Video Games

Tasting Notes

I used to do this thing where I’d do a series of quick hits on my media diet, but damn, it looks like I haven’t done this in about five years? Let’s rectify that situation:


  • The Good Place – I wasn’t expecting much, but then I burned through the entire first season in just a couple of days. It’s a fantastic season of television, very funny, great stakes, well paced (both in terms of individual episodes, but also in the way the series expands on its own world throughout the course of the season). There are some big twists that you might pick up on early in the season, but in general, the season works well as a whole. I’m somewhat wary of the forthcoming second season, but the writers managed to be pretty clever throughout the first season, so there’s a hope that the second season will work. But they’ll need to do something almost completely different with the premise this time around (otherwise, it could get very repetitive), which is a challenge.
  • Patriot – What a fucking bizarre show. It’s clearly aping the prestige TV tropes out the yin yang (i.e.

    Breaking Bad-esque cold opens, anti-heroes, etc…) and I can’t exactly say it’s planting any of its own flags, but I actually kinda liked it? I find it hard to recommend and when I break it down, it’s not super original and many of the characteristics of the show are things I don’t normally care for, but somehow it tweaked me just right. At least until the very end, which is an anticlimax (albeit one you can kinda see coming). It’s about a spy who goes undercover at a piping firm in order to travel to Europe and do some sort of deal to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Things immediately go wrong, and pretty much the whole series is an ever-telescoping series of crises built on top of crises. It has this ridiculous sense of deadpan dark humor (I think? Nothing about this show makes perfect sense to me…) that I don’t think I have any reference point for… It’s almost worth watching so that you can get to the Rock/Paper/Scissors game scene towards the end of the series, which is utterly brilliant. Again, a hard one to recommend though. It might be worth watching the first episode (it’s an Amazon Prime original though, so I think you can only see it there). If you’re on board with the ridiculous things that happen there, this series might be for you. I honestly still don’t know what to think about it, which probably means I think its good?


  • Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic is indeed a spectacle to behold, one of the best photographed movies of the year and definite nominee for Most Visually Stunning in the Kaedrin Movie Awards. Not a ton of dialog and minimal plot, and yet it’s propulsively paced and at times harrowing. It’s not your traditional crowd-pleaser, but nods in that direction far enough to keep interest up. I hope it continues to do well. It will likely make my top 10 of the year, though perhaps towards the bottom of that list…
  • The Big Sick – Delightful romantic comedy based on the true story of Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (who wrote the script), and you can see that heart up there on the screen. It deals a lot with family and culture clash in a sophisticated way, but it never drags at all, and is generally able to leaven the drama with comedy. Another film that will likely make my top 10.
  • Baby Driver – Edgar Wright’s latest is fantastic entertainment, a sort of hybrid musical that substitutes car chases for dance numbers. This works spectacularly for the first two thirds, but there’s some serious third act problems with the story (lots of inexplicable decisions and character turns), even though the execution of what’s there is still very enjoyable. Hitchcock’s refrigerator comes to mind here – it works ok when your watching it, but does not hold up to scrutiny. Not a shoe-in for the top 10, but will definitely be a candidate and it will certainly garner a Kaedrin Movie Award or two. Still recommended!


  • The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland – I’m about two thirds of the way through this book, which features witches, a quantum mechanical explanation for magic, and lots of time travel. And bureaucracy. I’m pretty much loving it so far, but as a long-time Stephenson fanatic, I think you could probably have guessed that, right? Really curious to see how it will play out (seems like a solid candidate for a Hugo nomination for me). More thoughts forthcoming in a full review…
  • Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin – Non-fiction story of gravitational waves and the LIGO project – an arduous, fifty-year endeavor to measure gravitation waves from events like two black holes colliding… So far seems to be pretty excessively focused on the personalities involved and the hoops they had to jump through to get funded, etc… Interesting stuff, but not necessarily the most immersive story.
  • Killfile by Christopher Farnsworth – Trashy little thriller about a security consultant/spy who can read people’s minds. This is from the guy who wrote about the President’s Vampire, so we’re not looking for anything groundbreaking or anything, but it’s a fairly fun little story. I basically got this (and its sequel, which I didn’t like as much, but was basically more of the same) so that I could get a new President’s Vampire story (which I actually haven’t read yet and at this point, will probably save for the Six Weeks of Halloween), but these were an enjoyable enough diversion, if a bit formulaic and disposable…


  • Friday the 13th: The Game – This is an online multiplayer game (not my usual thing) that is set in the Friday the 13th universe (emphatically my thing). The technical term for this type of game is “asymmetrical multiplayer” because while most of the players are camp counselors running for their life, one randomly selected player gets to be Jason, whose job is to hunt down and kill all the other players. It’s a lot of fun, even though I suck and the game and am not really willing to put the time into it to get good at it (the last time I played as Jason, I only killed one counselor and spent a couple minutes chasing one person around a table).

    Worth checking out if this seems like your jam.

  • Dominion – This is a deck-building card game that I stumbled onto because some folks at work started playing at lunch. I don’t always get to play there, but once I got into it, it’s a really deep and fun game to play. There’s an online version (linked above) that works well enough, though it could use some updates (it’s relatively new though, and they’re still making improvements). I still really enjoy the meatspace version, and it helps that my friends have basically all of the expansion packs (which add a lot of flavor).

The Finer Things:

  • As always, I’m drinking a lot of beer and as you probably know, I have a whole blog where I keep track of this sort of thing. Recent highlights have all been IPAs, actually, like Tree House Julius and Burley Oak 100
  • Since it always takes me, like, 2 years to get through a bottle of whisk(e)y, I was intrigued by the concept of an Infinity Bottle (aka Solera bottle), which is basically when you take a bunch of nearly finished bottles and blend them all together into one super-whiskey. I started a bourbon based bottle recently, mostly Four Roses based, but with some Stagg Jr. and Bookers. Biggest problem right now is that the proof is excessively high (approximately 122) at this point. I need to find some low proof stuff with some age on it (am I crazy, or is this a job for an orphan barrel bourbon?) Still, it’s a fun little project and it should get more and more interesting over time (as more and more whiskeys join the blend).

Phew, that’s all for now. I will be on vacation next week, so posting is dubious, though you never know!

Game Dev Irony

One of my favorite iPhone games is called Game Dev Story. It’s basically a simulation game where you build a game studio from the ground up. You hire staff, pick which games your company creates, market them, etc… Once you build your company up and start putting out great games, you get high ratings, win awards, and most importantly, you sell a lot of games (which allows you to hire more staff, etc… and thus put out even better games!). It’s an addictively fun game, but it’s also not particularly deep.

That’s not the worst thing in the world, of course, and when it comes to iPhone games, that sort of simplicity is actually a plus. Enter a new game called Game Dev Tycoon. It seems to be the same basic concept, but it looks to have more depth to it, so I’m halfway there in terms of wanting to purchase it. It was made by Greenheart Games, an indie developer consisting of two brothers.

And get this: Knowing it would be pirated anyway, they went ahead and released a cracked version of their game on torrent sites. They even helped seed it. However, they added a twist to the version they released:

The cracked version is nearly identical to the real thing except for one detail… Initially we thought about telling them their copy is an illegal copy, but instead we didn’t want to pass up the unique opportunity of holding a mirror in front of them and showing them what piracy can do to game developers. So, as players spend a few hours playing and growing their own game dev company, they will start to see the following message, styled like any other in-game message:

Boss, it seems that while many players play our new game, they steal it by downloading a cracked version rather than buying it legally.

If players don’t buy the games they like, we will sooner or later go bankrupt.

Slowly their in-game funds dwindle, and new games they create have a high chance to be pirated until their virtual game development company goes bankrupt.

It’s a brilliant and ironic move, but the irony doesn’t end there. It turns out the players of the pirated version are a little dense. They started going out on the internet and posting absurdly unaware comments in forums, wondering (for example) if there’s an in-game way to research DRM to protect their (fictional) games (!?):

“I can’t progress furher… HELP!” one user wrote. “Guys I reached some point where if I make a decent game with score 9-10 it gets pirated and I can’t make any profit.

“It says blah blah our game got pirated stuff like that. Is there some way to avoid that? I mean can I research a DRM or something?”

Said another user: “Why are there so many people that pirate? It ruins me! Not fair.”

Oh the irony. It hurts! But I’m guessing it hurts the developers even more, so I just went out and bought the game. If you like sim games and this sounds interesting, why not give it a shot. This sort of genius should be rewarded (and so far, 93% of their users are pirates!). (Thanks to Steven for finding this story)

Recent and Future Video Gamery

So I’ve been pretty mum on video games of late, and there’s a reason for that: I haven’t been playing them much. I seem to have moved on for a while. For instance, those 50 books didn’t read themselves. The last game I was really into was Mass Effect 3, but this dip in interest was already in full swing when I started that one (which did nothing to reverse the trend, sad to say). But maybe this sort of thing is cyclical, as I’ve started to get the itch for some video gamery again. What have I been fiddling with lately, and what am I looking forward to?

  • BioShock – Note, I’m not talking about BioShock Infinite. That would be timely, and we don’t do things like that here at Kaedrin. I actually picked up the BioShock 1 and 2 collection a little while ago and have slowly been making my way through it. Great atmosphere, some harrowing choices, and a combat system that’s not all that fun. It’s a first person shooter, but something about it just strikes the wrong chord with me. Part of it is the way enemies move, and another part is that ammo is scarce (there seems to be some sort of scaling system that allows you to find more stuff when you’re running low, which is nice I guess, but also just annoying). I suppose expectations play a role here too, as this is a game that gets praised to high heaven by everyone, and it’s been around for so long that at this point I’m bound to be disappointed. That’s the drawback of the Kaedrin system, I guess. Still, I’m interested enough that I will most likely finish.
  • Soul Calibur V – I’ve never been that into fighting games, so I figured I’d give one a shot a while ago. Let’s just say that I’m not very good at this game and that I’m not really willing to put in the practice time to figure it all out. I’d rather just create dumb custom characters, and even that gets dull pretty quickly. So this is perhaps not the game’s fault, but I’m not doing so well with this one.
  • FTL: Faster Than Light – Now this is a little more my speed. It’s a pretty straightforward looking strategy game that nevertheless has a deceptively deep gameplay. The game basically amounts to micromanaging a spaceship as you try to guide it across several sectors, all whilst being pursued by an enemy fleet. Simple setup, and basic gameplay, but it’s fun, and it’s something that’s pretty easy to pickup and play, no huge investment of time needed. A single game can last an hour or so, but it has a high replay value. I’m no expert or anything, but I’m enjoying it and will continue to play.
  • Hitman: Absolution – The only game in this post that I haven’t started yet. Hitman: Blood Money was a game that really grew on me. I still think it’s absurd to win the games exactly how you’re supposed to without consulting outside guides or anything like that, but the value is that it’s fun to come up with alternate strategies or just go completely rogue and kill everyone. Anyway, this is the first entry in the series since Blood Money, so I figure I should try it out.

And that’s that. Not an entirely successful reentry into the world of gaming, but it’s something.


So this is old and indeed, the Kickstarter for Clang has already ended (funding successful!), but there’s some interesting stuff going on here beyond the typical Kickstarter stories. This was a campaign to raise money for an accurate sword fighting video game, one that would rely on motion controls. This seems soooo 5 years ago at this point, but on the other hand, if someone actually made this game 5 years ago, motion controls might not be the joke they are right now. That’s interesting, right? Alright, fine, you caught me. My interest in this originates more from Neal Stephenson’s involvement than anything else. Here, check out this funny, detailed pitch:

There’s actually a bunch of other interesting videos explaining some of the detailed thought behind why they want to make this game. I particularly enjoyed the one talking about how comprehensive our selection of guns are in games and how people argue over the minutia of gun combat, but sword based games have a depressing lack of options.

It might seem odd that a science fiction novelist is making a video game based on swordplay, but then again, this is a guy who wrote a book about a sword-wielding pizza delivery ninja. It also seems to be an outgrowth from one of his other interesting projects: a collaborative, interactive publishing system optimized for digital devices. I still haven’t gotten around to reading The Mongoliad, but it’s making its way up the queue.

Anyways, there’s been some interesting interviews about the project and he even did a Q&A on Reddit recently which was pretty fun. It’s all well and good, but I’m glad his involvement in this stuff seems to be winding down. I’m sure I’ll keep tabs on Clang and the Mongoliad, but in the end, I’m really a fan of Stephenson’s writing, so I’m looking forward to a new book… at some point.

Mass Effect 3

I never played the first Mass Effect game, but the second game has become one of my favorites. It’s not a perfect game – I had my issues with certain aspects – but once I got into it, it was very involving and fun to play. I can’t think of any other game in which I’ve been this attached to characters in the story, so naturally, I was looking forward to Mass Effect 3. It’s the “last” game in the series and it promised to incorporate decisions and actions from previous games. Unfortunately, this installment stumbles.

Most people will point to the ending, which I certainly think is lackluster at best, but my problem with the game is more emblematic of the series as a whole. My favorite part of the second game was the series of recruiting and loyalty missions. There’s an overarching plot about an implacable alien force called the Reapers, who periodically attempt to destroy all life in the galaxy, but I always found that aspect of the story somewhat trite and boring. To me, it was only interesting in so much as it gave me a reason to recruit my crew. It was a unifying evil force in the galaxy, so it worked, but it wasn’t all that special or interesting. So the second game focused a lot on your crew, gaining their loyalty through side missions, and stopping some Reaper-related threat. All is well so far, so where does the third game fall down?

Well, at the end of the second game, your crew is scattered and you end up starting over. This is a minor instance of the Video Game Sequel Problem, but one of the interesting things about the Mass Effect series is that your decisions from the previous game play into the current story. That being said, you kinda have to start over. My biggest issue with this third game, though, is that you’re not really building a crew that can defeat the reapers. You’re trying to align galactic resources, playing politics to get various races to cooperate, gaining strength for the coming fight with the Reapers. There really aren’t many new characters, and most of your former crew are relegated to supporting roles, cut scenes, or temporary missions.

The end result of this structure is that in the second game, I had built a crew of 12 members, each with their own personal backstory and independent, often interesting loyalty missions that illuminated their character. In the third game, I had a crew of 4 or sometimes 5. A few of them are characters I know and welcome: Garrus and Liara. EDI is the ship’s AI come to life, which is a great development. Towards the beginning of the game, when this happened, I found it very encouraging. Unfortunately, she’s really the only new character that’s really interesting and progresses through the entire story. Gone are the recruiting and loyalty missions where I grew to like all the characters. Heck, even Shepherd’s choices seem to matter less. The whole Renegade/Paragon thing seems to matter much less here, instead you get “Reputation” points, though it’s unclear what that actually means (and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean anything in the end). There are some side characters who showed promise, but they were either relegated to a small part of the game or they didn’t have a lot of depth. For instance, I enjoyed playing chess with Specialist Traynor, my Comm officer, but that’s really where her role ended (apparently she’s a romance option for female Shepherd).

Actually, my romance option from the second game was Tali, and she does show up for a while in this game, but I think some of the choices I made lead to her death (I had, essentially, chosen not to commit genocide against the Geth, but wasn’t able to broker a ceasefire between the Geth and the Quarians, so a lot of Quarians ended up dead and Tali committed suicide). This was a tough mission, but it sorta fit with the game and I can see why it happened. Inexplicably, Tali shows up after her death for one last go, just before I went to the final battle with the Reapers.

Anyway, the focus of the third game is to build up Galactic Readiness, aligning alien factions, many of which have longstanding grudges against each other (the Geth and Quarians being an example). This is all well and good, and the whole resolution to the Genophage is actually very well done, but while I got to spend some time with Mordin and Grunt, there was very little moving the characters forward. This seemed to happen with a lot of my former crew. I got to see what became of Jack, which was pretty great (she’s grown as a character between games, which was really nice), but it’s not like she joined the crew again or anything. Other characters showed up too, but it was all ultimately unfulfilling. It was all in service of fighting the Reapers. And, I guess, Cerberus… an organization I’ve never quite understood, though I must say that the Illusive Man certainly shows more personality than the Reapers, and thus defeating his plans was somewhat fun.

I think part of my issue with the whole Galactic Readiness angle is that it’s not entirely clear how much that helped, especially when you get to the ending. Indeed, the gamemakers even forced me to fire up the multiplayer missions in order to boost Galactic Readiness – though, actually, I really enjoyed the multiplayer for what it was – but while I got to see the pretty numbers increase, I never really saw what impact it had.

So the ending. It’s a non-sequitur. It doesn’t really logically follow what came before it. Since I wasn’t that invested in the main storyline, it didn’t actually bother me that much. I was much more bothered by the lack of focus on characters throughout the entire third game. The ending only exacerbated that complaint for me, though it’s pretty bad in its own right. As usual, Shamus has done an excellent job breaking this down, in particular the parts about the Reapers and the Galaxy are insightful. There are, of course, contrarians, and I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had about the authorship of video games. Devin comes down squarely on the side of the writers at Bioware, but video games as a medium are interesting because of interactivity. Because we, as players, have some sort of ownership of what’s happening on screen. There are certainly limits to our ownership, and I think I might agree with Devin about certain pieces of this, but it’s an interesting topic of discussion. It gets at the heart of the video game and storytelling problem, the thing that Roger Ebert keeps wanking about (interestingly, both Roger Ebert and Devin Faraci are primarily movie critics, so it makes a bit of sense that they’d side more with the creators than the players). A quick summary of Ebert’s argument against games is instructive:

Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art.

This, of course, has been debated ad nauseum over the years, but then, it’s the core of the problem with Mass Effect 3.

One of the reasons the series has been so successful is that Bioware promised that our decisions would matter. Not only would they matter in the immediate story, but they would be accounted for in future games. This is astoundingly ambitious, and I enjoyed most of the game… right up until that ending, which just doesn’t logically follow from the rest of the story. It’s not just that my choices weren’t taken into account – I don’t think I would have been frustrated at all if that were the case. I understand that the nature of branching decisions would result in an impossible task for Bioware. There’s just no way they could account for everything. But that doesn’t mean they should account for nothing and completely change the whole purpose and goal of the story, all in the last minutes of the series. This could have been a game series that settled the whole Ebert debate in favor of video games… instead, it just gives the Ebert argument more credence. The reason people are upset is that it didn’t really need to be that way. It’s not like Bioware wrote themselves into a corner. There are a million possible endings that would be better than what we got. Dark, happy, depressing, confounding, whatever. It would have been better than “stupid”, which is where we’re at now.

Ultimately, I had fun with the game, but not as much as with the second game, primarily because of the characters. This whole grand overarching storyline was always underwhelming to me, but I had fun with the characters. Unfortunately, the third game disappoints on that front. The combat is good, the dialogue is well written, a lot of the big conflicts in the series are actually resolved in a satisfying manner… the game plays well. There are some things that aren’t as successful. For some reason, the notion of “slow motion” Shepherd seems to fascinate the developers, and those sequences are annoying. I’m still frustrated that navigating to different decks on the Normandy requires a load screen each time. But those are nitpicks. The real trouble was the lack of emphasis on character, exacerbated by a non-sequitur ending. Again, I had a lot of fun with the game, so to me, the ending didn’t ruin the whole series (as some folks are saying). Indeed, I find myself contemplating a second play through (starting back at ME2 with the Interactive Backstory (if I can figure out how that works)), perhaps as a female Renegade Shepherd.

Update: Just wanted to point to this video, a very long explanation of why the ending of ME3 doesn’t work for him. It’s sorta done in the style of those Red Letter Media Plinket reviews, but it’s pretty good. The part where he talks about the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC (from ME2) and how “Sometimes I’m not sure Bioware understands the magnitude of what they’ve done here” is particularly good, and it gets at exactly what I loved about ME2 – the characters! I don’t know that Bioware recognized how attached players were to the characters…

Tasting Notes – Part 5

Yet another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don’t really warrant a full post. So here’s what I’ve been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:


  • Fringe – I posted about the first couple seasons a while ago, but I’ve recently caught up with Season 3 and most of Season 4. To my mind, the show really came into its own in Season 3. What started out as unfocused and aimless has very slowly evolved into a tight, well-plotted series in season 3. I’m not sure I’d call it great, but Season 3 was a lot of fun. There are some ridiculous things about the series as a whole, and that’s still there, but it all seemed to be worked out in the third season. Season 4, on the other hand, seems to have taken a few steps backward. It’s actually very disorienting. Everything from the first three seasons is now unclear and less important. This was probably their intention, but I’m not entirely sure I like it. I mean, we’ve spent three seasons getting to know these characters, and now we’re in yet another alternate universe with the same characters, but they’re all slightly different. I’m not ready to give up on the show or anything, but it seems like the show is back on its unfocused track…
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: Terriers – This is an interesting series. It was cancelled after the first season… and while I can see why (the film is almost incessantly anti-mainstream, often finishing off episodes on a down note), I did still enjoy watching the series.


  • The Secret World of Arrietty – Solid Studio Ghibli film. Not perfect, but well worth a watch and very different than typical American animated fare. Here’s my question – what’s with the title? It’s so weird and unapproachable, whereas the source material, a book called The Borrowers, seems much more appropriate and marketable. This just makes no sense to me. (I suppose one could also quibble about the term “borrowers” since that implies that the goods will be returned, which doesn’t happen either. There’s actually an interesting discussion to be had here about what constitutes theft/stealing in the world set up in this book/movie.)
  • Act of Valor – A very… strange movie. I don’t quite know what to make of this. It stars actual, active-duty Navy SEALs and… they are clearly not actors. Any scenes with dialogue are a little on the painful side, and it doesn’t help that they keep talking about their families and how they can’t wait to get back to their family and isn’t being a father great? I’d give a spoiler warning for what happens here, but it’s pretty damn obvious from, oh, the first 5 minutes in the movie what’s going to happen at the end. All that being said, the action sequences are very well done and seemingly authentic, though there are a number of scenes shot to resemble a FPS video game. For the first time ever, I think it actually works in this movie, though it’s still a little strange to see movies and video games blending together like that.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: Gambit – Classic heist film starring a very young Michael Caine as a burglar who hires Shirley MacLaine to help rob one of the richest men in the world. Caine’s got a great plan, but of course, things rarely go as planned. Or does it? Tons of twists and turns in this one; very entertaining and satisfying. Highly recommended. (Update: Well, shit, Netflix apparently took it off Instant Streaming… and they don’t even have a DVD for the thing. It is on Amazon Instant though…)

Video Games

  • Shadow of the Colossus – I finished Ico a while ago and I loved it. I’ve since moved on to the other Team Ico game, Shadow of the Colossus. I’ve actually played this before, but I never finished it. The HD remix that’s available on the PS3 now is actually quite nice, though the game still seems a bit stunted to me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s got great production design and an interesting structure (basically 16 boss fights and that’s it), but some of the puzzles (i.e. how to defeat each Colossus) are a bit too obtuse, and once you figure them out, it can still be a huge pain to actually defeat your opponent. It just seems like sometimes the game is giving you busy-work just for the sake of doing so… That being said, I’m determined to actually finish the game off, and I am kinda looking forward to the next Team Ico game, which should be coming out sometime this year.
  • Upcoming Video Gamery: Mass Effect 3 came in the mail this week, and I’m greatly looking forward to it. It took me a while to get into part 2, but once I got there, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I’m a little intrigued by the fact that my character/team from the second game can be transferred to this third game. Not sure how dynamic that makes things, but I guess we’ll find out.
  • Other Video Gamery: I’ve played a little Soul Calibur V, and fighting games remain inscrutable for me. I can get some of the basics down, but once I get into the more advanced maneuvers/enemies, I fall apart pretty quickly, and the game doesn’t seem to do a very good job teaching you the more advanced aspects of combat. At this point, I have more fun creating custom characters than actually fighting. I also got a copy of Resistance 3, which is just another FPS with aliens and guns and big explosions and stuff. What can I say, I’m a sucker for that sort of thing.


  • Of the eleven books posted in my last Book Queue, I’ve read 5. I’ve only got two books left in Lois McMaster Bujold’s excellent Vorkosigan Saga, and I’ve posted about some of the other books I’ve read.
  • I’m currently finishing off Shamus Young’s Witch Watch, and I’m enjoying it quite a bit.
  • I may end up finishing off the Vorkosigan books next, but I’m also quite looking forward to famous security wonk Bruce Schneier’s latest book, Liars & Outliers. It promises to be informative and level-headed look at “trust” from a security professional’s standpoint.

The Finer Things

  • I’ve had lots of great beer recently, but I’ll just link over to my beer blog rather than repeat myself here. I’ve been updating that blog much more often than I ever thought I would, and it’s been a lot of fun. Check it out!
  • I think I’ll be posting on Sunday about my next Homebrew. I had originally planned to make it an “Earl Grey” beer, but it turns out that food-grade Bergamot oil is somewhat hard to come by (most of what you can find is made for external use). I may still end up getting some flavor from a few teabags of Earl Grey, but it will probably be less prominent than originally planned. Again, more details to come.

And that’s all for now…

Recent Video Gamery

Here at Kaedrin, we pride ourselves on being timely. Well, not so much. Especially when it comes to video games, where I’m a cheap bastard and only buy games after they’ve fallen in price (usually a year or more after original release). Cases in point:

  • Batman: Arkham Asylum – It’s an unwritten (ok, well, probably written many times) rule in the video game world that games based on existing properties from other mediums generally suck. Like, hardcore suck. Like, worst games ever suck. This happens for a variety of reasons. Usually the games are only made because the suits know they’re guaranteed to sell a bunch of games to people who love the existing property. Or, more likely, friends and family of the fan. They know the fan likes video games, and they know he/she likes the property, so they naturally figure that game would interest the person. As such, the budgets are usually low on these games. And they’re often released as a tie-in with some big happening in the existing property’s universe (i.e. the movie release, the start of season 5, etc…), so production schedules are very constrained. All of this usually yields a game that is poorly conceived, plays jankily, and is full of bugs. We’ve all been there, and we’ve all been disappointed by the results. Batman: Arkham Asylum‘s claim to fame is that it’s a game based on Batman that doesn’t actually suck. And it doesn’t! It’s actually pretty damn good.

    It’s not perfect. There are a few really obvious complaints about the game, notably “detective mode”, which activates Batman’s special vision where enemies and points of interest are highlighted. This is a neat idea, but it also means that you end up playing the game mostly in that mode. Which is fine, but it also means you’re missing out on some excellent production design and artwork in the game. Which, by the way, is probably the best thing about the game. I’ve never read the comic books, but I’m a big fan of the Animated Series from the 90s, and this game takes place in that universe (notably featuring a lot of the voice talent from that show, though many character designs have been updated), albeit a slightly darker and more grim version (to be expected, given that the game isn’t quite as cartoonish). The atmosphere of the game, which takes place entirely on the grounds of Arkham Asylum, is absolutely wonderful, and many of the video game tropes that are present in this game (i.e. the Riddler challenge) give you tons of background on the history and lore of the Batman world. You pick up audio interviews with escaped super-criminals, biographies of other villains, and so on. This sort of “collecting” is usually trite and boring in other games, but here it’s actually kinda fun to see what you can find.

    Detective Mode
    Batman’s Detective Mode

    Gameplay consists of a mixture of brawling and stealth, with the occasional platforming and (usually optional) puzzle thrown in for variety. The brawling is fun and deceptively simple. At first, it seems like all you do is mash the square button over and over again, which does work pretty well. But there’s also the ability to dodge, and if you chain together enough hits, you get some additional moves. I find it lacking the balance of something like the God of War games, in which combat is simple to learn but hard to master. The stealth sections are better, but again, I found myself relying on the same maneuvers over and over again. As with the combat, I didn’t really gain a full appreciation for the stealth sections until I started playing the Challenge Mode (which essentially forces you to do alternative takedowns). The Challenge Mode of the game (basically just bite-sized fighting or stealth sections of the game that are independent of story) is actually much more fun here than it is in most games, and as I just said, it helped me gain a better feeling for the complexity of both the fighting and the stealth aspects.

    The platforming and puzzles are pretty straightforward stuff, though I do really enjoy Batman’s trademark grappling gun thingy that allows him to climb and fly and stuff. I was also a big fan of the Riddler’s little question mark puzzles (which I didn’t understand at all for a while, but once I understood the concept, I had great fun trying to line that stuff up…) The story of the game is also straightforward – the Joker has taken over Arkham Asylum and all the prisoners and super-criminals are free! There’s some hokum about a Titan Formula that turns people into hulking monsters. For the most part, it’s just an excuse to stalk the Asylum and fight super-villains. The boss battles are middling. I enjoyed the Scarecrow sections, but I didn’t care for the Killer Croc area. The final boss battle was fine.

    Ultimately, a very good game. And, of course, I played this about 2 years after it came out, right when the sequel, Arkham City, came out. It’s apparently quite popular, and I think I did like Arkham Asylum enough that I might check out the sequel… in a year or so!

  • Killzone 3 – Much like its predecessor, this is a generally competent first-person shooter with some odd deficiencies. The control scheme is strangely different than any other shooter (and it has some really weird consequences, as demonstrated by this hilarious tutorial on how to us the Sniper Rifle…) and the story is filled with stereotypical tough-guy bravado and cliched dialogue. There might be a minor improvement on that front, but it’s still not particularly good. There’s also a minor improvement in the visual design, with some actual variety here instead of the typical gun-metal color palette of these games (there’s snow levels and a brightly colored jungle level too). The game is slightly easier than the previous installment too, but I count that as a good thing because the last game got really frustrating at points.

    As with the previous game, I found myself surprised again at how fun the multi-player is… Oh, sure, I still suck at it, but the way this series packages the multi-player modes together in one big match actually makes it much easier to come up to speed with the game, as it gives you time to get to know various maps (instead of constantly switching you around). You get some more variety from the beginning in terms of your available weapons and character classes, but it still works well. I actually really enjoy the multi-player mode and will probably continue to play it for a while (a rarity for me). Ultimately, this game isn’t anything particularly special, but it’s worth playing. I get the feeling that Sony rushed this one out to be a showcase for their 3D technology (something that I didn’t use and wouldn’t really want to use anyway).

  • Ico – Originally made for the PS2, this was re-released in HD for the PS3 (in a collection with the same developer’s Shadow of the Colossus). It’s a sorta minimalist environmental puzzle game following a boy who is rescuing some girl from strange shadow monsters. I’m only about an hour into the game, but it’s quite interesting so far. And it looks great. It’s still a little dated looking, but it’s definitely nice looking (games like this on the PS2 had a kinda vaseline filter on the screen that made everything blurry looking, but this is very clear).


    I’ve actually played Shadow of the Colossus before, and the games both share a certain aesthetic and gameplay design. Unfortunately, since it’s a previous-generation game, you have to deal with annoying save points and replay various aspects of the game (a major pet peeve of mine – the only reason it’s acceptable here is that it’s an old game). So far, though, I think I’m enjoying myself more with this game. The puzzles aren’t quite as obtuse, and I’m usually able to figure them out without any help. I’ll hold off on any other judgments until I finish the game, but so far, I can see why this game is popular with critics (and is often cited as an example of “video games as art”). Not sure it would go over too well with the CoD/Madden crowd, but whatever. I’m enjoying it… and I’m probably about to go play so more.

There are definitely a lot of games out there that I’m interested in playing, including the next Batman game and the next Team Ico game (which should be coming out soon). I haven’t been playing games that much this year, and I don’t see that changing too much – I’m generally happy with picking up games a year after they come out. That should keep me busy for a while!

Old Podcast Episodes

I sometimes discover a podcast long after it’s started, and if I like it enough, I’ll head back through the archives to check out some older episodes. In honor of some of the gems I’ve found by doing so, here are a few really good episodes that are probably worth listening to:

  • GFW Radio – 6/26/08 (.mp3) – The now long-defunct GFW Radio podcast, AKA The Brodeo, was a pretty great podcast, but this particular episode breaks from their normally free-flowing format to present a very well produced episode chronicling a stunt they pulled outside a Gamestop. They basically posed as a marketing research firm and pitched crazy game ideas to random passers-by. If you’re into video games, you will love how well they lampoon the various conventions of video game marketing. The episode almost feels like a dry run for Robert Ashley’s A Life Well Wasted podcast (Ashley was a member of GFW Radio at the time and later went on to do his own podcast). It’s really hysterically funny too. I could not stop laughing around the time they started pitching the Founding Fighters video game (a Street Fighter-like game featuring moves like Alexander Hamilton’s Knickerbocker Shocker and the Philadelphia Filibuster).
  • /Filmcast: After Dark – Ep. 79 – An Evening with Jason Reitman – Most interviews with actors or directos feature pretty much the same canned questions and since these folks are participating in dozens of intervews a day, they pretty much have the same answers too. So when Jason Reitman logs on to the /Filmcast, things just derail almost immediately, as he becomes enamored with the live chatroom and answers all the random questions people are asking (like: What’s your favorite Dinosaur? and other similarly enlightening questions). Really fun stuff, and a refreshingly non-typical interview.
  • A Conversation on Blogging Ethics and Online Film Journalism – So this isn’t really a regular podcast, more of a one time conversation featuring David Chen (of the /Filmcast), C. Robert Cargill (from Ain’t It Cool News), Devin Faraci (from CHUD, but now at Badass Digest), and Peter Sciretta (from /Film) as they discuss various ethical issues surrounding the reviewing of movies and how studios try to “buy” good reviews, ban publications from screenings, and the like. Really interesting stuff, and well worth a listen for anyone interested in the industry.

And that’s all for now…

Mass Effect 2

So I’ve mentioned a couple times that I’ve been playing Mass Effect 2. It certainly took me a while to get into it, but at some point, I turned a corner and became very enamored with it. It’s not perfect, but it is interesting, and at this point, I’m very much looking forward to the third and final installment.

I never played the first Mass Effect, which was an XBox 360/PC exclusive, but this PS3 version of Mass Effect 2 was supposed to include some sort of “Interactive Backstory” that is an introduction to the universe and happenings of the first game. Strangely, it’s only available as downloadable content and not really on the disc… at least, I think so. It never actually came up for me (at least, I don’t think so… there seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding this). In fact, what actually comes with the PS3 version of the game is strangely obscure. I believe you get the full game and some of the original DLC on the disc itself. Then there’s this extra pack of content that you can download for free, which I think includes the interactive backstory thingy, but I’m not sure because the whole thing was all very confusing. I get that this is a port of a year old game that already had a bunch of DLC, but is it too much to ask to make that stuff a little clearer?

Anyway, once I got started on Mass Effect 2 proper, it took me a bit to get acclimated to all the various gameplay mechanics. It could have been that I just wasn’t up for a new game at the time, or maybe it was because I had no idea what was really going on in the story at the beginning of the game, but for whatever reason, I found the beginning of the game to be a bit of a slog (I have to wonder how people who played the first game felt – were they ok with this, or does it suffer from the Video Game Sequel Problem). Once I got used to the mission structures and combat mechanics, it started to get a lot more fun.

There are basically two types of missions in the game – a main storyline concerning disappearing human settlements and a series of recruiting and loyalty missions. As previously hinted at, the main story was a bit obtuse at first (presumably due to my lack of context), but as I got used to the universe and the various things that inhabit it, it became simple enough to understand. However, I found myself much more interested in recruiting members of my team and helping them out. Perhaps because those stories are self-contained, I found them much more engaging. I became attached to most members of the team, each in their own way and for their own reasons. When it came time to launch the final “suicide mission”, I found myself dreading the prospect of losing a member of my team.

As an RPG, there are a lot of dialogue sequences and decision trees. Fortunately, the Bioware writers are reasonably good at writing dialogue. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s funny and engaging enough. I particularly enjoyed talking to Mordin, who has a distinctive, clipped stream of consciousness grammar, but who is very witty and funny. In terms of choices, you are forced to make many, and each seems to be split up between two directions: Paragon and Renegade (basically good and evil respectively). At first, the system seemed much more interesting and subtle than other simple good-and-evil scales shown in games. For instance, in other games, when confronted with a puppy, you will get three options: 1. Pet the puppy and give it a snack, 2. Ignore the puppy, and 3. Place the puppy in a blender and make a protein shake. In order to play the “evil” side of the scale, you have to do some pretty heinous things and while pondering your character as he sips pureed puppy may be an interesting experience, it’s also pretty surreal. But in Mass Effect 2, the evil options are toned down. Sure, you still do some bad stuff, but it’s at least mildly plausible that someone would act this way. I dabbled a bit with both sides of the scale before settling on Paragon for my playthrough… and I do believe that indecision cost me later in the game. From what I’ve heard, these decisions are supposed to have consequences, but for the most part, I didn’t see much of that going on until the end of the game, but at that point, the decisions seem much more arbitrary and frustrating (more on this later). At some point, there may have been an element of implied consequences (similar to how Heavy Rain made me feel like my decisions mattered, even if replaying the game (which you’re apparently not supposed to do) reveals the distinct limitations of your decisions), but by the end of the game, I was well aware of how it all worked.

The combat is basically a third-person, cover-based shooter. My understanding is that this is different from the first game and that there was some consternation about the change, but most folks seem to think it was an improvement – and fortunately, I rather enjoy this type of gameplay. There’s also a system of “magic” powers, but since this is a science fiction setting, they’re called Biotics. I never fully got used to these, though I found myself relying on them more and more as the game went on.

In terms of production values, the game is fantastic – great visuals, great audio, and so on. The voice actor for the male Shepard seemed a bit on the wooden side, but he was alright for the most part (I’ve heard that the female voice actor is actually much better). The game has a really great auto-save system (I shouldn’t have to point that out, but I find that some games, even today, still have horrible save systems), but some major problems with loading screens. In most cases, this is fine, but the part that really drove me nuts was moving around on my own ship, the Normandy. It’s silly in the extreme that I need to sit at the loading screen for minutes on end while I’m just trying to go down one level on my ship.

So I assembled my team, gained each of their loyalty, and proceeded to scour the galaxy of missions and campaigns. There’s a lot to do, and like all RPGs, there are varying levels of satisfaction surrounding each of the missions. Still, these were, on the whole, positive. As I mentioned before, I really enjoyed the process of recruiting each member of my team, then gaining their loyalty by helping them out on another mission. It’s a pretty simple process, of course, but just when I thought it was getting too simplistic, I ended up losing one of my crew’s loyalty (it was Miranda, in case you’re interested) at the expense of gaining another’s. This was mildly frustrating, and because I had dabbled in Renegade actions earlier in the game, I wasn’t able to build up enough Paragon points to rectify the situation. I’m pretty sure this was the contributing factor that let the non-loyal crew member die in the final mission.

Speaking of which, I found that final mission very frustrating. The playthrough itself isn’t bad or anything – the combat is fun and the situation is actually somewhat tense – but the choices you make here generally lead to members of the crew dying. That would be fine, but the whole thing is rather arbitrary. All of the choices amount to picking specialists to do a specific job, and picking two team members to accompany you throughout the final levels. The specialists part seems straightforward enough – you pick the people who have strong tech skills (Kali and Legion), biotic skills (Samara and Jack), or leadership skills (this one is the least obvious, but Garrus and Jacob both seem to work). But who you take with you has a weirdly disproportionate effect. I played through the final level twice, with the second outcome being that one of my people died, and the first being that 4 people died. The only difference was who I brought with me on the final level. Miranda died in both scenarios (one time I brought her with me, the other time I had her stay with the others). I’m pretty sure that she died because I didn’t have enough Paragon points to resolve the whole loyalty situation (though again, it’s unclear what formula they used to figure this out). I think there may be a way to save her, but I’m not sure I really want to play the final level again…

This brings up another point on good/evil scales, which is that they generally work in a cumulative manner. You can’t do certain things until you get far enough along on either scale… but this isn’t how morality really works. People aren’t just an accumulation of their good or bad deeds. There are ways for good people to succumb to evil or for bad people to redeem past mistakes. This game tries to do something like that – if you’re far along on the Paragon side, some Renegade actions become unavailable. But it’s still a little on the simplistic side for me.

Once I got into the game, it was a lot of fun. I was actually surprised to learn that I spent a solid 35 hours or so playing the game… but most of that didn’t feel like a waste, as sometimes happens in RPGs of this nature. Oh sure, there are some dumbly repetitive elements, such as probing planets or hacking terminals, but those are relatively short experiences. Other games sometimes take those tasks to the extreme (this is generally referred to as “grinding”), or they make the main missions too long for a single play session. For instance, it was common for me to play Fallout 3 for a couple hours and not actually accomplish anything worthwhile. In Mass Effect, the missions are well delineated and substantial, but not too large or cumbersome that you couldn’t finish any one task in a single sitting. This leads to a better flow effect in the game, and thus it’s more fulfilling and interesting to play. Ultimately, I had a lot of fun with the game, despite its flaws, and I’m now very much looking forward to Mass Effect 3. I may even replay this game on Renegade. Who knows, maybe the interactive backstory will work this time around.

Recent Podcastery

I like podcasts, but it’s depressingly hard to find ones that I really enjoy and which are still regularly published. I tend to discover a lot of podcasts just as they’re going through their death throes. This is sometimes ok, as I’m still able to make my way through their archives, but then I run out of content and have to start searching for a new podcast. I will often try out new podcasts, but I have only added a few to the rotation of late. Here’s some recent stuff I’ve been listening to:

  • The /Filmcast – I tried this podcast out a few years ago and my recollection is that I found it kinda boring. I don’t know what was going on during that episode though, because I find that this is the podcast I most look forward to every week. I enjoy the format, which starts with a “what we’ve been watching” segment, followed by a short “movie news” segment, and then an in-depth review of a relatively new release. And when I say “in-depth”, I mean very long and detailed, often in the 40-60 minute range. It’s also one of the few podcasts to really get into spoilers of a new release (they are very clear about when they start the spoiler section, so no worries if you haven’t seen the movie). It’s something most reviews and podcasts avoid, but it’s actually quite entertaining to listen to (if, that is, you’ve already seen the film or don’t care about the film in question). Also noteworthy is that the show features 3 regular hosts, and a guest host – and the guests are usually fantastic. They’re mostly other film critics, but occasionally they’ll have actual actors or directors on the show as well – people like Rian Johnson (of Brick and Brothers Bloom fame) and Vincenzo Natali (of Cube and Splice fame). What’s more, they don’t have these guests on to just interview them – they make them participate in the general format of the show – so you get to see what Rian Johnson has been watching that week or what he thinks of various movie news, etc… It’s a really unusual perspective to get on these directors, and it’s stuff you rarely get in an interview. So yeah, if you like movies (and television, which they often discuss in the first segment and after dark shows), this is a must-listen podcast.
  • The Jeff Rubin Jeff Rubin Show – No, that’s not a typo, but don’t ask me why he’s repeated his name either. I don’t really get it. But I do really like the show so far. This is the only relatively new show that I listen to, and so far, it’s been great. You may recongnize Rubin from his work at CollegeHumor, such as the great video series, Bleep Bloop and Nerd Alert. In this podcast, he basically interviews someone in each show. So far, we’ve got an interview with Anamanaguchi (a band that uses old Nintendos as an instrument), a discussion of Game of Thrones with another CollegeHumor guy, Jon Gabrus, a completely awesome interview of a guy that runs pizza tours in NY, and an interview with the guy responsible for writing/directing all those porn parodies that have been coming out lately (brilliant). I have to wonder how well he can keep up the quality of his guests and the variety of topics, but so far, so good.
  • Rebel FM – Video Game podcasts are weird. They often spend a ton of time talking about new or upcoming games that you can’t play yet, which is kinda annoying. It’s also hard to go back and find an episode where they talked about x or y game (and usually the discussions aren’t that enlightening because they’re just talking about the mechanics of the game). IRebel FM falls into this category a bit, but what sets it apart is their letters section, which isn’t really anything special, but which can be a lot of fun. Somehow, they’ve become known for giving out sagely advice on relationships and other life challenges. It’s just funny to see this sort of thing through the lens of a video game podcast.
  • All Beers Considered – I haven’t done a lot of exploring around the beer podcast realm, but I like the Aleheads website, so I tend to listen to these podcasts which generally cover various beer news stories and whatnot. It’s not something I’d recommend to someone who’s not a beer fanatic, but, well, I am a beer fanatic, so I like it.
  • Basic Brewing Radio – This seems to be THE homebrewing podcast, and it’s got a massive archive filled with great stuff (at least, I’ve found many episodes to be helpful in my brewing efforts). Some stuff works better than others (really, it’s kinda strange to listen to a beer tasting, especially of homebrew that you’ll never get to try), but there’s lots of good stuff for new brewers in the archives.
  • The Adventurenaut Cassettes – There’s no real explaining this podcast. It’s just really weird, disjointed and almost psychadelic. Good when you’re in a certain mood, though.

I really only have 3 or 4 shows that I really look forward to every week, but I’m always looking for more…