Sunday, December 23, 2007

Year in Preview: 2008

It’s that time of year, again… time for columnists to look back at the hefty bastard of a year that was, look forward to the terrifying vortex of the year ahead, manufacture quickie best/worst lists padded out with cheap jokes. Vacation time, wine-numbed… money for nothing, cheques for free…

So let’s do this timeslip-style, next things first. With which electronic diversions are we going to be desperately digitally anaesthetizing ourselves as the Historical Inevitability of 2008 force-marches the world toward another Republican American presidency?

I actually said the following in a phone conversation last week: “I don’t know… I can’t think of anything I’m really looking forward to next year, other than maybe LittleBigPlanet.”

Long-distance silence from the other end, then: “Um… dude? Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Oh, right! Grand Theft Auto IV. Sure! Yeah! I’m super hot in the pants for the next installment in my all-time favorite series of sandbox urban – and sometimes rural; nothing like taking out competing thugs combine-style – gangland mayhem! Some Eastern European flava this time, too, all ex-KGB and Russian Mafia, sleazy tracksuits in unlicensed NYC backroom clubs with no name and armored front doors, flippin’ souped-up Maserati-analogues off suspension bridges in hi-def, ragdoll rocket-launchering everything in sight…

… by myself.

The heartbreak of the small-town gamer who is not also a high-school student! What the hell good is a GTA game to me without a cackling couchful of Stoney Drinkichuks passing the controller around, entertaining each other (endlessly!) with exciting new feats of virtual erring-do? Screwdriver rampage! Three-tanker freeway explosion pileup! Helicopter decapitation! Ha-HAAA-hahahahaHa-ha…haaahhhhh… It’s not going to be the same. I’m thinking of putting a GAME BUDDIES WANTED poster up on the tavern bulletin board alongside the ads for horse trailers, mobile homes and tax revolt. Or, you know, just kicking it online…

… with the foulmouthed, trash-talking, callow, suburban idiot hordes of the “gamer community.” No, thanks. Is it any wonder I let time and chemistry rinse dreams of a new GTA i.v. from my forebrain, replacing them with fuzzy fantasies of little burlap munchkins cavorting cooperatively in a user-created Smurfland of whimsical soft-sculpted challenges? LittleBigPlanet looks like meets Super Mario Bros. by way of The Lost Vikings; if any online scene is going to be free of OMG LOL NOOB FAGGOT BITCH, might it be this one? I could see myself trading Murder Simulation for hours of caring and sharing, taking out Frowny Freddies with my cuddlethrower, hug grenades and full-auto OK-47.

Another option: Culdcept Saga, the newest in a (relatively) obscure Japanese series of Monopoly-meets-Magic: The Gathering games. This is seriously crunchy-nerd territory, The Eye of Judgment without the bonus humiliation of having to go out and buy physical trading cards. Playing Culdcept might be – as most of my journeys into online Fantasy are – a sort of desperate replacement for the kind of tabletop social gaming I’m half a lifetime away from, in this case maybe taking the place of all-time-fave daywaster Talisman. Did you all see that Talisman’s back in print?! To think I almost dropped $US 250 for a used copy on eBay…

Oh, wait… check it out! How did I forget about this? Talisman’s coming to XBox Live and the PS Network. Sorry, Culdcept Saga, false alarm. Nevermind.

Also in 2008, we’re going to see Fable 2. Am I looking forward to this? Only in the literal sense that, if I’m looking at it at all, “forward” is the direction I must face – because, looking back, I only see how pissed off I got playing the first Fable three years ago. Not that it was a bad game in absolute terms, but in the vicious context of over-promise/under-deliver it was an astounding kick in the balls. Somewhere in the haze of development, this epic, genre-changing, cradle-to-grave, boy-to-man, living-world, moral-choice fantasy masterpiece became a two-sitting, genre-confirming, over-beautified, trivial action RPG. But, check it out! in Fable 2, you have a dog! Awesome! My math here is simple: low expectations = pleasant surprises.

Actually, that’s a pretty good New Year equation in any case; is it too late to get it made up in to one of these festive banners made up of glittery metallic letters, something I can string up over the punchbowl? Bionic Commando, Too Human, Iron Man, No More Heroes… LO.EX=PS.

But Spore? Super Smash Bros. Brawl? Fallout 3? Those will all be fantastic, right? Right?? Right; because with some games there’s a (high) threshold below which expectations cannot be pushed without sacrificing one’s humanity.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Firday Freakout: "Park my bricks"

...posted a day late, appropriately.

Ten years in development, folks.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Undergrad Gaming

It’s an idyllic winter’s night in a gaming household. I’m sitting at my grandfather’s desk with a mug of hot tea and a jar of peanuts, killing time – that is to say, doing research – with a series of minimalist Japanese point-and-click browser adventures (“The plane broke down. Escape from uninhabited island”) while from the next room comes that sweetest of holiday sounds: the crunchy shatter of virtual targets, the BLING of points being racked up, the occasional exultations of victory, the more frequent curses of defeat.

I’d underestimated Link’s Crossbow Training, and the futuristic Wii Zapper gun-conversion doohickey it’s bundled with, in the first assessment. To even a medium/soft-core gamer, it’s a pretty slight experience: ten three-stage levels’ worth of shooting galleries, each stage clocking out at sixty seconds, with the Zapper as cute but inessential novelty. I played it with my nongamer fiancée, burning through the whole thing in less than two hours, and when we sort of shrugged and put the Wii away I figured that was that.

The next afternoon she pokes her head into my office, a strange glint in her eye. “You know what I think would really reduce some stress?” she asks, rhetorically. “Shooting some goblins.” She mimes cradling the Zapper, and I recognize the glint: she’s got The Fever. Link’s Crossbow Training may be slight and light, but that’s what you look for in a gateway drug.

The meh reviews the package received illustrate a problem with absolute numerical game ratings; comparing the LCT/Zapper combo to a fully realized game is like comparing “Essential Japanese for Travelers” to The Tale of Genji. More than just a trivially diverting virtual popgun experience, Link’s Crossbow Training is nothing less than a grammar of videogames.

Gamers seldom consider the mass of convention and idiom that supports modern gameplay – we don’t have to consider it, because it’s second nature. We don’t have to puzzle out how an onscreen radar works, for example; we don’t have to relearn each time the fundamentals of moving through virtual space, let alone relearn the trick of perceiving the onscreen image as space. But for complete newcomers – they’re rare, but they’re out there – these fundamentals of the medium are baffling as hell, rapid-fire babble in an unfamiliar language. LCT offers a way for these poor souls to at least get up to the level of “Hello, my name is…” and “Where is the train station?”

Gaming 101 is simple target shooting, the first stage of each level. Point the aimer, pull the trigger. Concepts introduced: what an aimer is; what a trigger is; basic menu navigation; scoring and score multipliers; target evaluation and selection. Importantly, the shooting-gallery stages introduce that most basic of videogame drug-rushes: beating your own high score, knowing you can do even better, and being offered the chance to try.

Gaming 140, comprising the “Defender” levels, builds on that. These stages are basically rail shooters; Link’s position is fixed but the player can and must look around the game space to find targets. Here, benign bullseyes are replaced with fearsome enemies. They’re all one and the same to us stone-cold virtual killaz, but for an absolute newbie that first experience of a skeleton coming right at you while a warning klaxon blares can be terrifying. Concepts introduced: looking around; awareness of offscreen game elements; basic radar use; sangfroid in the face of marauding undead.

At the 200 level, the “Ranger” stages take the student through their first full-on FPS experience, giving them control over Link’s movement through the space. Here are introduced the final concepts needed for basic interaction with the modern games medium: perception of three dimensions in virtual space; use of a control stick in moving a character through that space; basic gunfight tactics; advanced radar use; exploration of the environment. Upon completion of the course, advanced students may attempt their first-ever Boss fight for extra credit.

Thanks to Link’s Crossbow Training and the Zapper doohickey – technically unnecessary, the physicality of clutching a gun can’t be overestimated as a teaching aid – I’ve watched my girl go, in a few short hours, from “What? What the fuck? I don’t get it!” to happily striving for Gold and Platinum rankings and trading high-scoring tips over morning coffee, from flailing miserably to navigating the game’s combat courses with a confidence and precision that’d get her though Halo multiplayer without embarrassment. I’m really quite proud.

Of course, like any good school, LCT offers students plenty of opportunity to experience – and learn to cope with -- those intangible challenges of the gaming experience that can’t be taught in a classroom: the remorse over blowing hours of time chasing meaningless medals, the clammy feeling of gamesweat, the first twinges of carpal tunnel syndrome, the perceptual vertigo of returning to the real world.

I just pray she doesn’t get The Dreams.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Firday Freakout: A Message From the Queen

Wax Mannequin. "God bless all the children, each dear one... meow meow meow meow meow meow!"

Thursday, November 22, 2007

No! I wanna play dolly!

One of my favorite Simpsons moments comes during the hearing in which the family is suing the Sea Captain’s “all-you-can-eat” seafood restaurant for false advertising. Pressed to tell the court what they did when they couldn’t find another all-you-can-eat fish place to satisfy Homer’s cravings, Marge breaks down and sobs: “We went fishing!

I’m right there, sobbing along with her. That’s what can happen when you get a taste of something and it simply isn’t enough; you take whatever you can find that might sate that hunger, desperately cast your line. But even the finest line-caught trout, shining silvery in your bucket, isn’t the same as a restaurant-poached salmon, or even a manky plastic basket of deep-fried shrimp, unless you can go all Gollum-style and dig in right there on the pier. Still, you’re so hungry for fish you’ll take whatever the water puts on your hook…

Extended metaphors aside (I’m not really hungry for fish; apparently, I have to cut down if I want future generations to know the joys of sushi), it has been a hard few weeks of craving, ever since those schoolyard pushers over at BioWare gave me my “first one’s free” taste of Mass Effect. But it’s not so much the sci-fi RPG gameplay itself I’m jonesing for – though, you know, duh -- it’s the primary, adventure-starting act of character generation itself. Those few sweet minutes of tweaking an avatar’s face, facts and stats have had me itching.

Any – or maybe just many – old-time Dungeons and Dragons players will tell you the same thing: the purest joy in role-playing gaming is the making of your character, the process of turning rules, points, dice rolls and wish-fulfillment power fantasies into a brand-new, never-before-seen spellcaster, karate man, mutant laser-eye dude or hired killer. A new character, all pristine on a fresh sheet unmarked by grimy eraser-scars and pop-stains, represents a pure product of imagination and fantasy, a clean idea not yet grimed up by the frustration, compromise, disappointment and tedium of actually playing the game along with four or five other nerds and their own (clearly inferior) little dream-puppets.

Role-playing video games – especially single-player games – don’t have the same limited-only-by-the-imagination quality of the tabletop, though, even when they offer as much freedom of characterization, or a convincing simulation thereof, as Mass Effect. The options for your character’s profession and background are relatively few, and choosing from a handful of dialogue choices isn’t the same as extemporizing your character’s words, but let’s be honest; in practice, imagination can be quite limiting. Ninety per cent of characters’ backgrounds are plucked straight off the stockshelf, and a similar portion of players’ improvised dialogue comprises hackneyed threats and other tough-guy inanities. More important than character itself is external detail: “Yeah, I guess my dad was killed and I swore revenge, whatever; anyway, I’ve got these glowing red eyes, right, and these two wicked swords that…”

The magic of character creation in a game like Mass Effect is exactly in these externals, starting with the hours spent tweaking your character’s appearance in the face-building tool. This can be obsession at its best, fiddling with the scores of little sliders that adjust your Space Marine’s skin tone, the length of the bridge of the nose, eye shape and size, chin strength, lip poutiness, brow thickness, cheekbone height, haistyle, makeup…

Makeup? Yeah, makeup; given the choice – in videogames, not on the tabletop -- my characters will always be girls. Maybe there’s some sort of theory-level psychological reason why this is so, something about being able to use a play environment to safely experiment with gender roles or something, but it really boils down to simple aesthetics: in a dialogue-heavy game like ME, the camera’s either right up in your character’s yammering face or following obediently behind, and if I’m going to spend 100-plus hours in this virtual world I’d rather have my field of vision filled with the face and backside of a simulated pretty girl.

But it’s not all Weird Science wank fantasy, a digital Pygmalion trip. Building a character at the facial-detail level creates a deep investment in the game world, a bond of significant power. My cravings right now are not so much for the opportunity to whip up some kind of fantasy asskicker – I’ve been desperately downloading freeware and shareware RPGs, the role-playing addict’s cheap fix, and they haven’t cut the jones – but for making that investment, feeling that bond… and then playing hundreds of hours of action-packed, sci-fi dress-up-dolly. I’d felt that connection forming at BioWare’s press day, and having my bonding time with “Irene Shepherd” cut abruptly short gives these pangs their special bite.

So, it’s back to Oblivion, I guess; I’ve got to do something before I go crazy and start searching craigslist for a local LARP chapter. Gronking again through that played-out world, trying to find bits of unplayed game, doesn’t really appeal to me, but that’s a secondary problem which can be smoothed over with gallons of Gallo; the character customization is there, the face-creation is there and the dress-up dolly is there, even if the novelty’s gone. It’ll be another couple of weeks before I’ll be served fresh fish, so for now I’m going fishing.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

plink plink plonk plink...

Man, this show would have been ten million times better if they'd let Worf keep it this consistently real...

Also... it's weird, but I get such a Mike Winters vibe from Dorn's delivery, here...

Friday, November 09, 2007

Game writers on writing games

BioWare's Drew Karpyshyn and Ubisoft's Clint Hocking talk craft. Originally appeared in the Toronto Star

When the Writers' Guild of America, the trade union representing TV and film writers in the U.S., announced at the end of September that video game writing would be honoured at their 2008 awards ceremony, it was a bit of an "arrival" moment for games. Granted, the recognition might have something to do with the WGA's desire to organize the caffeine-fuelled legions putting words in the mouths of countless ninjas, wizards and lone-wolf Marines, but still. The award is acknowledgement of games as a form on par with movies and TV, and of writing as an integral part of their creation.

We've come a long way from the days when "INSERT COIN" and "GAME OVER" might comprise a game's entire script; even today's most button-mashy of action games are expected to offer something resembling a compelling storyline. The poster-genre for the game writer's task is the role-playing game, in which players must inhabit a character and make story decisions that branch the plot along multiple lines. Dialogue is king ... and there's plenty of it.

"We have 20,000 lines of dialogue," says senior designer Drew Karpyshyn of Edmonton game developer BioWare, describing science-fiction RPG Mass Effect, set for release Nov. 20. That's the equivalent of 15 to 20 movie screenplays, created by Karpyshyn and five other writers, working with the rest of the creative team. (The new Simpsons Game enlisted the TV show's writers to come up with 8,000 lines – a full season's worth.)

Amazingly, Mass Effect is, says Karpyshyn, "far and away our smallest game, in terms of BioWare standards. Because of advances in digital acting and the cinematic feel of the game, we can now tell more by saying less.

"We do try to follow a lot of cinematic rules. But we have to be careful; (games) are very different from a movie. The player isn't passively watching, they're actively involved and they can steer it in a number of different directions."

Writing for those directions bulks up an RPG's script; characters may need several sets of dialogue to accommodate the role a player has chosen. A simple example is in the Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare's 2003 Star Wars title, where the fundamental choice is between Dark and Light sides of the Force. Through their choices, the player character will become either a Jedi saint or a Vaderesque paragon of bastardry, and non-player-character attitudes will vary accordingly.

The contingencies multiply fast; as Karpyshyn puts it, "How can I let the player make significant choices, steer the conversation as they want, but still manage to control the amount of content so that every time they make a choice it doesn't double the amount of work?"

Mass Effect's answer has been to offer the freedom of multiple side quests while keeping the plot's "critical path" within a matrix of four possible endings. "This was a difficult lesson to learn," Karpyshyn says, "but we (had) to come to the realization that spamming the player with options is not something they're necessarily going to enjoy."

Clint Hocking, creative director at Montreal's Ubisoft, comes at the problem from a different direction. His current project, the first-person shooter Far Cry 2, is more action-oriented than an RPG like Mass Effect, but has the same requirements for managing player choice.

"The most important thing for me is to stop thinking of story as something that we write and then integrate and the player then experiences," he says. "Game stories in general are going to evolve to a point where the player is playing the story the same way you'd play Tetris."

Hocking's approach to realizing this in Far Cry 2 is to develop a style of game writing that takes those player statements and retroactively justifies them. "The player is making statements about what he's interested in by the actions he takes," Hocking explains.

"Instead of providing the content that tells the story that we've written, we provide an encyclopedia of content that the game calls on to provide the meaning, rationale and background for the decisions the player has made. We detect who you shoot and when and then we provide the `why.'"

For Hocking, any comparison between games and film breaks down, as players given real choice will naturally act to defuse the situations ("Don't go in there!") that, in traditional narrative, create drama.

"A lot of the most powerful tools of filmmaking need to be abandoned in order to make a game that equals or surpasses a film. When people say, `You need to make your game more cinematic,' what they're really saying is, "You need to make your game better.'

"It's not the `how' that we need (from film)," says Hocking, "it's the result. We need to be targeting the same emotional results. The `more like movies' that people are asking for is the hard decision that makes you tremble and weep, and I think we have the ability to do that now."

Clearing off the Cobwebs

Three months? What the hell have I been up to? Well, in addition to moving south to Nanton and getting (poorly) adjusted thereto, I...

...attended the best wedding reception, ever; considered the return of the Lapsed Gamer; attended South Country fair, and had a romantic moment ruined by drunken carnies; experienced the badass, eye-of-the-tiger side of Mario; mourned the passing of Klondike Days; lost myself for a while in the Marvel Universe; experienced Mario again, this time in his dimension-bending incarnation; said a mopey goodbye to Edmonton; played the shit out of BioShock; shrugged indifferently at the mediocre Doctor Strange animated film; thought some more thoughts about BioShock; searched for sexiness in a stack of ancient Nintendo Power magazines; got a cracklike taste of Mass Effect that still has me itching; hated the living shit out of RPG disaster Two Worlds; sat my ass down in a beanbag chair; slogged through maybe half of Heavenly Sword; interviewed Everyday Shooter creator Jonathan Mak; gushed over Phantom Hourglass maybe a little bit more than I should have; rocked drunken Halo 3 with a bunch of Slashdot geeks; got kind of creeped out playing The Eye of Judgment; and, finally, took stock of my virtual shoebox of "old-school classics" and came away kind of disgusted with myself.

All those words... why am I broke?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

07-01-2007 – Whoo!

The callow little ballcapper barrels out of the doorway of theG n’ R Liquor Store on 109th – the rockin’est liquor store in town; watch it bring you to your kna-na-na-na-na-knees, knees! – with the inertia of full hustle velocity times fireplug mass plus the heft of a case of Budweiser. Knocking into me slows his flight just long enough for the whistle to get blown:

“Hey! Hey! Your card did not go through!”

Busted. “Whut?”

“Your card did not go through!”

Sow confusion, ninja smokebomb-style. “Whut? I don’t know." Vague wave to somebody somewhere in the back of the store. "Fukkin’ talk to that guy.”

Escape foiled. When you’re busted, you’re busted. The kid shouldn’t have stopped on the whistle and tried to throw the screen; without that momentum, there’s no way he’s gonna be able to ram his gym-doughy frame deep enough, fast enough into the densi-thronged Canada Day crowd to make a getaway. Lots of sullen what the fucks and a big show of angry money-flinging later, he clomps off with his well-gotten cans, a fistful of Lauriers lighter.

What is it with dudes not wanting (or being able) to pay for their booze tonight? Is all their liquid cash tied up in F-250s and muscle shirts? Not ten steps from the scene of the foiled lagerheist, a smiling, wobbling guy with a frosted fauxhawk and a slick silk shirt hits us up as we crowd-swim upstream against the fireworks-bound flow.

“Can any of you folks spare a couple bucks?”

Man! Come on! You’re still dangling your iPod headphones in the hand you’re holding out for money! It’s one thing to liquidate your checking account, storm-drain it into getting wasted in celebration of peace, order and good government and end up staring over your crossed fingers at INSUFFICIENT FUNDS… but the fact you’ve ended up out on 109 St. cadging toonies from strangers to clear your tab at Martini’s means you weren’t even partying with friends who would cover you. Pathetic, man; as my buddy put it, with his head hung in shame: “These are’t hosers… they’re lo-zers.”

What’s this country coming to?


Oh, right.

A huge black truck crawls through Jasper Avenue traffic, its engine roaring louder every inch by creeping inch, its windows rolled up because otherwise how would the plastic Canadian flags stay in? The feeling of willful, desperate mind-abandonment (Samuel Johnson by way of Hunter Thompson: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man”) on the street is unprecedented in my experience. The mass is still the mass, and there’s never been anything wrong with people howling and acting a little stupid, but there’s a troubling screech in the unending WHOOOOOO that’s no longer quite human…

The “Canada Day Riot” and the Oilarchy of last spring triggered an intense allergic response in the immune system of the city, the white cop cells. Their broad deployment and feverish response to antisocial (and especially anti-property) action keeps things contained, and I doubt they’ll ever be able to ease up; there’s too much inflammation now. The squinty-eyed dumbness is one wrong shove from danger, from breaking the surface..

The affronted lefty idea is that Edmonton’s Young Manhood has been spoiled by near-full employment, turned idiot by the boom… or maybe it’s the drugs, or maybe that all that violent rap music… or maybe more people are coming up who were never taught any goddamned manners, who have been raised to view rudeness and ignorance as virtues. Whatever’s happening, in combination with alcohol the effect is animal Hyde beating the shit out of genial Jekyll in the heart of Edmonton hoserdom.

Yeah... listen to me getting old, in the ancient rite of one generation ripening into the anti-whippersnapper phase of its life-cycle. I just don’t know how to fuckin’ party. It’s true; I had a better time in my parents’ sunshine-and-flowers backyard, chatting with a priest of my acquaintance and watching the joy on my brother’s face as he superman-flew his son through the sprinkler than I’m having down here in the stereoboom with the howlers, screamers and text-messaging drunk drivers. Fit me for a walker and stick me in a Home.

Post-fireworks in the lounge of the Hotel MacDonald, Blonde Redhead from the bar speakers blending with Celine Dion bleed from the ballroom next door. I think it's a wedding… Is it ill-mannered to not know whether etiquette precludes Sunday weddings? Sipping on the second-least expensive red wine, I glance up at the Fathers of Confederation. What would they think of me? Their look makes me feel like a nose-picking caveman. They shake their heads at me across the generations:

“What’s this country coming to? Nothing it hasn’t come to seven or more times already…”

Friday, June 29, 2007

Firday Freakout: -- Sabrina


Thursday, June 28, 2007

DSCrawling out of the dungeon...

“I went all weekend without playing Pokemon!”

We’re picking up the campsite, getting ready to leave North Country Fair behind for another year, and I fully understand my buddy’s pride, pride detectable behind the sunburn, behind the twigs in the beard, behind the post-mushroom, looked-into-the-abyss glaze in his eyes. There amid the weekend’s flotsam of crushed cans, empty cases, upended lawn chairs, half-collapsed tents and miscellaneous debris, I know how good it feels to come out the other side of this sodden, smoked-up annual hippie/hoser musical bacchanal without having crawled away into the glowing refuge of the DS screen -- because I’ve managed it, too. My body may be hung over, but my game-addicted mind is clear.

It was a near thing, let me tell you.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote of my frustration at being teased by Legend of the Unemployed Ninja into a futile desire for a portable roguelike game – that is, a handheld version of one of the many dungeon-crawling games that follow in the footsteps of the1980 computer game Rogue, which featured totally randomized levels, minimalist text-based “graphics”, unforgiving difficulty and total addictiveness for a certain kind of nerd. The idea that I could get netHack, Angband, Moria or somesuch on my DS seemed like a ridiculous daydream; such a thing could never be commercially viable, would never be published or distributed.

I’d somehow forgotten that commercial viability, publication and distribution have never been issues for the roguelike genre; it’s the nichiest of niches, developed and evolved over the years by legions of obsessed hobbyist/hacker/fans. Of course somebody was going to cobble up a DS roguelike. All I had to do was look for it.

I’ve followed the videogame homebrew scene in a casual, almost osmotic, way throughmy blog-reading, but I’ve never actually downloaded anything. I “upgrade” the firmware of my PlayStation Portable with Sony’s regular anti-piracy – therefore anti-homebrew – updates, and I never bothered with the flash RAM system that’d let me get that action going on my DS... until I discovered DSCrawl, the answer to my longing. One borrowed piracy tool later – buddy wasn’t using it since his machine had been wholly given over to Pokemon – and I was once again down in the crudely yet efficiently depicted dungeons I love so well.

DSCrawl is a port, by a programmer who goes by the handle Sasq, of Linley’s Dungeon Crawl, a roguelike in a fairly conservative tradition. With its 26 player races and a like number of character classes, its 400-something monster types and its dozen-deity pantheon, Crawl is deeper (mathematically if not narratively; roguelikes are infamosly story-light) than any commercial RPG, while still much simpler than what many of Rogue's offspring have developed into. It’s basic: fight your way to the bottom of the dungeon, get the magic thingamabob, and fight your way back up.

I’d thought the lack of a keyboard would pose an insurmountable problem for a portable roguelike. Straightforward as the game’s objectives may be, they’re accomplished through a bewildering array of commands, with nearly every key of a standard keyboard mapped to some function and most doubling up – “d”, for example drops stuff, while “D” dissects slain monsters into gross but (maybe) nutritious slabs of meat. Sasq has put together a control scheme, making intuitive use of all the DS’s shoulder and face buttons as well as a soft keyboard on the touchscreen, that actually feels smoother, more "gamelike", than traditional keyboard controls once you get it ingrained into your hands’ muscle memory.

It might take a while to get to that point, but a while is what I’ve taken. This game, with its constant treadmill of die-retry-die-retry-etc. – “winning” a roguelike is the gaming equivalent of driving a hole-in-one, or bowling a perfect game – got its hooks into me, hard. I must have taken two hundred characters (I usually make myself a Sludge Elf Monk, despite the poor survivability of that race/class combo; I just like weird kung-fu dudes) into the pit over the last couple weeks. I could honestly play it all day, just zoning out, crashing down through the levels on glazed game-zombie autopilot. So when North Country wrapped up with my DS still fully charged in the bottom of my bag, it felt like an accomplishment, a triumph of social ability and will to party over demanding geekdom… or maybe the thought of being in the roguelike headspace while on mushrooms scared me off; I can’t really remember.

Now, consider; it has no commercial slickness, but DSCrawl is pretty much my favorite DS game ever… and I had to go through Nintendo-disapproved greymarket channels to play it. Officially, I shoul dnever have been allowed its enjoyment.

There is hope, though, for these impossibly specialized games. Just yesterday, Nintendo announced their “WiiWare” initiative, a system by which smaller independent developers will be able to create and publish original downloadable games for Wii. Lower development and distribution costs mean more risks can be taken – this is going to be the model for much of the games industry as the cost of mega-blockbusters increases and gaming mainstreams (and niches) itself away from the hardcore. That’s good, and we’ll see some cool games out of it – already indie web sensations (flOw, Line Rider, N, Alien Hominid) are being regularly picked up for consoles and handhelds. In the future, games like Crawl will more often and more easily find their way out of the dungeon and into the light.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Thinkin' Steve Martin

For some reason, I've got Steve Martin on the brain this morning. Oh, wait; I know the reason. It's this clip.

Steve Martin is one of my all-time heroes, one of my favorite writers, and probably my favorite comic. His first book, Cruel Shoes, is a masterpiece of wild absurdism that goes so far beyond mere zaniness it becomes haunting. Often when I think about the World Situation, the following piece comes back to me:

Demolition of The Cathedral at Chartres

Mr. Rivers was raised in the city of New York, had become involved in construction and slowly advanced himself to the level of crane operator for a demolition company. The firm had grown enormously, and he was shipped off to France for a special job. He started work early on Friday and, due to a poorly drawn map, at six-thirty one morning in February began the demolition of the Cathedral at Chartres.

The first swing of the ball knifed an arc so deadly that it tore down nearly a third of a wall and the glass shattered almost in tones, and it seemed to scream over the noise of the engine as the fuel was pumped in the long neck of the crane that threw the ball through a window of the Cathedral at Chartres.

The aftermath was complex and chaotic, and Rivers was allowed to go home to New York, and he opened up books on the Cathedral and read about it and thought to himself how lucky he was to have seen it before it was destroyed.

The entire text of Cruel Shoes is available at The Compleat Steve. [LINK]

Monday, June 25, 2007

Carcass Zone

As in, my inert carcass will be in "the zone" after I download Carcassonne off XBox Live Arcade this Wednesday. You know I love me some tile-laying action, and you know I've been elbows-deep for weeks now in the XBLA edition of my second-favorite German board game. What you might not know is that I'm going off the 9-to-5 and back to full-time freelancing next week, so... I might be ever-so-slightly doomed, especially if I give in and renew my Gold membership and start nerding it up online-style. Unlike Settlers, though, the Live Carcassonne will support a four-player local hotseat game. So, yeah... actual, present friends!

Seriously, check this out. Dig those screens. Feel that love.

[Link (Destructoid)]

Friday, June 22, 2007

I am trying to break your high score...

Apparently Jeff Tweedy and Co. are Wii fans, or have a swag-designer that is. This is official merch; they've even rii-named the band...


Firday Freakout: Hart's Seafood Buffet

Haunting and eerie. Watch it all the way through to get seriously creeped out.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Forgot to mention it below...

... but I also wandered 107th Avenue, my own neighbourhood, getting reactions to its official status as the second-worst neighbourhood in Edmonton:

"You either know or have a received image of some of
the surface indicators: scarily dilapidated walkups, their lawns strewn with trash tossed from balconies by transient tenants making midnight moves; fucked-up beggars and grisly prostitutes; fights and knifings and murders; crack. But have you seen the women in abaya and headscarves, chatting gently as they push a baby carriage? Have you seen the smiling young Punks in Love and the new-Canadian entrepreneurs? Have you seen my backyard?"

07-17-2007 – The Edmonton Queen

Running in front of the storm, the wind rips down the river valley to whip the deck of the boat. We dodge skittering plastic chairs, weigh down napkins and menus with plates and cellphones. We ought to be taking shelter down on the dining deck with the rest of the lubbers, but something keeps us on station; we paid money for these tickets, and damned if we’re going to waste them huddled inside a floating restaurant. Besides, we can’t just abandon these nachos…

This Father’s Day started out with great promise, breakfasttime showers breaking to summer sunshine. A good day for a family cruise on the Edmonton Queen, riverboat pride of the North Saskatchewan. Down by Rafter’s Landing the heat raised that damp, good valley smell from the soaked greenery as a kid at the ticket trailer – obviously well-drilled in the unforgiving ways of transport – wailed in fear: “Daddy, we’ll miss the boat! Daddy! We’ll miss the BOOOO-OAT!”

Relax, kid; you sound like your mom. Besides, even if you miss this sailing, you’ll have years and years in which to try again. After some early error-comedy and fun-poking, and with the passage of time allowing us to come to terms with her depth-proscribed area of operation, the Queen has become a fixture in mainstream Edmontonian hearts, a slightly silly but beloved extravagance, like the Chateau Lacombe’s revolving restaurant or the Igloo Room at WEM. She’s now featured in too many paintings, murals and tourist brouchures to be allowed to sink or scuttle, literally or metaphorically.

Still, regulations require lifejacket drill. As the girl on the loudspeaker goes over the floatation-device procedure and gives us the rundown of riverboat Dos and Don’ts, she mentions something about the “Stern Bar”. Immediately I’m taken out of the safety moment, visualizing such a place. Concrete bar-top and form-follows-function furnishings, industrial lighting, barmaids in grey librarian tweeds giving you the drinks they decide you need and not taking any shit about it. Some kind of dystopian sci-fi tavern music. I like it; it’d be a refreshing change from the usual vaguely inept chirpiness…

Unfortunately, the only thing stern about the Stern Bar – other than its picturesque location near the churning paddlewheels – is the boat’s security detail, whose main job seems to be patrolling the gunwales like sailors repelling boarders, stopping safety-conscious moms and dads from lifting their precious little ones up past guardrail level for a better look at the river they’re now dangling over. This duty keeps the vigilant marines very busy.

The Stern Bar pours Santa Carolina, a real fightin’ Cabernet. With a pronounced tannic rush taking point and playfully aggressive notes of blackcurrant and chem lab on the nose, this frisky claretoid presents well in its plastic catering goblet. I tip the barmaid two bucks for generosity; she poured until the wine formed a meniscus and I had to stoop-n’-slurp before I could carry it away without danger to my light-colored sport coat.

Back at the family table, the conversation has turned – as I’m sure many an Edmonton Queen conversation has turned – to the subject of river-valley development. Details aside, the consensus seems to be that Louise McKinney park should have been / should be developed with a riverfront commercial strip “like Granville Island.” Parking, strolling and spending, slurping $10 margaritas on a chain-restaurant patio while watching reflected mini-lights twinkle on the dark water… this is the new dream for the valley. Because God forbid we maintain a zone that’s not actively picking your pocket; any space that’s not blaring satellite radio over the white noise of espresso machines is waste land. Besides, as is strenuously mentioned, “you could make nothing but serious money down there!”

The storm’s blowing up harder now as we round the bend before the turnaround point, Capilano Bridge like a mirage in the distance. There are tents in the trees below the topside condoscape; friendly bums(?) wave hello. Now rain’s coming, with wind that pushes my half-filled glasstic toward me as if to say “Drink up! Drink up!” We’re the only ones left on deck in the tempest, save for the security dudes stacking chairs so they don’t waltz away. I imagine it more epic than it is, imagine mythical Voyage of Sinbad monsters in the water, hiding in the aspens… the Sirens of the Storm Sewer Outfall…

“Don’t listen, men! Their song will ensorcel your wits! Stop your ears with wax!”

Except there is no wax at hand; there is only… nacho cheese.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


I played a lot of Odin Sphere...

"Second impression: A gorgeous façade fronting a dated, repetitive triviality, simulating depth through overwriting and busywork.

"Third impression: Here I am, still playing it hours after Impression Two. Why?"

I wrote some preview bumf on NextFest, an unsatisfying experience...

“'The chief thing, I guess, is that I want the people I’m painting to look really good. Otherwise, I feel I’d be doing them a disservice. I only paint people that look good. That’s pretty important to me, ideologically.'"

I went to Fort Edmonton Park...

"One moment you’re strolling along with cranky families laden with modern plastics, slowly filing past roped-off exhibits of trade tools, exhibits that haven’t changed in 20 years, the next you’re treated to an honest moment of universal human history as the general store’s cute countergirl blushes furiously at the entrance of the handsome young Mountie."

I learned a lesson about robot monarchs and some other stuff...

"Apologies, Lizzie; you were right. I’ll never again undervalue the power of the sheepfold."
Also, I guess I know who I'm tele-psychically inducing some weak-willed american to vote for next November:

Monday, May 28, 2007

Way too much of a not-even-all-that-good thing

OK, so... here's a video of like 200 Slave Girl Leias arranged on and around a life-sized Jabba statue. How many men can you spot? How many babies? Compare answers with your friends!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Firday Freakout: Riki-Oh

AKA The Story of Ricky. In case you've forgotten the second-greatest movie ever, a refresher montage.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

05-21-2007 – The Corner Pub, Mundare

Mundare, again? Third time out here in less than six months, and the Giant Ukrainian Sausage is losing its novelty; in fact, it’s getting a bit creepy, with that weird kink in its loop, its unwholesome matte finish, its left-in-the-sun-too-long wrinkles. There’s much more to Kalyna Country ("Where culture meets adventure!") than iffy giant objects, though. Lots to attract the city-alienated looking for a place to be…

The wind-down of a whirl of a weekend, holiday Monday in The Corner Pub. Mid-afternoon locals propping up the bar, VLT spinners, proprietor giving the country welcome: hearty spiced with wary. We dare the jukebox and an oldtimer tells us the rules: “I don’t care what you play, long as you give us at least one Johnny Cash.” We forsake Johnny for Roseanne, spice the mix with ol’ Hank and Bobbie Gentry, and are rewarded with free loonies to continue DJing.

The first time out here was a wintry large-objects tour, the second was a jaunt to the Big Egg, specifically. This time the occasion is the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village’s spring opening and festival of Ukrainian dance. We’d seen the sign on our way back from Vegreville: “600 SHUMKA DANCERS!” How exciting is that? I tried (maybe I could have tried harder) to recruit every Ukrainian, sorta-Ukrainian and miscellaneous Slav I knew; my final cultural posse comprised myself, my parents, my fiancée and my roommate: a Polish family, a Russian and an ancestral Uke. It’d have to do.

Turns out the sign was a bit of a tease. The part of me that craves all things epic imagined six hundred Shumkas simultaneously, a whirling mass of feet, flowers, braids and baggy pants. Still, even doled out by the dozens, the dancers were pretty awesome to watch. During the final high-kicking Hopak, I got kind of excited imagining a Ukrainian remake of Gymkata, where a dancer blends Shumka with kick-boxing, creating an unbeatable hybrid martial art in order to take revenge on the ninjas that killed his father…

The Village itself is a trip, one of those “living museums” where the staff are all in character so you either have to play along or get really embarrassed; it’s like being at a dinner theatre, with cabbage rolls and plowing instead of alfredo sauce and shrill sitcom parodies. My girl got a little light in her eye at the thought of working or volunteering here – probably a bad idea for someone who’s been known to trance-channel ancient Galician folk songs when the vodka deactivates her astral defenses. She’d probably get so into character she’d become possessed, end up chasing some poor kid with an iPod down the dirt path shreiking “WITCH! WITCH!”

Still, the Village feeds those get-outta-town feelings… I mean, jeez; these people built a nation living in freakin’ cave-houses made out of turf! Why do I need an apartment, a van, a Wii and three liquor stores in walking distance? All I need is some land to squat on, an axe, some chickens…

Ah, maybe I’m just feeling like running ‘cause I didn’t manage to get what I’d wanted out of an urban long weekend. Who ever does? May Long is one of those times, like New Year’s Eve, when you feel morally obligated to have the most brilliant party-time possible. Shindigs sprout like spring weeds – what is it about August that means so many May birthdays? -- but a combination of party-greed and duty trapped me in a doomed do-everything venue-hopping plan. To hit more than two parties requires:

- Military timing
- Inhuman party-leaving willpower
- A mint’s worth of cabfare, or a sober driver

You end up like the lakeside dog in the fable – grab for too much and get no bone. Worse, I was the DD, and though it felt physically good to be bright-eyed and coherent, it sucks to be sober when everyone around you is going liquid: “Thizz… thizzziz my bes’ frenn! My BES’ frennn!” And you’re standing there, staring at the scene, going “So this is ‘partying’, huh? I remember it being cooler.”

They managed to party all right out here in Mundare; the Corner Pub rattles with dropped hints, rolled eyes and secretive smiles when the subject of the weekend comes up. Yeah, I could party with these people; the bar even has that nostalgic smoke-reek that takes me back to my earliest drinking days. And all I have to do is keep the jukebox queue filled with old-time country and western hits? How do you say “You’ve got yourself a deal” in Ukrainian?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Science corner: Pacnatomy

Via Kotaku, this model of Pac-Man's skeletal structure complete with freaky teeth, as modeled by Le Gentil Garcon. A beautiful piece of biomechanical science.

I am reminded of similar investigations, most notably Michael Paulus' inquiry into the skeletons of notable cartoon characters.
Wonder what's going on inside Qbert?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Firday Freakout: Alien Abduction


Catan online, offline

After all these years, to once again face an ancient nemesis, a phantom construct brought to life through the alchemy of electricity and mathematics: the disembodied digital zombie intelligence of Sun Tzu!

When last I did battle with the great Chinese military philosopher, dead in the flesh since the 5th century BC, it was on the CGA battlefields of The Ancient Art of War on my old Tandy 1000. That was over 20 years ago, and he kicked my ass then just as he’s kicking my ass now – with cold, dispassionate perfection.

This latest software resurrection of Master Sun is one of the AI opponents in Catan, the XBox Live Arcade version of Klaus Teuber’s near-perfect tabletop game The Settlers of Catan, and it’s a killer. Alexander, all go-for-broke action, I can read and deal with. Elizabeth, overcautious and naïve in resource trading, rolls over easy. Shaka’s tough, but hampered by the peculiar guilelessness of a warrior’s honor. Sun Tzu, though… he bides his time, sees the future, builds strength where you can't see it and unleashes it when you don’t expect it. He plays like…

…like a computer, I guess. It’s real easy to anthropomorphize when you’re playing Catan – the AI opponents feel like real people, with their own agendas and styles and infuriating quirks. The only things missing from this excellent digitization of tabletop Settlers are the constant bitching and moaning of poor losers (though the AIs’ slightly creepy use of animated emotes – blown kisses, tossed bombs, etc. – brings a bit of that) and the small pleasure of building little forts and towers with your reserve gamepieces while you wait for people to hem and haw their way though their turns.

The quality of Catan’s AI is what makes it work, as The Settlers of Catan is an intensely social game: the politics of resource trading, the exercising of vendettas, the cutting of desperate deals. The easy way of programming an AI – starting with mathematical perfection and then creating various difficulty levels by manipulating the frequency at which the program makes stupid errors – would have left Catan’s single-player experience feeling cheap and empty. For a strategy fan, the next-worst thing to an AI that wins by cheating is an AI that loses by being randomly retarded.

Of course, Catan is intended for online play, with real people thinking real thoughts, using human strategies, making honest human blunders, swearing human swears and hurling human sexual insults. Since you cant play a multiplayer game on a single system – really, there’s no way there could be a single-system multiplayer and have it reamin Settlers – going online is the only way to get the human experience from Catan. Aside from the obvious social problem – if you play over XBox Live, you have to play with XBox Live gamers -- I have one enormous difficulty with the idea of getting my settlers fix online: it would ruin my life.

Honestly time. I have an addiction problem, an increasingly common one: online games burrow right into my soul, so I have to avoid situations where they might snare me. I’ve been tentacled before and have always managed to shake myself free, but I know that if I got careless it’d be only a matter of time before real trouble would start. You think I don’t drool over World of Warcraft screenshots? I read about WoW, even the dumbest fanboy messageboard garbage, and my heart screams to be part of it, to join guilds and power-level and camp and bitch about nerfing and all the rest. Even a super-simple online strategy game like kDice (check it out) has been known to knock twelve hours out of my life at a sitting. So I have to stay away; I don’t even dare have an XBox Live Gold membership -- the simplicity, elegance and depth of Catan are so captivating I’d never get out if I got in.

So I get my social Settlers kick the old-fashioned way: out of the box, with whoever I can convince or cajole into playing. Meanwhile I hone my skills on the 'Box, imagining rivalries and relationships with pieces of software, cussing out the virtual Sun Tzu every time he surprises me with a perfectly executed flurry of roadbuilding to steal the Longest Road honor and cut me off from needed ore deposits, griping when that big baby Alexander won’t trade because I dicked him over with the robber one too many times, enjoying dumb Elizabeth’s coquettish kisses while I run her into the ground.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Murder of a Crow

Liverquest pal Dwayne Martineau had an intense experience this weekend:

There was a typically raucous crow court in the Mill Creek yesterday, right in front of my house. I ran down with my camera and MD recorder to capture the chaos. The crows, plus some jays and magpies, lost their shit for another 10 minutes then flew away.

I heard some crackly gurgles, thought it was a grouse or a baby or something, but then found this little guy. A flock will sometimes drive away-- or kill-- one bird.

He flew up, feebly clutched at a branch, then glided head-first into a spruce. I spent the next hour beside him watching him die. It was beautiful, but not pretty.

Nature's a bitch.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Firday Freakout: Cymatics

Father-son team Thomas J. and Stuart Mitchell have apparently used the awesome power of cymatics, plus the skills Stuart developed as an RAF code-breaker in WWII, to unlock a "secretly coded piece of music" hidden for 600 years in the stonework of wingnut-fave mystery site Rosslyn Chapel, of The DaVinci Code infamy.

Check this reel for some sweet cymatics goodness:

Here's the Mitchells' story as told to the Sunday Mail [link] plus... some bonus supa-old-school cymatics courtesy of Wavemasta Hans Jenny himself:

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

05-07-2007 – the 18th floor

The view north through the window of somebody else’s office: vast fields of real-estate stretching out toward the hazy brown band on the horizon, the worrisome dirty halo from which pour riches.

Nearer by, just across the avenue, is the construction site for what I’m told will be a Sobeys, a downtown-revitalizin’ foodmart to take the pressure off the Save-On where the post-work rush hour requires full-time traffic control and one can line-read both People and Real Simple in the time it takes to get to a checkout.

I can’t see it from this angle, but I know its there – mostly there, for now -- on the plywood hoardings surrounding the site: impromptu guerrilla artshow, sixteen artists, sixteen pictures, flash-organized by the manic Sheri Barclay and slapped up in the wishin’-Lord-that-I-was-stoned early hours of Sunday morning. Illustrated nursery rhymes and pop-culture iconography, notional space flags and curated Elvis tapestries, the streetshow actually lasted 24 hours before the builders culled their first piece, a shocking pink celebri-collage featuring Bill Cosby. I can’t see that, either, but it’s been blogged

Behind me, muted by two or three layers of the padded grey burlap that defines our Team’s habitrail, a coworker mutters emphatically into his telephone, working his real-estate deals. This is a trick lots of people are picking up, the art of keeping one’s voice down while maintaining something of the go-go, for-sure-for-sure confidence required to wheel n’ deal, a necessary survival skill for Edmontonians playing Condominium Tycoon on company time.

“We’ll make the fi--… we’ll get the fif--… no, yeah, no we’ll get the fifty back in… in less than two weeks, no, yeah, no, right, absolutely.”

Even streety slackers are talking property these days, pierced n’ baggy Whatever types walking down Whyte, shrugging noncommittally about flipping condos. Sixty per cent of all conversation taking place in Edmonton at any one time is about house prices, round-robin comparisons of how many thousands in how many months, and through it all the one thing every Edmonite knows for certain: if you’re renting, you are retarded; you are completely retarded; it is retarded to pay rent.

No kidding. Questions of equity aside, the life of a renter in Edmonton is the life of a fugitive, chased from building to building by the advancing forces of condominimization, or squeezed hard if you stay put. The notice doesn’t come from your landlord or building manager, either: one day you simply find the shit-eating grin of a realtor slipped under your door, offering you the exciting opportunity of buying your shitbox bachelor suite for a quarter-million dollars, and a week later the lobby and hallways fill with loudmouth suits actually rubbing their hands as they discuss the money they’ll be making while you’re scrambling for yet another round of deposit/first month/hookups.

And the elevators fill with graffiti:

thanks for making me move AGAIN

I hope your happy

I hate you mother fuckers

Given these feelings everywhere, given a climate where even the bought-in moneymakers are getting scared shitless – “Sure, I could sell this place for three hundred grand, but what then? I still have to fuckin’ live somewhere, man.” – and a new fear and loathing overtakes traditional beer and loafing, it’d be easy to read a construction-site artbombing as some kind of antidevelopment protest. But that’s exactly what it’s not! The name of the project – “Make It Not Suck” – says it all; it’s about making this shit easier to look at. Makeup, if not a mask, for the skungy plywood Face of Progress.

Or a blessed weekend giggle, at least; these are getting fewer and farther between. Edmonton long ago lost its status as a Slacker’s Paradise – this used to be the Reverse New York: if you couldn’t make it here, you couldn’t make it anywhere -- but even as it becomes less and less possible to keep it together in Browntown without working like a slavedog while swinging mortgage deals on your bathroom breaks, we’ve got to honor our heritage as laughing dilettante stoner art punks… even if we can only honor it on slow Sundays.

It’s either that, or flee to Winnipeg

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Pass the wiimote on the left-hand side

Sitting around a cozy kitchen table in the late-afternoon cool of the year’s first real summery Saturday, the requisite Coronas – sunshine beer! -- washing down a loaves-and-fishes joint of scavenged cheeba, the conversation somehow (my fault?) turns from whatever it had been – gardening, travel, Arrested Development, poutine – to the topic of videogames and their mind-bending near future.

I think it was the upcoming release of the Opera web browser for the Nintendo DS that got us started; at least, that’s what I gather from my notes scribbled on the back of the Wild Rose Brewery & Taproom flyer promising me of 15% off any drinkable, eatable or wearable next time I’m in Calgary. Stoners who care seem to agree: the combination of dual screens, touch interface, full wi-fi web browser, massive installed base and commodity pricing – and also, you know, games – means… something. Something big. Much of my noted discussion is obscured by a later sketch diagramming my plans to camperize my minivan, but from what I can make out we were excited about the possibility of some kind of internet phone application – no more quarters to The Man!

Easier to make out, in big block letters laid down with a firm hand, is a phrase I wish I could seal in a Quantum Envelope and mail back in time to the Beat poets:


No surprise the party partisans are down with the Wii, when they can get it. All that arm-waving and carrying-on not only provides a fun vector of entry for non- or casual gamers (that’s code for “girls”) but also acts to counteract the screen stereotype of the slack-jawed stoner, swaddled in a stinky alpaca poncho someone left at his place, twitch-clutching the control pad as Super Nintendo bleeps and explosions emanate from the perfectly good TV somebody just totally left in the alley, dude. Images of fun-buzzed young hipsters prancing around like giddy fauns with wiimotes are going to be key in our upcoming “Today’s 420!” image-rehabilitation marketing campaign, alongside chic lady CEOs with posing with their Vuitton vaporizers and smiling astronauts hotboxing the ISS. Coming soon to a bus shelter near you.

Anyway, the New Rumble. In a recent entry on games blog Destructoid, poster Reverend Anthony ran down his list of the “top five gameplay innovations to look forward to this year,” and right there in the middle – between the “procedural generation” of Will Wright’s Spore and the real-time conversation system in BioWare’s Mass Effect -- was the first thing my Friends Indeed and I thought of when the Wii concept was unveiled: swordfighting! Specifically, true motion-tracking, one-to-one swordfighting, unlike the, sub-Morrowind slash-triggering of Red Steel, which was as disappointing as getting a “Lettuce Garden Kid” for Christmas in 1983. Realistic blade battling of the type wishfully mimed by every nerd who picks up a wiimote would be the killer app for motion sensing; how you gonna keep ‘em down on the button-pressing farm, once they’ve seen sword-swinging Paree?

Deep technical and design problems lie in the way of realizing our D&D dreams. One that worries me is a sort of feedback deficiency: onscreen, your flashing blade will now and then be blocked by solid objects – other swords, trees, people’s skulls, etc. – while your actual arm goes wwhiffff through the air. How do we get that delicious curtain rod-on-curtain rod feeling of contact that makes fake swordfighting so fun? The wiimote’s anemic rumbler is inadequate to the arm-rattling task; what we need is a special swordfighting wiimote with beefed-up feedback, a heavy-ass hilt packing one of those old-school pinball kickers that’ll splinter your damn ulna. OK, one problem solved.

More fundamental: you ever watch people playing Wii Sports tennis – or, dear Lord, Wii Sports boxing? It’s random, frantic, desperate and not a little dangerous to bystanders. Any swordfighting game is going to be Dark Honor: Legends of the Blademaster on the box but Random Beating: Flailings of the Spastic in play – especially in a multiplayer game; might as well simulate seal clubbing, or a LARP session. But we – our ancestors, actually -- may have solved this problem, according to another bit of scrawl from the flap of a pack of du Mauriers. See, at the dawn of the modern age, dudes had a similar difficulty. It was necessary to turn the barbarity of sword-butchery into a gentlemanly pursuit: fencing. Over time, a complex framework of rules governing the flow of combat were developed. Basically, the first fencer to “establish a threat” has priority, or “right-of-way”, meaning his hits will take precedence over those of his opponent, even if said opponent has… he…zzzzzzzzzzzz…

Huh? OK, maybe not such an exciting idea. I’m sure Nintendo or one of their third-party developers will figure out how to make swordfighting work on the Wii. Or… well… hey! It doesn’t even have to be on the Wii! Sony’s launching a new camera peripheral for the PS3 that could support decent motion-tracking capabilities, and their controller infrastructure already supports Sixaxis tilt-sensing… shit, it all adds up! Motion sensing is the new rumble; Sony’s going to sneak out from under the cover of their dark cloud of early marketing mistakes and eat Nintendo’s lunch with a wiimote knockoff!

I ought to be snobby, dismissive, indignant or otherwise fanboyish about Sony’s biting the Wii thing, but somehow I can’t muster it; the daydreaming legions of gamer-stoners are getting impatient, on side with whoever manages to deliver the rattle and clash of real-time swordfighting to their flag-curtained squats.

I mean, to their airy urban-minimalist lofts. Today’s 420!

Monday, April 30, 2007

Metal Monday

Do or die.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Holy shit cute


Friday, April 20, 2007

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Claim the Crown of Command!

Every eighteen months or so the old fever comes back into simmer, triggered by a book rediscovered in clutter-clearing, a casually nostalgic conversation, a heavy-metal album cover. This time, it’s sixty-odd-dollar lunch-hour impulse purchase that’s relit the fire under my affection for tabletop fantasy role-playing in general and Dungeons & Dragons in particular; the gently-used hardback Monster Manual sitting casually on the toilet tank, the Player’s Handbook seductively arranged on the coffee table, the mysterious Dungeon Master’s Guide perched on the lectern of my bedside box.

Mind filled with the old familiar magic words and names of power--saving throw; displacer beast; prismatic wall; gelatinous cube--I spend my days in a state of wild fantasy, of dreams beyond possibility. Not dreaming of stalking bloody-bladed through corridors of death, or of charming a Duchess of the Realm with a preternaturally glib tongue, but of something more fantastic: of sitting around a table in the late afternoon, prepared and confident, with a group of relatively sober and attentive friends and colleagues, getting down to playing some rewarding D&D. It’s a vision almost too lovely to bear.

Word’s got out that I’ve been thinking subterranean thoughts again and the usual suspects have expressed their usual interest, most of them knowing not to get their hopes up. The old student days of spacious days and bachelor nights are gone, and the leisure-time-consuming work of building a campaign–just say ‘No’ to boxed adventures and off-the shelf settings!–and then reconciling the nine-dimensional schedule of a five-player group seems daunting to the point of tears. I do feel sorry for my oilpatch engineer buddy, the one bright-eyed hopeful; he’s gone both-feet with this one, spending his endless hours of Haliburton-hotel downtime swimming in the numbers and charts and modifiers of D&D’s internal kabbalah. I doubt his meticulously spreadsheeted custom Ranger class will ever see the roll of a die.

Of course, even back in the carefree college years of skipped/dropped classes and not much better to do there were times when we needed a relatively quick fantasy fix and the commitment of a full game was out of the question. It’s in these occasions that the fantasy board-game genre found its market, and might just find it again. From the simplistic plodding of the old TSR-produced Dungeon!–an elementary-school favorite–through a massive modern abominations like the World of Warcraft tabletop game, these boxed wonders supplythe animal pleasures of a role-playing game–constant combat dice-rolling, avaricious gathering of imaginary riches–without the argument-resolving hours of leafing through Bible-thick rulebooks and the frustrating cat-herding inherent in collaborative storytelling with a bunch of narcissistic nerds. And of these games, the undisputed champ is Games Workshop’s Talisman.

The Talisman high concept for the non-nerd layman: Dungeons & Dragons meets Monopoly. As in Monopoly, players roll dice to circle a board, facing fickle fate as random cards are drawn, until one player has become heavy enough to crush the rest… except instead of a boot or a flatiron or whatever, you’re a Barbarian or Wizard or one of countless other fantasy weirdoes, each with their own especially fantastic way of bending the rules. It can’t be said that Talisman was a really good game–it was too random, too unbalanced and usually too long–but it was fun. We played it for hours upon hours, bloated it up with countless expansion sets, took it up to the barroom of RATT and played a liver-wrecking drinking-game version until we couldn’t see the board. The last edition of Talisman was released 13 years ago; quality copies of this geek touchstone auction for hundreds of dollars, a price I could never justify.

This week, though, just as my D&D despair was at its darkest, Talisman reappeared to me in all its shining, pointless glory. First, it was announced that videogame developer Capcom was preparing a multiplayer, online version of the game for release on XBox Live Arcade later this year, and via that announcement I heard that a new tabletop edition was being readied for October. The importance of this news to a certain type of gamer of a certain age can’t be overstated–imagine, I don’t know… a Fleetwood Mac reunion? A new Dallas series? A Beastmaster sequel? It’s going to be awesome.

I ought to feel bad about feeling sort of OK about the possibility of once again setting aside my plans for a politically charged northern-wilderness indigenous-elves-versus-human-developers Dungeons & Dragons campaign, for once again faking out my sphere of fantasy-friendly hosers. But now that Talisman’s coming back, I know that just around the corner of the year lies an afternoon or two of tabletop fantasy. It won’t be the full role-playing experience I crave and will never stop craving, but it’ll be what Talisman always was: an evocative facsimile that dulls the pangs, magical methadone.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"No amount of piling up skulls thrills any more"

I breathe in still. The music grows calm. I breathe out.

Ragbag Buntara creeps towards me from her bed in the dirt of Imperial City. My will wobbles a tightrope of death. Yet like her, I stare up breathlessly through my whiskers at the fuming ruins, the shattered shell of the Church of the One. Smoking in its crumbled midst, an enormous stone dragon: moments ago paralyzing and golden and alive, a righteousness-spewing manifestation of Akatosh himself! Need I stress he’s one of the great Nine Divines, the very gods who cement this world of unmatched beauty and evil, our teeming Cyrodill? Without winged Akatosh’s summoning, all on it would have been smothered methodically from above by the four hands of the axe-wielding titan, Mehrunes Dagon. For the last 357 sunsets, the Daedric Prince has hatefully stabbed holes into the stretched skin of the land, mountains to deserts to oceans, pushing through his gates of blood and bone countless abominations! Thousands have died in his name, from penned horses to an entire city: that infamous pile of rubble, Kvatch. Today, Sun’s Height 13, he materialized in the great city and was exiled by Akatosh in a storm of flame. Perhaps he’s even dead. Or both are dead.

Yet even now, Buntara begs me for a coin, my smashed and enchanted weapons still vibrating from the battle moments ago that would end the world. There is a Daedric arrow shafted through my groin, one of several souvenirs of erupted demon war. She looks directly at me, an armoured Khajit catman named Grandpa, my fur as bright as the sun. Then asks, “Tell me again how you and Martin defeated Mehrunes Dagon.”

To be honest, it’s a long fucking story. Thanks to Emperor Martin summoning Akatosh at the cost of his existence, the Line of Kings is broken, the world without a leader. But I soon learn walking the lonely land - now free of Dagon’s prehistoric fiends and buxom spider queens - that’s all anyone wants to talk about any more, from the Black Horse Courier office outward. The battle legend pours even to the extradimensional Shivering Isles, once domain of Mehrunes’ cousin Sheogorath, another Daedric Prince, Lord of Madness instead of hate. Sheogorath has a special place in my grit teeth. After his queer gate showed up on the lake outside of Bravil it took an extensive penance.

There I was trapped for weeks, kept from my artistic heart: my hand-decorated wizard’s tower Frostcrag Spire, where so much of my passion lies in this life of mindless killing and errand-running. There: every skull I’ve ever liberated is piled. It’s home to my massive library and sycophant servant boy, cruelly commanded to remain in the bedroom conservatory, a little herb-garden gnome. Though I have no taste for his praise, he reminds of me the price of engaging the corrupt cities of men. In the tower’s rooms below, an unmatched collection of weapons and armour, trinkets; but also an easel-framed painting traded for keeping quiet about a certain royal infidelity; also, the head of a sick wizard’s mother; best of all, a handmade spiral staircase made of inexplicably floating paintbrushes carefully arranged upward, hanging there as if life were some mere game with cool graphic glitches.

But with both Daedra regals snuffed, I admit I’m not quite sure what to do with my life any more. To circumvent their disruptive ambitions, I’ve thrown myself into Felldew addiction, salivating and scrambling desperately through the hollows of a giant tree for the right kind of man-sized bug to juice – soon after, a battle with a dark mirror of myself; I’ve ripped the keystone hearts out of 15 Oblivion planes – hewing others’ reality; I’ve even leaped into a book, the secret Paradise of Mankar Camoran, destroying yet another dreamworld.

So now, the idea of lackey-fetching singing Ninroot for a wine-burping chemist or finding some fool woman’s debt-ridden husband in an orc dungeon seems positively … janitorial.

I’ve said it then. I believe I’m suffering post-Oblivion depression, healer. The mountains have been claimed and flattened. And no amount of piling up skulls or climbing floating paintbrushes over walls I’m not physically supposed to thrills any more. And I’m thinking about Ragbag Buntara. I’m thinking the next time she asks me for a coin … I’m going to have to hurt her. You know. Just for something to do as the guards rush to their deaths.

Better a debauched canary than a pious housecat, after all.

Monday, April 16, 2007

More sciencey awesomeness

The super-rad Kaye Effect in action

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

ESH: A Palpable Loss

04-09-2007 – Yoga for Beginners

“Be aware of your breath as you relax… relaxing your thighs, your hips… your abdominal muscles…”

Oh no, lady. No. We don’t want that. This may be Hatha Yoga for Beginners, and we’re here to get to know our bodies, and it’s not a performance, and nobody’s judging us, but I guarantee there’s be an awful lot of judging – and an unwelcome degree of body-knowledge – if the stern fist of abdominal discipline were to unclench and this caucus of dissident sashimi allowed to voice its opinions. Now is not the time for a policy of openness; I’ll relax everything else, hang like a simple natural-fibre robe from the iron hook in my guts, but I can’t relax my abdominals.

What was I doing, scarfing down twenty dollars’ worth of raw fish half an hour before my first-ever yoga class? Acting from desperation, blood-sugar necessity. See, I’m knocking two items off the Hippie Checklist this week: my first yoga, and my first herbal cleanse. No bread/flour products, no sugars or sweeteners, no dairy, no fermented products (vinegar, soy sauce, beer [sniff], wine [sob]), no tropical fruits… plus, my girl and I decided we’d go fishitarian for this one. The theoretical meal options are endless and wonderful; our practical reality has been salmon and rice.

It’s actually quite an easy and rewarding diet to more-or-less stick to, especially once you manage to will your head and body out of the fat-sugar-salt-starch lever-pushing of the instant-food reflex and start thinking of meals earlier than 30 seconds before hypoglycemic coma sets in, but today I’d neglected to restock my cubicle’s larder with almonds, cashew butter and the brown-rice cakes I’d once been so enthusiastic about (I’d actually exclaimed “Ooh!” and “Yum!” when I found them in the organic aisle). And so, when those big, beautiful menus presenting all that fresh, tasty fishflesh were put in my shaking hands, all the yogic dietary advice I’d dilligently wikied was forgotten as easily as it’d been gained.

I wish I’d been smarter on the food angle, because some of these poses feel really great underneath the agony; you can almost hear the office demons being driven out of my hunch-crunched lower back, evicted from my gnarled slacker shoulders. It’d be great to really relax and lean into them; unfortunately, many of them involve pointing my ass directly at a roomful of kindly strangers. I’d hoped the fish wouldn't disagree with me so violently, but underestimated the magnitude of combat involved in Operation: Intestinal Freedom. A few little cheats on the weekend – celebrating Christ’s victory over death and my fiancee’s victory over the living death of not having your awesomeness acknowledged – had set the purification program back, and my twelve daily tablets of cleansing herbs were on the counteroffensive.

There’s regret, there, even after all the perfectly reasonable justifications for blowing the cleanse in half with a double-shot of heavy food and liquor. I feel weak and gross and foolish, yeah, but worse is my frustrated curiosity; we were on Day Five of a 12-day program when we stepped outside the dietary guidelines, and just that afternoon I’d rushed urgently to the can at IKEA – a traditional part of the IKEA experience, with or without a gutful of loose-change hotdogs – and my business smelled like flowers. I actually courtesy-flushed out of embarrassment at smelling too good. What would have happened in seven days had I not joyfully smothered that gastrointestinal garden with a herbicidal compost of Panago and Carlo Rossi? Would I have gained… superpowers?

Anyway… yeah. Here we see in action the key pitfall of a healthy, conscious, engaged, aware lifestyle: you can’t shut up about your hippie shit, because it’s all you can think about. This past week, if my mind wasn’t on what was going into my body, it was gleefully analyzing what was going out. Sorry, everybody; I’m just going to listen to this friendly contortionist with the perfect skin and focus on my breath, on what’s going on with my body in this moment.

Oh, right. That. Well, I understand now what my girl was talking about when she said yoga practice can actually add hours to your day, because it feels like I’ve been here for a million years.