Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Random Notes

Here are a few things that don't merit a blog post on their own, but taken together with the fact that I'm bored, may combine to make something slightly worthwhile.

The G1 is finally out! I've gotten to play around with it a little bit and am pretty impressed. It doesn't have quite the awe factor of the iPhone, but it does nail the nerd demographic squarely. I've been a fan of the platform since its annunciation; unfortunately, other distractions have kept me from working with it the last few months, but now that it's real I hope to spend some time porting my old applications to it. I will be very interested to see what the market for this ends up looking like. It seems pretty strong out of the gate; the big question will be whether it becomes a true service driver in the same way the iPhone was, or becomes Yet Another Platform to support.

As we move into winter, I am reminded again of what an odd semi-foodie I am. Everyone seems to think that summer has the best produce, but I actually get a lot of mileage out of fall and winter. Sure, summer has artichokes and tomatoes, but I salivate over roasted butternut squash, unbelievably sweet persimmons (Hachiya are in season now, and Fuyu just arrived at my market last week), and I am eagerly looking forward to rutabagas.

Speaking of food, I just dropped in the first reservation for my brother's December visit. Pat was the first sibling to visit after I moved, which was awesome, but also meant that neither of us were totally up to speed yet on the possibilities of northern California. We have now made up for this in spades, and are way overpreparing in the best way for this. After long and agonizing discussions over the relative merits of a multi-day excursion into Yountville, we have arrived on a tentative schedule that should be filled with ample opportunities for both relaxation and delight. That first reservation has the potential to be the highlight of the trip: a visit to David Kinch's "Manresa" in my old stomping grounds of Los Gatos. This has been on my radar since shortly after I moved (albeit after Pat's visit), but I haven't had a sufficient excuse to go before now. Out of all my family, I think Pat will get the most out of what promises to be an exceptional experience, and we are both majorly freaking out about it. We will also be making a pilgrimage to the birthplace of California cuisine, the local food movement, and all the other slow food organic goodness that has transformed our recent lives: Alice Waters' Chez Panisse in Berkeley. This will be my second trip there, and the first time downstairs. How could we possibly top that? Why, by going to a taqueria inside a gas station! Yet another thing that's been on my "to-eat" list for years now, that I will finally be able to fulfill! Excitement abounds! Hopefully we will also get to do some cooking and sampling of local produce. It's also possible that we'll do something besides eat, but we'll need to see.

I am once again roaring full speed on politics. I just now realized that my blogger profile has been out of date for some time now... when I first started this blog I was burned out, but the flame has been rekindled since February 2007. I think I've written before about my political evolution... most recently, I was a die-hard Democrat living in the swing state of Missouri during the brutal presidential race of 2004. I cared SO MUCH about what was going on, felt physically awful about the direction of our country, and responded in a major way to the candidacy of Howard Dean. I still think he would have made an amazing President... his combination of fiscal conservatism, international coalition building, and progressive national priorities would have been a balm on the misguided policies of the Bush era. I attended meetups for him, donated for the first time ever to a political campaign, walked precincts before the Missouri primary, wrote letters and even (gasp!) made phone calls. I felt utterly crushed when his campaign ended, and nurtured a grudge against Dick Gephardt and John Kerry that persists to this day. I swore that while I would vote for Kerry, I could never support his campaign after its duplicitous and vicious smears on Dean. When it came down to the wire, though, the specter of four more years of Bush was just too terrifying, so I relented. In compromise, I didn't directly volunteer for Kerry, but instead through the MoveOn wing, which was independently working to elect him. This turned out to be a bright move, so far as that goes, when Kerry decided to concede Missouri, even though he was only down by a few percentage points in the weeks before the election.

I donated money, knocked on doors, attended meetings, and took vacation time off of work to work the polls on election day. That was a fascinating experience: we had lists of Kerry supporters we had identified in my precinct, and as people came to the polls we asked them to check in and marked their names off the list. Later in the day we started calling people who hadn't voted yet, provided rides to people who needed it, etc. It was a very cool day, and gave me a much richer feeling of what it means to be involved in a democracy. It isn't just showing up and pulling a lever; at its best, it involves work and discussion and team-building and compromise, articulating a vision for the future and then spending your sweat and treasure to bring it into reality.

I took a pass on the post-election party in downtown KC, and moodily drank booze while watching the election results come in. I felt like the last three months of my life had been violently wrenched away from me, and that a gaping abyss yawed in front of me. I got on the Internet and visited Canada's immigration page. Was Bioware hiring? Not my happiest day.

The one bright spot: a young black state senator from my home state of Illinois won a senate seat. No; "won" doesn't properly convey what happened. He annihilated his opposition and swept into office with near universal acclaim. I'd been following his career with interest since his stunning victory in the primary of January 2004, over a pool of much wealthier and better-connected opponents. He exuded competence, and seemed like such a breath of fresh air after a decade of poisonous politics. He worked across the aisle, treated everyone with respect, got things done, found the best practical way to advance his principles, and willingly got beyond the standard political divisions. The one complaint people had about him: he was a little too brainy and cerebral, legacies of his background as a professor of constitutional law, and could not inspire people. The speech he gave at the Democratic Convention gave the lie to that last ounce of criticism, and like many people I found myself wondering why we couldn't have him at the top of our ticket instead of a man I despised.

I stayed in the US, took a vacation from politics, and moved to California. I felt like I could finally exhale. It no longer took effort to be a liberal. California was an entertaining sideshow, with recall elections and boisterous proposition battles and an amazingly dysfunctional state capital. I was reminded that politics could be fun, and slowly got into my new state's dynamics. I was delighted with the moves that Howard Dean was making at the national level, taking his 50-state philosophy into mainstream party policy, and felt a sense of pride and, yes, ownership when his expansive philosophy led to unhoped-for victories in 2006, amazingly swinging the party into power. For the first time in two long and dark years, I allowed myself to hope.

The last two years have been pretty good. I've been loudly cheering on Obama, though I was surprised when he announced his candidacy; he had flatly stated his disinterest so clearly that I didn't think there was any chance of him running. Still, I wasn't about to complain, and gave him the first of many donations on that cold Illinois day when he stood in front of the old Springfield state capital to change the world. I feel awful about the financial and military messes we've gotten into, but have recaptured my trust in the American people as they finally - finally! - turned against Bush. I hope I'm not jinxing this election, but I feel more optimistic about our country's future now than I have in eight long years. It will be long and hard - we've dug into a terribly deep hole - but at least we can start moving in the right direction.

Now that I'm working in San Francisco, I'm starting to consider the possibility of buying property in or near the city. It's still a vague notion, and I don't feel much urgency - housing prices are finally moving in my direction, and they can still fall quite a bit more before they would really be considered "affordable" - but also fun. I've read through a couple of books to acquaint myself with the process. The most helpful so far has been Nolo's guide. My one complaint is that the contributors seem to often promote their own agenda within the chapters; still, the basic information seems solid, and it does give me a good mental framework to work with.

Unfortunately, I'm so indecisive that I don't even know where to begin looking. San Francisco proper is probably my ideal, but it is hideously expensive, especially if I want to end up in a good neighborhood with good access to transit. The Peninsula is probably the most practical place to land, since odds are good that any future jobs I have will likely be within Silicon Valley; however, there isn't as much going on here, it's still pretty expensive, and only a few spots are good for transit. I'm increasingly drawn to the near East Bay; there are some excellent neighborhoods in and near Oakland that would be pleasant to live in, offer great access to the city, and not be all that expensive; however, if my career ever takes me back to Silicon Valley, the commute could be a pain. So, we'll see! I've started doing walking tours of some likely places to land - Piedmont Avenue, Temescal, Rockridge, The Mission, SOMA, etc. - and that's been helpful. I'll probably continue to take it easy and see what opportunities present themselves.

In the meantime, if anyone knows any really good realtors who work in or near the city, please let me know!

Finally, a quick rundown of TV:

I thought the last season of the Venture Brothers was the best yet, and am looking forward to what comes next.

So far, "House" is pretty good this season... not awesome like the first half of last season, but reliably enjoyable.  I really enjoy the new private investigator character - hope he sticks around.

Robot Chicken was good for most of its season, but the finale was AMAZING.  They tend to have really good finales, and this was no exception.

Really digging Dexter so far.  Like everyone, I was really curious what they could possibly do after last season's amazing ending.  The show seems to have taken a 90-degree turn, but that's all good - in some ways, Dexter becomes even more disturbing the more "normal" he becomes.  If previous seasons are any indication, the awesomeness is still to come.

I skipped Sarah Silverman last year, but am back into it again for the third season.  Funny show... I keep wanting it to become Mr. Show, which of course it won't, but I enjoy what it is.

And I think that's it, at least until Battlestar Galactica finally comes back.  Man, January 2009 is going to be awesome for all sorts of reasons, isn't it?

Monday, October 27, 2008


Just for the heck of it, I took a break in between Quest for Glory 4 and Quest for Glory 5.  What filled in the void?  "Quest for Glory 4 1/2: So You Thought You Were A Hero?"

A little background:

This isn't a Sierra game.  It was written by a fan, and lies outside the official series continuity.  The story is original, but almost all the assets (sprites, backgrounds, music) were ripped off from Sierra games, mainly the VGA remake of Quest for Glory I.

It was a pleasant way to kill a little time, but it is undoubtedly inferior to the "real" games.  My biggest complaint is its lack of polish in general, and specifically its abysmal spelling.  It also is a jarring experience to play; it's sort of a tribute, but more of a parody, and its tone is very different from the clever voice of the main games.  Potty humor has replaced subtlety, and the overall thrust is quite sophomoric.

If you'd like to try it out for yourself, here's what to do:

First, download the game.  It's free, but you might need to hunt around a little bit - most of the links I found online were dead, and I'm not sure how long that one will be good for..

If you haven't already, get DOSBox installed and running.  No special configuration is required for this game.

Within Dosbox, run the setup program.  You may need to tinker a little with the settings; I was able to get it running with Sound Plaster Pro for sound and General MIDI for music.  Find and copy over the file CWSDPMI.EXE, placing it in the same directory as you installed.  Finally, run QFG.EXE.  After just a short pause, you should see the famous Sierra clouds and the first joke of the game.

Even with these settings, I still experienced some problems on my computer (Windows Vista 64 bit).  None of them kept me from beating the game, but I would recommend that you save your game regularly across multiple save slots just to be safe.  Here are the issues I ran into:
  • I was unable to select the "Sneak" or "Run" settings.
  • The game crashed when I tried to view my character status sheet.
  • The game crashed when I tried to play an in-game game.

There were some more general oddities that might have been bugs, incomplete programming, or odd design choices:
  • I played as a thief and started with a lockpick, but also a sword and shield, and no daggers.
  • There is a character who hangs around outside the tavern at night who I'm almost certain is a thief, but who I can't interact with at all.
  • In combat, I wasn't able to fight using my keyboard, and needed to click the mouse instead.
  • I ended the game with a few inventory items that I never needed to use.

Let's talk about some


Combat behaves exactly like in QFG1VGA.  It isn't much fun, but isn't required either; you can beat the whole game without fighting at all.  There seem to just be two monsters in the game, and you can outwalk either one.  Goblins are pretty easy, and I was never able to kill a brigand.  Goblins have a few silvers, like in QFG1.

Speaking of silvers, money is actually more interesting here than it was in QFG4.  You start out with a decent chunk, can earn more through a variety of means (combat, thievery, plot, manual labor), and can use it.  Some essential quest items must be bought, and there is one big-ticket expense that you can make in the game which will exhaust most of your savings.  One intriguing innovation is the introduction of a bank, where you can borrow money or save it, in both cases getting interest. 

The story itself brings you back to Spielburg Valley, several years after your first travels there.  There have been a lot of changes, most of them for the worse... characters you liked in the first game have been murdered, new businesses have sprung up and bought out the old, and different people have moved into the valley.  In a weird way, part of the game feels crabbily reactionary: things should be just the way they were before, dag nab it!  Change is bad!  One of the biggest examples of this is the transformation of Erana's Peace.  My favorite location (and music!) in the first game, it has now been overrun by hippies seeking enlightenment.  Channeling Cartman, the dryad asks you to dispose of them and return the garden to its original state.  Well, fine.... but  is it really THAT awful to have more people visiting the garden?  Maybe so, I dunno.

Word of warning: this really does not feel much at all like a Sierra game.  The violence and sex have been vamped way up.  I haven't read about who made this game, but it feels a bit like the work of an overstimulated teenager.  Not that that's bad, it just feels pretty jarring.

On the plus side, the puzzles in this game are actually quite good, arguably better than some of the real QFG games.  There are a wide variety of puzzles, so there's almost always something for you to do; I never felt "stuck" in this game.  A lot of things are available from the very start, while others require you to have solved other puzzles or obtained other items; a couple require time to have passed or you to have advanced the story.  With just a few exceptions, the puzzles generally make a lot of sense... granted, they're almost all variations on "figure out what item to use here, so you can obtain another item," but still, they were well done.

One thing kind of surprised me: a lot of the puzzles aren't required to beat the game.  They give you points, but don't stand in the critical path of your victory.  I sort of wish I had figured this out earlier, as I might have not spent so much time on a couple of the more time-consuming ones.  Still, this is another good part of the design: the puzzles are fun and rewarding, and you don't need to beat every single one.


Ah, the story.  In its outline it sounds interesting, and you could argue that it takes the dark themes of QFG4 and transports them to a more realistic setting, where you can see evil encroaching upon good rather than good overcoming evil.  Briefly stated, the Baron's son Bernard has plotted a coup to take control of the valley after his father's death.  He imprisons his sister, establishes a Gestapo elite guard, and brings in an evil hero (!) to take care of his dirty work.  The sheriff investigates Elsa's disappearance, and is murdered for his interference.  The new Baron didn't kill him directly, but instead contracted with the Mafia to do it.  The evil hero frames the butcher for the crime, leading to grumbling among the citizenry, who increasingly resent Bernard's arrogance while not having sufficient reason to doubt his rule.

In parallel with this political turmoil, economic and social change are sweeping the valley.  Chain stores have arrived and bought out local businesses: the general store is now a Starbucks, and the Aces & Eights tavern has become Coyote Ugly.  The powerful figures from the first game have left: Baba Yaga flew the coop, while Erasmus was driven out by Bernard and the Brigands disbanded.  Mediocre figured have taken their place: The Joneses moved into Baba Yaga's old place and set a welcome mat in front; Erasmus's tower has been foreclosed upon for failure to pay taxes; and a white-trash bar fills the old Brigand hideout.

So, in general, the story is actually not bad.  The real problem I have with it is the sophomoric sense of humor and the uneven tone.  You lurch from supposedly feeling bad about the Sheriff's brutal murder to killing hippies; after helping a reformed vampire find acceptance and love, you travel to the Island of Homosexual Pirates.  The homophobia throughout the game feels jarring, and reinforces the impression that the script was written by someone in junior high.

The actual endgame is a tad anticlimactic... I enjoyed the sequence when you broken into the castle, and later when you rescued Elsa, but the final puzzle left me scratching my head (really?  the pirate map?).  The obligatory joyful communal scene in the courtyard was pretty fun.  The author has some pointed things to say about QFG5, which would worry me more if I had felt more in tune with this game.

You'll notice that I ended the game with over 500 points.  Yippie!  This is another bug - you can get 2 points EVERY time that you wash the laundry in the Confederate bar.  Also, at the end of the game, the non-critical quests which you solved will reward you with additional messages... a cute touch.

I think there was just one quest I didn't solve, or two if there really was a thieves' guild in this game.  I was able to release the ghost from the church and find her murderer, but couldn't kill him in combat, and couldn't find any other way to kill or arrest him.  Ah, well.  Like I said above, I'm glad that the game can encourage you to do quests without brutally punishing you for failure.

Finally, the game intrigued me by providing answers to many of the things I'd wondered about when first playing Hero's Quest fifteen years ago.  What did the Meep Peep look like below ground?  Just what was blocked off by that avalanche?  What WAS the deal with that one log that looked important but somehow wasn't?  In working through the expanded vision of the Spielburg world, I finally felt like I had tapped into the kindred spirit making the game... we're very different people with different tastes, but shared a sense of wonder and curiosity, first sparked by Lori and Corey many years ago, and still nudging us to revisit and expand those experiences throughout our lives.


I'm at a bit of a loss when trying to evaluate this game.  Is it really fair to compare it with the Quest for Glory series?  Almost certainly not, as those games had budgets, talented teams of professionals, original content, etc. going into them.  This game was written by amateur fans and released for free.  So I probably shouldn't be too hard on it.  At the same time, I can't honestly claim to enjoy it as much as the real Quest for Glory.

All in all, this is an interesting little curiosity, but not required even for fans of the series.  If you're looking for something to do, by all means check it out, but it won't really add much to your appreciation of this series.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Exchange This World For...

80%!  Quest for Glory IV marks the penultimate step (or possibly pen-and-a-half-ultimate step) on my journey to finally conquer the Quest for Glory series, two decades after it began.  And, it might be the most entertaining of the games I've played through in this sequence.

First, on the technical front: this was the most challenging game for me to get running.  If you want to try it out yourself, you'll first want to be sure to grab DOSBOX.  Immediately after installing, be sure you are all patched up.  If you are using the disk version, you'll need to apply Sierra patches to version 1.2.  The CD version includes those patches, but even here you'll want to install the community patches, which are unofficial but fix some critical bugs and make the game playable on modern computers.  Let me re-emphasize that: you will need BOTH Dosbox AND the unofficial patches in order to play, and you'll want everything installed before you begin, to avoid save game corruption.

Also, while I was relatively lucky on this next point, numerous people have complained that there are still bugs that make the game unbeatable.  Some of these aren't so much bugs in programming as bugs in game design - you are allowed to make certain decisions, or fail to act in time, in ways that will break the game for you and make it impossible to win, without it being immediately obvious what is happening.  My best advice here is to save the game regularly under different files - perhaps one at the start of each day, or whenever you receive word of an important event - so that if you get stuck, you can go back a few days instead of starting again from scratch (or, more likely, giving up altogether).

Some final notes - something that caught me up at first was that, whenever I looked at or touched anything in the game at the start, a window would very quickly appear with some text, and almost instantly disappear.  It was hard to learn online what was happening, but I eventually figured it out.  If you are using the CD version, and don't have the CD loaded, then it will try to play the audio off the CD, and when that fails, immediately dismiss the window.  There are two solutions.  If you have the CD, go ahead and pop it in.  Otherwise, go to the Settings, and then click on the word "Audio" in the lower right.  This will toggle it off, and you can just read the text and click through it as normal.  Also, if you still run into glitches even after installing the unofficial patches, I've found it can be helpful to decrease your speed - even using the in-game Speed slider, not the Dosbox settings.  In particular, this helped for one part in the game where, whenever I tried to go through a door, it would immediately return me to the previous screen.


The graphics and gameplay are better than in QFG3.  Rather than low-res talking-box portraits, you encounter people through full-screen cartoonish images.  The land in general is prettier than in QFG3, too.  The overall interface remains the same - select icons and click them on the world to interact - but has been more severely customized; instead of the stock Sierra eye, you have a floating eyeball, for example.  On the whole, this game reflects the awkward adolescence of the early-to-mid 90's PC games: new generations of technology and frontiers of budgets were dramatically expanding the range of tools available to gamemakers, but they had not yet developed a craft around using them.  So here you have a game where every line of dialog in the game - which adds up to quite a few! - is spoken by an actor.  It... well, it's kind of odd, really.  It's pretty clear that they wrote the script like they would for a normal QFG game, with a pleasing denseness and wide scope to it.  And then, every single line of that text gets recorded.  This doesn't just mean the people you speak with in the game: every time you look at something, every time you click on something, any time you do any task more complicated than walking, you get to hear about it.  It isn't bad, really, but it's very unusual.  I can't imagine a modern adventure game paying for this level of detail.

As for the voice actor quality, they're all over the map... generally bad, but in a funny or lovable way.  One unfortunate thing is that the game is set in a facsimile of eastern Europe, and as a result, there are a painful number of really fake Russian accents.  Occasionally, it sounds like two different people recorded for the same character; I'm thinking of one person in particular who sometimes speaks with a Slavic accent, and other times sounds like a Voodoo priestess.  Fortunately, the narrator, who speaks a strong majority of the lines you hear, is pretty good.  He's also famous; try to guess who it is without peeking at the credits.  I'll give you a hint: It isn't Ian McKellan.

One place where the game falls low is combat.  They revamped it from the earlier systems, turning it into what looks like a side-scrolling action game.  I just couldn't get the hang of this - it didn't have the strategy of QFG2VGA, and didn't have the speed and simplicity of QFG3.  I eventually gave up and switched to "Strategy" mode, which lets the computer control your actions.  This isn't very good, but is less annoying than failing on your own.

On the upside again, the puzzles are generally good.  They hit that sweet spot: challenging enough that you need to think about them for a bit, but not so obtuse that a reasonable person can't eventually find the answer.  Often you will need to acquire some information from elsewhere in the game in order to solve it.  Many puzzles also feature some in-game help, which I think is excellent - if you get stuck, you can wander back to your main haunts and question people, and often they will provide you with a hint for what to do next.  As a final result, the more mechanical puzzle passwords provide a hint system on the same screen that suggests what you need to do.

The music is very enjoyable.  Music has been a strong component for the QFG series, and QFG4 keeps up the tradition.  Many of the short ditties get into your head and repeat ad nauseum.  Often the music is evocative and mysterious, in keeping with the game's eldritch setting.  My favorite themes are probably the ones for Erana's Garden and for the Thieves' Hideout.

All right, I think that covers the technical aspects of the game.  Now lets move into some


Another reason why QFG4 satisfies is its dark theme.  This feels like the most mature entry in the series yet.  Now, every land you've been to yet has lived under some form of threat, and you've always faced dark magical foes.  In Mordavia, though, that darkness has lasted for years, and it seems to have crept into the very souls of the townspeople.  They have turned insular and callous, expecting the worst of everything.  Your own explorations seem to affirm this darkness.

That isn't to say that it's unrelenting, though... this game has nothing on, say, Planescape: Torment.  It's just that the lighthearted and funny elements are fewer and farther between.  Even the comic elements have a line of melancholy underneath.  This game features an actual comedian... but a vicious curse has stolen his sense of humor.  The townspeople are a Greek Chorus of comic suspicion.... and their attitude leads to a grave crisis. 

In this, your hero's fourth quest, you seem to be turning into a man.  In the past you have worked with and under people who are stronger and wiser than you; people like Erasmus, Rakeesh, and Uhura.  Your friends have taken you to each new land and introduced you to their homes.  This time, you are on your own.  You arrive alone.  You must fight your way to the relative safety of the town.  Once you get there, you realize that there is no person living there who can be a mentor or a true equal friend.  Instead, you must become a sort of parent to this village.  You use your own strength and judgment to provide and care for them, standing alone against the darkness.

This aspect of the game impressed me most of all: watching how people's relationships with you evolved over time.  There's a real depth and poignancy to the characters you meet, and watching them emerge from their shells is incredibly rewarding.  It's hard to think of another RPG that has pulled this off as well.  Granted, the scope feels very narrow, with just a handful of people to meet, but even so, I was very impressed by the variety of reactions you encounter.

Closely tied to this asset, the rhythm of the gameplay was one of the best yet.  QFG1 was wide open; almost nothing happened on a set schedule, you just took on tasks as your interest and abilities warranted.  QFG2 practically ran on rails.  You couldn't do anything before its appointed hour, and once you were let out the gate, you only had so long to complete it.  QFG3 was kind of a hybrid, with some set tasks early on and more freedom later.  In this game, you are literally free from the very beginning, able to explore anywhere and do most quests; but, the world is not totally static, and you must wait for certain events in order to proceed.  Because of this, there were certain times in the game when I thought I was stuck, but after sleeping for another night I would learn of something new which had happened, which in turn would lead me on to my next goal.

Thematically, this game is also mature; it doesn't just look at bad things in the world, but also at how those things affect us; our own actions can be driven by our environment, even as our actions become the environment for others.


This was most movingly presented in the story of Tanya.  The simple way to do this would have been to make her a pure damsel in distress: an innocent child snatched from home by a being of pure evil.  They didn't do that, though.  They tease out the complicated relationship she has with her parents, and the moving friendship she establishes with Toby.  I was particularly pleased when, at the end of the quest, her father realized that his own attempts to keep her safe from the darkness were what made her frightened.  In a way, you need to accept the darkness in order to gain power over it; you cannot conquer the darkness while you try to shut it away and live in fear.

The theme of sacrifice is extraordinarily powerful.  "Sacrifice" is a word that we (or at least I) tend to bat around a lot without really thinking about what it means.  Sacrifice isn't just giving something up.  It isn't just helping people.  Sacrifice means pain.  Sacrifice involves a meaningful loss.  Sacrifice changes you at least as much as it changes the target of your sacrifice.  Too often I talk about sacrificing flavor or sacrificing convenience, as if it was just a trade.  I should instead be remembering the sacrifice of Isaac or of the marines at Guadalcanal.  Quest for Glory IV recaptures the necessary angst around sacrifice.  If it is an easy choice to make, it isn't a sacrifice at all.  I get the impression that I'll be forgetting a lot of this game next year, but I think that the two major sacrifices within it will stick with me in the same way that, say, Aeris does.

The first major sacrifice is that of Erana.  It happened long in the past, but her death was such a powerful event that it still reverberates, and she is the one influence that seems to give any measure of comfort to the terrified villagers.  I love how this mysterious figure has been slowly painted in since we first learned her name in Spielburg; now, even though you share her dreams, there is still a sense of mystery about her.  I'm really looking forward to QFGV, if for no other reason than to hopefully learn the details of how her story ended.

The second major sacrifice is Toby's.  I was surprised by how affected I was by this, considering that I had only met him a few minutes before.  Part of that might be his animal nature... although he is described as a giant ape, I find it much easier to compare him with an especially fierce dog.  His unswerving loyalty reminds me of the canine companionship I've had, and because of that Tanya's loss feels like me own.  Besides Toby's character, the directness of the action serves as well to emphasize the tragedy.  He's obviously sad and frightened, yet he never balks at what is asked of him.

From theme to geography: This was one of my favorite games in the series, and I think a big part of that is because of how obviously it cribs from Quest for Glory I.  Seriously, I wonder if the development team was actively listening to fan complaint about QFG3 and decided to return to "the good old days".  The game just FEELS really similar.  In both cases, you are in a valley that used to be part of a bustling trade route, but a natural event has caused it to be cut off and isolated from the world.  Both feature a small medieval town and a large castle.  Both have active Thieves Guilds, and are the only games in the series to feature one.  Both have refuges that were planted by Erana, feature a giant magic tree, and provide the only safe place to sleep outside of town.  Both are primarily forest, and walking through the screens in QFG4 feels much like QFG1.  Both 1 and 4 reward map-making, while it isn't really necessary in either 2 or 3.  You arrive as a stranger in both games without any friends or contacts, and leave both as a hero.  And on and on.  Don't misunderstand me, I'm not complaining: I loved the first game, so these are all Good Things.

I have mixed feelings about how this game treats thieves.  It is far better than the abysmal opportunities in 3.  In some respects, it is the best yet: there's a pretty complex Thieves Guild, some new Thief-only features (disarming traps and acrobatics), you can actually get back your daggers after throwing them, sneaking is actually useful, and the game generally approves of your illegal activities.  The biggest downer, though, is that you only have one thief job for the entire game (at least that I found).  I don't consider the guild or the monastery to be real jobs.  No, a thief job is you breaking into someone's house and stealing their stuff from under their noses.  After the fun outings in QFG1 and especially QFG2, it's a bummer to have such limited chances to strut my stuff. 

The endgame was pretty thrilling... in terms of drama, I'd have to rate it just a notch below QFG2's heart-pounding thrill ride, but still above the other two games' endings.  As in the last two games, once events are set into motion you are committed to completing them swiftly.  Revelations come quickly, you must explore and puzzle out new environments, and eventually learn the trick that will defeat your final opponent.  What set this one apart were the frankly demonic trappings.  Yah, Avoozl!  The rituals and altars and blood and chants make the ending even more Lovecraftian than what came before.  However, that sharp bleakness helps make the very end even more joyful than it would be otherwise.  I was thrilled to catch my first, tantalizing glimpse of Erana, delighted to see Erasmus and Fenris again for the first time since QFG1 (as a thief, I didn't get to keep in touch via W.I.T.), and just plain pleased at the traditional (except for QFG3) ending, where everyone gathers in the castle to talk about how awesome you are.  It makes the hours of gameplay not just worthwhile, but well appreciated.

Quick rundown of miscellaneous thoughts:
Favorite in-game character: Baba Yaga!  Having her back was a blast.
Favorite out-of-game character: Erana, with second place going to the Mad Monk.
Favorite evolution: The social scene within the inn.
Favorite voice: The narrator.  Among the characters, I'd have to say the Rusalka.  (What?!)
Favorite battle: All combat was tedious.  The wights were at least interesting and had treasure, though.
Favorite skill: I'll have to go with sneaking, much as I want it to be lock picking.
Favorite quest: Baking a pie for Baba Yaga.
Favorite scene: It came early, but I loved it when you became a pyromaniac and set fire to the monastery.  Burn, baby, burn!
Favorite line: I really enjoyed the gnome's jokes about dwarfs.
Favorite music: Hrm.  Maybe Erana's Garden?  I kinda wish I had an old Roland MT-32 card; I think that an instrument is getting poorly synthesized.
Favorite portrait: Oh gosh, aren't they all hideous?  I think that Davy's is especially jarring.  And the Rusalka is just over-the-top.  Um... in all seriousness, the Domovoi is fascinating without being ugly (ironically enough).  Second place to poofy-hair-Katrina.
Favorite in-joke: Gotta love the Blackbird.
Favorite inventory item: Grue Goo.


It wasn't all roses, of course.  Here are some of my complaints.

First of all, some skills seem totally useless.  I was able to get my communication up high, but as far as I can tell, it does nothing in this game.  Previously it could be used to bargain, but now that bargaining has been taken out, it isn't good for anything that I can tell.

Speaking of which, the money system feels broken.  I think that this was deliberate, but I still don't like it.  There are only a tiny number of things you can buy, all of which are available from the very beginning and none of which cost very much.  For all the things you would expect to spend money on, you instead are rationed: healing potions are free, but you can only get one a day.  So money is kind of useless, which helps explain why there's almost none of it to get.  You start off with a little, and if you're a thief you can steal some more, but other than that, you'll be flat until you're far enough in the game that you can start killing Wights.  So what's the point?  I hope that you get to carry it over to Silmaria and actually buy stuff with it.

(In their defense: yes, the previous games were ripe for abuse.  I think I ended QFG2 with over a hundred healing pills.  You can become an amazing junkie, popping pills and endlessly practicing, and so max out your stats within the first day or so if you're really demented.  So I can see why they revisited this, and even why they removed stamina potions, but the system still feels broken.) 

The voice acting is often quite bad.  Much of it is bad enough that it's funny, but still, after a while I found myself frequently pressing the right mouse button to skip through the dialog.

As described above, while the thief is much more fun to play than in QFG3, it is still lacking.

Combat just isn't much fun.  (Partial credit for letting people skip it.)

Minor complaint, but the monsters aren't seeded intelligently.  When I first started my game, I ran into a wyvern before I reached the town.  Needless to say, I died.  You also are still running into bunnies right before the end game.  Didn't QFG1 start switching to more dangerous monsters the further you got in the game?  Why wasn't that happening here?  (On the other hand: it's more realistic this way, and if you enjoy combat and are good at it, you can fight everyone from the beginning without needing to wait.)

And that's about it!

Final stats for the curious:
I feel like I came out of this one far better than QFG3... not a single stat maxed, but most of them had a chance to decently increase.  Even luck went up by a little bit.  I'm pretty surprised that Agility stayed so low, considering that I consistently played as a thief.  The only stats I directly trained were throwing and acrobatics, the remainder came naturally.


On the whole, QFG4 can make an argument for being the best game in the series.  It's a hard call to make, largely because it's quite different from the earlier games, especially in its tone.  But after the minor disappointment that was QFG3, it felt wonderful to slip back into a good old-fashioned balanced adventure RPG.  It was a chance to meet old enemies instead of old friends, a chance to grow in stature and in responsibility.  After QFG4, your character has wings.  As I look forward to QFG5, I hope he uses them to soar.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Run Haruki Run

When I attended Haruki Murakami's appearance/lecture/reading at Berkeley, I was already partway into his latest book, a delightful little memoir called "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running".  Like the lecture, this book gives a rare intimate glimpse into the interior life of this shy author.

The framing device, as should be obvious from the title, is Murakami's passion for running.  He uses it to touch on almost every aspect of his career: his transition from a nightclub owner into a writer; his search for discipline and focus; his passionate drive for self-improvement; his humility; his concern at the prospect of aging.  He's an excellent writer, and I think the book can be enjoyed from either or both angles: the memoirs of a writer or of a runner.  Whichever direction you approach it from, you'll come away with some more appreciation of the other.

I was personally intrigued by a section near the end of the book when he describes training for a triathlon.  He naturally loves running and swimming, but dislikes cycling.  He describes all the things he doesn't like about cycling (fear of tipping over, isolation, repetitiveness) and says that, for him, cycling seems like torture.  I, on the other hand, have exactly the opposite feeling: I love cycling, and think that running feels like torture.  But both are okay - he explicitly says that he isn't writing this book in the hopes that people will decide to become runners; rather, his great hope would be for people to find what gives them the most joy, and to pursue it.  Like me he hated the competitive structure of school gym classes; also like me, he only began to enjoy exercising later in life when he could pursue the forms that felt natural to him and gave pleasure.

Oh, and I was happy to see that he explicitly gave props to Raymond Carver in the book.   It is now a pretty popular construction, and I'm pleased to see him give credit.

This book isn't a must-read, but it is wonderful, and I would especially recommend it to fans of Haruki or to long-distance runners.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Wages of War

I have now crossed the halfway mark of Sierra's Quest for Glory series with my conquest of "Quest for Glory III: The Wages of War."

One of the greatest appeals of the QFG series has always been its replay value; you are guaranteed at least three fun and challenging runs as each of the classes, on top of the normal challenges to maximize story points or find hidden goals. That said, at least at present I don't have the time or energy to immediately replay any of these games, so I'm taking my thief through the whole thing.

Side note - the AGD remake seems to have plugged up a bug/design-flaw that I actually enjoyed. In my three plays through the first QFG2 that I remember, I managed to become a paladin both when playing as a Magic User and, amazingly, as a Thief. The one time that I was TRYING to become a paladin, as a fighter, I didn't become one, despite seemingly having done everything right. It was only when reading the remake's message boards now that I finally discovered the reason why - I had thrown a rock at the griffin. (As a fighter, I had assumed that I was supposed to take the aggressive solution to my problems.) In the remake, they have slightly tweaked the formula for becoming a paladin; throwing a rock is no longer sufficient to deny you this award, and they have made it impossible for a fully larcenous thief to share in it.

So, again, mixed feelings... it was cool to be a paladin thief in my first play through QFG3, but also a little weird. I found significant differences when I played through as a pure thief, and got to see some content that was new to me.


My overall impression of QFG3 is that it is a really short game. QFG2 lasted me for a few weeks of occasional play sessions; I got entirely through QFG3 in one semi-focused Saturday. The biggest reason for this is that QFG3 lightens up on the calendar. It has a bit more structure than QFG1, in that some events (especially early in the game) happen on set days, but there is no longer a hard time limit, and you can do things as early or late as you want. For many players this might mean taking their time and the chance to buff their stats. For me, it meant an end to the tediousness of QFG2's 30-day cycle, and much denser gameplay.

QFG3 also feels like a limited game. In a way, each game in the series up through the third entry has seemed more narrow than the one before. QFG1 gives you a whole valley to explore, filled with all sorts of cool little places and creatures to encounter... just off the top of my head I can remember the town, the castle, the cemetery, healer's cottage, Erana's Peace, kobold, Erasmus's tower, avalanche, waterfall, brigand's cave and fort, the dryad, Baba Yaga's cottage, magic mushroom patch. QFG2 technically takes place in a much larger place, but the city feels a bit artificial (those alleys are creepily empty), and there are a grand total of three locations in the desert: the griffin, the three, and the oasis. QFG3 adds an overhead map, which technically means that you're in a much larger place, but still, there is a paucity of locations. Tarna seems like a large city, but you are restricted to one segment of it. In the wild, the only locations I can remember are the honey tree, Uhura's village, the World Tree, and the enchanted lake. Some more are added once you reach the endgame, but they don't really feel like part of the main game world since you can't revisit them.

Overall, the feeling is closer to QFG2 as a game that runs along on rails, rather than QFG1's wide-open, try-anything ethos. That said, I don't want to claim that this is a bad game. The plot is noticeably denser and darker than that of the first game, and has some actual pathos to it.


In a weird way, QFG3 sort of makes the same arguments as Ultima VI, though with less eloquence. It similarly inverts the standard fantasy RPG goal: your main purpose is to prevent killing rather than causing it. There is a fair amount of mystery and sense of danger early in the game - a failed peace mission, conflicting accounts of stolen cultural artifacts, hardliners in government who press towards popular war, only a few voices resisting the press into conflict.

It's all cool and interesting, but I think that the final reveal actually cheapens it a little bit - you find that the whole thing has been orchestrated by demons, seeking to start a war to increase their power. Which is fine and a good story and all, but what was so compelling about "The False Prophet" was that there was NOT an ultimate hidden evil: just the evil that lives in all of us and makes us fear those who are not like us. QFG3's story is excellent, but it does not transcend.

Its gameplay was pretty good... the puzzles are generally reasonable. Fighting marked a big change after the revamped QFG2 and was a return to the old QFG style that I remembered: quick, adreneline-fueled button-mashing and swiftly determined outcomes, rather than QFG2VGA's elaborate dance of parry and riposte that made every skirmish last several minutes.

The big downside, for me at least, were the weak prospects for a thief. This is realistic - granted, you ARE in a big savannah and jungle - but still, I went through pretty much the entire game without ever picking a lock or climbing anything. At least this time I got to do a little breakin in the Leopard Village; I think that in my previous playthrough, my paladin-ness had made me do the warrior trials instead. But still, considering that this was the one and only chance for espionage, it was kinda lame... use your special magic rope, sneak, grab, leave. Even if you take the extra time to pillage the chest, it just means a few measly coins and, like, a potion or something. Lame!

Also annoying to a thief - as far as I can tell, there's no way to get back your throwing daggers once you've tossed them. Nope. This greatly irritates me - those things cost good money! Fortunately, you can still do a lot of damage with rocks.

In contrast, QFG2 gave significant and interesting career paths for each profession. The thief had four interesting, challenging jobs to take. The magic user could find, challenge, and eventually join WIT. The fighter could pass the trials to become initiated into the EOF, and strive for the benefits of becoming a paladin. I'm not sure if QFG3 has similar things for the wizard and fighter, but at least on the thief front, this unique content takes a step back.

On the plus side: MONKEYS! Monkeys make everything better. I whole-heartedly salute the Sierra team's embrace of this key concept.

The romance angle is interesting too. The bride puzzles were actually some of my favorite parts of the game. It feels a little unrealistic when you kiss her, but whatever - you're a hero! It just adds more to the surprisingly broad roster of intriguing women you've encountered throughout the series. In a weird way, QFG sometimes feels like James Bond Lite - every game offers more good girls and the occasional bad girl.

Oh, one final thought. In my only plays through the game, I've gotten all 5 friends to show up at the end. Since at least some of these are optional (you don't have to befriend the thief, and can probably get by without ever spending much time with the villager; plus, I assume you can kill the possessed liontaur daughter), I'm curious what happens if you reach the end with less than your full complement. Do you just lose the game? That would suck, clearly. Maybe it's harder, or just sadder at the end. I dunno.


QFG3 is a bit of an oddity, but that's a good thing. The franchise never seemed content to crank out copies of a successful formula, and always tweaked what was expected in a game. I'd have to say that it's my least favorite of the series so far, but still an enjoyable diversion.

From here on out is where it really gets interesting - I honestly don't know what's going to happen in QFG4, and even less about what's ahead in Dragonfire. Bring it on, Sierra!

UPDATE: Whoops, I forgot to include the screens I grabbed.  Here they are.

First up, the point where I finally started to love the game: when a talking monkey enters the picture.  Great success!

Finally, thought I'd share my stats at the end up the game.  They are, how do you say... pathetic?  I was definitely racing through the story, and didn't reach 300 in a single one.  Heck, only Stealth (which I'm constantly using) and Communication even got past  250.  I was really glad that I had taken the Luck boost in QFG2, though: through the whole game it didn't go up a single point.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

BAD Poverty

Wow - for the second year in a row, I'm writing a Blog Action Day topic that I feel tremendously unqualified to discuss: poverty.

BAD (oooh, I love the acronym!) encourages people to incorporate the topic into their blog's normal focus - so a political blog would focus on candidates' positions on poverty, a tech blog might look at engineering that can help alleviate suffering, etc. This is a case where my extreme lack of blog focus really hurts. My posts seem to be both to scattered and both too specific to really adapt well to a topic. I mean, what am I going to do - blog about digitized poverty in classic Sierra games, the Civilization franchise, and post-modern fiction?

I think I'll fall back on a rambling autobiographical musing. Please stop reading this post now and save yourself.

I feel extremely fortunate to have grown up in a middle-class family. We weren't rich, but there wasn't a day in my life that I felt hungry, or needed to worry about where I would be sleeping that night, or whether I would have enough clothing to wear. The older I've grown and the more I learn about suffering in the US and the world, the more amazed I grow at the blessed life I lead.

I'm not sure at what time I first learned that there were truly poor people in this world. It may have been in Sunday school when we learned about Jesus's ministry. I do remember the first time that the idea of poverty made me feel bad, though. There was a song called "One Meatball" that is about someone - perhaps a hobo? my memory is vague - walks into a restaurant. He doesn't have a lot of money, so he tries to buy a single meatball. The waitress laughs at him. That just made me feel awful. The combination of things, really - the idea of someone not being able to have both spaghetti AND meatballs is kind of sad, but this song also revealed the world of mockery and cruelty that accompanies dire economic straits. When someone is truly poor, people who have means seem far more likely to treat them as a target of ridicule, or pity, or anger - although they wouldn't consciously think so, the homeless man or bag lady becomes almost sub-human in their eyes, and they no longer treat them with the same respect that they would show to their neighbors.

My first up-close look at poverty came in seventh grade, when I took a trip with the Berean Junior High Youth Group to Chicago. I'll be honest: some of my strongest memories from this outing are primarily social, like when we sang songs on the El or ate at an Egyptian restaurant. But I also remember walking through Cabrini-Green and painting apartments; driving down city streets and staring out the van windows at people shambling by; hearing from former gang members about what their lives had been like. I think that one of the best things that our leaders did was take us to the Water Tower Place immediately after one of our clean-up projects. For those of you who aren't familiar with Chicago, this is a very swanky, upscale shopping center. And here we were, wandering around in our dirty clothes. Frankly, we teenaged boys weren't that put out by it, but the underlying message was clear: even though this country doesn't have laws controlling where people can live and shop, our social mores and economic structures enforce a de facto segregation of rich from poor. Most poor people would not be at all comfortable walking through that snobby place, any more than a wealthy stock trader would want to walk through the Tenderloin. And while the Chicago trips were real eye-openers for me, I was always aware of their limitations. I still had not really FELT what poverty was like. Even though I had finally seen it up close, it was still somehow unreal, part of another world. I knew that in another two days I would ride back to the Twin Cities and resume my comfortable suburban existence. I was painfully aware that the trips were much more about trying to shake me out of my isolated mindset more than they were about me "saving" the poor of Chicago by giving them a horrible paint job.

I think I did two Chicago trips with Berean, and then another one or two with College Church after we moved. Weirdly enough, I think these trips did a lot to cement my love of and desire for urban life. Despite my sense of separation from the people I saw, Chicago seemed more "real" to me than my suburban existence. It had the true extremes of human life: extreme beauty and extreme ugliness, wealth and poverty, faith and scorn. The African-American churches we attended also seemed incredibly vibrant and immediate... I was never seriously tempted to go Pentecostal, but could certainly see the attraction. After having seen the extremes in Chicago, it seemed somehow improper to retreat to my comfortable life, ignoring the reality of poverty.

Now, I can pretty much guarantee that if and when my parents read this post, they will already be thinking about a notorious statement I made as a youngster. My comfortable upbringing did not mean a lot of disposable income, and when I reached the age that I wanted to buy things, I grew frustrated at my limited means. When I had my eye on, say, a computer game, I would save and save for months - but, because I bought presents out of my allowance, I was regularly tapping it for five birthdays for April through August, then again for November and Christmas presents for everyone in December. I was probably paying more attention to my income and outflow than most kids my age, and didn't like what I saw. In a fit of pique, I tried to describe my frustration to my parents, explaining that I felt like I was "trapped in a cycle of poverty."

Needless to say, I STILL hear about this twenty years later.

This is one of those cases where I really wish I had clearer memories about what was going on. Was I asking for a raise in my allowance? My guess would be yes, though I might have just been venting. What specifically was I hoping to buy? Did I ever threaten to cut down on gift-giving?

Still, I think that exchange captures a lot about my personal attitude towards money. Because I've never lived on the edge, I don't have the appropriate degree of fear towards losing everything; at worst, I feel an annoyance at not having everything I want. Early on I told myself that I didn't want to be rich, didn't want to become a millionaire. All I wanted was to feel comfortable: to not need to keep an eagle eye on every little purchase I made, to provide for myself and any family I might have. I decided that worrying about the big things would be okay - cars and a house - but that if I could ever reach the point where "little" stuff didn't cause me stress, then that would be enough.

And you know what? I've made it. Through very little virtue of my own - I owe so much of my present good position to my parents, my teachers in school, my friends and university, and of course all the companies I've worked for over the years. But there was a certain point a few years after graduation when I sort of stopped, looked around at my life, and thought, "This is good. I am content. From here on out, everything is pleasantly superfluous."

Now, of course, I have a new worry to contend with: keeping an eye on the little green monster. Mammon is a powerful force, and however little or much you have, the temptation is always there to get more. I would love to see a survey asking people how much money they think they would need to be happy, plotted against their current income. I don't think there's any point along that scale where most people would say that they have enough.

I think this point is perfectly illustrated in this recent Dinosaur Comic. I'm not sure how exactly to put it - if our relationship with money gets more "complicated" as we get older, or if it's just greed, or what, but it does feel like there is increasing pressure to equate material wealth with personal worth. Even if we won't always directly say it, most people assume that it is better to have more. I do love the phrase "LifePoints". It reminds me of an incident involving the character Silk from David Eddings "Belgariad" (part of a long line of books I loved as a child that proved, upon later examination, to be embarrassingly bad). Silk was a thief in the D&D mold, who loved stealing stuff when he wasn't using his dexterity to help out the party; his larcenous attitude concealed a fundamental decency and adventurous virtue. (Lawful Good!) Anyways, throughout the series he steals more and more gold, gems, etc. At one point the party needs to dump everything and flee. With a sigh, Silk tosses his ill-gotten gains aside. Garion commiserates with him. Silk replies with something like, "Oh, the money isn't important. It's the game that I love. Money is just a way of keeping score." I'm not sure that I'd like to adopt that as my own life philosophy - it's a bit depressing to think that our primary purpose should be the accumulation of goods - but I do admire the idea of someone being able to discard all (or most) of their gains when the time is right.

For me, the key is keeping perspective and counting my blessings. The more I look at the wealthy millionaires in Silicon Valley who joined Google in 2001, the more dissatisfied I become. The more I look at how most of the world lives, and the suffering of people close to home, the more satisfied I become. With that personal satisfaction comes, or should come, a sense of obligation. Like I said before, I can't give myself all or even the most credit for how things have turned out for me. It seems only fair that other people should have the same sort of chances and support that helped me reach the place where I am today.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What I Write About When I Write About Murakami

Unbelievable!  Within the span of about one month, I've had chances to see two of my favorite living authors in person.  I might even go so far as to say that they are my two favorite living authors... it's hard to think of another writer who I clearly enjoy more than Neal Stephenson or Haruki Murakami.

These haven't been special opportunities because of how much I like them, but because of how rare they are.  Both writers are pretty introverted and reserved.  Unlike some writers who clearly enjoy traveling and meeting their readers, Stephenson only makes brief public appearances when promoting a new book, and Murakami is even less visible, at least in this country - he doesn't do the book signing tour thing, and will go for years without publicity.

As a side note: if there weren't enough reasons for me to be ecstatic about living in the Bay Area, this might be sufficient.  Can you imagine a writer only making a handful of appearances, and one of them being in Kansas City?  I am very fortunate.

Anyways, I'd pounced on the Murakami tickets as soon as I heard about them.  In a frustrating-yet-happy development, I discovered that I was far from alone in my excitement: even though it was about a month before the program, the event was already about 3/4 sold out, with the best seats long gone.  Still, I wasn't going to complain about that when I wouldn't have thought I would ever lay eyes on the guy, so I had no regrets about anteing up.

When the day of the event drew closer, I decided to make a full expedition of it.  It was held at UC-Berkeley, and while I love trips there, it's far enough away that I wanted to maximize my investment.  For a few months now I've been idly considering relocating to the East Bay - it would cut down the length of my current commute, be a cheaper place to live, and make it far easier to participate in the San Francisco social/literary/culture scene.  That said, I have very little experience with the East Bay neighborhoods, and wanted to get a better feel for them than what I pick up through places like Zillow.

After a few minutes' study of Google Maps and my own research, I came up with a good game plan.  I would drive up to Fremont, then take BART north.  This is standard operating procedure for me in the East Bay: I don't need to navigate unfamiliar roads, don't need to worry about parking, and can take full advantage of BART's frequent time table.  I could take BART up to a station adjacent to campus, but instead I would detrain at MacArthur, where some of my co-workers commute.

After getting off here, I ambled generally east and slightly north.  My first goal was the Piedmont Avenue neighborhood, but along the way I passed through Temescal.  This alone made the trip worthwhile; I'd heard of Temescal, but hadn't been able to locate it on a map.  Having feet on the ground really helped me get a feel for the place.  I'd assumed that 40th Street was a major road, but at least on this Saturday afternoon, it was quite calm, with just occasional light traffic.  I cut off to some residential streets for most of this leg, and was generally happy with what I saw.  It was an older neighborhood, but seemed pretty well maintained, with a decent amount of foot traffic... I liked seeing parents pushing kids in their strollers and otherwise demonstrating an active family life.

I crossed Broadway and pressed on to Piedmont Avenue.  I was happy with what I found on the Avenue proper, but at the same time, a little underwhelmed.  Given that this apparently anchors a neighborhood and is a bit of a destination in the area, I guess I had been expecting more... more in a quantitive sense more than a qualitative.  What was there looked pretty cool - a little movie theater, used book store, several restaurants, and basically no vacancies - but there just wasn't a whole lot of it.  Maybe it extended further south than I thought, or it could be that there's more retail along side streets that I missed.

After getting an up-close look at the mausoleum and cemetery, I worked my way back to Broadway and then up College.  Once I got past the big box stores on Spring Valley, this was an excellent walk, and possibly the highlight of the journey.  College just seemed really vibrant and fun, with a huge variety of options - not just restaurants (which too often seem to be the only offering in "cool" places) - but also their public library, consignment shops, etc.  It generally seemed higher-rent than Piedmont Avenue, which I suppose is both good and bad.  Best of all, it was clearly a real walking district.... traffic was brisk but calm, and pedestrians ruled the area.

Yet more felicitous discovery: I realized that I was walking through "Rockridge."  Yet another abstract name had been wedded to physical reality!  Success!

Once you get north of about Alcatraz, the retail disappears, and College becomes a pure residential road, even sleepier than further south.  I continued along for a few more blocks, admiring the cool architecture, before breaking one block west as I followed a "bike boulevard".  I gradually realized that I was now officially in Berkeley, and man, is it pretty!  Temescal was now looking dowdy and run-down in comparison.  Here the homes was large, distinctive, historical, and cleverly landscaped.  It was a quiet area, with no sound of auto traffic, and multiple families walking with their kids.

By now I was starting to feel a bit winded.  I'm an enthusiastic walker, but that morning I had already gone on a hike to Monument Peak (about 8 miles over 2000 feet of climbing), and had probably walked another four miles or so from MacArthur.  The North Oakland isn't as steep as Monument Peak, obviously, but is still quite hilly for a residential area.  (Side note: wow, I was really impressed at how many everyday cyclists are out there!  Even by the standards of the Bay Area, this place is swarming with them.)  I was feeling a little sore and a little hungry.

I eventually sat down on a bench just outside a Berkeley residence hall and plotted my next move.  It was close to 6, and I was within a few blocks of my goal.  Yelping the day before had turned up an area dubbed the "Asian Ghetto", a collection of various Far Eastern restaurants that was evidently popular among students.  Seemed cheap and casual, the perfect spot for a solo diner to spend time.  I lined up my route, caught my breath, and then pressed on.

Closer to Berkeley's campus, the population density had visible spiked, and retail was once again taking over.  I passed many tempting alternatives on my way to the Ghetto, and nearly went into a just-opened sushi restaurant, only deterred by its dual identification as a karaoke place.  I passed Telegraph as the vendors were pulling up their stalls, doubled back to enter the Ghetto, whipped out my iPhone to choose which spot to visit, and finally pulled into Thai Basil.

It was really good, but frankly, just about anything would have been.  I ordered the Chicken Pad See Ew, encouraged by a Yelper, and indulged in a Thai Iced Tea. There is outdoor seating at the Ghetto, but I was able to grab a nice tiny table inside.  The bustle and chatter of students was very comforting, and I relaxed as I read through my New Yorker article about early voting in America.

Eventually I was refueled, both with food and stamina, and it was getting close enough to 7 that I felt comfortable approaching Zellerbach.  Twilight was falling as I set foot on campus.  It isn't the first time that I've technically been on Berkeley - that honor goes to my Radiohead concert - but it was the first time I had specifically gone TO the campus, and I enjoyed wandering.  I walked through a historical gate (I think it's called something like Salther?) that they are restoring, and swung up by the Campanile, a tower where they play bells.  I walked past a lot of halls, was tempted to crash an alumni dinner, and heard the fight song being played as people entered a gymnasium to spectate.  Finally I doubled back to Zellerbach, where they were letting people in the doors.

Inside, they were selling paperbacks of most of Murakami's works.  I'm ashamed to admit that, despite my loud love for the guy, I've strictly been a library reader of him so far, and don't actually own any of his books.  I was briefly tempted to get something, but decided against it... I'd prefer the hardcovers, and in any case, these weren't signed or otherwise special.  Instead, I splurged on the overpriced refreshments: a cupcake and a beer set my back $9, more than my feast at Thai Basil.  It's pretty amazing how huge the markup is at venues like this.  I shouldn't complain, though... the beer and sweet were both very appreciated.

They hadn't opened the doors yet, so I wrote out a few questions for Murakami.  The first was a sort of lame query about how different cultures view his use of American commercial icons like Colonel Sanders and Johnny Walker in "Kafka on the Shore".  The second was about his involvement with Steppenwolf's theatrical adaptations of "After the Quake" and "Kafka on the Shore."

They opened the doors and people trickled in to the auditorium.  I was delighted to see that there was a strong Japanese presence this night; waiting in the lobby, I had several times heard people greeting each other in Japanese and bowing.  Reading through the program, I finally learned that Murakami was receiving an award from a Japanese foundation in Berkeley, celebrating the 50th year of a program at the university.  Cool!  From the general chatter in the auditorium, it seemed clear that most people were familiar with and enjoyed his work.

The auditorium filled in, and just a few minutes after 8 it started off in earnest.  The host greeted everyone and talked a little bit about the history behind this evening.  He also personally stressed that Mr. Murakami had requested that people not take photographs, recordings, or videos, and that we respect his artistic wishes.  He explained how the evening would progress, and then introduced Murakami to wild applause.

Murakami, despite his reputation as a bit of a recluse, is a really warm and funny guy.  He opened up by thanking us for being there, then complaining that he was missing the baseball game.  He explained that he is a Rays fan, because they have Akinori, a player who used to be on the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, his favorite team in Japan.  He segued into his biography, telling the by-now-well-known story of how he decided to become a writer after watching an American player hit a double, and described writing and publishing his first few novels.  He explained that he would be reading "Sharpie Crows", and that this story was written just a few years after he started writing.  I was delighted; I love Murakami's short fiction, and think "Sharpie Crows" may be the funniest thing he has written.  He would be reading in Japanese; "I believe that some of you do not understand Japanese.  Well, that is not my fault!  I will be reading it in Japanese, and then Roland will be reading it in English, so we each will read in our mother tongue.  Maybe it would be more interesting for me to read in English and Roland to read in Japanese, but I think that would not be so much fun."

He launched into "Sharpie Crows."  I just loved hearing the sound of his voice - he read smoothly and easily, giving the right intonation and inflection when dialog was spoken during the story.  I particularly enjoyed his rendering of the sound made by the crows during the climax of the book.  The original Japanese word isn't "Sharpie," of course, but it's a word that connotes edges.  From the audience reaction, it was clear that a good chunk of people were fluent in Japanese, and there were ripples of laughter at the appropriate times.  Me, I know just enough that I could identify the occasional vocabulary - "shitsurei shimasu", "ohayoo", etc. - and from the context could generally identify where he was in the story, but that was about it.

There was strong applause after he finished, and then he sat and Roland Kelts took the podium.  He was also a fine reader.  After hearing Murakami's introduction, the tale took on a whole other dimension to me.  I had initially read it as a silly story, but it was now clear that this was actually an allegory of Murakami's entry to the literary world.  Suddenly, everything became clear.  Murakami was the protagonists.  Making cakes was like making stories.  "Sharpie Cakes" was the Japanese literary establishment, and the Sharpie Crows were critics.  Young people liked Murakami and the new cakes; critics were divided over whether his stories were really Japanese, crows were divided over whether these were really Sharpies.  So, if for nothing else, this would already be an educational evening.

They then moved into the interview part of the evening.  It seemed a little awkward at first... Murakami lived in the US for several years and knows English well (he has translated books by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Raymond Carver, J. D. Salinger, and others), and speaks well, but it still is not his native tongue, and several times he had to ask Roland to repeat himself.  He also speaks in what, for lack of a better phrase, I'll call "Minnesotan": extremely humble and self-effacing, and also with long pauses.  It often wasn't clear whether he was finished giving an answer, or just thinking.  Several times Roland would start to ask another question, only to have Murakami interrupt and finish answering the previous one.  He would sometimes cross his arms while Murakami spoke, a peculiarly unfriendly piece of body language.  And sometimes it seemed like they weren't totally connecting - Murakami would hear a question, then provide an anecdote or answer around a related topic, without directly speaking to the actual query.

That said, it was still a wonderful conversation.  Kelts clearly knows his subject well, which is more than I can say for some events that I've been to, and after a while they settled into a comfortable rhythm.  Murakami was open, charming, eloquent, and really interesting.  I hate ("hate" is too strong - "am disappointed by") when authors just rehash their books during events, but Murakami seemed really fresh and interesting during this discussion, opening up about a lot of things.  I took some notes, and as usual, will sort of haphazardly recount what I remember in the space below.

At first, the interview was largely concerned about Murakami's relationship with his readers.  Frankly, I thought that all the important stuff had been communicated with great eloquence and humor in "The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes," but there were still some gems that came out.  I tend to think of Murakami as being standoffish, but he is actually very engaged with his readers.  Roland mentioned that he creates websites when new books come out, and is one of the rare authors who actually replies to emails that they receive.  Murakami, smiling, said that he had recently received a "very stupid question," which is "the most fun to answer."  The person had wanted to know whether squids' appendages are arms or legs.  Murakami answered that they are arms, and the suckers are gloves.  "I don't know what that had to do with anything," he confessed, "but that was my answer."

When Murakami first started writing, most of his readers were in their 20s and 30s.  Now, 30 years later, most of his readers are in their 20s and 30s.  This is different from most authors, of course - you would expect an author's audience to generally age along with the author, but for some reason, that is not the case.  Murakami is unable to explain why this is.  He has heard friends say, though, that his books are the only thing that they can discuss with their teenaged children, and he feels privileged that his writing can be a point of contact across generational divides.

They spent a fair amount of time discussing the writing process.  This is something that readers are almost always interested in, and that authors tend to be reluctant to describe, but Murakami gamely tried his best.  When he writes, he "goes down into the dark place of the mind."  He tries to find a quiet, isolated spot, and does his work in there.  When he starts writing, he doesn't have a plan in mind; usually he only can imagine the very first scene of the book.  He reaches the dark place, then begins writing, and is receptive to ideas about where the story goes next.

He amazed me by saying something really shocking and eloquent: writing a novel is a lot like a videogame.  (Murakami: you are awesome!  Not just to say something that flies in the face of the literary establishment like that, but to be adapted to the real world and able to draw on peoples' experiences.)  He explained: in a video game, you start playing, and you don't know exactly what is coming next, so you keep on playing and overcoming challenges until you reach your goal.  He said that when he writes, he switches between two personas: he is both programming the video game and playing the video game.  This is a lot of fun, he assures us.  When he is the player/reader, he puts himself into the mind of someone encountering this for the first time, and gauges their reaction; when he is the programmer/writer, he shapes the experience.

"You make writing sound like SO much fun," Roland exclaimed.

A big theme of his books has been isolation and despair.  He found that these are big parts of his readers' psyche, and he could in some ways speak to it.  When he talks with his young fans, he has found that many of them say that they do not even know their fathers; their fathers are almost like strangers to them, completely out of their lives.  One quirk of his books is that his characters don't really have relationships.  They encounter one another, and interact with one another, but don't really connect in meaningful ways.  He has said that, while his characters may not have relationships, "At least they have their obsessions."  Roland asked him to explain what he meant.  He couldn't really, but I at least feel like I can understand... his characters do not have the external web of human connections that give us comfort, but they do have inner interests and fascinations that provide them with an energy, a focus, a sense of meaning and purpose.

Roland probed a little more about the dark places, and asked Murakami if he could describe some of his obsessions that helped him reach his dark place.  I didn't totally follow this part - it sounded like the continuation of an earlier private conversation that these two had had, and that Murakami was reluctant to continue in public.  Eventually, bashfully, he listed some of his obsessions, which included elephants, refrigerators, ears, cats, and couches.  "I can't explain it," he said, "but these are companions in my dark place."  (I kind of get the impression that this is a situation where "dark place" is an imperfect translation of a slightly different Japanese phrase.  I'd love to read an essay about this to get a fuller understanding of what he means.)

They talked a bit about Murakami's experiences abroad and at home.  This was old hat for me, but it was nice to hear his own voice explaining how he sojourned abroad for several years in order to escape the stifling environment of Japan; how he was shocked by the Kobe earthquake and felt like he needed to return home - "I wanted to help my country.  I am not a nationalist, I do not want you to think that, but I wanted to help the people of my country."  This led to the amazing one-two punch of "Underground" and "After the Quake".  Roland noted that his works seem to have grown darker since that experience; Murakami acknowledged this, but didn't really directly say why he thinks this is.

Another trend: Murakami's early stories were mostly told in the first person - "Boku."  Later on, he started experimenting with third person.  In "Kafka on the Shore", there are two storylines, and one (Crow's) is told in first person, while the other is told in third.  In another story, there are two first person narrators; one uses "Watashi" and the other uses "Boku".  I REALLY want to see what the English translation of this looks like, since we really just have one word for "I".  Basically, he started off in first person because it felt natural.  Lately, as the stories have been growing more complex, he has relied more on third person to communicate the information.

Murakami did a lot of work for "Underground."  For a solid year, he interviewed 60 survivors and attackers.  He found that most of the stories were "boring" - which is only to be understood, right?  Most of our lives are not particularly interesting.  He found that the key was to love the person he was speaking with - to really connect with them as an individual.  Once he had that key, then their stories were no longer boring.

With some time left in the evening, they began reading questions off of the submitted cards.  Here are the ones I remember:

The very first question he was asked: "What is your favorite band?"

For those of you who haven't had the privilege of reading his stories, music plays a very visible role in most of them.  He knows his stuff, and writes about famous jazz artists, hot rock groups, obscure composers, etc.

Murakami says that he listens to a lot of music.  He listens to classical music in the morning.  After dark, he listens to jazz.  When he is driving or exercising, he will listen to rock.  The very first band that he named?  Radiohead.  The very second one?  R.E.M.  Murakami, is there no limit to your amazing awesomeness?  Those are MY two favorite bands!  Next he named Beck, and agreed with Roland that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are good.  He enjoys the Beach Boys.  He likes Jim Morrison, and think he's very charismatic.  He enjoys singing while swimming.  "What?"  Singing while swimming.  "What... how does that work?"  What do you mean?  "Like, do you sing when your mouth comes out of the water?"  No, he... blows bubbles.  (General laughter.)  He particularly enjoys singing "Yellow Submarine."  This man is my hero.

He is a BIG Radiohead fan.  He really admires Thom Yorke.  Thom Yorke is in New York now, and had actually written Murakami to ask if he would be interested in meeting.  He could not, because of this speaking engagement.  "So, thanks to you, I am missing the playoffs AND Thom Yorke."  We showed him much love.

"Do you see your role in Japan as being that of a healer?"

Murakami asked several times for this question to be repeated; I think that "healer" was tripping him up, and was a bit surprised that Roland didn't provide a synonym.  Eventually he got it, and replied in the negative.  He doesn't see himself as having that kind of role.  He writes stories for people, but doesn't think he can provide healing.

"Will you ever write a big book again?"

"Actually, I just finished my new novel last week."  HUGE, thunderous applause.  "It is... a BIG book."  Even louder applause.

This led into a longer answer.  He has been working on this book for a long time, and is happy that it is done.  It will be published in Japan in 2009, and in America "some time after that, I don't know when."  Some people enjoy larger books, but he notes that most Japanese readers read while they commute, and so they complain when he publishes big books - how are you supposed to read a heavy novel while standing in a subway?  He has tried to fix this in the past by using lighter paper to make the books thinner and less heavy, but then people complain that the pages blow all over when the fan is on in the summer.  "I cannot win!" he exclaimed as the audience roared with laughter.

Sometimes, he says, he is walking down the street, and a person will walk into him and say, "Mr. Murakami, I really enjoyed your last novel!"  "I will tell him, 'I am glad that you enjoyed my story, and thank you for telling me about that.  I hope that you will buy my new novel and enjoy it as well.'  Other times, someone will walk up to me in the street and say, 'Mr. Murakami, I was very disappointed in your last novel!  I hated it!'  I will apologize to that person, and say "'I am sorry that you did not like that story.  I have written a new novel.  Please, buy my new book, I hope you like it more.'  So, I say that to everyone, and now to you as well: 'Please, buy my new book.'"  He needn't have asked!

"Do you write with an outline?  And if not, how do your stories come together as well as they do?"

Nope, no outline.  He can't use one.  He comes up with an idea, sits down, and starts writing.  He never knows how his stories will end.  As for how it comes together - a lot of that happens in the revisions, but still, his books are basically done after the first draft, as far as the story goes.  Sometimes some more tampering takes place afterwards - for example, in the Wind Up Bird Chronicle (I think... it MIGHT have been Norwegian Wood), there were just too many stories crammed into one book.  He had to cut it down, so he removed part of the book, and used it in a separate collection.

In case you were curious: he writes using a Macintosh.

"Do you dream vividly?  If so, do ideas from your dream ever enter into your books?"

This had an easy answer: he doesn't dream.  He goes to bed before 10PM each night - "This is late for me," he said, pointedly looking at his watch - and wakes up before 5AM.  When he wakes up, his mind is blank.  It is fresh.  He never dreams, or if he does, he does not remember it.  He has spoken with a psychiatrist about this - the psychiatrist is a Jungian, and is very funny, and 9 out of 10 things that he says are jokes, and Murakami doesn't think the psychiatrist did a good job of diagnosing him - anyways, this psychiatrist suggests that, because Murakami's mind is so creative while he is awake, it fulfills his need to dream.  Most of us don't have that kind of outlet during our day, so dreams are a way for our brain to exercise the imaginative impulse; because he writes stories, he doesn't need to dream.

Following up on an earlier part of the discussion, one person asked whether Murakami thought that isolation and loneliness are still the dominant aspects of the Japanese psyche, or if he thought that has changed during his long career.  He strongly resisted the idea that these traits are uniquely Japanese - he knows them well in his own culture, because it is the one most familiar to him, but he does not believe that they are fundamentally different in the United States or other countries.  People are the same, he says, and the Japanese are not unusual in that way.

Wrapping up the night, Roland asked Murakami if he had found any records in Berkeley's shops. Apparently, he had visited here about 15 years before.  Since then, though, he lamented, most of the record shops had closed.  "Now there are only two left.  Amoeba and Rasputin."  (Long pause.)  "Those are very strange names."  (Long pause.)  "I think there is something wrong with this town."

Of course, that touched off a HUGE laugh and sustained applause, which just grew when stood to bow and leave.  About a quarter of the audience gave him a standing ovation.  I certainly understood the sentiment.  I think that's a part of why I enjoy going to events like this... authors can have such a huge and powerful impact on our lives, changing the way we think, giving us the gifts of new worlds, new thoughts, new experiences.  For those of us who are most touched by the book, we can feel strongly indebted, but there is no real way to repay our personal gratitude to the book's creator.  By encountering the author in the real world, we can make them know how important their work is to us, how greatly we appreciate their work.

I floated on a bubble out of the auditorium, and didn't at all mind the late hour.  My evening with Murakami had not felt like reading one of his books - there were no bizarre events, no fantastical visions of consumer icons - but it was a thoroughly satisfying chance to catch an intimate glimpse into the mind and the warm heart of a favored creator.  It was a rare moment of inspiration, one I will treasure for a long time.