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Saturday, February 17, 2007

For Sunday: Ghibli Earthsea

Tales From Earthsea is a Studio Ghibli project that was helmed by Hayao's son Goro. Apparently there was some conflict between father and son added with some studio politics (the studio wanted to show Goro could direct before Hayao (I weep here) retires. See more at Ghibli's site.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Gran Turismo And Journalistic Accidents

Christopher Hayden, 19, overtook a BMW after finishing playing Gran Turismo on his PlayStation while parked in a layby. He was on the wrong side of the road and driving at up to 55mph in a 40mph area on a cold night when he crashed into 79-year-old Phylis Williams on a hazardous bend.

Bournemouth Crown Court in Dorset was told that Mrs Williams’s car spun into the path of the BMW and somersaulted through the air. She died at the scene of the crash.
-- Driver caused fatal crash after using PlayStation in car

I'm not sure where to begin with this one. The assumption that playing Gran Turismo was somehow a critical factor in this situation feels ... impossible to prove. It's just that - an assumption. Sure, it's an interesting aside but there's no attempt here to explore any factual connection. How long after Hayden was playing did he get into an accident? Were there any other factors? What time of night was it? What was the road like? The article leaves Gran Turismo out to hang as the sole example of what was found legally to be a routine example of careless driving. Hayden wasn't even found guilty of the larger offense of dangerous driving and the judge even showed leniency in the punishment due to his terminally ill girlfriend.

Does that sound like a court trial where a video game acted, as the article strongly suggests, like an intoxicant? If Hayden had been doing tequila shooters instead of Gran Turismo - surely the case would have gone differently. So how is it the article feels justified in blaming the game when nothing else does?

Once again, it's simple sensationalism. It's a way of making a very tragic story seem more exciting. Heck, they couldn't even be bothered to quote a study about aggression levels and games - either because more facts would only prove the connection more tenuous or they were simply too lazy.

They do, however, feel the need to list three other "killer games": Manhunt, Carmaggedon and Canis Canem (Bully). As Keith Stuart of the Guardian points out, this footnote also smacks of a journalistic failure:

The connection between Manhunt and the murder of Stefan Pakeerah has been widely discredited and officially denied by police investigating the case.

The tormenting of the homeless man in Canis Canem Edit, an accusation first put forward by The National Youth Council of Ireland, has been discredited. As this article points out the player befriends the homeless character and learns combat moves from him. Also, it's possible to earn a bonus item by giving money to the homeless.

True, Carmageddon was originally refused a certification, but publisher SCi made a successful appeal to the Video Appeals Committee under the European Convention on Human Rights. (Read more here).
-- Times reports on Gran Turismo crash - can't resist naming 'killer games'

The only success this article has is in promoting a stereotype of video games as a dangerous form of media ... even by rehashing already disproven examples.

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Game Night: Munchkin Strikes Again

Munchkin again proves to be evil fun. It has one of my favorite qualities of any game (board or computer) - a dynamic flow. At the beginning, it's fairly cooperative and jovial. By the end, you're making revenge curses and plotting your former ally's untimely demise. As the end approaches, everyone is making desperate full-scale assaults to keep anyone from succeeding at just about anyting. I think at one point I went to get a beer and someone tried to curse me with small hands. The evening ended with a Divine Intervention card - a kind a quick and random end game which can hand the game over to any clerics in the barn door. Had that not happened, I think The Girl was primed to win if she drew a low enough level monster. Right before that card was drawn, I dragged the whole table into a knock-out epic battle only to turn on monster into an illusion and unleash a doppleganger of myself ... only to have the original monster turn into a parrot.

It's just that kind of game.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

TV Watch: Lost In Time

So let's call it - last night's episode of Lost clearly outlines that any hope of providing a plausible scientific explanation for the events on the island is gone. Oh, sure, the polar bear, smoke monster and mysterious purple sky were good indicators. Desmond's ability to tell the future, naturally, was a huge tack in this direction.

Time travelling back to your previous life only to be returned by the smack of a cricket bat? Neatly avoiding all the improbablity of being whisked away before an explosion/implosion of crater-like proportions.

Clearly - the hatch was being powered by an Infinite Improbability Drive. Locke is lucky he wasn't turned into a futon.

So Arthur Dent jokes aside ... it's clear that the producers and writers have keened in on the fan disapproval of constantly avoiding answering anything. They're being extremely cautious about their approach though - now showing us two flashbacks which reveal more directly some of the actual workings behind the island. With Juliet, we saw an uncanny ability to determine the death of an individual and with Desmond someone shows the ability to know the future as well as an explanation that some things are simply fate.

Course - to me that seems contradictory. You can't will someone in front of bus and accept that everything is fate and inherently immutable. So not surprisingly, Gray Haired Lady wasn't telling Desmond everything.

And what's with people on this island not throttling Others for information? If some shopkeep knew my fate and it involved pressing a button for three years - I might so willing as to beat an explanation out of her.

Maybe, though, just maybe, the show about salvation is taking steps to its own. They stil feel shy about pulling back the layers of the onion, to use the mystery metaphor. I'm certainly not saying I want everything explained in a two hour special - but at this point the show needs to prove it has real meat on its bones. These last two episodes show they might be willing to change the format up a little, not always rely on background story drama and do just that. Next week, hopefully, we'll see for sure.

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Female Power Emergency Up!

That's the title of a new DS game launched by Anan, a women's magazine in Japan. According to New Launches, where I stole the picture from, 'gamers can build up on "romance," "body" and "manners."' So basically the game is if you were own tamogotchi ... and a barbie one at that?

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MacArthur Grant For Video Games

If that sounds like yet another New Age fad, destined for the scrapheap of once-trendy educational ideas alongside "new math," "open classrooms" and "whole language," consider this: The prominent Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation -- the people who give out those half-million-dollar genius grants every year -- is distributing $50 million to researchers to understand how digital technologies are changing the ways young people learn, play, socialize and exercise judgment.

"We realized that over 80 percent of American kids have game consoles at home, 90 percent of kids are online and 50 percent of them are producing things online, so we really need to understand what is going on here," said Constance Yowell, director of the MacArthur Foundation's digital research initiative. "This is what kids are doing, so we need to know both the positive benefits and the unintended consequences."

Hard data are scant so far -- most of the MacArthur-funded research projects are just getting under way -- but there's no shortage of anecdotes testifying to the educational benefits of video and computer games and new multimedia tools. Simulation games in particular have already been embraced by some educators, as well as many businesses and the U.S. military, as effective ways to introduce people to environments and situations that would otherwise be expensive, dangerous or impossible to access.

The computer games and tools being studied are generations removed from the static, linear educational software commonly found inside many of the nation's schools today -- software that girls and boys quickly master and then discard as boring.
-- I told you to play your video game!

This is possibly a smite more important than it sounds - the MacArthur Foundation has pretty good street cred with the academic set. The more research out there - and I mean research not silly soundbite press releases - the more we can talk seriously about the subject and stop yelling like BatJack lunatics.

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Gallery Of MST3K Posters

Including the always excellent Manos - this gallery features a large section of movies featured in Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and all the wacky 50's sci fi art you might ever need.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

In-Game Ads Testing For Counter-Strike

It appears that Valve has started testing in-game ads for Counter-Strike 1.6, Valve’s most popular game even 7 years after its release. When the news first broke that Valve would be adding advertisements into Counter-Strike, there was an uproar among the gaming community. Very few people supported Valve putting ads in their favorite first-person shooter, especially since they had paid for the game back when it didn’t have ads and development of Counter-Strike has essentially stopped. This action has already prompted a thread on Valve’s forums with over 550 comments, and almost all of them are negative.
-- Valve Starts Testing In-Game Ads for Counter-Strike [RealTechNews]

I guess you can add a command line param to get them to show up. It took me a while of browsing the thread in question to realize this is the original Counter-Strike, not CS:Source. Has Source really never managed to eclipse the original? I know CS's main draw is it's pure gravitational pull .. but wow. Valve just keeps going back to the well with this one.

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Book Review: World War Z

Thanks to Snow Day, I got to actually sit down with a book yesterday. Since becoming a programmer I've read less and less print. Lifestyle changes, crunch times, accessibility to the Internet and game consoles have eroded what used to be a major portion of my day. You when you recover from a long illness and realize you haven't eaten much in days and instantly become ravenous? I devoured half of World War Z in a few hours.

The book is by Max Brooks, son of Mel and author of the Zombie Survival Guide - which isn't just a companion piece but is actually referred within WWZ. Brooks assumes the role of an interviewer who hops the globe collecting stories from the war against the zombies. It's like modernism lite - even the dust jacket of the book plays along with the faux history that is being woven. As such, WWZ is essentially a collection of shorts framed by Brooks as a mostly invisible narrator. Brooks will posit questions to his characters and provide annotations and footnotes, but mostly the novel is first person accounts of zombie survival.

It's very difficult to pin this book down to anything. It's not comedy - some of the stories are poignant and haunting. Yet - it never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously or get weighted down with lectures. At times it borders on satire as human errors and strategic mistakes comprise nearly as much of the horror as flesh eating ghouls ... but there isn't a tone of indictment. It's historical fiction with a horror twist. While at times almost overly simplistic - a factor of telling short accounts intended to seem factual - Brooks compensates by providing a pretty well rounded world of slang and a plausible set of world events which interplay in between the stories.

The result is a lot of fun and quick read that isn't hard to put down but will make you want to pick it up again shortly. If, like me, you can hardly find the time even for that - it's been recently optioned for a movie.

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Old Controversy, New Controversy

It's all the same old story. From Wikipedia's entry on the computer game version of I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream:

Not everyone had praise for the game. After previews of the game appeared, the Simon Wiesenthal Center sent Cyberdreams a letter expressing their concern that Nimdok’s adventure involved the Holocaust, a subject too serious to be made light of by appearing in a game, they felt.

However, Ellison was very passionate about using an adventure-plot centering around the Holocaust within this game about good versus evil. As he said in one magazine review, "I’m a Jew and I wanted to put something in the game that would deal with the Holocaust. The job of an artist is to set your synapses on fire, and that’s what I wanted to do in this game."
-- I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (computer game) [Wikipedia]

That was interactive fiction a graphic adventure released in 1995. It's almost the exact same argument Baxter raised against Super Columbine RPG and it's a kissing cousin to the complaints about Bully and the like. It's not that you can't talk about it - it's that games aren't an appropriate medium. The reasons shift - either games are too juvenile, too interactive, too entertaining or whatnot - but the gist is the same.

Although I guess that's not entirely true. There's an odd spectrum here. In one hand, games aren't serious and shouldn't be taken seriously. Or - games are aggressively interactive and therefore too influential on the player to deal with serious topics. That's night and day. Either we're dealing with trivial toys or machines with serious impacts. Critics can't have it both ways.

I know some gamers have a polarized view of Harlan Ellison - but that's really beside the point. I'm reading the short story because (as it turns out) it shares some thematic concepts with the backstory to Dreadnought. The point is that back in the day a computerized version of fiction was considered, by some, to be insulting to a memory simply because it was computerized. In a similar way, Super Columbine was deemed unfit for consumption by Slamdance not because of the subject material per se ... but simply because it was computerized. The arguments have changed but the fear remains the same.

I just finished the short story and what's interesting is that I suspect the interactive game might actually be a better and more powerful narrative. I wish I could find a playable copy.

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TV Watch: Mostly Painless

There's the occasional scene in 24 that really gets me excited about the show. Sometimes it involves blowing stuff up - but other times it's little urban vignettes like landing a helicopter atop some truck trailers. Other times it feels like you can see the clockwork wheels turning and the writing stumbles over the show's format. Overall, though, the show is fun.

Course, then I read about the creator defending torture as a questioning method and I begin to wonder if I should even keep watching the show. Thomas speaks (at that link) more eloquently than I have the time here - but let me just say it's one thing to continue using torture as a plot device because it conveniently fits the contrived crisis as much as it does an hour long episode ... it's another to defend it as concept against people who undoubtably have more real life experience on the subject. It probably shouldn't matter, but it gets harder to buy into a conceit as merely theatre when you know the people behind might be buying into their fictional fantasy a little much.

Pretty good episode. House is better when a) it's not trumping up silly bets and b) Wilson has a sense of humor to go with a backbone and conscience.

Veronica Mars
Wallace shows up at a cafeteria table and has a brief but funny conversation with V. Remember when that was like ... common? I kinda hope the writers do. Also, Little Miss Sunshine's effect on Logan's heart was a nice twist to the pity party he's been in since like the second season ... but god I hope that party is now officially over. Dick was rapidly becoming the most likable character on the show.


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Snow Day

Took a vacation day today - it looks a bit like the sky cracked over Chicago and bellowed forth snow. I've seen it worse, but but not by a great deal and honestly shovelling out an alley with a bad arm didn't sound like fun.

Whether this turns into more or less posting will remain to be seen.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Stained Glass PC

Via MAKE. Apparently made from "canary wood, copper, lead, and of course, stained glass". Sweet.

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Questions About High Def

Right now the top selling console, by a wide margin, is the PlayStation 2. What console do people think this demographic will get once they are ready to go High Def?

Follow up: The best selling platform is the DS. The Wii is the only next gen console which what could really be called a stellar launch (easily breaking expecations). For the next couple years - how much does High Def really matter?

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Dev Diary: Oh Wii, Oh My

My overall concern with Dreadnought right now is with it's format. Not so much "inner loop" like worrying about combat mechanics or "outer loop" like thinking about graphics - but rather more basic ideas like the size of tiles, resolution concerns, etc.

It occurs to me that the Wii might be a great baseline machine to keep in mind for designing webgames. It's a low common denominator with an energized user base. And anything that runs on the Wii will run on any PC and possibly even a few handhelds (depending on their browser implementation). In fact, if I avoid using AJAX it might make for a very wide audience - but I still like using AJAX for data loading ... so we'll have to see.

It's not easy though. The Wii has a tiny recommended resolution - about 600x450. That's not surprising ... TV resolution minus chrome, I suppose. However, I was trying to make the tiles large enough to be readable on high res monitors as well... so that means my viewable map area is now something like a 20x20 grid. Complicating that further is that the interface is based on absolutely position divs (which get compared to mouse inputs) which might make scrolling very complicated.

So I might make maps sectioned into 20x20 areas which will be linked togethers. There will probably be a limit to the number of sections as well. I don't know how much of a turn off this is compared to sprawling maps.

I just got the foundation for this working yesterday, so we'll see if I haven't changed my mind by Friday.

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Game Play: More On Dark Cloud 2

I clocked several hours with Dark Cloud 2 over the weekend. Chicago remains a brutal wasteland for people wanting to anything outside ... and I'm not even one of those people. There is still a fascinating compulsion to compare this title to Ocarina Of Time despite it's wide differences. It's not nearly was "wander" friendly. At times the game won't have anything for you to do except go and plunder old dungeons for challenges and figure out how to build up your villages. In fact, the cycle of "raid new dungeons, build village, revisist old dungeons" is so tight that it got a nod in the dialogue.

Only once has the game really annoyed me. While Ocarina would occasionally offer strangely obtuse puzzles (did that rolling Dodongo want to talk, need something or deserve a bomb?) - Dark Cloud 2 is largely blunt about its plot. Almost hammer-like as it repeats specific clues on where or what you should be trying to do. And so it was odd when I couldn't go any farther in a new dungeon and I had no idea what to do with the current village because most of the goals were still obscured.

Apparently, I was supposed to guess. I was certain I had done something else wrong - like not pick up an item or forget to try and take a seperate path. No, no, it was just being difficult. Very, very difficult. For instance, I needed to get a specific person and move him into a specific village. No way I would have thought of that. No way. So on the opposite end of clarity are these demands that I wonder if the game wasn't built with the old "let's find a way to sell more official guides" philosophy. Really, really annoying.

Fortunately - we live in the day of intertubes and now I know I can look up those hidden goals whenever. Otherwise, the game is still a delight. The combat is honestly some of the best you can hope for in an action RPG - some strategy and timing required. The landscapes are rich and varied and cutscenes often pretty entertaining. I just hit the spheda games (a golf variant you can play on some dungeon levels) and fishing tourneys - so there is even more to enjoy.

I really hope a Dark Cloud 3 hits s soon. It would definately be the kind of title to put a plus in the column for the PS3. Rumors persist, but I'll just have to see.

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MacLive - Xbox Live For OS X

Via 99 Lives is this find within the dark reaches of Google Code pages ... MacLive, a Cocoa frontend for talking to Xbox Live ... so that you can keep up to date with your Gears Of War buddies even while avoiding a blue screen.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

For Sunday: F.E.A.R. In The Real World

This was the winner from Sierra and's "Show us Your F.E.A.R. Contest". Which I had somehow managed to stay oblivious to until just now.

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