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Monday, March 31, 2008

Anathem Plot Update
Lev Grossman, geek blogger for Time magazine, reports on the plot of Neal Stephenson's new novel, Anathem:
Since childhood, Raz has lived behind the walls of a 3,400-year-old monastery, a sanctuary for scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians—sealed off from the illiterate, irrational, unpredictable "saecular" world that is plagued by recurring cycles of booms and busts, world wars and climate change. Until the day that a higher power, driven by fear, decides that only these cloistered scholars have the abilities to avert an impending catastrophe. And, one by one, Raz and his cohorts are summoned forth without warning into the Unknown.
Interesting. No mention of other planets or aliens (as originally rumored, though the above doesn't rule that out either), but a promising plot, I guess. [via io9]
Posted by Mark on March 31, 2008 at 10:02 PM .: link :.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Battlestar Galactica
I've spent the better part of this past week catching up with the third season of Battlestar Galactica on DVD (in preparation for the start of the 4th season later this week) and I realized that it's not something I've discussed on the blog, so here are a few thoughts (Spoilers are called out at the start of a bullet).
  • Alright, let's get this one out of the way first: I don't think BSG is the greatest show evar like so many other folks. It's a really good show, I enjoy it, and I'm looking forward to the upcoming season. My understanding is that this is the final season, and I find that promising. I think my biggest issue with the show is that I sometimes feel like they're making it up as they go along (this is the same issue I have with Lost, which I gave up on about 2 seasons ago). However, I have to say that BSG has written themselves out of corners a few times. Case in point, the beginning of the third season and the escape from New Caprica. It was a little predictable, but I loved it. And honestly, when it comes to SF television shows, BSG is definitely in the upper echelon with Star Trek:TNG, Firefly and the like. Yeah, maybe I'm being a little hard on it. It's a great show.
  • What's the deal with the lack of corners on paper? All of the paper in the BSG universe has the corners cut off and I can't figure out why. Books, clipboards, and even some of their computer screens all have that 45 degree angle cut where the corner would be. It's impractical (both producing it and using it) and wasteful. I mean, come on, how did people in the BSG universe get past their tractor-fed printer paper phase without corners? I heard a story once that the SciFi channel told the producers that the show was over budget and that they had to cut some corners, so they did (heh), but that sounds like urban legend to me. Any other ideas? Perhaps there's a philosophical reason?

    Where are the corners?

    Where are the corners?
    Where are the corners?

  • Now that I have a DVR, I'll be able to watch season 4 as it happens. This presents an interesting contrast though, as I've watched the first three seasons on DVD. I've been wondering lately what impact this sort of schedule has on the perception of a series. It's certainly fun to watch. Addicting, actually. Will watching only a single episode a week (as opposed to 4 commercial-free episodes at a time) have a positive impact on my perception of the show? It's obviously a highly subjective question, but I guess I'm going to find out. It's been a while since I've actually looked forward to watching a show every week...
  • Spoilers! So who's the final Cylon? There was some speculation that Starbuck was the final Cylon, but I think that was pretty much nixed (leaving the writers with the challenging prospect of explaining what happened to her). The most obvious choice for the final Cylon is Baltar. Aside from the hallucinations (and the fact that Six has a counterpoint hallucination), D'Anna's reaction when she was in the ancient temple (in the "Eye of Jupiter" episodes) seems to go along with this. Of course, it is the obvious choice, so maybe the writers will try to avoid that in favor of something more surprising and controversial.
  • Major Spoiler! I realize I'm late to the party on this, but if Tyrol is a Cylon, then didn't he and Cally have another "hybrid" child? A big deal was made about Sharon's hybrid child, and obviously both the Cylons and the humans treasure her. Will young Nicolas play an important role in the fourth season?
  • Colonial Propaganda Posters [via Galley Slaves]
Posted by Mark on March 30, 2008 at 09:21 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Link Dump
Time is short, so just a few interesting links that I've run accross recently:
  • Wikihistory: So what would happen if time travel was invented a hundred years from now? Why, time travelers would start an internet forum... among other predictable things. Hilarious.
  • True Measure of Code Quality: Heh.
  • Agent to the Stars: John Scalzi's first novel was originally published online, and it's still there. I actually haven't read it yet, but I think this might be the only Scalzi SF book that I haven't read (and I've enjoyed all the others...)
  • I Love You, but You Love Meat: I was bored by this article until I saw this line:
    She and her daughter have “meat parties” when Mr. Benson goes out of town, she said.
  • The Sports Guy Glossary: I'm not a huge sports fan, but I have come to love Bill Simmons. Even when he's writing about a sport I absolutely hate (i.e. Basketball, unless it's Villanova basketball, in which case: Go 'Nova!), I'll read it. There are some times when it's all sports, but most of the time he's making so many pop-culture references that it's entertaining. This page has lots of his classics, including sporty stuff like the Ewing Theory (to be renamed the Tiki Barber Theory) and stuff almost completely unrelated to sports, like the Guidelines for Underrated Movies.
  • CES 2008 panel on SF influence on technology: The panel features Neal Stephenson, Dean Kamen (inventor of the Segway and other neat stuff), Lucy Lawless (she's a Cylon!), and Walt Mossberg (journalist). Interesting stuff...
That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on March 26, 2008 at 08:35 PM .: link :.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

I recently finished watching both seasons of Dexter. The series has a fascinating premise: the titular hero, Dexter Morgan, is a forensic analyst (he's a "blood spatter expert") for the Miami police by day, but a serial killer by night. He operates by a "code," only murdering other murderers (usually ones who've beaten the system). The most interesting thing about Dexter's code is the implication that he does not follow the code out of some sort of dedication to morality or justice. He knows what he does is evil, but he follows his code because it's the most constructive way to channel his aggression. Of course, the code is not perfect, and a big part of the series is how the code shapes him and how he, in turn, shapes it. To be honest, watching the series is a little odd and disturbing when you realize that you're essentially rooting for a serial killer (an affable and charming one, to be sure, but that's part of why it's disturbing). I started to think about this a bit, and several other examples of similar characters came to mind. There's a lot more to the series, but I don't want to ruin it with a spoiler-laden discussion here. Instead, I want to talk about vigilantes.

Despite the lack of concern for justice (or perhaps because of that), Dexter is essentially a vigilante... someone who takes the law into his own hands. There is, of course, a long history of vigilantism, in both real life and art. Indeed, many classic instances happened long before the word vigilante was coined - for example, Robin Hood. He stole from the rich to give to the poor, and was immortalized as a folk hero whose tales are still told to this day. I think there is a certain cultural fascination with vigilantes, especially vigilantes in art.

Take superheroes, most of whom are technically vigilantes. Sure, many stand for all that is good in the world and often cite truth and justice as motivation, but the evolution of comic books shows something interesting. I haven't read a whole lot of comic books (especially of the superhero kind), but the impression I get is that when the craze started in the 1930s, it was all about heroics and people serving the common good. There was also a darker edge to some of them, and that edge has grown as time progressed. Batman is probably the most relevant to this discussion, as he shares a complicated relationship with the police and a certain above-the-law attitude towards solving crimes. Interestingly, the Batman of the 1930s was probably a darker, more violent superhero than he was in the 1940s, when one editor issued a decree that the character could no longer kill or use a gun. As such, the postwar Batman became more of an upstanding citizen, and the stories took on a lighter tone (definitely an understandable direction, considering what the world had been through). I'm sure I'm butchering the Batman chronology here, but the next sigificant touchstone for Batman came in 1986, with the publication of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Written and drawn by Frank Miller, the series reintroduced Batman as a dark, brooding character with complex psychological issues. A huge success, this series ushered in a new era of "grim and gritty" superheros that still holds today.

In general, our superheroes have become much more conflicted. Many (like Batman) tackle the vigilante aspect head on, and if you look at something like Watchmen (or The Incredibles, if you want a lighter version), you can see a shift in the way such stories are told. I'm sure there are literally hundreds of other examples in the comic book world, but I want to shift gears for a moment and examine another cultural icon that Dexter reminded me of: Dirty Harry.

Inspector Harry Callahan is an incredibly popular character, but apparently not with critics:
Critics have rarely cracked the whip harder than on the Dirty Harry film series, which follows the exploits of a trigger-happy San Francisco cop named Harry Callahan and his junior partners, usually not long for this world. On its release in 1971, Dirty Harry was trounced as 'fascist medievalism' by the potentate of the haut monde critic set, Pauline Kael, as well as aspiring Kaels like young Roger Ebert. Especially irksome to the criterati was a key moment in the film when Inspector Callahan, on the trail of an elusive serial sniper, is reprimanded by his superiors for not taking into account the suspect's Miranda rights. Callahan replies, through clenched teeth, "Well, I'm all broken up about that man's rights." Take that, Miranda.
I should say that critics often give the film (at least, the first one) generally good overall marks, praising its "suspense craftsmanship" or calling it "a very good example of the cops-and-killers genre." But I'm fascinated by all the talk of fascism. Despite working within the system, Dirty Harry indeed does take the law into his own hands, and in doing so he ignores many of our treasured Constitutional freedoms. And yet we all cheer him on, just as we cheer Batman and Dexter.

Why are these characters so popular? Why do we cheer such characters on even when we know what they're doing is ultimately wrong? I think it comes down to desire. We all desire justice. We want to see wrongs being made right, yet every day we can turn on the TV and watch non-stop failures of our system, whether it be rampant crime or a criminal going free or any other number of indignities. Now, I'm not an expert, but I don't think our society today is much worse off than it was, say, a hundred years ago (In fact, I think we're significantly better off, but that's another discussion). The big difference is that information is disseminated more widely and quickly, and dramatic failures of the system are attention grabbing, so that's what we get. What's more, these stories tend to focus on the most dramatic, most obscene examples. It's natural for people to feel helpless in the face of such news, and I think that's why everyone tends to embrace vigilante stories (note that people don't generally embrace actual real-life vigilantes - that's important, and we'll get to that later). Such stories serve many purposes. They allow us to cope with life's tragedies, internalize them and in some way comfort us, but as a deeper message, they also emphasize that the world is not perfect, and that we'll probably never solve the problem of crime. In some ways, they act as a critique of our system, pointing out it's imperfections and thereby making sure we don't become complacent in the ever-changing fight against crime.

Of course, there is a danger to this way of thinking, which is why critics like Pauline Kael get all huffy when they watch something like Dirty Harry. We don't want to live in a police state, and to be honest, a real cop who acted like Dirty Harry would probably be an awful cop. Films like that deal in extremes because they're trying to make a point, and it's easy to misinterpret such films. I doubt people would really accept a cop like Dirty Harry. Sure, some folks might applaud his handling of the Scorpio case that the film documents (audiences certainly did!), but police officers don't handle a single case in the course of their career, and most cases aren't that black and white either. Dirty Harry would probably be fired out here in the real world. Ultimately, while we revel in such entertainment, we don't actually want real life to imitate art in this case. However, that doesn't mean we enjoy hearing about a vicious drug dealer going free because the rules of evidence were not followed to the letter. I think deep down, people understand that concepts like the rules of evidence are important, but they can also be extremely frustrating. This is why we have conflicting emotions when we watch the last scene in Dirty Harry, in which he takes off his police badge and throws it into the river.

I think this is a large part of why vigilante stories have evolved. Comic book heroes like Batman have become more conflicted, and newer comic books often deal with the repercussions of vigilatism. The Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force, was apparently made as a direct answer to the critics of Dirty Harry who thought that film was openly advocating law-sanctioned vigilantism. In Magnum Force, the villains are vigilante cops. Then you have modern day vigilantes like Dexter, which pumps audiences full of conflicting emotions. I like this guy, but he's a serial killer. He's stopping other killers, but he's doing so in such a disturbing way.

Are vigilante stories fascist fantasies? Perhaps, but fantasies aren't real. They're used to illustrate something, and in the case of vigilante fantasies, they illustrate a desire for justice. The existence of a show like Dexter will repulse some people and that's certainly an understandable reaction. In fact, I think that's exactly what the show's creators want to do. They're walking the line between satisfying the desire for justice while continually noting that Dexter is not a good person. Ironically, what would repulse me more would be the complete absence of stories like Dexter, because the only way such a thing could happen would be if everyone thought our society was perfect. Perhaps someday concepts like justice and crime will be irrelevant, but that day ain't coming soon, and until it does, we'll need such stories, if only to remind us that we don't live in a perfect world.
Posted by Mark on March 23, 2008 at 07:16 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Crayon Physics Deluxe
Interesting trailer for a game called Crayon Physics Deluxe. It's like a more complicated version of line rider or something.

This is apparently a sequel to Crayon Physics. [via clusterflock]
Posted by Mark on March 19, 2008 at 07:46 PM .: link :.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Hey Internet, Stop Being Such Cynical Effing Douchebags Blog-a-Thon
So in the movie blogging world (and probably others), there's something called a "blog-a-thon" in which someone proposes a topic and then lots of folks write a post on that topic (this is similar to what's called a "carnival" in other areas of the internet). I've never actually participated in one of these blog-a-thons, so I figured I'd give it a shot. Stacie Ponder recently threw up a challenge:
I'm not afraid to get excited about movies. When did looking forward to something or having an unabashed I cannot fucking wait to see that attitude become passe? These are movies, people...they're entertainment. I pay money to be entertained, and I want my fucking face rocked off. I want to circle a release date on my calendar and be the first in line when the date arrives. ...

One day, and one day only: Tuesday, March 18.

You: write about something in the world of film that fills you with complete and total unbridled fucking retarded JOY.
Well then, what shall I write about? She's not picky about it - I can choose a movie or a scene or just about anything I want. There's actually a pretty easy answer for this, one which I've been looking forward to for a long, long time. I got a taste about 2 years ago and had an opportunity to revisite about a year ago, but due to circumstances beyond my control, I could not participate. So another year has passed, and this time I'm ready. I've circled my calendar and I've even taken time off work so that I can partake in the filmic goodness that is the 2008 Phildelphia Film Festival. To be more specific, I'm filled with "complete and total unbridled fucking retarded JOY" for the Danger After Dark series, which is filled with all sorts of horror and gangster films. I've never even heard of most of them, but I think that's a big part of the appeal (and it's part of what made my experience in 2006 so fun).

Yeah, sure, the PFF isn't a world renowned festival like Sundance, Toronto, or Cannes, but it's my damn festival, and I love that there's a whole slew of genre films that I'll probably never get a chance to see otherwise. Sure, there are some other festival darlings I'll probably check out (Son of Rambow comes to mind), but what I'm really looking forward to is the unbridled joy of genre filmmaking. In 2006, I saw a bunch of Danger After Dark films, and absolutely loved every minute of it. The only thing missing from this year's festivities is another Adult Swim For Your Lives event.


Just a few movies that are currently on my list:
  • Black House: South Korean horror is the new J-Horror. Oh hell, I just saw someone calling it "K-Horror." Groan.
  • Confession of Pain: From the makers of Infernal Affairs (remade in the U.S. by Martin Scorsese as The Departed), this probably won't be as good, but who knows?
  • Pistoleros: Described as "a modern Spaghetti Western with a Nordic twist." Say no more, I'm there.
  • Timecrimes: Time travel thriller? Directed by someone named Nacho? I'm in.
  • The Last House in the Woods: Good ol' Italian horror fun.
  • Epitaph: Did I mention that South Korean horror is the new J-Horror?

And then there's to the totally off the wall stuff, like Bad Biology (from the makers of Frankenhooker!) or Dead Fury (raunchy, gory, animated fun directed by someone who's actually known as FSudol).

No, it's not a prestigious festival, but I like it, and I can't wait.

Update: The Blog-a-thon is up over at Final Girl.
Posted by Mark on March 18, 2008 at 12:18 AM .: link :.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Trailer Park
It's been a while since I've kept up with what movies are in production. I used to totally geek-out on various movie news sites and forums. For instance, I remember seeing behind the scenes footage of the first Lord of the Rings film somewhere around 1999 (two years before the film came out). Since then, I've tended to let that sort of thing go (with an occasional exception), for a few reasons. First, it's really annoying to follow a production over the course of years and realize that you still have to wait two more years before you'll finally get to see it (the aformentioned LotR being a good example). Second, following every detail of a production tends to build up expectations that are too lofty... it's rare that a film will truly impress when you've spent years building up expectations (LotR is a good example of that, but again, that's the outlier. A film you've been following for years is more likely to be like The Phantom Menace.) And finally, following a movie production from beginning to end without learning spoilers is near impossible. Even movie trailers these days are often filled with spoilers (plus, they have a tendency to be overedited, repetitive and boring, but we'll get to that in a second.)

Trailers are an interesting art form. Since the advent of DVD, I've had the opportunity to watch a lot of older trailers, and boy are they awful! There are some exceptions, of course, but sometimes I'm really in awe of how bad movie trailers used to be. Now, I'm no expert, but I think the zenith of movie trailers was probably the 1990s. I remember going to the movies then and almost looking forward to the trailers as much as the movie I was seeing. Perhaps I've just matured to a point where the tricks of the trade just don't work on me anymore, but I remember enjoying trailers for movies that ended up being terrible. These days, I'm usually able to pick up on that sort of thing right away. Of course, the mid-90s were also a time where people were still in awe of what could be done with the latest special effects... something I imagine people have become bored with. Many of the things that used to make trailers interesting are now simply cliched tropes (i.e. frenetic editing, pulse-pounding music, movie guy voiceover, etc...) I think we're starting to see a trend for more interesting trailers, even though the typical stuff is still dominant.

So let's take a look at some recent trailers for big new movies and see if I should start paying more attention:
  • The Incredible Hulk: Let's just pretend that Ang Lee movie never happened. For all intents and purposes, this is your typical Hollywood trailer. It's probably a little better than your average trailer, but it's still pretty stereotypical. It looks like the fun popcorn flick the Ang Lee version was never able to capture.
  • The Dark Knight: The trailers they have for this now are pretty straightforward. Again, typical Hollywood fare, though perhaps a little more upscale. However, it should be noted that the original teaser for this movie was a six-minute featurette that tells the story of a bank heist. For some reason, this mini-film is not available on the web, except for this lame bootlegged version. It's a brilliant trailer though, and it really makes me want to watch this movie. The newer trailers are awful by comparison...
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: This is almost unfair, as nostalgia serves to make this more enjoyable than it probably is, but it's pretty well done. The only thing that bothers me is that it looks like we're going to revisit the mysterious government room with all the crates. I don't know why, but that bothers me. I love that it's just sorta thrown on the end of Raiders with no explanation... and I love that the next two movies make no mention of it at all.
  • Lost Boys: The Tribe: I can't believe they're making this movie, but the trailer is pretty unintentionally funny. Bill Simmons sums it up perfectly:
    I don't think I've ever enjoyed a movie trailer as much as the one for the "Lost Boys" sequel on MTV.com, not just because Corey Feldman introduces it in the beginning like he's James Lipton, but because of the way Corey seems to be randomly inserted into the trailer at various points, almost like how they stick Guillermo into real movie trailers on Jimmy Kimmel's show.
    Heh. I have almost no desire to see this. I do, however, want to revisit the original now, as I have not seen it in... uh... over a decade?
There are probably a hundred other trailers out there that I could review, but I'm realizing again why I try to avoid all the hype surrounding upcoming movies. I'm not totally immune, but I find that it usually helps my enjoyment of the actual film...

Update: Fledge comments, and answers the unspoken question: Why is it called a "trailer" if it's shown before the film?
Posted by Mark on March 16, 2008 at 07:33 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

GitS:SAC - More Thoughts
After several episodes of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, I have a few other quick thoughts:
  • In my last post, I whined about how the plot of the GitS being too obtuse. However, after watching several episodes, I think my fears were unwarranted. There is still a tendency for the plot to occassion a quick info-dump which can sometimes be overwhelming, but for the most part, each episode is relatively easy to understand. The potential exceptions are the "laughing man" episodes, but I'm guessing they're a bit confusing because the story is still in progress and so there are still a lot of unanswered questions.
  • Also in my last post, I noted that the series seems to have a lighter tone than the films, and I think that's definitely true. For instance, Major Kusanagi is definitely displaying more of a light-hearted attitude than she does in the movies, where she has a much more earnest style. She even smiles a lot. She's still a badass though, and a very likeable character. The one thing that bothers me is her uniform, which seems to consist of a one-piece bathing suit, thigh-high stockings, and a jacket.

    Major Kusanagi's uniform
    All female cops wear this stuff, right?

    There was some low level nudity in the movies, but there was at least a partial explanation for that (she was wearing one of those invisibility suits). I know there's a time-honored tradition of something called fan service in anime, and if this qualifies, then it's actually pretty tame when compared to series that are actually fan service vehicles, but still. Every time I see the major wearing that outfit, my immersion (or "transport", if you prefer) in the story momentarily snaps, and I have to wonder why this woman is wearing what amounts to lingerie while conducting her police work. It's not like we ever see Batou walking around in a speedo, vest, and combat boots. Of course, this is a total nitpick and when she gets sent into a battle situation, she wears more reasonable attire, so it's not a complete disconnect.

    Thats better!

  • The movies tend to be more philosophically inclined than the series, which seems content to let the philosophical implications of their universe simmer beneath the surface of a straightforward police procedural. This is probably why the plot of the series is a little easier to follow than the films, and it actually works pretty well because it's not like any other police procedural on TV. Such shows are a dime a dozen. I could probably turn on my TV and have my choice between 3 different episodes of Law & Order right now. But GitS:SAC is a police procedural that focuses on hacking, and it's surprisingly effective at taking the usually dull or fake-sounding hacking tropes and turning them into something more compelling to watch. I think a large part of this is that it's not just computer hacking here, but rather "ghost hacking" (i.e. hacking people's brains). Ghost hacking is inherently disturbing, and so these stories carry more weight than, say, a typical episode of 24 (which has such laughable techno-babble as to be actually entertaining, but that's a different story). Anyway, I think this style suits the series well, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the episodes.
That's all for now. More as the series progresses.
Posted by Mark on March 12, 2008 at 09:34 PM .: link :.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Wii Game Corner
Some quick reviews for games I've played recently:
  • Super Mario Galaxy: As usual, Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach and Mario's looking to rescue her. This is probably the best reviewed game for the Wii. Metacritic has it at a 97 and there's not a single review below 90. While this is perhaps a bit too high, I do agree that it's a fantastic game. There are some imperfections. The default camera anges are sometimes a bit off, but that's a general platform game problem, so it's hard to fault the game too much for that. Similarly, the controls are sometimes a bit awkward, but for the most part, it works fine. There are some Do it again, stupid or twitch levels, but I expected this and there aren't that many levels that get too frustrating. Otherwise, the game is great. It's the best looking Wii game I've played, and the music is pretty good too (it evokes the older Mario games while doing its own thing). Aside from the camera and sometimes awkward controls, the gameplay is generally fun and easy to pick up. The level design is great (the general concept of the spheroid, 3D levels with neat gravity tricks is well done), and the game is broken up into little bit-sized chunks (something that appeals to people like myself who don't want to have to play for hours at a time to get anywhere). Bottom line, it's a lot of fun. I haven't finished the game yet, but I'm looking forward to playing more, and I can see why people are heaping praise on the game.
  • No More Heroes: This game follows the exploits of Travis Touchdown, an amateur hitman who uses a beam katana (basically a lightsaber) to dispatch his enemies. His goal is to become the #1 ranked assassin in the world... and to do so, he must take out the top 10 assassins. To do this, he must pay the United Assassins Association to set up matches against each assassin, and to pay for these matches, Travis must take on various odd jobs. There are a few positive aspects of this game, but for the most point, it's a mess. The gameplay is interesting, but much too simplistic. You basically need to just keep pressing the A button. A lot. The game tries to add other attack modes (wrestling moves, charging up an attack, etc...), but none of those are really necessary. For the most part, the game just pits you against a bunch of enemies at a time, and you press A a lot. Now, the one good thing about this control scheme is that when you get to a certain point, the game prompts you to do a "kill move" and displays a direction on the screen for you to slash your wiimote, at whichpoint you see a slow-motion animation of your kill move. This is actually a pretty cool interaction and it works well... The game doesn't seem to care how accurate you are with your killing slash though (several times I know I went in the wrong direction, but it registered anyway). The boss fights are relatively fun (at least, when compared to wading through wave after wave of henchmen). Each boss has certain unique powers and you need to figure out how to counter them. The game is broken up into bite-sized chunks, which, as I've already mentioned, is something I like. Unfortunately, that's where the good things about this game end.

    This screenshot probably makes the game look better than it is...
    This screenshot probably makes the game look better than it is...

    The game wants very badly to be something like the Grand Theft Auto games, but with assassins instead of petty criminals. The game is framed in an open-ended cityscape that you can drive around in. There are stores and places to find work, etc... Sound familiar? Yeah, it is, except that the cityscape is tremendously boring. The "open-ended" cityscape turns out to be a little closed off. There's very little you can do here. In GTA, you can steal other cars, get into trouble, cause general meyham, or simply drive around and find jumps. In this game, you can... drive your indestructible motorcycle (which handles like a boat) to your next job (or to a store). And that's pretty much it. Oh, and you live in a hotel (just like GTA!), but in a delightfully irreverant twist, the "save" function happens when you go to the toilet! How clever! It even has authentic flushing sounds to signal a successful save. The fighting in the game is very repetitive and monotonous. The only thing that sorta saves it from that trap are the boss fights, which are decent (but not great). The "odd jobs" portion of the game is inexplicably awful. You need to run around the city and tackle missions like "collecting coconuts" and "lawn mowing" (yes, seriously, there is a mission called "lawn mowing"). In and of themselves, these mini-games aren't that awful, it's just that they're so very out of place in this type of game.

    The game's visuals are a bizarre mish-mash of styles. It's attempting a low-fi comic book style, which would be fine, except that the graphics are clunky and the animations sometimes choppy. When you dispatch one of the enemy hoards, the slow motion animation is decent, but every enemie basically squirts blood like a hose (think Kill Bill or Evil Dead II) and when the screen clogs up with lots of enemies, you really can't see anything (Luckily, all you need to do to get through this is keep pressing A.) Other visual aspects of the game (such as the menues or the assassin ranking screen) seem to be trying to harken back to old-school video games (very pixelated) and are strangely divergent with the other visual styles of the game. The voice acting in the game is pretty good, actually, but the music... perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if there were more than 2 songs in the whole game. It doesn't take long to get annoyed by the music.

    While not garnering the universally positive reviews that Mario Galaxy did, No More Heroes still seems to have done quite well for itself. It's the 10th ranked game on Metacritic, and it's got a score of 84 (which is pretty good). If you can't tell from the above, I think this is wildly inflated. There are some good things about the game, but overall it's a mess.
  • Miscellaneous Sports Games: I've played Madden 08, NBA Live 08, and Major League Baseball 2K8. I haven't played any of these a lot, but of the three, Madden was the best. It has some pretty neat Wiimote controls (touch pass versus a more bullet-like pass, depending on how you throw, etc...) and is generally pretty fun. I loath the game of basketball, and so I probably have an unfair bias against NBA Live 08... however, I did enjoy the slam dunk competition. Finally, we come to 2K games' just released baseball game, which has a neat pitching controller scheme, but otherwise is pretty glitchy. At one point, after throwing a pitch, the pitcher animation froze for about 10 seconds before resuming and throwing the ball at me (the batter). I've always had bad luck with 2K sports games, and they don't seem very trustworthy as a company in general, so this didn't surprise me much.
One thing I'm noticing about a lot of 3rd party games for the Wii is that they're trimmed down from the versions released on other systems. For instance, Madden 08 is missing lots of features that are on other systems. I haven't played the game enough to know whether what's missing is really that important or not, but it does make purchasing a game for the Wii a little nerve-wracking. Am I really getting the same game? The different controller scheme also makes you wonder if they just tacked on Wii controls, or if the game actually has a well-thought-out scheme. I'm really hoping the announced Star Wars game isn't just a toned down version of the real game (early news doesn't look so promising on that front, though it does look like they're trying to add a Wii only gameplay mode). This sort of trouble, when combined with Blue Ray's victory in the HD format war, makes the Playstation 3 a viable purchase for me. Much as a I hate Sony, I might have to do it... though I think I'll wait for the price to come down (or maybe I can get one of those crazy deals where I get 15 discs along with it) before I seriously consider it.
Posted by Mark on March 09, 2008 at 06:19 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex - Initial Thoughts
I've started watching this series, and after the first episode, several things occur to me.
  • The first episode recalls the films in a few ways. Obviously, it's not exactly the same, but for example, both the first film and the first episod of SAC start with Major Kusanagi jumping off a skyscraper roof to attack criminals. Another similarity is Geisha robots attacking their clients (shades of GitS2: Innocence, though that movie came out after this series). Obviously this is taking place in the same universe, so you'd expect such similarities, but I do hope that the series isn't just rehashing the same ideas over and over again. Indeed, there are some differences. For example, there seems to be an element of lighthearted humor here that isn't really present in the movies (at one point in the first episode, Batou turns his head, smiles, and says "I think he broke" in a sorta goofy way. Also, the Major seems to be a little... less intense... than she is in the movies.) In any case, one episode is not enough to make a real comparison, and maybe they were just trying to get people into the series by referencing conventions from the rest of the GitS universe.

    Major Kusanagi stands atop a skyscraper

  • I'm watching this on Netflix's online service, so I don't have a choice but to watch the dubbed version of the series. However, the dubbing at least seems better than the first film (the second film inexplicably does not have dubbing). Then again, the first film had some of the most atrocious voice acting I've ever heard (though perhaps some of that is due to the writing/translation), so perhaps that's not saying much.
  • The animation is notably inferior than the two feature films. The first film used a more traditional animation technique, while the second film used an interesting blend between traditional and computer generated 3D imagery. The series also uses CG, but it's much less textured or detailed and the movements are a little less fluid. I'm guessing this had something to do with budgetary or time constraints (producing 26 half hour episodes must be more resource intensive to produce than a 2 hour movie). However, while the animation did seem odd initially, I'll probably get used to it. It's not that bad, and it's not like I frown at live action movies with poor special effects or video games that don't have eye-popping graphics. The important thing to me is the story and the ideas.
  • Speaking of which, another thing that's becoming apparent about the entire GitS series is that they either have intentionally obtuse plots, or something is getting lost in translation (or both). The ideas underlying the series are definitely very interesting (and I believe that's what I responded to in the first two films) and can be challenging. This first episode seems more plot-centric than the films (which isn't necessarily a bad thing), but I definitely think there's still something that's lost in translation here, and perhaps not just when it comes to language (though that's probably a big part of it). It might be cultural (or political) references I'm not getting either. The first episode of SAC is not as difficult as the first film. I got the basic idea of the plot, but I got a little tripped up by all the detailed references to military or governmental organizations. In any case, it doesn't seem to be a coincidence that both movies are a little difficult to understand (though the first is worse in this respect than the second) and so is this first episode.
More thoughts as I progress through the series... again, I've only watched a single episode, so it's probably not fair to make some of the statements above until I've seen more of the series.
Posted by Mark on March 05, 2008 at 09:23 PM .: link :.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Link Dump: SF Edition
I have a few ideas of longer type posts, but nothings gelling at the moment, so here are a few links I've run across lately:
  • Mind Meld: Today's SF Authors Define Science Fiction - It's an interesting question, and there are lots of interesting answers here (don't miss part 2). I tend to favor a more broad definition that some of the authors, something akin to John Scalzi's or David Louis Edelman's definitions. It's hard to say though. How does one classify something like The Baroque Cycle. The whole thing takes place in the distant past, and there's not much in the way of scientific speculation (the characters are speculating I guess, but we're not), but it's clearly got a handle on science and technology and Stephenson is clearly a SF writer. I don't know that a definition that excludes The Baroque Cycle is a bad one, but I'd kinda like mine to do so.
  • Fledge is a Singularity Skeptic - My problem with the singularity is that no one really knows what it would look like. We can speculate and doing so makes for fun SF, but still, I share Fledge's skepticism for a lot of it:
    The proponents of AI argue that if we just add levels of complexity eventually we will have something approximating the real thing. The approach is to add more neural net nodes, add more information inputs, and [something happens]. But my sense of the human brain (which is partly religious and partly derived from my career as an MRI physicist specializing in neuroimaging) is that the brain isn’t just a collection of N neurons, wired a certain way. There are layers, structures, and systems within whose complexities multiple against each other.
    I'll say that I think a singularity is possible, but I have no idea when. I'm pretty sure it won't be happening in the next 15 years, as Verner Vinge has speculated. Of course, he freely admits the possibility of singularity failure...
  • SF Starship Size Comparisons - Interesting. I always thought Star Destroyers were larger than they are...
  • Seven Habits of Highly Effective Spaceship Captains - Not as comprehensive as it sounds, but still fun. References to the obvious (Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, etc...) and the not so obvious (Futurama).
That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on March 02, 2008 at 08:08 PM .: link :.

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