Friday, September 28, 2012


The Binding of Isaac is on sale on Steam today. It costs $1.24. That is insane. This definitely isn't a game for everyone, but even at the full price of $5, it would have been one of the best-valued games I've ever played. If you're at all interested in a disturbing, demented and challenging twist on The Legend of Zelda, I highly recommend grabbing it.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Zailing the Unterzee

I haven't sounded off on Fallen London in nearly a month! Dear me. Time to rectify that forthwith!

First, some general non-spoilery strategy things for people who are interested in playing or in the early stages of the game:

You get a LOT of stuff in this game. The inventory may be broader than any other game I've played, and I've played Elder Scrolls RPGs. When you first start, it's often baffling to decide what to DO with the items you accumulate while playing. Some stuff seems useful, others have no immediate use but seem important, other stuff seems unimportant but it's hard to tell for sure. Practically anything can be converted into currency, but it can be expensive or difficult to later re-acquire stuff you've sold.

Having gone through a good portion of the game, here's my general advice on the subject of items:
  • First of all, don't sweat anything too much. If you stick with the game, the opportunities you'll get in the later stages of the game will more than compensate any mis-steps you may have made early on. It's literally impossible to ever get stuck in the game, and something that seems disastrous early on may only mean taking a single action later on to overcome.
  • Hoarding is fine and good. In the end part of the game, where I currently reside, much of the activity involves crafting with items. Practically everything you can find will [eventually!] have some use.
  • That said, the utility you get today from selling things may be more important than the eventual benefit of having that same thing much later in the game. If I could have done one thing differently in my game, it probably would have been to purchase more equipment. I'd been frozen at the time since I could see that there were higher-stat options available and I wanted to wait for them to arrive. However, the price differentials are such that buying a cheaper item will not have a significant impact on the time until you can buy the most expensive items.
  • You'll get some equipment for free along the way, and some of this will be better than any equipment you can buy. Again, don't sweat it too much. Some pieces of equipment can also be used in stories, even if their stats aren't amazing. And equipment generally sells back for half price, so it doesn't cause a lot of pain to recycle an item you bought if something better comes along.
  • One exception to the above rule: never buy a Ridiculous Hat. You will need a Ridiculous Hat - several of them, in fact! - but these have a very poor purchase/sell ratio, and you can find some for free before you'll need them.
  • Currency is useless by itself. Don't bother selling items unless you're planning on purchasing something immediately.
  • When selling items, I prefer to sell things that can't be used in crafting. You can check this by viewing the item in your inventory ("Myself"). If hovering over it displays a green box and you can click on it to view some options, then it's a craft item. If hovering displays a red box and nothing happens when you click, then it's not craftable. Crafting isn't important early on, but can always be kind of fun, and becomes pretty important late in the game.
  • Also, I prefer to sell items that can easily be regained. For example, I know where I can get more "moon pearls" if I ever need them, so I never worry about selling moon pearls if I need to raise cash. Conversely, getting a Brass Ring is a bit of a pain, so I hold on to mine.
  • I try to always hold on to some of every item I have. Certain stories and opportunities will require a certain number of a certain type of item to proceed, so it's good to be prepared for this. In the early stages of the game, it's probably safe to hold on to a minimum of 100 of any given item. At my stage in the game, I try to keep 1000 on hand, and more for a few particularly useful items.
 And, what about Fate? I made it far in the game without ever using Fate, and even at my level it isn't necessary. That said, Fate does allow you to access some cool additional stories that provide additional flavor and content in the game. Sometimes these provide extra in-game benefits like better equipment; other times they don't. I've been happy with all my purchases so far, particularly some of the end-game options that provide additional content to existing areas and storylines.

Now, let's delve into some

MEGA SPOILERS (for gameplay, not plot)

Like I mentioned last time, I've become a Person of Some Importance. As you may have guessed from the post title, I'm now a zee-captain!  Getting a ship was a huge undertaking. You can unlock the ship storylet long before becoming a POSI, so it's been a very visible goal for a very long time.

I wanted a ship, but there was a ton of stuff that I wanted to do in London before heading out to zee, and I (rightly) suspected that acquiring a ship wouldn't be much use by itself. So I kept an eye on my pre-requisites while I took care of some other business.

Most of this was outfitting myself with the new slots in the Expanded Inventory. I acquired a Respectable Landau very early on, and soon after joined the Parthenum. This made me one of the most Respectable people in all of London! Particularly when I outfitted myself in my Neddy Suit, of course. I was so Respectable, in fact, that I easily acquired the left-handed side of the Screaming Map to Polythreme.

There are several ways to go about acquiring items that you will expend for Expanded Inventory equipment. Most items have multiple paths to acquisition, and some may be significantly easier or cheaper than others. The major ways include:
  • Direct crafting. A few ingredients, like a Cellar of Wine, a Bazaar Permit, or Favours in High Places, can be crafted by using standard, lower-level items like Broken Giant, Touching Love Stories, and Stolen Kisses. This seems to generally be the cheapest approach, if you already have the items required; however, it seems like at least in some cases, crafting items "up" for the immediate prerequisite will cause you to lose some value. (That does NOT seem to be the case for transforming Visions of the Surface into Touching Love Stories, though, and I'm not sure yet whether that's a unique exception or if the game has overhauled conversion rates.)
  • Carousel activities. Becoming a POSI grants you access to some unique areas in the game: Wilmot's End, and an elegant dinner party, etc. These feature repeatable stories - for example, attending the Elegant Dinner Party will always take you through the same eight stages of the party (arrival, cocktails, dancing, dinner, desert, cigars, etc.). Each pass through the cycle will increase a particular quality, like Dramatic Tension or Talk of the Town. After multiple passes, this quality will be high enough for you to exchange it for one of several items. For example, after you become a big enough Talk of the Town, you can secure a Personal Recommendation or a Favor in High Places. This approach has the advantage of not requiring any items, but requires a LOT of time (usually more than a day of real-world time for a single item).
  • Purchase in the Bazaar Side-Streets. This is your first introduction to high-level crafting, and usually ends up being the one I use. Pretty much every high-level item can be found here. They're simple to acquire, but relatively expensive. Each item usually requires a certain quantity of two crafting items - for example, Incendiary Gossip and Compromising Documents, or Inklings of Identity and Blackmail Material.
  • Story rewards. These are very rare, but sometimes completing a one-time plot thread will reward you with a high-level crafting item.
Figuring this stuff out has proved to be a lot of fun. The meta-gaming becomes part of the game, and I find myself planning my next approaches carefully. After a few weeks of exploration, I've started tapping some great online resources to plan out my acquisitions. If you don't mind some light spoilers (nothing plot-related), here are the most helpful ones I've found:
  • Item Conversions. This is a thorough and excellent explanation of how crafting works (for everything except Bazaar Side-Street items, like Whirling Contraptions and Use of Villains). It describes the mechanics of conversion, and also some very useful charts that show how the conversions progress. It elucidates some complex or confusing items, like the Mysteries line of materials. What's most helpful for me is the chart showing how to convert tier-3 items between the different "lines" of goods. For example, Proscribed Materials can be relatively hard to get, so crafting up to Incendiary Gossip or higher is usually tricky; but by consulting the chart, I can see that Mysteries of the Elder Continent can be converted to Incendiary Gossip. Since I have ludicrous quantities of Jade, it's straightforward to get Elder Continent and then move those over.
  • Item Locations.  This gives the best location for acquiring any types of items after you become a POSI and reach 100+ in your primary qualities. It's pretty important stuff if you plan on crafting your items from raw materials.
  • Making Components. This thread on the Failbetter forums gives good information on a few specific components, like Strong Backed Labour; more importantly, it was a great introduction into the methods of thinking about crafting.
  • Money Options. Another thread on the Failbetter forums, this is focused on the most efficient way to raise Echoes. I've only read a few of the paragraphs so far, since some of the content they discuss are for areas or plots I haven't reached yet (like the Velocipede Squad). This isn't very useful to me just yet, but will be if and when I decide to complete my wardrobe, or go after more expensive items.
  • The Bazaar. The main forum for gameplay-related discussion. Traffic is fairly sedate, and it's a great read; many users post in-character, and some incredibly experienced players are happy to give friendly, non-spoilery advice. It also is impressive just how many users are enthusiastic about math! In addition to the math-heavy "Money Options" thread, check out the Fidgeting Writer analysis.
  • Fallen London Wikia. The Wikidot site is also good; I find Wikidot a bit better for analysis, and Wikia a bit better for data. Anyways, both are great ways to check on (non-Fate-related) storylets, so they're perfect for checking exactly how much of a certain type of item you'll need to acquire, or whether there's a prerequisite for receiving a certain other item.
Anyways... I started off generally avoiding the side-streets and instead playing storylets for them instead. This was pretty fun, but proves to be a very inefficient way of acquiring high-level items. For example, consider the Personal Recommendation. Allow me to be a super-nerd for a few minutes, please. You need to reach Talk of the Town 12 in order to get a Personal Recommendation from the Elegant Dinner Party. This requires roughly 75 "Talk of the Town" change points. Each loop through "Talk of the Town" requires 7 actions (1 to accept the invitation, 1 to leave, and 5 during the party). [Very high Persuasive players may be able to complete it in 6, but lose some potential Talk by doing so.] If someone focuses on maximizing their Talk quality, and not taking advantage of some of the other stuff like easy connection increases with Hell and Rubbery, then you can pretty reliably get 9 change points (CP) for each loop. That's 2 for a punctual arrival, 1 during mingling, 2 for the first dance (if you dance with the Turkish Girl, which you usually can - details below), 2 for the second dance (requires high Persuasive or accepting some Scandal), and 2 to drink sherry with the ladies.

So, at 9 CP's per loop, and a requirement of 75 CP's for the recommendation, that requires a total of 8 loops through the dinner party, for a total of 56 actions spent.

In contrast, purchasing the recommendation at the side-street costs 20 Compromising Documents, and 75 Intriguing Gossip. (I won't admit here how long it took me to realize that "Intriguing Gossip" and "Incendiary Gossip" were two different things.) If you're making this from scratch, that will require you to collect Stolen Correspondence from Spite, and then converting that to Intriguing Gossip; Compromising Documents can be retrieved from the Foreign Office. 200 Stolen Correspondence can be converted to 53 Intriguing Gossip. Assuming you'll ultimately need multiple Personal Recommendations, you'll spend 15 actions collecting your 300 correspondence; 1.5 actions converting 300 correspondence into 75+ intriguing gossip; about 15 actions getting 20 compromising documents from the Foreign Office; and 1 action to convert that stuff to a Personal Recommendation. So, in total, you'll spend about 33 actions going from nothing to crafting a personal recommendation on the Bazaar Side-Streets. In other words, WAY less time than the dinner party. Of course, if you're lucky enough to already have some ingredients on hand, you can make it even faster.

Why does speed matter? Now that I'm in this part of the game, I find myself mostly thinking in terms of opportunity costs. Ever action I spend doing one thing is an action that I'm not spending on something else. It's trivially easy to take actions that will earn between 100 and 120 pence once you become a POSI; so, in the 23 actions I save by not crafting my Personal Recommendation through the dinner party, I could each about 25 echoes worth of stuff, giving me a head start on my next end-game item or saving up for some top gear.

Oh, and along the same lines, it seems like for any item that you can directly craft and need in bulk, direct crafting will be the best option. This includes Collated Research, Favours in High Places, Bazaar Permits, and probably some others. If you already have enough Tier 4 items, crafting only requires a single action, AND will get you multiples of your capstone item (generally 5 from 25 of the Tier 4 items). I'm less sure of the wisdom of crafting up through intermediate items, though. According to the Item Conversion page,  crafting from Tier 3 to Tier 4 will lose you 80% of the value of the crafted item (25 echoes' worth into 5 echoes' worth). However, when I was crafting Bazaar Permits, I'm almost positive that I broke even on the exchange. I'll be investigating this more when my next conversion starts cranking.

Let's see, what else is worth discussing...

Some of your Expanded Inventory items are exclusive: you can only belong to one club at a time, for example, and if you decide to switch later, you'll lose all the resources you spent getting into the first one. On the other hand, you can have multiple forms of transport: I am the proud owner of a Velocipede, and a Respectable Landau, and a Clay Sedan Chair, which I can switch between depending on my whims. For a while I wasn't too clear on which items were exclusive and which weren't, even though they usually do a good job of warning you in the text when one is exclusive. I finally figured it out - you can see it easily in the Expanded Inventory just by checking to see whether there are boxes to the right of the currently equipped "item". If there are, then you can have multiples and can switch freely; if not, then your one "slot" is all you can get.

At the moment, I have the following "commitments":
  • I proudly captain a Swift Zee-Clipper. More on that below.
  • I am married to a Devout Intriguer. I can say no more.
  • I belong to the Parthenum, the Neath's most Respectable club. I feel occasional twinges of regret about this. Don't get me wrong, it's a wonderful club, and made acquiring the left-hand side of the Screaming Map trivially simple. However, I would have much enjoyed belonging to the Young Stags, who are clearly inspired by PG Wodehouse's Drones Club. Furthermore, I'm finding it difficult to acquire the few extra points of Bizarre or Dreaded that would help with a few specific challenges (like, um, getting the right-hand side to that map).
Okay, maybe I can say a LITTLE more about the Devout Intriguer. While doing some preliminary research, I'd assumed that I would go with the Cultured Attache, simply because her stats were more aligned with my own. (I pursue the Heart's Desire ambition, and tend to focus on and enjoy Watchful and Persuasive content the most.) However, after completing the attached storyline, I felt compelled to choose the Devout Intriguer, due to her personality and background; it's unthinkable that my character would become a constant companion of the Cultured Attache. And, that's actually worked out decently well; she's Dangerous and Shadowy, two qualities that I respectively don't enjoy and am bad at. In virtual life, as in real life, opposites can attract and complement each other's weaknesses.

There are three choices for a ship. Well, technically four; the fourth is cheapest, but seems quite unpleasant, so I imagine that most dedicated Fallen London players will choose one of the three major ships. I could easily imagine going with any of the options. The Zubmarine would be highly appropriate for me as the author of a tale of the future, and goodness knows I could use the Bizarre bonus it provides. The members of my club would be respectfully dumbfounded by the elegance of my Majestic Pleasure Yacht. I ultimately selected the Swift Zee-Clipper, partly based on some online guidance - its primary benefit, as should be obvious from the name, is that it's, well, swift, and will generally allow you to zail across the zee more quickly than you could otherwise. It also seems in keeping with my character's personality; the Zub may have been a slightly better fit, but the Clipper's seriousness, purpose, and elegance are fine as well. My lone regret is that the Clipper doesn't provide any stat bonuses, but in the long run I doubt it will matter too much.

Like I mentioned above (pages ago!), it took a while to acquire the Clipper, and I waited until after I had finished my other business in London before starting. There were a few things that I deliberately postponed for a while - I want to become one of God's Editors, but I'm going to wait until I'm on better terms with the University to acquire the Collated Research it requires; and I haven't plumbed the depths of Doubt Street yet, thanks to some frustratingly obscure entrance requirements - but I acquired all my forms of transport that I could, wrapped up the Glim-Sculptor's case while solving cases around London, unearthed the secrets of the Foreign Office, and spent time in Flute Street. Eventually, I spent some time preparing for a voyage of discovery, acquired my ship (through distastefully violent means), and set zail.

I've been on zee for... gosh, probably over a week now. [Checks his journal.] Well, more like five days. It's been a blast! The gameplay changes YET AGAIN once you're at zee. I'm regularly impressed at how Failbetter is able to stick to an existing, familiar interface, and yet exploit it with new game systems that feel entirely fresh and new.

So, how exactly does Zee work?

You zail from one location to another. Unrealistically but very fortunately, you don't need to pick a destination until the end of your journey. You basically have two qualities that you're managing on your voyage: "Approaching Journey's End", which describes your progress, and "Troubled Waters", a new Menace that describes the worsening weather. You want to raise Approaching Journey's End to 9 before Troubled Waters gets too high. This seems trivially easy to do

There are a couple of storylets you can pick from that will advance your journey. Most of these have an element of chance, and will raise both progress and menace, in a favorable ratio if you're lucky. However, I prefer to use my opportunity deck for zailing. I'm finding that at zee, as at the polite dinner party, deck management is a fun and interesting part of the game. For most of FL, you only care about what cards you get, and not about what cards you keep in your hand; every once in a while I might hold onto a menace reduction card if that menace is currently manageable, but usually I'll immediately play or discard any card that comes in. However, in these special new areas, you're dealing with entirely new decks, which are a great deal slimmer and more specialized than the hundred-or-so items that may pop up in the main Opportunity deck.

One key thing to understand is that you can never have a duplicate card in your hand. So, somewhat paradoxically, if you get a "bad" card, you shouldn't discard it; instead, keep it in your hand. This will ensure that you'll never draw it again. I currently have a three-card hand, and one of the slots is always filled with a "Share Your Research" card that's useless to me. I'll generally hold onto an unfavorable card in my second slot, like "The Killing Wind." (Actually, "A Mountain of the Unterzee" is a great one to keep here, since it's bad DURING a voyage, but can be useful at the START of a voyage.) That means that I have one available slot that I cycle cards into and out of, so I'm essentially drawing from a 13-card deck instead of a 15-card deck. That, in turn, means I'm more likely to draw my best cards:  "Good Weather for a Zee-Clipper", "The Fleet of Truth", "The Clinging Coral Mass", and "A Wily Zailor".

Since I'm an Exceptional Friend, I can bank up to 20 actions at once. I usually try to put to Zee when I have about 6-8 actions free. I'll start with a full deck of 6 cards, which I'll quickly consume. I'll then check in periodically, play any good new cards when they come up, and otherwise discard them and let the actions accrue. Depending on my luck, I'll reach my destination with anywhere from 3-10 unused actions, so I can get a head start on that content. By the time I return to zee, I'll have a full deck of 6 more cards, and the cycle will start over again.

On one of my voyages, I quickly got into Lashing Waves (thanks to some attention from a Corvette of Her Majesty's Navy, which was miffed that I had been looting defenseless merchant vessels when I was bored), so I decided to go all-out and enter Fury of the Unterzee. You need to get Troubled Waters up to 11 to reach Fury, so it's pretty much impossible to do by accident. As it was, I carefully timed it so I had my Progress up above 8 by the time Troubled Waters hit 11. I then started cycling my deck, waiting for the Plated Seal. (I haven't mentioned this yet, but one of the other things I've been involved in is capturing animals to breed in the Labyrinth of Tigers. It started off as pretty boring, but has become quite interesting lately, not to mention rather lucrative.) I got my seal, then played a Zee-Clipper card I had kept in my hand, and landed safely.

Whenever you finish a voyage, your experience as a captain increases, which seems to unlock some beneficial options on at least one card; your Troubled Waters resets to 0; and you get to keep all of your hand intact. Now, to the islands!

While on an island, you don't have a deck at all. This is a bit unusual; that's also the case in Flute Street, but most other places have decks. This does mean that the islands are much more predictable; once you get the hang of the island, you can know exactly what storylet actions you want to take, and what reward they will give.

Two of the islands, Hunter's Keep and Mutton Island, are carousels. Hunter's Keep is AWESOME, one of my favorite spots in the game so far. It's a cool setting, has an interesting story, some nice ambiguous characters, a logical structure, valuable rewards, AND is one of the only places in the game with reliable, repeatable menace reduction available! I sighed with relief when I realized that I'd finally be able to work off those nagging nightmares and wounds that had been plaguing me for weeks. The first cycle through Hunter's Keep is the most important, since it gave an item necessary for my Ambition, but subsequent loops remain fairly fresh and rewarding.

Mutton Island is... more exciting than Hunter's Keep, I guess, but less lucrative. It is pretty cool in that it's the first society I've met so far that's part of the Neath but not part of London; for that matter, it's free of the control of the Masters. They have some very impolitic things to say about the bazaar! It also shines some interesting light on matters of London, most noticeably the origin of Mrs. Plenty and her famous Rubbery Lumps. That said, though, the time to progress through a carousel on Mutton Island doesn't seem to line up with the rewards you receive. It's worth doing once, for sure, but I had no qualms about immediately returning to zee afterwards.

Since I was engaged on a journey of scientific exploration, I spent a LOT of time on Corpsecage and Bullbone Islands. In contrast to the prior two islands, these are both uninhabited, though they do hold evidence of previous visitors. They're your main sources for pages of scientific research. Bullbone is best for Cryptopaleontological Research, followed by Prelapsarian Archaeological Research, followed by Theosophistical Research; Corpsecage is best for Prelapsarian, followed by Theosophistical, followed by Cryptopaleontological. I love those words! Anyways... I'd decided before heading to zee that I wanted to collect 750 of each to secure my academic credentials and construct a worthwhile library. I found that, while Prelapsarian Archaeological and Cryptopaleontological were easy to come by, Theosophistical proved more elusive. I made a visit to each of the research islands at the start of my journey; then went to all the other destinations; then returned for some more research. I ended up doing a little bit more to push my Cryptopaleontological up to 1250 pages, in anticipation that it might prove useful in constructing my own cryptid.

Anyways. The science islands are kind of carousels, but with the major qualifier that you can't immediately repeat them: you're kicked off the island at the end, and must complete another voyage to get back. Still, during your time there, you progress through a standard sequence of storylets. Generally, you have two choices at any point, and one of them will reward you with research while the other grants you standard items. I almost always opted for the research because, hey, that's why I'm here!

And then there was the big one: the Iron Republic! I picked up an Iron Republic Safe-Conduct pass almost right before leaving London. I was nearly scared off my visit at first, since the text warns you in bold print that "THE IRON REPUBLIC IS EXTREMELY DANGEROUS. YOU MAY BE PERMANENTLY CHANGED." I crept onto some forums and peeked between my fingers, hoping to avoid spoilers while figuring out just how worried I needed to be. Not too much, it turns out. You can rack up a lot of Menaces while there, but there are no immediate consequences while in the Republic - after all, for better and worse, everyone is free from all laws in Hell - plus your Menaces can drop a lot while there, and you can spend some currency when leaving to clear up your remaining Menaces.

So, yeah. The iron republic was fascinating! My character felt rather out of place there: I've gone throughout most of the game without ever getting too connected to Hell (they were rightly peeved when I turned their operation in Ladybones Road over to the Constables, and I never put effort into re-cultivating their friendship); I'm technically an Intimate of Devils thanks to a single ill-conceived meal with a deviless in the House of Chimes, but have not pursued that storyline any further; and I've never gotten involved in the soul trade. All that to say, while I'm generally POLITE to devils, I hardly consider myself on the best terms with them, so the thought of walking straight into their homeland was rather disconcerting and exciting.

"Disconcerting" and "exciting" prove to be two excellent words for describing the Iron Republic. It plays entirely unlike any other part of Fallen London. Really, the thing it resembles more than anything else is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story. Progress is relatively linear, and never circular. At any given time you have a "Day" quality that dictates the storylet you'll see. The storylet may have choices and/or a challenge. The decision you make and whether you pass or fail the challenge will determine what your "day" turns into, which in turn will drive the next story. I've only made a single cycle through the Republic so far, and I had, uh, 10 out of 99 days. Assuming that there really is a separate entry for each day (which certainly seems reasonable), that means I still haven't experienced fully 90% of what the Iron Republic has to show me.

Walking into the Iron Republic for the first time feels a great deal like walking into Fallen London for the first time. You get a strong sensation of the character of the place, but still know almost nothing about its history or culture, so you're kind of embarking on a crash course, trying to figure out the situation while simultaneously trying to advance your position.

Culturally, the Iron Republic is VERY different from the Fifth City. The Iron Republic is pure anarchy. Hilariously so. The descriptions are wonderful to read, and describe a madcap scene where brand new buildings are being constructed helter-skelter over the city while other new buildings are being torn down; I was tapped at one point as a newcomer to serve as judge over a gang of criminals; fights easily break out over the slightest provocations; and so on.

The style of challenges were bizarre and wonderful as well. In the Fallen London system, anything CAN be used as the basis for a challenge, but in practice, only a handful of things are. Probably 90% of challenges are based on one of your four main qualities; the remainder are either the three advanced qualities (Bizarre, Respectable, Dreaded) or one of your Connected qualities. Well, in the Republic, ANYTHING is fair game for a challenge. One of my first challenges was for my Committed quality! It was a "modest" challenge. I failed. I'm sorry, dearest Devout Intriguer. There are Challenges for An Admirer of Beauty; for Brass Rings (!); for Wounds. It doesn't seem to matter a great deal whether you pass or fail a challenge; it will take you to one of two stories, but the rewards and punishments didn't seem closely related to how you performed.

I loved my trip through the Iron Republic, and am sure that I'll make another pass through it some time. For now, though, I'm taking a deep breath, cherishing my Iron Republic Journal, and getting the heck back to London.

I'll have my work cut out for me once I get there. I'll be speaking with the Provosts at the University; chatting with the fine ladies of God's Editors; FINALLY spending some quality time in Doubt Street; and, who knows, perhaps climbing back on my velocipede to chase down some ne'er-do-wells. It's an exciting world out there, and I can hardly wait to return!


Yeah... I like this game. A lot. I keep getting closer and closer to the "end", but it keeps surprising me with more cool stuff and entirely new mechanics.

Oh! Almost forgot! One final thing - I've been really impressed with a user-created script that provides some small but very useful enhancements to the game's interface. You can grab it here. It  lets you build "wardrobes" that let you switch all of your equipment at a single click, optimizing whichever stat you need the most of. It also provides helpful money-related information, letting you view your "net worth" and also doing simple automatic math to let you know how much certain item collections are worth. Highly recommended for players who have gotten far enough in the game to worry about such things!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Michael Chabon

I feel like my life has gotten objectively better since I moved within easy access to San Francisco. Exhibit A: Virtually any major writer who does any promotion for their new book will put in an appearance in the city or close by. My most recent example of this was Michael Chabon, who appeared at City Arts & Lecture on September 11, the day after the release of his latest and highly-anticipated novel, Telegraph Avenue.

I really like the City Arts program. I've previously attended for Patton Oswalt's book tour for Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, and... and I'm sure there's one other even that I'm presently drawing a blank on. The setting is a bit formal compared to other literary events: it's held in the Herbst Theater, a great, classic auditorium space. But, it doesn't feel stuffy, and I think that's due to the influence of the program itself. People who show up are excited about the speaker and engaged with the material, so there's a pleasing collegial atmosphere that pervades those events. (I do wish that they would archive their online broadcasts so I could link to them, but if you're lucky enough to receive them on your public radio station, you can probably get a good feel for their tone.)

My affection for Michael Chabon's writing has outpaced my consumption of it. I hang my head in shame and admit that the only book of his I've read is "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" - but it was an absolutely incredible book, among the best I've read. I've been meaning to read "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" for ages, but I don't get any credit for WANTING to read a book. When I'd heard about "Telegraph Avenue" - heck, when I heard the name of the book - I knew I wanted to grab it, and I was delighted to have a chance to hear Chabon talk about it in person.

For those of you who aren't local, Telegraph Avenue is a major arterial road that runs through much of Berkeley and Oakland. It runs through a bunch of different neighborhoods, and has a fairly different character throughout - from the funky university town vibe near its northern end, where it abuts UC Berkeley, through a surprisingly residential neighborhood, through north Oakland, the edge of the gentrified Rockridge neighborhood, though the transitioning Temescal neighborhood, and eventually terminating in the urban core of downtown Oakland, just a few blocks from the Bay. It's probably the quintessential East Bay street, and a fine setting for a novel with its heart in the Berkeley-Oakland area.

Michael was interviewed by Adam Savage, of Mythbusters fame, who did a phenomenal job. Apparently the two of them know each other and are friendly - Adam said that they'd met at an 826 Valencia "Spelling Bee for Cheaters" tournament and hit it off; later during the Q&A, Michael mentioned that he'd called up Adam to get his "expert advice" on a particular problem he was having with the book (if memory serves, something like stealing or steering an airship?). Anyways, they had an easy rapport, and the chat flowed very well: it didn't feel scripted, and while there were a couple of brief pauses for reflection, it kept moving nicely throughout.

I don't want to dig too much into the (fascinating!) autobiographical stuff Michael talked about at the beginning - I'm pretty sure this will show up on KQED sometime, and I can't really do justice to it. What struck me most, though, was how incredibly humble Chabon is, and how openly he talked about the struggles he has had with writing. For people like me, who absolutely love reading and have a really tough time writing, it's kind of a relief to hear someone of Chabon's stature describe how he's had to abandon stuff that just wasn't working (apparently, he threw out almost everything from his first draft of The Yiddish Policeman's Union), or needed to get rid of characters, or written himself into a corner and gotten stuck. I guess that Chabon is this talented not because he doesn't make mistakes or because he's a perfect writer, but because he's a hard worker who can recognize what's good, what needs to be better, and figure out how to improve his work until it becomes the amazing thing we all get to read.

I used to write a fair amount of fiction, back in high school and college, but never was sufficiently serious about it to get any good, and while I've been writing a lot since graduation, it's almost all been technical or business-related stuff. I've just recently started dipping my toes back into writing fiction again - and it's hard! I've been happy to see that the writing itself comes relatively easily - I can sit down and crank out however much quantity I'm going for - but I'm never happy with it when I re-read it. Anyways... I have no illusions about ever being anywhere near Chabon's league, but listening to him made me cheerful, since I can definitely imagine becoming BETTER than I am now.

As with many City Arts programs, this included an extremely generous Q&A session with the audience; I think it lasted nearly as long as the main discussion with Adam Savage did. The questions covered a wide area but were uniformly thoughtful and knowledgeable. Again, that's part of what I love about City Arts: people who come here are already up to speed on what's going on, so you get really interesting, specific questions, instead of the more vague "What did it feel like to write this book?" questions that often crop up at more general-audience events. For example: the first question was, "I think you were in front of me in the line to the Wilco concert at the Fox Theater with your son. [It was his daughter.] What is your relationship towards live performances, and does it influence your work?" That prompted an incredibly thoughtful response from Michael about not only music, but experiencing live music with his kids. Another person had read Chabon's acknowledgement that he had used Scrivener, an OS X app, while writing this book, and had asked what that process was like. After checking whether the questioner was a Scrivener developer (he wasn't), Michael gave a concise and pretty compelling summary of what Scrivener does (basically providing a really useful way for you to organize all your sources that you would consult while writing and making them easy to find and access), but then segued from there into an app that he was even more excited about, Freedom, a productivity app that does exactly one thing: kills your Internet connection for a set period of time. That in turn led to some great discourse on distractions in writing - and once again, it makes me know so good that I'm not the only person who, when I'm actually in the flow and enjoying what I'm writing, will suddenly think, "Oh, I should check my email!" and derailing a previously productive session.

Also amusing: I think a grand total of four questions throughout the night came from people who self-identified as residents of the Temescal neighborhood. At one point Chabon joked, "I feel like I'm sitting in Pizzaiolo right now." He hadn't talked a whole lot about the book itself during his conversation with Adam, but the questions during the Q&A did a lot to draw out some comments about his affection for Oakland and Berkeley and how neighborhoods change.

I stuck around afterwards to get my book signed. This program rewards repeat attendees: you can see who knows the drill, because they're the ones who make a beeline for the door, turn left at the lobby, and immediately start lining up, while others are still wandering around looking lost. Michael Chabon was very gracious and pleasant, chatting with everyone who came through the (very long!) line. These events have gotten less awkward for me since I (finally!) figured out that it's OK to say "I really like your books."

I'm juggling multiple books at the moment, so it will probably be a while before I finish Telegraph Avenue, but I'll definitely post here once it's done. I read the first 30 pages or so while waiting at the event and on BART afterwards, and am loving what I'm reading so far!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Younger Adults

The first Kickstarter I ever participated in was for a movie called "Older Children." I'd heard about it on Facebook, kicked in some money, and then promptly forgot about it. So it was a pleasant surprise when Duncan Riddell, the writer and director, emailed recently to announce that the movie had been finished and DVDs would be sent out shortly.

I got to watch it a few nights ago, and was very impressed. Older Children is a low-key film, filled with conversations between friends and acquaintances that illuminate what I think are the film's two main themes: how relationships evolve as we grow older, and what it means to become an adult in the 21st century. The characters are all in their mid-20's, and most of the main ones occupy that strange middle ground that many young adults hold: living on their own, but still financially reliant on their parents; comfortable in relationships, but wary of marriage; seeking maturity but often enmeshed in drama.

While my own situation is a bit different from that of these characters, the core question of maturity is something that I think about a lot. To be blunt: I still don't really "feel" like an adult, despite my age. That isn't a complaint - I love my life, and I love what I get to do and the advantages of my age and my status - but it blows my mind whenever I think that, when my dad was my age, he had a six-year-old kid. I do think that the shift towards later marriages has had a very significant impact on my generation, both on a macro level (more career-oriented women in the workforce) and on a personal level (skipping one of the traditional thresholds into adulthood, along with going to war). That's precisely the sort of thing that the characters in Older Children wonder about: some people get married, and others are both happy and upset by those changes; old friends who have already been married and have kids seem to exist in a different world from the urban singles at the core of the movie.

I'm not totally sure exactly how much we're meant to feel sympathetic towards these people. There's certainly a vein of satire in here - the movie opens with a young woman talking with a therapist, who was hired by her mom, which is stranger the more you think about it. And the problems the characters face are clearly first-world problems: they worry about not reaching self-actualization, not about becoming homeless. Still, I feel like the film sees these characters with affection, subtly calling out the goofiness of their situations while acknowledging the way they feel.

So, yeah, the theme and the acting are all really cool. (Full disclosure: my brother has a small speaking role in the movie. It was awesome to see him on-screen.) The score was very cool as well. In keeping with the tone of the movie, it's relatively understated, but quite pretty, with piano taking you along from scene to scene and establishing the mood. The cinematography was good throughout, and a few shots were absolutely gorgeous. I particularly liked the lighting of actors' faces in the indoor bar scenes, and a scene shot at a beach was wonderful as well.

I was surprised to find myself feeling homesick for Chicago while watching this. This isn't really a movie "about" Chicago, and I think it could have been set anywhere, but it happened to be in Chicago, and I think the director made a really good choice by making it feel rooted in a particular place. Details like characters riding the El, or seeing Metra trains roll by, or visiting the lakeshore, or chilling in the park after a run while looking at the skyline… it doesn't only look good, but does more than words could to establish the community that these people live and participate in. I think there's a good reason why so many young people with our backgrounds choose to live in cities: while we may not have the close ties of a nuclear family, we can become part of a tapestry of city life.

After finishing the movie, it finally struck me that I'm probably one of the first people to have watched this movie. That's pretty cool! Yet another thing that's awesome about Kickstarter, I suppose. Anyways: it'll be hitting the festival circuit soon, starting with a showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center in early November. If you get a chance to see it, I highly recommend checking it out!