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.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Excuse me, who are you?

The day after I first saw Perfect Blue I went to HMV and bought a copy on VHS. Over the next few months, I watched it a couple of times a week, and I'm pretty sure I've seen it over a hundred times.

Yesterday I found myself at a loss and figured I'd give it another look - it's been, I'm sure, three or four years since I last saw it. I'd recently downloaded a Blu-ray rip (I've bought it on VHS and twice on DVD; if there's a UK Blu-ray release I'll be all over that, so I figure I can justify this) and hadn't gotten around to checking the quality yet.

Some of it hasn't aged well. The quality of the animation is pretty good, although there are some really sloppy scenes and in more than a couple of places you can see where the artists have coloured outside the lines. The character design for ME-MANIA has always bugged me (I think it would be more effective if he was an otherwise normal person), but I'd never noticed before the similarities between his eyes and Rumi's.

I'd usually watched the dub before (it was the only option I had on VHS), but I did notice a couple of places where the translation loses some impact. Mima's line in the TV show, "who are you?" ("anata dare nano?") is translated in the dub to "excuse me, who are you?" in order to match the flaps. Obviously she can't hysterically scream "excuse me" when chasing down her hallucinations, so the line isn't repeated throughout the film in English the way it is in Japanese.

I'm glad to see the creepiness holds up, though. It builds tension and then cuts away, leaving you disoriented and unsure what actually happened, and if it happened at all. I'm still unsure about the "real" events in a couple of places, even having seen the film so often. The film uses sex and nudity more than is probably strictly necessary, but it's almost always shot and scored to make you uneasy (I'm sure there's a lot to be read into this apparent fear of the female form) rather than as fanservice. It's also a little surprising to see a film with no male lead - Mima gets through the whole ordeal entirely on her own.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Bates Motel

It pains me to admit this, but I've never seen all of Psycho. I've seen Hitchcock's original more or less up to the exact point that I've seen Gus van Sant's remake from, so I know the whole story, but I've not seen it beginning-to-end.

There's something about the prequel TV show Bates Motel that's similar to that experience, though. Norman and his mother dress, speak and act like characters from the 1960s, but the rest of the world is definitely very contemporary - everybody, even Norman, has an iPhone.

The series was totally off my radar until earlier today; while I was aware of and looking forward to Bryan Fuller's Hannibal series, if I was ever aware of a Psycho prequel I can't remember it. Reading the Badass Digest review (and comments), I was totally intrigued.

Beware! Minor-to-medium spoilers ahead. Short version: Bates Motel is worth a look.

Before Bates Motel, I'd only seen Vera Farmiga in Source Code, but she is a force of nature as Norma Bates. She lurches from eerily detached to creepily over-attached on a dime, enraged and apologetic and loving and controlling and manipulative and everything else that you'd have imagined Mother to be. She looks young and then old and everything in between, bouncing around excitedly showing off their new home to Norman, but the figure of stern authority when his friends show up at her door.

Norman's a much harder character to read, but that's part of what drew me in. Freddy Highmore is another actor I'm only passingly familiar with, but he's spot-on with the ambiguous friendliness and inner distrust. He gets a lot of very immediate female attention from his classmates (I can only remember one male peer with a speaking line), which strikes me as an unreliable narrator - there's a definite impression that he's not had much experience dealing with other kids his age, and I'm willing to bet there's some reading-too-much going on.

It's not without its problems, of course; a couple of lines are really awkward (Bradley's "deep lake" is eye-rollingly awful, but in context her character might be high as a kite when she says it) and the music is intrusive and melodramatic in one particularly difficult scene, which would have been much more powerful and horrific without any.

That scene, a violent rape, is of questionable story importance and seems primarily to exist as an excuse to have a murder in the pilot. If the lead-in, the scene itself and the aftermath weren't so fearlessly performed by Farmiga it would have been enough to destroy the show. As it is, it's a bit pointless without the emotional followup between Norman - who'd snuck out of the house against his mother's instructions - and his mother being more strained. They both get over it very quickly.

Which is one of my two main problems with the episode I expect the opening scenes, my other issue, will be revisted at some point throughout the series to resolve some of the questions it raises. The rape, murder and cleanup, on the other hand, set up the relationship between Norman and his mother as being much more equal than I was expecting. While there are elements of her dominance throughout the episode, the one time she really puts her foot down he disobeys her and she pays the price but Norman isn't really affected apart from being an accessory after the fact.

But there's plenty of time for things to change. There are hints throughout the episode that the town where Norma has opened her model is more troubled than it seems on the surface, and there will undoubtedly be plenty of things to strain that relationship. If nothing else, Vera Farmiga's performance has put the next episode firmly on my list of Stuff I Need To Watch, and unless there's a nosedive in quality next week I'll be sticking around for as much as they make.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Saga, GoT and spoilers

We started onto the second season in our Game of Thrones rewatch, but only got one episode in. I suppose it's to be expected, coming back after the inter-season break, that there'd be a lot of setup and refresh in the first episode, but when you only finished the first episode yesterday it's a little plodding. Thank goodness it's so brilliantly-written, shot and acted.

I also re-read all of Saga so far in preparation for the new issue tomorrow. That's my third time reading it end-to-end; I always forget how short individual chapters are when reading the first trade volume, but things just fly past when I'm reading the digital copies.

With the new season of GoT starting soon, it's getting tougher to avoid everything about it; I really want everything to be new while I'm watching it. I'm excited to see where it goes, and much like Saga I'm well aware by this point that nothing is sacred. The big difference, of course, is that there are no potential Saga spoilers to avoid - I've read everything there is to read.

So yeah, I've seen all of the Game of Thrones TV show so far, but it seems nearly impossible for a discussion about the show to completely avoid comparisons to the books - which invariably leads to some very suggestive phrasings that, while not outright spoilers, can have heavy hints about where things are going.

Which is why I'm avoiding everything about it.

Monday, March 18, 2013

It's official: I hate PHP

I taught myself PHP sometime around August 2004. I was working for a tech firm in Belfast, a subsidiary of an American insurance company, and had just gotten shunted from the imminently-doomed tech support callcentre they ran into a software test position, mostly so the big boss could save face by keeping the job losses to a minimum.

It was, compared to everywhere I've worked since, a huge company with around 1200 employees. I was a very small cog in a very large machine, and for the first six months of my test position1 I had nothing to do. There were no projects small enough for a new guy to take on, and everybody else was too busy with the other stuff to train me. I was also at a desk in a different office from the rest of the team.

Left entirely to my own devices, I decided to teach myself PHP. I already ran a website, but was using entirely off-the-shelf stuff and didn't really know how to code my own stuff, so I decided to learn on the company dime.

Early results were, to put it mildly, not pretty. I'm sure if I was so inclined I'd be able to dig up some of the disastrous mess from a godforsaken hard drive, but I don't think anybody needs to see that. I was also trying to learn JavaScript and HTML at the time, and that was arguably even worse - I used tables for layout, for Christ's sake. For layout. Jesus wept.

Long story short, PHP was my back-end of choice for the next several years; I did get much better at it, moving through Wordpress theming and figuring out how to write unnecessarily complicated internal Realtime Worlds tools that never actually got used in the end. I must've been passable enough to get in the door at a real, actual web development company where I finally actually used OOPHP in anger.

A small aside: there's a big difference between writing stuff for yourself and writing it for a company. There's an even bigger difference when you're writing it for a client. The stuff I wrote for RTW at least was internal use only, and everybody there had realistic expectations for what was involved in writing it and what it would be able to do given the limited time available. Clients have no such limitations on their imagination. They want it doing everything yesterday.

When I moved to my current role, I had to pick up Ruby on Rails. There's a huge leap conceptually between a scripting language like PHP and a fullly object-oriented MVC framework like Rails2 - at least there was for me, having had little to no formal introduction to either.

Literally everything was different, especially given the server stack that was used. I'd never really done much Apache admin, but I had a rough idea where the configs were stored at least. Suddenly everything was nginx and unicorns, gemsets and bundles and rvm and capistrano - and I was using Linux into the bargain3.

Fast forward to today, and I've been using nothing but Rails for nearly two years. I'm sometimes astonished how quick I picked it up compared to PHP, even considering the additional experience I gained in the interim. It's so much faster to build with than PHP ever was, especially if you pull Twitter bootstrap in to create your views.

This morning I had to try and debug some PHP. A hacker had dropped some malicious code into a forum on one of our servers. It took two of us more than four hours trawling through the code (as well as updating the forum software) before we figured out where it was even being called; it was another hour before it finally got removed and the forum could be reopened.

Here is what I learned: PHP is a barren wasteland, lawless and without standards. It is unreadable garbage, especially if someone else wrote it for a forum plugin - God forbid anybody might ever want to understand what you're doing. I mean, my comments are far from perfect, but I at least try to be entertaining. And would it kill you to use descriptive variable names?!

I would happily never see another line of PHP code.

1 This is not an exaggeration - it really did take six months (and, I believe, a change in team lead) before I got any work to do.

2 I remember having a conversation, or maybe reading a blog posts, that made the argument that RoR isn't technically a true MVC framework, but it's close enough for my money. It's more of one than PHP anyway, which is the point.

3 It's a weird moment when you suddenly realise you've given up on the window manager because the command line is different for something. I still use the GUI to move files around (it's easier to undo if you make a mistake), but at one point I counted 17 open terminal windows on my work PC.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Hc svunt dracones

Another day watching Game of Thrones; we finished the first season. Parts of it seemed more rushed than I remember it being (Daenerys' finale), while others were more stretched out (Ned Stark's); it's strange how seeing something all at once like that can totally change the pacing.

We have a couple of weeks yet to get through the second season, but I have a feeling this week will see at least one episode a night, and then we'll have what feels like ages to wait for the start of season three.

That's always the problem with catching up to a TV series, though - you get so used to it being available on demand that the weekly waits (or more, in the event of a broadcast break) get very frustrating, until you settle into the rhythm.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Westeros revisited

We spent most of today rewatching the first series of Game of Thrones; I put the first episode on mostly to check how our new media server would handle sending HD content to RaspBMC, but then it turned out to be quite difficult to only watch one episode.

I had been hoping to rewatch some of it before the third season kicks off at the end of the month anyway, just to refresh my memory of what the hell's actually happening. I wasn't expecting it to be so much better, though - the first time through, I was having trouble following who characters were and what they were talking about in the early episodes. With the added experience of a previous viewing, it lends a lot more significance to scenes that I'd more or less glossed over or forgotten the first time around.

Daenery's story is still a little weak (not least for its Life of Brian associations1), but I'm finding it more interesting than last time. I'd dismissed her character arc before, but her gradual realisation that she has power - even if her brother would prefer she doesn't - and that she's capable of wielding it is a pretty big contrast with all the Westeros political manoueverings. She's also the only woman in the show who wants to be her own queen, not somebody else's.

My favourite scenes are still any with Tyrion Lannister, though. Ned Stark has the honour and means well, but Tyrion also knows how to manipulate and play people; it's great to see how different characters try to set up certain sequences of events, knowing how things turn out (at least as far as the second season; I've not read the books and don't intend to).

1 You mean you were raped?! / Well, at first…

Friday, March 15, 2013

#sixseasonsandamovie

I have a problem with TV shows once they get longer than about two series (of any length) where I eventually forget most of what's happened before. The broad strokes are fine, but hanging onto details ends up being pretty much impossible.

This has now happened with Community, where the extended space between seasons three and four has made the problem even worse; I remember really liking more or less everything so far though, even if I can't recall every scene and plotline the way some internet commenters seem to (do they watch this stuff repeatedly even as it airs?).

The fourth season got off to a rocky start with the departure of Dan Harmon, the show's creator and lead writer. While lots of the episodes could get a bit self-indulgent with its parodies, references and meta-commentary, Harmon's oversight seemed to always keep things more or less consistent in tone and character.

The recent episodes, with the loss of that single voice at the top, are reminding me a lot of the Futurama movies and the first series post-revival. The jokes are there, and the characters are themselves, although dangerously close to imitations in some scenes.

That's not to say the new shows haven't had their moments - Thursday night's Advanced Documentary Filmmaking was pretty good for my money, although there were some things that didn't make a whole lot of sense logistically - but it does feel like a poor imitation.

I'm hoping the new writers get into the swing of things more once they've gotten out of Harmon's shadow a little (easier said than done, perhaps, when his name's still featured so prominently in the opening credits), and I've got my fingers crossed that the ratings will keep it going for a while yet. Even without that guiding hand, I like the cast and their characters that I'm keen to see where it goes.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Unpredictable

Despite completing it last week, I'm still playing Alpha Protocol - I've rolled a Veteran character now that I unlocked the option, and am blasting through with a mix of stealth, pistols and shotgun in an attempt to explore the story a bit more and mop up a few more achievements.

One of the greatest things about Alpha Protocol's dialogue system, which relies on the player picking a "stance" rather than specific replies, is how unpredictable it is. While the dossier you've accumulated on another character might indicate they prefer a no-nonsense attitude, there's no telling for sure if the Professional option will have the desired effect on their opinion of you.

This does make it a bit more difficult on subsequent plays though, especially if you're aiming for specific opinion-related achievements (not to mention, chasing a negative reputation with someone can result in limitations on intelligence and supplies). I'm trying to get Steven Heck to hate me, but I always seem to end up picking options that even out to neutral.

Part of what makes it difficult is that your conversations with other characters will give a new acquaintance a preconception of you, which results in some opinion-altering exchanges that you can't directly control.

I was kind of hoping that in addition to the veteran, shotgun and remaining romance achievments (as well as a couple of plot-related ones) I'd be able to pick up the two hate-related rewards as well - but it seems I'll have to give it at least one more playthrough (possibly with a guide) to actually get those.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Francis I: A New Pope

I was raised Catholic, so I can't help but be intrigued and appalled by the bizarre rituals the church still contorts itself through at the drop of a hat.

The thing that gets me about the Catholic church, which is handily highlighted by the political manoeuvring, rumour-mongering and back-scratching that takes place before a papal conclave, is how transparently doublethink the whole thing actually is. The cardinals are just the Inner Party, who seem to simultaneously believe their own bullshit about Catholic dogma and recognise its usefulness in holding onto power, primarily through the manipulation of the church's members.

It's no different from Scientology, on an organizational level. They've just been around longer and have learned how how to hide (most of) their darker secrets, and gained most of their power and acceptance before there was enough easy communication to uncover them.

I'm finding it increasingly difficult to believe that the Catholic church is going to be cured of the pervasive bigotry, misogyny, homophobia and hypocrisy that informs its every action. The election (by old white guys trading favours and secrets, not by divine providence) of another old white guy with a long history of intolerance isn't doing much to make the church relevant for an increasingly connected, informed and accepting world.

The only sad thing is that its death is going to be a slow one.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Wandering Son

I was going to try and watch more of this before writing about it, and I'm still worried that it's about to take a sharp turn into unpleasantness without warning, as I'm only three episodes in yet. But so far, Hourou Musuko is a remarkable show and I've got my fingers crossed that it keeps its sensitivity for the duration.

Anime's not really known for its subtlety or respectful treatment of... well, anything really. What makes Hourou Musuko stand out, for me, isn't just that it's willing to talk about gender dysphoria (in 11-year-olds at that), but that it approaches the subject with such sensitivity and empathy.

It's kind of hard to see where the story's going to end up, but at the same time in a slice-of-life show like this the destination isn't really important. I'm not even sure what I'm rooting for, either - the main characters' goals are so nebulous and far away and (for me) difficult to identify with, but I'm really hoping they get what they need. Even if it's just acceptance, as unlikely as that would be in junior high school.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Cloud Atlas

I have, as near as I can tell, a first-edition hardcover copy of Cloud Atlas sitting next to me. It was the second David Mitchell book I bought (after Ghostwritten), and the third I owned (I got number 9 dream as a gift). It was the last that I managed to actually get through (until The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet came out, anyway).

It's not difficult to admit that, initially, I didn't "get" it. Even though Ghostwritten and number 9 dream had played with nonlinear and nontraditional narratives to varying degrees, Cloud Atlas was a totally different beast. I didn't think much of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing - and it's still my least favourite of the stories - and the way it cut off mid-sentence struck me as extremely odd. I don't think I made it far enough into Letters from Zedelghem on my first attempt to reach Frobisher's discovery of Ewing's journal - which causes that first chapter to make sense - so I abandoned it.

I can't remember exactly when I picked up the Kindle edition (Amazon can, however: January 1st, 2011), but I'm pretty sure it was around the time that the film adaptation was announced. A few blog posts mentioned the nested matryoshka structure which piqued my interest again, and I stuck through Ewing and Frobisher's opening chapters to get to Luisa Rey, where everything started to click.

Tonight, we saw the film version at the DCA, and I'm still decompressing.

Some of it was brilliant. While the Wachowski version of Nea So Copros (imaginatively renamed "Neo Seoul") doesn't really look how I imagined it, it is stunning. The way O-hawaii is shot in Zachry's story is gorgeous - as, in fact is the whole thing. There's no question it's a technical masterpiece.

Some of the story changes bug me, though - more than they should. The biggest one is giving Zachry the comet birthmark; in the novel it's Meronym who has it. If that doesn't seem like a big story point to get hung up on, it's not - I can't really explain why it bothers me. The Frobisher story, which I was never really fond of anyway, has been more or less completely gutted and rebuilt; Ayrs' daughter Eve has been completely excised from the plot and the whole thing is transplanted from Holland to Edinburgh (although this does allow Cavendish's story to visit the same house a few decades later). A lot of the Chatham Isles stuff has been cut from Ewing's story, which doesn't really have much plot impact but makes the friendship between Ewing and Dr. Goose seem even more peculiar.

The Luisa Rey, Cavendish and Sonmi stories are more or less complete though, and I think I found the first two more interesting than I did in the book. An Orison of Sonmi-451 and Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After are my two favourite chapters of the book, and I'm glad they were kept mostly intact - even if Sonmi's is simplified a lot in places for time.

And with a running time of nearly three hours, it's probably for the best that liberties were taken with the slower parts of the book; the emotional beats are all pretty well intact, although the point of the story is probably overstated. It takes a while to get going as well; I thought the early scenes were very exposition-heavy, which is probably necessary when you're setting up six different stories with six different casts set across a thousand years of human history but still feels clumsy.

It has definitely inspired me to re-read the book, though; I'm sure there's a lot of stuff I've missed previously. The last time I read number 9 dream I spotted another link to the overall Mitchell universe, so I'm sure Cloud Atlas still has a lot to find.

In a more perfect world, I like to think Cloud Atlas would have gotten a 12-episode TV series; the first half of the first five stories, two episodes for Sloosha's Crossin', and then the closing parts of the stories in reverse order.

I'm holding out hope for a Ghostwritten series with that approach. Come on, HBO - don't let me down.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Repeated viewings

A quick one to try and get in under the 12 o'clock (self-imposed) deadline, which I've already missed on a couple of occasions anyway but backdated so that nobody would notice except now I'm telling you about it.

We caught the second halves of a couple of movies on TV tonight - Ghostbusters II and Kill Bill Part 1 and despite having seen them both many times over I got distinctly different things from them than I expected.

For Ghostbusters II, I'd forgotten or maybe just never noticed how sinister it is. The first film has its fair share of peril, but it's an impersonal evil. In the sequel, Dana Barrett is being deliberately targeted, and Janosz' single-minded obsession with her is downright creepy. It probably doesn't help my impression, however, that I had honest-to-God nightmares about the ghost nanny Janosz when the film came out. Peter MacNicol has weirded me out ever since.

What stuck out in Kill Bill was a bit more subtle, and really only changes a single scene: the fight between The Bride and O-ren Ishii, right at the end of the film. My memory of The Bride generally is that she's very capable and confident, and I don't remember any of the fights causing her any great concern - even though Gogo is difficult to beat, The Bride doesn't hesitate.

But when she's facing O-ren in the garden, even before O-ren draws her sword, there's an anxiousness to The Bride's movements. Even O-ren seems to be regretting the situation, and the jibe about being unable to fight like a samurai - and subsequent apology - feels like this is a much more personal fight for both than the film ever spells out.

Of course, maybe it's because O-ren is the first member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad that The Bride fights - she's not had to test her abilities against anybody so skilled in a long time, and after the Crazy 88 she isn't at her peak.

This is why I like rewatching films, though. Even if you've seen something a dozen times, there's always more to get out of it - although in this case, I could just be overthinking it.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Digital dilemma

Posting a new entry every day is easy. It's writing them that's the hard part. I need to get better a making notes for things that I can get a post out of; if I have a starting point I can usually throw something together (although whether it's worth reading is another thing entirely), even if I end up on a tangent and write about something totally different.

I finally cracked and bought (the digital versions of) the Saga issues between the end of the first TPB and the current issue. This leaves me with a dilemma, though - I've broken that barrier now and it's going to be difficult to resist the whole rest of the series as issues, even if I intend to buy the second and subsequent TPBs as well.

But my bank has a £1.50 charge on international payments, so buying from Comixology that would nearly double the price of each issue. That wasn't as big a deal buying 7-10 together (although it's still a pain), but month to month it's not going to fly.

I could get a physical subscription from Forbidden Planet that wouldn't hit that additional charge, but for some reason I like the idea of buying digitally from month-to-month and then getting the TPB as a physical "archive" copy. To save on space, if nothing else.

Is there a UK-based digital comics store that sells Saga? I'd really like to support it month to month, but I can't justify the price if I've also got to pay extra to send money to the US.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Ramblings on videogame romance

There are a number of problems with player-NPC relationships in videogames, the most common of which appears to be that they're tracked using a single statistic. In every game I can think of - most obviously Alpha Protocol, as I was just playing it - if you're capable of affecting an NPC's feelings towards you it's a sliding scale from hate (or disinterest) to love, and the actions you take will always slide it one way or the other.

The nice thing about Alpha Protocol is that it's not as obvious when you make a decision what effect it'll have (at least, not the first time through); while taking the flirtatious, suave approach in your early conversations with Scarlet will increase her relationship score, in others a professional option will also help, or the suave dialogue will shave a point off.

While it's still a pretty obvious points scale, it at least moves away from Mass Effect's "choose all Paragon options to unlock love" approach and tries to make the romantic subplots seem like they're happening between real people rather than Thorton and a selection of sex vending machines.

To properly model it, though, you'd need a lot more axes for an NPC's opinion to be measured on. An obvious one could be how your character looks - maybe Kaiden really likes blue eyes and bangs. That wouldn't necessarily guarantee love of course, but it might work similar to a modifier, where it magnifies or reduces the effectiveness of your words and deeds, depending how attractive (or not) they find your character. Likewise, extreme actions - like shooting an innocent bystander or surrendering enemy - could be a total turn-off or major plus if your would-be partner has a particular moral alignment. How you talk to them, and how often, would also be important, and if your actions match up to your stated intent.

Basically, I guess, I want to see a game where doing the right thing for the mission isn't necessarily the same as doing the right thing to pursue a relationship with another character. Sex shouldn't be the end goal, either - depending on the nature of your relationship and your actions throughout the game, maybe you'd hook up with someone and then they'd decide it's better not to pursue a relationship. Mass Effect's relationships kind of had a larger arc than "achievement unlocked: sex scene" as they progressed across the series, but in each game the sex scene signalled the completion of that sidequest.

In the next generation of consoles, there's going to be a relatively minor increase in graphical power, but I'd rather stick with the graphics we've got and see more resources going into building better characters and relationships.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

The Monster Sat Beside Me

I don't know why I'm so hesitant to watch shows on Crunchyroll. I'm paying a subscription and can watch anything on the service without additional cost, so it strikes me as odd that there's so much stuff I would pass by without even giving the first episode a shot.

One of the shows I'd been not-really-avoiding for a while was My Little Monster. I don't know what made me give it a try, but it really surprised me. It's a pretty standard shoujo setup - budding romance between bookworm and delinquent - but there are a few things that made it stick out for me, which I'm going to try and explain later.

But first the easy stuff: it looks great. I really like the character designs, and the colours are brilliant - not too bright, but not too pastel either. And there's something really arresting about the way everything's outlined, but I can't quite put my finger on why.

The music's a bit cliché, the acting's a mixed bag - I'm not a massive fan of Haru's accent, for one - and a lot of the subplots are very predictable. I'm not sure if there's more to come, though; I've watched all 13 episodes available on Crunchyroll and there's a lot of stuff left kind of open, having just been properly set up in the closing episodes.

What's most interesting, and I can hardly believe I'm typing this about a shoujo comedy-drama, is the relationship between the two main characters. It's always the driving force of the series in this genre of course, but what makes My Little Monster so interesting is that the relationship that Haru and Shizuku are trying to build is obviously never going to work out.

Haru - the delinquent in this equation - has a particularly violent streak that, on more than a couple of occasions, directly results in physical injury to his would-be girlfriend Shizuku. He's also frighteningly obsessed with her and aggressively jealous, especially when she's attending cram school, in the latter part of the series, along with a potential romantic rival.

The show tries to explain away Haru's worrying obsession with Shizuku by giving him a "mysterious loner" past, and making her the first person to look past (or rather, ignore) his renegade reputation. As a result, he's more or less imprinted on her as his First Real Friend, which makes his almost-immediate declaration of deep love seem particularly worrying - even leaving out the stolen kiss that seems to have become a trend recently in these shows1.

The only thing that stops it turning into a fully abusive relationship - and not by much - is that Shizuku can give as good as she gets; she's very self-assured, has no problem telling Haru to back off, and he obeys when she gives him an instruction - although that does tend to switch on his "sulking child" mode. And while Haru's obsessed with her, Shizuku's got little time for anything other than studying and almost resents Haru for taking her away from it.

But if those warning signs weren't there - and despite the grim picture I've painted above, there are plenty of scenes of genuine warmth and affection between the pair - neither Haru nor Shizuku seem to know how to construct a proper relationship. Neither has had any friends before, so their feelings for each other are bound to be confused and overwhelming. Haru, for his part, seems to believe that single-minded devotion to his pursuit of Shiuzuku is enough to guarantee a happy ending for their story; meanwhile Shizuku admits herself that she almost expected her confession of love to be enough on its own, after which she could go on with her life exactly as it was, but with her Haru relationship as well - having her cake and eating it.

As the series progressed, it seemed more and more likely that the relationship wasn't going to get where either party wants it to be, but neither has a particular interest in trying to improve it. I'm really hoping, if the show continues, that it has the balls to admit that they don't work as a couple - but it's also difficult to see how they'd justify Haru's reaction in that instance. If he was a real person, he'd probably start stalking her - or worse.

1 I really don't like jumping straight from "kiss" to rape culture, but if the broader message here is that kissing a girl when she doesn't want or expect it is going to make her realise her unrecognised feelings for you and start a whirlwind romance, then there's got to be more than an eyebrow raised.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Walking Dead

I don't know how many people haven't finished Telltale's The Walking Dead yet who aren't totally disinterested in it, but to be safe I'm going to drop this behind a cut. Big spoilers for the end of the fifth episode within.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Another nothing

No Alpha Protocol tonight: there's a new Shin Sekai Yori to watch. The more of it I see, the more obvious it becomes that I misjudged the early part of the show; what seemed like a pointless and overcomplicated detour into the social structure of the Monster Rats is now turning out to be incredibly important. I don't think I can write much more about it until the series is finished, but I think a rewatch is in order when it's done - there are bound to be a lot of hints and clues that I missed the first time around.

I've also been watching a show called My Little Monster which I really like despite the fact that it's about a borderline abusive relationship. It's cliche in a lot of ways, but the character design and art - especially the colour palette - are great. I only have three or four more episodes to catch up on, but the plot seems to be getting more complicated rather than wrapping things up.

I also tried to watch a bit of the BAFTA games ceremony, but the whole thing was an embarrassment. Dara O'Briain's jokes fell a little flat, the voiceover guy was veering between mild sexism and vague bullshit, and the first thing I saw was some pillock from the Sun talking about how FIFA 13 is perfect and deserves to win the Best Game award.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Not much to say

Alpha Protocol is taking over my spare time. Played a lot of it over the weekend, and spent most of this evening working my way through the Rome missions - I've now moved onto Taipei. I've finally levelled up enough to unlock the ridiculously overpowered criticial-hit-from-cover pistol skill, but I'm still happy to switch to the assault rifle rather than reloading when things get less stealthy.

I'm trying to make decisions differently this time through - killing bosses where I'd previously spared them, that sort of thing - and have managed to get a couple of achievements out of this second playthrough so far, which is a pleasant surprise. I was only really expecting to get the Recruit completion one. Not that my gamerscore is particuarly important in the grand scheme, but it's nice to feel like your accomplishments are being recognised, if only by a meaningless number.

I did manage to re-read the first trade paperback of The Sixth Gun tonight as well, as I threatened on Twitter yesterday. I really want to like it, quite badly - the concept and the dialogue and the art are all great - but the pacing just doesn't let up. Considering how many of the great Westerns are slow-burners, the choice to have an all-out gun battle (and the occasional giant monster) in every issue seems rather odd. I think it's especially obvious coming off the back of Saga, which is beautifully paced throughout, although I remember thinking The Sixth Gun was a bit rushed even the first time I read it.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Recruit

After last night's post, I did go back to Alpha Protocol and restart the game (I think this makes the fifth time I've played the opening section now), and went with the Recruit class option. The biggest difference between this and the other starting classes is the number of attribute points available at character creation - the Recruit doesn't get any.

I'm playing on Easy in an attempt to mitigate the disadvantages of a literally unskilled character, but the total change in tactics required has also given the game a totally different feel. I'm not able to rely so heavily on stealth and pistols, so for the first time I'm trying out the assault rifle, which has the advantage of strong long-range and close-quarters use. I'm still trying to be sneaky as much as possible, but the option of using a more direct approach to combat also makes the missions feel much quicker - not least because I'm less likely to restart a checkpoint as soon as I get spotted.

I've also made a couple of choices differently, and not just because of the new Recruit-specific dialogue options. The first time through I was very lenient, but this time I've executed my subject every time the options has presented itself. The tone Thorton takes in these moments has struck me as really inappropriate, though. The three main dialogue choices you get fall into three types, each of which is broadly influenced by a different fictional spy: Suave (James Bond), Aggressive (Jack Bauer) or Professional (Jason Bourne). But when you execute someone, Thorton turns into a cold-blooded sociopath, apparently delighting in the chance to murder someone with a name for a change. This probably wouldn't be so bad except they're usually unarmed at this point, and trying to bargain for their life.

The tone Thorton takes adds a lot of texture to the overall atmosphere, and there are quite a few optional bits and pieces that are locked off or available depending on your relationship with the various characters you interact with. It's rare that replaying a game can give you so much of a different experience when you make different choices, even if the plot is broadly the same and the level layouts identical.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Revisiting RPGs

As part of a forum thread, a bunch of Society memebers are playing, or replaying, Obsidian's brilliant espionage RPG Alpha Protocol. I completed it for the first time over two years ago1, and have tried restarting it a couple of times on both PC and 360 without ever managing to get into it properly. This Society effort has given me a push to give it yet another go; I'll hopefully stick with it.

The problem is, my memory of playing the game is very different from where you start. By the time I finished the story I was a high-level operative with maxed-out stealth and pistol skills. I could turn invisible, line up one-hit critical shots without leaving cover, and was an expert hacker. At the start of the game? Not so much.

I've had this issue with other RPGs in the past; my earliest experience was with Golden Sun on the GameBoy Advance - my skills list was huge by the end, with some ridiculous spells at my disposal. Being limited to just a few basic attacks made the opening scenes quite tedious to replay.

But it's not entirely fair to blame the game for my frustrations; I think the root of the problem with Alpha Protocol is that my tactical approach to the situations is based on a much more advanced skillset. I need to scale back my ambitions and admit that, from time to time, I'm going to set off an alarm and have to deal with guards in a way that doesn't involve creeping around in the shadows all the time.

The only RPG I've ever been able to consistently replay is Skies of Arcadia. Right from the first battle (which you're dumped into, unceremoniously, right at the start without a tutorial) you have access to more or less the entire array of options; as you upgrade their weapons and armour or learn more spells, your party gets stronger, but with one minor exception2 your abilities never really change - just the numbers.

That might make it seem a bit simplistic, but it means that you can go from the end of the game back to the start without feeling like you're missing out on important tactical options or battle mechanics that you've come to rely on. I'm not sure the same idea could work with Alpha Protocol, but a New Game Plus that let me take my fully-tooled character back through the game again would help a lot with replayability3.

1 According to my Xbox 360 achievements list, I finished it on January 29th, 2011. I didn't think it had been that long...

2 You don't get Captain moves until Vyse becomes captain of his own ship, nearly halfway through.

3 Not that it would help me in this instance - my original save game was stolen along with the 360 when we were burgled last year.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Aroint thee, phone!

I'm due a phone upgrade on June 28th, and it cannot come soon enough.

For the last three years, four months and thirteen days, I've been using webOS phones. Starting with the Palm Pre when it came out, I've gone through the Pre2 and now use the Pre3. I love webOS, and nothing else I've used has convinced me that it's anything other than the best-designed and easiest-to-use mobile phone operating system that's out there. Sadly, nobody else seems to have agreed with me (least of all HP, who until three days owned webOS, until they sold it to LG), and since neither Palm nor HP had the money to really push the boat out on proper hardware it's actually pretty easy to see why.

webOS has always been a bit sluggish, its usability hampered by slow responses to user input. Occasionally the phone's multitasking will cause the entire device to freeze for a few seconds, leaving me incapable of even closing the offending app. My phone occasionally won't switch on the mic when I make or answer a phone call, leaving me muted. The browser runs out of memory with more than one card open, which effectively cripples the whole point of a multitasking OS, and will randomly reload an entire page or fail to render more than one screen's height.

I find it really difficult to use anything else, though. The best thing about the Pre series of hardware, which I desperately wish other companies would steal, is the the gesture bar - a touch-sensitive panel that runs off the bottom of the screen. I'm so used to the Pre gestures that I do them automatically on any other phone I pick up.

Come June, I'm probably going to pick up a Windows Phone 8 device1. It's probably the operating system that I've used least of the three big names currently on the market, but I really like that it's trying to distinguish itself from Android and iOS' boring icon grids. I'll probably take a few weeks to stop trying the back gesture, though.

1 What can I say? I'm committed to the underdog.