September 5, 2011

World of Wordcraft

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:23 PM

In a week I'm headed to Paris for a sightseeing trip. When I originally planned the trip, I didn't know any French beyond what I have picked up in pop culture, which consists of:

  1. Fetchez la vache!
  2. Garçon means "boy".
  3. You're a good guy, mon frère. That means "brother" in French. I don't know why I know that. I took four years of Spanish!
So, it's clear that I'll be relying on the ubiquity of English to get around. Nevertheless, it occurred to me that it might be fun to learn a bit of French before I go, so a few weeks ago I got a Rosetta Stone subscription and started working my way through the basic levels.

Something I don't have a good sense for is just how much study of a language is required before it starts being useful. On the one hand, if I know nothing (as is the case here), learning just a few words has almost no value because almost all sentences I encounter will still be unintelligible. And on the other end of the spectrum, if I'd been studying French for years, there'd be diminishing returns where learning a little extra on the margin wouldn't affect the quality of my experience any. So the utility as a function of time spent studying must have an S-shape where it starts out nearly flat, takes off at some point, and ultimately levels off again. The important question for this project is how long it takes to get to that first knee in the curve: the point at which I start to understand some of what I hear in the new language. I don't really know the answer to that, so this is something of an experiment.

It's interesting to see that Rosetta Stone is basically a video game: the user proceeds through a series of levels, each of which is further subdivided down to the level of individual screens, and on each screen the user needs to click in the right places (or speak the correct sentence) to advance to the next one. At the end of each section the user gets a percentage score based on how many errors they made. You could call it "Language Hero". At the end of each level there's a speaking test called a "milestone" which is basically a boss battle. There are even achievements! (The program calls them "stamps".) It's a direct application of the Reality is Broken thesis to language learning. (I haven't actually read that book, so hopefully I'm not misstating it here.)

The only problem is that language learning takes a lot longer than mastering most video games, so that I feel as if I'm playing some game that requires a lot of grinding for each minor advancement. On top of that, it's an inherently social game in which I'll get much more out of it if I seek out partners to practice with. Fortunately, I can meet such people through the online component of the course, for which I pay a periodic subscription fee. Wait a minute, all this sounds strangely familiar: Rosetta Stone isn't just a video game, it's a MMORPG! And I thought I swore off that whole genre years ago...

August 14, 2011

The most violent video game is rated E

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:40 PM

The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.
—Attributed to Joseph Stalin

It's been a while since I've seen any uproar over violent video games. I'm sure there's some background level of complaint about it, but I guess with three actual wars going on and a terrible economy, most people have other things on their minds.

Nevertheless, I'd been thinking lately about one of the (many) ways in which objections to such games are misplaced. The most socially objectionable games are generally taken to be those in the Grand Theft Auto vein that allow players to run around committing heinous crimes against innocent people. (Of course, even in the GTA games one is more typically attacking "bad guys", i.e. other criminals, but the sandbox game style gives the player the free will to go on random killing sprees.) However, if the immorality of the in-game acts of violence is the measure by which they are judged, it seems to me that there's a category of game that's literally orders of magnitude worse.

After all, when we think of history's greatest monsters, we don't think of gangsters or even serial killers. No, we think of Jimmy Carter, because of The Simpsons. But after that we think of guys like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, who killed millions and caused the suffering of millions more. What if there were a video game that put the player in a role like that, allowing them to institute a fascist police state, launch wars of aggression, and even wipe out entire nations of people?

Indeed there is such a game, and the ESRB rated it "E for Everyone". I refer, of course, to the Civilization series. In Civ IV it was even literally possible to play as Stalin or Mao; the bounds of good taste (and the German video game market) kept Hitler himself off the roster. So why is it that we never hear about Civ from the video game moralists? Why is it bad to let children play with a single simulated machine gun, but not an entire army of machine gunners? Why restrict access to virtual rocket launchers, but not virtual ICBMs?

It's clear that the issue is somehow graphic violence. But again, why is that? It's certainly true that violence in Civ is depicted in a manner closer to pieces moving on a chessboard than the gorefests of Mortal Kombat. But this must be if anything even worse. What is more desensitizing than viewing millions of people's lives as a number on a screen to be erased at the push of a button? That ESRB badge hilariously lists only "mild violence" for a game in which entire cities are routinely sacked, pillaged, and burned to the ground with no survivors.

One could argue that children can more easily pick up a gun and emulate the antisocial behavior of a GTA installment than they can seize control of a country and try for world domination. But clearly some children do grow up to be crazed dictators. And even if only one kid in ten million is a potential Hitler, isn't it important to keep him from turning out that way?

Now, anyone who's looked at my Steam stats knows that I'm actually a big Civ fan. And if I had kids, I'd totally let them play too. So all I'm arguing here is that there's something strange about a moral intuition which says we need to prevent kids from playing GTA, but that playing Civ is fine. As for the potential Hitlers out there, I'm just hoping they develop a crippling addiction to "one more turn" and stay away from the actual levers of power.

Permalink | Tags: Games

January 18, 2009

Games of New York

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 8:20 PM

I was walking along Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village today when I was surprised to spot someone running a shell game. Not some metaphorical shell game with sketchy accounting practices, but an actual shell game. With soda bottle caps. Maybe it's just my naivete about the Big City, but I always imagined that while shell games probably went on in old-timey New York, the con artists moved on to a new scam once the phrase "shell game" entered the language as a synonym for cheating. But there it was, and Wikipedia confirms that shell games are still run "at locations with a high tourist concentration."

Still, I'm shocked there are people who don't know this is a scam. Maybe it's a sign of the dire economic times: 50-billion-dollar Ponzi schemes are out, shell games played on a cardboard box are in.

Permalink | Tags: Games, New York City

April 7, 2008

New York City in fiction

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:12 AM

federal hall

I'm off to New York this week to look for housing; to put me in the right frame of mind, I'd like to hear suggestions of iconic portrayals of NYC (particularly Manhattan) in fiction. Accuracy of the portrayal is less important than style, but if it captures the spirit of the city in some sense that's a bonus. In any case the city shouldn't just be the setting (Wikipedia has a whole category devoted to this); New York should be somehow central to the story or thematically important. Some ideas (just off the top of my head):

Please suggest more, and I will check out the ones I haven't seen/read so as to be up to speed on the cultural connections to my new location.

Bonus round: iconic portrayals of Wall Street or the finance industry in particular, such as the Oliver Stone film Wall Street.

Permalink | Tags: Books, Culture, Games, Movies, New York City, Television

November 27, 2007

Words and Guitar

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:28 PM

I'm supposed to be writing the concluding chapter (!) right now, but I would be remiss if I didn't link to Carrie Brownstein's review of Rock Band (which I haven't played yet) in Slate. She's a little snobbish about it, but when you played guitar for Sleater-Kinney you're allowed.

She's the one on the left:

(And I still have an appendix to write, so I'm not quite there yet... also the whole "revision" thing.)

Permalink | Tags: Games, Music, Music Videos

April 19, 2007

Mario Rage

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:10 AM

Like Cory, I was dubious of the merits of watching a 25-minute video of some dude playing Super Mario Bros. I clicked the link anyway and laughed so hard it brought tears to my eyes. Turn sound on, and you probably shouldn't watch it at work.

Permalink | Tags: Games

February 27, 2007

Quantum mechanical Tomb Raider

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:44 PM

Terence Tao explains quantum mechanics by analogizing to video games (particularly Tomb Raider):

Now, how does the situation look from Lara’s point of view? At the save point, Lara’s reality diverges into a superposition of two non-interacting paths, one in which she dies in the boulder puzzle, and one in which she lives. (Yes, just like that cat.) Her future becomes indeterministic. If she had consulted with an infinitely prescient oracle before reaching the save point as to whether she would survive the boulder puzzle, the only truthful answer this oracle could give is “50% yes, and 50% no”.

This simple example shows that the internal game universe can become indeterministic, even though the external one might be utterly deterministic. However, this example does not fully capture the weirdness of quantum mechanics...

He goes on to make some macabre modifications to the game mechanics in order to improve the analogy, bringing in interference and entanglement. It's an entertaining post, but it gets truly ridiculous in the comments where he devises a Tomb Raider level to test Bell's Inequality.

Permalink | Tags: Games, Physics, Quantum Information

December 29, 2006

Year-end Miscellany 2006

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:56 PM

I usually name a favorite book, movie, and game of the year. This year none of the books I read were recent enough to qualify, so I'll just do the other two:

2006 Movie of the Year: Brick
There wasn't a standout film in this category, but I think Brick was my favorite of what I saw this year. (There are many reportedly excellent movies that I haven't seen yet as well, such as The Departed.) Brick puts a classic detective noir in a high school setting, and does an excellent job of blending the two genres, much as Buffy did with horror. (The movie is definitely influenced by Buffy and works in a subtle but unmistakeable reference.) All the elements of the classic noir movies are present, from the convoluted plot to the familiar character archetypes to the eerie soundtrack. The juxtaposition with high school students is sometimes funny, sometimes striking, but never cheesy or over-the-top.

2006 Game of the Year: Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria
I didn't play a large number of video games this year, but there was a clear winner, the sequel to one of my all-time favorite games. The original Valkryrie Profile was a great dungeon crawler with beautiful visuals and complex and interesting characters. It only suffered from somewhat repetitive combat, which was completely reworked in the sequel to one of the most interesting and engaging systems I've ever seen in an RPG. The signature side-scrolling dungeons (hence "Profile") were preserved with a couple new twists—the ability to switch places with monsters, and sealstones that alter the mechanics—that gave the puzzles more depth. Overall I found the gameplay addictive in a way that I hadn't seen in years, and the only flaws I found are by comparison to the original Valkyrie Profile (mainly in the aesthetics and the character development).

Later this weekend, I'll post my favorite albums of the year.
Permalink | Tags: Games, Lists, Movies

November 12, 2006

Belated Reviews [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:57 PM

Here's an attempt to take a chunk out of my review backlog, and post an open thread for the first time in a while. I've been seriously neglecting the blog lately, as part of a larger pattern of neglecting most of my personal projects in favor of general indolence. I have ambitions of getting back to posting regularly, but it will depend somewhat on inspiration, and the holidays usually disrupt posting anyway.

Lots of high ratings here, partly because I'm prioritizing items I've really liked recently.

The Prestige: A movie notable for casting David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, and for including the back of Josh's head in the trailer (reports that he appears in the film itself are unconfirmed). The plot itself is centered around two feuding stage magicians in Victorian England who make escalating attacks on each other both within and outside their respective shows. The film opens with Borden (Christian Bale) awaiting a death sentence for the murder of Angier (Hugh Jackman), and the bulk of the story is told in (sometimes nested) flashback. The movie is intricate and clever, but it also telegraphs its secrets so that the alert viewer will figure them out before the final reveal. Still, the ending was well-done even if it wasn't a surprise, and the film as a whole is nicely coherent and thematically dense. Rating: 4/5

Arrested Development - Season Two: Everything I said about the first season applies, only more so: it's even funnier and more cleverly written this time around. The show takes its mastery of the running joke to a new level, and its self-referential humor gets even denser. This show builds up jokes the way a dramatic series builds up the plot, so that it just gets funnier as the season progresses. Rating: 4.5/5

Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria: I don't know how Tri-Ace does it but I find every one of their games extremely addictive. (Except for the original Star Ocean, and Radiata Stories, neither of which I've played.) This game is no exception and devoured approximately 100 hours of my free time over a relatively short span of weeks. It's a worthy successor to the brilliant Valkyrie Profile, maintaining the unique feel of the original while adding its own twists on the gameplay. The combat system in particular is much more sophisticated, and makes for very engaging battles. The side-scrolling dungeon exploration mode remains, but with a teleportation mechanic that allows for more complex (and sometimes maddening) puzzles. What it lacks compared to the original is mostly aesthetic: I found the music and art to be mostly inferior (although there are some expections); the beautiful 2D backdrops of Valkyrie Profile have been replaced by more realistic 3D settings (although, true to the profile concept, movement is still restricted to 2D). In certain locations, however, the graphics are truly spectacular and surpass any setting of the original. Overall, my aesthetic complaints are minor, and this is one of the best games I've played in a while. Rating: 4.5/5

Tad Williams: War of the Flowers: A rare standalone novel from Tad Williams, this one starts in familiar territory—present-day San Francisco—and then transports its slacker protagonist into the world of Faerie. Williams has imagined Faerie as having experienced societal and technological changes parallel to those in the human world; consequently his fairyland is an urbanized, deforested place in the midst of environmental and political crisis. An allegorical reading of the setting is straightforward; more interesting is the personal progress of the hero as learns how he fits in to this world. I found the prose a bit cumbersome, and the pace lags at times, but when it picks up it's quite good, and the plot takes some nice unexpected twists. Rating: 3.5/5

The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America: Although it's no secret that I like this album, my review of it is overdue. It's excellent, just a notch below last year's Separation Sunday (which was my pick for album of the year). This album is less like a story than its predecessor, with Craig Finn actually singing instead of just talking most of the time, and the songs relating individual vignettes rather than a single overarching narrative. The album starts out very strong with "Stuck Between Stations"; this and the next two songs are among the best on the record, along with "You Can Make Him Like You" and a surprise acoustic turn on "Citrus". ("Chips Ahoy!", which follows the first track, can be downloaded here.) The slower ballad "First Night" fell a bit flat, however, and I'm not wild about "Chillout Tent". Even with these weak moments, though, the Hold Steady have once again recorded one of the best albums of the year. Rating: 4.5/5

Permalink | Tags: Books, Games, Movies, Music, Open Thread, Television

October 10, 2006

Unplanned Absences [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:48 PM

Remember when I used to update my blog? You may be wondering if I have been detained by the Bush administration, but in fact I have been distracted by things like science and Valkyrie Profile 2. However, I have once again been getting calls for an open thread, and I'd better start reviewing CDs if I'm going to get through my backlog before the end of the year. Also, I've been playing some video games lately:

Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra: The Xenosaga series was originally meant to run six episodes, but this was overambitious and the sequence was truncated here. This meant that some threads had to be wrapped up hurriedly, and the plot picks up after skipping an entire episode's worth of developments. Fortunately the database from Episode I has reappeared and so the player can at least read about what happened; likewise, one character's backstory is presented mostly in database text where it might previously had been slated to occupy most of an episode. The main storyline is left to play out at double speed (by the standards of this saga, but perhaps normal speed for another console RPG).

As the spiritual successor to Xenogears, Xenosaga labors under certain expectations, especially in its last chapter. Both draw heavily from Gnosticism in their themes, and lay out the plot in a style appropriate to a mystery cult, where the player is in the dark about the true nature of the universe until it is made plain in a series of final revelations. Part of the genius of Xenogears was the way it drew together the threads of Christianity, Gnosticism, and Nietzsche—it was one of the most literate console RPGs ever—into a coherent plotline. (Especially appealing to my philosophical sensibilities was the way it ultimately deferred to a kind of scientific materialism.) Unfortunately, Xenosaga doesn't reach these heights, and in making the competing philosophies more explicit, it loses the coherence in the story. The major revelations near the end thus fall into two categories: the kind that the observant player figured out two episodes ago, and the kind that don't actually help the story make any more sense.

This is probably a consequence of the shortened scope of the project and the departure from Monolith Soft of major contributors to the narrative aspects of the game. It's a disappointment for those of us who came to the series in part because of the strength of it's predecessor's storyline. At a smaller scale things generally work better&dmash;several of the set pieces are very well executed, in particular the chilling weapons test scene that occurs early in the game.

But in some sense all these things are secondary considerations: this isn't a movie, it's a video game, and the actual gameplay is a lot of fun. The battle mechanics depart from the previous episodes somewhat (moving in the direction of Final Fantasy X) but maintain the same crystalline turn-based feel, with good strategic depth but less frustration. Meanwhile the mech battles now resemble a streamlined version of the Xenogears system, as big an improvement over the second episode's approach as that episode was over the first in this department. The dungeons are visually spectacular, satisfyingly intricate, and generally a joy to explore. The biggest disappointment was the lack of any bonus dungeons like the ones in the previous episode. On the strength of the gameplay I'm giving this a high rating even if the conclusion to the story wasn't to my satisfaction (and even if it's not the best dungeon crawler to come out in the last two months—it's hard to compete with tri-Ace in that department). Rating: 4/5

Sonic Youth: Rather Ripped: I assume the venerable noise-rock band needs no introduction. One doesn't generally have high expectations for 25-year-old bands, but they've put out a decent album here that's more accessible than much of their catalog. Their trademark fuzz, distortion, and atonal singing is certainly present but it's put into the service of some catchy tunes, especially "Incinerate" and "Rats". They might be well past their peak but they can still write some good songs. A stream of "Incinerate" seems to be available at Geffen Records. Rating: 3.5/5

Permalink | Tags: Games, Music, Open Thread

August 31, 2006

Uniformly good [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:43 PM

In which I review something from almost every media category (but I should read more books) and give them all the same rating. Maybe I should go to increments of 0.1 instead of 0.5, so I can make finer distinctions: I would rate Asobi Seksu's Citrus (reviewed last week) slightly higher than The Knife's Silent Shout (in this post) for example.

The Descent: A heartwarming British film in which six women forge strong bonds of friendship during a spelunking expedition. At least, that's what it looks like until monsters show up and start eating them. Hell yes. I mean, we've all been stuck in boring dramas where we wish it would turn into a monster movie and kill off the most annoying characters, and this movie actually does it. Except that it's not boring at all; one thing this film excels at is ratcheting up the tension well before the monsters show up, with a series of plausible but legitimately scary or shocking events leading up to the gory climax. The cave where most of the movie takes place is itself a source of much of this tension, filmed in a way that conveys the claustrophobia and disorientation of the spelunkers. The descent referred to in the title isn't just the literal descent into the cave but also the descent into madness of one of the characters, and this is paralleled in the increasing chaos and confusion as the caving party disintegrates. Overall, a very well-done horror movie. Rating: 4/5

Arrested Development - Season One: I kept hearing that this show was excellent, but didn't really know much about it. Josh was happy to educate me, and we fairly rapidly went through the first season's worth of episodes. The show is best watched in bursts of several 22-minute episodes at a time; it is very self-referential and excels at recurring jokes. Arrested Development centers around the Bluth family, most of whom have freeloaded off the wealthy patriarch George Sr., until (in the first episode) he is arrested for massive fraud. Most of the episodes have Michael Bluth, as the voice of responsibility and moderation, trying to rein in his flakier relatives. It's the quality of the writing that makes the show stand out; the dialogue is very funny on several levels, and a narrative voiceover (by Ron Howard) is used to create an ironic interplay between an omniscient observer and the very self-unaware characters. Rating: 4/5

Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow: The portable Castlevania games have been improving incrementally since Circle of the Moon on the GBA, and Dawn of Sorrow is the latest iteration, a refinement of (and direct sequel to) Aria of Sorrow. As with its predecessors it is a side-scrolling dungeon crawl, and preserves Aria's mechanic of earning new abilities from defeated monsters. There are a few token uses of the DS's touch screen (admittedly, finishing off boss monsters by drawing a magic seal is especially satisfying) but otherwise the gameplay will be familiar to veterans of the series. This installment does an especially good job with an interesting dungeon layout, smooth control, and challenging but not frustrating difficulty. The free-fall boss battle is particularly inspired. Rating: 4/5

The Knife: Silent Shout: The Knife, mentioned in yesterday's post, has a new album out this year. Different in mood from "Heartbeats", it's a dark and ghostly record, perhaps another candidate for a Call of Cthulhu game soundtrack. Indeed, Josh and I listened to this in the car before and after seeing The Descent, and it was creepily appropriate to a claustrophobic horror movie. This one strikes a stronger emotional resonance than the similar atmosphere of Liars' Drum's Not Dead, and is also more danceable. Listen to "Like A Pen" and "Silent Shout" at their MySpace page; in further recent-post-synergy, the latter track appears to be a free download for Facebook members this week. Rating: 4/5

Live: Zero 7 with Jose Gonzalez at the Fillmore: Sure, I panned their latest album, but their earlier work is really good and I love going to the Fillmore. (I am ignoring Jessica's suggestion that I post an entry titled "I Went to Zero 7 with Three Hot Girls", but this might also have had something to do with it.) Jose Gonzalez's opening set was a mellow and competent performance on acoustic guitar; afterwards he did vocals for Zero 7 along with Sia Furler. (The band proper is just two British guys on synths, but here they had a backing band and the two vocalists. The lack of their other singers meant certain songs couldn't be played; "In the Waiting Line", which appeared on the Garden State soundtrack, was particularly missed.) Naturally much of the set was devoted to songs from The Garden, but there was a good fraction of older stuff as well so I can't complain too much. Sia seemed pretty drunk (or otherwise chemically enhanced) and her vocals were much more slurred than in the recordings, which detracted a bit. Fortunately they played a number of instrumental pieces, which tend to be my favorites out of Zero 7's catalog. It would have been nice to hear "Speed Dial No. 2", though. Rating: 3.5/5

Permalink | Tags: Concerts, Games, Movies, Music, Open Thread, Television

August 24, 2006

A different Monte Carlo method

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:00 PM

A recent preprint appearing on the arxiv:

Do superconductors violate Lenz's law? Authors: J.E. Hirsch

When a magnetic field is turned on, a superconducting body acquires an angular momentum in direction opposite to the applied field. This gyromagnetic effect has been established experimentally and is understood theoretically. However, the corresponding situation when a superconductor is cooled in a pre-existent field has not been examined. We argue that the conventional theory of superconductivity does not allow a prediction for the outcome of that experiment that does not violate fundamental laws of physics, in particular Lenz's law. Instead, an unconventional theory of superconductivity predicts an outcome consistent with the laws of physics, through the creation of angular momentum. We discuss how to test these assertions experimentally.

The argument, which I'm not sure I buy, relates to the angular momentum in the body of a superconductor when magnetic fields are expelled in the Meissner effect. But the author challenges me to put money behind my skepticism with this:
Comments: Readers are invited to place a wager on the outcome of the proposed experiment, this http URL

Yes! Now you can gamble on experimental physics! Next: bribing experimentalists to throw the results.

Permalink | Tags: Games, Physics

August 7, 2006

Climate Control [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:24 PM

Since I tagged archived posts for the past year, I've put the category listing in the sidebar under the monthly archives. I may tweak the formatting some. I'd also like to tag posts further back in the archive—at least as far as the beginning of 2005—but it may not happen immediately.

I guess it's been a while since I posted an open thread, partly due to not having much to review lately and partly due to pure negligence. I need to listen to some new CDs so that I can get back to my usual schedule of posting reviews. (The new Sunset Rubdown album is good on first listen; I'll probably review it next week.)

An Inconvenient Truth: I finally got around to seeing Berkeley's most popular date movie, in which Al Gore delivers a Powerpoint talk on global warming. I'm not someone who needs convincing at this point, but I was curious to see what he had to say. Maybe it's just that I've seen too many scientific Powerpoint talks, but I thought it was rather disorganized—it seemed to jump around between different topics without a clear direction. The film is interspersed with vignettes from Gore's life, to explain why he's taken up this particular issue; I thought these were mostly just distracting, but for a popular audience maybe it helps humanize the issue. Visually the film is sometimes very compelling (especially the section showing various major cities flooding as the sea level rises—there's a GMaps app where you can try this yourself) but sometimes a little too twee (the polar bear, the frog). Gore is optimistic that global warming can be solved through what seemed like relatively minor improvements in energy efficiency and emissions reduction. Maybe this kind of ending is necessary to convince people the problem can be solved at all, but I'm much more pessimistic. Rating: 2.5/5

Metroid Prime: Hunters: I'm catching up on all those DS games now that I can play them. Unlike the Gamecube predecessors in the Metroid Prime series, this installment is focused much more on deathmatch than exploration. In the single-player mode the various maps are often clearly just the deathmatch levels stitched together, and the layout is more straightforward than is typical for a Metroid game. Combat is faster and more dynamic than in earlier Prime games as well. There's a steep learning curve for the stylus/d-pad control scheme, but once I got used to it I was suprised at how well I could move and aim. The game's biggest flaw is the bosses: a game this combat-oriented should have appropriately interesting boss fights, but instead of coming up with eight different enemies it keeps repeating the same two with slightly different capabilities. Apart from this, the single-player game is pretty solid. Now I just need to round up some opponents for the multiplayer. Rating: 3.5/5

Permalink | Tags: Games, Movies, Open Thread, Science, Website

July 25, 2006

They should make GM screens out of these

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:21 AM

Both Justin and Iskander directed me to this amusing compilation of RPG motivational posters (such as the one Zifnab linked in the recent quotes thread). Somewhat reminiscent of the much-missed Gamer Jargon site.

Of course I have to post this one:

Permalink | Tags: Games

July 16, 2006

What's missing from Guitar Hero?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:32 PM

Stylus offers a list of songs overlooked for inclusion in Guitar Hero. Despite one selection that is clearly crazy and a fixation on hair, it's a respectable list. But the real reason to post this is to start a thread on the subject. What else should have been on the Guitar Hero setlist? I'd like to see some of the dueling guitars of Pretty Girls Make Graves ("Something Bigger, Something Brighter" would be good) or Sleater-Kinney ("I'm the Drama You've Been Craving"?) for the two-player game. Or anything by Built To Spill.

Permalink | Tags: Games, Lists, Music

June 20, 2006

Strongly recommended [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:25 PM

I spent the weekend with a mild cold, which still persists. The worst part isn't the physical symptoms, but the sense that my brain is fogged up, which led to an interesting series of careless mistakes in the lab yesterday. (Fortunately I didn't break anything.) On the other hand, my illness gave me a good excuse to spend the weekend with my new video game purchase.

New Super Mario Bros.: It's really good to have a new side-scrolling Super Mario Bros. game. Of course, the 3D installments Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine are both outstanding games, but the 2D platformers have their own character that is revived in this DS edition. This was the game that sold me on the DS and so far it has not been a disappointment; it's a worthy addition to the series. Previous games managed either solid level design with some attendant repetitiveness (Super Mario World), or quirkiness but with an uneven feel (Super Mario Bros. 3). This game manages to find a happy medium in which the levels are distinctive but well-balanced. One aspect imported from the Super Mario 64-style is an appeal to my obsessive completist instinct: I haven't been able to leave a world without collecting all the star coins and opening secret exits. Fortunately these tasks are challenging enough to be interesting but not so much as to be frustrating. I'm now halfway through World 7 and some of the star coins are pretty deviously placed; it remains to be seen how much longer I make it before I give up on completeness and make a run for the end of the game. Rating: 4.5/5

Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood: I mentioned this book in an earlier entry, but I want to give it a proper review. One of the things I like about Murakami is his extensive use of surrealism, but this book was different in that there was no surrealism at all; in fact it is the most straightforward and accessible of all of his writings. Despite the lack of this distinctive element I enjoyed it as a beautifully written and resonant love story. Murakami's protagonists are typically introverts, but Toru Watanabe particularly so, and much of the book concerns his sense of isolation and his search for connection to others. So it's not hard to see why I identified with this character, although to a lesser extent I saw parts of myself in each of the characters. (In fact, it's tempting to say "If you want to understand me, read this book," but Toru and the others are also different from me in various respects, so it might just confuse the issue.) This book also made me realize how unfamiliar I am with The Beatles: the song that's referenced in the title was central (so naturally I went and listened to it) and many of their other songs are mentioned as well. It'll be a few years before I get to '60s music in my ongoing survey, but maybe I should remedy my ignorance sooner than that. Rating: 4/5

Islands: Return to the Sea: I was skeptical of this band with their insular-themed name and lyrics and calypso-tinged music, but this turns out to be one of the best albums so far this year. In fact the calypso elements combine with guitars (and strings and horns) to create terrific pop songs that are sometimes light-hearted and sometimes epic. The best songs come at the beginning: "Swans (Life after Death)", "Humans", and "Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby" are all top-notch. and "Rough Gem" comes in just behind the first three in quality. After an instrumental track there's a slight departure in style with "Where There's A Will There's A Whalebone", which adds a dash of hip-hop with mixed results. "Jogging Gorgeous Summer" is beautiful, and "Volcanoes" is fun; the last couple of tracks after this aren't as exciting, but only because what came before was so good. This is a great album for these warm summer days; buy it and take it to the beach. Rating: 4.5/5

Permalink | Tags: Games, Music, Open Thread

Vaporware watch: The Duke Nukem Forever list

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:09 PM

If you read Kotaku this is last week's news, but someone has compiled an amusing list of things that have happened since Duke Nukem Forever was announced. (For the non-gamers in the audience, this is a PC game that was announced nine years ago and is still in development.) They start with video games (75 Mega Man games, I assume that counts remakes) and proceed to more general categories, e.g.:

Movies that were filmed, released in theatres, and have made it to DVD:

Also note the occasional liberal bias. ("The national minimum wage has remained $5.15.")
Permalink | Tags: Games, Lists, Politics

May 30, 2006

Christian video games, where Jesus is the resurrection, the life, and the 1-up.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:12 PM

Via Pharyngula, here's a slightly alarmist article about a video game based on the Left Behind novels.

This game immerses children in present-day New York City -- 500 square blocks, stretching from Wall Street to Chinatown, Greenwich Village, the United Nations headquarters, and Harlem. The game rewards children for how effectively they role play the killing of those who resist becoming a born again Christian. The game also offers players the opportunity to switch sides and fight for the army of the AntiChrist, releasing cloven-hoofed demons who feast on conservative Christians and their panicked proselytes (who taste a lot like Christian).

Is this paramilitary mission simulator for children anything other than prejudice and bigotry using religion as an organizing tool to get people in a violent frame of mind? The dialogue includes people saying, "Praise the Lord," as they blow infidels away.

The article focuses on the disturbing eliminationist elements in the game, but I think any game that lets you play as the Antichrist can't be all bad. I can just imagine playing this game as Team Evil, cackling madly as I unleash my demonic horde. Sounds like fun!

More seriously, I'm never quite sure how I feel about games like this (or the similar jihadi video games that show up in the Middle East). The usual worry is that the eliminationist scenario and dehumanized opponents will make the player more inclined to real-world violence. But the counter-argument is that video games provide an outlet for political frustration and revenge fantasies, and hence reduce the amount of real-world violence. I'm not thoroughly convinced by either argument: really this is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of paranoid and apocalyptic rhetoric in the conservative Christian subculture that comprises Left Behind's target audience, and thus is merely a symptom of a larger problem.

Permalink | Tags: Apocalypse, Christianity, Games, Religion

May 8, 2006

The Part Where I Always Get Killed [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:09 PM

I wasn't going to buy a Nintendo DS, but the New Super Mario Bros. is making me seriously rethink that. Meanwhile, in music:

The Boy Least Likely To: The Best Party Ever: This is twee pop in a highly purified form, so sugary I suspect I'm getting cavities just by listening to it. There's a song called "Sleeping With A Gun Under My Pillow" and yet it sounds like something that could appear on Sesame Street. I do enjoy a certain amount of tweeness (see: Architecture in Helsinki) but this record is pushing the limits. On the other hand, the aforementioned "Sleeping With A Gun" is the only song that's actively annoying, and there are several really good tracks: "I See Spiders When I Close My Eyes" and "Hugging My Grudge" are both extremely likeable, and "I'm Glad I Hitched My Apple Wagon To Your Star" is fantastic. This latter song wins philosophical points for including the line, "I never would've got here if I'd followed my heart." Usually one is encouraged to follow one's heart, but for some of us these intuitions are really bad (especially when coupled with shyness) and can lead to a pretty dull existence. A much better strategy, as per the song, is to find some more adventurous and dynamic person to use as a guide until better intuitions develop. So let me thank those people to whose stars I've hitched my apple wagon over the years. As for the CD, it's very cutesy but generally enjoyable. Rating: 3.5/5

Permalink | Tags: Games, Music, Open Thread

April 10, 2006

Colloquium Blogging: Silly Edition

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:05 PM

Today's colloquium was Steve Chu, Nobelist and director of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, giving an account of his biophysics experiments. However, rather than report on this I'm going to share a thought I had in the middle of the talk. At one point he was describing a standard optical tweezers technique in which ribosomes are engineered to stick to a tiny glass bead, which can then be manipulated with a laser beam. I was thinking there was something familiar about this, and I realized you could make a game out of it in which you have a biological sample with lots of components designed to stick to the bead, and then roll the bead around with the laser beam to pick them up... yes! Optical Trap Katamari Damacy!

On the other hand, I don't think the King of All Cosmos would be impressed by a 3 μm katamari.

Permalink | Tags: Colloquia, Games, Physics, Science

February 19, 2006

Chasers [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:59 PM

When I got home Friday evening, I reflected on the fact that my weekend would be, apart from going running and a few stops in lab, completely empty of any scheduled activities. In the past seven days I had gone to three concerts, a D&D game, a ballroom dance class, and had had several late nights, in lab and otherwise, so naturally I was pretty exhausted. I felt like spending the weekend being introverted and geeky, and I realized this was a perfect opportunity to do something that's been on my to-do list for a long time:

Half-Life 2: Yes, I finally sat down and fired up this game that's been on my hard drive for over a year. A review is sort of superfluous at this point, as anyone who's interested has already played it. Nevertheless, I can say that so far the game has definitely been worth my while. It starts off with a chase scene, running from the agents of an Orwellian police state first on foot and then over water on a kind of personal hovercraft. This is executed very well; in many FPS games one just plods through the early levels carefully clearing every room, but here the player is forced to choose his battles. The sense of being chased is very immersive—I had dreams last night about being chased, although the context was somewhat different—and the moments of running for cover under a hail of gunfire feel very cinematic. It's also quite satisfying when weaponry is added to your vehicle and you can finally duel with the attack helicopter that's been hunting you.

Following the initial chase scenes, the game switches gears into a zombie horror scenario that feels like an homage to Resident Evil. (Although Resident Evil lacked the joy of throwing around buzzsaw blades with a gravity gun.) By the end of this level I was swinging my shotgun around in paranoid twitches like Dick Cheney at a quail hunt. That's about where I am at the moment, but I'll post a follow-up review once I've completed the rest of the game.

The Plastic Constellations: Crusades: This is a bit heavier than what I normally listen to, but that's not a bad thing. Apparently this band is currently touring with The Hold Steady, which is an appropriate match—the Constellations have more of a post-punk sound than The Hold Steady, but the intensity level is similar. While I liked their sound, I found the quality of the CD a bit uneven; some tracks are really good but others didn't do much for me. "Ghost In The House" is one of the better ones.

Permalink | Tags: Games, Music, Open Thread

January 31, 2006

Alternate Plan

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:32 PM

Of course there's always the SOTU drinking game, which looks particularly dangerous this year. I would add "unitary executive" and "culture of life" to the phrase list, now that Alito's confirmed.

Permalink | Tags: Games, George W. Bush, Politics

January 10, 2006

Cliffhangers [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:36 PM

I must have been on vacation, because I have a bunch of media to review:

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: Despite my initial skepticism, my curiosity got the better of me and I went to see this. Outcome: the Christian allegory stuff is pretty mild and not nearly as off-putting as, say, talking animals. The movie is a pretty good adaptation of the source material, but it's no Lord of the Rings. Most of the characters were lacking in depth and the plot felt barely-connected at times. (I think these were also features of the book? But it's been a while.) Also, the pacing was a bit off—the movie takes too much time to get the characters into Narnia and then has to make up a lot of ground. Finally, it was appropriate that Peter obviously had no idea how to use his sword (and did anyone else hear the Zelda "you got the item" music in their heads when Peter gets his sword and shield, or was that just me?), but it made the climactic duel between him and the White Witch reminiscent of nothing so much as Xander vs. Harmony in The Initiative.

Guitar Hero: I'm sure I look ridiculous wailing away on that guitar controller, but the game is fun. It didn't really feel much like playing an actual guitar until I tried it on Hard difficulty, but at that point it was quite enjoyable (but, indeed difficult). The game wins bonus points for having volume settings that default to the maximum value of 11.

George R. R. Martin: A Feast for Crows: If you've started the series, you've no doubt read this latest installment already. If you haven't started it, then, DON'T. At least, not yet—wait until the final book comes out. A Feast for Crows is very good, but it seems to have been written on the principle that A Storm of Swords contained too few cliffhangers. If you do read it, remember that there's an appendix in the back with all the family trees, followed by a preview chapter of the next volume, so the book will actually end when it looks like there are still seventy pages left. This is maddening, because at that point you will be very eager to know what happens next.

And that's when you find the author's note explaining that the next book will be about the characters that didn't appear in this volume, which means... the cliffhangers in A Feast for Crows won't be resolved until two books later.

So spare yourself the pain and don't read this until you can pick up (at least) the next two volumes immediately afterward.

(Also: this put the child monarchs of Narnia in a whole different context...)

The Constantines: Tournament of Hearts: These guys did a decent job opening for the Hold Steady, so I went looking for their latest album. It proved difficult to find, but I happened upon a advance review copy in the used CD section of a Berkeley record store that will remain unnamed, since I probably shouldn't be announcing that they are selling CDs marked "not for resale". So, the album: it's a good listen, solid distortion-y indie rock (as was the live performance) but there are no real standout tracks. "Lizaveta" is a good example.

Also, don't miss the ongoing "Essential 90's Albums" thread below, which has broken the comment record. (I feel like there should be bells ringing and a shower of confetti when this happens.)

Permalink | Tags: Books, Games, Movies, Music, Open Thread

December 31, 2005

The Rest of the 2005 Favorites

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:23 AM

I listened to a lot of music (by my standards) this year, but mostly neglected other media categories. So the rest of the end-of-year list is drawing from a smaller set of works. I'm sure I overlooked lots of worthy books, movies, and games this year, so please point them out in the comments.

Favorite movie: Sin City
This was definitely the most visually interesting film of the year, a film that really looked like its graphic novel source material. This was coupled with a series of storylines running at top speed, each depicting some act of heroism rising up from the dark heart of the city. The movie was grotesquely violent, but I think this was an important part of the experience (I addressed this point in more detail in my longer-than-usual review back in April).

Honorable mention: The 40-Year Old Virgin surpassed expectations by being completely hilarious while being sympathetic to the shyness afflicting the title character. The dialogue and characters were very authentic, even when the situations got a bit ridiculous.

Favorite book: Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
Murakami manages to find pockets of magic and portals to alternate worlds hidden around Japan, and then teases us with short glimpses of the wonder he's found. This was my favorite of his since The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and was more accessible as well. The basic story sounds pretty straightforward: a 15-year-old runaway goes on a journey, falls in love, faces his inner demons. However, as with everything Murakami, there's a lot more beneath the surface.

Favorite video game: Well, Xenosaga II was probably the best game I played this year, but that list is very short. I can't really close this category until I've played Dragon Quest VIII, for one thing... What else should I be playing, as long as this category is open?

Permalink | Tags: Books, Games, Lists, Movies

December 27, 2005

Classics of SNES Literature

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:33 AM

One of my Christmas gifts was the GBA edition of one of the best console RPGs ever, Final Fantasy IV. Among the enhancements to the new version is the third official translation of this script into English. The original was infamous for excessive kowtowing to Nintendo's censorship regime, resulting in pretty bland dialogue. The latest one, on the other hand, asserts its freshness by referencing Real Ultimate Power. (Seriously.)

However, the translation is not completely new. Yes: When Tellah attacks Edward, he still shouts, "You spoony bard!"

It's nice to see that someone at Square/Enix still remembers.

Permalink | Tags: Games

November 26, 2005

Vegas Notes

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:49 PM

What happens in Vegas is supposed to stay there, but I should say a few words about what I did instead of blogging the last few days:

Cirque du Soleil: I saw "O", which is their water-oriented show done at a special theater (in the Bellagio) with a pool taking up most of the stage. Mostly the show consists of fantastically beautiful acrobatics into, out of, and above the water. They use fire nicely too. I wasn't really into the clown acts, but those at least provided a recovery period before something interesting happens again.

Blue Man Group: Another awesome show. I'm not sure how to describe it—comic performance art? You've probably seen them in Intel commercials and stuff but the real thing is about a million times better.

Food: Good. But expensive.

Gaming: I did best at video poker but felt classiest playing blackjack. I find slots pretty boring, where the only variety is found by pulling the lever instead of pushing the button. I prefer to have something to strategize on (even if the perfect strategy for the game is known, as in both of the aforementioned games).

Carpets of Death: The carpet at the Venetian could have powered the slot machines from the electrons it was stripping off my feet. I found myself bracing for the shock every time I touched a machine, which provided a deterrent from spending much money there (although that's where I happened to win the most). The carpets at the Bellagio did a bit of this but much less than at the Venetian.

Overall, a good use of my Thanksgiving break.

Permalink | Tags: Games, Life, Travel

November 3, 2005

Rampage [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:46 PM

I held off posting the open thread because the Halloween thread seemed to be filling that role. (Not because I was distracted playing Katamari Damacy. No.) My media selections this week are strongly correlated with Mason's.

Mirrormask: This movie has already generated some contentious discussion in comments, so I feel like I'm a bit late to the party. I basically agree with Mason's take, that Gaiman is aiming for a fantasy in the vein of Alice in Wonderland, in which plot is secondary to exploring a different world that follows its own logic. The visual execution of this was quite good, but I felt that Gaiman wasn't really at the top of his game in terms of finding clever twists on one's usual assumptions. Nevertheless it was mostly successful, and there are some great moments (like the encounter with the Sphinx).

We Love Katamari: After hearing about Katamari Damacy and its successor for months, I finally got a chance to play. Now I'm hooked. The game mechanics are pretty simple: the player rolls around a small ball (the katamari) that's sticky so everything smaller than the ball gets picked up. You start out picking up small items like thumbtacks and pencils, and as these things get stuck to the ball it gets larger and you can graduate to books and fruit and small animals, until the ball gets a little bigger, and so on until you're rolling around an enormous wad of stuff picking up houses and trees and giant squid. There's a real turning point once the ball gets big enough to pick up people, and the citizens who were previously walking around obliviously suddenly start running away when the ball approaches. At that point there's a feeling of rampaging through the city like a proper Japanese monster.

Vitalic: OK Cowboy: Wow, this is some brilliant and strange electronica. The album opens with some sort of electro-polka and closes with two and a half minutes of fanfares played only on drums; the tracks in between are slightly more conventional but definitely awesome. Recently I bought new speakers and a substantial subwoofer; this was one of the first albums I played on the new system and it was as if I was hearing it for the first time: the bass is really supposed to be penetrating, so adjust your set appropriately. It's a bit tough to choose a representative track from this disc, but try "Repair Machines".

Permalink | Tags: Games, Movies, Music, Open Thread