Sunday, May 10, 2015


Hey, let's do another media round-up!

I was just about to cancel Netflix when my friend Dan recommended I check out Danger 5. So, I did. It's easily the most bizarre show I've seen in a while, and, not coincidentally, I absolutely loved it. It brings to mind the deranged sensibility of Garth Merenghi's Darkplace in the way it glorifies intentionally bad art. It starts out weird, and gets even more deeply strange throughout the first season, before taking a very dark (but still hilarious) turn in the heavily re-imagined second season. So, that was a... very memorable note on which to end my Netflix subscription.

Instead, I am now a happy subscriber to HBO Now. It's pretty fantastic. I'm reminded in a lot of ways of the revolution in digital music a little over a decade ago, which Apple also led. Up until that point, it was far easier to pirate music than to buy it; after iTunes came out, even people who knew how to pirate music were often happy enough to just pay a few bucks for the songs they wanted, since it was more convenient. That's very much how I feel about HBO Now: sure, you could just download Game of Thrones (and plenty of people do); but with Now, you can actually start watching it before the episode finished airing, and see it in high-definition without fiddling around with torrents or newsgroups or anything.

Of course, it's not just Game of Thrones. Considering it's twice as expensive as Netflix, it had better not be! I've been really digging the second season of Silicon Valley, which once again is an uncanny reflection of my real life. And I've also been plowing through a bunch of the movies they have. I think that Netflix technically has more movies than Now, but Now, has way more movies that I actually want to watch. So far I've seen a bunch of flicks that I never caught in the theater, like Edge of Tomorrow, The World's End, Gravity, The Darjeeling Limited, The Interpreter, and King Kong, along with some old favorites like Dark City. At first, I was kind of anxious about watching movies before they expired (movies rotate on and off every couple of months), carefully tracking their expiration dates and watching them in order, before finally realizing that this isn't Netflix and there are more than enough good movies that I want to watch, so I don't have to ration them.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, most of my time on Now has actually been spent re-watching an old TV show: namely, The Wire. The re-watch has confirmed its status as my favorite TV show. I'm currently approaching the end of the third season, which is especially resonant given the awful events in Baltimore recently. Major Colvin is a clear stand-in for David Simon's philosophy, and gets many monologues throughout the season that perfectly capture Simon's understanding of the history of policing in Baltimore. But, of course, this is all in a show more than a decade ago, which makes it all the more painful to watch now... it feels like everyone knows that the current system isn't working, but everyone has kept doing the same thing anyways. I've been dreading the thought of watching the fourth season; it's probably the best, but is also incredibly painful, and will probably feel doubly so now given the real-world parallels. (During the opening credits of the third season, there's a brief shot of a wall covered in graffiti that reads "Body-more Murdaland." My heart aches whenever I see it.) So, I'm considering jumping directly from the season 3 finale to the season 5 finale, which is one of the best endings to any show ever.

Oh: it might be worth noting that this is my first time watching The Wire in high-definition and widescreen. It's been many years since my last viewing, so it's hard for me to give a detailed comparison, but I will note that I really love it. Apparently the first three seasons were shot in widescreen, so it makes sense that they would be fairly adaptable to the format. Also, I liked the second season a lot more the second time around. I think it's because during my first viewing I saw it as a distraction from the unresolved storylines of the first season; now that I understand the show's purpose and rhythm, though, it holds up much better.

On the gaming front, I just started playing Jaws of Hakkon, the first paid DLC for Dragon Age: Inquisition. The fan reception was a bit muted, so I didn't grab it at first, but now that I've started playing it I'm enjoying it. It helps that the base game has received some very welcome updates, most notably some major improvements to the keyboard-and-mouse controls and the return of the Black Emporium from Dragon Age 2. Thanks to the latter, I can finally fix my first Inquisitor's too-shiny lips. That... that probably sounds petty, but to me, it's much more important than a new sword or spell would be. Anyways - I'm sure I'll write up a full post later, but for now I'll note that the new areas are gorgeous, the combat is much harder than before, and there's lots of top-tier items and crafting resources to be found. I'm following my standard process and doing absolutely everything except for the main plot as long as possible, so I can't speak to that part just yet. I do appreciate that they allow it to be played either before or after beating the main game, which BioWare has done to good effect in the past with DLCs like Lair of the Shadow Broker.

And, I should probably also confess my secret shame: for reasons that are still unclear to me, I recently installed and started playing Lord of the Rings Online. I'm really not sure why! I'm famously hostile towards MMOs, even more famously hostile towards free-to-play games, and supremely skeptical towards video games based on Tolkien's writings. I think the thing that caught my attention was some character art from the game which really struck me... it has a wonderful aesthetic that isn't hyper-stylized like many Asian fantasy games, but also isn't the sort of grimy "realistic" mode preferred by many Western RPGs. It's human, attractive, kind of modest but not bashful, if that makes sense.

I've been poking away at it for a bit and am not sure if I'll stick with it. As usual, I appreciate the technical and creative concepts behind MMOs far more than I enjoy the experience of actually playing it. In the case of LOTRO, I've so far been pretty impressed at how lore-friendly Turbine has been in creating it. It's definitely not another WOW clone or gimmicky attempt to break into the market: it feels suffused by Tolkien's ethos, not just in the names and stories, but the flavor and values and overall feel of it. Most modern MMOs are all about getting as many points in a Skinner box as possible, as you are rapidly trained to perform actions in exchange for rewards. In LOTRO, the most overwhelming sensation I've felt so far is a love for Middle-earth. Yes, there are quests and fights and such, but the whole tenor of the game is very conducive to wandering the landscape, listening to music, reading and learning. All players are on the same "side," defending the Free Peoples against Sauron's threat, and are unabashedly "good". Your characters have stats like Will and Fate, but also can gain virtues like Determination, Patience, Fidelity, Innocence, Tolerance, and Mercy. I mean, seriously, how many RPGs let you gain levels in Innocence?!

The game is pretty ancient, having just passed its eight birthday. For reference, that's two and a half years before Dragon Age: Origins came out. Considering that, I'm absolutely astonished at how good it looks. I'm pretty sure that's mostly thanks to the art direction - it certainly doesn't challenge my graphics hardware at all, even with settings maxed. But thanks to the fantastic use of color palettes and... well, just making pretty environments, it's very easy to look at.

Most of all, I've just been enjoying the feeling of being "in" Middle-earth. That's a sensation that I've craved for most of my life. As a kid, I would daydream frequently about living a life in whatever fantasy land currently had my attention: as Lone Wolf in Magnamund, or a Ranger in Middle-earth, or a traveler in Midkemia. I vaguely thought that, if I could somehow experience being in those worlds, I would be perfectly happy to just maintain that experience forever. I would fantasize about wandering through the forests that I'd read about, climbing the watchtowers, sitting on the shores. My fantasies weren't about killing enemies or gaining glory: just being there.

Looking back, it does make a certain amount of sense. Kids are impressionable, and those books certainly made an impression on me. Also, there were aspects of my life that I didn't like back then, so it's almost logical that I would prefer to live another life. All that said, it's kind of funny that I still can feel that kind of yearning sometimes. My life today is fantastic, and I wouldn't want to give up the real world for anything... but somehow, the thought of vicariously living in Middle-earth continues to command my attention.

Like I said before, we'll see how long this experiment lasts. I'm currently playing as an elven minstrel named Taharien. In keeping with the lore-friendly design of the game, there aren't any mages or clerics or paladins. The minstrel class is inspired by Luthien from the Lay of Beren and Luthien, although it can be selected by all genders and races. The mechanics are interesting and a lot of fun, and involve aspects of dissonance, resonance, and harmony; skills include ballads, anthems, and codas. I've also taken on the Explorer vocation, which includes Prospecting, Forestry, and Tailoring professions. There's a lot to like, including terrific support for cosmetic wardrobes - you can dye clothing into the color you want, can hide individual pieces of armor based on preference, can support multiple wardrobes, and can even visibly wear one outfit whose appearance you like while gaining the stats from another outfit. That's something BioWare could take notes from!

I imagine that the F2P mechanics will annoy me at some point... I'm currently at level 12, and it sounds like it starts getting hard to advance without paying around level 30 or so. I've done some advance research and have a rough plan for how I'll spend money if I do decide to spend money. I figure I'll give Turbine the same opportunity I gave Failbetter: play all of the freely available content for as long as I can, and if I feel like I owe them money by the end of that time, start showing my appreciation with my hard-earned cash.

Hm... there's probably more to write but that will do for now. Time to watch Game of Thrones!

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