Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Step 1: Asbestos-Lined Tunic

This weekend we caught a couple movies in theaters, including Dreamworks' new animated film How To Train Your Dragon. I really didn't have any desire to see it at all, let alone in a theater, but it was a pleasant surprise: a movie geared towards children that is appropriate for children but is appealing to adults and not made by Pixar.

HTTYD, thankfully, doesn't placate kids. It's not a situation where the kids are smarter than the adults in the film. The dragon that interacts with our hero is a playful, emotional animal. It never talks, but is still able to communicate in a typically animalistic way. And there's plenty of high-flying dragon-riding action to be had, but the dragon antics have a sense of weight and scale and urgency.

In other words, this is the movie Eragon wishes it could have been.

The characters have a lot of heart, the dialog is curt and snappy. There are a couple of shots that were clearly designed to milk the 3-D and play around with focus. But honestly, I saw the film in 2-D and it was just fine. And there are plenty of jokes for adults, there were quite a few moments were my friends and I were laughing raucously... alone (one particular joke about a breast-plate stands out in my mind...).

The movie never got overly preachy, and when it came to the hero's plight, real choices and real sacrifices had to be made. And that's refreshing. And Abby would chastise me if I neglected to mention the quality of the animation of, particularly, stubble and fur--very impressive. So if you get a chance, take the kids to see How To Train Your Dragon.

Because it's way, way better than the last Shrek movie was.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Left 4 Half-Life

Having just finished Half-Life 2, I'm starting to take a more broad-spectrum account of its role in Valve's life and library. The original Half-Life reinvented the first-person shooter, and the sequel sought to do the same. While HL2 doesn't break new ground the same way its predecessor did, it's a vastly better game in terms of improved mechanics, storytelling, graphics, writing, etc, etc, etc--I particularly liked the cinematic approach to the end, where it become more about atmosphere and new weapon mechanics than about fighting harder and harder boss fights. Having completed it, I have a better understanding of its role in shaping the company's other IP's and its direction.

Since releasing HL2, Valve has reinvented one franchise (Team Fortress) and launched two new ones: Portal and Left 4 Dead. Portal's inheritance from HL2 is relatively obvious. Not only was it packaged with Half-Life 2 and its episodic follow-ups, but it exists within the same world and is filled with recognizable sounds, objects, concepts, and mechanics. Team Fortress is only tangentially related--it started life as a Quake mod but was adapted to the HL world via Team Fortress Classic, and it has been a flagship in Valve's business model of entertainment-as-a-service. By contrast, the Left 4 Dead franchise is a brilliant culmination of concepts that were introduced in HL2, improved in L4D, and improved again in L4D2.

First, there's the basic gameplay paradigm: you are a survivor getting help from other survivors while trying to make your way through an urban setting filled with zombies. This is straight out of the "Ravenholm" chapter of HL2, where you traverse city streets and rooftops killing zombies with the aid of a NPC survivor. Ravenholm (and some later chapters) even feature proto-versions of the L4D panic events, where you have to dig in and defend against a wave of zombie attacks. Later in HL2 your role changes from individual-on-a-mission to squad-leader, which again feels very similar to the single-player gameplay of L4D.

The two games also have remarkably similar level-design, both visually and conceptually. Both take place in ruined civilizations. Both try to tell a lot of back-story using visual information worked into the scenery, including heavy use of graffiti. Both consist of linear paths that ape open-worlds. And both use a lot of the same "tricks" to draw the player towards the correct path.

Now, Valve has done a great deal of work to streamline their production without sacrificing game quality. The use of the AI director to spawn enemies in the L4D games, as well as new ways to play test that didn't eat into as much time for as many developers, meant that they were able to make a larger, more complex sequel to L4D in single year after spending 3 years on the original. And the ease of development here is a good indication of why Valve is moving away from monolithic story-puzzlers like HL and HL2 and towards smaller, iterable games like Portal or the Half-Life episodes or games that are more geared towards replay like TF2 and the L4D series.

For perspective, the L4D games both have only about 4 or 5 hours of gameplay if played once through. But they're still considered "full" games because they're meant to be replayed, and you can have dramatically different experiences from one play-through to the next. Half-Life 2 has closer to 12 hours of gameplay, all of it linear, and much of it puzzle-based. Geographically, it's substantially larger: any one of its chapters may be the same size as a full L4D campaign, and the vehicle levels are simply huge by comparison. And Half-Life is thematically about isolation, so you end up with setpieces that take place in huge, open spaces. L4D is more thematically tied to a claustrophobic feeling, so you end up with smaller areas. With the L4D games, you make your map, have the director plant enemies, and play test. In Half-Life games, you make 5 times as many larger maps, you place enemies manually, then you playtest your combat levels, readjust enemy placement, playtest your puzzles, readjust the maps, readjust enemy placements for adjusted maps, playtest combat with new enemy placements, and so forth.

When you add in the idea that early levels are often tutorials for later levels with more complex puzzles, you're looking at a huge development process. And if you're dedicated to quality, then you're going to end up with a long development cycle. Small wonder, then, that Half-Life 2 took five years to develop, and why we're seeing 4-5 hour "episodes" instead of a third full game.

That said, I've found the Half-Life games quite rewarding, if not as replayable, and I'm looking forward to starting the episodes where they add commentary tracks and (in episode 2) achievements. And then I'll be in the rabble clamoring for episode 3, no doubt.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Don't Click Unless You Have A Few Hours To Spare

No, really.

It doesn't update anymore, but it's still a fun sight to waste time: Rock and Roll Confidential's Hall of Douchebags. These are real pictures that real musicians used to promote themselves. Obviously, they're not the most successful musicians...

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Friday, March 19, 2010

I Already Made The Whole-Life Joke, Didn't I?

Well, I'm 12 years late to the party, but I finally got through Half-Life. Despite the fact that the graphics are a bit dated, I'm amazed at how well the game holds up. I enjoyed the mystery of the story, particularly that surrounding the G-Man, whom you see in frequent, fleeting bursts, but whom you only meet at the end. I enjoyed the fact that the final confrontation involved using all (or most) of the skills you've developed throughout the game, including the low-G platforming that was introduced when you enter the alien world. I liked the parallelism of the bookends--how it starts and ends on a train. Color me impressed.

So I went ahead and started on Half-Life 2, which I had attempted before, but had gotten away from while en route to Ravenholme (Chapter 5, methinks). It didn't take very long to get caught back up, partly because I could remember several of the puzzles, and partly because I had gotten used to the mechanics of the first, and partly because I didn't find the 4th chapter nearly as nauseating this time around (I've previously referred to it as "the vehicle section that doesn't end").

Playing the original has endeared me to the sequel, having better understanding for the conceits and logic of the universe of the game, as well as why NPC's think so highly of Gordon Freeman when he shows up out of the blue after a twenty-ish year hiatus. And I have to praise Valve for their approach in making a sequel. It's easy to make a sequel that apes the original, maybe adds a weapon or two, but follows the same plot and same characters in the same (or similar) settings in an oh-no-here-we-go-again sort of way (if not a straight-up retelling). Instead, Half-Life 2 takes place in an unrecognizable future that is indelibly connected and yet tacitly different from the world Freeman left behind in the first game.

It's also interesting that you are dropped into a foreign situation both as a player and a character. Freeman's been in stasis since the conclusion of the original, and while he's been gone the human race has been enslaved. You start out (on a train) with no idea what's going on or what you're supposed to do, only given the knowledge that "the right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world." In short, you're there to stir the shit.

So, along with a deeper story with a greater sense of immersion, you get better-developed characters, stronger voice acting, more casual dialog and fairly cinematic scenes that present story without completely obstructing gameplay. The presentation is vastly improved, there are new weapons and new enemies (and old weapons, and old enemies). While it still alternates between combat and physics puzzles, the puzzles feel less like a series of tutorials, and by the way, there is no more tutorial section--everything you need to know to play the game is worked into regular gameplay.

And then there's the addition of auto-saves. If they were int he first game, I had them turned off, and while I don't really use them, I appreciate that they're there. I went to the Final Fantasy school of "die well, die often, save well, save often", but almost every time I saved, both Auto-Save files (which appear to alternate auto-saves) had already updated, meaning the game was at least twice a diligent as I was.

So I'm enjoying Half-Life 2. I admire its bravery, because it takes a very solid step away from safe ground in what could have been a by-the-numbers shooter. We'll see if it ends with as much strength as it begins.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Step Right Up...

So Abby and I recently watched Adventureland, and I thought I'd give my impressions. This is more of a discussion than a review, so if you haven't seen it, be warned that there will be spoilers. If want you want is a review, here's a short one: I liked it. I didn't love it, but I appreciated the approach it took.

Adventureland starts with an incredibly tired premise: geeky, virginal protagonist is preparing for a fancy trip but his family falls on hard times and he is forced to cancel his plans and take a shitty job where he will meet new and interesting (quirky) people and lose his virginity to a hot alternative girl who might just be the woman of his dreams. We've seen this plot (or a variation on it) in a hundred low-brow teen sex comedies. But the movie treats its subjects with a refreshing honesty and delicacy.

For example, take Jesse Eisenberg, who plays our hero: James. In other films (read "other films" as Zombieland), I've called Eisenberg the poor man's Michael Cera, but he seems much better suited to this role. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Cera would have been miscast. But Eisenberg works because James isn't a generic nerd--he's a renaissance nerd! He has a degree in English literature and is going to Columbia to study journalism. His hair isn't Jew-fro, it's Roger Daltry. He has retained his virginity because he's a hopeless romantic and doesn't feel like he's really fallen in love. And he's not lacking in social graces either (which is not to say that he's totally bereft of awkwardness). In fact, he's rather funny to be around. Rather than give in to the tropes of teen sex comedies, Adventureland gives us a well-rounded character with real problems.

Likewise, Kristen Stewart's Em isn't your typical closet-geek-disguised-as-a-hot-chick. She's a real person, attractive but damaged and a little scary. On a side note, I haven't decided yet what I think of Stewart as an actress. You can't really hang Twilight on her, but I can't shake the feeling that she's being typecast here. Her performance was great, it just might not have been much of a performance. Time will tell. Time and The Runaways.

Now we all know what to expect from this sort of comedy (things start getting spoilery here, just so you're warned). Guy and girl will develop a relationship but it will be complicated by something or other. That something will blow up in their faces in Act II and the relationship will be off, meanwhile our hero will have a falling out with his parents and ruin what little remaining plans he had. But, with the help of his friends, he'll have a revelation and do something crazy to prove his love and win back the girl. Part of that revelation will undoubtedly involve our hero realizing that the shitty situation (in this case, working at a theme park) isn't that bad after all. Some of this happens in Adventureland, but not in ways you'd expect. Some of it flat out doesn't happen.

For starters, the theme park never stops being shitty. It's a surreal hell run by crazy people where the customers will threaten to knife you for a giant stuffed panda and where you have to hear Rock Me Amadeus twenty times a day. And worse yet, James and Em work in "Games", the shittiest part of this hell-hole. Second, James's friends never help him out. In fact, one friend does little apart from punch James in the balls whenever there's an opportunity. Almost everyone in the film betrays James at some point or another, except Bobby (Bill Hader), who runs the park. And I will pause here to interject that the one weak point of the movie for me was Bobby, who was played for comedy in a way that seemed to undermine the rest of the film.

Another example, and I really, really appreciate this: Em's and James's relationship wasn't the slightest bit contrived. There was no gimmick that brought them together (your basic sitcom version of this plot would have James lie about himself to impress the girl, that lie becomes the complication that drives them apart in Act II). Instead, they dug each other, and a relationship blossomed organically. There was a complicating factor, but it wasn't that they were from different worlds or that Em was embarrassed that her friends and family would find out (that particular trope gets a proper punch-up in the middle of the film). No, the problem was that she had been sleeping with the park's married handyman (a thoroughly enjoyable Ryan Reynolds).

And when their relationship goes to shit, it isn't because of misunderstandings--it's because they did genuinely awful things to each other. It got bad enough that I half-expected them to not get back together when they were reunited at the end of the movie.

Lastly, I want to credit this film with the proper use of subtext. There was a scene in which James gets chewed out by his mother after wrecking the car. She points out a bottle of liquor that she found in there--it was true that James had been drunk we he got in the accident, but the bottle was his father's. When the bottle hits the table, the scene stops being about James's mother's lecture. While she rants, James and his father exchange a number of pained looks--James is upset for being thrown under a bus; his father feels guilty for letting James take the fall completely, but he also feels too pathetic to step in.

So at the end of the day, I was really impressed by Adventureland. It took what could have been a very normal, mediocre story and made something honest and painful and real out of it.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

T.I.B.S. Texas Textbook Edition

I have a weird sort of affection for Texas, since I grew up there. But this is bullshit.

On Friday, Texas's board of education approved a social studies curriculum designed to put a more conservative spin on history. If you read through the article, you'll find a few disturbing trends.

First, there's the belief in Texas that history texts are too liberal. I find this frightening because across the country, history texts are overwhelmingly conservative. They cast American history in a light of marching progress, completely glossing over or ignoring the darker bits (not the least of which is our genocide of the natives, which dominated American politics for the first 100 years of her existence).

Second, there's the belief that America was founded on Christian principles, which is demonstrably untrue--laughably false, given that many of the founding fathers were openly deist. America was founded on, if anything, French philosophy.

Third, there's the belief that the skewing of history should be remedied by skewing it the other way. You don't fix a broken leg by breaking it in the opposite direction.

Fourth, there's the surprising lack of internal logic. One of the changes being proposed is to highlight that German and Italian Americans were interned during World War II along with Japanese Americans--to undermine the notion that Japanese internment was motivated by racism. But it doesn't. It just points out that racism was extended to Germans and Italians as well as the Japanese.

Lastly, I'm disturbed by what's overwhelmingly lacking: the opinion of anyone who is a historian (the changes are being championed by Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist), and the pursuit of truth. Balance should not be an issue in history--there is one set of facts. Often those facts are subject to some interpretation, but that interpretation should be the activity of the students, not the history textbook.

This is bullshit.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Salt Of The Earth

There's currently a bill to ban salt in restaurants in New York.

No. Really.

Customers would be allowed to use salt, according to the bill introduced by Assembly Felix Ortiz, but cooks, chefs, and bakers would not, under threat of $1,000 fine per violation. Now, this is stupid for more reasons that you think--the chemistry of salt in cooking does more than add flavor. The link above gives a lengthy overview of why this bill is lunacy, but if I may quote the article directly:

Ortiz admits that prior to introducing the bill he did not research salt’s role in food chemistry, its effect on flavor or his bill’s ramifications for the restaurant industry. He tells me he was prompted to introduce the bill because his father used salt excessively for many years, developed high blood pressure and had a heart attack.

Couple things. First, Ortiz admits that he did no research on the role of salt in cooking. Second, the main motivation is that his father used too much salt--but since salt would still be available to patrons, the bill would not have saved his father's life.

Seriously, people. Think before you legislate.

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Friday, March 12, 2010

The Karate Kid Re-Visited

With the Jackie Chan/Jaden Smith re-imagining of The Kung Fu Karate Kid coming out this summer, Abby and I decided to re-watch the original. "Re-watch" may not be the right word. I watched the sequels many, many times growing up, but I have no recollection of the original. I can remember many of the scenes, because the sequels mined their predecessor for footage whenever possible--the first five minutes of the second movie is a montage of the scenes from the first, including the final fight of the tournament.

On a side note, one my memories from the second film is this girl who appears to run out of the audience and hug Daniel after he wins the tournament--which struck me as a child as a weird thing to happen at a karate tournament. You never see her face, so I always remembered her as the random girl with the large butt. Turns out it was Elisabeth Shue.

Anyway, the original's good, but while we watched it Abby and I realized that you could never make that movie today. Why?

1. There's almost as much karate in the movie as there is in the title. With the exception of a few beatings through the middle, even as Daniel trains, there's not much fighting until the third act. When it finally happens, it's very watchable--not as over-the-top as what we're seeing in the previews for the 2010 version, but still fast and frenetic.

2. Lax pacing, in addition to a long running time (just over two hours). It's not that slower and longer movies don't regularly come out, it's just that a movie with the word "karate" in the title could not be nearly as relaxed if it were made today. There is no conflict in the film at all for about twenty minutes. It's an hour before Daniel signs up for the tournament, which drives the plot for the rest of the film and cements the relationship between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi. And if I had to cut anything, it'd be the romance subplot.

3. Mr. Miyagi is a bad influence. Under his supervision, Daniel lies on a registration form, drives without a license, and drinks alcohol.

4. Daniel is kind of a prick. The central conflict is about Daniel and some bullies, but Daniel doesn't help his cause at all. He starts two of the fights that lead to his epic beat-downs (although he certainly didn't deserve the beating they gave him)

5. Only the bad guys care about winning. Miyagi says over and over that Daniel doesn't have to win and that he shouldn't expect to win. The point is to make a good fight. His antagonists, on the other hand, are driven to win at all costs.

6. The main characters are actually kinda sorta like real human beings. Daniel is a jerky little teen from Newark. Mr. Miyagi is a lonely old Okinawan. Modern movies like heroes to be righteous and use quirks as proxies for flaws. Daniel and Miyagi's flaws are big and bold, while their quirks are more subtle. One of my favorite bits was the wide lapels on Mr. Miyagi's suit--because it's his only suit and he bought it in the seventies. It could have been played for comedy, but it was subdued--a character facet for anyone who cared to notice.

7. The 80's song montage. Back To The Future had The Power Of Love; Beverly Hills Cop had The Heat Is On; Top Gun had Danger Zone; Rocky had Eye Of The Tiger. Big movies in the 80's all had their cheesy theme song, it's just what you did. For The Karate Kid, the bulk of the climactic karate tournament happens while Joe Esposito sings You're The Best, kicked off by Elisabeth Shue (hilariously) invoking the title. The film suffers a little from it.

8. The training regimen almost kind of makes sense. Daniel has studied karate before the film's opening scenes--but he's learned it from books. Daniel is referred to as "Karate Kid" before he spends any kind of time with Mr. Miyagi, and when they do start training, they mostly work on his form, strength, balance, and reflexes. So it's mostly believable that Daniel can go from getting-his-ass-handed-to-him to winning the tournament in only two months--he already knew how to fight, he just sucked at it. The most telling sign of his transformation comes in the locker room when he nearly has an altercation. Two months ago, when confronted, he would have run or charged. This time, he snaps immediately into a defensive posture.

The Karate Kid works (where its sequels fail) because it's a triumph of solid storytelling over placating your audience. Yes, there's not a lot of fighting in it, but the movie isn't about fighting. It's about a kid without a father who goes on a right of passage and develops a relationship with an older man who lost his son. Their friendship is born of mutual respect and admiration, and their friendship is the heart and soul of the movie.

I'm curious about the re-invention. It's not hiding the fact that it will be drastically different, even the characters named are different (Dre instead of Daniel, Mr. Han instead of Mr. Miyagi). It takes place in Beijing rather than Los Angeles, the mentor is Chinese, not Okinawan. Etc, etc, etc. I'll defer to Rotten Tomatoes before I see it in theaters, but I'm cautiously optimistic--it might be a worthwhile.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Oscar Reactions

So I actually picked the winner. Sort of. I wanted it to win, I just didn't think it would.

Am I talking about The Hurt Locker? Of course not, I was sure Avatar would win. I'm talking about the winner for Best Animated Short Film: Logorama.


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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Open The Mac Valve For More Steam!

Right now there are only two software companies whose announcements I can really get excited about: Google and Valve.

Google's code is immaculate, their products are ubiquitous. Which is not to say that they haven't made a few missteps, but whether you like them or not, they've made your internet experience better. It's called the Wal-Mart effect: a few stingy shoppers harangue Wal-Mart to keep their prices low, but you get the benefit of their labors just by shopping there. In this case, Google reinvented e-mail with gmail, and it was so successful that Yahoo! and Hotmail copied them--hence, you get more storage on your Hotmail account. Or there's Chrome, Google's web-browser, which beat the pants off of IE and Firefox in speed tests. Microsoft and Mozilla stepped up their game in response, and you get the benefit of a faster browsing experience no matter which browser you use!

Also, they do something with search engines, I forget what exactly.

Now take a look at Valve. Yes, I've been wigging out over Portal 2 news and gushing over Half-Life, and I'd hoped to leave it at that. And then yesterday Valve announced that their distribution client, their gaming engine, and their entire catalog would be coming to Mac this spring.*

With all the platform wars going on, Valve decided the best way to do things was to open the field to more players. You know the Soul Caliber series of tournament fighters? In the last two numbered installments, the game had a difference "bonus" character for each platform. In Soul Caliber IV, for instance, XBOX 360 owners could play as Yoda, while PS3 owners could play as Darth Vader. If you want to play as both... well, you have to buy two versions of the game. It was new, it was innovative, it was downright dickish.

If you read the press-release from Valve (same link as above) regarding Steam-for-Mac, they say over and over that from now on, all their releases will be simultaneous for Mac, Windows, and XBOX 360. Games will run on native code, not emulation. They will be simultaneous builds, not ports. Furthermore, if you own a copy of game for Windows, you automatically get a license for Mac at no additional charge. In short, they've decided to take "gaming" away from Microsoft, and they've made pretty clear that the Mac version will not be some ugly younger sister, but will get the same treatment.

This is pretty groundbreaking, and it's one of the reasons I've come to respect Valve so much. What does this mean for you? Well, probably nothing, unless you count the Wal-Mart effect. Since Valve is catering to Apple and has re-written their distribution client to be compatible, they're going to be encouraging other game developers to write for Mac. Which means other software developers will begin to follow suit. So, if you're a Mac-user, you'll have more software available and if you're a Windows user you'll be better able to interact with Mac users.

And the world slowly becomes a more open place.

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*to clarify: the Steam client distributes games that are not made by Valve, and obviously not all of those will be Mac-compatible, but everything Valve makes will be.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Do Two Half-Life's Make A Whole?

Well, Portal 2 has been officially announced for the holidays--this time Valve told us using a straight-forward news release rather than their recent viral malarky (but don't worry, the press release contained a hidden login for the BBS site that revealed a co-op mode). Details will be unveiled over the coming month, but for right now we know a few things: GLaDOS is back, Chell is probably back, there's a co-op mode, and the game will be a full-size release (Portal is relatively small, taking only a few hours to get through on the first go, and only costing $10-$20 depending on where you buy it).

All this Portal news has made me curious about the Half-Life series, since the two take place in the same universe. For the uninitiated, Half-Life takes place in the Black Mesa research facility, Portal takes place in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, and according to the mythology of the games the two corporations are rivals. Supposedly Half-Life 2: Episode 2 finishes up on the Borealis, a ship owned by Aperture Science. So there is further speculation that Portal 2 will tie in to the as-yet-unreleased Half-Life 2: Episode 3 somehow.

This would be much more exciting if I had played the Half-Life games, which I haven't. I have them all--I picked up the original on a whim and got the sequels with The Orange Box. But they tend to make me a bit sea-sick--especially the first one. But, again, with all this Portal news, I decided to give it another go--I futzed with the settings to find something that would be less grating on my sense of equilibrium (and was successful: 2-1 mouse movement and a 4:3 screen ratio did the trick). So now I've gotten about a third of the way through the original.

And holy shit...

Valve's fingerprints are pretty easy to recognize. Their games are all first-person shooters with a highly-developed story that is told interactively (read as: no cut-scenes). There's usually a pretty dark sense of humor at play, and the games are designed with an eye towards subverting expectations and making sure that the damned thing is--if nothing else--fun. You come to expect this from them--but I really wasn't expecting so much from their debut release. Hell, Half-Life came out in 1998; the pinnacles of PC shooters at that time were Duke Nukem and Doom. The zenith of PC puzzlers at that time was Riven.

But it's all there in Half-Life--the jokes, the surprises (floors surprisingly dropping out from under you as you enter a room), the creepy bad-guys, the background action, all those things that really immerse in you a universe are there. And even if you aren't following the story, it's pretty easy to play the game--kill anything that attacks you, do what it takes to advance. Characters are easily identifiable, even at a distance. And for a "shooter", there's a surprisingly large emphasis on puzzling. Not hard to see why it was considered such a break-through when it came out. And while visually, it's a bit dated, I'm having tremendous fun playing it.

You know, now that it doesn't make me want to throw up.

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Friday, March 5, 2010

Boy, Does My Ashburn!

So, Republican State Senator Roy Ashburn, who has a pretty healthy track record of voting against gay rights, was pulled over for drunk driving the other day. Leaving a gay bar. With another dude.

If you've seen Kirby Dick's Outrage, you'll know that this sort of thing happens all the time in politics. Washington (and California as well, it seems) is a haven of closeted self-loathing homosexuals who grow up to be self-oppressing homosexuals. Schadenfreude aside, can we start treating these people as people already?

Of course, it wasn't until 1973 that homosexuality was declassified as a form of insanity. So, there's progress there, I guess.

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Gaming Soon 2: Eclectic Boogaloo

Valve have been busy.

In addition to the new Left 4 Dead 2 content coming this month, the Left 4 Dead content due out next month and a recent post to the Team Fortress 2 blog about the (final) forthcoming class update for the engineer, it looks like there've been some rumblings on the Portal 2 front as well.

On Monday, Valve released a somewhat cryptic update for Portal about having changed transmission frequencies. Since that update dropped, Portal is now sporting a new achievement that can be unlocked using radios that are now present throughout the game.

It gets weirder.

Each of the radios gives you some kind of audible signal when you move them to the right place in the level--four of them are Morse code that give the impression that GLaDOS is rebooting. The other 22 can be run through an SSTV program to generate numbered image files, all bearing the Aperture Science logo.

No, wait, it gets weirder.

The alphanumeric designations on the images, when run together into a single String, is an md5 hash for a phone number to a BBS dataline in Kirkland, Washington. The username and password for the BBS can be found in the Morse code messages, and from it you can retrieve (via telnet) some ASCII data streams that appear to be images of test chambers and memos from Cave Johnson, the fictional founder of Aperture Laboratories.

All of this brings me to my second point: the people at Valve are fucking insane.

Not nearly as insane, it seems, as the fans who've spent the last 48 hours decoding all of this and sharing their findings. Valve's managing director Gabe Newell is going to receive an award on the 11th of this month, and there's some speculation (reinforced by the fact that GLaDOS is in version 3.11) that he will use this opportunity to announce... something... be it Portal 2, Half-Life 2: Episode 3, The Orange Box 2, or something else in that vein.

And it seems to still be happening: yesterday another mysterious update dropped, this one labeled "Added valuable asset retrieval", and with it came a slightly changed ending to the game (don't worry, the song is intact). [SPOILER] Originally after defeating GLaDOS, you black out in the parking lot, but it's assumed that Chell escaped. Now, instead, a male robotic voice thanks you for assuming the party escort submission position and you are dragged backwards a short distance before the scene fades out.

So one thing's for sure, we've got a full-fledged alternate-reality-game going on here. This should be an interesting month. Between announcements, releases, and notes-and-ASCII-streams-generated-by-telnetting-into-a-BBS-(seriously-who-uses-that-anymore?)-whose-number-was-md5-encoded-in-image-files-which-were-encoded-as-audio-files-that-can-be-heard-so-as-to-unlock-a-brand-new-achievement-mysteriously-uploaded-on-Monday... we've got... well... um...

What was I saying?

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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Post Band Reflections

The band had our first gig in two years Saturday night, and it went pretty well. It's invigorated us with a sense of purpose--it turns out we're actually pretty decent at the whole "music" thing. We just suck at the business side.

Three hours, lots of mistake, some visits from the whiskey fairy, getting home after two in the morning. Shouting drinking songs into a microphone while 50-or-so people sway and dance.

It was a blast.

On a related note, the band's website has been completely revamped. The finished product is at BlindSatellite.com and on the music page you can hear/download a song. We intend to grow that from one song to several songs in the next couple of months.

Exciting times. But mostly, it just felt good to play in front of people again.

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Gaming Soon

Some exciting video game news.

There's a new trailer up for Super Mario Galaxy 2, and they've announced the release date: May 23. So that's something to be excited about. Abby and I played the first one together and had quite a bit of fun doing so--and hey, any video game that's fun for both the semi-gamer husband and the non-gamer wife is a worthwhile investment! Nintendo has also promised us a new Zelda title before the year is out.

Towards the end of this month we should see some new content in Left 4 Dead 2--a new campaign called The Passing that will bring the survivors of the original Left 4 Dead in as non-playable characters. With it comes a new assault rifle (M60), a new melee weapon (the golf club), a new uncommon infected (the infected survivor, who drops health and ammo when you kill him), a new slew of achievements, and--if I'm not mistaken--a new as-yet-undisclosed gameplay mode. A month after that, there will be an add-on to the original L4D that serves as a prologue to the DLC for the sequel.

And last but not least, one of the most poorly-named games I've ever played has a sequel coming out this month with an even more ungainly name. That's right, the follow up to Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II is going to be called Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II: Chaos Rising.

B'der...

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