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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscar Liveblogging
In accordance with tradition, I'll be liveblogging the Oscars tonight. If you're interested, here are previous installments: [2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004] Check back for frequent updates (starting around 8:30 pm EST), and feel free to hang around and leave comments to play along (I've re-instituted anonymous commenting for the event, though I have added a CAPTCHA to prevent spam - sorry for any inconvenience)...

To start things off, here are my predictions for the major awards:
  • Best Picture: The King's Speech. This isn't a sure thing, but while The Social Network racked up some early awards, it's been losing momentum and The King's Speech has been picking up the slack. I've actually seen all of the nominated films this year (Indeed, there's an overlap of 5 films with my very own top 10), but as near as I can tell, none of the other 8 have a real chance, unless some weird technicality of the bizarre voting system leads to a true dark horse emerging victorious. That being said, it's worth considering that the grand majority of the Academy voters are actors, and The King's Speech is an actor's dream. This isn't to say that The Social Network is not attractive to actors though, as it has a fine ensemble cast and a wonderful script - it could certainly win. This sort of uncertainty is a good thing for an awards show though - I'm actually looking forward to seeing who wins. And both films actually seem pretty worthy (though as my top 10 might attest, I probably would have a couple of other films up for consideration as well).
  • Best Director: David Fincher for The Social Network. That's right, I'm going against the historical evidence here - normally the Best Picture and Best Director awards are tightly coupled - if you win one, you generally win the other. I think Fincher is much more of a lock for this category though. Perhaps that actually does bode well for The Social Network as Best Picture, but I do think we'll see a split, and I actually don't think that's a horrible thing. One other note about the Best Director award: Lots of people are calling this a snub of Christopher Nolan, but honestly, I've been thinking of him more notable as a writer and editor than as a director. He's a good director, of course, and I'd probably have nominated him over, say, David O. Russel (or maybe even Tom Hooper), but in the end, I'm not that disappointed at this snub. Who knows though, maybe we'll see Inception take best picture without the corresponding nomination in Best Director. Unprecedented (or maybe not - I didn't look it up).
  • Best Actress: Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Another very tough pick. The main competition comes from Annette Bening, for her role as a hard-drinking lesbian doctor and mother of two. Bening has been nominated twice before, but never won, which is in her favor. But then, her movie is a quasi-comedy, something that rarely goes over well with the Academy, and Portman's role is much more central and demanding. Flip a coin. I landed on Portman, but it could easily be Bening. I suppose there's also a chance for Michelle Williams or Jennifer Lawrence, but that's a longshot.
  • Best Actor: Colin Firth in The King's Speech. They might as well have renamed this category "Colin Firth and 4 other guys". Firth is a lock.
  • Best Supporting Actress: Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit. I'm betting that Melissa Leo and Amy Adams will cancel each other out (that tends to happen when two performances from the same movie are nominated - a movie that will most likely win the Best Supporting Actor award, see below), and that Academy members will want to reward True Grit somehow... and this seems the most likely place for that. Indeed, how did Hailee Steinfeld get nominated here at all - she's onscreen for practically the entire movie and would have been better suited towards the Best Actress award. Except that the competition is more fierce there and she has a much better chance of winning the supporting role. So here we are. This award is still up in the air though. I don't see it going to Helena Bonham Carter (too small, overshadowed by male peers in her movie) or Jackie Weaver (movie too obscure and deliberately paced for voters), but Melissa Leo could easily take this award.
  • Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale in The Fighter. Not a total lock - Geoffrey Rush certainly has some buzz thanks to The King's Speech's momentum, but I'm guessing that won't be enough to overcome Bale's standard actor-friendly move: he drops a lot of weight, puts on a perfect accent and imitation of a real-life character. I think he's got it covered. Mark Ruffalo is certainly charismatic, but I think that was only enough to land the nomination, not the win. Similar forces at work for Renner. The real dark horse here would be John Hawkes (he would be my pick, if I were voting). I'm not sure if Winter's Bone has enough momentum to pull it off, but if it wins a major award, it will likely be this one. Incidentally, one non-nominated performance that could use some more attention: Matt Damon in True Grit.
  • Best Original Screenplay: The King's Speech by David Seidler. It's got the momentum. Even if it doesn't take Best Picture, I will likely win this one. It's even got a nice backstory. Seidler wanted to make this movie a long time ago, but he was asked politely by the freaking Queen of England to hold off. Seidler had a childhood stutter himself, and now he's one of the oldest nominees for this award ever. I think he's got it. I suppose there's an off chance that The Kids Are All Right or Inception will score here, but I think it's a long shot.
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: The Social Network by Aaron Sorkin. Maybe I'm too attached to this script, but I can't imagine any of the other nominees winning. True Grit certainly has its positives, but much of it is simply lifted from the novel. Toy Story 3 is awesome (incidentally, how is that "adapted"?), but its' going to win Best Animated, so it's safe to write it off here.
  • Editing: The Social Network. This is another award that often tracks with Best Picture, but in this case, I think Social Network will take it due to the non-linear narrative structure. The King's Speech could certainly win though, just based on momentum.
  • Cinematography: True Grit. Not much to say here. Roger Deakins is hard to beat.
  • Visual Effects: Inception. A kinda consolation prize for a movie that probably won't win anything but technical awards...
  • Musical Score: The Social Network. Partly because I want it to win, but still, I think it's got a good chance. That or The King's Speech will steamroll over everyone tonight.
  • Best Song: "We Belong Together" from Toy Story 3. I hate this category.
  • Makeup: The Wolfman. Really? That's the frontrunner? Why do I even bother picking this award?
  • Best Animated Film: Toy Story 3. Duh.
  • Best Documentary: Restrepo. Always a tough category, this year seems to be caught between two nominees: Restrepo, about soldiers in Afghanistan, and Inside Job, about the recent financial meltdown. Both are sufficiently political enough for the self-important Hollywood crowd, so it's hard to say where it will go. I'm betting war, but it could easily be financial. My personal pick would be Exit Through the Gift Shop, but I think too many Academy voters will hold it's questionable veracity against it (still, would be awesome to see how Banksy manages to accept the award).
  • Best Foreign Language Film: In a Better World. This category is usually a toss-up, due to the fact that most of us have not seen or heard of most nominees. From reading around, I get the impression that In a Better World has a lot of Academy-friendly elements. The only one I've seen is Dogtooth, which is decidedly not Academy-friendly (and also excellent, in a disturbing and hard-to-recommend way).
Well, there you have it. Check back later tonight for frequently updated commentary. See you soon!

Update 7:59 pm: Yeah, it's still Red Carpet torture time, so not much to say yet. Instead of watching this, I'm going to check out Alex's Oscar Roundup and maybe watch some of the Flyers Wives Fight For Lives. See you at 8:30, when the ceremony actually starts.

Update 8:27 pm: I'm looking forward to Source Code, though I'm getting a feeling from the commercial that just played that I'll have similar issues as I had with Duncan Jones' previous effort, Moon. Anyway, only 3 minutes to go. In anticipation of some sort of lame musical number, I'm going to crack open my first beer of the night. I'm starting off relatively tame tonight, with a fancy can of Dale's Pale Ale.

Update 8:30 pm: Hurm. The first montage of the night? Over/under is 8. I'm taking the over.

Update 8:33 pm: Great opening skit here. Much better than the lame musical number I'm still expecting later in the show. Love the accents when they're making fun of The Fighter. "The naked girl from Love and Other Drugs" Heh.

Update 8:37 pm: Is there any young actor that has turned their careers around as dramatically as James Franco? I can't think of any. Of course, like Devin Faraci, I Honestly Believe James Franco Could End Up Doing Porn. Not a bad start to the show though, decent monologue too. Fingers crossed for no musical numbers.

Update 8:39 pm: Oh, burn, "Marky Mark". He seems to be a good sport about it, but as someone named "Mark", I have to admit that it's really freakin annoying when people call me "Marky Mark". I imagine it's doubly so for, uh, the real Marky Mark.

Update 8:41 pm: Does that count as a montage? I mean, it's just from Gone With The Wind, but still. We'll make that a half-montage (bringing the count up to 1.5). And now, a Titanic quasi-montage. Make that 2 total montages.

Update 8:49 pm: Well, that didn't take long. I'm now a few minutes behind due to the magic of the DVR. I simply can't resist! Sorry about that. So I just saw that Alice in Wonderland won Art Direction. Nice job, I guess. Decent speech so far, but you know she's not going to be able to say anything because he's hogging the mic.

Update 8:53 pm: She didn't say anything? By choice? Who knows. Maybe she was drunk! Cinematography goes to... Inception! I'm 0 for 1, but I don't mind. And what the hell man, take your glasses off, don't put them on your forehead. Moron. Haha, he chastises the audience for clapping as they're "taking up his time"

Update 8:59 pm: Only three minutes behind now. Kirk Douglas takes the stage. I can never think of this guy without picturing his "prestige" moment in Path's of Glory. He's not sounding so great right now though. But he's right, Anne Hathaway is indeed gorgeous. Helena Bonham Carter just gave a look that she knows she's not going to win. Jackie Weaver looks very happy. Mellissa Leo looks nothing like her character. Supporting Actress award goes to... Jesus, I wish I had someone to hold my cane. He's really dragging this out. But I kinda like it. Melissa Leo wins! And I'm 0 for 2. Yay!

Update 9:01 pm: Kirk's minder from the mental clinic just ushered him off the stage. Heh. She's really speechless. Kinda nice to see that sort of thing, I guess. Holy shit, she just cursed. Awesome. Stupid delay caught it though. They seem to be giving everyone time to talk, moreso than usual. Nice politics at the end of the speech. Ok, come on, next award. Or montage. Or something.

Update 9:06 pm: I love Mila Kunis. Justin Timberlake is Banksy? Heh. Oh come on, who cares about Shrek anymore. Oh, look, I know the first animated short. Because they put it in front of Pixar movies. Timberlake is making fun of old man Douglas, and it's pretty hilarious. And the short that no one cares about wins.

Update 9:10 pm: So is that guy, like, 4 feet tall? Or is the guy standing next to him, like, 7 feet tall? He's tiny! Tall guy manages to get some words in as well, despite the music attempting to play him off. And best animated movie goes to: Toy Story 3. Duh. I'm 1 for 3!

Update 9:11 pm: He's talking like Toy Story 3 was a hard-sell or something. Weird.

Update 9:17 pm: Damn these quasi-montages. We're up to 2.5, I guess. Whoa with the white tuxes guys. Isn't Javier Bardem's accent quaint? Toy Story 3 being an adapted screenplay because it's based on the previous films seems strange to me. Adapted screenplay goes to Aaron Sorkin for the Social Network, because duh. Let's see if he says something good in his speech. It's so obvious that he wrote this speech ahead of time. Heheh. Oh man, they're really trying to get him off the stage. I blame old man Douglas!

Update 9:20 pm: The Figher is "Original"? Hehehe. Oscar for Original Screenplay goes to King's Speech. I'm now 3 for 5. Don't call it a comeback! Great speech so far though. "Late bloomer" indeed, oldest person to win this award. Probably also a prepared speech, but it's.. more natural. And he's already being ushered off stage. And he mentions the F word, heeheh. Nice. I can't believe King's Speech was rated R.

Update 9:22 pm: And I'm finally caught up to real time again. Since it's still a commercial, I'll just say that this Dale's Pale Ale is pretty awesome for what it is. I could drink the entire 6 pack tonight, I think...

Update 9:26 pm: Oh mother fucker! Musical number. "Hugh Jackass" ok, that's kinda funny I guess. Anne Hathaway is very talented, I just can't stand musical numbers. And what the hell, Jackman is apparently right there in the audience. Nice, James Franco is in a dress and "just got a text message from Charlie Sheen." I know you thought I was kidding about the Franco doing porn thing earlier, but now? Not so much, right? Seems very possible.

Update 9:28 pm: Is it me, or is the pre-award banter better this year than in previous years. Best Foreign picture goes to In a Better World, and I'm now 4 for 6. Score. She seems overwhelmed, but not as much as Melissa Leo! And she's very gracious and classy, but boring.

Update 9:31 pm: There's Christian Bale, rockin the crazy-man beard. It suits him, I think.

Update 9:33 pm: Christian Bale wins! I think he might actually be drunk. I know I joke about that sometimes, but seriously, he seems drunk. Or maybe that's just him. He's not embarrassing himself though, and even seems to have a sense of humor about his reputation. Decent speech. I wonder how Marky Mark feels about not being nominated. He's one of the few people not nominated for that movie (not that he deserves to be, but still).

Update 9:37 pm: This was a few minutes ago, but I can't get over seeing Geoffrey Rush with a shaved head. It's so... I don't know what to make of that. It doesn't look right. On an unrelated note, I love how JJ Abrams feels no need to tell people what his movies are actually about. I am looking forward to Super 8 mostly because I have no idea what it's about (I gather it's some sort of Area 51 SF/Action thing, but I'm not sure).

Update 9:38 pm: Holy shit, the President of the Academy! Run! Save yourselves!

Update 9:44 pm: They were only on for, like 10 seconds, but they're like a black hole of boringness. It's like someone scratching the record player. And another montage, this one less quasi- than the others, so I'm putting us up to 3.5 on the Montage count. Man, weird, it's a musical montage too. Still counting it as one full montage. Winner for best musical score goes to: Trentie-poo and Atticus Ross for The Social Network. I'm 6 for 8, a much better showing than I started with. And Trent and Atticus both give a nice, measured speech. Good job fellas, I really like your soundtrack.

Update 9:46 pm: Remember what I said about the pre-award banter being good? Yeah, forget that. Interminable. Sound goes to Inception. Racking up the technical awards, Inception is. Writing like Yoda speaks, I am.

Update 9:48 pm: Wait, didn't we just do sound editing? Well, the Oscar goes to Inception. Again. Good job guys. Next award please.

Update 9:56 pm: Marissa Tomei gets the thankless task of talking about the scientific awards that no one cares about. I would probably find them mildly interesting though. Ohh, burn. "Congratulations Nerds!"

Update 9:57 pm: What the hell is Cate Blanchett wearing? Why do I even bother to pick makeup? But I was right, The Wolfman wins! "Gross" as Blanchett says. Rick Baker is a master though. I'm 7 for 9. Doing pretty good now! Classy move letting the other winner talk. "It was always my ambition to lose an Oscar to Rick Baker. Hehehe"

Update 9:59 pm: Alice in Wonderland wins best costumes. I didn't realize that anything in that movie was actually real. Ohhh, she's got a cheat sheet! And she's... reading right off it. Um, huh. Lame. Can, uh, someone usher her off stage. Ah, here comes the music. Actually thankful for that this time.

Update 10:03 pm: Montage 4.5. OBAMA! YEAHHHHH! OBAMA! LET'S BURN THIS MOTHERFUCKER DOWN! OBAMA! He's a good president because he likes movies and I can relate to him! Kevin Spacy: moron. Oh shit, an actual musical performance. Shit, shit, shit. I thought we got rid of this last year. Shit.

Update 10:05 pm: Oh fuck, they're doing all the songs now. I'm getting another beer. Maybe something stronger than a Dale's Pale is appropriate now. If anyone from work is reading this, I apologize in advance for tomorrow. It's not my fault though. Stupid Oscar musical performances. At least they're all together now.

Update 10:09 pm: Or maybe not. They only did 2 of them. Does that mean we have to suffer through 3 more? Can't we just give the award to Randy Newman like we always do and be done with it? Incidentally, I didn't mention it earlier, but this year had several really awesome music scores. The Social Network was certainly a deserving winner, but Inception had a great one, as did Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and even Tron: Legacy. But I guess we can't have Trent Reznor doing a live show at the Oscars, though I wouldn't mind seeing that. Of course, he's all older and boring now. AHHHHHHH. Stella Artois commercial. Sorry.

Update 10:13 pm: "Shorts are the hardest categories to pick on your home oscar ballot" because no one gives a fuck, Jake. No one gives a fuck. Sorry, that came off sounding kinda angry. And the winner is... Who cares? Next award please.

Update 10:14 pm: She's posing like the Incredible Hulk. Look at those muscles!

Update 10:16 pm: "Shoulda got a haircut." Hehehe. Alright, you redeemed me having to sit through the shorts awards. Guy is funny, even giving the straightforward thanks that he does. Nice.

Update 10:18 pm: What the hell? Auto-tune!? Wasn't that overplayed, like, years ago? Does this count as a montage? Yeah, definitely. 5.5 montages so far tonight. A million dollars isn't cool. You know what's cool? An OSCAR, bitch!


Update 10:22 pm: Why do all documentaries have to be so activisty. Oscar goes to Inside Job, and I'm 8 for 10. Go me. Still would have liked to have seen Banksy attempt some sort of acceptance speech. Ah this guy seems like a big douche. "Forgive me, I'm going to make a boring, trite political statement." Eh, not that bad, he seemed to pull his punches a bit. If you're going to do it, go whole hog. Scream or something.

Update 10:26 pm: Shocking, Billy Crystal is still alive. Of course, his career isn't! Ba-dum-tsshhh.

Update 10:29 pm: MONTAGE! 6.5. This is a montage that isn't even about movies though, it's Bob Hope highlights from hosting the Oscars. Haven't we already done this before? We have to have had a Bob Hope montage before.

Update 10:33 pm: FIGHT! FIGHT! Did Hereafter actually happen? That's a movie that just disappeared off the face of the planet, isn't it? Inception wins best Visual Effects. Score, I'm 9 for 11. Jesus, there's like five million different people that worked on the visual effects for this movie.

Update 10:35 pm: Film editing goes to Social Network and now I'm 10 for 12. Sweet. Nice hug, and nice reference - "We wanna thank everyone that Aaron thanked..." Haha - Oh, and thanks to the academy! Please don't ruin me because I didn't thank you!

Update 10:40 pm: So this Weyerbacher Merry Monks beer says it's a Tripel, but it doesn't really taste like a tripel. A little too peppery and boozy. Not bad, though. "How to Train Your Dragon, that's disgusting" Hehehe. "Winters Bone." Haha.

Update 10:42 pm: Oh shit, more musical performances. Kill me now.

Update 10:44pm: This beer is 9.3% ABV, and it's still not enough to put up with this music. GAHHH.

Update 10:48 pm: And the Oscar goes to Randy Newman for Toy Story 3. Like I said we should do, like, an hour ago. Did we really need to suffer through all those other nominees? Yeah, right, you're surprised. I'm 11 for 13. Thank God this award is over. Oh shut up Randy, 4 songs is too much. It's bad enough that we have to listen to your stupid song!

Update 10:52 pm: Holy shit, is that Celine Dion? I thought we were done with the music. Gaahh. Run! Run for your lives! She will devour us all!

Update 10:53 pm: Yay dead people! Hello Sally! And don't call me Shirly.

Update 10:57 pm: That was montage #7.5, and here comes #8.5, for Lena Horn.

Update 11:05 pm: Last year, we awarded the Best Director award to a Woman for the first time. This year, we didn't even bother nominating one. Holy shit, Tom Hooper wins, pretty much guaranteeing a Best Picture win for The King's Speech. David Fincher mus be pissed, but he seems to be clapping and happy about it. Class act. And Hooper is at least very kind to his competition. "Triangle of man-love." Ok. I'm 11 for 14, dammit.

Update 11:08 pm: The moral of the story is "Listen to your Mother." Right on. Lifetime achievement awards have apparently been relegated to a separate event, like the nerd awards (i.e. the technical awards). Why? They're much cooler than, for example, the short film awards.

Update 11:11 pm: What are the odds that Anne Hathaway and James Franco are going to knock boots after the ceremony tonight?

Update 11:13 pm: Oh man, I know this is a major award, but they're really drawing it out, aren't they?

Update 11:16 pm: Natalie Portman wins! Crowd is really into it... I'm 12 for 15. And she's crying. Just like her role! Thank Mila Kunis for the lesbian kiss scene, thank Mila Kunis for the lesbian kiss scene, thank Mila Kunis for the lesbian kiss scene, thank Mila Kunis for the lesbian kiss scene, thank Mila Kunis for the lesbian kiss scene, thank Mila Kunis for the lesbian kiss scene. Dammit. She didn't thank Mila Kunis for the lesbian kiss scene. Classy move thanking people with thankless roles though.

Update 11:19 pm: "Flub, drink at home" Don't mind if I do!

Update 11:26 pm: I like the way the're doing the big awards better this year than they did the past few years. Surprising amount of applause for Jesse Eisenberg here... But come on, who are we kidding, this is going to Colin Firth, and probably deservedly so. I do think I might have voted for James Franco for this one, but I really can't fault anyone for voting for Colin Firth. And, of course, he wins. 13 for 16, I am. Talking like Yoda again, I am. "I have a feeling my career has just peaked" Hehehe. And a nice, solid, classy, British, dryly funny acceptance speech.

Update 11:32 pm: Man, they're playing the King's Speech over the other nominees. Foreshadowing? Thanks a lot. Does this count as a montage? Probably not. But still.

Update 11:37 pm: I seem to have truly screwed up my award count. Not only did I wrongly think I picked one correctly, but I seem to have missed an award somewhere. But best picture goes to: big surprise: The King's Speech. 13 for 17, I am.

Update 11:37 pm: 13 for 17 works out to around 76 percent, which is pretty decent, though maybe a hair below recent years. Oh well. Overall, a pretty good show. Haha, dude is getting played off by music, good on him for asserting himself. Well, that pretty much wraps up the show, only about 10 minutes over schedule. Not bad, Oscar folk. Wow, Anne Hathaway's new dress really emphasizing... uh, nevermind. Shit, it ends on a musical number. Fuck. This is my last update. Have a good night folks. It's been real.

Update 11:43 pm: Haha, they were just playing music from Top Gun. Yeah, so I lied, wanna fight about it? But seriously, this one is my last update. Probably.
Posted by Mark on February 27, 2011 at 12:27 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Link Dump & Notes
Just some interesting links and some notes about upcoming posts and whatnot:
  • First, an announcement! The Oscars are this Sunday, and in accordance with tradition, I will be liveblogging the event, as I have for the past 7 years (!) Feel free to stop by and leave some comments! Previous installments here: [2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004]
  • An update on Game Dev Story! I've finally figured out how to hire a "Hardware Engineer" and thus was able to create my own console. Well, I found this DIY Gamer page, which explains it:
    Perhaps the biggest secret in Game Dev Story, bagging a hardware engineer is simple - if expensive - stuff. The idea is to level up one of your staff to the max in every type of role. This can be done with a combination of development points and Career Change Manuals (from the salesman). Level your chosen character up to level 5 in whatever role they’re in, then use the Career Change Manual to swap their job to something they aren’t already level 5 in.

    Level them up to level 5 in this role, then repeat until they are level 5 in every available role. Now use the Career Change Manual on them once more, and the Hardware Engineer role will now be available for selection. Choose this, and you’ll then be able to develop your own console.
    Sweet. Of course, I'm now paying this person almost $2 million a year in salary, but hey, I got to create a console. And according to my records, my company has over $1 billion in reserve, so I should be all right (this is what happens when you sell 30-40 million units of each game). I still think there's a lot of room in this concept for a deeper dive into some of these details (for instance, shouldn't I get licensing fees from other developers who want to release games on my console? How about competition with other consoles? And so on...) but for a game that cost $0.99, I've had a blast.
  • The Boy Who Stole Half-Life 2 - I never heard of this until now, but it's an interesting story of some kid who stole the source code to Half-Life 2 before it was released. Very interesting stuff.
  • Black Widow Gone Wild - Heh.
  • Here Be Dragons: Governing a Technologically Uncertain Future 10 - An interview with Neal Stephenson on an earlier panel he participated in and the article he wrote (that I posted) a while back on the history of rocket technology. Some interesting stuff here, but it really just makes me want to read his new book (still no word on when that will be coming out, short of "2011" which is, uh, now).
That's all for now. Look for my Oscar picks early on Sunday. Updates after that will most likely begin when the show does (I really hate the damn red carpet crap, but sometimes I'm on a bit early anyway).
Posted by Mark on February 23, 2011 at 07:00 PM .: link :.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Best Films of 2010
2010 was a really strange year for movies, though in the end, I don't think it's as bad as a lot of people are saying. I think this has to do with the bad first impression made by the abysmal first half of the year. It wasn't until the middle of the year that things began to turn around for me and by the end of the year, things were looking up. Indeed, many of my favorites turned out to have been released in that first half of the year, just with limited distribution. As I caught up with some of the smaller films from earlier in the year, I managed to fill out most of the below list.

As of right now, I've seen 81 movies that would qualify as a 2010 release (with the usual borderline 2009 releases that don't make it to my market or DVD until 2010 - usually foreign films). It turns out that this is something of a record for me, though I have to admit that around 50 of those have been watched since November (previous years were generally more spread out through the year) and mostly on DVD or Netflix Watch Instantly. Anyway, this is probably way more than most ordinary folks, but also less than most critics. I had no problem putting together a top 8, but those last two slots were really difficult to fill. Not because I couldn't find a good film to put there, but because there were too many films that I could put there. Many of the Honorable Mentions could easily fit in those last two slots (the first two listed below).

The other thing I found really interesting about this year is how thematically similar a lot of films were. I actually mentioned this in a recent book review:
One of the themes of 2010 cinema has been a question of reality. Is what we're watching real? Or is it a fabrication? Or perhaps some twisted combination of the two? Interestingly, this theme can be found in the outright fictional (films like Inception certainly induce questions of reality), the ostensibly true story that is notably and obviously fictionalized (a la The Social Network), and most interestingly of all, the documentary. Films like Catfish and Exit Through the Gift Shop are certainly presented as fact, though many questions have arisen about their verisimilitude. Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck collaborated on I'm Still Here, a supposed documentary about Phoenix's strange transition from a well known actor to a crazy aspiring rapper that Phoenix and Affleck have since admitted was something of a hoax (I have not seen the film, but from what I can see, many of the events certainly did happen, even if they were manufactured). In most cases, audiences don't seem to mind the blurring of reality with fiction (this includes myself), so long as that blurring is made clear (that may sound paradoxical, but it is perhaps better understood as the main component of the Reflexive Documentary: movies that acknowledge the biases of the filmmakers and the subjectivity of the material at hand are more trustworthy than movies that claim objectivity). Indeed, one could probably make a case for the presence of fiction in most non-fiction stories. Bias, subjectivity, and context can yield dramatically different results depending on how they're portrayed.
And there are even some other themes that people have been noticing this year (i.e. strong female leads, interesting Mother characters, etc...) This sort of consistency doesn't seem to be present in the past few years, and I found that interesting. Ultimately, I think 2010 has got a bad rap. It's certainly not one of the best years in recent memory, but as usual, I've managed to find a lot of stuff to like.

As always, I should note that this list is inherently subjective and of course most people will find something to gripe about. So be it. One thing I've found interesting in the past few years of doing this list is that I've gravitated away from trying to put together a list of the best films, instead favoring my favorite films. What I'm ending up with is a mixture of both components here and it's a tricky line to walk, but I think it ultimately makes for a more interesting list. So without further ado:

Top 10 Movies of 2010
* In roughly reverse order
  • Triangle: The most notable feature of this film is the strange, elliptical plot that amazingly manages to write itself out of several corners, leading to a consistently surprising viewing. The less said about this, the better. This is arguably the least deserving of a top 10 slot, but I'm including it due to it's obscurity and the fact that the film worked really well for me. Fans of Kaedrin favorite Timecrimes would probably also like this movie, as the two are similar.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Winner of 1 Kaedrin Movie Award]
  • The King's Speech: The stench of Oscar-bait initially turned me off, but I gave it a shot anyway, and was very glad that I did so. Fantastic central performances by Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, and Geoffrey Rush, and a witty script elevates this film beyond typical indie Oscar bait (though there is maybe one or two groaners in that respect, it was much less than I was expecting). Like most Americans, I don't really get the Monarchy, but I find myself with this sneaking curiosity and awe of the institution, and I find movies like this one scratch that itch.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Capsule Review]
  • Kick Ass: Violent, funny, aggressively juvenile, and an absolute blast to watch. I suppose you could argue that this film is trying to have it's cake and eat it too, but honestly, I think it actually succeeds in that respect. There's a sorta self-deprecating nature to the film that I find works really well. Plus, it, well, kicks ass. It also features one of the biggest badasses in recent cinema, Hit Girl (played excellently by newcomer Chloe Moretz). It's maybe a bit unfocused, but still a very good film.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Winner of 2 Kaedrin Movie Awards]
  • A Prophet: There's a common trope among ganster movies where the protagonist goes from rags-to-riches via a corruption of innocence, and this movie certainly qualifies. However, setting the story inside a prison is an interesting juxtaposition of the usual cliche. It's a long movie, and it even feels like a long movie, but that is a curiously good thing in the case of this movie. It's not an especially pleasant movie, but it's engaging in a way that most unpleasant movies are not. A nominee for the best Foreign Picture Oscar last year, it wasn't released in the US until this year (and personally, I think it should have won the Oscar).
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • Toy Story 3: Pure, unadulterated fun. Another sublime effort from Pixar and a wonderful sequel (two words that almost never go together) to a great series of films (that being said, I hope this is the last). I really don't have much else to say about it (that would fit in this context) so I'll just leave it at that.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Winner of 1 Kaedrin Movie Award]
  • True Grit: The Coen Brothers' take on the classical Western, I found it very refreshing to just watch a solid Western without having to bother with all the revisionist traditions that most Westerns these days seem to embrace. Great performances by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, the always excellent Jeff Bridges, and the underrated Matt Damon (I'd vote for him as a best supporting actor here), and of course the Coens are always excellent.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Capsule Review]
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: I have not read the book this was adapted from, but I enjoyed this movie immensely (except, of course, for the scenes I wasn't supposed to enjoy, of which there are a few). A great lead character in Lisbeth Salandar (an excellent performance by Noomi Rapace) and a well executed mystery immediately propelled this movie out of the early year dregs. I was especially impressed with the deftly executed relationship between Salandar and Blomkvist (something that was sorely lacking in the two sequels). It might get a bit too intense at times, but it worked really well for me.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Full Review]
  • The Social Network: A film I initially felt was doomed to become a boring failure. As you might imagine, going into the film with such low expectations lead to a surprisingly fun moviegoing experience and this quickly became one of my favorites of the year. Excellent performances all around, Aaron Sorkin's witty script and crackling dialogue, Trent Reznor's perfect score, and Fincher tying it all together perfectly. Unfortunately, this one is receiving a bit of backlash as a lot of people are now seeing it with much higher expectations and coming away disappointed. But it remains one of my favorites of the year.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Full Review] [Winner of 1 Kaedrin Movie Award]
  • Exit Through the Gift Shop: Intriguing documentary ostensibly about street art and one of its most mysterious figures, Banksy. But it's ultimately a much deeper film about the nature of the art community and the reality that art attempts to represent. There's lots of great footage of street artists and an unexpected look at the man behind the camera. This film is probably the poster child for the year's theme of "is it real?" movies. Ultimately, of course, those questions don't matter, as it's a good story in any case. It didn't go where I expected, but I loved where it went. It's a great film and it raises a lot of really fascinating questions.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Capsule Review] [Winner of 1 Kaedrin Movie Award]
  • Inception: This is the movie that turned 2010 around for me. An interesting premise, intricate plotting, and internally consistent mechanics lead to that "sense of wonder" feeling that most filmic science fiction is sorely missing. The film features solid performances all around, and the visuals are well done, but the strength of Christopher Nolan, in my mind, has always been story and editing (and in this particular case, the way Nolan weaves music into the film to reinforce the story is also noteworthy). It's a brilliant film.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Full Review] [Winner of 1 Kaedrin Movie Award]
Honorable Mention
* In alphabetical order
  • 127 Hours: A surprisingly effective lead performance, a script that makes good use of a single location and Danny Boyle's kinetic direction lead to a very well executed film. That this movie is watcheable at all is especially noteworthy given that most of the audience already knows what's going to happen. It may even have been a bit too hyper or too on-the-nose, but it was still a very good movie.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • Animal Kingdom: Not especially well paced, but an otherwise engaging tale of a family of bank robbers and their feud with the local police. It features an excellent, Oscar-nominated performance from by Jacki Weaver as the Matriarch of the family. Also notable for featuring a teenager that actually acts like a teenager (i.e. he's generally an idiot) and not a precocious mastermind who outsmarts everyone. Again, a bit too slow moving and some unpleasant subject matter, but a decent film.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • The Art of the Steal: Thought provoking documentary about the Barnes art collection, and how various political powers maneuvered to relocate the art from its longtime home in Lower Merion to downtown Philadelphia (despite the clear wishes laid out in Barnes' will). Unapologetically one-sided, but still a fascinating documentary and well worth a watch. Another film that came very close to nabbing the last slot in the top 10.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [Capsule Review]
  • Black Swan: The younger sister to director Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, the two films share a lot of similarities. Unfortunately, both are similarly flawed as well, especially when it comes to the script. Standout performances from the two female leads, Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, wonderful visuals from Aronofsky, but ultimately sunk by clunky dialogue and other script issues. Still, a very interesting effort from all involved, and well worth a watch.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Full Review]
  • Blood Into Wine: Interesting and slickly made documentary about wine makers in Arizona with a focus on a winery owned by Tool front-man Maynard James Keenan. An interesting look at the wine world from an outsider's unusual perspective. There are a few bits that fall flat, but it's quite an enjoyable watch.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • Catfish: Another intersting documentary, and another of the poster-children for the year's "Is it real?" theme. The less said about the plot the better, but I will say that it made an excellent double-feature with The Social Network (see "Full Review" link below for more).
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Full Review]
  • The Disappearance of Alice Creed: A brutal but effective tale of a kidnapping gone wrong, with the twist being that it's told entirely from the kidnapper's perspective. A few unexpected twists and turns and a claustrophobic setting lend this one a pretty somber atmosphere, but overall, I thought it was very well done. Another candidate for that last slot on the top 10.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • Dogtooth: Profoundly disturbing and weird, but surprisingly not that difficult to watch. There's an unexpected strain of humor through the whole thing (in particular, I love the Jaws reenactment) and while it is quite distressing from a conceptual perspective, it also raises a lot of interesting questions about parenting and reality (there's that theme again). I couldn't quite bring myself to put it in the top 10, but I have a feeling that this one will stick with me for a while.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • Easy A: This breezy, clever and fun modern-day updating of The Scarlet Letter was a lot better than I expected it to be, primarily due to the lead performance by Emma Stone (and her quirky family). It was a welcome relief from the emotionally draining end-of-the-year fare, though not exactly top 10 material (for me, at least).
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • The Last Exorcism: Surprisingly effective mock documentary about exorcism (certainly the best film to cover that subject in the past several years). It's not quite strong enough to make the top 10 (I had some particular reservations about the ending), but it's a lot better than the marketing for the film would have you believe.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • Machete: I'm still not convinced that this movie actually needed to be made, but I have to admit that I had a lot of grindhouse-erific fun with the film. The mixture of political polemic (something I generally hate in my films) with trashy violence and sex actually struck me as working well (much better than either component alone in the film would). Gloriously over-the-top trashy fun.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Capsule Review]
  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: It's funny and visually spectacular, but I found the ending to be a bit lacking. Even then, this was one of the many movies vying for the coveted 10th slot in the top 10, and it was neck and neck with the films that made it on the list. It's a really solid movie though, and well worth watching.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Winner of 2 Kaedrin Movie Awards]
  • The Secret in Their Eyes: Technically the winner of last year's Foreign Picture Oscar, this didn't get a release until this year. Foreign Picture winners tend to make a good showing on my top 10s, but this year, I found that A Prophet was more compelling than this film, which is very good, to be sure (and which was another film under consideration for that last slot on the list). However, I found the film a bit unfocused and maybe even a bit sloppy. Sometimes that can work, but not in this case. Nevertheless, a fine film and worthy of a watch.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Capsule Review]
  • Winter's Bone: I go back and forth on this film. Sometimes I love it and sometimes I'm kinda "meh" about it. It certainly moves at a glacial pace, but it features lots of good performances, a stark and unusual (but welcome) setting, and a simple but effective story. I can see why it's a critics' darling, but I can also see why it wasn't exactly a mainstream success. If you're fond of slow moving drama/thrillers, it's certainly worth a watch.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Full Review]
Just Missed the Cut:
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order: Should Have Seen:
Despite the fact that I've seen 81 of this year's movies (and that this post features 30+ of my favorites), there were a few that got away... mostly due to limited releases, though a few of the flicks listed below didn't interest me as much when they were released as they did when I heard more about them. Well that just about wraps up 2010 movies... Stay tuned next Sunday for the usual Oscar Liveblogging - previous installments here: [2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004]
Posted by Mark on February 20, 2011 at 06:27 PM .: link :.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Game Dev Story
I mentioned last week that I've been playing an iPhone game called Game Dev Story. It's a simple game, but it can get very addictive. The premise is basically that you are the head of a new video game studio. You hire people and direct them into making various games, which are then released. You get updates on your fans, you can track your sales, and so on.

The process of game development is rather straightforward. You don't really direct the actual content of the game, except for certain high level components (i.e. I'm making a Ninja themed Action RPG!) At various times in the development process, you choose one of your employees (or you outsource) to hack one particular aspect of the game, whether that be fun, creativity, graphics, or sound. In a lot of ways, this is a passive process. But the way you watch this stuff is addictive. You typically see your employee sitting at a computer banging away at the keyboard and these little icons pop out and start to accumulate. You can also spend some extra research on other boosts along the same lines. You can feed your employees Red Bull until they fall down and start hallucinating.

There are a number of things I find fascinating about this game:
  • There's this weirdly twisted version of video game console history. Of course they don't use real names, but it's not hard to see that Intendro is supposed to be Nintendo. Furthermore, you see the entire history of video games from the early 80s onward (I just got to the point where the Wii-like "Whoops" has been released). Most of the companies are there: Senga, Sonny, Microx 480, etc... It's not an exact history, but it's close enough to be funny and interesting.
  • The neatest thing about the game is how it turns the tables on me, a person who is normally playing games and even occasionally reviewing/criticizing them. This is mostly a big deal at the beginning of the game, when you don't have much money or resources, etc... For example, you make a game, and one of the first things that happens once you release it is that 4 critics give it a rating on a 10 point scale. Since you don't have much money or talent at the beginning of the game, they're typically pretty hard on your games. It's pretty funny, especially when you get some 6s and 7s, and then some asshole gives you a 2. Fuck that! Later in the game, I have a lot more money and was able to hire better folks, so the critics typically rate my games pretty high. Even then, though, you get the three people who will rate a game a 10, and then the one jerk who rates it an 8 (and to make matters even worse, that guy will say it's "The best game of the year!" What the hell man? Wouldn't the best game of the year be at least a 9?)
  • Every once in a while, you'll get some letters from a fan. I got one once that said something to the effect of "I borrowed Monkey Wars 3 from my friend and I loved it and am going to recommend it to all my friends!" Borrowed? Fuck you buddy! If you liked the game so much, why didn't you just buy it yourself?! Hmmm! I'm a little surprised that they didn't take a swipe at the whole "Used Games" market, which is apparently quite the controversial issue with publishers and retailers. Still, it's funny to be on the other end of the spectrum and it makes me feel a little for those who develop games for a living.
  • There are these game awards every year, and you can win an award for best graphics, best sound, runner up, and best game of the year (also worst game, but I think you'd have to try hard to get that one). I have no idea what it takes to actually win the best game award - I had one game that scored a perfect 40 points from critics, sold a boatload, and it only won the runner up award. Gah!
  • There are some random disasters that can happen. Another developer could put out a similar game, which can decrease sales. You can have a power outage, which decreases the stats of the game you're working on, sometimes significantly. I got hit by a couple of these things once, and the game I was working on would have done really poorly, so I canceled the project. Obviously this is a bad thing, but then some ungrateful bastard sends me some "fan mail" where he tells me that since I can only release 2 games this year, he's never going to buy my games again, then my fans drop by 30% (this seemed like a pretty big deal at the time, though who knows, the next game I released sold a ton).
I don't mean to imply that by playing this game, I know what it's like to be a developer, but if you're so inclined, it does provide you with an opportunity to think about video games from a developer's perspective, and it's an interesting experience.

Ultimately, it's a pretty simple game. At this point, I've developed 45 or so games, and everything I make now is a smash hit. The one additional wrinkle that I have yet to figure out is that I can apparently develop a console (and then presumably games for the console, etc...) However, I can't seem to find any "Hardware Engineers"... I assume they'll become available later or something. It's a really fun game. I suppose there's some room for improvement here - it could be a bit deeper and more varied, but it's still good. I don't play a lot of iPhone games, but this one makes me think I should try more out.
Posted by Mark on February 17, 2011 at 06:29 PM .: link :.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Adventures in Brewing - Beer #2: Electric Boogaloo
I learned a lot during the course of my first homebrew attempt a few months ago, and after the hectic holiday season and beginning of the year, I resolved to put my learnings into practice this weekend. My first homebrew was a straightforward English Brown Ale. I don't think there was anything wrong with the beer, and it's certainly drinkable, but it's also a bit too simple and the taste ends up a bit thin. Again, not bad, but not very complex or interesting either. But then, that was kinda the plan. It was my first beer, so I wasn't expecting much out of it.

But I wanted to try something a little more ambitious for my second attempt and after browsing the recipes at High Gravity, I settled on a Belgian Style Tripel - one modeled after the Trappist Westmalle Tripel (one of my favorite beers).

Brew #2 - Belgian Style Tripel
February 13, 2011

10.5 lb. Montons Light LME
2 lb. Weyermann Pilsner Malt (grains)
4 oz. Melanoidin (grains)
1 lb. Belgian Light Candi Sugar
1.5 oz. Styrian Goldings pellet hops (bittering)
0.25 oz. Hallertau Herbrucker hops (flavor)
0.25 oz. Tettnanger German hops (flavor)
0.5 oz. Czech Saaz pellet hops (Finishing)
1 tsp. Irish Moss
White Labs Trappist Ale Yeast WLP500

Steeped Weyermann Pilsner Malt and Melanoidin in about 2.5 gallons filtered tap water at around 150°F for 20 minutes. Unlike last time, I started this batch with warm water, which saved a bunch of time in getting to 150°F (also, I wasn't afraid to crank the stovetop to it's highest setting). Removed grain bag slowly, letting letting whatever water was left in there drain out. Per instructions, I added a little more water, removed from heat, and added about half of the Light LME and all of the candi sugar. I stirred vigorously, as I was afraid the candi sugar would stick to the bottom. After a few minutes, all appeared well, at which point I threw it back on high heat, eventually bringing to a boil (in the future, I need to figure out a better way to do this - my stovetop is clearly not up to the challenge - it took around 45 minutes to bring the mixture to a boil). The ingredient kit I bought came with another muslin bag (i.e. a thin netting) for hops, so I put the hops in the bag, then put the bag in the boiling wort. Kept at a small rolling boil for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the hops didn't just float to one side of the pot. Added flavoring hops. Directions say to add to existing hop bag, but I just threw them in directly, along with the Irish Moss. 10 minutes of that, and I added the remaining LME. I also threw in the finishing hops, and removed from heat. A few minutes later, I removed the hop bag and placed pot in my sink (which was filled with some cold water and some ice) to quickly cool. I was a little more prepared with ice this time, but cooling the wort continues to be a bit of an issue. Got the wort down to manageable temperature and poured it into my fermentation bucket (attempting to remove sediment with a controlled pour through a sanitized strainer). Added some extra water to the bucket to bring up the 5 gallon mark, pouring from high up to aerate the wort. Stirred things around some more, again attempting to aerate the wort, and took an original gravity reading. For such a high OG, I probably should have done a yeast starter, but I didn't have any extra DME laying around, so I figured I could just use the yeast as packaged. The packaging says the yeast is best before April 15, 2011, so I'm definitely ok there, though I'm not sure when the yeast was packaged in the first place. Pitched yeast, stirred a bit, threw the cap on, and installed the airlock. Done!

Original Gravity: 1.085 (approximate). This is a little less than what the recipe says (1.088), but I also have a hard time reading the hydrometer, so I'm guessing it's good enough for the start.

Well, it looks like I cut off about 30-60 minutes from the process - it only took about 2.5-3 hours this time. Plus, I was a little more comfortable walking away from the stove and doing other stuff while (for example) the boil started, so it wasn't quite as draining of an experience. The only thing I'm worried about now is keeping the temperature of the fermenting wort at around 70°F (this is apparently the temperature at which the yeast works best). My house tends to be in the mid 60°s F during the winter though, so maybe I'll need to break out the space heater and make sure my closet is at a better temperature or something.

I'm already planning out my next batch, which If I start a couple weeks after I bottle this batch, should put me in a good timeframe to consider a summer brew. Perhaps a Saison or a wheat beer....

Update 3/6/11: Bottled!

(Cross posted at Kaedrin Beer Blog)
Posted by Mark on February 13, 2011 at 03:21 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Link Dump
Time is short, so just a few things I've found interesting lately:
  • Star Wars Fan Documentaries: I realize that the phrase "fan documentary" probably made you throw up a little in your mouth, but these amazingly comprehensive movies are actually quite well done. They're built on top of the base of the Star Wars movies themselves, but they feature all sorts of production notes, commentary from cast/crew, and are even sometimes re-cut with alternate takes, deleted scenes, concept art, and original audio. Creator Jambe Davdar must have spent years pouring through Star Wars minutiae to put this together. I haven't watched all of the videos (there's a lot of them), but so far, it's great stuff.
  • The Most Ridiculous Thing that writer/artist Dan McDaid has ever drawn. It's also pretty awesome.
  • Game Dev Story - An iPhone video game about... well, making video games. A meta video game, if you will. I don't play a lot of iPhone games, but I heard the guys talking about it on Rebel FM a few weeks ago and it was only $0.99 so I figured I'd give it a try. It's kinda addictive, despite the fact that the critics never rate my games well.
  • Space Stasis - I haven't read this yet, but it's an article by Neal Stephenson, so I'm looking forward to it (apparently a new novel is coming this year as well, though the news has been suspiciously quiet about that so far).
  • MST3k says: Packers win the Super Bowl! - They somehow knew!
That's all for now!
Posted by Mark on February 09, 2011 at 10:59 PM .: link :.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

The Video Game Sequel Problem
Astute readers may have noticed that my blogging about video games has slowed considerably. I haven't written anything about video games since late-November, and that was a tasting notes post that only touched on what I was playing. The last real video game post was from August, and that was a review of a book about video games. The last post where I focused on an actual game was in May (for Killzone 2)! As you might guess, I haven't been playing much in the way of video games.

Looking at my collection, I can narrow this down to when I started playing Grand Theft Auto 4. I think there were several factors that kept me from getting into that game. Of course, one is a standard complaint this generation, which is the way missions are structured from a usability perspective (i.e. if you fail a mission, you have to retrace several steps before you can even retry). I realize that this was one of the first games of this generation and they've apparently implemented a checkpoint system in the DLC (which I don't have), so I guess I can cut it some slack in that respect, but that doesn't make it fun to play. However, the biggest problems I had with the game are things that are endemic to a lot of video game sequels.

When you start the game, you've got very little in the way of weaponry and it takes you a while to get to an even reasonably powerful weapon. Your access to the city is very limited, as are the cars you can steal. Now, starting small and earning more powerful weapons is a time-honored video game tradition, as is the expansion of access as you gain more power. But is it really necessary for GTA 4? In most respects, this game is the same as GTA 3 (this is, in itself, another problem, though not one I'm going to focus much on in this post), which was made almost a decade ago at this point (of course, GTA 4 was made a few years ago, but still). Though you can't tell from the numbering, there have actually been several games between those two mentioned. And every one of them starts you off with limited weapons and limited access to the city. Is that really necessary?

It's a tricky problem though. Someone who's new to the series might very well appreciate the slow approach. There are a lot of mechanics to master in the game, so jumping right in might be overwhelming to a new player. But for long-time fans of the series, it can be excruciating to go through the paces yet again. This is most certainly not a problem that is limited to the GTA series.

One particularly egregious example is in the God of War series. The protagonist of the series, Kratos, has these nifty blades that are attached to chains, allowing him to swing them around in many acrobatic maneuvers. In the first game, they're called the "Blades of Chaos". Towards the beginning of GoW II, you get an "upgrade" to the "Blades of Athena". Despite being nearly identical in appearance and functionality, you suddenly forget all of the advanced attacks you had learned on the "Blades of Chaos". Really? So Kratos gets a pair of identical blades, but now he forgets how to spin around with them (I believe this move is called the "Cyclone of Chaos")? And starting the player off with all the powers from the previous game, only to take them away because of a lame plot point? That's not cool. The same thing happens at the beginning of GoW III.

Other recent sequels I've played recently have similar starts. In Uncharted 2, you start with melee attacks and freakin dart guns. You don't get a proper pistol until at least an hour or two into the game (and that's not exactly a powerful weapon either). This is apparently a longstanding issue. David Wong wrote about this years ago, giving one great example from Half Life 2:
Barney hands you a crowbar
"Gordon, the whole world has been taken over by a race of malevolent aliens. All of humanity is depending on you. Here's a goddamned crowbar."
As Wong notes in his article, it's nice that "earning bigger, fancier weapons is a reward to keep us playing. But don't make us start with a weapon we probably have in our real-life garage (hey, thanks for the wrench, Bioshock)." Now, Wong was making a general point about underpowered starting weapons... but it becomes doubly annoying when you're playing a sequel to a game and you have to start back at the beginning again.

Again, this is a bit of a challenge for game developers, since they don't always have the luxury of assuming that everyone played the previous installment (indeed, their goal is to expand the market and sell more than the previous game, so they have to plan for that possibility). I recently picked up Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction and haven't had any problems... but that's probably only because this is my first Ratchet and Clank game. I'm sure fans of the series were a bit annoyed at starting the game with limited weaponry, and I'm sure that if I pick up A Crack in Time, I'll it will suffer from the typical sequel problems...

The most obvious solution is to allow existing players to skip forward somehow. In the case of GTA IV, that means making more of the island available right away, as well as letting you pick up more powerful weaponry and nicer cars. For Ratchet and Clank, it means having more weapons available right from the start. The problem with this solution is that the developer either has to code two introductory sections of the game, or they have to make sure the game is well balanced for both the experienced and new player (this is probably a lot more difficult than it sounds). For an open ended game like GTA IV, that is probably more feasible than for a more cutscene and story-oriented game, like Uncharted 2. That being said, if it's a sequel, one would assume that the game is popular enough to warrant the extra expenditure.

One thing that might be interesting is to tie this into Trophies/Achievements. If the system can see that you've played the previous game, perhaps you automatically load the player into the experienced track. Of course, that assumes that the sequel is on a game from the current generation (of the games mentioned in this post, the only one that really qualifies is Uncharted 2, though you could make a case for God of War, since they released an upconverted version of the last-generation games on the PS3)

The only game I've played recently that got this right was Call of Duty: Black Ops, where you get a pretty great weapon right from the start. But then, I haven't played the multi-player yet, and I'm sure you have to start at the bottom there...

Apparently there are some games that try to tie your decisions from the first game into the sequels. Mass Effect 2 was supposed to do that, but I get the impression that it wasn't as big a deal as some were expecting. Of course, the first game isn't even available on the PS3 (and my computer is too old to go that route), so I'll be starting ME2 as a new player... but then, Mass Effect 3 is supposed to carry those same decisions on as well, so I guess we'll find out. In any case, I find that concept encouraging, even if I haven't actually played it yet. In the end, I don't think every game will be able to get that far, if only because some games won't have the luxury of planning for a sequel ahead of time. But there might be some simpler things you can do to mitigate the issue, and I hope more developers get creative in that respect.
Posted by Mark on February 06, 2011 at 04:02 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

I'm currently reading Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, by Clay Shirky. There seems to be a pattern emerging from certain pop-science books I've been reading in the past few years. Namely, a heavy reliance on fascinating anecdotes, counter-intuitive psychology experiments, and maybe a little behavioral economics thrown in for good measure. Cognitive Surplus most certainly fits the mold. Another book I've read recently, How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, also fits. Most of Malcolm Gladwell's work does too (indeed, he's a master of the anecdote).

I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with this format. In fact, it can be quite entertaining and sometimes even informative. But sometimes I feel a bit uncomfortable with the conclusions that are drawn from all of this. Anecdotes, even well documented anecdotes, can make for great reading, but that doesn't necessarily make them broadly applicable. Generalizing or extrapolating from anecdotes can lead to some problematic conclusions. This is a difficult subject to tackle though, because humans seem to be hard wired to do exactly that. The human brain is basically a giant heuristic machine.

This is not a bad thing. Heuristics are an important part of human life because we usually don't always have all the information needed to use a more reliable, logical process. We all extrapolate from our own experiences; that is to say, we rely on anecdotal evidence in our daily lives all the time. It allows us to operate in situations which we do not understand.

Unfortunately, it's also subjective and not entirely reliable. The major issue is that it's rather easy to convince yourself that you have properly understand the problem, when in fact, you don't. In other words, our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence. As a result, we see things like Cargo Cults. Security beliefs and superstitions are also heuristics, albeit generally false ones. But they arise because producing such explanations are a necessary part of our life. We cannot explain everything we see, and since we often need to act on what we see, we must rely on less than perfect heuristics and processes.

So in a book like Cognitive Surplus, there's this instinctual impulse to agree with conclusions extrapolated from anecdotes, which is probably the source of my discomfort. It's not that I doubt the factual content of the anecdotes, it's that I'm not always sure how to connect the anecdote with the conclusion. In many cases, it seems like an intuitive leap, but as previously noted, this is a subjective process.

Of course, Shirky does not rely solely on anecdotal evidence in his book (nor do the other authors mentioned above). There are the aforementioned psychology experiments and behavioral economics studies that rely on the scientific notions of strictly controlled conditions and independent reproduction. The assumption is that conclusions extrapolated from this more scientific data are more reliable. But is it possible that they could suffer from the same problems as anecdotes?

Maybe. The data is almost always presented in an informal, summarized format (very similar, in fact, to the way anecdotes are formed), which can leave a lot of wiggle room. For instance, strictly controlled conditions necessary to run an experiment can yield qualifying factors that will make the results less broadly applicable than we may desire. I find this less troubling in cases where I'm already familiar with a study, such as the Ultimatum Game. It also helps that such a study has been independently reproduced countless times since it first appeared, and that many subsequent tests have refined various conditions and variables to see how the results would come out (and they all point in the expected direction).

Later in the book, Shirky references an economic study performed on 10 day-care centers in Haifa, Israel. I will not get into the details of the study (this post is not a review of Shirky's book, after all), except to say that it was a single study, performed in a narrow location, with a relatively small data set. I don't doubt the objective results, but unlike the Ultimatum Game, this study does not seem to have a long history of reproduction, nor did the researchers conduct obvious follow-up experiments (perhaps there are additional studies, but they are not referenced by Shirky). The results seem to violate certain economic assumptions we're all familiar with, but they are also somewhat intuitive when you realize why the results came out the way they did. On the other hand, how do we know why they came out that way? I'm virtually certain that if you vary one particular variable of the experiment, you'll receive the expected result. Then what?

I don't mean to imply that these books are worthless or that they don't contain valuable insights. I generally find them entertaining, helpful and informative, sometimes even persuasive. I like reading them. However, reading a book like this is not a passive activity. It's a dialogue. In other words, I don't think that Cognitive Surplus is the last word on the subjects that Shirky is writing about, despite a certain triumphal tone in his writing. It's important to recognize that there is probably more to this book than what is on the page. That's why there's a lengthly Notes section with references to numerous papers and studies for further reading and clarification. Cognitive Surplus raises some interesting questions and it proposes some interesting answers, but it's not the end of the conversation.

Update: I thought of a few books that I think are better about this sort of thing, and there's a commonality that's somewhat instructive. One example is The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, by Barry Schwartz. Another is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The interesting thing about both of these books is that they are written by researchers who have conducted a lot of the research themselves. Both of them are very careful in the way they phrase their conclusions, making sure to point out qualifying factors, etc... Shirky, Gladwell, etc... seem to be summarizing the work of others. This is also valuable, in its own way, but perhaps less conclusive? (Then again, correlation does not necessarily mean causation. This update basically amounts to heuristic, and one based on the relatively small sample of pop-science books I've read, so take it with a grain of salt.)

Again Update: I wrote this post before finishing Cognitive Surplus. I'm now finished, and in the last chapter, Shirky notes (pages 191-192):
The opportunity we collectively share, though, is much larger than even a book's worth of examples can express, because those examples, and especially the ones that involve significant cultural disruption, could turn out to be special cases. As with previous revolutions driven by technology - whether it is the rise of literate and scientific culture with the spread of the printing press or the economic and social globalization that followed the invention of the telegraph - what matters now is not the new capabilities that we have, but how we turn those capabilities, both technical and social, into opportunities.
In short, I think Shirky is acknowledging what was making me uncomfortable throughout the book: anecdotes and examples can't paint the whole picture. Shirky's book is not internet triumphalism, but a call to action. I suppose you could argue that even the assertion that these opportunities exist at all is a form of triumphalism, but I don't think so.
Posted by Mark on February 02, 2011 at 08:27 PM .: link :.

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