute genius. It is pure, concentrated fun.

I've been meaning to review Weird Worlds for a while, and now that the Macintosh version has come out, I have a convenient excuse. And I have good news: they didn't make the game too big.

What Digital Eel seems to have done is to go even further into what I call the "Nethack approach." While keeping the size of each game the same, they have increased the number of possible ways that each game can develop. With a few exceptions, the items and enemies in each game are different, as are their reactions to you. So, like its predecessor, every game is different. Every game is unique.

I dare you to download the demo for Weird Worlds and stop after just one game. It can't be done.

Visually the game is prettier than its predecessor. This is not always a good thing. In particular, I could do without the constant zooming and unzooming of the main map. It also feels like a number of the UI elements (checkboxes, buttons, etc) were made smaller in this release, and I find myself missing the target more frequently. The soundtrack is appropriately atmospheric. The sound effects are of a crisp, early-80s vintage, and wouldn't be out of place in a game of Defender or Tempest.

Weird Worlds is available for both Windows and Mac OS X. It retails for a paltry $24.95 and probably offers as many hours of gameplay as Oblivion. Put that in your Xbox 360 and smoke it.

Posted by peterb at 08:38 PM | Comments (6)

May 03, 2006

West of House

by psu
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.

I am generally skeptical about the quality of narrative in video games. For the most part, the games we play don't provide a literary experience that is much above that of the simplest children's story. Hero wakes up. Hero kills a lot of shit. Hero saves the world.

For years, people have told me that Planescape:Torment was different. But until recently, I didn't have the chance to actually find out. I recently obtained a computer that can play the game, and in between my Oblivion sessions I've been poking around in The Hive.

I am not far enough into the game to have a full evaluation of the story, but while I was playing the game the other day, I did come to an interesting realization.

Recall that Planescape was released in late 1999 as part of a generation of classic PC Role Playing Games based on D&D rules. These games all used a similar isometric 2-d rendering system with hand-drawn backgrounds and sprite-based character models. By modern standards, this is not exactly what you would call a "highly immersive" rendering of the world.

Instead of walking around in a grand city like this:

you roam around in a fairly flat world like this:

On the face of it, it seems like Oblivion should completely crush the older game in terms of being able to create an actual sense of place, and atmosphere. And this is to some extent true. But, a funny thing happens when you actually talk to the people in this insanely detailed world. Here is what you get:

At that moment, as the NPC stares at you with those zombie eyes, and her stiff rubber lips start to move slightly out of sync with the dialog, the work that the hundreds of modellers must have done to painstakingly create every little detail in the huge world goes out of your mind, and all you can think is that you are talking to a robot.

The NPCs in Oblivion are horrible. The models are bad. The animation is bad. The dialog is bad. There are only five voice actors for the whole game. You only have to look at two Xbox games to convince yourself of how pathetic this game is. On the Xbox, Knights of the old Republic had repetitive models, but better lip sync and writing. Also on the Xbox, the face models and animations in Half-Life 2 completely destroy anything in the newer game, although the writing is nothing to get excited about.

In contrast, when you talk to a character in Planescape, you get a little text blurb:

The man before you looks to be middle of height and years. He is stout with a thick, bullish neck and his shoulders are hunched, as if a great weight was pressing upon them. He wears an impatient look as he stares at the black monolith in front of him.

Having digested the text, your mind's eye constructs a character that is decades beyond what the "next generation" will be able to bring us. The result is that it is much easier to let your disbelief suspend itself and stay immersed in the game world. In other words, the text does a better job of creating a world for your imagination than all the technology that Oblivion can bring to bear.

The written text in Planescape is the strongest part of the game. It consistently performs the miracle of making the game world seem real even in the face of relatively primitive graphics and sound design. Also, the deep conversation trees, something I always found pointless in other games, actually serve a purpose in this game. This makes me optimistic about the possibilities for future plot development.

Meanwhile, Oblivion is not really a game that concerns itself with compelling narrative. There are too many compromises made to enable the high level sandbox nature of the world. It just doesn't work to try and make an involving story if the main character in the tale can leave any time he wants. Instead of compelling you to go out and push the "main" plot forward, the game sits back and lets you find your own way. To its credit, the game is densely packed with things to do, but none of them really serve any narrative purpose. Instead, they are about accumulating power, status, or shiny objects. Any plot elements are an afterthought at best, so the result is that becoming the head of the Mage's guild and getting that +10 fire ball rocket launcher of death is all just more interesting than saving the world.

In this context, it's clear why the NPCs in Oblivion are so bad. They really have no purpose other than to push you forward through whatever quest you happen to have chosen at the time. Because of this, it's not really important for the characters to be at all memorable. Even the Emperor, voiced by Captain Picard himself, doesn't leave an impression much stronger than a wet kleenex stuck to your shoe.

The evolution of the RPG from games like Planescape to games like Oblivion (or World Of Warcraft for that matter) underscores larger trends in game requirements and design. The trend is toward more immersive presentation, but away from immersive narrative.

I think the trouble began with voiceovers. I guess the argument for voiceovers is rooted in the overall goal of increased "realism." Games want to be more like movies, and deliver a presentation that tickles all five senses. All I know is the first time I tried to play KOTOR, I had to turn the voice off and just read the dialog, because the voiceover combined with the marginal lip sync was just too jarring. By the time I returned to the game a year later, I had conditioned myself to not mind voice in video games so much. I'd still rather read the game, but I appear to be in a small minority. People don't like to read games anymore. They want voice, full character models, interactive environments and huge sprawling worlds. More importantly, they want the content fed to them via the graphics card rather than constructed for them one word at a time.

Game designers strive to provide all of this, and we can see the general trend in RPGs from KOTOR to Jade Empire, and Morrowind to Oblivion. Jade Empire had a fairly weak story in comparison to KOTOR (which was no great literary tour de force), but it had a bitchin' real time combat system. Morrowind and Oblivion share an overall weakness in their narrative, but Oblivion makes up for it by packing the world with even more to do and more to collect. Collecting stuff turns out to be enough to keep people playing the game. Finally, the whole MMORPG phenomenon points out how much people crave the idea of an interactive virtual world full of "real" people.

This move away from strong narrative is probably inevitable, but it is a shame that the market can't find room for games with stronger narrative and less "shiny". We can all mourn the loss of the more literary game. Planescape is the first "modern" game I've played that evoked the feeling that I had the first time I walked around in the Colossal Cave or when I found myself standing next to that white house. It seems like modern games very rarely dazzle our imaginations as much as our inner technology geek. This is too bad, because it's the imagination that remembers the game. I can still see that house in Zork, and I haven't picked up the game in twenty five years. I doubt that any locale in Oblivion will stick with me that long.

Posted by psu at 08:56 PM | Comments (16)

May 02, 2006

The Left Hand of Creampuff Caspar Milquetoast

by peterb

Updates have been slow lately because I played racquetball on Friday, forgetting that men in my family have about as much athletic ability as the average brine shrimp. While playing, immediately after thinking "Hey, I'm getting pretty good at this," I took a dive and landed on my wrist and elbow. Hard.

I didn't break the wrist, although from my completely pathetic fainting fits you would have thought I did. I eventually did end up going to the ER, and they say it's a very bad sprain. I can't lift anything heavier than about a couple of pounds with my right hand, and even using an Xbox controller for more than about 10 minutes is out of the question. I can type, but I shouldn't overdo it, so I'm saving most of my typing for work until I recover a bit.

Apart from that experience, racquetball is fun. Hopefully this will heal fast so I can play again soon.

In the meantime, I've been trying to train myself to use my left hand for everything. It is hard. If you have any tips, share them below.

Posted by peterb at 06:30 PM | Comments (4)
Archives

2006
November October September August July June May April March February January

2005
December November October September August July June May April March February January

2004
December November October September August July June May April March February January

Powered by
Movable Type 2.661