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.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hi! I'm the Internet, and I'm Gere to Suck The Joy Out Of Your Life

It must be frustrating to be Joss Whedon.

I'm watching The Dollhouse, season 1, on DVD with my wife. We just finished episode 5 the night before this writing, and we're enjoying it immensely. The internet, in particular forums and people like this guy, feel extremely differently.

As near as I can figure it from reading old forum posts-- which is something, dear reader, you should never ever do-- there are four stages of Whedon Fandom that repeat indefinitely.

1) Anticipation. "OMG! There's a new Joss Whedon TV series coming out! It's got a quirky, offbeat take on an old genre and an actress that will probably spawn an internet fetish subculture! I'm so excited! I hope the network gives this one a chance for a change."

2) Consternation. "Hey! This isn't the show I was expecting at all. It's like Whedon can't even read my mind or something. I'm going to stop watching it until it gets better."

3) Vindication. "That new Whedon show was cancelled? Well, I can't say I'm surprised based on the three episodes of it I watched before declaring it utter crap."

4) Indignation. "OMG! I'm watching this Joss Whedon TV show on DVD and it's so incredibly awesome! I can't believe the stupid networks cancelled it so soon."

... and proceed to step 1.

When your core fanbase is like that, what chance do you have for commercial success? They'll love your show to death as long as you're not making new episodes, or as long as you don't dare to make something that might appeal to someone besides the niche market (LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATOR SELLOUT BULLCRAP!).

And then if someone genuinely likes some of your work, other of your so-called fans jump down their throats for being a fanboy with no taste. Some people even write comics about it.

(To be fair, Dollhouse is a show that plays better (for me, anyway) on DVD than it would on TV. These episodes dripped out one week at a time would have me losing my patience rather quickly. I felt the same way about The Pretender. The multitudinous threads and weaves were just too much for me to keep track of if I could only get a carefully restricted glimpse of the loom once a week. But give me the ability to devour two, three, four episdes at a time and the show becomes pure brilliance.)

If you love something, or like it or even find it mildly tolerable, the internet is not your friend. That's because it's full of joyless people who think they'll feel better about themselves if they tear down stuff that other people like.

It has been my goal on this site to be the opposite of that person. You'll note that most of my reviews are positive, and I try to talk about things that I like and why I like them rather than going off on rants about why such-and-such is so awful. I hope to be a tonic for anyone sick of the legions of trolls who angrily type badly spelled rants about how some beautiful model is, in actuality, objectively ugly and disgusting because they say so.

Or anyone who posts comments after Youtube videos. Here's another handy internet survival tip: Never read youtube comments. I can't prove it, but I believe they actually suck brain cells out through your eyeballs.

That may be a losing battle, but when you're a fan of Joss Whedon you get kind of used to those.

It's a cliche', but happiness is a choice. You can accept the way things are, and maybe find some enjoyment there, or you can forever lament how things are not, and be an internet troll. I oversimplify, but that's another feature of the internet that I don't have as much of a problem with.

Well, I'm enjoying Dollhouse, and I have right from episode 1. I understand why it was cancelled, and I suspect it has less to do with Fox's mishandling (though I wouldn't doubt that as a factor) and more to do with a certain segment of a certain writer's fanbase being unpleasable, or at least acting that way on internet forums.

Because, seriously, if you can watch the first five episodes of Dollhouse and come to the conclusion that Elizu Dushku can't act, you're standards are un-meetable.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Quite Taken

Every so often, rarer than ever these days, a newly released movie will grab my attention and make me think “Gee whillikers. I’d sure like to see that in theatres.” Of course, that doesn’t happen anymore. Having two kids under four, and nobody you’d trust to babysit even if you were the type of parent inclined to let someone else raise your child for you, means that movie theatres are off limits. The last movie I saw in a theatre was Hot Fuzz, seen shortly before my daughter was born.

And I don’t truck with the kinds of parents who bring young children to R rated movies just because they feel entitled to retain some aspect of their previous, non-parenthood life. And yes, I am referring to you; the lady who brought her four year old in a stroller to see Snakes on a Plane. You’re a parent now. Suck it up and act like one.

Missing out on the theatre experience isn’t really a problem for me. I’m anti-social by nature (please note the user comment section on this blog. There isn’t one. And it’s not because I don’t like you, it’s just that I don’t care what you think.). Movie theatres are infested with people, which is a strike against them to me. It’s also expensive. Matinees go for seven bucks these days, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but $14 (you think I’d leave my wife at home to see a movie?) for a one-shot experience is kind of steep when a patient person can wait a few months and pay $20 for the DVD and have the movie to watch on his own terms as many times as I like, and if I don’t like it I can turn it around and resell it on Ebay or Amazon to recoup some of the purchase price.

Anyway, that long winded introduction was my way of giving you enough backstory to understand why I bought Taken, starring Liam Neeson, on DVD without having seen it before. The trailer caught my attention back when it first came out in theatres, and it gave me goose pimples.

The basic plot is laid out right there: Retired spook embarks on a quest to find his kidnapped daughter. That would have been enough to sell me on several levels: I’m a father, I like action movies, and I’m impressed by the novelty of making the CIA the good guys for a change.

So the premise had me sold. What about the execution? It’s even better. First off, let me be blunt and point out that Liam Neeson is one of the best actors currently working in Hollywood today. He and Ed Harris are two actors that have really earned the right to call themselves actors. They’re not flashy, and they tend not to win as many Oscars as they probably deserve, but never once do you see them in a movie and fail to believe them in their respective roles. Neeson flawlessly conveys not only the urgency that the character must feel, but also the supreme confidence that the character has in his ability to get this job done. There is no failure for this man. You get the impression that he has done all this a thousand times before when the stakes for him personally were considerably lower.

Another thing that struck me about the movie is how true it rings. I admit I don’t have any real knowledge of the sorts of things Neeson does in this movie. But there is one name I trust above all others to give me an accurate account of how such things are done, and that name is Marcinko. I have read every book ever written by the Sharkman of the Delta, and every action sequence in Taken feels like it was informed by all of them. The violence is quick, decisive and brutal. Fights are never fair, and the gunplay seems to have been directed by someone who’s actually held a gun in his lifetime. There is no drawn out give and take, no banter, and no mercy. Even the car chases feel like how a real one would play out.

In fact, the only “no you didn’t” moment in the movie comes early on, when the hero uses what appears to be a magical photo printing kiosk to identify an accomplice to his daughter’s kidnapping by finding his reflection in a picture taken by a cell phone. If only my photo kiosks had a magical “enhance” button, I wouldn’t need to upgrade from my 1 Megapixel camera. I could just use the software to “enhance” my pictures until they looked like 10 Megapixels, or since it’s magic I might as well go whole hog and say infinity-pixels. (They actually have these, incidentally. They’re called 35mm cameras.)

The main thing about Taken, though, is how un-Hollywood the movie feels. The main character is a former CIA spook, and his friends are also former CIA spooks. And they are, to a man, good men. They are good men who know how and when to do horrible things. The most surprising bit of it, though, is there is no distraught hand-wringing about it. Yes, the main character conducts some fairly brutal interrogations. But by the time all is said and done, it’s clear he was doing right. Without going so far as to say the end justifies the means, the movie makes it clear that when bad things are happening and the chips are down, you want a man like this in your corner.

It’s also pretty clear that the writer and director had absolutely no concerns about how this movie would play overseas. Contrast with your blockbusters like G.I. Joe, which changed G.I. Joe into some kind of NATO on steroids solely for international marketing reasons. Without spoiling too much, the primary villains are Albanian human traffickers that seem to be ripped from the headlines. The French authorities in Taken are corrupt, incompetent or both. This is not a movie intended to ingratiate itself to the continental crowd.

Another really surprising, perhaps the most surprising and un-Hollywood aspect of the movie is the main character’s daughter. Not just in how well written she is; probably one of the more well rounded, accurate 17 year olds you’ll see in a movie; but in a particular peculiarity of hers that I won’t mention for the sake of spoiler reduction. Suffice it to say that a trait that is not highly valued among Hollywood types turns out to literally save her life.

Taken is an intense, well written and well acted thriller. I heartily recommend it to anyone who like the Jason Bourne style of spy-thriller, but who is tired of the standard genre tropes.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Nation Building for Fun and Profit

Last week I introduced some of you to the concept of the Board Game for Grownups, courtesy of Rio Grande’s Bohnanza. Bohnanza is a card game, but a good way to wet your toes in the waters that ultimately flow from GenCon every year.

But what about board games? Well, Rio Grande has you covered on that front as well. And since I foreshadowed the existence of a “gateway board game” last week, I might as well fulfill that. So this week I’ll be discussing Carcassonne.

That’s pronounced “Car” (as in automobile) “Cass” (as in Mama) “Own” (as in pwn).

It’s easier to play than to say, or spell for that matter. For two to five players. Each player selects a set of colored tokens that represent their people. There are ENTER NUMBER HERE cardboard tiles in the box, one of which is the starter tile (identified by the inverted palette printing on its back). The remaining tiles are placed face down in an easy to reach location off to the side in a loose pile, not a stack (it would reach the ceiling if you tried to stack them anyway.)

On a player’s turn, he or she must select a tile from the pile and try to place it adjacent to any tiles already on the board. This is where the skill comes in, because you can’t just place a tile any old where. All four sides of the tile have to match whatever surrounds it. If there’s a road in the middle of one side, it has to line up to another road. Likewise, a castle wall or green field must touch a castle wall or green field. So it’s kind of like four-sided dominoes.

Now, if it were just four-sided dominoes, it probably wouldn’t sell very well (we can’t all replicate the fabulous success of Tri-dominoes, after all). So Carcassonne mixes it up a bit by allowing the active player to claim a feature on the tile provided it’s not already claimed by extension from another tile.

For example, let’s say Herman draws a tile that starts a road (roads start or end at intersections, small towns, and castle gates). Three sides of his tile match green fields, which makes this one fairly easy to place. He places the tile down in such a way that the only side adjacent to existing tiles is a green field. He now has the choice of claiming either the road or the field. However, Bobby, in the previous turn, had placed a green field tile and placed a marker down to claim that field as his own. Bobby’s field was extended by Herman’s tile, so Herman cannot claim the field. Instead he claims the road.

Points are tallied by counting up the number of tiles that comprise completed features, and more is better. If the road Herman began in his turn is completed on the next turn by Zoe who drew a tile with a road on one side and castle walls on the other three sides and wanted to prevent Herman from being able to claim points for a big long road, then Herman must collect his marker and add the score (score for a road times number of tiles) to his own score.

Play continues until the tiles run out or no tiles can be legally placed.

There are some specialty scoring rules for contingencies, such as what if two players end up “owning” the same feature on the map, but for the most part that’s it. The rules for a given turn can be summed up on an index card with plenty of room leftover for doodles of Zoe in a chainmail bikini riding a dragon that’s eating that stupid boyfriend of hers who doesn’t even like board games and doesn’t treat her anywhere near as well as she deserves.

Not that Herman ever thought of her like that or anything.

As a gateway into board gaming, this one is crackijuana. It gets you in the door of the board gaming shop, so you know where to get the harder stuff, and is easy to get addicted to. I first played it at Pax East 2010, where I was about to leave but bumped into some fellow Employed Gamers and asked if I could join in on a game. It was enough fun that I bought it to play with my wife, who didn’t need to be convinced to try a board game but had never tried any of the European style games that tend to have simpler rules but more complex strategies than the Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers games.

Much of the game is left to the player to do. The board needn’t be square, so if you can’t find a good place to put a tile, you can put it on the border of the map as it currently exists. Finishing someone else’s map feature can be profitable for you, even if you can’t claim anything, because it might shrink how big their feature can get, thus limiting the points they get. The number of each kind of tile is listed in the instruction manual, so you can gauge how likely it would be that you get a certain kind of tile before you commit to a new feature. And remember, just because you have a big castle doesn’t mean you’ll finish it before the end of the game, when the points for unfinished features are tallied and you find your score will not be as high as if you finished a slightly smaller castle when you had the chance.

If you thought board games were all about Monopoly and Pop-O-Matic Trouble, then consider branching out a bit. And if you’re looking to branch out, you can’t go far wrong with Carcassonne. But be forewarned: The game is very fun, and comes with a brochure advertising other games from Rio Grande.

Because hey, that crackijuana isn’t going to sell itself.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Do You Know Beans?

So, when you think of card games what do you think of? Poker? Hearts? Blackjack?

How about bean farming?

Bohnanza is a card game from Rio Grande games (makers of Carcassonne and Dominion, which if you didn’t already know who Rio Grande Games was you likely wouldn’t know either of those games either). It’s a rummy-game, which contrary to what I thought when the shop owner told me it was a rummy game, does not involve getting drunk even a little. Although it’s not prohibited, so scotch-monsters take note.

The game revolves around the planting and selling of different varieties of beans. Coffee Beans, soy beans, wax beans, chili beans, and assorted other kinds all come into play with varying levels of frequency (Cocoa beans have only four cards in the deck, while coffee beans have over 20) and all with their own amusing visual pun illustrations.

The instruction manual was initially daunting; over seven pages for one deck of cards. But once you get into the flow of the game, it’s pretty simple. Basically, you start with a hand of five cards, and you have two “bean fields” on the table. You can plant as many of one kind of bean in each field as you want, but you can only plant one kind of bean in a field at a time. Each turn has four phases.

1) Planting. The player must take the first card in his hand and plant it in one of the two bean fields. The player may plant the second card if desired, but is not required to do so. Cards must be played in the order they are received, so no shuffling your hand around to put beans of the same variety next to each other. If you drew a red bean, followed by a green bean, followed by a wax bean, followed by a coffee bean, followed by a cocoa bean at the beginning of the game you must plant the cocoa bean and you may plant the coffee bean.

2) Trading. The player draws to cards from the deck face up. These two cards must be planted somewhere, and it’s up to the player to decide if he or she wants to plant them, or to trade them to an opposing player for something s/he does want to plant. The active player may also opt to donate unwanted cards to a player, or to offer cards in his or her own hand to get an opposing player to accept the unwanted card. All cards received in this phase of the game must be planted immediately regardless of whether they are received by the active player or not.

For example: On Herman’s first turn, he plants a coffee bean in one field and a red bean in another field. He draws two cards, a red bean and a cocoa bean. He takes the red bean and plants it with his other red bean, but he has a coffee bean in his hand lined up for his next turn, so he has to find a way to get rid of the cocoa bean. Bobby, on the other side of the table, happens to have a cocoa bean two cards in from the front of his deck, and no beans planted yet. One of those leading cards is a coffee bean. So Bobby and Herman agree to trade Bobby’s coffee bean for Herman’s cocoa bean. Bobby plants the cocoa bean in an open field, and Herman plants the coffee bean with his other coffee bean.

Who made out best in that trade is up to the luck of the draw, and whatever strategy Bobby and Herman were respectively playing.

3) Harvesting. This is optional, and may be done at any time during the turn, but now is the time to do it if you want to, rather than when you have to. To harvest a bean field you count the number of beans in it and read the card to see how many coins you get in exchange for the number of beans you have. Some varieties of bean, for example, net you one coin for two cards, two coins for four cards, three coins for seven cards and four coins for 10 cards. Turn over the number of cards that correspond to the number of coins you get for harvesting the field (all cards have beans on one side and a coin icon on the other) and place the remaining cards face up into the discard pile.

4) Drawing. Finally, the player draws three cards and places them into the back of his or her hand in the order they were drawn.

Trading may be done at any time during the game, provided the active player is one of the trading parties. Harvesting may be done at any time.

The game continues until the entire deck of cards has been exhausted three times (when you run out of cards, shuffle and draw from the discard pile). Score is tabulated by counting up the number of cards in your coin pile.

The game is heavily luck based, but you can bypass a lot if you’re good at wheeling and dealing. But even then a bad draw can totally derail whatever plans you had made

There’s also an element of “press your luck” games, in that you get more coins for larger harvests of beans, but holding out to fill a field with soy beans, though attractive statistically given the number of soy bean cards in the deck, means losing out on planting other beans that aren’t as prolific but have higher profit margins. The ability to trade in coins for an extra bean field lessens the risk here, but if you don’t do it early in the game you won’t recoup the cost of the extra field.

The Missus and I played a modified version of the rules for two players (basically, you only go through the deck once) and it was good fun. I imagine that playing with four players could get very interesting, but the two player experience is by no means gimped as it may be in other European-style board and card games that tend to be designed for three players or more.

I can also envision this as being a good game to play cutthroat, though in the interest of keeping the peace at home I will be suppressing that particular tendency in myself.

If you happen by a small, independent board and card game shop and have any interest in dipping your toe in the waters of games that tend to rely more heavily on strategy than luck, Bohnanza is a good place to start. A lot of people will recommend Carcassonne for just that purpose, and I don’t disagree in the slightest. But Bohnanza prices out at around twenty bucks, while most of Rio Grande’s other releases go for fifty or more. Bohnanza is a good, low cost way to get started.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

No Post This week either

Sorry folks. I've had no time to write anything. I have a few posts sitting in my thumb drive, but haven't even had time to polish them up for you.

We'll be back on track eventually.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

No post this week

I've been crazy busy, and haven't had time to write anything.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What’s In My Ipod? Beelzebub in the Peach State edition.

Welcome to Free Toy Inside, bringing you the best memes of five years ago since 2008!

Today I’m going to have a look at what’s in my iPod. Sure, it’s an old meme. But I have an old iPod so it’s okay.

How old is it? It’s so old that it’s one of the early “Windows Only” models.

It’s so old that the irreplaceable battery will play music for a grand total of four minutes to a full charge.

It’s so old it doesn’t even work in those nifty iPod-docks that allow you to play your iPod music through real stereo speakers because it doesn’t charge off of USB power.

It’s so old that I can remember thinking how impossibly huge 10GB of storage was.

I keep it because it still works for what I use it for (listening to music and podcasts in my car) and because I could buy a lot of other, more useful stuff with the $300 it would cost me to upgrade to a new device that does the same thing. (Incidentally, I take the same attitude toward clothes. I am currently wearing a pair of shoes that are older than my daughter, and a pair of socks that are older than my relationship with my wife. I’ve been politely asked not to discuss the age of my underwear in public forums.)

In other words, I make the iconic “Cheap New England Yankee” look like a particularly profligate inebriated sea-farer.

Most of my music collection fits on my iPod with plenty of room leftover for a few weeks’ worth of Gamers with Jobs conference calls. I keep a pretty wide spread of music in it. I’d call it eclectic if I thought eclectic was descriptive enough of a collection that includes Metallica, Garth Brooks and Bela Fleck on the same playlists.

But, as I am no hipster, I see no reason to harp on the matter any further. Instead, I’d like to share with you an artist I’ve selected from my collection and talk about him for a spell.

Most of you are probably acquainted with the Charlie Daniels Band. During America’s brief infatuation with large belt buckles and cowboy hats back in the early 1980s, Charlie Daniels was known for a little song called ”The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” After that he faded out and went away.

Except nobody told him he faded away. Between 1971 and 2007, he released about 30 albums, and he continues to tour to this day. In the early part of the first decade of this century, I got the chance to see him in concert. He played a two hour set and didn’t do two songs from the same album (unless you count A Decade of Hits, which features his top songs from the 1970s including “The Devil Went Down To Georgia”). He plays the fiddle, the guitar and the banjo, and his discography includes country, rock, folk, gospel and blues.

The Charlie Daniels’ Band is the Beatles of country music, if not from a popularity standpoint then certainly from an innovation and influence standpoint. Their ability to seamlessly merge multiple musical genres into a single song or album borders on the chameleonic. The song “Sure Beat’s Picking Cotton” boasts that the CDB is “Rock and Roll and Blues and Country, all rolled into one.” Except it’s not a boast, because it’s not boasting if it’s true. From one song to the next you might not quite believe they’re from the same band, but at the same time you would. The CDB encapsulates everything that’s great from the history of American music without being derivative or me-too-ish.

The CDB boasts of wide influence as well. Bands that have been directly mentored by Daniels include Lynrd Skynrd and Travis Tritt. Bands whose style is to some degree derivative of Daniels’ include Montgomery Gentry among many others.

If the only CDB song you know is “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” you have done yourself a serious disservice. It would be like going to a fine Italian restaurant and ordering spaghetti and meatballs because everybody’s heard of that and tried it at least once. Devil is a great song, if overplayed, but there’s so much more there to enjoy that you truly miss out on something extraordinary if you stop there.

Years ago, back when the music TV stations played music, VH1 had a series called “Storytellers” which featured bands telling stories through songs, or telling the stories behind songs. It always puzzled me that Charlie Daniels was never on that show, because some of his best songs are stories told to music. Moving beyond Devil, songs like “Willie Jones” or “Stroker Ace,” or “Midnight Train” all tell specific stories about people, some of which are suitable to be made into movies (indeed, Stroker Ace was made into a movie featuring Burt Reynolds). Some of his songs, like “Old Rock ‘n’ Roller” or “Renegade” are mildly autobiographical. Still others, while lacking a linear narrative, still paint a vivid picture of a world (“Honky Tonk Avenue”)

As a storyteller, Daniels doesn’t stop with the music. He penned a book of short stories that inspired or inspired by some of his songs (the ubiquitous Devil, and “Honky Tonk Avenue”), as well as some that had nothing to do with his songs (Me and Deke). I bought a copy from the Charlie Daniels Museum in Nashville Tennessee when I went there for a conference, and read the entire thing while waiting in the airport for six hours because I had misjudged how long it would take me to clear security.

Of course, he’s not limited to the role of wandering minstrel and balladeer. The Charlie Daniel’s lexicon includes such country staples as the love song (“How Much I Love You,” “What My Baby Sees In Me”) the breakup song (“Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye,” “Hey Mr. DJ”), the celebration of country culture (“Twang Factor,” “What This World Needs is a Few More Rednecks”) and even the occasional polemic (“In America,” “Ain’t No Rag”)

Charlie Daniels is the artist whose discography I would bring with me in the hypothetical “desert island” scenario in which you imagine being stuck listening to one artist for the rest of your life. After nearly thirty years listening to him, I’m nowhere near being done and I will surely continue listening long into the years to come.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

This Won't End Well

It probably has something to do with expectations. You spend years of your life following their stories, talking about what happened with like minded people. You might even buy merchandise relating to them. But in the end they’ll probably break your heart.

I’m writing, of course, about TV shows. You carve out an hour or two every week to follow the exploits of a set of characters. You develop opinions about their personality flaws. And though you may be unaware of it, you have an idea of how you want everything to turn out for everyone.

Especially if the story is serialized or continuous in any way. Ending a sitcom where the only thing tying one season to the next is the inevitable clip show they roll out when everyone wants to take a long weekend isn’t so difficult. You just play clips of the more poignant moments and pull away in a long helicopter shot while a guy in a mustache drives away on a motorcycle to a depressing version of the show’s theme song.

But in this modern world of multi-threaded story arcs, a satisfying close to a popular series is hard to come by.

This is on my mind for a couple of reasons. One of which is the fact that Lost is coming to a close and people won’t shut up about it. Given the buzz around it, I think it’s highly unlikely that whatever the ending is will please anyone. I’ve never even seen the show, and I’m pretty sure whatever the ending is going to piss me off; because the only ending I want out of a show like that is “the people who deserve to get home safely do, and the people who don’t get their comeuppance.” This sort of ending is routinely condemned by people who think they are too smart to enjoy a happy ending.

It is those people that I fear will ruin the other reason why I’m thinking about series finales: The final season of Monk is out on DVD.

Now, I don’t have cable, so my ability to keep up with Tony Shaloub’s defective detective is gated by my ability to buy and watch the episodes on DVD. As a result, I’m not even halfway through season 7 yet, though I must say that season 7 started weakly but has improved in the second disc.

I don’t know how Monk ends, and I’m sort of afraid to find out. I want him to find Trudy’s killer and have some peace, but I wouldn’t bet a nickel on that happening. Why? Because I have too much experience with shows that get ruined by people who think they’re too smart to enjoy a happy ending.

Consider Quantum Leap. I loved that show. Watched it religiously every week, and whenever it was on in syndication. It’s a show that manages to hold up pretty well with age, and Scott Bakula remains one of my favorite actors. But I won’t buy season 5 on DVD, and among the myriad reasons why not is I’m pissed off at the writers for screwing Sam. The final episode ends with a text on a black screen informing the viewer that Sam never makes it home.

So what we have here is not only mean spirited writers, but also lazy writers. Mean sprited, lazy writers who think they’re impossibly clever.

This is a similar affliction that plagued the writers for The Sopranos, which is another show I haven’t seen but whose ending frosted my cupcakes enough to make me not care if I ever do see it. The writers for The Sopranos were obviously trying to one-up the writers of Quantum Leap on all counts. Not only were they more mean spirited (nothing changed for Sam either, but at least he continued leaping around making the world better), but they were even lazier (at least Sam got a line of text against his black screen ending.) And from reading interviews, I’m certain they think they were even more impossibly clever than the writers of Quantum Leap.

You can almost hear them gloating. “Look at me! I added more pointless ugliness to the world. Aren’t I a hip, happening dude?”

You know, when Del Lord ended a three stooges short by fading to black at a seemingly random place in the script, he never claimed to be making profound commentary on the nature of comedic storytelling. He just ran out of film but still had to show something for the time he billed the studio. Somehow I can respect that more.

I don’t hold grudges about shows that were prematurely cancelled. The Pretender ended on a cliffhanger, and I don’t blame the writers for that. I do fault them for writing unsatisfying conclusions to the saga of Jarod in the subsequent Pretender movies, but at least they were trying to tie up loose ends. There were just too many loose ends to tie up, so we got some garbage about how the Centre is actually a cult that believes in a prophecy laid out in an ancient book that claims a kid named Jarod will be their downfall. And there are ghosts or something. I don’t remember, and it doesn’t matter. I’ll take an honest failure to make a good ending over someone who tried to tell you you’re an idiot if you don’t like the fact that he made a bad ending on purpose. Sometimes intentions matter.

Getting back to Monk, I’m concerned that the writers may be too wrapped up in their own cleverness to give Adrian Monk a fitting sendoff. Why? In the episode “Mr. Monk Falls in Love” in season seven, Monk finally starts to progress and let Trudy’s death go. He even takes off his wedding ring. In the end, he brings the murderer of the episode into custody, vindicating the object of his affection while condemning her mother. The woman spurns Adrian over this, telling him to go back to his wife, knowing full well that Adrian’s wife was killed by a car bomb.

I doubt the ability of a writer who would write an episode like that to put a firm resolution on the series as a whole. Am I in for another black screen with white text informing me that Adrian never finds Trudy’s killer?

Now that I would bet a nickel on.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I am not going to title this post with a lame Wii pun. That would be beneath Mii.

So, as of this writing it’s been about two weeks since Nintendo’s fabulously successful console made its first appearance in my home. Wii’ve accumulated five virtual console games (Starfox 64, A Link to the Past, Super MarioKart, F-Zero and Super Dodgeball) and a handful of Wii games that were in the ten to thirty dollar range. So I figured, why not give Yuu my impressions?

So, here is our initial Wii-brary.

A Boy and His Blob. An update to the charming and utterly incomprehensible game initially released on the NES. This isn’t so much a sequel as it is a reboot, or Wiiboot if you can handle another Wii related pun. (If you can’t this is apt to be one looooong post for Yuu.) This time, instead of a large world to traverse and a limited number of blob-transforming jellybeans to traverse it with, the game is broken up into individual levels. Also, you are given a palette of jellybeans but no limit on how many you use, at least not in the first few levels (this is an impressions post, not a review). The new BahB also doesn’t require you to learn what each jellybean does at first. The menu from which you select your bean shows you what the jellybean in question does. These changes collude to put the game more squarely in the realm of the puzzle genre, rather than an adventure with puzzle elements. The new art style is beautiful, proving that you don’t need a thousand dollars worth of graphical accelerators to make something look good. The game uses the nunchuck and wiimote, but doesn’t try to shoehorn wii motion movements, and the player is free to use the classic controller if hii was gullible enough to buy one like wii were. The Missus loved the original, and while this one isn’t proving to be her new favorite, the $15 price point is hard to resist. Even when the puzzles become annoying and frustrating later on, I’m confident the game will be worth the price.

Cooking Mama: Cook Off When the Missus traded in her DS, she paused lovingly at Cooking Mama before putting it into the shopping bag for the trip to Gamestop. Cooking Mama on the DS was one of those games she liked so much she bought the sequel (Cooking Mama 2) and the spin off (Gardening Mama). Something of a chef herself, she enjoyed the concept and most of the execution (the controls tended to be a bit fiddly and occasionally unresponsive) of the Cooking Mama series on the DS. So when we got the Wii, it only seemed fair to pick up a Cooking Mama game. The controls seem to be just as fiddly, and Mama can be hard to understand (Is she saying “you’re not trying?” Or is it “Donut Flying?” Perhaps “Bow knot Tying?” Am I doing well when she says that? Who knows?). But played head-to-head, this game looks to be a fun diversion for those nights when the missus and I want to play something together, but don’t feel like chopping wood. Which brings us to:

Go Play Lumberjacks I’m a lumberjack. I’m okay. I wave my Wii-mote ‘round all day. I chop some wood; I throw an axe, and climb with Ninja Lumberjacks.

(He’s a lumberjack, he’s okay. He waves his wii-mote ‘round all day. He chops some wood, he throws an axe, and climbs with Ninja Lumberjacks)

Okay, that’s enough of that. I don’t want to get sued, though I am certain John Cleese’s testimony in the trial would be delightful. Go Play Lumberjacks is apparently part of a series of Go Play games. I wouldn’t know. All I do know is that I like watching the lumberjack competition on ESPN when I can do it, and this game features a hot-saw competition.

There are four basic types of games: Sawing, chopping, axe-throwing and water. The manual sawing games can be tiresome (shake your wiimote faster than anyone else in the room! For a minute and a half!), and I haven’t unlocked all the water games yet…

Oh yeah, did I mention that this is one of those games that makes you work to unlock content you paid for? Yeah, it’s one of those.

…but on the whole the game is fun. Recommended for anyone who can’t decide which minigame collection to buy next.

Raving Rabids: TV The franchise that reminded us how cool Rayman was returns for another installment, this one uses the Wii Balance Board and features jokes that are guaranteed to become dated within five years.

Or did you think references to American Chopper would age well?

But all that’s okay, because the games are fun on their own merits, and the implementation of the Wii Balance Board is almost novel enough to justify the game’s claim to be the first Wii game you can play with your butt.

Rabids Go Home And just in case you couldn’t get enough of the screaming rabids, Ubisoft delivers a standalone adventure game featuring them. For those of you who think “rabid” equals “minigame,” allow me to disabuse you. Rabids go Home is a story based game similar to Katamari Damacy in that the plot revolves vaguely around planets and the gameplay involves you collecting a lot of random junk. In RGH, the rabids decide they want to go to the moon. But they can’t reach it, so they decide to build a mountain of junk so tall it lets them climb there. You play a pair of rabids, one driving a shopping cart and another riding in it, who are tasked with careening through levels stealing as much stuff as you can.

It’s fun and the trademark wacky rabid humor is there in spades from the moment you boot the game and your Wii informs you that a rabid has been detected in your Wiimote, and you’re given a camera inside the wiimote that shows him getting smacked around as you shake, rattle, spin and press buttons on your wiimote. This sequence alone is worth the price of the game.

Walk it OutDo you like walking for health, but hate the fact that the weather is only suitable for it for half the year? Do you not mind a rhythm game with obtuse beat detection? Can you handle an excessively perky “coach” telling you how great you’re doing?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then look no further than Walk it Out, a piece of Wii Software that allows up to two players to walk around a virtual town with no time limit, no objective, and no plot.

Note that I said “Software.” Because this is not a game. There is no victory condition, no way to lose, and the only “score” is used to buy items scattered around the town. See, the town is not built up yet. It has roads, but no buildings. So it’s kind of like the I-90 once you get west of the Hudson river, except with fewer trees. With points you can buy thinks like trees, buildings, street lights and new songs to listen to while you’re “walking.”

To earn points, you step in time with the music. You can use the Wii balance board, or the wiimote and nunchuck, or the Dance-Dance-Revolution pad you thought would be so much fun but never play with because the step detection stinks and there was only one game for it.

It’s actually a pretty neat concept. Those of you who’ve had gym memberships know that the most effective, but the most boring part of any workout is the time you spend on the elliptical, or treadmill, or stationary bike. Well, if you have any of those things in your house, you can plant them in front of the TV and use Walk it Out to make believe you’re actually outside and walking around when in reality the weather is too nasty to do it. You’ll have to endure an impossibly perky coach who interrupts you periodically and is, like, so totally amazed at, like, how amazing you’re doing, ‘n stuff. You can swap her out for a male coach, but I haven’t been brave enough to try him out yet because I’m afraid he’ll be even worse than her. It’s a double standard, but perkiness is annoying but tolerable in a girl. Not so much with the tolerable on a boy.

The only problem with the implementation here is the beat detection. Where the game thinks the downbeat of the song is doesn’t always match where I think the downbeat of the song is, but then I’m a middle-class white dude who is less than a decade from being middle aged, so maybe that’s my fault. I highly recommend setting the step detection to easy, and selecting the option that doesn’t cost you points if you miss any steps.

Wii Play Unlike everyone else who bought this game, I didn’t buy the version with the Wiimote bundled in. I already have three wiimotes—should that be thriimotes?—and a fourth would just be superfluous until my son is old enough to stand on his own. So we bought Wii Play used without the controller primarily because it had 9-ball in it. I’m not sure why they went with 9-ball when 8-ball is what most people think of when they think of pool (unless they’re British, in which case they think of snooker, which is like 8 ball except the balls don’t have numbers and there are approximately six thousand of them on the table at any given time), but 9-ball is still fun and the implementation is good enough considering I wouldn’t really want to pay for a standalone billiard game for the Wii.

The real strength of the game is in the Tank game, though. If you had an Atari 2600, you had Combat. And if you had Combat and at least one friend, you probably spent a lot of time playing tank pong. Wii Play features a very similar game here, with tanks that fire shells that ricochet off of walls until they collide with a target or get tired and fall down. The Wii version also allows the player to lay mines, which sounds cool but seems to be largely useless against AI opponents.

There aren’t many games in Wii Play, but the ones that are in there are well executed, and for ten bucks (which is how much it would cost to get this game with a Wiimote if you take out the cost of a Wiimote) it’s worth it. Sure, they’re like flash games. But you can’t play flash games by waving your arms around like a dummy while your friends and family also wave their arms around like competitive dummies, can you?

Wii Fit I’ve mentioned the Wii balance board in a few of the game impressions above. The reason I did so is that we picked up Wii Fit when we bought the Wii.

Wii Fit is surprisingly robust as a piece of training software. A lot of the exercises necessarily focus on core training, since core training is all about balance and balance is what the Wii Balance board is good at measuring. But the addition of several step aerobics variations, a decent list of strength training exercises that don’t actually focus on core strength, and a good roster of yoga poses cement Wii Fit as a piece of software that will actually help people get in shape.

I’m as surprised as you are. How much exercise could a person get standing in one place and leaning in different directions. The answer is a surprising amount. I’ve been doing it every day for almost a month (as of the writing of this post) and not only am I pleased to stick with it, I feel like I’m actually getting in better shape. I’ll never make myself into Arnold Schwarzenegger with the Wii Fit board (unless you buy eight of them and teach yourself to juggle them), but I can stay active and make sure my pants fit. And that’s really what most people want out of exercise anyway, right

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Cap the Haterade: Through Rain and Sleet and Snow

And we introduce a new genre of post here at Free Toy Inside: a discussion of things that are unjustly maligned by critics and consumers alike. In this space you will find a defense of things that are popular to hate on. Be that movies, music, video games, books, or any old thing that comes to my mind.

Why? Because some things just don’t deserve the hate. Some things do, of course. Illinois Nazis, for example, are fully deserving of the hate that gets lobbed their way. But some things are hated on for no other reason than it is fun or hip to do so.

Well, consider this a curative for people who’ve spent too much time on

In my first installment, I’ll tackle a target that should probably be defended by a better writer, or a worse one. But since good writers don’t like The Postman, and bad writers are too busy trying to write screenplays for people who hate The Postman, then it must necessarily fall to me.

Ambitious? Friend, you’re looking at a man who beat the original Contra on the NES with one life. Challenge would be my middle name if fate and genetics hadn’t conspired to make my middle name “Slammin’” .

Let’s get this out of the way first: The Postman is a decent movie. Does it have flaws? Sure. It suffers from Costner syndrome, first of all, which is an affliction that forces every movie directed by Kevin Costner must be as epic and sweeping as Dances with Wolves, or at least take three hours to watch. Seriously, every move Costner’s ever been in should have had an intermission or a more merciless editor.

The Postman also features Costner’s typical ham-fisted message delivery (WAR IS HELL, DAMMIT!)

But at the end of the day, the stories tend to be good and the delivery, though long, is entertaining. Costner’s style is a throwback to older moviemaking, when movies were more apt to be character studies and the plots tended to be too complicated to sum up in a sentence. I suspect this is why they aren’t more popular, since most modern movies cater to the ever shrinking attention spans of viewers brought up on music videos. If you get bored watching something where the camera doesn’t do a zip-cut every three seconds, an establishing shot consisting of Kevin Costner and a mule walking through the ruins of civilization will probably put you to sleep.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, and I’ll wager that most of the people who hate the movie never have, The Postman is the story of a postapocalyptic drifter without a name who gets conscripted by an army of white supremacists that terrorize the remaining settlements of Western America known as The Holnists. He escapes, taking refuge from a storm in a mail delivery truck that contains the corpse of a pre-war mailman and bags of mail. He runs a scam where he claims to be a mailman from the re-established United States Government, charged with getting the lines of communication flowing for the northwest coastal states, in exchange for food and shelter. The con quickly melts away and he starts actually executing the duties of a mail carrier, along with the help of a lot of young members of the settlements he visits who are looking for any kind of hope for the future.

But hope is dangerous, and the settlements touched by the Postman begin to resist the brutal Holnist army, which responds by hunting down mail carriers and anyone who gives them refuge. And this is where you might consider the main plot to start. From here, the timeline of the movie spans something like a year or more, as can be seen through the changing of the seasons.

The leader of the Holnist army, and the movie’s chief villain, other than despair, is a former copy machine salesman turned general named Bethlehem. Now, the Postman is based on a book I haven’t read, so I can’t tell you if there’s any significance to that other than it enables aspiring political cartoonists in the movie to circulate fliers with the phrase “O Little Mind of Bethlehem” on them. Having taken a turn at writing a novel (I’m about two thirds of the way through it, and haven’t had the time to work on it for ten years) I wouldn’t doubt that the author named the character to get one good joke out of it, because I’ve done it myself.

Bethlehem is insane, but the nature of his mental disorder isn’t explored to any great degree. Narcissism and megalomania are two of his defining traits, to be sure, but he’s not the cardboard villain that you might expect from a movie featuring a heroic mailman fighting a white supremacist. At one point the general is shown painting a self portrait using a hand mirror, and he angrily demands that his subject stop moving. It’s a throwaway scene, shown through a door that’s literally closing on the camera. But it gives insight into the kind of man Bethlehem is, and lends some depth beyond the “racist = bad” motif that a shorter movie would have settled for. As a result, the character feels human. A vile, brutally despicable human, but still human with motivations that the audience can understand, if not agree with. I don’t say he’s the gold standard for villain writing, but I do say that he is proof that it’s possible to make a villain three-dimensional without making him sympathetic in any conceivable way. As a viewer, I don’t need to believe what he believes; I just need to believe that he believes it.

That’s a major theme of The Postman: Believing in something. Believing in something can cause a revolution, and the war between two revolutions is the main conflict of The Postman.

Boiled down, there are two types of revolutionaries: The Eager and the Reluctant. Eager Revolutionaries, like Bethlehem in this movie, like to talk about how revolutionary they are. They talk about the revolution they’re working for, and how amazing the world will be once their revolution starts turning. These are the kinds of revolutionaries that tend to kill a lot of people and get their pictures on Tee-shirts, because they’re really good at self promoting but not so good at building a world anyone wants to actually live in.

The Reluctant revolutionaries are the ones like The Postman in this movie. They’re not in it for fame, or to remake the world in their own image. They just do things that make sense to them. These kinds of revolutionaries tend to get beat up more, and they don’t to get their pictures on shirts, but their impact on the world is in general more profound and usually for the better.

Bethlehem wants the power that The Postman accumulates in this movie, and has been working for it since the war broke out. His problem, like many Eager Revolutionaries, is that he doesn’t know how to acquire that power except through fear. So he threatens everyone. He threatens to kill members of his army who disagree with him. He threatens to kill civilians who disobey him. This gives him a feeling of power, because people stand aside from him and do what he says, but that power is illusory. And this is thrown into sharp relief when The Postman starts delivering mail.

The Postman has more power over the people in the settlements than Bethlehem could ask for. In one visit, he burns off much of the fear that Bethlehem had instilled in the general populace. They’re still aware they can’t fight him and his army, but he’s no longer the invincible monster that must be placated with offerings. The scenes in which Bethlehem’s power crumbles even as he tightens his grasp on it are among the more satisfying scenes ever committed to film.

In the end, it’s a good story with good characters that concerns itself with that universal human need: Hope. I’ll never understand the antipathy toward it.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Psyche Out

Like every gamer on the internet, I like to flatter myself with the belief that I’m somehow immune to hype. It’s all about the game, not the marketing budget or the buzz. I make my decisions deliberately, doing my research, parsing the reviews, and judging by the gameplay footage what will be my next purchase.

Yeah. And I also keep a pair of fairy wings in my closet that I wear for my night job giving little children quarters in exchange for their lost teeth. I use the teeth to build castles for my wife and children to live in.

Seriously. Right now I have a finished basement with a floor tiled entirely with incisors. But getting enough wisdom teeth to build the bookshelves in the library has been a cast iron bastard.

No, I’m susceptible to hype just like every other person walking the planet, or flying above it. I’m particularly vulnerable to small, viral campaigns that spread largely through word-of-mouth. These sorts of campaigns are designed to appeal to the nerd in me, which likes feeling clever because he’s heard of something that a lot of other people haven’t. Like a ring that makes me invisible, even if I only use it to catch fish.

This is not my best feature. It has led to many wasted dollars in my storied past as a gamer. Too many games that I fell for the hype, bought and then put down after putting in an honest, rigorous effort to like a game that I was, at best, lukewarm on because I desperately wanted the promise of the hype to be true.

Because I went to the trouble to preorder the damn game, and it’s going to be good!

This is almost universal to me: Any game that I care enough to pre-order cannot possibly be good enough to be worth preordering.

But so it came to pass that I pre-ordered and paid full price for 3D Dot Game Heroes on the PS3. As a gamer who started gaming in Atari’s halcyon days, and who came of age in the era of Zelda and Mario, the retro-goodness held some appeal. Especially since I had just finished Darksiders, which was alleged to be as derivative of Zelda as a game could be while still featuring entrails. Hungry for more adventuring and block puzzles, I took a look at the gameplay footage for 3D Dot Game Heroes with lust in my heart. When my wife heard that reviewers the web over were comparing the game favorably to A Link to the Past, she stopped short of demanding we buy the game, but did make a heartfelt appeal that nudged me over the edge.

But this was a quirky Japanese title by Atlas. Finding it in stores could prove problematic. But, wonder of wonders, a Gamestop exists right on my route home from work! I could preorder it and make it a DAY ONE PURCHASE!

And that’s exactly what I did. And it’s forty dollars that I wish I had back.

It’s not so much that 3DDGH is a bad game. It’s just not a particularly good game. My wife, on the other hand, would firmly disagree with that. A Link to the Past is one of her very favorite games of all time. To this very day. In fact, the very first downloadable game we bought on the Wii was A Link to the Past. So her devotion to Link’s third adventure in America is not to be questioned. From her perspective, the fact that anyone would mention 3DDGH and LttP in the same breath, let alone compare the former favorably to the latter, creates a burning rage of the sort that grounds flights out of Europe.

And I don’t just make that analogy because her ancestry is of the Norse persuasion.

To put it another way, She played Link to the Past. Link to the Past was a favorite of hers. 3D Dot Game Heroes is no Link to the Past.

It would be apt to draw comparisons and contrasts between 3DDGH and another game that was compared to Zelda games: Darksiders.

Darksiders was a game that was shamelessly derivative, but it was still its own game. Sure, it was stealing ideas from the Zelda series, but those were gameplay ideas. And it didn’t steal them in a direct, bit-for-bit kind of way, rather it stole the high-level concept and chiseled out something unique.

3D Dot Game Heroes, on the other hand, is not derivative. It’s a carbon copy. Except the carbon is old and has been used to the point where there’s almost no carbon left on it.

It is an old saying that good artists borrow, while great artists steal (Pablo Picasso allegedly said it, though it may have been apocryphal). Atlas seems to have misunderstood the meaning of this old saw. Taking another person’s work and slapping your name on it is not the kind of stealing that the proverbial Great Artist engages in.

When Vigil stole Zelda ideas for Darksiders, they still built their own game. 3D Dot Game Heroes feels like somebody got hold of the developer tools used to make the original Zelda and made a new game. Except they didn’t have the spark that gave Zelda’s game design its kick, so we wind up with a game that kind of looks like a Zelda game if you squint hard enough, but plays more like one of those Zelda knockoffs that couldn’t get Nintendo’s seal of approval and was therefore released by Tengen’s incompetent sister company.

It’s kind of like watching Kermit the Frog today. Steve Whitmire is trying desperately to remind everyone how much they love Jim Henson, but ultimately he doesn’t have the same soul. Kermit ceases to be Kermit, and he becomes just a sock puppet with ping pong eyes. Because Steve Whitmire, though talented, is not Jim Henson, and Kermit was only Kermit because Jim Henson made him Kermit.

The kicker is if they hadn’t struck out to build a game that reminded you of how much you liked Zelda, they could have made a good game. I played through the first three dungeons before giving up on the game, and not once did I feel like Atlas put any effort into making the game interesting in and of itself. Instead of “Oh, they did this kind of puzzle. Cool,” It was “Oh, this puzzle type was so much better done in Zelda. Sigh.”

That about sums up 3DDGH for me: I spent more time sighing than smiling. I don’t finish games like that anymore. Life is too short to spend it being bored by a video game.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How to Get A Free Wii

The first thing you need to do is have two kids. And they have to have been born between 2004 and 2009. So you’ll probably need a time machine. Which means you’ll want to get in touch with some Libyans that hang out in Hill Valley…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Recently, The Missus and I bought a Wii, thus invalidating my theory that the Wii never actually existed.

Backstory on that joke: My only-half-joking theory was that the Wii was actually just a clever marketing campaign for a nonexistent product designed to create the ultimate in artificial scarcity (what’s scarcer than a product that doesn’t exist?) and drive Nintendo’s stock price through the roof. Anyone who claimed to actually have a Wii was in truth a guerilla marketer employed by Nintendo to fool people into thinking the Wii was an acual product.

That may have been the case three years ago, but today the Wii actually does exist, and we have one.

And we didn’t pay a thin dime for it.

If you want to replicate our success, you have to go back to 2004 and conceive a child.

Why? Because if you have a child in the infant-to-toddler range, chances are you bought baby Tylenol. And as you should be aware, baby Tylenol has been recalled for nebulous reasons that certainly don’t warrant a class action suit. Nope. Not at all.

But the makers of Tylenol will reimburse you the cost of any baby Tylenol you’ve purchased prior to the recall. That reimbursement netted us $60 cash money.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. $60 doesn’t buy a Wii. It barely buys a controller for the Wii. So where did the rest of the money come from?

Well, that leads to the second thing you need to do: Wait for Gamestop to have a sale in which they offer you an additional 50% on all trades. Under that condition, you want to dig out any systems you haven’t used in a year or more (in my case, a PSP and a GBA), and every game you own for them (25 and 14, respectively). You also have to have a wife that will do the same (in her case a DS and about a dozen games)

If you do that right, you will have enough cash and store credit to buy a Wii, an extra Wii-motion-plus controller, an extra nunchuk, two classic controllers, a Wii Fit Plus bundle, $40 in Nintendo Space Bucks, and an 8GB SD card (from Sandisk, not Nintendo. Just because it’s free money doesn’t mean I’m going to be stupid with it)

You’ll note that this doesn’t include any games. That is, as you Wii owners out there know, because there aren’t any.

Well, that’s hyperbolic, sort of. It’s widely understood that the Wii is not a system for Gamers. The Wii is a Family System, capital F capital S. That means games that we can play as a family. So single player games are pretty much out, which is fine because A) they don’t make many good ones anyway and B) I already have a system that is superior to the Wii in the Single Player library (the PS3). Basically, if two or more players can’t play at the same time, it’s probably not a game we’ll consider for the Wii.

Of course, I’ve heard that the new Mario games are more cooperative. Unfortunately, my experience with Super Mario Sunshine and Paper Mario for the Gamecube completely and utterly soured me on Mario games made after Nintendo moved to optical over solid state media. There are only so many times you can kick me in the balls before I stop spreading my knees.

So while we will probably be picking up games like Elebits and Raving Rabids, there won’t be a lot of first-person-shooting or platform-jumping.

There will, however, be lots of Zelda, a Link to the Past-ing and F-Zero racing, as well as some Starfox 64-ing, because Starfox 64 was the pinnacle of the brand. And we have a number of games for the Gamecube that I’m sure the kids will enjoy once they’re old enough.

For now, while waiting for the kids to get old enough to play, my wife and I are enjoying having Bowling night without the rented shoes.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Navel Gaming

Yes, it’s another video game article. This one will be more philosophical in nature.

I have spoken on the types of gamers in the past, but what makes a gamer? Why, it’s someone who plays games of course, you trite nitwit. True enough, dear reader, true enough.

But what makes something a game?

Oh G-d! Not another one of those articles! Now I bet he’s going to open with a dictionary entry!

Quiet, you.

So, Merriam Webster’s (GAH! I KNEW IT!) defines game four different ways, two of which are pertinent to this discussion:
1 a: Activity engaged in for diversion or amusement

3 a: A physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other.

I’m aware that a number of you out there might dispute the above definitions; particularly number 1; but I’m taking these as the accepted definitions of the word Game, in particular because these two definitions are what people who don’t necessarily call themselves gamers think of when they hear or use the term game.

Also, the rules I’m about to lay out, to steal a bit from the late George Carlin, are my rules. I make them up. If you don’t like them, you’re free to think I’m an idiot. If you follow me on twitter, I’m sure you already do.

Anyway, from the above definitions we can derive two fundamental rules of what makes something an actual game.

First, a game is fun. Or, at least, it’s intended to be fun. If you claim to be designing a game and making it fun isn’t one of your goals, then you are not making a game.

It’s very important to make this distinction, because a developer can intend for a game to be fun, but fail. It’s still a game, just not a good one. Plus, it we don’t make this distinction, then MS Word can call itself a game, and nobody wants that. It may be a puzzle to figure out how the heck you’re supposed to do anything (or, more likely, how to make it NOT do something), but it was definitely not designed to be fun.

If your goal in making your “game” is to challenge people’s ideas about what makes a game, then you’re not making a game.

I know of “games” that were specifically designed to not be fun, but to make a statement, or force the user to think about something. While that may be interesting to a certain type of person who is not me, it’s not a game. You can make a game educational and even thought-provoking, but if you’re not also trying to make it fun, then you’re not making a game.

And remember, that’s my rule. I made it up.

The second rule, derived from definition number 2 from Merriam Webster:

Games have a clearly delineated difference between failure and success.

If you’ll never see a “game over” screen, you’re not playing a game; you’re playing with a toy. Toys have their merit, and I’ll be the first to defend them, but toys and games are related in the sense that poems and limericks are related. One is a subset of the other, carved out by having rules that do not apply to the larger group.

But even if you have a “game over” screen, if winning and losing share the same outcome (from a narrative perspective), then you’re not playing a game either.

So sorry, Gravity Bone, you are not a game.

If you’ve played Gravity Bone, you either love it or hate it. But either way, you’re not allowed to call it a game, and here’s why: (SPOILER ALERT)

At the end of the game, you encounter the big-bad. You give chase across rooftops, and when you finally catch up to the big-bad you get shot and you fall off of the building to your death. While that may be interesting storytelling, it is not materially different from what happens if you simply miss a jump while pursuing the big bad. Either way your character plummets to his death. The only difference between victory and failure is that you get to try again if you fail, and you get a cutscene if you succeed. But since you already know the ending, I don’t know why you’d bother. Just jump off the first ledge you see and call it a speed run.

Another example of something that’s not a game is Noby Noby boy on the Playstation Network. It largely satisfies rule number one in that it’s amusing enough, but there is no hard objective to meet, no condition for victory or failure. Noby Noby Boy is a toy that keeps track of certain statistics while you’re playing with it.

I know this post will irk some people, because it sounds like I’m passing a value judgment. I’d like to stress that I’m not saying that Noby Noby Boy (or Gravity Bone) is a bad example of whatever it is. I’m not even saying I don’t like it (well, in Gravity Bone’s case I am saying I don’t like it, because I don’t). All I’m saying is it’s not a game.

I can see where some people might make that mistake, because typically when someone says “that’s not X” it means they don’t like whatever they’re describing. Like when someone points at a toilet and says “that’s not art.” What they really mean is they don’t like Duchamp or the Dadaism. Well, that’s not what I’m doing. And I can prove it.

If I were just saying that anything I didn’t like wasn’t a game, I’d condemn Braid as not being a game because Jonathan Blow was so hot to challenge our preconceptions about gaming. Well, he certainly made some pretentious crap, but he still made a game, and my perceptions of him and his game can’t change that.

I’m not going to speak about whether games are, or can be, Art with a Capital A. That is a subject for another post that I am not qualified to write, though you wait and see if that stops me.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Overclocked Episode 2: Rapture, human nature, and which one Andrew Ryan was wrong about.

Welcome to the second irregular installment of Overclocked, in which I go off the deep end and think too hard about something in the hopes that my tortured musings will entertain you. Kind of like Christians in Rome, except the lions are all figurative and live in my head.

Lately I’ve been playing Bioshock 2, which takes place sometime after the game that Ken Levine conceived and sometime before the series ceases to be a profitable brand. The two games have more than Big Daddies and creepy little girls with glowing eyes in common. Both games are skewering one political viewpoint while a significant number of players of the game think they’re skewering a different ones.

In Bioshock the first, the message most people took from the game (at least as far as I can judge by reading reviews) is that capitalism = bad. In fact, the message of the first one is that objectivism doesn’t work as a form of government. I can understand the misconception. At its core, free market capitalism is about letting entities sort out the best way of doing things for themselves with minimal supervision, and that people who earn money should be allowed to keep it. There is common ground there, but the difference is that free marketers favor a system by which property rights can be enforced. This gets back to the whole “keeping what you earn” thing, because there are more people than just government officials who look at your money and think “that belongs to me!”

The objectivist doesn’t agree. To the objectivist, you are entitled to keep only what you can keep. If someone with a bigger gun than yours comes along, well then your money belongs to him now. Unless he falls into some kind of repetitive pattern where he exposes a weak point for you to exploit every third attack. But since life isn’t a Zelda game, that’s not very likely.

The problem with most objectivists is that they don’t even recognize the possibility that someone with a bigger gun would try to take your stuff. Thus, the problem of objectivism is not that objectivism is objectively wrong, but that objectivists are incurably optimistic about human nature. They don’t think out the consequences of their own policies under the immutable fact that human beings are nasty, wicked creatures who will do what benefits them in the easiest way possible unless someone or something stops them from doing so. That’s why societies have laws and constabularies.

This blindness that objectivists have for the unscrupulous is precisely why Atlus caught Andrew Ryan so off guard in Rapture. To Ryan, he had created a true utopia, in which everyone was free to explore their own full potential in the absence of stifling laws or cultural mores. It simply never occurred to him that anyone would want to run the place for his own gain. Just like it never occurred to him that it might be a bad idea to let people give themselves super powers by freebasing sea slugs. What they do with their bodies isn’t his business, right?

Bioshock 2 is likewise likely to be misunderstood. I expect people will take it as a shot at Christianity, when in fact it’s about fascism.

Yes, yes. Feel free to pat yourself on the back. I’m sure you’re the first person clever enough to think “what’s the difference” to the above sentence. Good for you.

Fascism usually starts where you have a disproportionate amount of losers in a society. I don’t mean losers in the forty-seven-years-old-and-his-mom-still-picks-his-clothes-for-him sense, but in the actual I-tried-to-open-a-business-and-lost-my-shirt kind of way. When you get a lot of society’s losers in one place, you get at least one person who sees those losers and realizes that there is power in numbers. That person will then take up the cause of the downtrodden and offer them something they want, or think they want. Chances are they don’t even believe what they’re peddling; they’re just trying to get power.

For Sophia Lamb, she saw that people were missing G-d. Ryan, being the secular humanist and objectivist libertarian that he was, saw religion as a hindrance to the greatness of man. So long as you believe in a power greater than your own, and adhere to artificial laws handed down from some musty old book, then you can never be truly free. Or so Ryan would argue. So naturally, religion was discouraged in Rapture. And bibles are the only books to be banned.

The interesting thing about Bioshock 2 is that it changes the meaning of some of what the player saw in the first game. The first game featured smuggler’s crates full of bibles, and the introduction of the spider splicers had them spouting pseudo scripture instead of the usual incoherent ramblings the player had come to expect from splicers. This was to be taken as hypocrisy on Ryan’s part; the great champion of freedom in all things taking the decidedly totalitarian step of banning literature as subversive. In the context of Bioshock 2, we see that Ryan wasn’t simply preventing people from reading the good book, but was defending Rapture from the fascistic rumblings of Sophia Lamb.

This is made clear in the audio logs, in which Ryan voices his disapproval of Lamb’s coordination of artistic activities in Dionysus Park. He explicitly says that he disapproves, but as it’s Lamb’s property, he has nothing to say about it. But he adds ominously that he will take a sledgehammer to the place if his investigation of Lamb confirms his suspicions.

This exposes Ryan not as the megalomaniac we first took him for in the first game, but as a tragically deluded figure who truly believed his vision would be best for everyone, and was trying to defend the nature of Rapture against elements who would turn it into another totalitarian state.

Lamb, however, is the prototypical power-grabbing fascist aspiring to dictatordom. She uses high flown rhetoric about unity (in Lamb’s case, the buzz word is Family, but it might as well have been Worker, Proletariat, or any of a hundred terms that real-world fascists use to claim they speak for the people) to whip up support for her agenda, but she’s certainly not above strong-arming the odd surrogate mother into giving up a child if it benefits her. Lamb’s own transgressions against the family are forgivable, even laudable, because her only real principle is that of the attainment of power. Because, like any fascist, she believes that everything would be beer and skittles if only she ran everything.

Ryan was actually trying something new. Something that had never been tried before. But it didn’t work out, because people are people. Lamb is just rehashing the ideas and tactics of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joe Stalin and Che Guevara. That never works either, for much the same reason.

Which is kind of fitting, when you think about it. What could be more appropriate to a sequel than a villain that cranks out the same old rhetoric hoping that it will work this time?