September 28, 2006

Personal to Andy P

by peterb

You adorable little minx. Now if I can just convince you to get me a sneak preview of Banjo Kazooie 3 beyond what's in the trailer, I'll fill you so full of Belgian beer your friends will want to put a tap in you.

For those of you who haven't played the previous editions, Banjo Kazooie is only the best 3D platform game ever made since the beginning of time, ever.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, about goddamn time, thank you, thank you, thank you.

Posted by peterb at 08:27 PM | Comments (4)

September 26, 2006

They are Both Stupid

by psu

Reading through my daily list of online "media", I've lately felt a low, almost background level of annoyance with the subject matter and tone of some of the content that has streamed my way.

Here is the problem: pick any of the current questions of our time, and listen for a while to the debate that rages in the various media. The only conclusion you can come to is that everyone is stupid.

The particular trigger this time around was the most recent cycle of "blame the gamers." You know the drill. Some violent event happens in North America (violence in, say, the Middle East is never caused by video games, it's more complicated there) and various chest-thumpers start stamping their feet and shaking their fists and screaming about how the minds of our youth are being turned into a bloody jelly by urban crime games.

Because, really, the only game where there is juvenile and gratuitous violence and mayhem is Grand Theft Auto. There aren't entire genres of games that are just a huge boxing ring where the winner gets to pull the arms off the loser. There aren't games where the sole purpose of the entire enterprise is to headshot as many people dressed in the wrong color clothing as you can. There aren't games where you kill zombies with a lawn mower. There aren't games where you use your psychic powers to make people's brains melt into a puddle of liquid.

Nope, the evil on this planet radiates from a single center, and that center is in the development offices of Rockstar Games. A little bit of that evil is used to burn each GTA DVD before it goes out into the stores to corrupt your children.

OK. So I am overstating the case for dramatic and sarcastic effect. But I can't escape the feeling that this side of the argument is starting from a position of ignorance and choosing a target at random.

However, these people don't bother me that much. They don't really know what they are talking about, and they don't have any interest in actually figuring out that they are ignorant boobs, but other than that they have commited no great sin.

What really bothers me is the vociferously defensive response from the gamer community. First, it's not really clear to me that one wants to be in a position of defending violent games in general, and GTA in paticular, as some kind of cultural treasure. I realize that people find the games enjoyable and entertaining. But this by itself is not enough to justify their existence. There are all kinds of things that people find enjoyable that you do not want to defend as artistic. It seems to me that if the game industry wants to gain any credibility at all, they should start their arguments from a more realistic position: GTA and games like it are juvenile escapist fantasies. They don't really have that much to offer from a cultural point of view. They are not intelligent or mature. They are not, for the most part, even that well written.

They are an entertaining diversion. Nothing more, nothing less.

Of course, this is not what is said. Instead, we get a series of badly argued ruminations from a variety of different angles, each one of them stupid.

You can't prove that game are bad

The reasoning here is usally something along the lines of "millions of people play the game and don't go crazy and shoot up their school, so how bad could it be?".

Well, millions of people smoke cigarettes and only a relatively small percentage die a horrible and painful death as their lungs rot away inside their bodies. But that doesn't make it a good idea.

It's clear that people like to play these games. I don't really think we should stop them. But that doesn't mean we should say it's a good idea.

The games are actually good for you

This is an extension of the argument above. If it doesn't kill you, it must make you smarter. I suppose it's true that at a minimum games can give you really good twitch response. The nuttier arguments in this space try to convince you that GTA teaches you the wonder of exploration, or how to experiment with your environment a la the scientific method. The most pathetic arguments try to claim that the games carry a deep and political message and therefore will teach the more observant little 10 years olds among us about their own world and history.

I think it's stretch to claim that driving around a fictional city offing hookers is teaching kids a deep and reflective lesson on the modern socioeconomic problems of the modern urban environment. But that's just me.

Help, Help, I'm Being Oppressed

This is a new and interesting angle that plays to the dork community's inbred persecution complex.

The most recent example of this psychological tic was a piece in that bastion of intelligent journalism: Joystiq. The article shows an idyllic scene from Tokyo of a Japanese father helping his son out with some handheld game, and then speculates about what a wonderful world it would be if only we could lift the "stigma" of gaming from the shoulders of the downtrodden geeks of the West.

I think two facts argue against the idea of the oppressed game player. First, EA sends two bojillion copies of Madden into homes everywhere the at roughly the same time every year. You don't do that by pandering to just the hard core. Second, most of the rest of the industry has not figured out how to escape pandering to exactly this set of people. How else do you explain something like DOAX2, a game where you make bouncy women drive jet skis.

It's hard to look at what the hard-core gamer asks for from the world and not come to the conclusion that if indeed they are being oppressed, it's because they were asking for it.

In the end, my advice to the people on both ends of this tug-of-war is to try and argue from a position of intelligence rather than one of either ignorance or stupidity. On the one hand, those who would rail against the destructive video game culture should perhaps play with the machines some more before coming to a summary judgement. I suggest they try out Mario Kart: Double Dash or Guitar Hero.

On the other hand, I think that the gaming community should take a more realistic look at itself and come to grips with the fact that it is still dominated by the aesthetic sensibilities of Beavis and Butthead. If you really want to convince people that games have more to offer than drive-by shootings, urban warfare, and misogyny, then maybe you should stop defendng that sort of content and show the world that you have something more worthwhile to offer. I suggest demoing Mario Kart! or Guitar Hero.

Posted by psu at 10:00 PM | Comments (3)

September 25, 2006

Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho

by peterb

Recently, Bill Harris of Dubious Quality has been raving about a game called Dwarf Fortress. And let me be clear, when I say "raving" I don't mean "saying nice things about it" but actual raving. Like, he saves the game to CDs, gets naked, and rubs them all over his body. Bill doesn't just like Dwarf Fortress, he has gone completely around the bend over it.

So of course, I had to check it out.

Now, I like Bill just as much as bagels like lox, but he's overselling the game. Or rather, he's overlooking its flaws because he is blinded by its brilliant parts. This happens to all of us, from time to time. For example, I myself felt very strongly that The Lost Admiral Returns was the best game of 2004 by a mile. Unfortunately, I was also the only person in the entire world who bought it. I understood why: the interface was a bit clunky, and the graphical trim hadn't been smoothed down quite enough. We can talk about gameplay over graphics all we want, but the truth is that rough edges raise the barrier to entry of a game.

Dwarf Fortress has a lot to recommend it. It also has a lot of rough edges.

In fact, my first impression when I started the game was "Is this some sort of joke?" The game's full title is "Slaves To Armonk: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress," which is just a little too close for comfort to Bladehunt: DeathSpank 2: The Revenge. The game begins with a 30 second cinematic, multiple-scene ASCII-art animation, of a sort that I haven't seen for 15 years or more (view it yourself here). What the hell? It's a joke, right? It has to be a joke.

It's not a joke. The game has the look of a roguelike. But it isn't a roguelike. The closest I can come to describe it is to say that it's like Age of Empires with text-style graphics from Nethack. But in many ways, it's better.

For quite a while now I've hated that gamers have settled on the term "real-time strategy" to describe games like Warcraft and Age of Empires. Strategy is about making large-scale decisions that affect events, usually through logistics. Almost by definition, any game where you say "Lugdush, go chop that tree over there" or "Lugdush, go bash Frank on the head with an axe" are not strategic. Dwarf Fortress comes closer to the strategic ideal, although there is still micromanagement in the early part of the game.

So, let's talk about the good parts. We'll start with the setup: you have a party of a small number of dwarves who are setting off to find their fortunes. You choose what skills your dwarves will have (the skill list is incredibly long, ranging from mining, carpentry, farming, down to details such as lye and potash production). You pick what supplies you are going to take with you. And then, you pick a wealthy-looking mountain, and prepare to build a settlement.

You don't directly move dwarves around or tell them what to do. There are two main ways you influence what happens. First, you can tell dwarves what sorts of work they should be doing. So you can tell your metalsmith, for example, that he should also be willing to help out with the farming or hauling trees. Then, you designate areas where work can happen. So you say things like "This area over here is for cutting trees. The garbage dump is here outside the cave. I want to build a mineshaft going this way for 30 squares, and then carve out three 6x6 rooms here. Store your food in the first room, build a masonry and carpentry shop in the second, and we'll put some beds in the third.

Then, you just sit back and watch.

The priorities you set create a pool of jobs, which the dwarves try to fulfill if they are within their brief. Dwarves that perform jobs gain experience, and become better at them over time; they can change professions. The strategic challenge of the game is that at any given time there are more jobs than their are dwarves, and they're all important. Most people's first game ends in all the dwarves starving to death sometime in the deep midwinter.

The most interesting part of the game is watching your dwarves decide what to do, and I say that as someone who absolutely despises the Sims. The dwarves are just incompetent enough to keep things interesting, but generally are not so irrational that you want to strangle them. Unless they get sad, or go insane. Dwarves have wants and needs — food, shelter, fulfilling work, alcohol, and companionship — and a sad dwarf with an axe is someone to stay away from.

Your initial challenge is to survive. That means figuring out a way to get enough food to make it through winters, which means learning how to farm (and, most likely, build an irrigation system and create fertilizer). It means finding a source of fuel. It means learning how to mine ore and smelt it into metal, and working that metal into weapons, and working stones and metal into crafts which can be traded to occasional travelling caravans for food and cloth. It means fighting off wild animals from outside your mountain demesne and fighting off horrible creatures from deep within the heart of the mountain. It means preventing your own people from starving, or becoming so morose they commit murder and mayhem.

There are a few drawbacks to Dwarf Fortress. The game is currently described as an alpha test, so some or all of these may be fixed by the time you try it. But if you try it today — and you should — you'll need to go in with your eyes open about these issues.

One drawback is that at present it is a Windows-only game, although the author is currently looking for some assistance to port it to SDL, so there is hope for a Mac and Linux port down the road.

A more serious problem is the user interface, which is ad-hoc in the extreme, and somewhat tragic. Just to take one example, the game uses three completely different sets of keys to mean "next choice" and "previous choice" on menus, depending on which menu you're on, using some heuristic I don't actually understand. Likewise, at various points in the game you have to size regions. Sometimes you do this by setting a mark and region at two corners of an area, using the arrow keys to move a cursor and "enter" to mark. Other times (for example, when building a bridge) you use a completely different set of keys to specify the length and width of the area covered. And then sometimes you use a third set of keys to define a diamond-shaped radius around an object. I'm sure there are rationales for all this interface, but I don't think they were worth the trade off.

The in-game help is minimal. At one point, I hit the magic key that made the on-screen cheat sheet disappear, and I haven't been able to get it back since. Fortunately, there's a wiki devoted to the game that helps fill in a lot of the gaps.

Is Dwarf Fortress, as Bill Harris claims, a paradigm-changing game? Will it disrupt the game industry and bring about a new Golden Age? Absolutely not. I think, to be blunt, that Bill has simply been playing so much Madden lately that he's forgotten exactly how good a computer game can be when it's not designed by committee. What makes Dwarf Fortress worthwhile are its quirks, which come from it being the product of one person.

Despite the fact that it won't change the industry, it doesn't need to. I stayed up until 3 in the morning on Saturday night, literally unable to put the computer down, because I had to continue to help this little microcosm develop.

It's been a long time since any game has kept me up until 3 in the morning. Not everyone will have the stamina to get past the interface and appearance of Dwarf Fortress and give it a serious go. But those who do will be rewarded with a game that has depth beyond their most optimistic expectations.

Dwarf Fortress is availble — for free — from Bay 12 Games.

Posted by peterb at 07:26 PM | Comments (1)

September 21, 2006

Richard Hammond

by peterb
Hammond

Richard Hammond

I don't usually do this, but I wanted to take a quick moment to say that Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond who has been seriously injured in a jet-powered car crash, is in our thoughts today. Our hopes go out to him and his family.

Top Gear might be my favorite show on TV right now. I certainly enjoy their wild stunt segments, many of which Hammond hosts. I've always thought that they were stunts that looked more dangerous than they were. Evidently, I was wrong. I think I speak for all the fans of the show when I say that I'd give up those segments forever with no regrets if it means that Hammond's two daughters, Isabella and Willow, can have their daddy back safe and sound.

If you're so inclined, donate a few dollars online to Yorkshire Air Ambulance in his name.

Posted by peterb at 08:12 PM | Comments (1)

Margarita Amateur Hour

by peterb

You'd think, since I'm always bossing people around and telling them what booze to drink, that I'd have strong opinions on Margaritas and tequila. After all, I have already written booze-snob instructions on how to make the perfect daiquiri.

But here's the thing: I don't really know anything about tequila.

This lack of knowledge probably stems from university traumas. Sure, sure, I've heard people talk about "sipping tequilas," but I was more familiar with what I call "gulping tequilas." Or, to be perfectly accurate, "puking tequilas."

Despite that, I've done a little research and can say a few things about margaritas. They're probably all wrong, but if you were looking for sober reflection and informed opinion, you wouldn't be reading a weblog, now, would you?

The canonical Margarita recipe is simple:

  • 2 parts tequila
  • 2 parts lime juice
  • 1 part Cointreau

For the tequila, the only thing that really matters is that it be 100% blue agave. I settled on the Cuervo Tradišional, a reposado, as giving a good flavor at a very reasonable price — about $20. In talking to tequila snobs, I've discovered that JosÚ Cuervo eats wolf babies and grinds up cute little bunnies for fun, and all of his alcohol is terrible and I'm a bad person for using it. But I stand by it as a reasonable choice for someone who doesn't want to spend $50 on a bottle of tequila for mixing. It has a nice tang, and doesn't have the attenuated, breathless taste that the bottom-end tequilas have.

I took the recommendation of a friend and also invested in a bottle of El Tesoro a˝ejo, which ran me about $45 (note to faithful Tea Leaves readers: thanks for reading the google ads that appear on these articles, since they are funding my drinking. I'm not sure what my liver thinks about all this, though.) The El Tesoro was interesting — very smoky and full bodied. I liked drinking it neat, but it seemed wasteful in my Experimental Top Shelf Margarita. The smokiness was lost, and it wasn't quite as bold in the mix as the younger reposado. So I'll stick to the Tradišional for mixing until I get a more economical good recommendation.

For the orange liqueur, use Cointreau. Using Grand Marnier is both wasteful of an excellent liqueur that should be drunk on its own, and it doesn't really give the right tang to the drink. I actually tend to be somewhat generous with the Cointreau — my ratio is more like 3:2 tequila to Cointreau. Don't use triple sec. It lacks joie-de-vivre.

A word about limes. The type of lime you use will have a major impact on the drink. When I have very bitter and sour limes, I tend to use less; when I have sweet and lemony-tasting limes, I tend to use more. I haven't tried this with key limes yet, but given that my key lime daiquiris were much better than my persian lime daiquiris, I have high hopes.

Shake over ice. Pour into a glass. Drink. Post your results here after having a few glasses.

Posted by peterb at 07:13 PM | Comments (2)

September 20, 2006

Loot

by psu

Today at lunch, Pete was talking about how he had bought a house in Oblivion and how he had amused himself for a few minutes collecting things to put into the house. He had found the odd trophy, various books, but of course no candles.

Item collection is a dominant gameplay mechanic in almost every major genre of video game fantasy. We collect coins, clothes, money, weapons, health packs, experience points, gay porn cards, magic items, racing medals, houses, pets, keys, and plants. The list is too long to complete.

I think it's no surprise that collection is such a major form of gameplay. After all, gamers themselves have an in-built compulsion to collect things in the real world, so it's obvious that they would be attracted to the same kind of behavior in virtual worlds.

It is also no surprise that there are entire games which, when you get down to it, are about nothing but collecting. Animal Crossing and The Sims are the prime examples of these "sandbox collecting" games.

But, what about all the other games? Why is it that while you are saving the world, you find yourself needing to stop off to pick up that purple velvet suit of +5 speed, or that nice gay porn card which you can trade for a magic dress?

Often, the items are just a different way to keep score. Rather than the more mundane and abstract accumulation of "points", the player instead accumulates something that is more like an actual concrete object, like money, or zombie heads. It's amazing how compelling even the simplest collection mechanic can be. Just think about the "brain" levels in Robotron, where you would risk throwing away a whole quarter's worth of lives just to collect a couple more of the pink humans.

The next logical step is to tie the collection of objects to actual progress in the game. Platform games, for example, will often require you to collect a certain number of widgets to clear a stage. Or, you might have to rescue a certain number of humans to progress to the next mission.

In these settings, collecting can also be a smokescreen for the in-built linearity in the game. You really can't do anything but progress from area A to B to C, but along the way you have to do a lot of "free" exploration in the name of finding the required number of coins.

Other games allow you to trade in what you have collected. Here is how it goes: you walk into an area, you defeat some enemies, the enemies turn into money. You can then use the money to buy things that allow you to defeat more powerful enemies and get more money. And the game goes on. This is just the ever-increasing R in a different form.

This pattern is everywhere. In action games like Devil May Cry or God of War you get Orbs which you use to upgrade your abilities and weapons. In Resident Evil 4, when the zombies die, they leave money and items behind. In Zelda, you chop stuff up and it turns into money, or healing potions, or magic points, or hearts. In racing games, you win races for medals and money, and use these things to progress in your "career" and buy new cars and upgrades for cars. In Madden you collect bonus points that you can trade for cards that let you cheat. And, of course, in Lego Star Wars you blow stuff up, collect the lego blocks, and trade them in for various unlockables.

But, of all the genres, the RPG, and in particular the so-called "Western" RPG takes collecting the most seriously. Where other games conveniently make their treasure big and shiny and easy to find, Western RPGs make you scour entire dungeons for a meager few coins and piles of dirty clothes.

Consider the typical encounter in one of the most widely acclaimed RPGs of all time: Knights of the Old Republic. You have been tipped off that 4 beasts of great power are hanging out in a nondescript square room. You approach the room. You spend five minutes in the menu system turning on all your armor and various force powers. You dive into the room and vanquish your foes with your overwhelming tactical advantages. As a reward, the game then makes you

1. Walk up to each of the dead bodies, hit A, find out that they are carrying a few bones.

2. Walk around the room to each of 5 barrels of identical construction (sometimes the barrels are trunk shaped, or basket-shaped, but they are always the same).

3. One of these will contain money.

4. One of these will contain a useful item or two.

5. Two of these will be empty. The other one will be locked, and require you to either win a roll of the dice to open it or play some lock-opening mini-game. Then you'll find out that it's empty.

Oblivion puts you through a similar level of torture. As an added twist, your four pieces of copper will often be in a hole you can't see because you are in a cave with no light! What fun!

You are then left to consider that without all this useless looting, the game might take half as long to play. But wait, there is more.

Half the time, the game won't even give you money. It will give you some item that you already have, but which you must schlep around until you can find some store in which you can sell it for some tiny amount money. In other words, not only is the game insulting you skimpy rewards, it makes you do an extra level of indirect work to collect on them.

The Japanese RPG, in general, handles this better. You beat up some thugs and the game just drops money and stuff you will actually use right into your pocket. Your pocket also tends to be infinitely large, which is another great feature. This is because the only thing more boring than selling stuff in a game's store is the inventory management required to get the stuff to the store. Finally, when the game does make you open a chest, it's hardly ever locked or empty.

My suggestion to game designers, and especially RPG designers, is this. After each encounter, I should be able to hit the A button and have everything in the room that I can collect instantly turn into money. Then I can trade the money for whatever I want.

Of course, if you actually made this improvement, it would lead to howls of rejection from the hard core simulationist RPG contingent. These are the people who think it's fun to go to an in-game weight room and do "curls" to increase their character's strength. This is "fun" because it is so "realistic". No amount of tedious busywork is too much for them. Faced with this streamlining, they will undoubtedly fill the Internet with forum posts about how your game is a stupid dumbed down sell-out to the mass market.

Don't listen to them. The rest of us are all tired of running around looking into empty barrels and locked chests. We want move on to something more interesting, to see the next dungeon, or explore the forest that is on the other side of that hill. It would be a shame if your game kept us from that because we were stuck in a cave looking for those candles we accidentally dropped because the +5 Sword of Flensing was too heavy for us to carry back to town. Those candles were gonna look great on Pete's fireplace. But now they are lost forever.

Posted by psu at 09:13 PM | Comments (5)

September 19, 2006

PTD #11

by peterb

Issue #11 of Played.toDeath magazine is out, and the PDF can be downloaded here.

My contributions in this issue include:

  • Retrograde: Fool's Errand, a review written to celebrate the fact that it is perfectly clear that The Fool and His Money (Hi! I'm True Believer #14) will never, ever, ever be released. (page 12)
  • Indiescene: Deadly Rooms of Death, a nifty Sokoban-like puzzle game for Mac, Windows, and Linux, available from Caravel Games (page 10)
  • A review of Glory of the Roman Empire (page 48)

There's lots of other good stuff, too, including a review of one of my favorite SNES games, Earthbound. Check it out.

Posted by peterb at 08:40 PM | Comments (3)

September 18, 2006

Lego Ping Pong

by psu

Against all odds, there are now two good games on the Xbox 360 that are not called Oblivion. The games are just well executed and fun. They are small and simple pleasures in a sea of large scale next-gen complexity.

The two games are Table Tennis and Lego Star Wars.

Table Tennis comes from Rockstar games, of GTA fame. The game is pretty simple. You make a character, you play in tournaments. When you win, you can buy clothes. When you lose, you play over again until you win.

The "tennis" part of the game is pretty easy. To return shots you hit one of the four buttons on the gamepad which will spin the ball one of four ways. You can also try to place the ball using the left stick as you hit it. In theory you should use the various spins to counter the spin on the ball as it is hit to you. This part of the simulation was not that true to life though. It's not that hard, for example, to hit top spin against backspin, even though in real life that's a tricky shot.

You play matches against a series of characters, each of whom has a well defined and almost predictable style. One may hit the ball impossibly fast, but have no way to deal with repeated returns and soft shots. Another might not have as much power, but very good spin and accuracy of placement. You task is to figure out how to use the shots available to you against the opponent until you can win easily. It's like a simple fighting game, but without the weird moves that require dozens of button presses. This makes it easy to pick up and play, especially if you are old and slow.

What stands out about this game is not the depth of the gameplay or the volume of the content. What is fun is the surreal presentation Long rallies are rewarded with thumpy techno music and off-beat lighting effects. It's ping pong on a dance floor. This game would be at its best head to head with two human players, and the online should be fun, but I could not actually find anyone to play with, so I can't say. Too bad.

Lego Star Wars 2 is also a great game to play with two controllers. I played the first one on the PS2 with my son, who was really too young to know what was going on, but loved watching Lego people fall off cliffs.

The sequel recreates the same design sense and off-beat humor as the first game, but follows the narrative arc of the good movies. Lego Jedi wielding light sabers just doesn't get old, unless you are thinking about it too hard, like this guy.

The Xbox 360 renders the shiniest Lego Blocks yet seen in a video game. There are depth of field effects, particle effects, reflection effects and explosion effects, all of which are enough to create occasional frame rate problems. They took a game where the characters are low-res Lego Blocks and made it slow on a machine with so much CPU and GPU power that it can melt lesser TV stands. Truly we live in retarded times.

This sort of idiocy aside, you have to pick up this game. There is a lot to do, and many reasons to run around with your Lego person and swing a light saber. You can even record your achievements on Xbox Live. I'm looking forward to the free play as Darth Vader, who truly comes into his own as a character when rendered as black Lego blocks.

Posted by psu at 08:00 PM | Comments (5)

September 14, 2006

The Pizza Problem

by peterb

In 1986, a girl fell through the skylight of a building at Carnegie-Mellon. She had been drinking on the roof with her friends, and lost her balance. On the way down she straddled a water pipe, which broke her fall and probably saved her life. She hit the ground pretty hard, and was knocked out.

When the ambulance arrived and the paramedics started to move her, she regained consciousness. She opened her eyes and said, very groggily, "Are you from Capri pizza? You must be, because you're slow and stupid."

I never heard what happened to the girl after that — I like to think that she perished in a freak eyeliner accident — but the incident stuck in my head because it reminds me that anyone will eat lousy pizza, if it's cheap enough and the pizza place delivers

Most people have never had great pizza. Most people like pizza that sucks. So I'm going to give you a brief guide to great pizza, what makes it great, and how to find it.

Typically when a foodie talks about pizza, they'll rant about Napoli, and how the pizza there is transcendent and delicate, "totally unlike anything you've had before." These are damnable lies. Pizza, as everyone intelligent knows, was invented in New York. Pizza in Napoli is a different thing entirely. Napoli is a fascinating city. It is crowded, filthy, beautiful, dangerous, and decadent. Apparently as some sort of apology for that whole Pompeii thing, the Gods have blessed Napoli with the best soil in the entire universe. The produce from the area around Napoli is better than anything you have ever tasted in your life, especially if you're used to anemic California vegetables.

In Napoli, you can go to the dingiest vegetable stall in the city, pick up a tomato, and eat it like an apple. They're that good.

So when people try to make Napoli-style pizza here, they usually fail. Because we're not in Napoli, and we don't have those damn tomatoes. So let's be clear: good pizza in the States is a different sort of thing.

There are two attributes that make up a good pizza: texture and taste. Here are two simple tests to help describe what they should be like:

Texture – You should be able to pick up a slice, folded, in one hand, without the entire thing breaking and pointing downwards. Only the first bite is allowed to droop.

Taste – truly great pizza doesn't need any toppings beyond cheese and sauce.

That second point is key. Take a moment the next time you're about to order a pizza. Ask yourself "How would I feel if instead of getting a pepperoni-mushroom pizza, I just got a plain cheese pizza?" If you feel excited, happy, or at least OK with the idea, you may be ordering from a good pizza place. If you feel vaguely disappointed and sad, you should hang up the phone and find a different place. You might think this is a matter of taste, but it actually isn't; your body has tiny structures called Langerhans cells that emit certain chemicals when they anticipate contact with bad pizza. By meditating on the primordial cheese pizza you are allowing your subconcious to open up to the messages these cells are sending. Listen to your subconcious. Stop eating bad pizza.

I'm not saying, by the way, that you should never eat pizza with things on it. I"m just saying that if a place doesn't make good cheese pizza, they don't make good pizza-with-other-stuff-on-it, either. Just make sure you don't put so many toppings on the pizza that you cause it to violate the texture rule. Pizza shouldn't be eaten with a fork. You have to be able to one-hand it.

My description of the proper texture, above, is intended to be a rule of thumb. There's a special case, however, that is worthy of attention. I call it the Detachable Cheese problem, and it's a guaranteed detector of bad pizza. Great pizza has the three elements (bread, cheese, and sauce) in perfect harmony. When cooked correctly it all merges, along with the toppings, and sticks together until you bite into it. Bad pizza has too much sauce and too much cheese. What happens to these pizzas is the sauce forms into a little lake, and the cheese seals it in. The overall effect is that the cheese is floating on the sauce like a duck on a pond, so you take one bite of the pizza and the entire inch-thick solid layer of cheese slides off the slice like a hockey puck. It's a true tragedy.

You can also divine a little bit about a place from their topping selection, although this is closer to phrenology, and not always reliable. My two guidelines that I feel comfortable sharing are: good pizza places have anchovies, and good pizza places don't use breakfast sausage on their sausage pizzas.

Pizza in Pittsburgh

Turning to our local market, we can apply these principles to find the best pizza in town. My personal favorite is Sorrento's on Atwood Street (currently in the process of a rename to "Pizza Roma Sorrento's", apparently — but it's the same owner). Sorrento's is the ideal pizza in nearly every way. The crust is thin. The bread tastes good. The sauce is yummy. They don't use too much cheese. It's inexpensive. You can one hand it. And their plain cheese pizza is great. They have a nice selection of toppings. Their sausage is especially interesting; they cut it like pepperoni instead of crumbling it chopped-meat style, and it's quite good. If you can only get pizza from one place in town, get it from Sorrento's.

Squirrel Hill has a few pizza places with cult followings, for reasons I've never been able to discern. Most people's favorite is Mineo's, which is more proof that people have no taste, because Mineo's is terrible. I've never had a pie from Mineo's that didn't suffer from the Detachable Cheese problem. If I'm in Squirrel Hill and need a slice, I'll usually go to Napoli's. They're not actually great, but they get the texture right, they're consistent and somewhat reliable, and I like their red sauce, which goes a long way.

If you're in the Strip district, stop by Piccolo Forno next to La Prima. This is the perfect compromise between "authentic Napoli pizza" and the New York style we know and love; ask for one with spicy green olives on it, and you're in heaven. Other people rave about Regina Margherita, but they suffer from the Not Actually In Napoli problem I outlined above. His technique may be flawless, but the end product just doesn't gel.

The Thing About The Vinnie Pie

The other local pizza tradition is to crow about Vincent's Pizza, home of the fabled "Vinnie Pie." This is a monstrosity born of hell. A Vinnie pie is approximately the size of a small fawn, and has the consistency of gloopy beef stew on the inside, but makes up for it by being nicely burnt on the outside. A typical Vinnie pie is a structural mess, with several cups of grease pooled in the middle, eating through the box and the table underneath. Vinnie himself is a local legend, 300 pounds of heart disease and moustache, giving rise to the claim that the pizza tastes better when Vinnie accidentally drops some cigar ashes into the pie.

Here's the thing about the Vinnie pie: it isn't good pizza. Here's the other thing about the Vinnie pie: it's actually a pretty good whatever-it-actually-is. So enjoy it without guilt. Just make sure you have your health insurance is paid up, and don't tell me it's the "best pizza in town."

Posted by peterb at 07:49 AM | Comments (18)

September 11, 2006

System Shock 2 on a MacBook Pro

by peterb

In case there's anyone else out there who wants to play this game, here's how I got it working on my MacBook Pro running Boot Camp. Thanks to the various commenters who made suggestions and helped convince me to not give up.

(1) Install from the CD. The cut-down version on the-underdogs isn't good enough. The game is cheap. Buy it.

(2) You can install daemon tools and make a virtual disc image if you don't want to keep the disc in the drive.

(3) Patch the game to version 2.3

(4) Apply the Windows NT fix.

(5) Put the line "safe_texture_manager" in shock.cfg

(6) Start the game.

(7) When you reach the main menu, alt-tab back to the desktop. Bring up the task manager. Click on "processes", right-click on "SHOCK2.EXE", and choose "set affinity". Set the game to run on only one CPU. There is a "multithreading patch" that people claim solves this same problem, but it didn't work for me.

It's that last step that seems to make the big difference.

Once you've got it up and running well, consider applying some of the texture map enhancements to improve the graphics.

For any other game, I'd say this wasn't worth the hassle. I'll explain later in the week why it's worth it for this one.

Posted by peterb at 09:51 PM | Comments (6)

September 08, 2006

The Accidental Sauce

by psu

Over the years, I have experimented with making my own tomato sauce. For a long time, this just didn't work. I'd get some bland, runny, tasteless mess that didn't stick to the pasta. Recently, for reasons I don't completely understand, it's been working better.

Then, the other night, completely by accident, perfection.

One thing I have learned is that everything I was taught about cooking pasta was a dirty lie. First, very fresh sauce made from fresh tomatoes and not cooked that long generally works better not on long pasta, but on pasta that comes in small pieces, like penne. Penne has more surfaces to which the sauce can stick, which is pleasing.

In particular, I reserve angel hair as something to be used primarily for sauce from a jar poured over sauted ground beef meatballs. This dish is a staple of my college psyche, and I will never escape it, so I may as well accept that. Pete tells me that I am supposed to say that it is stupid for all other applications. And I can't disagree.

Second, to keep the pasta from sticking to itself, you do not do some bizzarre ceremony at the sink, rinsing with hot or cold water. You return the pasta to the pan and get some sauce on it. If you can't get the sauce on it immediately for whatever reason, sprinkle on salt and pepper for taste and drizzle it with olive oil. Then mix that up until you can sauce it.

The corollary to this is you put sauce on the pasta while it's in the pot, not when it is on your plate.

Finally, the sauce itself. Here is what I did

1. 4 or 5 gloves garlic.
2. Half an onion.
3. 2 handfuls of fresh basil leaves
4. 6 or 7 tomatoes. A mix of roma and not roma.

Cut the tomatoes into large cubes and then run them through the Cuisinart for a few spins. You can also just squish it with your hands, but this makes the skin on my hands peel away from the bone, so I avoid it.

Meanwhile, heat up a pot. Add oil, put in the garlic and onion. Add salt and pepper. Saute until the onion is soft. This is very important. If the onion doesn't get soft, it will be crunchy in the sauce.

Throw the basil on top, mix. Throw the tomatoes on top of that. Mix. Now put in 2 or 3 large pinches of salt to get the acid out of the tomatoes. Pepper to taste. If you want, add wine.

Bring to a boil and then cook it 20-25min on low until the tomatoes reduce down. Thicken with corn starch and water if you want (old trick from my Mom).

When the penne is cooked, drain it and put this sauce on top and mix.

I'm not sure this text will capture whatever accident happened last week to make the sauce a sublime perfection. But, we can always hope for the best.

Posted by psu at 06:39 PM | Comments (4)

September 07, 2006

Epitaph for the First Person Shooter

by peterb

It's time to stop blaming myself for not liking first person shooters.

"I'm too old," I used to say. "I'm too slow," I used to tell myself. "My gaming machine isn't Řber enough," I'd say. But the truth is that the genre is creatively dead.

What motivated me to write this article is that I played two first person shooters for the Xbox 360, Perfect Dark Zero and Prey.

Both of these games were well-crafted and carefully planned out.

And both of them bored me to tears.

I'm particularly depressed by Perfect Dark Zero, by one of my favorite developers, Rare. I briefly considered suggesting to them that this was indicative of a curse that they are under, and that the only way to dispell the curse is to create and release Banjo Threeie for the Xbox 360, already. But why kick a man when he's down? Especially when I'm pretty sure he reads this weblog.

In an interview on the Halo 2 making-of film, one of the Bungie designers talks about how they came up with 30 seconds of great gameplay: snipe distant enemies, sneak up and bop one on the head, throw a grenade into a group of others, clean up the stragglers. Then he says something like "the challenge in the game design is how to string together this same 30 seconds of gameplay over and over again for 10 or 15 hours and keep it interesting." Couple that with the solid screenwriting and quality production design of Halo 2 and you have a bestseller, right?

Well, maybe you only have a bestseller if you get the sort of marketing launch that Halo 2 had.

Perfect Dark Zero was visually stunning, with an intricate UI, lots of clever sub-missions, and music by Skunk Anansie. But it lacks a certain ludological center. In Perfect Dark Zero a lot of effort was put into the overall story arc, but — in my opinion — they never really nailed that core 30 seconds of super gameplay. Consequently, I felt pulled in a hundred directions at once. Plot developments and new gameplay mechanics that were supposed to surprise and interest me just served to confuse and upset me. The game designers were trying to throw me off balance through innovation, and they succeeded. But they succeeded before I was able to actually find my balance. So it just felt disorienting. I liked Joanna Dark, and I wanted to know what happened to her. But I didn't actually want to play the game to find out.

Prey was likewise very finely polished. The tactics felt right. The production design was of high quality. The level design was clever. The portals and gravity puzzles were very clever. They even solved the "How do you deal with the player's death" problem in a smart way. But despite all of this, the game left me feeling hollow and empty. I expect that Valve's upcoming Portal will be similarly clever, and that I similarly will have no interest whatsoever in playing it.

My co-writer psu and I agree on many things, but this is one area where our opinions diverge. He thinks that what made Halo 2 — though not the original game — great were the finely tuned mechanics. And I agree that that's part of it. But I think it's impossible to overestimate the importance of a game having a gripping emotional dynamic. What kept me playing Halo 2 was that the level design and story reinforced each other, creating an authentic feeling of panic and urgency. This is what kept me playing every good shooter since the original Doom. The apotheosis of this, for me, is the indescribably fantastic System Shock 2 — which, to my unending bitterness, won't play on Windows XP — where every element of the game combined perfectly. System Shock instilled a constant sense of dread and panic in me so strongly that sometimes I'd have to stop playing because I was shivering too much.

You have to work to create that kind of emotional intensity. You can't just slap together some generic alien models and put them into some generic hallways with crates. You can't then just slap some deathmatch and capture the flag on top of that and expect the online mode to save you. This is especially true since Counterstrike already exists, and is the perfect online shooter in every way.

So this brings us to the current situation, where the best first-person shooter for the Xbox 360 is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which combines adequate game mechanics with a world that's more interesting than that in the competing games. And it makes sense: if you build a game whose entire gameplay mechanic is "kill everything you see until you reach the next cutscene," that doesn't leave a lot of room for true drama or narrative surprise. Oblivion works because there are things to do in between the shooting. What was the last shooter you actually finished? When a pastoral, generally lyrical RPG makes for the best shooter experience on a console, then we have to start asking ourselves: Why are these games still being made?

The answer, of course, is habit. The game industry is by and large overly conservative. This is why they leave vast portions of their potentially market not only underserved but completely untapped. So, like a hamster in its exercise wheel, every company in the industry continues to compete for the allowances of the same group of 15 year old boys.

The first-person shooter had its heyday, once upon a time, because the technology made it possible. And now we've all played that game, and we don't need to play it anymore. Trying to produce something brilliant and innovative in the FPS genre sounds, to me, like trying to cook and serve a gourmet meal while wearing bondage leathers and gimp mask. Possible, yes, but not exactly appetizing.

I realize that to some extent I am describing a problem, and not presenting a solution. For that, I am sorry. But I can't help comparing these games to Shadow of the Colossus.

Perfect Dark Zero and Prey had brilliant graphics, clever design, and responsive gameplay mechanics, and i just couldn't bring myself to play them. Shadow of the Colossus had hateful graphics quality, hateful controls, and hateful pacing, and I was absolutely compelled to play it every night for a month until I finished it.

What I"m trying to get at here, clumsily, is the idea that perhaps game publishers need to start thinking about technology last instead of first. There was a time in Hollywood's history when a film pitch might have begun "We've got this great idea: we're going to shoot a film, and it's going to be in color." But make a pitch along strictly technological lines today, and you'll get thrown out of the Universal lot faster than you can say "Bruce Willis."

I think we've reached that point in game design. Don't focus on giving me a first person shooter, or an RPG, or an adventure game. Focus on making characters as evocative as the horse in Shadow of the Colossus. Focus on scaring me as well as System Shock 2 (or, using another example of a game with great atmosphere and lousy game mechanics, Fatal Frame 2) did.

I want you to make videogames. I even want you to make money doing it.

Just make sure you write the game before you start writing any code.

Posted by peterb at 08:14 PM | Comments (16)

September 06, 2006

Neighborhood Food

by psu

Earlier this year, my employer moved our offices from a building in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh to an area close to the CMU campus in Oakland. Being at CMU has a lot of advantages. It's an easier commute, and I'm closer to various people who I know at CMU. These things are good.

I miss Squirrel Hill though. I miss the lunches.

It's not like the food in Squirrel Hill is particularly superb. But there are several places that are almost without peer in Pittsburgh, and many of these places are also relatively cheap. Consider that within a reasonable walk of our old offices we had

- Rose Tea
- Zaw's (the KING of cheap eats in town)
- Napoli Pizza
- Mineos (not my favorite)
- Milky Way
- Pinati
- Uncle Sam's
- Squirrel Cage
- Ka Mei
- Taqueria Mi Mexico (sadly closed)

And several others I'm forgetting. In the new location, it's hard to get up the motivation to walk all the way to the heart of Oakland, so you find yourself picking from

- Newell Simon Hall (a fate worse than death)
- Orient Express (not bad, nowhere near as good as Zaw's or Rose Tea)
- A few places on Craig Street, all expensive.
- The Indian Store. This is the only really cheap lunch, and it's not that good.

If you make it to Oakland, there are few great landmarks

- Primanti's
- The O
- Sam's

And a few new places that are good

- Oishii Bento
- The Falafel Guy
- Five Guys

But the hike to this area is too far for a daily trip, and the range of available choices is still not as wide as our old neighborhood. It makes one sad.

I find myself craving food I was tired of when we worked on Murray Ave. I guess we'll just have to organize massive takeout runs for the whole office. You can only go so long without Zaw's for lunch.

Posted by psu at 08:21 PM | Comments (11)

September 05, 2006

Downsizing

by peterb

I've written about my need to get rid of books before. Tonight I made another pass, and achieved my short-term goal: I've taken enough books off of my shelves to free up one entire bookshelf. Which means I can move that bookshelf out of the room it is in.

The amazing thing to me is that even after I've made several passes, I still find enough chaff to bury an ox. Four copies of Homer's Odyssey. Four! Two copies of Black's Law Dictionary. One copy of James Gleick's Faster, which I ironically never found time to read.

The books I am going to give away fall into two categories: books I've read and have no intention of reading again, or books that, despite my honest intention to read, have sat on my shelves unread for 10 years.

Here's a quick inventory I took (I apologize for the tragic format). If you want a book, let me know and it's yours for the current Amazon value (meaning "whatever Delicious Library tells me the going rate for a used copy is") less a buck, plus postage. Everything else gets sent to paperbackswap or the local library.

Most of the books are in good condition. "The Illustrated Longitude" has a torn slipcover, so that's half-price. If you see something you want, drop a line to tleavesweblog - a t - gmail dot com.


Posted by peterb at 09:33 PM | Comments (4)
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