Monday, December 23, 2013

Present day... Present time.

Over a decade ago, the first anime DVDs I bought were American imports - the Pioneer boxset of Serial Experiments Lain. The day it arrived, my two brothers and I watched the whole series on a PC in a bedroom in my parents' house, in a single sitting.

Until last week, I hadn't seen it a second time, despite a few aborted attempts at rewatches. I'm not sure why I found it so difficult to get into between the first viewing and now, but I was home on my own and having already burned through Puella Magi Madoka Magica at the start of the week I figured it was as good a time as any to park myself in front of a screen for five hours, and give Lain another shot.

The first time through, I realise now, I was not paying attention. I didn't really follow the story, couldn't understand much of the subtext, and missed many of the references and hints scattered throughout the series. It's an overwhelming show for the unprepared mind, and I certainly wasn't prepared.

This time, I had the benefit of a decade's worth of thinking, reading and talking about the show as a foundation, and a familiarity with the order of events that meant I could focus more on the philosophical aspects - but for the first eight episodes or so, I was still feeling incredibly out of my depth. It wasn't until "God" makes his appearance that the ideas started to gel together, and having reached the end (and thought about it for a few more days) I have a proper theory about the whole thing1.

There's still a lot of the show that feels like misdirection, though - and a few things that remain unexplained, even at the end. At least two thirds of the show is philosophy for its own sake and worldbuilding, bringing up more ideas than it ever intends to fully address - and remains totally unapologetic about it. It doesn't feel like those threads are abandoned or incomplete, however - while it's far from a "coherent" work, the questions you're left with are the same ones Lain herself faces throughout the show - and even she doesn't understand everything when the final credits roll.

I know I've got to rewatch it again at some point, with my theory in hand ready to see how well it holds up against the whole thing. I just hope it doesn't take me another ten years to get around to it.

1 I'm not going to post it here because spoilers.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Valvrave the Liberator

This is the story of teenage mecha-pilot body-jacking space vampires fighting immortal Space Nazis. In space.

Incredibly, that synopsis does not encapsulate half of the wall-to-wall batshit weirdness that is Valvrave the Liberator. I'm having a difficult time thinking of any other show that has taken quite as much pleasure from setting up a cliche and then taking a hard right to crazytown before it gets there.

The first episode opens like it's a high-school romantic comedy; if it wasn't for the mecha in the OP you'd be rightly surprised when it turns out that their school is on a politically-neutral space station and then under attack from the aforementioned Space Nazis for no adequately-explained reason.

Immediately after his primary love interest is hit by an enemy missile1, our intrepid hero, Haruto, climbs aboard a mech that suddenly appeared from underground, resigns his humanity2, and proceeds to slaughter dozens of the attackers with little remorse.

The episode ends when, after being shot and apparently killed, Haruto comes back to life and bites an enemy spy, taking control of his body.

Every time I've thought that I'm finding my feet in this show, it changes its game. The first few episodes are straightforward (..ish) mecha combat, but then there's a break in episode five where the students sing a pop song in an attempt to gain PR points with another country to help defend themselves against the Space Nazis. There's a Galactica-style detour into the political process of the newly-independent Module 77 when they hold elections. The enemy spy possessed by Haruto in the early episodes, L-Elf3 becomes a military advisor for the colony, against his former allies.

I wasn't sure that I liked the show to begin with, but the longer I've followed along the more intrigued I've become. At this point, there's only one episode left in the second season and no news of a third; I just have to find out how the hell they're planning to wrap up the story, let alone adequately explain a 200-year flash-forward from the start of the second season.

1 By the end of the second episode it is revealed that she pulled a Norwegian Blue and was, in fact, only resting - in the most disappointing anime resurrection since Attack on Titan.

2 When he first enters the machine, he has to answer "yes" to the question "Do you resign from humanity?" in order to start it; he is then given superpowers including immortality and the ability to take control of someone else's body by biting them.

3 Or, as he's known on r/anime, "ERUERUFU".

Friday, December 20, 2013

Nice Boat

Nice Boat

There's something of a running joke on r/anime that, when a user asks for a recommendation to introduce a parent/work colleague/friend to the medium, someone will suggest School Days.

Based on a visual novel, the show follows a high school student's attempts to woo a girl he sees on the train to school every day, with the help of a classmate. This setup lasts for all of an episode before things take a turn for the complicated, and the series ends with the most… unconventional resolutions to a love triangle.

Spoilers follow.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Torture in an open world

There have been a lot of articles recently about the content of Grand Theft Auto V, and how it reflects on, approves of, encourages and/or influences the behaviour of its audience. A torture scene is being called out as particularly problematic.

I've still not played the game - I hope to borrow a copy from someone at work eventually, but I'm not going to buy, implicitly supporting, Dan Houser's… output - but there's certainly a question about how necessary it is to portray torture in a piece of entertainment, and how necessary it is that the player participates in it.

One of the main problems with this conversation in the context of Grand Theft Auto as a series is that it's difficult to take it seriously. The previous games have always positioned themselves as parodies of their cinematic forebears (best exemplified by Vice City's wholesale appropriation of the plot of Scarface). But it's never been a series with a message; indeed it seems like the developers encourage people to shrug any controversy off with "it's just a silly game".

In the context of Spec Ops: The Line, you can make a point about the willingness of players to go along with objectives unquestioningly, no matter the outcome - in that instant, it's essential to the theme that the player takes action. It's much harder to communicate a point about the consequences of your actions in a game like GTA because the whole thing is a celebration of consequence-free activity.

The minor penalties visited on you for breaking the law - which only come after an exhilarating car chase, trying to outwit and escape the police, and even then only if you fail to get away - are far from prohibitive. You lose some money and your weapons, but you always come back with a clean slate.

With that in mind, it's difficult to see what point, if any, Rockstar are trying to make by including a torture scene. It doesn't seem to serve any narrative purpose - in fact a number of comments online suggest it's actually out of character for the player's avatar to go along with it - and it can't, by the nature of GTA itself, have any long-term implications for the player or characters.

The only possible conclusion is that it was included for people to talk about, to drive up controversy. Which is hardly a first for the series, but the original Grand Theft Auto's playground wasn't trying as hard as Rockstar's latest to take a place alongside mature cinema.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Plague, Inc.

It's eleven o'clock at night and I'm sitting in the living room with the TV off, waiting for the last million people in the world to die so that I can go to bed.

It's pretty obvious that Plague Inc. has kind of got a hold on me. But I still haven't cracked the fungal infection.

The trick, I've found, is to focus on transmission and infectiousness early on; too many noticeable or fatal symptoms and you'll be spotted, racing to defend your disease against the developing cure.

But leave the deadly symptoms too late and you could end up watching your infected billions cured at the last second, with a pathetically low mortality rate overtaken by a late surge in medical research.

That's what has beaten my fungual plague so far. And it's only the third stage; there are still four more disease types to unlock.

But eventually I'll find the magic combination of infection vectors, symptoms and release location to destroy the human population of the planet, and I will sit waiting out the clock again, and I'll feel this strange combination of guilt and triumph watching as the digital billions succumb to my beautiful, perfect sickness.

And then, I'll start over with the parasite.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Beer battered Fish

The problem, for me, with Phil Fish's huffy departure from the games industry is that he's too divisive a figure.

If it had been a more reasonable, likeable person who'd been hounded out of the thing they love by an aggressive, demanding gaming media (and public), then I'd have a lot more sympathy.

For anyone unfamiliar with the events, here's the story. Game Informer, upon hearing a rumour that Microsoft were going to make it easier for independent developers to publish on the Xbox One, reached out to Phil Fish and Jonathan Blow, two self-styled Indie Developers, for comment. They're viewed by many as the "leaders" of the indie dev scene, and haven't gone out of their way to disabuse anyone of that notion.

Both Fish and Blow declined to comment; Fish made some remarks on Twitter about how bothersome he found it that he was approached for comment any time there's an indie games story.

On the Invisible Walls vodcast for GameTrailers, a games critic called Marcus Beer called Fish and Blow out as "hipsters", accusing them of using the games media and their indie darling cred when it suited them, but whining about having to deal with the press when it didn't suit their own self-promotion.

His presentation left something to be desired - it was overtly hostile and dismissive of Blow and Fish's creative talents, and didn't address the fact that they're not PR people but creatives - but the core of Beer's comments were pretty simple and difficult to argue with: a developer's relationship with the press is a two-way street.

The media needs developers for stories to tell, and the developers need the media to tell their stories.

But what I don't like is that this is only how the games press acts when it has power over the developer. While Phil Fish needs the games media to help him spread the word about his new game, the press has more than enough to cover with triple-A publishers and even other indies; they're not reliant on news from Polyton to fill column inches.

But despite the way Activision and EA treat the games media and their consumers, you'd rarely see a contributor to GameTrailers calling for a media-wide blackout on big-budget games just because the developer refused to comment on a rumour.

There's an element of this whole story that feels like a power trip, where the media's in a position to harm a developer when they don't get their way, when the boot's been on the other foot dealing with multinational publishers.

I feel like this could be an important thing to have happened. That Phil Fish has abandoned making games is a big deal, but such a divisive figure has people retreating to party lines; the coverage I've seen is split between "Fish was persecuted unfairly" and "Fish is an asshole", with very little in the middle.

But for all the praise of Phil Fish as a genius, we're now only ever going to have one piece of work to judge him on and that's not enough for me to make that call. Yeah, Fez is a great game, but it took him five years to make and he pissed off everybody he came into contact with during that half-decade, in one way or another.

The games industry has lost an auteur with a distinctive and divisive voice, but I'm having a hard time seeing if that's all good or all bad.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Shape of Arcadia

I must have completed Skies of Arcadia a dozen times, and abandoned playthroughs another dozen, but something struck me on my most recent journey back from Yafutoma that I haven't been able to dislodge from my mind for the last couple of days.

Just what the hell shape is this planet?

Warning: this is really self-indulgent.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Third PlayStation Problems

Here's the problem with PS+ as an alternative to buying games: I have too much f--king stuff to play.

I'm still stupid early in Saint's Row 3, have just about gotten to grips with XCOM again, and just about finished the tutorial in Kingdoms of Amalur; meanwhile I've not even gotten around to downloading Battlefield 3 (I only remembered that it's there after seeing it on the store homepage) and didn't give Demon's Souls a proper shake because I knew I'd have more fun with other stuff I've yet to finish. Not to mention my rapid abandonment of Hitman, Arkham City and Vanquish (although I'd finished the latter two on 360 previously). And then there's the arcadey stuff like Joe Danger and LBP Karting that I've still not gotten around to.

And now, in August, they're giving me another sandbox game in Mafia II (I platinumed Sleeping Dogs and am having enough fun with Saint's Row to see it through at least to the end of the story), Spec Ops: The Line (which I'm partway through on PC but will probably restart on PS3 anyway), and Need For Speed: Most Wanted, which I was quite intrigued by, pre-release.

I've only actually managed to finish Catherine and Okami so far, both of which I'd already beaten on other platforms.

I should definitely get a bigger hard drive. Having to delete stuff to make room for other games has really killed my ability to drop-in to stuff that I might otherwise have stuck with.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Broken Age split

This has been doing the rounds on Twitter this morning, and I'm kind of disappointed by the response to the news that Double Fine aren't able to make a whole videogame for $3m.

The full statement, from Double Fine's CEO Tim Schafer, can be read all over the internet (I happen to have a tab open to Destructoid's story, so have that), but the TL;DR version is that they got too ambitious and rather than compromise, they're going to make some cuts to the first half of the game to get something ready for public consumption.

They'll then release that first part of the game, in January, on Steam's "Early Access" program - which lets them sell the (unfinished) game to the public. The remainder of the game will then be released at no additional cost to Early Access buyers (and Kickstarter backers).

There's almost a sense that some people feel Double Fine should have been able to make the whole game using only the money raised through Kickstarter. But then what? Are they not supposed to sell it? Was there some unspoken agreement that, with the whole thing paid for by Kickstarter, the game would then be released for nothing?

It's kind of fascinating to me to see the reaction, though. One of the great things about the Double Fine Adventure project is the transparency; for the first time, consumers are getting to see how the gaming sausage is being made. But rather than learning from seeing that process, they're getting angry that the reality doesn't match up to their utopian ideal.

Even though Double Fine are getting to make the game they want to, on their own terms, it was never going to be a smooth ride. Publishers might be difficult taskmasters to work with, but I'm surprised at how not surprised I am that working directly for your audience is even less stable.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Kids on the Slope, dubbed

By and large, I prefer to watch anime dubbed rather than subtitled. Most of the stuff I've seen, especially when I was running aNIme, was on DVD and I watched it dubbed first, so that's the voice I associate with the character.1

That's changed a lot since I began my Crunchyroll subscription, however - I've not seen anything for the first time dubbed in years.

I've previously written about how brilliant Kids on the Slope is, and having rewatched it through once (as well as revisiting my favourite episodes - 1, 7 and 12 - on multiple occasions) it's still firmly in the "best show ever" slot.

So it was with some trepidation I put the dub on today. I'd always had trouble imagining it in English, and the announcement of Steven Foster as the ADR scriptwriter and director wasn't reassuring. Foster has always been a polarising element; he's known for playing it a bit fast-and-loose with translations, which makes him great for comedy scripts, but not such a steady hand for drama.

The script is generally uneven as a result; some of the lines are tweaked to add slang and (jazz) references, but others are awkwardly formal. Narration, which is open for the broadest reinterpretation without animation to match, is often frustratingly literal.

The cast, by and large, are solid2; Chris Patton is a predictable but reliable choice for Kaoru, but I'd not heard much of the other leads' work before this show. Rebekah Stevens is unreservedly great, but I'm still warming to Andrew Love. Sentaro was always going to be a tough one to get right, and while I think there are elements of Love and Sen that match up it doesn't quite gel.

Part of the problem is the direction; in Japanese, Sentaro has a pretty thick accent and doesn't have great diction, slurring consonants at the end of sentences. In English, he's far too well spoken, with the exception of some contractions which sound obvious and forced as a result.

There are also a few irritating mispronunciations, with Kaoru's name getting the brunt. The vowels sound like they've been swapped in his first name, so Ritsuko sounds like she's given him the nickname "Coruscant"; the wrong syllable is emphasised in "Nishimi".

I'm not sure how many of these problems I'd have if I wasn't so familiar with the Japanese cast, though. If I'd been used to the dub for several months before hearing it in Japanese, maybe there'd be bits of it that bug me just as much.

I can't help but feel disappointed, though. The dub strikes me as rushed; I'm sure the affection I have for the show is influencing my opinion, but I really think it deserved a more measured approach - or at least someone to read over the script before recording.

1 At the beginning, I would watch both language tracks for reviews, but eventually came to the conclusion that people who only watch subtitles wouldn't care how good the dub was, and if you're watching it dubbed then you probably aren't bothered by them.

2 The only horrific mistake in the cast - although this, again, comes down largely to Foster's uneven direction - is what they've done to Seiji Matsuoka. There's a hint of camp in the Japanese actor's performance, but it's cranked all the way to uncomfortable stereotype in the dub.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Last of Us

My new year's resolution was to get through the year buying only one game. That one game is The Last of Us, which came out on Friday last week; I completed it late on Saturday with a total playtime of just over thirteen hours, and it's been stuck in my head ever since.

Part of that is because of the haunting score by Gustavo Santaolalla (which I'll be torturing my wife and neighbours with as I fail to learn it over the next few weeks), which constantly sparks flashes of the people, places and events from Naughty Dog's post-apocalypse.

The critical acclaim the game has collected so far is not unearned; while bits of the game do feel derivative and there's maybe too much emphasis on combat - I'd prefer fewer, tougher enemies and more sudden, brutal confrontations than the squads of opponents - the atmosphere and characterization is, I'm fairly certain, unequalled in gaming.

Spoilers follow.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Cowboy Bebop

At the end of last month, a one-off event in Edinburgh brought the director of Cowboy Bebop, Shinichiro Watanabe, to Scotland for a screening and Q&A session. There are few anime fans who've seen Bebop and dislike it, but it's getting pretty old by now and despite listening to Yoko Kanno's soundtrack albums fairly regularly I'd not seen it in a few years.

There were two episodes shown, both selected by Watanabe - Session #6 Ballad of Fallen Angels and Session #22 Cowboy Funk. According to the question-and-answer session afterwards, Watanabe picked the most serious and least serious episodes - and remarked that it's difficult to believe they're from the same series.

I often feel like anime series' are trying to split the difference between super-serious and slapstick; recent shows in particular, like Gargantia or Oreshura have really interesting setups that get regularly sidelined by wacky adventures. If they were just comedy or just drama I'd enjoy them a lot more, but sitting on the fence often just highlights the weaknesses in both elements of a show.

But it's a testament to how great the characters, atmosphere and design in Cowboy Bebop are that it not only manages to pull off such disparate storylines, but I can't imagine either the comedy or drama being removed from the show. I think it comes down to the personalities of the characters; they're such believable people that having a laugh makes sense. They get on each others' nerves, tell jokes, fight and work together in a way that makes sense.

Two episodes wasn't really enough. While I've not found the time yet to start a rewatch - I might wait for the Blu-ray release at the end of next month - I'm really keen to give it another run through.

The photo at the top of this post is of my now most prized posession. The cel cost me a few hundred dollars when I bought it eight years ago; I'm sure it's probably worth a fair bit more now. I was originally planning to ask Watanabe to sign Moanin', by Art Blakey, but realised I'd only bought a digital copy of the album.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Attack on my Patience

Oh, Attack on Titan, you started off so well. Despite the shonen trappings, tropes were falling left and right - culminating in the wonderfully shocking end of episode six, the ultimate "fuck you" to my, and no doubt many of your audience's, expectations.

You even followed it up with two episodes that seemed to keep that middle finger firmly raised to the predictable nature of anime shows with a clear hero, ignoring the events for an entire installment. I dared to hope that you were going to leave the knife twisted.

Then came the end of episode 8. Cracks appeared in my optimism, as the single best thing you'd done was suddenly and irrevocably undone. Then the end of episode 9 fucked it into a cocked hat, ensuring I can never be surprised again by your antics.

And now, after the tenth episode, you're back on familiar, even predictable territory. The storylines set up in the last 22 minutes have such obvious outcomes that I'm not sure I care if my assumptions are correct.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

So this has gone well

This whole post-a- day thing took a pretty severe rumble of a cliff. Knew that the first day I let myself skip it would be dangerous.

I've even has stuff to post about - meeting Shinichiro Watanabe, for instance, or the new YoYo Games office - but actually writing has been difficult to commit to.

Must try harder.

Starting tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Xbox One

The media reaction to the Xbox One is going to be interesting. Most of twitter, Google+ and forums I've seen so far have been less than impressed - but they don't have to play nice with Microsoft for press materials.

I've not read any articles properly yet, but the headlines seem to be sticking to facts - the machine's name, launch window and other basic indisputable information.

I wonder when - or if - we'll start to see opinions seeping into the coverage, given how poorly-received it was by enthusiast gaming communities.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Nexus 4

So long, webOS.

Palm's (and then HP's) little phone OS that couldn't quite has served me pretty well these last few years, but with the hardware slowly getting on my nerves and no app ecosystem to keep me with it, I have given in and moved to a more active operating system.

I got my Nexus 4 delivered today (I'm typing this on it now), but have been using Android on my tablet for the last few days so the growing pains have, so far, been minimal.

The biggest change is the keyboard; the last three phones I've used have had physical input so moving to a touch keyboard is a bit weird. The Nexus comes with a fancy swipe keyboard installed as default though, so it's an even bigger change.

I'm still not as fast with the swipe as I was on the Pre, but I do think I'm getting faster. It takes some of the imprecise pecking out of the equation too, which was worrying me a bit about a touchscreen-only phone.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Random Access Memories

I have something of a standoffish enjoyment of Daft Punk. I like Discovery (apart from One More Time, which just reminds me of unenjoyable school discos) and the Tron Legacy soundtrack (who doesn't?), but could never get into Homework or Human After All. I was mostly looking forward to the new album, Random Access Memories, but had fully accepted the fact that I might not click with it.

Disappointment has been avoided however, because it's fantastic. With the exception of Get Lucky, which I've been overexposed to on the /r/mashups subReddit, there's not a single track I'll skip. Some of them are a bit long - possibly just because I'm used to the shorter Tron tracks - but I've had it on repeat for a couple of days at work and I'm still loving it.

It's a weirdly old-school album for a techno group, though; aside from its obvious disco influences, most of the instruments are being played live rather than replicated electronically - which has a much bigger impact on the sound than I'd expected. There are still synths, but the non-electronic foundations of the tracks really cement the old-school 70s sound.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Into Darkness

The new season of Sherlock seems to be heading in a new direction

This is going to go into spoiler territory for Star Trek Into Darkness, so consider yourself warned.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Fuse (solo)

I know that Insomniac's official feed is only going to be retweeting the positive responses they're getting to the Fuse demo, but I am pretty stunned that it's getting such enthusiastic feedback. It's not a disasterous demo by any standard - it has some flaws but is clearly non-final work - but it's not done anything to assuage my fears that the final game, post-OverStrike, is anything more than a solid 7/10 shooter.

The game's level design and UI reminded me a lot of Vanquish which put me a bit on the back foot - I was spending a lot less time in cover than I probably should have been and ended up being put down quite regularly. There was always an AI companion nearby to pick me up in short order, but I would have liked to have some control over their actions, Mass Effect-style during the general gameplay. It didn't feel like a coherent experience; they didn't seem to try to follow my lead and their targeting priorities were... questionable.

That's almost certainly solved by using human co-op partners - or maybe actually using the LEAP option to move between characters - but playing solo was a frustrating experience. Another Vanquish-led expectation was the enemy strength - while Platinum's hyperactive cover shooter swarms you with enemies, the majority of them are easily dispatched with a headshot or two so I rarely felt overwhelmed. By comparison Fuse's bad guys are veritable bullet sponges, which only added to my trouble when peeking out of cover.

Add to that a surprisingly large number of high-level enemies (for an intro/demo level, at least), snipers and oversized robots, and I wasn't having a whole lot of fun. I felt on the back foot for the majority of the play time, swamped and alone - not a reassuring sensation in a game where you have three companions who should be helping out.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Shock and awe

I was planning on writing something about the Fuse demo.

But then I watched the new episode of Attack on Titan and I can hardly form a coherent thought. Jesus.

Jesus.

It's had a few slow plot-heavy episodes and seemed to be building up to particular shonen tropes in this latest installment, but it's still taking such delight in confounding expectations and pulls no punches with its more gruesome moments.

I can't remember the last time a show had its hooks in me this badly when I was still trying to make up my mind if I like it.

John Dies at the End

I could've sworn this film was much older than it is; Wikipedia says it was only released in the US in December last year, but I swear I remember seeing the first trailer for it long before that. It still hasn't had a proper UK release, but the DCA had a preview screening last Friday as part of the Dundead horror festival thing.

I don't know what I was expecting, exactly, but John Dies at the End isn't it. It's one of those films where its component parts seem like a recipe for greatness, but it somehow never pulls everything together. It's brilliantly shot, the dialogue is sharp and brilliantly delivered, and it has a core idea - a narcotic drug called "soy sauce" that gives people clairvoyance and the ability to see and communicate with the dead - that's full of promise.

It never really goes anywhere though, at least metaphorically; the characters literally go to an alternate dimension at one point but it feels like an attempt to up the stakes in a conflict we've not heard much about. The film opens with a ghostbusting endeavour undertaken by the two main characters - unreliable narrator David and the eponymous John - but then jumps into flashback for its entire running time with their (for want of a better term) origin story.

I'd have preferred a full film of low-tech paranormal investigations. It might have been less original, but it couldn't have been less coherent.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Oculus Rift part 2

Mike, the guy at work with the Oculus Rift (also my immediate boss), let me borrow it for the weekend, so I spent what feels like a lot of this evening setting it up. I say setting it up, what I mean is, trying to set it up.

Everything plugged in and powered on, I wasn't getting anything. I didn't know if it was the cables, the drivers, the graphics card, Windows being a jerk, or if I'd somehow damaged the Rift while gingerly taking it out of the box and setting it on the desk.

It turns out, as near as I can tell anyway, that the graphics card is the problem; its second monitor port appears to be non-functional. I've updated the drivers and restarted the machine more times than I can remember tonight, but it won't pick up anything I plug into that second slot - even the monitor, which works fine on the first port.

The Rift, of course, also works on that first slot, but it proved very difficult to set up, test, configure, tweak and use a head-mounted VR display with only its video output, so in the end I gave up.

I can see the appeal of the Rift, and if it had worked I'd be dashing around City 17 feeling violently ill right now instead of typing this. But in the circumstances, I've got to take some comfort from the fact that I didn't spend $300 on this headset that I can't actually use without spending upwards of £100 on a new graphics card to go along with it.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The Cave

I think I'm done with this one. It's got a lot of great stuff going for it - the writing and narration are excellent, the artwork is beautiful and the puzzles are just the right side of frustratingly obvious-in-hindsight - but I've had enough of the tracking back and forwards across the environment.

What makes the puzzles that bit more complicated is your "party" of adventurers - you choose three, and can switch between them to hold down levers or activate devices in different places at the same time so you can for instance, ring a bell to lure a monster out of its cave with another character poised to lower a trap over it. It's an interesting way of playing with space to spread out solutions, so it's not a case of just using every item you've accumulated so far with every item in the room.

The massive, massive downside is that you have to move each character separately. So if you finish a puzzle and move on, you take the first character to the next location, then... you have to do it all again with the second. And then the third. And then again when you're finished that area, or if you've taken a wrong turn.

It's intensely frustrating; what I wouldn't give for a "bring all your characters to this one's location" button. Hell, maybe there is one, and I just haven't found it. But jesus, it's killing any enthusiasm I have for the game.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Standing still

Oops, missed yesterday.

One of the most intriguing things about this season of Mad Men is how little Don Draper has changed - or his behaviour, at least. When the show started he was womanizing, boozing, smoking and immaculately tailored - and that's all still true. He still acts like he did six years ago, and what's more he's still getting away with it.

But what makes it interesting is how different he seems. The world around him has changed so much, and maybe we've just been watching him for so long and have seen so many other characters move on and move up and grow and change that he's just standing still. He's gone from being the epitome of cool for all his flaws (and awesome suits) to being an almost tragic figure, trapped by his vices and not even sure how much he wants to give them up.

He knows he should, but he can't bring himself to actually change.

I hope he does. As the seasons have worn on and we've found out more about Don, and as he's started to notice the cycle himself, he makes efforts to varying degrees to give up his bad habits. But he's failed every time, usually right as he's about to get a firm grip on actual happiness and stability.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Flute of Remembrance

The third episode of Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet didn't inspire a lot of confidence, resorting to a threat-of-the-week villain and predictable battle. The opening couple of episodes had a lot of worldbuilding and deliberate pacing, which the fourth installment has thankfully returned to. I don't have a problem, as such, with episodic action, but it felt like it had made promises at the start and then wasn't going to deliver on them.

I wasn't sure what the newest episode was going to do, since the third already kind of dealt with the immediate aftermath of the pirate attack. But the longer-term repercussions are still unaddressed - Ledo's been given an invoice for the damage he caused when he first arrived on the fleet, but he's been given a lot of freedom to move around the fleet and has been given work to do. I'd like to see more about how the regular people of the fleet feel about Ledo and his mecha - or even just what they've heard.

But instead he's hanging out with his robot and keeping mostly to himself - which kind of begs the question of where he's picked up so much Japanese1. He does start to make more friends, or at least acquaintances, in this episode though - finally meeting Amy's ill little brother Bevel and the fleet's doctor (they only have one?) in an attempt to learn how he might get back to the Galactic Alliance's main force. He also kind-of meets a couple of other messengers who work with Amy, but they've still not even been officially introduced to the audience.

It was actually the meeting (and the lead-in) with Bebel that restored my confidence in the show after last week's episode. I'd been worried that despite Ledo's distance from the Gargantia's people he was getting too used to the fleet without any real effort on anybody's part, but when Amy's taking him to meet her brother Ledo asks why they haven't "culled" Bevel, because he's too weak to be useful.

Ledo and Bevel have a conversation about what makes a person useful to a society (it's neutered a little by the fact that neither of them ever gets angry at the assumptions the other is making), as well as what makes a society worthwhile - Bevel's position is that living itself is motivation for humans to work together, but Ledo insists that without the Hideauze, mankind has no purpose. Which puts him wonderfully on the back foot when Bevel asks what he'll do once mankind defeats the aliens.

That was a question I'd never considered myself, and I can't recall a "militarized humanity vs extra-terrestrial threat" series that's ever bothered to ask that question. What did people do after the Buster Machine 3 was detonated at the end of Gunbuster? Apart from spelling out words in Australia's power grid.

So I'm reassured and looking forward to the rest of the show - watching Ledo integrate himself into the fleet and hopefully more of how they react to the spaceman and his high-tech flying robot. But more than that, I'm hoping that he eventually gets back to the Galactic Alliance after being changed by his experiences on the seas.

1It's not "officially" Japanese that they speak, of course; whether it's Ledo or the fleet, their native language is Japanese and the others are speaking gibberish. The fleet's language has been referred to in the show as "words" or "Earth language", but the people are a mix of different nationalities so it's unclear what language they'd actually be speaking - assuming a modern human could even identify it.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Iron Man 3

We saw Iron Man 3 last night; it was really quite good. Not sure there's much else to say about it - there's not a whole lot of subtext or deep character stuff to go into. The CGI was remarkably low-key, considering the big explosive effects finale; there was only one shot, that I can remember anyway, that didn't look up to scratch.

It was also, thankfully, not as indulgent as I was expecting for a third-in-the-franchise superhero film. They tend to get a bit bloated and drag in more villains than the plot can comfortably support, but it seems Iron Man got that out of its system with its second outing.

I've been thinking about what Iron Man 2's flaw was, for me; I've still only seen it once and might re-evaluate it in the event I ever give it a second viewing, but I remember it feeling like a movie version of a TV show. It's got all the big-budget spectacle of a blockbuster, but it's trying not to upset the cart with any story or character beats because they want to save that for the next one. As a result, it's treading water to an extent - there's lots of splashing, but it doesn't go anywhere.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Oculus Rift

One of the guys at YoYo got his Oculus Rift today, and as we thankfully work in an industry that's not entirely serious he spent most of the morning setting it up and letting people try out the Tuscany demo.

I tried it twice, and both times it gave me severe motion sickness.

I'm not entirely certain what the problem was, but I'm pretty sure it's one of a few prime suspects:

  1. the 3d effect;
  2. the rapid speed of movement in the environment;
  3. the sensitivity of the head tracking was too low;
  4. the lack of a frame of reference for your "body"; or
  5. the relatively low resolution or lack of focus in the lenses

The first one I tried to mitigate by playing with one eye closed, but that didn't seem to help much. I was already feeling pretty poor at that point though, so it might have been too little too late. The player's movement in the environment is severely disorienting because you're sitting still - only your head movement is being translated into the game. You're also skating around like Gordon Freeman in the original Half Life, slightly too fast compared to a natural walking speed. This also causes some tearing in the display, which doesn't help.

My head movements weren't all being translated accurately either; looking up and down (or tilting my head from side to side) seemed to be 1:1, but turning was slightly slower than my actual movement. This also ties into the lack of a frame of reference - while turning your head a little bit wouldn't change the direction of movement (much like you can walk in a line but look to the side in real life), turning too much would rotate your entire character. So you'd be travelling in one direction, then glance to the side and suddenly be travelling what felt diagonally.

The movement trouble was almost entirely eliminated in Team Fortress 2, which not only had entirely separate body and head rotation but also let you aim separately from where you're looking and allows you to see your character's body when you look down, providing a point of reference for where you're travelling if it's not the same direction as you're looking. The character's weapon also helps ground your point of view more than the Tuscany demo's disembodied viewpoint.

But while the seasickness wasn't as obvious while playing, the queasiness did kick in a few minutes after I stopped, and hasn't really gone away even now - hours after taking the headset off. All of which only makes me gladder that nobody had Mirror's Edge installed at the time.

The final problem is the low-resolution panel, which leaves your field of vision slightly blurred - not helped by the fixed-focus lenses, so you can't adjust it on the fly. Both of these might be solved in the final production model, but I'm not sure they're going to help with my nausea.

It's a promising piece of kit, although I'm not sure it's worth the current $300 price tag, and there were some truly fascinating moments while using it; I was standing up at one point while using the Tuscany demo, and turned around to talk to someone (in the real world) who was having a conversation just over my shoulder. Discovering that they weren't there was weird.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Far Cry 3, additional

So after last night's entry, observing my disinterest in Far Cry 3, I ended up spending a couple of hours tonight playing it. I don't have any further insights sadly; it was more exploration and sidequests rather than following the story (although I did complete a couple of main missions). The highlight of the evening was, when attempting to sneak into an enemy outpost, I was kicked to death by a cassowary.

I hadn't remembered how unbalanced the game is, though. I didn't think I'd managed to get that many upgrades, but I don't seem to be challenged much by the enemies. Maybe if I was using a more out-and-out aggressive playing style it would be different, but so far I've been stealthy as much as possible and have silencers on all my guns.

Actually, my burgeoning arsenal is another element that's tipping things unfairly in my favour. Every fast travel location has a vending machine where I can buy, swap and upgrade weapons (apparently on the honour system - why can't I blow the thing open and steal everything?); refilling ammo is fair enough, but I don't think it would have broken the game, considering how easy it is to nip back to a village, to force the player to purchase the weapons themselves from an actual human being.

Still, it's a lot of fun while it's happening. Climbing a mountain on your way to a radio tower, but finding an irresistible hang glider and getting distracted by treasure icons isn't a bad way to kill a couple of hours. It's not much good for prolonged play, though.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Far Cry 3

The thing I like most about good sandbox games - their necessarily incidental storyline - is also the biggest problem when it comes to their staying power. I'll happily spend hours screwing around, setting and chasing my own objectives, probably for longer than I'd play if the game was constantly telling me exactly what to do.

But that lack of a strong narrative prevents me from feeling like I need to go back to Far Cry 3. While I'm in the game, I'll always have time for one more hunting mission or radio tower or stronghold, but once I turn it off I don't have any compulsion to start it up again.

But I've often felt that a strong story comes at the cost of player freedom and vice versa; there's no way to consistently tell an emotionally rewarding story, or even to have an interesting player character, when every moment can be spent in a thousand different ways. Jason's supposed to be trying to rescue his friends and escape from this island, but as a player I haven't been given a good reason to care about them. He's supposed to be new to the combat, to hunting, maybe even to driving - but I've been trained to do all of these things by ten years or more of gaming experiences.

What I want, as a player, from Far Cry 3 is a long way from what the character Jason is supposed to want, at least at the early stage of the story I'm at. I've read enough interviews and deconstructions to know that, eventually, the allure of these extracurricular activities becomes a character point for him - violence as addiction - but the player's already there, looking forward to the next shootout, searching for the next objective, waiting for the next achievement.

Another problem with sandboxes is that, once you've unlocked one supply point, hunted a few animals and had a go on each vehicle type, you've basically seen everything. Sure, some of the later animals might take a few more bullets and the supply points on the southern island will probably require a slightly different strategy, but I've done those things already. Everything else from here out is a repeat of something I've already experienced.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Contract

I had a few different ideas of stuff to write throughout the evening, but I have a memory like a sieve (minus the mesh that occasionally catches bits) so here's some rambling instead.

Started rewatching Madoka properly, and I still have problems with how up-front its premise is - although that's possibly because I knew the conceit even the first time through the series. Maybe having the Faust association already in my mind caused me to pick up a lot more of the sinister and creepy angle rather than the surreal, fantasy aspect. Although the oppressive techno score didn't help, either.

I'm always surprised how quick a show will move the second time around, though - I didn't think [SPOILER] happened as early as the third episode, but then it's only got 12 half-hours to get through everything. It's also amazing how different the lead-in to [SPOILER] is when you know it's coming; the preceding scenes take on an entirely different meaning with that added foresight.

I also started blasting through Okami HD in an attempt to get that one trophy I missed the first time through. I'd previously restarted a New Game Plus playthrough but managed to crash the game, so had to more or less re-restart it tonight; I've reached the Agata Forest dungeon in less than 45 minutes, compared to the first time which probably took me a couple of hours or more. And possibly longer again on the PS2 version.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Dragons and ketchup

The takeaway lesson from this week's episode of Game of Thrones? Daenerys is a stone-cold badass. My only real complaint is that Arya Stark hasn't had a chance, yet, to kick ass properly. She's been a lot of talk and is showing a lot of guts, but the couple of times she's been given an opportunity to act it hasn't really gone her way.

And Mad Men continues to be complicated and awesome and beautifully-shot and impeccably acted and really honestly just the best show on TV. Its episodic format is still a bit of an advantage next to GoT's serialized storyline, with contained arcs and subplots every week rather than a couple of scenes per character in service to a greater, but as-yet-incomplete narrative.

The two shows have complimentary themes, though - a lot of this season of Game of Thrones seems to be setting up strong women, and how they play the political game just as well, although differently, than the men do. And in a lot of cases, the men don't even seem to realise they're being played. Mad Men on the other hand, at least when it comes to Don Draper, is about the declining importance of men's roles in the late 60s. As Megan's getting more successful in her acting career, it's undermining what Don sees as his position. She doesn't need him the same way he wants - or needs - her to and that's a threat that he reacts to in the usual Draper way: alcohol and affairs.

I'm not able to reliably speculate on what's going to happen in either show more than five minutes into the current episode so I don't know if there are larger points to make in each series, but Mad Men's basis in (a version of) reality certainly suggests it's going to see social changes impact the characters and their relationships. Game of Thrones doesn't have that same external pressure, but it's reassuring to see a show which started off with some questionable female characterization turning into a show where women increasingly hold all the power.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

That difficult third episode

I've just watched the latest episodes of Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet and Attack on Titan, and have some serious reservations about both. I guess it's to be expected, after such strong opening episodes, that something was going to give sooner or later, but they've both dropped the ball in different ways.

Gargantia slipped up in its pacing; while the first two episodes were very deliberately paced, the pirates' revenge attack this episode seemed to come a bit too quickly - they still haven't introduced all of the characters from the OP animation, but are running off on what feels like a filler episode. I'd hoped they'd have the guts to go a while without a huge action sequence, but apparently not.

What's more disappointing about it, though, was the costume design (or lack thereof) for the newly-introduced Pirate Empress (whose name I already forget). She, along with her two scantily-clad slave/sidekick ladies, doesn't fit in particularly well with the other pirates. Her overt sexuality is a predictable crutch instead of an interesting character, as is the hint at a mysterious back story with the Gargantia fleet's commander.

Attack on Titan's misstep is just that it was boring. After the horrific scenes in the first two episodes, we're suddenly left with some training montages and new characters (I started making a mental dead pool as they were being introduced). I know this seems like a double-standard immediately after complaining that Gargantia didn't take a breather, but it's not the lack of action that's the problem - it's the lack of Titans.

There were some interesting plot threads though, and a few of the characters will be interesting once they get pulled into a major arc (assuming they have more substance than "girl who likes food"1, anyway).

1 Pretty sure there was an Evangelion reference when she was eating, at one point.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Boston, the ARG

I spent a significant amount of yesterday listening to a live internet stream of the Boston Police Department's radio chatter. I'm not even really sure why; while I was following a couple of Reddit threads as well, I wasn't participating in any kind of information gathering, and I wasn't particularly interested in the rampant and frequently misguided speculation about the location, motives and identity of Suspect 2, aka "white hat".

I tuned out long before he was finally located and arrested, too; I'm astonished but relived the police managed to take him alive - both because I expected him to commit suicide when capture became inevitable, and because I didn't think any American police department has the kind of self control to restrain their retribution when tracking a suspect in the shooting death of a police officer.

In the aftermath, the contribution of Reddit, Anonymous and 4chan in providing information and data mining, both to the police and to the mainstream media (as well as fact-hungry rubberneckers like myself), is being pretty well looked at from every angle; the biggest misstep made by the internet's amateur detectives was falsely identifying Suspect 2 - he was later named by police as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but for a few hours he was accepted by the online participants to be Sunil Tripathi.

Which wouldn't have been so serious, except that Mr. Tripathi has been missing since March 16th and this additional attention probably didn't ease his family's suffering. It probably wasn't the kind of media attention they wanted for their missing son.

I think the problem is that, when you're watching this stuff unfold on TV or on your computer, even if you're from or in the town, city, state or country affected, you're separated and distanced from the reality and gravity of the situation. The way people were approaching the identity and location of the bomber, as if it was just a puzzle to be solved, reminded me a lot of the way you see communities tackle ARGs.

If, in the future, these online communities have the opportunity, willingness and drive to assist in this kind of investigation - even if it's purely for ARG-style puzzle solving - I hope they learn lessons from the aftermath of Boston. By all means help identify suspects, providing possible names if you can, crowdsource footage and photos and testimony from eyewitnesses.

But maybe leave the theorizing and speculation to the professionals. It's all too easy for a rumour on a Reddit thread or on Twitter to be picked up by a hungry CNN or Fox researcher - and once it's on the air, getting it off again is going to take a lot longer.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Down

I didn't post anything yesterday because I was in such a bad mood that I couldn't think straight. Anything I had written would have been edited to death and then scrapped anyway, so I doubt anybody missed much. Then I couldn't get to sleep and ended up sitting on the internet for over an hour, starting around 1am, and ended up re-reading issues 7-12 of Saga again. I don't know what time I eventually managed to get to sleep, but it wasn't long enough before I had to get up again.

I'm honestly not in much of a better mood today, so this is all you're getting. Hopefully tomorrow will be better, but given the meeting I've just been informed I'll be attending, the forecast does not seem good.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Attack on Titan

I'd been hearing rumblings of this show's greatness for a few weeks, but it only popped up on Crunchyroll a couple of days ago. The promotional video I did see hadn't really sold me on the concept; there's something about the art style and character designs that are really putting me off (although I like the chunky outlines). Also, the giant skinless naked guy seemed a step too far.

Bottle synopsis: a hundred or so years ago, the Titans - humanoid giants varying in height between 10 of 20 metres - appeared and started eating humans, who retreated inside three concentric circular 50m walls which proved impervious to the Titans (you can see where this is going, I'm sure). Just as humanity was getting complacent, a new Titan showed up and started wrecking up the place, providing the other giants with a route into the humans' stronghold.

I'm now two episodes in and fairly intrigued. I'd fall quite short of declaring it the best anime of the season just yet - as a lot of commenters seem to be doing - but even though there are a lot of elements I don't like I've got to give the production staff credit for not pulling their punches. The first episode builds up to, and ends with, the death of main character Eren's mother. I kept waiting for them to cut away, and they did, and then they cut back and you see her get bitten in half.

It's pretty horrific in a number of other places, and uncomfortably so; I found myself wincing regularly as people got splattered by debris, or were just devoured by the Titans - whose rictus grins are their most disturbing feature in a long list of disturbing features. The pacing of the episode before the attack is definitely on the sluggish side, with a lot of slow panning to pad out scenes that ultimately feel kind of pointless. Hopefully the recon corps will make further appearances, as their setup would be a total waste of time otherwise and they're probably more interesting than many of the other factions.

I'm not sure I'd ever be able to recommend this show unless I ever meet someone who's looking for more in the "naked giant cannibal" genre. It's uneven and ugly in places, but its dedication to horrifying and unnerving the audience has earned it a few points in my book.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A random thought about Madoka

I've been meaning to rewatch Puella Magi Madoka Magica more or less since the instant I first finished the series. Haven't yet found the time - I've only got it on Blu-ray, and need to take up the living room to watch it - but something about it occurred to me this morning, which disappointed me the first time through even though I wasn't really sure what it was.

Basically, it's not enough like Evangelion. Bear with me.

To begin with, Eva is so full of clichés and homages and Giant Robot tropes that the audience is left with a particular expectation. That initial setup is mostly delivered for the first few episodes, with the darker psychology and conspiracy stuff creeping in around the edges1.

By contrast, the very first scene in Madoka is thumping Yuki Kajiura techno and dark imagery and it's immediately obvious that there's more going on than the main character realises. It doesn't set up any false expectation; having an episode or two of sugar and laughs building up to the sudden and traumatic [spoiler goes here] would have given the whole show a twist that it's sorely lacking.

Then there's the closing episodes where the reasons for Kyubei recruiting Magical Girls are a bit predictable and over-explained, and the ending's kind of... well, bad. Hopefully the movies will wrap things up more completely, but I'm not holding out much hope.

1 The best episode of Evangelion, for my money, is Both of You, Dance Like You Want to Win!; I've always been disappointed that Shinji and Asuka's relationship never seemed to evolve despite the episode finishing with them as equals. But then, Anno's overarching story might not have worked (your mileage may vary whether you think it did or not).

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Gargantia

Only two episodes of Production I.G.'s new show, the awkwardly-named Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, have aired so far, and I'm quite excited about it. It's a mecha show and I'm always cautious with the genre as it can get a bit dull and predictable, even with all the explosions, but there's a lot of promising threads being set up that I'm hoping pay off.

It starts off on a strong foot - a massive space battle with mecha, ships and an insectoid alien enemy all with a very strong Gunbuster flavour. It sets up a huge interstellar war with a history and huge stakes - and then the lead character drops through a wormhole, landing on a planet long since assumed dead.

It's been a pretty slow burner despite that early bait-and-switch; even at the end of the second episode it's still very much in character setup mode, introducing the characters to both the audience and each other - they still can't understand each others' language1. That second episode ends with the first real action scene (the space battle at the start of the pilot is kind of boring, if I'm honest), but it left a much stronger impression on me than I was expecting.

I'm hoping the characters in the show take a while to react to what's happened; it'd be a shame if, after taking its time moving the pieces into position for this chain of events, they get bored and skip past the aftermath of what amounts to a wholesale slaughter.

1 The way this is handled is great; when they're talking to someone who speaks the same language, they just use Japanese; when they're talking to someone who speaks a different language, it's a garbled mess (possibly the same garbled mess). It's a great, if simple, obstacle to overcome that complicates the early interactions; they can't just explain their positions and rush on with the story.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

一番

We've been married a year today. Not much else to say, really; it's been a pretty good year. Hard to believe it's actually been 12 months already, but I think that's because the honeymoon didn't end until the 10th of May, so everything between now and then counts, in my head, as part of the wedding.

Didn't do anything big for the event; tight budgets and other obligations limited our options somewhat, but we did get to Ichiban in Glasgow for dinner tonight, which was great - haven't been there in aages.

Friday, April 12, 2013

It's not you, Amaterasu, it's me

I'm just about to hit the 30-hour mark in Okami, and I'm starting to think I've had enough.

Maybe it's the inordinate amount of time I spent tonight doing side stuff, looping back and forwards between areas to pick up items and treasures, but even when I went to progress the story it felt like a slog. I think it's possibly a mistake to have put the ice/show section this late in the game; after the green fields of Shinshu, Ryoshima's blue seas and the red architecture of Seian, the howling winds and grey expanse of Kamui is just... dull.

Then there's more lengthy exposition, more Issun, more dumb battles against friendly NPC just to pad out a game that's already in danger of outstaying its welcome. If the end was in sight it wouldn't be so bad, but this is now essentially the third arc and each of the previous two felt like they could have been the end of the game.

And there's so much more to come - I can remember three more distinct sections of the game (of varying lengths), and I'm pretty sure I'm forgetting some others.

I should be glad I have a title this big to sink my teeth into; when I decided I wouldn't be buying any games this year (except The Last of Us), I would have been relieved to see something as filling as Okami on the schedule. Now, I'm kind of wishing I had more, shorter games.

Maybe it's the way I'm playing it; spending two or more solid hours a night with it, I'm just over-exposed. I started Far Cry 3 last night and have The Cave downloaded from PS+, and there are other games I'd like to replay (I've had an itch to give Catherine another playthrough). Focusing on one game at a time, rather than taking a more buffet approach, could be more draining than I'd have thought.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Talent and ambition versus failure

I was reading an article earlier today which collected a number of choice quotes from Roger Ebert's most negative reviews - the films he really hated, and got really creative expressing that hatred. One quote in particular stood out to me, from his review of the Robin Williams/Ed Norton/Jon Stewart "comedy" Death to Smoochy:

Only enormously talented people could have made "Death to Smoochy." Those with lesser gifts would have lacked the nerve to make a film so bad, so miscalculated, so lacking any connection with any possible audience. To make a film this awful, you have to have enormous ambition and confidence, and dream big dreams.

The film industry is full of well-intentioned failures made by talented people. Some of them are successful, some are not, but even in this scathing takedown of Death to Smoochy Ebert has to admit the talent and ambition of the people behind it, even if the end result is a total disaster.

Which got me thinking: are there any videogames that could be described similarly, or are the huge teams and vague ownership of ideas constructed in such a way that intent and even talent is difficult to identify if a game is bad?

And not even "so bad it's good", where the enjoyment comes from a place not deliberately targeted by the development team. Just a game that fails on every level but still has a spark of ambition in it. Where you can see the talent struggling to make a connection.

This probably comes down, in a lot of cases, to the lack of singular vision on a project compared to the director's final authority on a film. There are so few auteur videogame directors, possibly because the disciplines required to direct and design a game are so broad that they can't be as hands-on with every aspect as a film's director.

Directing a two-hour feature is one thing; directing an eight, twelve or forty-hour game is another entirely, and it's going to be exponentially difficult to make sure you've got your eye on everything.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Hangout

Still playing through Okami, although didn't get much done tonight. Only have one brush technique left to find, but I have a feeling there's a certain point in the game, after which I won't be able to come back - before progressing much farther, I'll have to go back to pick up any collectibles I've missed.

Most of the evening was spent in a Google Hangout with some Society fellows discussing Alpha Protocol. It's only the second time I've used Hangout and the first time I've used its "record" functionality. I had been worried that we'd end up broadcasting live on YouTube; as it turns out I think we were, but nobody tuned in which is fine by me.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Mad Men

The one thing that last night's season premiere of Mad Men has made me realise is how terribly-written everything else on TV is.

Not only is every character interesting and witty and realistic, they're all different characters - so many shows seem to have two or three archetypes in different outfits, and rarely delve into what makes them the way they are. Mad Men is all about personal histories, how they've shaped characters and what they're doing to embrace or reject the journey they've been through.

A huge amount of credit also has to go to the directors and actors, who can string together four slow shots of John Hamm looking at a cigarette lighter and make it an important character moment.

The episode seemed to be edited really oddly, though - I'm not sure if it's just the file we watched (there seemed to be some weirdness with the download), but some of the cuts between scenes were very disorienting. One jump in particular went from an apartment building doorman having a heart attack straight to a conversation after he's back at work, apparently weeks later, with no indication of what happened in the meantime.

It's maybe because of the two-hour running time, but it actually felt like this episode was doing more than setup - more than can be said for the first two episodes of Game of Thrones so far, which still seem to be putting pieces on the board rather than doing anything interesting with them. Maybe it's because the focus in Mad Men is on the characters' inner conflict and turmoil rather than GoT's broader scope that it's able to just tell a story - which is also helped by its episodic format, while Game of Thrones is a serialized, ten-hour movie.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Shut up, Issun

There's one thing that's really making me struggle with Okami, and it's not an essential part of the game. It could easily be removed with very few changes needed to the rest, but I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who'd argue for keeping this... "feature" in.

But in my opinion, Issun's got to go.

There's no shortage of powerful women in Okami; they're almost all business owners, powerful priestesses (in a story where that position gives them actual magic powers), heads of government - both local and national - and, in the case of the player character, an actual Goddess with (eventually) command over life, the elements and even time.

So I cannot fathom why Issun is so overtly and aggressively sexist. One character, a priestess and advisor to the Queen of Nippon, is exclusively referred to as "Busty Babe". Nearly every line of dialogue Issun speaks to her makes some reference to her "melons" (his word). And this comes after the previous 12 hours of Issun letching over wood sprites, saké brewers and a girl found locked in a prison cell.

There's probably some argument to be made that his outspoken sexuality is compensating for size (he's less than two centimeters tall, and visible only in silhouette for the majority of the game), but that seems like a desperate joke to try and excuse an attitude that's inexcusable.

It's genuinely making it difficult to play the game. Since Amaterasu doesn't speak - she's a wolf, after all - Issun is largely left to carry out conversations for both of them, so there are very few dialogue scenes where his… perspective isn't front and centre. And most of this takes place in plot scenes too, which you can't skip or even speed up.

If a game is going to speak for me, I'd prefer it not to take such an embarrassingly hostile tone towards the majority of its own characters.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Eighth Purification

I'm not sure how much of a spoiler it is to say that you beat the final boss in a game. It was never something I'd really given much thought before reading this piece by Dan Whitehead, but on reflection it seems kind of obvious.

What makes this less clear, in Okami's case, is that you beat Orochi - up until that point the Source of All Evil - about a third of the way through.

I remember being surprised, the first time I played the game, that there was more to do after beating him. I can only assume it took me longer to reach this point on that playthrough than it did this time around - my clock is currently sitting at about 12 hours. And I've been doing a lot more exploring and treasure-hunting than I remember bothering with before.

I'm hoping that this speedier run-through is going to hold up, as it will hopefully take away some of the feeling of slog in the back end. I've been trying to remember the order in which things happen, and in a couple of places I'm unsure if I'm thinking of Okami or Dragon Quest VIII, which I played around the same time on PS2 (but never got around to finishing).

Friday, April 05, 2013

Tired, relieved

This has been a long day. I always underestimate how totally draining it can be just waiting around for stuff to happen.

Everything seemed to work out as well as possible though, so it's all been worth it. I'm looking forward to tomorrow, just sitting playing Okami. Today was a lot of driving and waiting and although I can't think of a better use of my time on this particular day I'd happily never have to do it again.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Spirit Extermination

I'd been tempted to pick up Okami HD on the PSN for a while now, but three things stopped me, to varying degrees.

  1. I was determined to stick with this crazy "no games" rule for as much of the year as I could;
  2. I'm hesitant to put my card details into the PSN following that massive hack a while back; and
  3. I had a strong suspicion it was going to appear on PlayStation Plus sooner or later.

My cheapness has paid off: it's one of this month's Instant Game Collection titles.

I first played - and completed - Okami on PS2. I've tried to restart it a few times since, both on the PS2 (and PS3, via emulation) and on the Wii port, but I never managed to get far.

This evening, I collected five of the brush techniques and am about to leave the first overworld area, in just under three hours.

I'd forgotten how quickly you accumulate new techniques early on - it seems to be throwing new stuff at you all the time, and I've not even hit the first proper boss yet.

I know, however, that the latter stages of the game are a total slog, with repeated bosses and a couple of weird story turns, and the breakneck pace of the opening areas probably doesn't help that sense. It was often described, on its release, as the best Zelda game in years, but Okami's not content to introduce you to new skills one dungeon at a time early on, but ends up running out of stuff to teach you.

The HD port - by Hexa Drive, the guys behind the equally excellent Rez HD - is phenomenal. It looks as gorgeous as I remember the PS2 original seemed when it first came out. The controls seem identical to me (I don't have a Move controller), and the music's perfect for the visuals.

I still almost-hate the voice sound effects and the inability to skip cutscenes is frustrating in places, but I'm sure as I get further into the story and start encountering bits for only the second time - rather than the third or fourth - I'll be less desperate to get past a piece of exposition.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

You're going to need a bigger boat

Stumbled across Jaws on SyFy tonight - certainly one of the higher-quality films they've got in their roster. I was surprised, when I saw it on the EPG, that it was actually the original; I was expecting it to be some high-numbered, low-quality sequel. They still managed to break up a lot of the tension with ad breaks, although it was far from an ITV hatchet job.

The last time I saw Jaws was at the cinema; the Odeon in Dundee was showing it a few months ago and I'd never actually seen it the whole way through before then. The first shark attack is ridiculously dragged-out - in fact they're all a bit melodramatic - but it's a phenomenal film. Even if it doesn't get really special until Brody, Hooper and Quint are out on the Orca.

If it wasn't for Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss would steal the whole show; Hooper's squeamish but determined approach to autopsies (both human and shark) is perfect, and would be hilarious if it wasn't so totally serious. I always feel like I'm being a little bit harsh on Roy Scheider in this; he's playing a more or less ordinary guy, and aside from the fear of water he doesn't have the eccentricities that make Hooper and Quint so interesting to watch.

The standout scene for me, though, hangs entirely on Shaw. Quint's story about his shipwrecked crew is mesmerising. Told so simply and straightforwardly, almost daring Brody and Hooper to feel sorry for him.

It's something of a pity that the finale is so literally explosive; there's relatively little action for most of the running time, so the final shark attack on the Orca is a bit out of place. The majority of the film hides the shark and focuses on the people, so when the monster finally does appear properly the film loses a little bit of what makes it really fun to watch.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

I can't take criticism

When I ran aNIme1, it was small enough that I never really had much interaction with readers. Honestly, I'm not all that sure I had any regular readers outside the people I knew in real life. It was a small site that I spent next to no time promoting, aimed at a small demographic, and it undoubtedly had a small readership.

Part of the reason I started this blog-a-day effort is because I had an idea for a website that I'd like to set up and run, but I wasn't sure I'd be able to write regularly enough to justify the server and domain costs. I wanted to see if I could keep up a writing schedule, and maybe get better at it, before jumping into that effort again. Back in the aNIme days I had a couple of people who helped with the occasional review, but I wrote and reviewed 95% of the content. I just don't have the time for that anymore, so I was expecting to have to get proper contributors; I couldn't very well expect a lot of them if I didn't have experience and a track record of writing to schedule.

Some online interactions I've had this year, though, have caused me to rethink the whole thing. It's really my own fault; I take stuff too seriously on the internet. It makes me ridiculously easy to troll, especially when combined with my inability to avoid an argument. But that's a dangerous mentality to have if you want to publish online (I make a distinction between personal blogging, like this, and writing for a site); whatever you write, some segment of the audience will disagree and a percentage of them will be vocal and aggressive in their dissent.

I don't think I have the constitution to put up with that. Last night I deleted comments I'd made on a site because I saw the site owner complain - on Twitter, mentioning no names or specific articles - about a discussion I was involved in. Part of me thought, if you've got a comments section on your website you need to expect to see stuff you don't like. But it's also one of my favourite sites (and the guy in question is one of my favourite writers), and it crushed me a little to see that dismissal of my contribution to the community.

So I'm not really committed enough to run a site. I don't have the conviction of my opinions to argue for them when challenged, and I don't have the ability to step back and see when I'm being deliberately provoked or trolled. And then I remove my posts to appease someone who won't even notice?

It's a pity - I thought I'd had a really interesting site concept (even if the broad idea was… borrowed from somewhere else).

1 An anime news/reviews website with a focus on the (at the time) emerging anime community in Northern Ireland. Like everything in Northern Ireland, the anime scene was eventually ruined by stupid bickering.

Monday, April 01, 2013

You kill or you die... or you die and you kill.

Not entirely sure where I sit on the new episode (and season inasmuch as there is one so far) of Game of Thrones. The early episodes, I suppose, are going to be recap, reminders and setup for the rest of the season, and I'm intrigued to see where some of the characters go from here.

Though Peter Dinklage, as usual, steals the show; his scene with Charles Dance is a particular highlight, and Tyrion Lannister's journey is, again, the bit I'm most looking forward to.

We also watched the season finale for The Walking Dead's third series - what a change of pace (and quality) from GoT. I don't honestly know why I'm still watching this rubbish; it's like they can't do anything interesting or cool without immediately doing something overwhelmingly stupid with it. I'm hoping the season break will let me get over the show and then I'll be able to skip the rest, but I have a feeling I'll be back on the wagon when it rolls around next year.

At least Mad Men starts again next week, although I'm sure it'll take a few episodes before I remember everything that's happened in the past five seasons.

Now, I'm going to go rewatch as many episodes of Kids on the Slope as I can manage before I fall asleep. I saw someone mention it earlier, and I've been bitten by that bug again.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Restringing

I kind of ruined the tuning pegs on my previous guitar by not taking them out properly. I didn't realise that you could push the string into the hole a little to loosen them up before pulling the peg out, and often resorted to pliers which totally warped the heads. I've avoided restringing my current guitar, bought by my wife as a wedding present, because I was afraid of causing similar damage (even if the pegs are easily and cheaply replaced).

It's been losing tune recently though, so I knew I'd have to replace the strings at some point; I've had a fresh set in a drawer since Christmas, so I finally took the plunge this afternoon - and apart from one, the pegs all came out pretty easily. I'd also never thought of putting my hand into the body to push them out from the inside on the old guitar, so that also helped avoid damage.

The only downside is that I'm terrible at tuning guitars. I can't do it by ear at all, and my tuner is oddly sensitive on some strings and seems to be unable to "hear" others. I eventually managed to get it sounding more or less okay, at which point I went right back to boring everyone to death by practicing Spirit First for the rest of the evening.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Columbia! view thy Prince

I didn't write anything yesterday because I was playing BioShock Infinite 'til after midnight and spent another four or five hours on it this morning to finish off the story. By which point it was too late to go back and post-date my impressions of those first six hours and pretend I'd written them on Friday.

Borrowed a 360 copy from a friend at work, payed about six hours last night and finished it after another four this morning. I think this is the first time I've ever played a console shooter and wished I had a mouse for aiming instead. I just couldn't get the stick sensitivity into the right place. It wasn't a problem most of the time thanks to plentiful ammo and relatively small numbers of enemies, but a few late-stage set-pieces gave me a lot of trouble. Some minor aim assist would have made all the difference, at least snapping to nearby enemies when aiming down the sights.

I thought the combat was a bit weird overall, actually - none of the weapons ever felt particularly powerful, even after upgrading them. I don't know if my use of Vigors was unusual, but I only ever really got much use out of Bucking Bronco, which surprised the hell out of me as when I first used it I wondered what the point of it was. Considering how much Salt some of them used up (for not much effect duration), I avoided a lot. It also bugged me that, when pulling up the radial, it replaced your currently active Vigor with the new one, rather than putting it into the hot-swap slot.

I'm still decompressing the story, so I don't have much to say on that front. I do kind of regret rushing it; I didn't pick up as many audio diaries as I probably could have, and my exploration was fairly limited. I don't feel like the story was rushed as a result, though; it kept a fairly steady pace, but the atmosphere probably suffered.

Except when I got a few minor bugs; particular events wouldn't trigger and some of the signposting is atrocious (Elizabeth shouting "over there!" when I didn't know where she was doesn't really help when I'm under fire), so I ended up getting really frustrated in a couple of places. There were also multiple occasions where I'd be unable to proceed because I hadn't killed the last enemy in a wave but he'd be stuck, running a loop on a skyline or hiding on a difficult-to-reach rooftop, meaning I'd have to crawl the entire area listening for his repeated attack lines to find him before I could open the door to get out.

There's a lot to like in Infinite, but also a lot that didn't quite gel together. I'm not convinced it deserves the 10/10 accolades it's gotten from a lot of places, but it definitely deserves a 9 - for its ambition if nothing else.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Why, she wouldn't even harm a fly

I was going to watch the second episode of Bates Motel tonight, but since I've... acquired a copy of Hitchcock's film since watching the pilot, I decided I should probably watch it before getting too far into the TV prequel1.

There are a number of things that surprised me about it. Firstly was Anthony Perkins, whose performance as Norman Bates is just miles ahead of everybody else in the cast. They all feel like stage actors performing, but Perkins just is Bates, all nervous ticks and charm and anger. I remember being impressed with him the last time I saw (the first half of) Psycho, but I'd forgotten how much he inhabits the role.

Second was the dialogue - while some of it was a bit clunky and This Is Exposition, there are some very modern exchanges (or maybe it's just that Perkins delivers it so well). I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting; more formal language and rigid exchanges, maybe? One thing that did strike me was the overwrought explanation from the psychiatrist at the end - maybe five decades of thriller and horror movies since has spoiled a current audience, but I felt a little bit condescended to by his spelling out every element of the twist.

I'd also forgotten how beautiful a black-and-white film can look when it's shot right. Catherine described it as "colourful", which seems oxymoronic, but you can almost see the hues leaking into the picture even though it's all just different shades of grey.

I'm not sure I'd have enjoyed Psycho so much if it wasn't for Norman Bates, though. Knowing the reveal before it happens can be the death of a thriller unless it's well-made and -acted, and despite the production values I'm not sure there's enough to hold my interest without Perkins' performance. I was kind of bored by any scene he wasn't in.

1 There are a few continuity errors between the film's account of Norman's childhood and the TV show's, as well as some minor (but interesting and possibly deliberate) differences with the layout of the house. I don't think it's going to be problematic for the show though, since it's obviously set "now", rather than pre-1960.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Spirit First

I'm not a very good guitar player. I won't even try to call myself a "guitarist", because that implies a level of competence that I simply do not possess. I'm good enough to pick up stuff I like, and I get a lot of enjoyment out of it, but I'm not going to be impressing anybody with my abilities.

The problem with picking stuff up on my own, however, is that it makes it almost impossible to unlearn all the stuff I'm doing wrong. Case in point: tonight, I was watching a live stream by Levi Weaver wherein he asked for requests. I've been playing Spirit First for months, but I've always known I had it slightly wrong, and I asked if he'd be able to play it so I could see the fretboard.

I was playing it completely wrong.

I'd shifted the chords down from a Bm to an Am because I found it easier to play what I heard, but that meant that I could never have played it the right way. It actually has a lot more open strings than I thought, but shifting it down two frets means I can't play those notes without some really awkward finger positions.

So the rest of the evening has been spent practising the right way. I can just about make it through a verse by now, but still hit a couple of wrong notes along the way.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why do I keep watching things I hate?

As I predicted, I've ended up watching all of OreShura. As its gone on, I've managed to isolate the one thing that really puts me off harem shows.

Don't get me wrong: there's a lot to hate about harem shows. I can't think of any, off-hand, that have any redeeming features whatsoever, that aren't immediately overruled or offset by the harem cliches.

If it was a straight story of the fake-to-real transition of the relationship between Eita and Masuzu then it would probably be one of my favourite shows. But then they drown it in childhood friends, long-lost classmates and assorted weirdos - all of whom have an equal chance to "win" the hero1. There are so many contrived situations, which the characters fail to react to in any way believably, that any brief moments of real warmth just come across as emotional fanservice to go along with the visual variety.

The main story, which has two anti-romance misanthropes slowly falling for each other as they pretend to be going out (in order to avoid unwanted attention from other people with genuine romantic interest), is actually quite interesting. I'd like to see that show, even if it was still dressed (or undressed) as this cheeky comedy - not every show needs to be Kids on the Slope or Wandering Son. But Eita's very quick to let his guard down with Masuzu and seems to believe her fake girlfriend routine himself even as she's blackmailing him. But because there are three other girls vying for his attention, he has to have equal moments of "will they/won't they" with each of them in case a quarter of the audience rebels.

I know it would be difficult for a romantic comedy to keep up 13 episodes without some source of tension in the relationship (in Kare Kano there are several: Yukino's studying obsession, Arima's inner demons show up a few times, and then there's Hideaki). The easiest way for OreShura would be to keep the (first) childhood friend angle, but I don't think it would be impossible to lose Chiwa and still have some hurdles for the would-be couple to overcome together.

At the end of the day, I guess I just feel like the show's treating me like an idiot - someone who can't stay interested without cheap fanservice and tsundere bullshit at every turn. I know there's a market for this crap, and I'm probably not helping by watching (and talking about) it so much.

But I'm a sucker for stuff with "potential to be great", and the hints that OreShura might be just about to take itself seriously for a second - even though I know in my heart it never will - crop up just often enough, usually right at the end of an episode, that I can't stop myself from coming back the next week.

Thank Christ the season ends this week. I might be able to stay away from the inevitable series 2.

1 The way harem anime fans talk about the story and characters, by the way, is pretty creepy. The terminology used is lifted straight out of visual novels and eroge; they talk about "best girl" and paths and harem endings (I know they're not real people, but this seems disrespectful to the characters) and they're all very detached, which seems oddly opposed to the intended emotional resonance the audience is, I gather, supposed to get from rooting for one girl over another.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Space Brothers

I'm only three episodes into this, and really want to like it, but I'm struggling with Space Brothers.

On the surface it seems like it should be great, and the broad story is something I'd like to see, but by God is it slow. Everything so far feels like it should have been covered in a single-episode flashback. I already know, since the show is on its 50th episode, that Mutta is going to become an astronaut. Frankly, anybody who ever suspected he'd wash out hasn't seen much TV.

But that means that everything that's happened, and all the secondary characters that've been introduced, have been utterly inconsequential. The outcome of the last two episodes' worth of JAXA tests is a foregone conclusion, and it's not like Chihayafuru where we're learning anything important about the character, so why is the series wasting time through this nonsense?

I know I'm probably going to give it another couple of episodes before giving up - I stuck through BTOOOM!, after all. Once Mutta gets through all the interviews and tests I'm hoping it picks up. I'm really just disappointed that it's not as much like Planetes as I'd hoped.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Hourou Musuko

I've only got one more episode of Hourou Musuko left, and I'm astonished that my earlier appraisial still holds up. It's never felt exploitative or judgemental, only honest - a remarkable approach in anime, which is usually about spectacle over emotional depth.

It's not going to be for everybody; the art style alone is bound to put some people off, and it's far from the most exciting show I've ever watched. But it has made me think about other people differently, and even it the show's perspective on the issues it explores is as much an outside perspective as my own, the empathy it has is utterly infectious.

I don't know if I've ever recommended a show based solely on its sympathetic look at an unusual subject, but Hourou Musuko is something that's really worth taking a look at.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

BioShock 2, part 1

I'm still ludicrously early in the game, but I feel like I need to revisit BioShock for a while in order to give its sequel a fair shake. I have a suspicion that my memory's being overly generous, and another look would leave me much more sympathetic to this follow-up.

It's been a long time since I played the original, but I don't remember it being so transparently a game. I remember it feeling organic, exploratory, subversive. Maybe it's because Rapture isn't new this time around, but it doesn't feel as special.

Maybe nostalgia is smoothing off BioShock's rough edges, but everything in this sequel feels obvious and wrong. Everything has a countdown timer or a slowly-filling gauge, every other objective is a sidequest, and every location is a linear circuit around an area leading back to a one-way door at the entrance.

So far, it's a pale imitation of everything that made the original feel special. It might be better mechanically (I haven't found the gunplay or plasmids significantly different from my memory), but if I'm honest it's not the mechanics that made BioShock great. And without all the stuff that did make it stand out, I don't think this one's worth a whole lot.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Nothing to report

Spent most of today trying to figure out a better way of applying coupons to a shopping cart, which actually isn't as straightforward as it sounds, when it's got to obey all the other weird rules and edge cases our checkout needs to support in the event of a CEO's whim.

Watched more Game of Thrones when we got home; I'd forgotten what a badass Catelyn Stark is in the second season. In the first series she's pretty reactionary and just outraged, but when she starts talking smack to Renly Baratheon you can tell she's used to dealing with men who think they're better than they are. Tyrion's still my favourite, though.

With some disk space freed up on the PS3, having platinumed and uninstalled Sleeping Dogs, I've finally gotten around to downloading BioShock 2. It's probably going to get its own post at some point, but so far I'm unimpressed. It seems very… videogame-y somehow. The intro cutscene could - and should - have been playable, for a start; making you watch a long pre-rendered (first-person) cutscene is not really what I want or expect from a BioShock game. And the "ten years later" is really odd, too - have I just been lying there with a hole in my head the whole time? When did I put my helmet back on, for a start? It's been throwing a lot of objectives at me, too - I've never felt like I'm exploring or discovering anything, which was a huge part of the original's atmosphere.

It's Rapture By Numbers so far, and I'm hoping it opens up a bit - sooner rather than later. Okami HD is coming to PS+ next month, and unless BioShock 2 picks up the pace it'll be replaced in short order by an upscaled PS2 game I've already completed.