Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Overclocked: Race to the Bottom

Welcome to another installment of Overclocked, in which I, your humble blogger, think too hard about things for your amusement.

Today I'd like to talk about the direction Pop Culture is taking. Without getting into too much detail, I work in a setting where I'm frequently subjected to radio stations that play whatever crap is currently most popular. Typically, this boils down to the same dozen or so songs repeated six or seven times each during the course of a day.

In retrospect, I can say I took some perverse amusement watching Rihanna, Britney Spears and Katy Perry racing to the bottom of the cultural barrel in the following timeline:

Rihanna releases Rude Boy, a song about rough sex. No euphemism either, though it's explicitness is muted (I like it when you pull my hair/I like it when you touch me there)

Britney Spears, not to be outdone, releases 3, a song about threesomes. Again, this is not veiled with innuendo. The song is explicit and obvious about what's going on.

Rihanna, affronted by this tired, played out performers' attempt to upstage her on the brazen promiscuity front, releases S&M, a song that features the lyrics "Sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me."

And, as if to make sure nobody should doubt her cred, she takes these two songs and goes on a tour that features Chris Brown.

Katy Perry, who must have been watching this scuffle with great amusement, trumps all of them, then releases "Extraterrestrial," a song about something that rhymes with pentacle grape, and is again not hiding behind euphemism. It features the lines "You're an alien/you're just too far in/it's supernatural" and a male voice saying "I'm 'a disrobe you/then I'm 'a probe you/ I abducted you/ so I tell you what to do/ I tell you what to do."

Rihanna seems to have taken her defeat in stride, and is taking the "I never wanted to win in the first place" attitude. I say that because her latest song, Man Down, sounds an awful lot like the work of a woman who is trying to disown the reputation for writing two songs about enjoying getting roughed up in the bedroom, and then going on tour to sing the songs with an ex boyfriend who beat her up.

Which is a roundabout way of saying the song has all the trappings of attempting to be deep, without actually being deep.

Man Down is, at it's core, a ripoff of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody that is flavored with, and I'm completely serious here, The Little Drummer Boy.

No, seriously. The refrain literally goes:

Rum bum bum bum
Rum bum bum bum
Rum bum bum bum
Man down.

The basic gist of the song is a woman telling her mother that she killed a man, in public, over a minor disagreement and feels really bad about being having to hide from the law.

Which is where I point out that at least Freddy Mercury's take on this theme was that he'd done it, and would have to face some consequences.

One of the bars in the song that sees a lot of repetition is:

I didn't mean to hurt him
Could've been somebody's son
and I took his heart when
I pulled out that gun

So... if you didn't mean to hurt him, maybe you shouldn't have pulled a gun on him. Just sayin'.

I know, I know. Hindsight and all that.

Also, what is this "could've been somebody's son" nonsense? Every man is somebody's son. It's not like he sprang from the ground fully grown and ready to disagree with Rihanna about a subject she was touchy enough to kill over.

Just because he's made up doesn't mean that your narrative doesn't have to make sense.

Then again, perhaps I expect to much, because another line that sees a lot of repetition is this:

Mama, I just shot a man down
In central station
In front of a big old crowd

So maybe if she's dumb enough to shoot a man dead in front of a crowd of people, maybe we can't assume she's smart enough to know where babies come from. I guess there's some continuity there.

Speaking of repetition, there's a whole lot of that going on. The song lyrics read like an essay by a high school student who can't quite figure out how to fill up a hundred words, so she starts repeating herself. But she repeats herself inartfully, with bars like:

Look, I never thought I'd do it
Never thought I'd do it
Never thought I'd do it, oh gosh
What ever happened to me
Ever happened to me, ever happened to me
Why did I pull the trigger
Pull the trigger, pull the trigger, boom
And end a (racial epithet redacted) end a (racial epithet redacted) life so soon
When me pull the trigger, pull the trigger, pull it 'pon you
Somebody tell me what I'm gonna, what I'm gonna do

Rum bum bum bum
Rum bum bum bum
Rum bum bum bum
Me say wah man down (A weh me say)
Rum bum bum bum
Rum bum bum bum
Rum bum bum bum
When me went downtown

'Cause now I am a criminal, criminal, criminal
Oh lord have mercy now I am a criminal

So, is she a criminal? Because she's being so damn coy about it that I can't tell.

Lyrically, the song is obviously a train wreck, but it does provide some insight into the pop culture mindset. You see, most people working in pop culture as entertainers; singers, actors and the like; tend to be very high on gun control (among other things). When you write songs, you write songs you think people will connect with. You strive to achieve universal understanding.

If you're writing this song, you're idea of the universal experience is that if you have a "simple altercation" (as the lyric in the song describes it) and you have a gun, you will end up shooting somebody. Either you believe this, or you believe it will ring true with a majority of your fans. Art is truth, even bad art.

Seen in this light, it's no wonder Hollywood types want to clamp down on gun ownership. If you think that most people can identify with a mindset that would take an argument and resolve it with a hail of gunfire if only you had the weapons available, then naturally you think that human beings are too dangerous to be trusted with weapons.

I don't know how the song would have played out if Rihanna's character hadn't owned a gun. Presumably she would have reasoned with him, since the volatile addition of a firearm clearly destroyed her ability to foresee consequences for bad behavior.

Or maybe she would have just pushed him in front of a train, but that wouldn't have been a cautionary tale, since nobody thinks we should ban trains. (Some people want them to be privately run, but despite what you might have heard that's not the same thing.)

Most likely, though, she just never would have written the song at all.

Which is probably the best argument for disarmament that I can think of.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Late to the Party Reviews: Borderlands

So apparently I have a thing for mercenaries.

My favorite web-comic is Schlock Mercenary; my two favorite TV shows (The A Team and Firefly) are about mercenaries; and almost every video game I’ve ever played the hell out of has featured mercenaries.

Like Mercenaries 2, for example. I played through that game voraciously, going so far as to find every hidden tool box twice (one at the end of my first playthrough, and then again at the beginning of my second playthrough).

Recently I finished up the plain vanilla, unexpanded edition of Borderlands. I completed the main story, in search of buried treasure, and every single side quest available. Even the arena battles, which were gobs of fun playing after beating the game, as I had leveled up well beyond the requirement for those missions, and I simply dominated the arenas.

I’m not sure why the mercenary theme works for me so well. I suspect it probably has to do with being a way to incorporate an arcade mentality into a story based game. Arcade games are all about blowing things up for points. That’s basically what a mercenary does, except his points are hard currency.

But enough about my pathologies. We’re here to review a year old game, gosh darnit, and that’s what we’re going to do!

Borderlands is a First Person Shooter with RPG trappings. Specifically, MMORPG trappings. The world is wide open, you get quests from people with giant exclamation points over their heads, and most of those quests involve killing quantity X of mob Y. The game even features multiplayer to encourage partying up with other players, but I don’t care about that so I won’t be writing about it. Suffice it to say that it’s there if you want it, and my understanding is that it is functional.

There is a story to Borderlands, but it serves little purpose than to keep you moving through various areas of the world, killing progressively more difficult mobs. The story has something to do with an ancient alien vault that allegedly contains vast wealth. Naturally, your character wants it. Because treasure is money, and mercenaries like money.

There are four characters to choose from representing different classes: There’s the Soldier (aka The Mario), the Siren (a rogue), the Hunter (a hunter) and Brick (the tank.) Each character has his or her own special ability. The Soldier can throw down an automated turret that provides suppressing fire and cover. The Siren can “phase walk” which is a fancy way of saying she can become invisible and sneak behind her enemies. The Hunter has a familiar that can be deployed to kill enemies. Finally, Brick can go into a berserk mode where he regains health and can punch anything to death.

I played as Brick, because Brick was the closest I could come to playing as Jayne Cobb, and I think a game featuring Jayne Cobb as a main character would be smashing. Literally.

Each of these abilities can be buffed and upgraded with skill points as the character levels up, which is another RPG trope that found its way into the land of FPS’s.

The main point of the game, though, is loot. There is a lot of loot in this game. It’s like Diablo but with FPS controls. You kill a mob, it drops loot. Even if it’s an alien coyote, it drops loot. Even if you kick a pile of alien coyote poop, it drops loot. (The in-game explanation is that the alien coyotes are indiscriminate about what they eat, and because the environment is so harsh they can eat things like weapons and money without suffering ill effects, aside from gunshot wounds from the loot-happy merc that really wants a purple healing shield.)

Loot is color coded by rarity, but not necessarily by quality. I finished the game using largely green and white weapons, which are the most common. Playing the game “right” would require me to use blue or purple weapons, but none of the blue or purple weapons I found had the stats I wanted (High accuracy, high damage, moderate rate of fire and I don’t care about reload speed.) Anyway, when you play as Brick, weapons matter less than how you spend your skill points. Why? Because Brick’s fists can be the most effective weapons in the game.

And I can say that honestly and literally. I carried a pack of alien weapons, rocket launchers of various types, and hard-hitting sniper rifles into the final boss battle with the critter I like to call the ginormous fanged space weegina. (Whether that design was deliberate or not, I think folks at Gearbox have some issues with the lady-types) How did I beat it? I ran up to it and kept punching it until it fell on me and crashed the game.

Clearly, I was playing it wrong. I reloaded my save file and beat the boss “right” using a combination of rockets, machine gun fire and grenades, and I defeated the boss again, but without the crash.

There are two things I have to say about my overall impressions of this game: 1) It was well worth the $30 I paid for it and 2) I have no plans to trade it in.

I plan to revisit the Borderlands someday, when there isn’t so much going on and I feel like investing a lot of hours into another character (or more likely I’ll just play Brick again.) For now it will occupy a space on my shelf I’ve dedicated to games I plan to replay eventually, next to Bioshock and Batman Arkham Asylum.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lone is an aesthetic choice

I’m back! Sort of. Well, not really at all. We’ve had an unannounced format change here at Free Toy Inside. I’m no longer updating every week on Wednesdays. I’m now updating whenever I have something interesting to talk about.

Because my life was stressful enough without tacking on a superfluous weekly deadline on top of everything else. It’s not like you’re paying me to not read this (do I look like the New York Times to you?).

Today, though, I’d like to talk to a topic that’s been on my mind and in my wifely conversations of late: The subject of introversion and introverts.

You see, I am an introvert. And I mean that. In my experience, most people who self-identify as introverts are not actual introverts. They are in reality shy, or socially inept. This is the equivalent of calling yourself a gay man because you have been rejected by a lot of women. Just because you’re bad at being a heterosexual doesn’t mean you’re actually a homosexual. And just because you’re bad at social situations doesn’t mean you get to call yourself an introvert.

This isn’t to say that introverts aren’t bad at social interactions. For my part I happen to be pretty bad at them. I read body language about as well as a cockroach reads Braille: I know something is there, because there are all these bumps in my way, but if you ask me to make sense of it I’d just as soon go around and avoid it altogether.

But that doesn’t make me an introvert. My wife is an introvert too, and she’s very good at relating to other people. This is why I tend to let her do most of the talking at parties, while I go play with the kids. (Thanks dear!)

Furthermore, I’ve know plenty of extroverts who love social situations but just aren’t very good at negotiating them. They love parties, and being around people, but they have a hard time talking to people they don’t already know or getting invited anywhere.

So introversion has nothing to do with social acumen, and it’s not synonymous with being shy. Introversion is a predisposition for solitude. If given the choice between going out drinking with friends or staying at home with a bag of microwave popcorn and a book, the introvert will choose the book. Every time. We are not alone or lonely. We are Lone, like BatManuel.

I don’t fault people for misunderstanding this. Our society and culture are dominated by extroverts. A movie or TV show featuring the person choosing to stay home and read instead of a raucous night on the town is invariably shown to be a broken or damaged person. Someone who needs to be extracted from some hypothetical shell to become the beautiful, fun-loving person that everyone supposedly wants to be. The extrovert naturally wants to help make this happen, because they don’t see how anyone could possibly be happy reading on a Saturday night when they could be out reenacting the movie Go.

This is why a lot of people who self-identify as introverts are not actually introverts. They want someone to pull them out of their shells. They want to take off their glasses and become Rachel Leigh Cook in She’s All That. They are, in reality, inept extroverts using the term “introvert” as a code for “somebody come buy me a little red dress and take me to a party,” because they know other extroverts will want to “fix” the introvert.

Well I’m here to tell you that I don’t want to be “fixed,” because I’m not broken. I don’t want to go out to a bar with you, but don’t take it personal. I don’t want to go with anybody. Why? Because it’s exhausting.

The fundamental difference between an introvert and an extrovert is where they draw their mental energy. If you get jazzed up from being out and about with people, doing things with people, and having conversations with people, or if you feel tired, restless, or uncomfortable being alone with your own thoughts, then guess what: You get your energy from other people, and you are an extrovert. If you leave a social situation feeling drained or exhausted, or if you feel energized or refreshed staying home and doing things that allow you to plumb your own thoughts, then you get your energy from within and you are an introvert. It’s really simple.

It can be difficult being an actual introvert. By its nature, society is a social construct. It is a loose organization of people, bound together for safety and convenience. As such, interpersonal interactions are a requirement. To the extrovert, that’s a feature, not a bug. But to the introvert it’s a chore and a half.

Like any chore, a person looks to doing as little of it as possible. After all, nobody goes through their cupboards looking for glasses to spit in so they can wash extra dishes. So, too, the introvert likes to avoid extraneous conversation.

Small talk is often the first to go, as it is exceptionally difficult for the introvert and, from his perspective, a waste of energy. Why would you talk to someone if you didn’t have something to say? You might as well move all of your furniture, then move it back exactly where it was. At least then you’d get some exercise out of it.

But since the extrovert cannot understand this sentiment; any more than the introvert can understand why the extrovert wants to make small talk; the introvert comes across as snooty.

“What? You’re too good to talk to me?” Says the extrovert.

“Who are you? Why are you talking to me?” Replies the introvert.

This can limit the career options of introverts, because a fair amount of glad-handing and schmoozing is required to obtain and keep a job. Even in stereotypically antisocial professions like engineering, there’s always someone in the organization who will try to boost morale by inviting everyone to a party, and if you don’t go you look bad. (Again the extrovert asks: “Are you too good to hang out with us?”). Fortunately it’s fairly simple, if not exactly easy, to fake extroversion. You smile, you let people talk about themselves and nod or laugh at appropriate times, pretend to care about professional sports, that sort of thing. I don’t recommend index cards with useful phrases on them, but if that will help you out, then go for it. Use the small ones, and write big. You don’t want to have to switch to reading glasses during a conversation. And when in doubt, if you live in New England, ask them what they think of someone named “Bellicheck” and agree with them vehemently. I don’t know who he is, but a lot of people seem to care about him.

Oh, and for the love of G-d don’t give anyone your honest opinion about anything. I actually lost out on a job interview once because I admitted that I prefer the coolness of fall to the heat of summer. True story.

Once you’ve made your appearance and stayed the requisite time, it’s time to make your escape. In this digital age, bailing from a social situation has never been easier. Simply set your phone’s alarm for an unusual time (12 after the hour, or 26 minutes to the hour) and pretend you’ve gotten an urgent text message or phone call that needs attending to. Resist the urge to elaborate: liars usually talk too much, and people know it. Just say something about how sorry you are, but you have to leave. Then get your coat and get the heck out of Dodge. Then go home and get back to that book you were trying to read. You’ll probably want to go to bed early. I know I always do.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

I Dig It

So, I’ve been playing Minecraft.

That’s one of those statements that require elaboration. Like “So, I got married” or “So, I spent the weekend fighting ninjas.” Sprung without elaboration or background, it is a statement that elicits a frown and a reply like “You’re doing what, now?”

The easiest place to start would be to tell you that Minecraft is a game, but that would be inaccurate. Minecraft is not a game in the classic sense. There’s no victory condition, very little penalty for failure, and no objective means of tallying up any sort of score or progress. So it’s a game in the sense that World of Warcraft is a game, only much less so (WoW has levels, after all.) A more apt comparison would be Dwarf Fortress, but if you haven’t heard of Minecraft chances are good you haven’t heard of Dwarf Fortress either so that comparison is largely useless.

An even more apt comparison would be Second Life, except that A) I don’t wish to insult Minecraft or its audience and B) as near as I can tell there is no way to craft an animated barrage of floating penises.

Minecraft is largely the work of one man, known as Notch to the web. Notch lives in Sweden and had a dream. His dream, and I’m only extrapolating from what I know of his work here, was to create an expansive world in which players can create almost anything they can conceive of with an intuitive set of in-system tools, which can be downloaded in less than one minute.

He also had a dream to get paid while he was developing it. So he had the brilliant idea to allow users to preorder the game in exchange for unfettered access to the Alpha releases of the game. At last count, he had something like 30,000 pre-orders. At ten euros (that’s about $14 in real money*) a pop. So this dude has raked in over a quarter of a million dollars for something that hasn’t even hit Beta yet.

The truly wondrous thing is that, if Minecraft never makes it to release; or even Beta; it’s still a steal at twice the price.

When you first load into Minecraft, it generates the world you’ll be playing with. From scratch. So your experience in Minecraft’s expansive multiverse will be similar but never the same as anyone else’s experience. Sure, there will be mining and crafting, and you’ll probably encounter trees and the occasional pig or cow, but the world will be unique.

Minecraft doesn’t really have an objective, because it’s not really a game. The closest thing there is to an objective is to survive the night. See, at any difficulty level above the lowest (“Peaceful”) the night is when the monsters come out. There are spiders, skeletal archers, and exploding zombies. And they’re all trying to kill you. You’re only defense is the ability to dig holes, and use whatever you dig out of the holes to make walls and other items.

That’s where the mining comes in. You dig a lot in Minecraft. You can dig in dirt, or in sand. You can even dig in rock, but to do that effectively you’ll need tools. And that’s where the Craft part comes in. Your inventory screen has a section for combining items into four slots in a two by two grid. This is mostly useless, but you can use it to make a workbench, which has a three by three grid and is the most useful thing in the game. With the workbench you can built tools (like shovels, picks and axes) weapons (swords, bows and arrows) or any number of other things (armor, boxes, bowls, carts, ladders, etc, etc, etc.) With the tools, you can get more and better materials with which to make more and better tools, weapons or miscellany.

The craft system is simple and elegant. Using the materials at your disposal, draw what you’re trying to make on the grid. If you’re good at pixel art; or even if you’re just really lucky; the item you’ve crafted will appear in the output window and can be added to your inventory. Some items can be crafted from different materials, and there’s no penalty for experimentation aside from the fact that night may fall while you’re trying to figure out how to use cow hide to make a pair of boots and an exploding zombie might sneak up on you.

To support this level of freedom, the graphics took one for the team. The entire world is made of cubes that are a meter on a side and painted with some fairly low resolution textures. Anything not vegetable or mineral is made of smaller cubes, but not very many (your own character model, which you can view in the inventory screen and can hit a function key to view in the world, appears to be made of fewer than a dozen polygons total). This has a way of adding to the charm, though, as it evokes the old Build Engine days, only without the ugly sprite based populace and casual misogyny.

Needless to say, this isn’t a game for graphics whores.

Survival is quite easy. All you need are walls surrounding you, and a ceiling above you if the walls aren’t tall enough. You can do this in any way you want. The easiest is to dig into the side of a mountain, hollow it out and set up shop there (don’t forget to build a door). But you can build a castle from scratch if the spirit moves you. The level of elaboration and opulence for your palace is limited only by the amount of time you’re willing to put into gathering materials to make it.

Minecraft is, at its core, about exploration. Because the world is procedurally generated every time you start a new world, new nooks and crannies are never in short supply. You can pick a direction and go in it almost without limit, but the real exploration comes from underground. Delve deeply and greedily, and you’ll find caverns, underground lakes and rivers, lava flows and the occasional skeleton archer, zombie or spider.

I haven’t encountered any Balrogs yet, but when I do you’ll know, because the outburst of glee will be audible from Mars.

There is also a multiplayer mode, where you can participate in the kinds of communities that sprout organically when systems like this are put in place to support them. I haven’t tried the multiplayer yet, but I’ve heard it works well except for the fact that there are no monsters at night, but that is, according to the developer, coming soon. Remember, this is only an alpha build.

I could go on about Minecraft, but the more I say the more secrets I ruin. Figuring out how to make items without help is one of the great things about Minecraft. If you have ten euros to spend, I can’t recommend Minecraft highly enough. You’ll get a great experience, and support the quintessential indie developer.

Plus, if you do it now, you’ll get to tell everyone that you got into Minecraft before it got all mainstream and popular. Remember, the game is only in Alpha now. By release, it could be a collectible card game.

*I keed! I keed!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Flying Time

You probably didn’t notice last week I missed a post. I have both a good excuse and a good reason.

The excuse is that I had surgery on Tuesday, which rendered me temporarily unable to lift my laptop and therefore unable to do any computer stuff that required a keyboard.

The reason, however, is that my wife and I celebrated our 5th wedding anniversary last week. So please forgive me if I get a little maudlin and introspective for today.

Eight years ago, I had it all. I had a very lucrative engineering position doing work I found enjoyable with a boss that went out of his way to shield me from the Dilbert Zone meetings and falderal that keeps engineers from doing anything useful in a given week. I had a good paycheck, no debt (I paid my student loans and car loans off early), an obscenely cheap apartment, and culinary tastes that trended toward Kraft macaroni and meatloaf. That meant I had a lot of disposable income to throw around, and I did. I accumulated action figures, video games, and indulged in high-barrier-to-entry hobbies like playing the banjo, target shooting and paintballing.

With my obscenely cheap apartment, I had no need of roommates, so I didn’t have to clean unless the mess made me angry. Which is how I found out why they called it spring cleaning. If you’re only going to vacuum once a year, do it when the weather’s warm enough to open the windows.

My weekend evenings consisted of watching DVDs of movies on a large television while eating chicken wings with homemade sauce (which I will pit against any restaurant that claims to serve “buffalo wings” that is not located within twenty miles of the Anchor Bar in Buffalo.).

I was living the dream. Why wasn’t I happy?

Seven years ago, I found out why. Thanks to the power of the internet , I met a lovely young woman who knew all about Ents and loved the movie UHF. She made me the happiest I’d even been in my life.

Six years ago, I asked her to marry me, and she made me the happiest man on the face of the earth.

Five years ago, we’d accumulated some ridiculous wedding planning stories, and still managed to have a wedding that was perfect for us: Guests come, see us get married, walk ten yards to the reception hall, eat some truly excellent hors douevres, talk a little, laugh a little, have some cake, and leave by five PM.

Party reptiles we are not.

We honeymooned in Nashville, where I got to play an actual honest to goodness Gibson banjo (which would have cost over four grand if I’d damaged it with my new and unfamiliar wedding ring) and we ate at the Waffle House every day.

Four years ago, we learned that my job was moving about twenty miles north, which meant that my wife and I had to find a new, not so obscenely cheap apartment closer to work. We moved everything ourselves; furniture and all; on the nastiest, coldest, rainiest day of the winter. Down two flights of stairs, and up three. We filled a 16 foot Budget truck three times.

Three years ago, we were blessed with our first child. A daughter, as strong willed and full of life as one would expect given my wife’s and my respective family histories. She was, and remains, one of the most delightful children ever conceived. I’d say I’m proud of her except I don’t want to insult her via gross understatement.

Two years ago, I got laid off from my lucrative engineering job, leaving me free to help tend to my pregnant wife when I wasn’t beating the pavement trying to find someone who would hire me.

One year ago, I had a new job, a new mortgage payment, and also a bouncing baby boy. As a father, it was nice to have an heir to the family name. As a geek, I was thrilled to have a tank for our guild. Because good lord, that boy is a tank.
This year, our anniversary was less eventful, which is a blessing of its own when you’ve had a decade like we’ve just had. I look forward to many more uneventful days with my family. The family I couldn’t have even imagined eight years ago, in the life that I didn’t even know I wanted eight years ago.

Eight years ago, I had it all. Today, I have everything.

I’d say that’s more than a fair trade.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Earworm Parade

For the past few weeks I’ve spent a great deal of time working in an environment with a soundtrack selected by people much younger and hipper than I am. The end result is a series of earworm infestations that have not quite led me to question my own sanity (that ship has long sailed) but rather has led me to random thoughts, which I have decided to share with you. Aren’t you lucky?

I don’t know the names or artists on most of the songs I’m hearing all day, so my references will mainly be to lyrics. If you listen to FM 107.1 in the Boston area, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

*So what is a “shorty,” exactly? I don’t know, but apparently one is on fire on the dance floor. And this “shorty” can also pop and lock like birthday cake.

*The aforementioned “shorty” is also apparently cool, like fire. Which must be no mean feat, or at least no meaning.

*Ah, Justin Bieber. Jailbait for soccer moms, and just the latest aural assault perpetuated by Canada.

*Seriously. Justin Bieber, Celine Dionne, Jim Carey, Mike Meyers; it’s like Canada’s chief export is “annoying.”

*Speaking of annoying, I feel greatly cheated. Eminem was supposed to be retired, dammit.

*There was a time when I thought Eminem was a violent misogynist worthy of scorn. After hearing his latest, I can only muster pity. This is his experience with love? This is what he thinks love is like? That’s just sad.

*Oh look, it’s been twenty minutes. I guess it’s time for someone to call 911 because another “shorty” fire is burning on the dance floor. Ooh whoa.

*So… are all of Kesha’s (sorry; Ke$ha’s) songs about drugs?

*Lady Gaga: She’s like a new wave Madonna, but with talent.

*Gaga also offers a hint to keeping your songs from being overplayed: get every single one of them on the radio at once. That way the DJ won’t have to play the same song six times a day.

*Did you know there’s a She-Wolf in the closet? I keep mine in the garage, myself. She’s not house trained.

*Wait a minute, who let Lady Antebellum in here?

*And the next song features a guy playing a Ukelele and referencing Mr. Mister? Did someone change the station and not tell me?

*Oh good. “Shorty” fire burning on the dance floor again. Much better, or at least more consistent. This station must have a pack-a-day “shorty” habit.

*Always remember: If you can’t sing, just add a Klaxon siren to your song. Klaxon: It’s the new cowbell.

*Seriously, working security at a Ke$ha concert must be a freakin’ nightmare. How can a song like “Take it off” not result in a riot if her fans are half as drug addled as her songs?

*What happened to Julio Iglesias’ son? He used to sing sultry Latin love songs, now he’s singing techno and sampling Lionel Richie.

*”Don’t stop baby, don’t stop baby! I’ve got my balls in a vi-i-ice!”

*Oh good, another “shorty” fire. Did you know the guy who sings this song has done songs for the new Electric Company? According to that song, he used to be a shorty. Which just confuses me more.

* And another “shorty” song, but this one’s different. Apparently this one is like Dy-No-Mite.

*Need a wish right now? Me too. I’m wishing someone would change the station. But my wish doesn’t require a 747.

*Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus: The latest steel-cage match between former Disney tween idols who realize there’s a whole market of perverted old men who can’t wait until one or the other of them turns 18. The winner will be on the cover of Cosmo in about a year. The loser will be on the cover of Playboy in about a decade.

*So let me get this straight: Someone took an awesome, if overplayed Daft Punk song, slowed it down, set rap lyrics to it, and… created a new song that wasn’t nearly as awesome but only took half as long to become overplayed? Well done!

*A song that features the refrain from Madonna’s San Pedro, which includes sampled Michael Jackson tracks. Finally, some originality!

*If your cell phone is so loud that it can interrupt you while dancing at a club, your ringer is too loud.

*Strong bad was right: Anyone who uses “La la’s” in place of legit lyrics is definitely in the bottom ten.

*And no, you don’t get irony points if you sing about being “sick and tired of all the la la la la” before launching into a chorus consisting of nothing but “la la’s.”

*Setting a Rascall Flatts song to a techno beat has the same comedic value of setting a Kid Rock song to a polka beat, with the sole exception being that the latter is at least intentionally funny.

*Maybe hips don’t lie, but I have it on good authority that butts are not so trustworthy, and they tend to do most of the talking.

*Oh, now I get what a “shorty” is. Apparently, a “shorty” is like a melody in your head that goes “la la la la” every day. Thanks for clearing that up.

So that’s what I’ve learned from listening to top 40 hits. I now know that a “shorty” is a highly flammable, if not explosive, MP3 player that goes “la la la la.” I’ve also learned that I prefer my iPod full of songs at least five years old (the last album I bought was in 2005.)

I’ve also learned that pretty much all you have to do to make it to the top forty is to include the words “mister DJ” in your lyrics somewhere, because every third song on the radio seems to specifically address him.

Now, if you’ll pardon me, I have to go find some rapid-release Tylenol.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

We Represent the Mob-Grinding Guild, the Mob-Grinding Guild, the Mob-Grinding Guild

So recently I’ve been touting the virtues of Rio Grande. But what about other publishers? Where’s the love for, for example, Steve Jackson Games?

Well, funny you should ask, dear reader. Because I just happen to have in my pocket a deck of cards from Steve Jackson Games. That game is Munchkin.

Munchkin is almost more of a genre than a game. I say that because the original Munchkin, or as I like to call it Munchkin Classic, is accompanied on store shelves by several different cosmetically different versions that use the exact same game mechanics.

Munchkin Classic, for example, takes place in a high fantasy setting; humans, hobbits, orcs and elves fighting with elegant if primitive weapons and slaying dragons. Then there’s Star Munchkin, which takes the same mechanics but uses clichés from Gene Roddenberry instead of J.R.R. Tolkien. If that wasn’t enough, there’s Spy Munchkin (which uses Ian Fleming clichés), Cowboy Munchkin (Sergio Leone clichés) and Pirate Munchkin (which has something to do with killing ninjas)

The mechanics for each set are virtually identical to each other, to the point where you can mix and match sets to have a Sci Fi Western game if that’s what you want to do. You might think that this would wreck the setting, but the text on the cards and in the manual is so goofy and funny that you’ll never wonder why an orc would have a cyborg sidekick with a sixshooter.

The game itself is all about loot and level grinding, so it might as well be called Diablo or WoW. Each player starts the game as a level 1 human with no class (don’t blame me for that joke; It’s in the manual) and no weapons. During the course of the game you may acquire a race or class, and you’ll probably get some weapons. These can be played during your turn to give your character attributes, abilities or combat modifiers.

On your turn, you kick open a door by drawing a card from the pile of cards with doors on the back, and turning it face up. If it’s a monster, you must either fight or run. If it’s an item, you can add it to your hand or play it to give yourself a boost. Anything else (curse, etc), follow the instructions on the card. If you did not draw a monster, you may “loot the room” by drawing another door card. If you pick a monster card at this point, you may add it to your hand to be used later.

The fighting mechanic is simple math. The monster card has a level on it. You take your level, add any combat modifiers from the weapons, class and race cards you might have in play, then use any spells, curses or affects in your hand that might give you an advantage. If after all that, your number is higher than the monster’s level, you win.

If you have the higher number, you go up as many levels as the monster card says to go up and draw as many “loot” cards (from the pile of cards with treasure on the back) as the monster card says you get. The game ends when a given player gets to level ten.

Of course, without interaction from other players, this game might as well be a solo D&D campaign, and that’s just sad. So, just to keep it lively, other players are allowed to help the active player or the monster by casting buffs or other affect cards.

An example might be illustrative:

Herman is currently a level 2 human. He currently has boots that give him a +2 combat modifier, armor that gives him +1, and a hammer that gives him +3. He “kicks down a door” to find a level 4 slime monster, against whom his character is weak (-2 modifier) because his character race is a dwarf and the slime gets stuck in his beard. With the modifiers, his number is 6 to the slime monster’s four. However, Bobby has a card that gives the slime monster a buff of +2, and he plays it making the match 6 against 6. A tie equals losing in Munchkin, so Herman must run, play an effect card, or get someone to help him. Fortunately, Zoe has a curse card that will make bring the slime monster down three levels, and she agrees to play it if Herman shares the loot he would draw if he beat the monster (2 cards for the purposes of this example). Herman agrees, and Zoe and he both reap the benefits of a tag team kill. Herman goes up a level, and they both get one loot card apiece.

As you might imagine, the game can get very cutthroat. Players in the lead tend to get ganged up on by pretty much everyone at the table, and there really isn’t any such thing as a friendly game of Munchkin. Fortunately, the humor leavens the tactics quite a bit, so much that being robbed of victory by a well (or poorly, depending upon whose turn it is) wandering monster card doesn’t sting because of the manner in which it kills you.

Not that playing a card that nobody knows you have which happens to completely nullify that monster isn’t darn satisfying.

For some reason there is a fair amount of haterade pointed at Munchkin by people who play other card and board games. I’m not sure why. It might be the fact that victory can be stolen from a player so quickly and often. I can see where this would chafe at more competitive board and tabletop gamers. The game does lean heavily on the luck of the draw, but there are some tactical decisions that can make or break you. (Pro Tip: If you’re trying to gain a level by playing a monster against yourself, don’t pick one that approaches three fourths of your level. Your opponents will buff the living crap out of that thing, especially if you’re in the lead. Ask me how I know.) If you’re looking for a game where your fate doesn’t depend on the people you’re playing with not being jerks then you’re going to have a hard time finding a game to play.

It might also be overexposure. There are dozens of Munchkin variants, and something like eight expansion decks for the original Munchkin (one of which I received free at Pax from someone at Steve Jackson Games, so take this review for what it is: glowing praise bought incredibly cheaply. You other video and board game developers take note). Some people don’t like things that break out of the niche market to achieve wider success. In the music world, these people are called hipsters. In the gaming world, they’re just called nerds.

But if you are not the gaming equivalent of a hipster, and you have a whole $25 to spare, I can honestly recommend Munchkin or any of the variants thereof. It plays quickly, even with just two players, and you’re sure to get at least a chuckle out of a given session.

And if you don’t… well, just remember this: I am much more likely to review a product well if I receive it or some part of it for free. At least I’m honest with you.