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Friday, April 20, 2007

Lost: Catch-22

There's an interesting contradiction at work with Lost ... it's a show that has been highly lauded for breaking the format and mold of normal television shows. Instead of relying on tight, resolvable situations - it has a lengthy narrative with multiple twists and turns. Instead of featuring a a couple stars, it has an ensemble cast.

Yet, Lost works best when it sticks to a formula. I've talked about some of this before, but let's look at some of the things the last few episodes, including Catch-22, has in common with the last few episodes which have been equally sound. They have backstories which actually support the main plot. They use the mystery of the island to create tension and even an air of disbelief (something which has been somewhat lacking in the Otherville episodes). They manage to at least flesh out details of the island without being too obtuse about keeping the mysteries mysterious (like chasing Karl away).

When these pieces fall apart, that's when the show begins to feel unhinged. Even if the episodes feel similar in terms of structure, like all good formulas - when they work, they work well.

And so in Catch-22 we've Desmond wondering if he should let Charlie finally be sacrificed to get back into Penny's arms. This was, actually, the only part of the episode I didn't like. I never once bought that Desmond might actually give Charlie up. He's just not that psychotic. He had no evidence that Charlie's death would make any real difference - this isn't like seeing lightning strike and realizing a direct cause and effect. I mean, the title even sets this up as Desmond will fail no matter what he decides - but I never

How great was the scene with the helicopter noise though? It was spooky, it let us see a different angle on the island (apparently it can be found now ... but not safely) and served the story well.

See how this can all come together?

The next few episodes have a lot to live up to: Locke's new role in the Others, Juliet's upcoming betrayal, just how pregnant is Kate, just how doomed is Sun ... how long can Charlie not die.

It's good to be looking forward to it though.

Thompson Blames Gates For Virginia Tech

Thompson can't quit his crazyfest:

Mr. Gates, your company is potentially legally liable the harm done at Virginia Tech. Your game, a killing simulator, according to the news that used to be in the Post, trained him to enjoy killing and how to kill. You knew five years ago that your on-line game, Counterstrike, so clearly figured in the massacre by a student in Erfurt that the event and the game impacted the race for Chancellor in Germany at the time!

 Yet, here you are, five years after "Erfurt," still marketing Counterstrike. having done nothing to disable the server(s) for this mass murder simulator, and it looks like "Virginia Tech" is a consequence. There’s more going on in the world than Vista. Just ask the bereaved Virginia Tech families.

 Mr. Gates, pull the plug on Counterstrike today, or do we need more dead to convince you? "Virginia Tech" was the 9-11 of school shootings, and it appears Microsoft is in the middle of it, in more ways than one.
-- Thompson Targets Microsoft In Latest Crusade [GameAlmighty] via [Guardian Gamesblog]

The logical flaws in Thompson's, um, argument:

The Erfut shooter didn't need Counterstrike for training
He was avid gun enthusiast. He mom called him a "weapons freak". He belonged to not one, but two shooting clubs []. I used to play Counterstrike quite extensively, along with some guys who were ex-military and police. None of them thought the game was realisitic enough for actual arms training ... but I'm guessing a shooting range might be.

Valve develops Counterstrike, not Microsoft
Microsoft is only responsible for publishing one port of the game. The vast majority of players are PC gamers (probably including Steinhäuser of Erfut) and these days go through Valve's Steam.

Washington Post rescinded their Counterstrike references
Thompson actually acknowledges this fact, but somehow thinks that because he found an archived version that it's still a viable piece of news. That there might be an actual reason why the Washington post pulled the information, i.e. that it was not based in fact or irrelevant to the story at hand, is of course ignored by Thompson like he ignores anything which might detract from his lunatic ramblings. Schizophrenics, I believe, work in a similar manner.

No video games have been reported as found
In Cho's dormitory. No word from officials on even owning so much as a Game Boy.

So in short - Thompson's premise, his hypothesis and his conclusion are all flawed.

Apparently that's good enough for Fox News. Not for the rest of us.

360 "Disastrous Failure"? ... Meh.

Next-Gen is reporting on the tale of multiple analysts, one who wants Microsoft to admit the Xbox has been a botched investment:

“Making money, e.g., the creation of long-term shareholder value, has got to be the ultimate driver of Microsoft's gaming (and H&E) strategy, right?” Ehrenberg writes. “Well, after five years and over $21 billion invested all they've got to show for it is $5.4 billion of cumulative operating losses, and Xbox 360 doesn't appear to be the silver bullet to turn things around.”
-- ANALYSIS: The “Disastrous” Xbox 360?

Microsoft retorts with the pretty expected "no, no, we sells a lot" response. I'm more inclined to buy into this thinking:

“Microsoft clearly planned to spend several billions of dollars to establish a sustainable position in home entertainment,” Pachter wrote in an e-mail. “It's premature to conclude that it has or has not worked. I would say that if they end up with 30 percent share or more of the US and European console market (virtually a certainty), they will have succeeded wildly. It's very tough to determine what their share of revenues from downloadable content will be, as the market is in its infancy.  The same is true of in-game advertising.”

The Xbox is a long term concept. Microsoft never intended to make money from the original generation - fiscally it was a tax break. The 360 is, if I recall correctly, actually beating the margins they had originally set out to be truly profitable with the division by the third division.

I've critiqued Microsoft in the past for being overly optimistic in terms of sales (a fad that blogs get into often as well) - but clearly Microsoft is happy with the results. They're in the game to stay at this point. About the only way for it to be considered a failure is if 360 sales tapered down to the point where developers lacked interest, which isn't going to happen.

Eventually, of course, the Xbox initiative will need to show the money. I'm not sure how possible that will be without repeating the basic strategy of burning cash to create value add, but the market is changing quickly and rapidly. Personally, as I've mentioned recently, I'm more concerned with what the force of the Xbox market will do to the PC market in general.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Console MMO's And You

Ars Technica takes a look at a genre that is likely to expand soon - the console MMO:

Maintaining a good gaming computer is costly, so being able to play an MMO on the couch with a stable and standard console has proven to be the most enjoyable route for me. Though I have played and continue to play many PC MMOs, I've come to prefer their console counterparts. With the way that the Xbox 360 is allowing developers to use a similar code-base for both a 360 and a PC version of a single title, I'd like to see the option available in the future.

There are other advantages to console-based MMORPGs as well. The locked platform of the console is less prone to hacking (though not immune), and with a more stable and predictable user platform, tweaks can be made to the games to better facilitate code; compensation for different rigs will be rendered unnecessary.
-- Console MMOs: looking towards the future

They take a good look at titles like Huxley and Conan. Considering all three modern consoles are dishing out some kind of online goodness, I can't imagine that this won't get legs pretty soon. And honestly, once we go down that path - what is there for the PC gaming world once World of Warcraft moves to the living room? First person shooters were once a key reason for keeping your PC rig alive, but Halo has officially busted that concept out of the water.

So what would that leave? Real time strategy? The MMO genre is a massive draw for PC gaming at the moment ... if interest in that declines the market is possibly going to take a hit.

The next couple of years will be interesting to see how faithful Microsoft really is to the PC gaming market. Right now - I'm not impressed. Halo 2 being a Vista exclusive is a slap in the face to XP gamers worldwide. I honestly don't know why the only Live Arcade title slated for Games For Windows treatment would be UNO. Your average gaming rig is easily capable of running anything the 360 can - but Microsoft insists on keeping titles like Gears of War to push 360 sales while PC gamers can look forward to what? Live Anywhere? Oh yeah, still for Vista only.

Sadly most of what I have to be excited about with a newly upgraded PC is the ability to play bargain titles at full clip.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Uwe Boll Parodies 9/11

Wow, I didn't it was possible for Boll to stoop any lower. How wrong am I:

The director of several bad films based on video games (Bloodrayne, House of the Dead) seems to have stepped over the line with a brief cinematic moment of 9/11 parody.

(GP: who ever thought 9/11 and parody would be used in the same sentence?)

As reported by today’s NY Post, a trailer for Boll’s film rendition of the ultra-violent Postal video game series includes a brief scene in which an airliner crashes into a skyscraper.
-- Postal Film’s 9/11 Parody Scene Sparks Outrage [GamePolitics]

According to that NY Post article, Boll defended the decision because he wanted to "show the stupidity of suicide bombers".

Yeah, nicely done. I was just talking to The Girl about how odd it was that 30 Rock dared to even skirt near having fun with 9/11 (with a botched fireworks display that causes a panic). Little did I know absurdist outright parody was just around the corner.

With BatJack, Dr. Phil and now this - I can almost feel the IQ dropping outside.

Dr. Phil Joins BatJack In CrazyVille

Next-Gen is reporting that Dr. Phil is blaming violent games for Virginia Tech, just like our good pal BatJack Thompson.

The problem? As a deluge of information about Cho Seung-Hui emerges - nothing seems to indicate that he was a gamer, played video games or even owned as much as a GameBoy. Course, it's entirely possible that information hasn't been released simply because real professionals like the FBI don't consider it to be relevant ... unlike media whores like Phil and Thompson.

Instead, we see the trend most rational people would expect - Seung-Hui was a loner and felt estranged from society. He wrote angrily about the "rich kids" and "debauchery". His stories were so violent that his teacher reported him to nearly agency she could call.

No, the real debates here seem to be about campus security and gun control. Cho used two handguns, both obtained legally [Reuters]. If the facts come out that the only similarity between him and events like Columbine and Red Lake are a violent disposition and social disconnection - what does that say about these theories that games "brainwash" kids and "train" them to be killers?

It says that the theories have no real backbone - no real predictive factor or ... as many juries have decided ... no real evidence to support their claims. So for a change, maybe not fearmongering at a time like this would be the sensible thing for guys like Phil and Thompson.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Writing Fox News On Jack Thompson

I just sent this to

I was extremely disappointed to see that Fox News decided to air Jack Thompson in their coverage of the Virginia Tech tragedy. For Thompson to make statements regarding the causes of this nightmare even before the killer's identity was public is a baseless and senseless act of sensationalism - for which Fox is partially to blame.

Thompson makes a living capitalizing on this kind of violence and trying to assert claims which later prove untrue - particularly when he actually presses a case in court. Brian Crecente, writing for the blog Kotaku, points to the numerous factual errors Thompson made on Fox News:

This is but a small portion of Thompson's career of misinformation and outrageous claims which include racist and demeaning comments, once comparing Doug Lowenstein as a Nazi and apologizing to Saddam Hussein if he had made Saddam look as bad as Doug.

Is that the kind of personality Fox puts on television these days? A person who will apologize to the butcher of Baghdad to make a point?

I would hope that your network would make more sound judgements in the future. Thompson is no "school shootings expert" and has no business being on the air.

For the record:

"If I did, I want to apologize to Saddam Hussein"

- Jack Thompson

I mean, by Fox standards that makes Jack practically a terrorist.

I encourage other gamers to do the same.

Monday, April 16, 2007

360 Headset Incompatible With Original Controller?

Microsoft can't shake their hardware problems perhaps. First they have to offer free repairs due to the "red light" crash, then they're accused of scratching discs and now it seem that maybe the old controllers aren't compatible with the headsets:

Anyone able to confirm or deny? Is this an isolated incident or another actual problem?

Check - Thompson Still Insane

Know how I know someone mentioned Jack Thompson on the web today? Because my hit count goes up about triplefold just through random Google blowback. Sure enough:

That's right, Thompson is trying to link the worst shooting in U.S. history, the one that occurred earlier today at Virginia Tech, to video games.

What I love about this is that just about everything he says on live television is blatantly not true, like blaming video games on the Red Lake High School shooting.

It saddens me that filth like Jack can get on national television to gloat and revel in the deaths of so many and try to put it off as education.
-- Breaking: IDIOT Thompson Blames Va Shooting on Games - Kotaku

I do so enjoy when I agree with Crecente on something. His rather angry coverage of Batjack's ... well I assume statement, Kotaku doesn't link to anything directly I'm assuming because Brian saw him on that non-intertubed television tube, had a coronorary, picked himself off the floor and then posted his reaction. It's now been heavily dugg (as it were). (Update: Tony links to the video in the comments below)

Thanks to a variety of links from older articles on BatJack, Cathode Tan sees a healthy jump in traffic whenever he says just about anything in public. I gotta say - I have pretty mixed feelings about that. Because if big media put him on the air - the simple fact that Thompson is flat out insane has failed to meet their grasp.

Or they just enjoy putting crazy people on their because its better for ratings. Jury is still out.

Look - Thompson has been waiting for his Columbine Times Ten since he first made the ridiculous statement years ago. Fearmongers like himself make waiting for the next bad thing into a kind of sick spectator sport. Here, we can see for ourselves:

Jack Thompson speaking in public causes tornadoes in Kansas

It's only April. Give me a couple months. And my statement, as logically flawed as it may be, is still three to seven times more sane than most of what spews forth of Thompson's mouth when there is a microphone nearby.

The only I'd ask is for people truly angry over this to write into whatever news organization airs this asshole and tell them its flat out unacceptable. Only public response will get them to realize that guys like Thompson need as little attention as possible.

Virginia Tech is a horrible tragedy that will overshadow the weeks to come without all the drama of guys like BatJack adding to it.

Games A Monkey Could Play

The orangutans use a touch screen built into a tree-like structure that blend in with their zoo habitat. Visitors watch from a video monitor in front of the exhibit.

"That's so cool," Jeri McCarthy told her three daughters as Bernas drew a red, blue and yellow picture on the screen. "He can't get enough!"

(AP) A video monitor in the orangutan habitat viewing area at Zoo Atlanta shows the colors and designs...Full ImageZoo officials hope the exhibit will raise awareness of the rapidly diminishing wild orangutan population, which is on track to completely disappear in the next decade, and potentially provide keys to their survival.

"The more we understand about orangutan's cognitive processes, the more we'll understand about what they need to survive in the wild," said Tara Stoinski, manager of conservation partnerships for the zoo. "It enables us to show the public how smart they are."

In one game, orangutans choose identical photographs or match orangutan sounds with photos of the animals - correct answers are rewarded with food pellets. Another game lets them draw pictures by moving their hands and other body parts around the screen. Printouts of their masterpieces are on display in the zoo.
-- My Way News - Orangutans Play Video Games at Ga. Zoo

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Game Play: Done With Hotel Dusk

Note I didn't say I finished it - I'm just done with it. I got to the 11PM chapter and simply ended up wandering around knocking on doors without a clue in the world what the game was expecting me to do. I would have like to have gone bowling with Louie, but apparently I had more important things to do first - like, I dunno, wandering around randomly knocking on doors.

For hotel which is supposed to be full of mystery and intrigue, the place gets oddly vacant and dead. Wandering inside a boring hotel just isn't really much fun.

I like the general concept of a game like Hotel Dusk - but I just didn't like this particular game. It's not because it was "a lot of reading" - I liked the reading parts. It's because the game is framed like a series of tasks whose difficulties are mostly based on the obscurity of the task at hand and how obtuse the solution can be. I simply fail to see the entertainment value there.

Book Review: The Watchmen

Since there seems to be near constant rumblings the The Watchmen will be made into a film, I wanted to give it another read. Questions about how viable of a transformation this could arise every time these rumors hit the surface. It doesn't help that Moore's work often gets translated into movies with all the intelluctual acumen of pig latin. V for Vendetta wasn't too bad, but League? Ouch. Simply ouch.

The work is often cited as an example of allowing comics to "grow up" ... and with good reason. The story is realistic and gritty (despite some of the science fiction elements). The structure is complicated - often flipping in between time or even narratives between or sometimes even within the frame itself. Even the medium changes as there are sections of prose tossed in for good measure (and effect). Still, I would not categorize Watchmen as difficult to read or follow. The format is complicated, but the plot isn't overly such. Not that the plot isn't good, Moore unravels a narrative very tightly in a very smart way that almost feels like a classic mystery movie than your average comic.

Obviously the book is good - but could it make a good movie? I'd say pretty soundly that it could. The problem isn't anything within the above paragraph, the problem is within the size and scope of the novel and how much a movie studio is willing to invest to properly bear that out. Just the character of The Comedian himself, who dies in the first scene of the book, has such a complicated and expansive history that touches nearly every other character - it could occupy ninety minutes of film by itself. So how much time do you give to Rorshach's past or the Martian ponderings of Osterman?

It would almost require a four or six hour format. It's actually better suited to a miniseries than movie because I'm not sure there are good endings that would appease fans in theatres at the end of one two hour section or the next (assuming a four hour movie would be split into two).

So I guess we'll just have to wait and see. Thankfully movies like Sin City and 300 has shown that faithful adaptions can pay off for studios. We'll just have to see if they're willing to roll the dice on a larger gamble.

Fun Fact! However, to avoid continuity issues with the recently acquired characters, and due to the fact that some of them would have become useless for future series, Moore decided to create new characters, using the recently acquired Charlton Comics characters as templates. This allowed for a more dynamic and unique set of characters. The Comedian (Edward Blake) is based on Peacemaker with elements of Marvel Comics' Nick Fury. Doctor Manhattan (Jon Osterman) is derived from Captain Atom, while the first and second Nite Owls (Hollis Mason and Dan Dreiberg) are based upon Blue Beetle. Thunderbolt serves as the inspiration for Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt), while the Question and Mr. A do the same for Rorschach (Walter Kovacs). Finally, the first and second Silk Spectres (Sally Jupiter and Laurie Juspeczyk) are based on Nightshade with elements of Black Canary and Phantom Lady.[18][19]
Although the cast of Watchmen are commonly called "superheroes," the only superhuman character in the principal cast is Dr. Manhattan — the others are normal human beings with no special abilities aside from peak physical condition and access to high-class technology and weapons. In the comic, they refer to themselves as "costumed adventurers." Rorschach calls them "masks." (Wikipedia)

Game Play: Finishing Fable

I'm pretty much finished with Fable: The Lost Chapters - as I haven't decided if the game, like many others that try to push replayability, really is worth replaying. Not that I didn't like it - I would restrain some of my earlier optimism and say that the game doesn't hit the goodness that was either Deus Ex or Ocarina, but it nudges close to that kind quality.

Now mind you, I speak of The Lost Chapters version and I think that's distinctly important. As I understand the release for the Xbox, it is incredibly short and has a few aspects which would have been bizarre to leave out (like being able to discover, but not act on Lady Grey's past). Plus I think I clocked in at about nine hours when I hit the "first" ending, and only about sixteen for the whole TLC trip - so it's not like this version is long but it is almost long enough.

Some of the aspects of the game I'm still crazy about. I like that the game takes you from a boy to an older man. That leveling up slowly ages The Hero is a great correlation between age and time spent in the game. Although I'm not sure if I checked their math correctly ... it seems like I aged twenty years in two days. Actually, that's an analogy for how I feel about the game in general - some excellent ideas that were simply not executed fully.

A good example is the interaction with towns. You can buy houses and rent them out. Apparently you can also slay existing owners and steal their property - although I ended the game with more money than I could possibly use so I'm not sure why would you want to do that. However, there's no real control over the town. This is where a game like Dark Cloud 2 surpasses Fable - you really feel a sense of achievement for rebuilding and being a part of a town (even if the interaction afterwards is somewhat limited). Eventually The Hero can become mayor of Bowerstone ... but from I can see there's absolutely no real benefit or privilege to it. I didn't even get the big fancy house (just the ability to enter it). The same goes with aspects of social interaction like marriage. I kept trying to find someone actually interesting to marry, but barmaids really seem to be the choice of the game.

The storyline between good and evil was pretty basic and, like many games that try the "dual path" of narratives, your alignment doesn't feel like a huge deal to the overall world. Sure, people fear or love you - and I really, really enjoyed that aspect of it - but, heck for one thing it was hard to be evil in the game. You end up fighting so much evil either way that you practically have to make a side job of maiming villagers just to keep it up. In the end I had butterflies fluttering about not because I played an overall good Hero - but simply because I was lazy.

Sure, I could have killed Whisper or attacked the other heroes or whatnot. I didn't really get the impression that the "evil path" was a better story though. Like many games of this type, Fable felt like a story about a good person that was written with a few evil tangents for show. Eventually these games will need to get beyond the plotline that either the only two choices are to kill the villain or usurp the villain (since this structure involves little more than swapping out a cutscene or two). Instead, I should be able to become the villain early on and have people try and defeat me. I had thought the game was going to do this with Whisper - have her become the player's polar opposite throughout the game. Evil players would then find themselves on a completely side of the story with the game trying to foil their dastardly plots (or good players would find themselves trying to foil dastardly plots).

Course, I don't know when we'll see this in mainstream games. For two reasons .... one is that it can double some of the content required to produce and content is pretty expensive these days. Course, I could see a game laid out with maps similar to Unreal Tournament's Assault maps and having the same content with completely seperate goals depending on the player's alignment.

The second is possibly a more pronounced and unspoken reason - game developers still aren't fond of portraying real evil as being interactive. So we get this kind of watered down sideshow sort of evil. The advantage of the "destroy or usurp evil" plot format is that it still generally resembles the actions of someone doing good - just with alternate reasons. If you made a game that was really and truly about terrorizing a countryside in search of an ancient artifact so that you could become the servant of a Mad God ... well ... parent groups might object.

So let's not fool ourselves into thinking that there hasn't been a chilling effect on games.

Anyway, at $20 the game is well worth the money. It has some great mechanics and concepts and in general is a lot of fun. Mostly, though, the game serves as a sounding board for ideas which just haven't happened yet.