Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gangster's "Paradise"

This is a coda to my earlier thoughts on Grand Theft Auto IV.


After doing a little reading online, I learned that there are just two endings to the game, and they depend on the final choice you make: whether to deal with Dmitri or kill him.  Fortunately, I had kept a separate save right before I offed him, so I loaded that up and beat the game again.

The first thing I learned was that I had been "right" in making the earlier decision which had caused me so much anguish.  My thinking at the time had been: Dmitri had already shown himself to be the worst kind of rat, and had betrayed me before, and betrayed people even closer to him than me.  I just couldn't permit him to continue to live; as long as he did, he would be a threat, a loose nuke.  Sure enough, he showed his hand almost immediately, reneging his end of the deal and hanging me (and Phil Bell) out to dry.

I finished the mission and collected a HUGE cash reward.  The plot then moves forward, but in a different key.  Kate is mad because of the deal, and so doesn't come to the wedding.  Roman's friends are more prominent - including Brucie, who I (fortunately) hadn't seen or spoken to in weeks.  After the wedding is over, there is once again bloodshed.  The more I think about it, the less satisfied I become with Pegorino's assassination attempt - he may be pathetic, but he still has SOME goons, and it doesn't seem right that he would have pulled the trigger himself.  The second assassination is more believable; Dmitri (that snake!  I KNEW he was no good!) sends a semi-anonymous assassin to murder you.  There is a struggle, shots, and then Roman lies dead.

There are several tragedies here.  First, from the way the scuffle with the assassin is shown, it's pretty clear that Niko is directly responsible for Roman's death - he's the one who pulls the arm and aims the gun at Roman.  Not a deliberate action, of course, but still - the blood is on Niko's hand in more ways than one.  Second, in the larger scheme, it's tragic and ironic that the wedding will kill the person whose advice you follow.  In other words, whoever you show the most love and respect to by obeying their wishes will be the one who pays the final price.

The final mission proves to be very similar to the version after Kate's death: same call from Little Jacob, same car chase, same gunfight into the abandoned casino.  The final portion varies a little, while retaining the same elements - in the first, Pegorino escapes in a speedboat while you chase in a motorcycle, before ending up in a helicopter; in the second, Dmitri flees in a helicopter while you chase him in a speedboat before ending up in another helicopter.  Regardless, after crashing on Happiness Isle, you must fight through some goons and finally kill your nemesis.  Both versions can be very frustrating, because dying in the final stage will make you replay everything after the car chase.  This has been a peeve of mine since GTA III, and I hope they fix it in the future - the franchise desperately needs a better checkpoint system.

The outlines are the same, but the emotional impact is different.  It might just be me, but I thought Niko seemed more wrathful and just after Roman's death, as opposed to sad and despairing after Kate's death.  Part of that may be who he gets to kill at the very end... Dmitri is an evil man who deserves whatever comes to him, while Pegorino is a pathetic washed-up wannabe crime boss.

The final credit sequence seems to be identical between the two.  It is gorgeous.  It's fully appropriate that this long and moving section - perhaps twenty minutes long?  it's pretty big - is a tribune to Liberty City.  You don't see any people at all, just the stunning world that you've been inhabiting for the previous several weeks.  As usual for these games, I'm as attracted to the wide-open and wholly-realized world as I am to anything that happens inside it.

I wish I could remember the exact words Niko mutters after the credit sequence, because I'm not sure whether or not it's the same regardless of which ending you got.  This time around, I'm pretty sure that he says something like, "So, this is it.  The American Dream.  This is what it feels like to win."  Wow!  What an incredibly cutting and despairing note to end the game on.  Of course, we're expected to take the word "win" in both senses.  Niko's victory is hollow - he has fulfilled his goal of revenge, but is left without the person he cares most about.  At the same time, the developers are also questioning our victory as the player.  We've been conditioned to expect nothing but happy endings in our games; if we invest the time, get good enough, and accomplish whatever goals they set out for us, then we are rewarded with a few moments of perfect good-feeling.  Given the awful things we've done within this game, that wouldn't be appropriate.  And really, how does one "win" a game like Grand Theft Auto after all?  The very franchise is defined by its wide-open nature, the fact that it never has to end.  We pick a spot and define it to be victory, but the world doesn't listen to us, and continues moving on.


And so ends my first adventure in the wonderful world of the Playstation 3!  It's been a pretty incredible journey, and I have to say well worth the investment.  Not totally sure where I go from here - I have a copy of the new Metal Gear lying around in its shrinkwrap, but I'm under enormous pressure to give Little Big Planet a whirl, and I still want to check out the Playstation Store games like Everyday Shooter and flOw.  Ah, fun times!

Ender's Sequel

Man... it feels like ages ago that I heard about Ender's Shadow.  It came out during my last year in high school, and I'm pretty sure that I was already getting positive reviews from friends back then.  So why haven't I picked it up before now?  I'm really not sure.  I loved Ender's Game - like many kids of my age and disposition, I was entranced by its fantastic-yet-realistic depiction of relationships in a school for space commanders.  Also like other kids, I was progressively disappointed by the sequels, tolerating "Speaker for the Dead" and hating "Xenocide."  The sales pitch for Ender's Shadow has always been "It's more like the good stuff in Ender's Game," but perhaps I just wasn't convinced.

More recently, I've been hearing about an apparently-great series of graphic novels based on Ender's Game, and chatter about an upcoming movie (another topic that's been around for well over a decade).  That has rekindled my interest in this book and setting, and I gratefully took the opportunity to dive back in to the world of Bean and Ender.

The result?  A really good book.  Now, it's been... I dunno, maybe about fifteen years since I last read "Ender's Game," so I can't really directly compare the two, but I did enjoy this offering.  It has a few minor warts, but is fun and moving enough to more than make up for any shortcoming.


I have always liked the idea of doing a novel from Bean's point of view.  Over the years, my memory of him has decayed, but I've remembered appreciating him as a minor character, one of the many promising and interesting kids who surround Ender.  I tend to be attracted to sidekicks in general - hence the nickname "Horatio" (it's a long story) - so just on principle I liked the idea of giving a sidekick his own book.

Card really goes out of his way, though, to make Bean the HERO of this book, both in his own mind and empirically.  Bean gets an origin story even more dramatic than Ender's, growing up as an orphan on ugly city streets, fighting for survival, and literally creating civilization out of chaos.  Along with this story, he creates a pretty amazing personality for the kid.  It's a little hard to put into words... he's a bit like someone who has reached the fifth or sixth stage of Kohlberg's theory of moral development while skipping stages three and four, if that makes any sense.  He is a hyper-aware observer, a brilliant mind (Card explicitly states that Bean is even smarter than Ender), and a keen analyst of social situations; yet he cannot connect with people on an individual, emotional level.  And so, despite his small size, he actually almost plays the roles that we would often assign to a villain.  He sneaks, he schemes, he he cheats, he plots, he lies, he manipulates.  Ultimately, his actions are designed to save humanity, so we can cheer for him, but there's an even stronger edge to him than there was for Ender. 

The overall arc of the plot will be familiar to anyone who has read Ender's Game.  Card states in the introduction that he intends these two books to be complementary and not dependent; someone should be able to move from Ender's Shadow to Ender's Game as well as vice-versa.  One big difference, though, is that Bean is much more observant than Ender, and so he consistently figures things out well before Ender does.  Because of this, I'd still recommend people to read EG before ES... in particular, the final revelation in EG is especially dramatic (I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach the first time I read it), while in ES it comes across more mundane since Bean figured it out long before.  Which is totally fine for people reading this after EG, since we ourselves already know (mostly) what's going on.

There are just a few ways in which you can see strain between the two books.  The most glaring for me is in the interactions between Ender and Bean.  These are the sections that Card cannot change - the dialog and action needs to stay the same.  And yet, the fact is that the Bean presented in this book is different from the Bean we thought we knew in the earlier book.  As a result, Card constantly comments when Bean is saying something sarcastically, or ironically, always wondering whether Ender will recognize that he isn't being serious; because, of course, when Card wrote the earlier book, Bean WAS being serious.

Ultimately, Card can't let Bean be the sidekick.  He needs to be Ender's equal, and so whenever Bean is placed in the role of being Ender's lieutenant, Card has to subvert their relationship.  Bean views this as a contest even if Ender doesn't.  Sometimes he loses - their early encounters clearly place him in a subservient role - but by the end, he is secretly Ender's better, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders to give Ender room to breathe. 

I guess I'm a little disappointed by this, but not too much.  I would have still loved this book if Bean had just been Bean.  By shaking things up, Card has deprived us of a book that's really about a sidekick, but given us a new and interesting hero instead.

Past plot and character, on to theme:

Another thing that really struck me about this book was the way Card shows Bean's mind working.  In particular, Bean is constantly analyzing situations, coming up with a theory that fits the situation, then analyzing the theory, modifying or discarding it as appropriate.  Bean questions EVERYTHING.  A teacher will give a long, two-paragraph speech about a topic, I'll find myself automatically assuming it's true, and then immediately Bean will think about how that speech is bogus, and give incontrovertible reasons why it can't be true.  Throughout the book Bean is a thorn in the system's side, tearing aside every veil of secrecy that they try to put up.

To me, what's especially interesting about this is that this book is aimed at young adult readers, presumably students who are still in school.  EG and ES both are excellent books in the way they reflect the reality that many of us face(d) in school - bullies, oblivious teachers, resentment towards high achievers, the importance of friendships, etc. - while also providing for escapism and fantastic wish fulfillment - outwitting the bully, becoming the smart kid who saves the day.  ES seems to pretty clearly imply that questioning authority is not just okay, it is virtuous.  This is a pretty subversive message to send out.  I, of course, approve.


Ender's Shadow was a rare treat, a chance to revisit a world that I had loved and lost.  It has also piqued my interest in checking out the other EG-related works that are out or coming soon.  Good to know that the well is not yet dry.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Agh!  Why don't people tell me these things!  The third season of The IT Crowd premieres tomorrow!  Or, since it's in the UK, maybe today!  I can't remember how time zones work, I'm so excited!


Update: Heh!  OK, I can't claim that this was their best episode ever.  Still, good to see they've still got it.  This is one of those things where I get the feeling they're satirizing things in the UK that just aren't perfectly translating over here.  It kind of reminds me of some classic Monty Python sketches, which can make me laugh while recognizing that I'm probably missing the joke.  Anyways, it'll be interesting to see where things go from here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Fun Wondrous Book of Junot Diaz

I don't chase awards. If a book has won some major recognition, it might make me a little more likely to pick it up, but public accolades are never my primary motivation in selecting reading material. If I like a book and it turns out to have won a Pulitzer or a Nobel, then I'm more likely to feel that the taste of those organizations has been validated, rather than feel like those organizations have affirmed my own choices.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a little unusual for me, in that it is a recently released book by an author I haven't read before which has won huge recognition. Most of my new authors come to me by personal recommendation, but in this case I was mainly impressed by the reviews I had read, and more importantly, hearing Diaz read the first chapter on KQED's The Writer's Block. Now, I think there's a huge gulf between speaking ability and writing ability - some of my favorite writers are cringe-worthy whenever they step up to a microphone - but his intelligence and humor convinced me that it would be worth checking this one out.

I'm glad that I did. I don't feel like I have a whole lot more to say about this book after the many praising reviews, but here goes:

The crowning achievement of this book may be the elevation of popular genre material to the status of literature. I used to have a saying about fantasy novels: "If you look at a book in the bookstore, and on the back are praises from other people comparing this author to Tolkien, that doesn't mean anything. If other people start comparing new authors to this one, THEN that means he's made it." Similarly, it doesn't really matter how often critics compare Tolkien to Milton, or Martin to Tolstoy. It's when people start appropriating those writers within "serious" literature that you know they have arrived.

Diaz uses the wonderfully broad palette of popular culture to shade in his world. It isn't just fantasy fiction that he quotes; I was going to write, "... but it is the most effective and moving," but it probably isn't a coincidence that this is the genre I'm most familiar with. If I was steeped in the lore of comic books, I might say the same thing about those references.

So, what exactly does he do with this genre material? What you would expect from any good author: allusions, metaphors, wordplay, reference, atmosphere. None of this would matter if Diaz wasn't a great writer, and he soars. Early on he lilts "He was our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator"; each of Trujillo's henchmen are assigned the role of a Ringwraith, with the most menacing being given the crown of the Witch-King of Angmar, and those references tell us more about these men, their acts, and their relationship with Trujillo than paragraphs of exposition could provide. At the same time, they confer a mystical and spiritual dimension to the awful tale Diaz is telling. This isn't a cold-blooded political thriller, but a weird and confused tangle of human emotion and supernatural curses.

I think Diaz's revolutionary realization is that the better-known genre pieces can be today's modern equivalent of Greek mythology or biblical stories. When Joyce needed to add a layer of timelessness and a sense of heroic purpose to his books, he could turn to Homer and the Greeks. This is tremendously effective if you are steeped in the legends of Daedalus and Icarus, Odysseus and Penelope. However, our culture no longer reads these stories outside of mandatory education, and so to many people these sources are dry and uninspiring. Why not tap into the exciting stories that are as well-known and well-loved in our own day as the Greeks were generations ago?

Is this "Revenge of the Nerds"? Perhaps. I'll cheerfully grant that most genre fiction is dreck, but I'm tired of needing to argue the merits of the best. Cultural relevancy and literary merit are not mutually exclusive, and by taking the best-known elements of popular fantasy and transplanting them to another setting, Diaz has revealed their greatest qualities. I'm not sure how many people will follow in his footsteps, but I'm tempted to say that this is enough.


Now, I knew before cracking open the book that it would use genre material. What surprised me was how little of the book this included. The opening chapters, which are focused on Oscar, are the most dramatic examples. Oscar, though, is just one of four primary characters in this story, and the other three characters don't claim nearly the same level of reference that he does. This disappointed me a little, because I enjoyed Oscar's world and his voice so much that I would have been more than content with an entire book devoted to him.

Diaz is after something bigger, though. Ultimately, as fun and flashy as the genre references are, they are tools that he uses, not the goal. He is also interested in the immigrant experience, in the relationship between civilization and cruelty, in how families are grown, how they influence other generations, how they conceal their secrets and hide their origins. All of this stuff is utterly fascinating, and once I got over my regret at the diminishment of talk about Mordor, I was once again entranced.

There are some very spooky yet poetic images that Diaz reveals as he marches back in time on the Dominican Republic. He brings up primal spirits that may or may not exist, ones I can tentatively label "good" and "evil": the mongoose and the faceless man, respectively. Both are all the more powerful for how little presence they are given; when the faceless man (possibly) makes an appearance towards the end, I had to suppress a shiver. In a way, these symbols are sort of like pressure valves. The horrors of the real world are just too great: Trujillo's ravenous appetite, the cop's casual brutality, the Gangster's poison. The evils they perform seem beyond any human capability. So, Diaz adds the spiritual dimension of the cane fields, and provides the sort of explanation that desperate minds could grasp at in order to explain why the world destroys as it does. Now, are these things "real"? I don't think we or Diaz can answer this. What's important, though, is that people believe in them. The fuku may or may not exist, but when these things happen, people are forced to believe in it. That belief guides their actions, changes the way they raise their children, and so changes the world.


It's pretty hard to believe that this is just Diaz's first novel; it reads like the work of an accomplished master. I kind of doubt that the second novel will feel much like the first. Diaz will be under a lot of pressure to step away from the familiar settings of his freshman book: the genre literature, the Dominican culture, all things that presumably are "easy" for him. To secure his literary reputation, he'll need to branch out and do something different. I'm fine with that. This book is a gift, one worth treasuring.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Actually, Being A Gangster Doesn't Feel That Good

It took me over three months, and a long detour through classic Sierra gaming, but I have finally triumphed over the latest installment of the Grand Theft Auto series. Hooray!

Looking back over the experience, here are a few thoughts.
  • The new graphics are AMAZING, and the engine has been vastly improved.
  • They must look even better on an HDTV.
  • The level of detail within this game is truly astounding. I enjoyed occasionally just strolling around the boroughs at all times of the day and night. The variety of people and buildings and situations that you run into are simply astounding, all the more so because it's all so incidental. This is a game where thousands of hours went into creating content that most people will never notice - but, wherever you stop and look, you will be rewarded by the rich detail. It's a little like if you looked at "Sunday in the Park", and realized that every "dot" was actually a miniature Rembrandt portrait.
  • The story is really cool and compelling. I can see why reviewers from both the gaming and mainstream press went gaga over it, because it directly questions and subverts the very basis of the GTA series.
  • That said, I have a heretical conclusion: as awesome as GTA IV was, I liked San Andreas better. I'm content to chalk this up to the fact that I love California more than New York. Also, San Andreas just felt... looser. More wide-open in terrain, even more sprawling in plot, less serious and self-conscious while still telling a meaningful story.

Another difference from San Andreas, and even Vice City, is the use of "talent" in the game. The publicity campaign was tight-lipped up until the release about who would be appearing in the game, and while they scored some major coups on the music front (REM? Holy cow!), virtually the entire cast is unknown. This is a big change from San Andreas, which famously featured Samuel L Jackson, David Cross, Chris Penn, George Clinton, and other big names. Here, pretty much the only famous people you will recognize are Ricky Gervais and (possibly) Kat Williams, and they aren't acting at all - they appear as themselves, playing comedy clubs within the game. And Iggy Pop is a DJ.

Still not sure how I feel about that. Under ordinary circumstances, I might have applauded the shift to focus on unknown actors; it's less distracting, and more completely immerses you. Complicating that situation is the fact that San Andreas had some of my favorite actors, and that they did a darn fine job within that game.

All of this is just side-show, though. The important question is, what about the plot? Honestly, I'm still reeling a little bit after the brutal conclusion, but I want to capture my thoughts before they fade too far.

In structure, this game is like every other game to date in the series. You start as a recent arrival to the city, a nobody with no money, no weapons, no connection. Over the course of the game you network with a variety of increasingly powerful criminal circles, building up a small personal fortune and enough armaments to conquer Belgium. Some of the crooks become strong friends, while others betray you, and the game ends with you taking revenge against the most hated of your foes.

That said, each protagonist has had a distinct personality. The silent guy in GTA III was a blank screen for you to project yourself on, but given the final scene of the game, he seems to be a calm, cool, single-minded and focused man who doesn't care about anything but revenge. Tommy in Vice City was borderline psychotic, a passionate and emotional man who had great ambitions for himself and felt wounded when people turned against him. CJ in San Andreas is my favorite of the bunch, a man from a tight-knit and impoverished community who deals with a world where the deck is always stacked against him, seeking out the best things in life and trying to build a better future.

Niko is an entirely new creation. He's a broken man. He's been broken twice before, once in a civil war, then again in his earlier criminal career. He is a good human being at heart, but has built up scars and barriers in his lifetime of being smacked around. He is driven by a desire for revenge, but also by a desire to help his family, and (less importantly) to fix his sad and broken life.

Tommy enjoyed climbing the ladder for its own sake - he reveled in the power and money it brought. Silent protagonist endured the ladder because it brought him closer to his ultimate goal of revenge. CJ was forced up the ladder by men with guns, but once he got to the top he was determined to stay there for the sake of his homies. Why does Niko climb the ladder? Well - frankly, that's up to you.

For the first time in the series, you can make meaningful decisions that affect the arc of the game's plot. After maybe five hours or so of getting to know the character and learning his backstory, you start facing serious moral quandies. Unfortunately, the mechanics of these are pretty rote - it always comes down to deciding whether to kill or spare a particular target, or which of two people to kill. Still, these choices have profound consequences, both on the future shape of the game, and also what you think of Niko as a character - and yourself as a person.


That's what I've been thinking about in bed at night. I started off as being a compassionate guy. I let an early victim walk after he promised to leave the country. This was an easy decision to make - he was a criminal, but not a murderer, and I didn't much like the people who were asking me to whack him. Later, while helping Dwayne with his old love life, I didn't even consider offing his girlfriend. She was helpless, and even though she had messed with Dwayne, she didn't deserve that punishment. Things got tougher when, helping the police, I cornered a gang leader and drug dealer on the ceiling of a tenement apartment building. I had the option to spare him, and after some hesitation, I went ahead with the execution. This was clearly a bad guy, who had murdered people and destroyed a neighborhood; more damning, he didn't show remorse for his actions. And, given that by that point in the game I had killed hundreds of lower-level criminals, it didn't feel right to just let him go. (Unlike in Deus Ex or Thief, there is simply no way you can beat a mission in Grand Theft Auto without killing someone, let alone the whole game.) Still later it got personal: in a dramatic scene, you finally come face to face with the man you have been pursuing through the whole game, the man who killed all your friends and ruined your life back home - a man who, you now learn, did it for a few lousy bucks. He shows no regret for his actions, and at the same time, he is utterly pathetic and helpless. In the previous GTA games, the objects of your revenge have been wealthy and powerful, which makes it easier to take them down - it feels sporting. This felt low. I ended up shooting him, kind of hating myself while doing it.... I rationalized it by saying that the story demanded it, that Niko needed closure.

The final, tumultuous choice you get comes when you must choose between helping Jimmy Peregrino, an immoral Mafia wannabee who can make you rich, or betraying him and killing Dmitri, your main adversary through most of the game. Tough decision. Within the game you talk with the two people you are closest to, your cousin Roman and girlfriend Kate, about this situation. Roman urges you to help Peregrino because it's good business and will make you both wealthy. Kate says that she won't respect you if you continue in the criminal life, and need to make a clean break. I like Kate more than I like Roman, so I took her advice and offed Dmitri. This sets in course a chain of events that leads to the final, devastating end of the game.

The game ends like all the others - you triumphant and your opponents defeated - but never before has it felt so hollow and mean. And it's supposed to. Niko murmurs to himself as the credits finish rolling, "So, this is it? The American Dream..." After the game ends, you are on Firefly Island, a sort of purgatory: no cars, no planes, no easy way on or off the island, just a place for you to wander for a while and think about the sins you have created.

Now, I am going to restore some old saved games and see what happens if I take the Peregrino job or save the Balkan. But I can't change the fact that I made those choices in the first place, and am left wondering what that says about me as a gamer and as a person.

Generally speaking, whenever a game gives me a choice of roles to play, I always opt for the good path. My Baldur's Gate character was Neutral Good. In Civilization, I almost always run a minimal military, avoid war and pursue a technological victory. However, when a game doesn't make those choices available to me, I can actually enjoy playing as an antihero or even as a villain. God of War made me feel a little queasy, but I still played through the whole game. I enjoyed acting psychotic in Sam & Max. And, to the extent that games give you opportunities to finely choose your action, I enjoy placing myself in a particular spot. In Quest for Glory, I love playing at the Thief class because it's the most fun, but I also go out of my way to give money to beggers, help people, and generally get as high an Honor as I can. The earlier Grand Theft Auto games require you to kill a lot of people to win, but I take some weird pride in having never done the "killing prostitutes" thing that gets so much press. (Within that game, I like my violence to be purposeful, not mindless.)

So: am I a good person because I generally opt to play good characters? Or am I a bad person because I'm willing to do bad things inside games? Of course the answer isn't simply - games aren't real life - but it isn't random that I tend to act one way when playing games and other people act another way, and I'm not sure how to read that difference.

Back to GTA IV. Its crowning moral achievement may be causing me to feel regret at my actions. Most often these things end with a rah-rah sense of "He had it coming to him!" or "I'm king of the world!" GTA IV lingers over the consequences, the results of your choices that you cannot change. It hints at the complexity and messiness that we all need to deal with in real life.


GTA IV is an awesome game and a stunning achievement, succeeding on technical grounds, the vast scope of the game, and the shockingly moving story. I am probably in the minority in saying that I thought San Andreas was more fun, but there you go. All in all, I'd have to say that my first outing with the PS3 was a great time, and I look forward to more to come.

UPDATE: Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: the credits for voice acting in the game also list a "Will Wheaton". I wonder if they meant Wil Wheaton - if so, that's super cool, and I'm shocked that I haven't heard about it. It's probably someone else, though.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Paranoia Paranoia Everybody's Coming to Get Me

I enjoy Satashi Kon.

I enjoy animated series.

I enjoy weird works of fiction.

So, an extremely strange animated series by Satoshi Kon must be the best thing I've ever watched, right?

I would have thought so, but oddly enough... no.  And I'm still not sure why.

On paper, Paranoia Agent seems tailor-made to appeal to Christopher King.  It is deliberately fantastic and bizarre, nonlinear, nonsensical, a mesh of hallucination that finely layers over events in the real world.  When I watched the first episode, I thought, "This could be amazing!"

By the second episode I thought, "This is pretty cool!"

Third episode: "Um, yeah... that's interesting..."

Fourth episode: "I think I'm seeing a pattern here."

Fifth episode: "Is anything ever going to happen?"

And on and on.  It's been a while since I've had a drop-off in enjoyment this severe.  The really puzzling thing is trying to figure out where it goes wrong.  I think that, ultimately, there just isn't enough plot in here to fill six and a half hours.  Which does sort of make sense, given the source.  I mean, I love Perfect Blue, right?  So what would happen if, instead of Perfect Blue being 80 minutes long, it was 390 minutes long?  If we were lucky, Kon would have added some compelling sub- and side-plots, further explored certain stages of that movie's madness, and maybe brought other themes into play.  If we were not lucky, he would have taken compelling parts of the movie and repeated them in different settings.  ("Now we see Mima... in a rape scene.  Now we see Mima... ordering an execution.  Now we see Mima... in an abuse scene.")  He would have filled up the time and created new images, without ever adding to the excellent stuff that was there.

Well, I kind of feel like that's what happened in Paranoia Agent.  This could have been an amazing movie.  Take the first episode, the ninth, twelfth, and thirteenth; cut out some characters, add some transition, and you have something that would rival Paprika.  Instead, the repetition falls flat.

The thing is, I like strangeness, but I want my strangeness to be varied, y'know?  If the same bizarre thing keeps happening, it's no longer bizarre.  What I loved most about Kon's movies is that I never expected what would happen next.  Here, it's all too common.

At least in the beginning.  I almost wish I could write this series off as a failure, just because of how much it ended up annoying me, but in episode 8 there is an abrupt twist in the narrative.  It is shocking, for the first time since the first episode, and it redeems the series.  He ditches the characters we have been shackled to up until now and just... kind of riffs.  Eventually, the most interesting characters drift back into the story, while the annoying minor ones stay lost. 

From here on out, the second half of the series oscillates between fine and excellent.  As with some of my favorite series, they start to play with the art as much as the story, and it is weird and refreshing to see ukiyoe come to life on screen.  Kon has broken out of the formula, and can do whole episodes without once cutting to the main protagonists.  Still, they aren't superfluous or anything... instead, each episode is a different perspective on the same phenomenon, showing how it is affecting all of Japanese society.  There is a great cumulative effect as they join together into a weird chorus of madness.


My favorite character was Radar Man.  What a great invention!  I can imagine someone creating a whole show around this idea: a man who is both the insider and the outsider, constantly plugged into all human communication as an observer rather than a consumer, sifting through all knowledge in the hopes of gleaning a few pieces of truth.

The music was both super catchy AND super annoying.  The opening theme song constantly runs through my head all day long.  I would hate it, except for the amazing imagery.  It seems like the standard Japanese anime "We will show you all the characters in this show" trope, but the contrast between their cheerfully laughing visages and the scenes of annihilation playing out behind them can send chills down my spine.  The ending theme sort of keeps this up... it's a weird happy-creepy hybrid.

What do I think of Shonen Bat himself?  I'm sort of torn, specifically what to make of the false lead when they bring in a suspect.  There are some interesting metaphysical possibilities suggested in the first five or so episodes: Shonen Bat is in all of us; Shonen Bat is a primal force; Shonen Bat can move from person to person.  All of those are kind of obviated once Tsukiko's secret is revealed.


I hesitate to suggest what this series is "about", but here's a stab.  On a meta level, it's about the power of imagination.  Not in a happy Disney "making a better world" sense.  It's about how one person's imagination can direct the thought of an entire nation.  In a media-centric consumerist society like ours and Japan's, there are a few messages that get broadcast out and work their way into peoples' lives; from their lives into their minds; from their minds into their morality and actions.  Create a Mellow Maromi, and you can infantilize a country.  Create a Dexter, and you will empower that dark voice inside us. 

Ultimately, I think Shonen Bat represents that dark side of creation.  We can all have dark fantasies, but Tsukiko's don't stay inside her head.  They make it out into the culture, where they hurt people.

It's an interesting message, and off the top of my head I can't think of another work which offers a similar warning.  Which kind of makes sense, since all works of media we consume are created by artists, and it's natural for artists to loudly claim the virtuous mantle of mind-shapers while quietly ignoring the responsibility they have in shaping our discourse.  It's a rare message, and one that I think may become all the more urgent as we continue to define our lives by the media we consume.


So, where does this leave us?  If you enjoyed "Serial Experiments Lain" you'll likely enjoy this, but I caution you: speaking personally, I find this to be a far lesser work to Lain.  If you're up for having your mind challenged and bent, give this a try, and if you find yourself hating the show after a few episodes, try sticking around until episodes 8 or 9.  Or even skip ahead to those.  If you like them, then you'll probably enjoy the rest of the series; if not, cut your losses while you can.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Fifth Elephant

More Discworld!  I just can't get enough!

Quickie reactions:

I really, really, really love the Guards books.  This wasn't the best, but even so, it was one of the better Discworld entries.  The characters we've grown to love just become more and more interesting as time goes on, and the new characters Pratchett offers up just make this motley crew even crazier and more entertaining.

I do love the Vimes fish-out-of-water motif that Pratchett has been using lately.  He is so perfectly unsuited for any task other than police work, but his steely determination and tenacity drive him to succeed no matter what the job. 

Wouldn't it be interesting to have a Vetinari novel some day?  He's one of my favorite characters, but he occupies such a formulaic role in every novel.  At the beginning, he summons a relatively powerless person before him.  (Which could be Rincewind, Vimes, the Archchancellor, Moist, or really anyone - next to Vetinari, everyone is relatively powerless.  He asks them to perform a task.  They protest that they cannot do it.  He quietly but convincingly reminds them that he is a dictator and can do awful things to them if they refuse.  They spend the rest of the book trying to do it.  At the end of the book, Vetinari appears again and praises their work while leaving a sense of menace behind.  Now, what would it look like if Vetinari was on nearly every page?  I have a hard time imagining it.  It would be a little like a Bond movie from the perspective of the villain, I guess.


Every Pratchett book is about one thing in the Discworld, and also about something in our own.  What is this book about?  Maybe I'm still keyed up from the election last week, but my immediate reaction is that it's about "change."  When Vimes considers the Clacks towers on his trip down to Uberwald, he is considering the inexorable march of technological change, and how it impacts everything from police work to commerce to diplomacy.  This concern is mirrored by the social changes that dwarfs must deal with, from Cheery's gender-bending (or, more to the point, gender-non-bending) attitude to the role of faith and the importance of living underground.  Now, this seems like a fairly conventional sort of message - the universe isn't static, change comes, you can either accept it or fight it - but it gains more urgency and meaning in Pratchett's satiric eye.

Let's get our symbols straight, okay?  Ankh-Morpork is clearly London.  It's the city of London, but when you shift to the international stage, it stands in for the modern industrialized Western world.  And everyone else is, frankly, everyone else.  (In Jingo and other books, you can clearly draw relationships between certain nations and those of the Middle East or Far East, but when you're dealing with Dwarfs and Trolls, they are really just generalized "foreigners".)  Now, with that in mind, it becomes especially poignant when the Low King points out that, whenever people talk about the need to embrace change, they're really talking about becoming more like Ankh-Morpork.  Nobody is seriously suggesting that A-M start living underground like the dwarfs, or start acting like the trolls; A-M is held up as this kind of ideal, that other races should embrace in order to improve themselves.  The relationship with our own world and the lingering influence of colonialism should be clear.

And, that said, Vimes' reaction is even more gutsy: basically, saying "So what?"  Ankh-Morpork is, in a cold-hearted calculation, BETTER than the rest.  Dwarfs keep coming to Ankh-Morpork; they claim to miss home, but always find an excuse to stay.  It's a harsh message from a straight messenger: Vimes believes that, if the dwarfs want to hold on to their best and brightest, they simply must become more like A-M.  This isn't a sentiment that one hears clearly stated in the world today, but it underlies most of the relations between the first and the third world.


I don't read Terry Pratchett for a gripping intellectual challenge, but I always walk away with more than I expected.  The Fifth Elephant is mainly a really entertaining story, but it's also an intriguing look as the way people and nations look at one another and change their perceptions.  It's a welcome addition to the canon.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

So This Is How the World Ends

(Cue battle victory music.)

Here we are!  Less than twenty years after the series started, I have finally beaten the Quest for Glory saga!  "Dragon Fire" has long been the most mysterious and unknown quantity in the series.  Expectations were high from me, but so were fears... I had a lot invested in this tale, and badly wanted everyone involved to wrap things up in a satisfying manner.

QFGV almost wasn't.  The first four games built up a devoted and relatively large following, but the series was always kind of an oddball within the Sierra franchise, which had traditionally eschewed RPGs and, by the mid-90s, had determined that traditional adventure games were on their way out.  The Coles had originally envisioned the series as a four-game entry, but "Wages of War" was not included in that calculation... ever since the first entry, they had carefully included references to beautiful Silmaria by the the sea, so it was only fitting that they try and end the series there.  After attempted cancellation and years in the wilderness, the combined efforts of fans writing thousands of letters to the Sierra executives' offices caused them to relent, and at last Dragon Fire was funded, created, and released.

So how did they do?  I'd have to give this entry a qualified "good."  In some respects, it's the best game of the series.  In other respects, one of the worst.  It has a slightly schizophrenic quality that will be especially pronounced to long-term fans: it often doesn't feel like a Quest for Glory game at all, but at the same time, it is fully a part of that universe and contains flashes of intense QFGoodness.

By the time this game came out, the adventure game genre had been officially declared dead, and so it should come as little surprise that the gameplay had some drastic changes.  Most importantly, for the first time it was not using the SCI/AGI engine.  Now, you can line up Hero's Quest and Shadows of Darkness side by side, and declare that they look and feel utterly different, but still, there is a steady continuity between those two, as their underlying platforms gradually evolved from the same codebase.  Similarities in tone and sensibility were thanks to the continued involvement of Lori and Corey, but similarities in feel and strategy were thanks to the classic Sierra engine.

So, right off the bat, the interface announces you're in a different world now.  You start the game floating in a cheerfully three-dimensional space.  Sprites are gone forever.  The icon system of III and IV are now as obsolete as the typing system of I and II; you now use a single cursor to interact with the world.  It is a bit clunky, though I think I like it more than the multiple-icon interface... modern games would be even more streamlined, while this still has some awkward touches.  For example, you right-click to toggle between the "use" and the "view" mode, then left-click to use or look at an item; a better system, which was freakin' used in QFG2 for crying out loud, was to left-click to use or walk, and right-click to look at an object.

The new engine also allows far better graphics than have ever been seen in a previous QFG, though at the same time, it looks pretty awful compared to contemporary games, and hasn't aged as well as the classic sprite-based games.  Still, the particle effects in particular look nice, and I can imagine how amazingly revolutionary they would have seemed when this game first came out.

One particularly odd change is conversation.  In a way, it's like a throwback to III's portraits after IV's full-screen dialog.  But, again, we're looking at models now instead of sprites.  This can feel particularly jarring when you are speaking with characters from previous entries in the game; they have the same name as before, and talk about the same thing, but don't look anything like the people we knew.  As with all the QFG menu-based conversations, I wasn't too happy with how dialog works gameplay-wise... it's always in your interest to select every possible conversation topic and exhaust every chat, which means that talking with people becomes just another rote click-through exercise instead of a thoughtful part of gameplay.  At least the voice-overs are better than in Shadows.  They aren't great, but do a fine job.  Weirdly, there were one or two moments that abruptly caught my attention from the little exposure I'd had when my college roommate was playing through this game: In particular, the part where some(one/thing) says "Don't I.... get a yummy bribe?" 

The other strong feeling of earned deja vu came from the music in the game, which I felt like I knew intimately.  I suppose that this might have also come from eavesdropping on the game, but the memory feels way too intense for that.  Perhaps I picked up the game's soundtrack at some point and listened to it ad nauseam?  I don't think it's in my collection, but that does seem like the sort of thing I easily might have done... I've always been the kind of gamer who would purchase a game's ancillary materials if I wanted to play the game but didn't have the computing power to run it.

Anyways: the music!  I think that this was the first game without Mark Seibert getting a credit, but the music was wonderful.  The tunes are catchy and evocative without ever becoming annoying; they set you in a time and place, whispering at the possibilities of exploration.  My favorite was probably the theme for Silmaria at night.  I thought that the way they worked in the classic QFG theme was wonderful, especially the flute arrangement you can hear near the fountain.

The most obvious change to the game might be its shift in combat.  Every previous game has done combat as a one-on-one battle, with you facing off against an opponent in a match determined by tactics and reaction time.  In Dragon Fire, all combat takes place on the main game screen, and it is a completely different and fully infuriating (at least for me) system.  Basically, think of an incredibly crummy interpretation of Diablo's combat.  There might be twenty enemies on the screen, but only two of them at a time will be doing anything.  I usually ended up fighting by clicking on them a whole lot.  You can theoretically fight using the keyboard, which I would have preferred, but you need to be EXACTLY within range and facing in EXACTLY the correct direction in order to make your blows land, which I could never get right.  Honestly, combat has never been the high point of any QFG, but it felt especially mindless and annoying in this iteration, and is probably foremost on my list of reasons why this doesn't feel like a "real" Quest for Glory game.

Very broadly speaking, the story is enjoyable, with a few specific complaints that I'll address in the spoiler section below.  By now I've come to recognize the hallmarks of a typical QFG plot.  The final villain is always unknown at the start of the game; the hero must gradually earn the trust and respect of whatever peaceful civilized community he has entered; from the second game onward, the villain always wants to unleash some ancient terrible evil upon the world.  So it isn't exactly groundbreaking, but it's fairly well done and entertaining.

In case anyone wants to play the game, I figured I'd share some of the details and pain of getting it to work.

The game actually plays pretty well in Windows using Compatibility Mode; I selected Windows 98.  The problem, though, is that the CD installer does NOT work well in 64 bit Vista.  So, you have a couple of options here.  One is to install on another OS and just copy the files over.  The other is to use Microsoft Virtual PC, install Windows 98 on it, and then map a network drive to your game folder on Vista.  Install your game there.  You may be tempted to play the game within Virtual PC as well.  If that works for you, by all means go for it, but whenever I tried that the game was pretty choppy, with particularly stuttered audio.

Before you start playing the game, be SURE to install the version 1.2 patch.  This game was very buggy on release, and the patch fixes the most severe gameplay bugs.   Again, the patch installer doesn't work on Windows Vista 64 bit, so try one of the above alternatives to fix it.

At first glance, it seems impossible to import your QFGIV character.  The README reveals that in order for this to work, you must manually copy your exported character file into the QFGV directory.   Yes, that's right: the technology for importing is worse in QFGV than it was in QFGII.  Welcome to the brave new world!

Now, the most critical point of all.  About 95% of the way through the game, you'll run across a situation that, on modern hardware and a modern OS, will freeze the game.  You'll see the window and your character's status bars, and can move around the cursor, but the hourglass will show and nothing will ever happen.  I spent half of a Sunday trying to figure this out.  At least in my situation, it was due to the software configuration of my computer.  QFGV shipped with Quicktime 3; we are now on something like Quicktime 7 in the real world.  At this point 95% of the way through the game, it tries to play a Quicktime movie for an in-game cut scene.  Something goes wrong, and everything breaks.  After a lot of trial and error, I found a work-around.  You need to use Microsoft Virtual PC as described above if you haven't previously installed it.  Try installing using the "Typical" instead of the "Full" option (I'm not sure if this is necessary, but is one of the things I had changed.)  Install Quicktime 3 off the disc.  Now, make sure that the QFGV Play disc is recognized by Windows 98 as being in the main CD drive.  In my case, I had been using a virtual CD drive, and I couldn't find a way to make Virtual PC treat it correctly, so I had to switch to a physical CD that I inserted.

Once all those things are in place, I'd recommend playing the game in Vista (or XP or whatever) right until the point shortly before the game freezes.  Save your game.  Put in the CD.  Boot Microsoft Virtual PC for Windows 98.  Load that game.  Watch the cutscene.  Save your game.  Switch back to Vista/XP.  Keep playing, but be aware that you'll need to switch back to 98 again in about 10 minutes or so, so be ready to do the same thing again.  On a related note, at least on my computer, the game would crash on Vista if I had the CD in my drive, so I had to eject it before starting on Vista.

One quick way to check and see if you'll need to worry about this situation is to try and play the Introduction video.  If you see this video when you launch the game or when clicking on "Introduction" from the main menu, then you should be in good shape and won't need to worry.  If not, then I'd suggest taking whatever steps necessary now to set things up right; otherwise, you run the risk of investing a dozen or more hours into this game and then finding that, on the brink of victory, you cannot beat it.

Oh, and a side note: even though you should see if the Introduction video plays, you might not want to actually watch it before starting the game.  It actually gives away a lot of plot; it's more of a preview than a true introduction.  It's worth watching towards the end, but if you want to be surprised, give it a pass early on.

While we're on the topic of bugs: despite the gameplay fixes in Patch 1.2, the game still will sometimes crash on you.  Fortunately this is rare; unfortunately, it is extremely common in the endgame, which uses a lot of sound and particle effects not found elsewhere in the game.  As is true with all Sierra games, save early and save often.  In the final battle, I accumulated something like twenty separate save files as I wore down my opponent's health.

Also, be aware that save games sometimes become corrupt - in my experience, roughly one in twenty saves or so.  You won't notice this has happened until you try to load the game, at which point it crashes.  To minimize the pain, save in a variety of slots, and don't go too long between saves.

And, on a related note, even though the worst gameplay bugs have been patched, it is still relatively easy to get into a situation where you can't do what you want.  Usually this just means missing part of a conversation or some extra points, but sometimes can have more serious consequences, depending on your goals for the game.  Again, save early and regularly.  If worst comes to worst, you may need to go back several hours, but it will be better than starting again from scratch.

Oh, and one more thing: for a thief, there is an object that you may acquire sometime during the game.  You will expect to receive a reward for this object.  In order to get that reward at the end of the game, it must be in your backpack.  It isn't enough to have gotten it, to let people know that you have it, to have it in your storage chest.  Even though it's heavy, keep carrying it around, or you'll be like me and need to play through the last, incredibly buggy hour of the game TWICE.

If this sounds like a lot of work for a "fun" game - well, yeah, it is.  Sadly, this is the reality of playing games from the late 90's on today's computers.  Is it worth it?  I thought so, but then again, I'm a die-hard fan.  If you're already determined to play this game, take the above as instructions on how to avoid much of the pain; if you're wondering whether this Quest for Glory thing would be fun, I have to say that there are more productive places to put your time.


I played as a thief again.  I'm not sure, but I think this might be the best thief game in the series.  It's certainly the best since QFG2... after the shocking absence of anything fun to do in Wages of War, and the paltry single robbery available in Shadows of Darkness, you have a thrilling variety of targets to take on in this game.  The designers took steps to enhance the role of the thief as well, bringing you two new tools: the pickpocket knife (used to pick the pockets of townsfolk) and the blackjack (a VERY satisfying weapon that you use to thunk people over the head, after sneaking up to them from behind).

My thief-related complaints are few.  I think that stealth is too undervalued in this game.  In their defense, it is pretty realistic - the programming obviously pays a lot of attention to line of sight, and to the level of light, so it is much easier to sneak successfully at night than during the day.  Still, with a Stealth of 600, I found it impossible to ever sneak around opponents in daylight.  I would think that such a master thief would be able to conceal himself and get around.  More importantly, it would have made portions of the game a lot more fun for me.  I did NOT become a thief so I could click five hundred times on my enemies to kill them all; I became a thief so I could do as little fighting as possible and still get around.

Disarming traps wasn't that great, although at least it was challenging, unlike in Shadows.  For the harder ones, I ended up keeping a notebook and pen by the computer, and quickly sketching out the figures as they were revealed so I could recall them.  Once you get the hang of it, it's fairly easy.

A lingering complaint for the series: its selection of skills feels half-baked.  I was infuriated when I learned that they dropped Communication for this game.  I exercised this skill constantly from its introduction in II all the way through its uselessness in IV.  And then, poof!  It's gone!  Adding insult to injury: the main use of Communication back when it did anything in II and III was to allow you to drive harder bargains with merchants.  Of course, this seems like something a thief might be good at, right?  The quick-talking swindler, the flashy confidence man?  The insult is that this role, of lowering bartered prices, has been shifted onto HONOR.  Freaking honor!  That really makes me mad... you don't get lower prices by being an honorable person, you get them by being DIShonorable.  And, guess what character class is guaranteed the lowest Honor of all?  That's right: the thief!  So that ticked me off.  The rest of my complaints are more pedestrian: as with all of these games, some skills are useless.  Here it's Climbing and Acrobatics.  I think my Acrobatics went up all of like 2 points throughout the game.  You can practice your Climbing a little more, but the important thing is just using your rope, and it doesn't seem like you can ever fail to climb.  I was a bit surprised at lock picking, too... you don't have a ton of places to practice it (as per usual, having only a handful of targets), and there's a part near the end of the game where I actually failed to pick a lock, for the first time in forever.  That was fine - I just tried a few more times and got in - but still, it was a bit weird.

The puzzles in this game were OK.  I found myself turning to gamefaqs more often than before; I'm not totally sure if this is because they were too hard/obtuse, or if I was just impatient to wrap things up.  Some of the puzzles are quite clever; I'm thinking now of a particular door you have to open, and as a thief you must use three items to do it, the first two being relatively obvious, the third extremely non-obvious, but really clever once you realize what it's doing.  Other times, it's a puzzle that makes sense in the end, but would be very hard to predict ahead of time.  Like, for example, there's a part in the game where a lever snaps off in your hand when you try to pull it.  I restored a game, figuring I had messed something up.  Nope: the lever is SUPPOSED to break, and then you replace it with a spear, and then use the spear as a lever.  I suppose this sort of makes sense, but isn't intuitive within the game.

There is a return of science from QFGIV, which I enjoyed.  There are actually two scientists within the game - one you can meet by day, and the other by night.  This is a thread which entered the series late, but still provides me a lot of pleasure.

The game creators were obviously extremely cognizant of their fans, and throughout the game you get to meet people from all of the previous installments.  Rakeesh has now been in almost as many games as you have.  Erasmus and Fenris are here and back to their old selves (though, of course, they don't LOOK anything like they did in the first game).  Just as cool is the way they finally show a lot of what they've been talking about in previous games.  Every game before now shipped with a game manual presented as a "Famous Adventurer's Correspondence School" guide.  Well, in this game, you get to meet the Famous Adventurer himself.  Also, every game since the first has talked about dragons, and the original Hero's Quest/QFG even had a dragon on the box cover; it's always been a bit of a tease, but now you get to see a dragon for real.  These touches feel well executed, at least to me, a final "thank you" from the game's creators to its fans.

One new innovation that I LOVED was the romance aspect.  Your hero has been kind of James Bond-ish up until now, meeting and kissing attractive women throughout several games, but finally you get to choose, pursue, woo and marry the woman of your dreams.  Now, I don't want to get expectations too high.  This isn't as cool or well-done as the romance system in Baldur's Gate 2.  And you are limited in your choice - there are just four possible brides for you out there, some of whom you won't encounter until towards the end.  Still, it's really fun and adds another level to the game... figuring out who will give you the time of day, puzzling out which gifts will warm their heart, and continuing to pursue them. 

(One quick note of caution: if you are the thief, and want to wed the girl from the bar, you'll need to move relatively quickly.  I found out too late that the task she sets you on once you propose is impossible to complete after the guards have been moved.)

The pace of the game is a little odd.  It's completely wide-open early on: you have freedom to move anywhere on the main island, can fight a lot of monsters, do a bunch of puzzles.  Once you actually start the first Rite, things switch over to a more traditional QFG-ish time-based system, with events happening in sequence.  Now, a quick note: while you are theoretically competing against other contestants, and are regularly exhorted to move quickly, as far as I can tell you will never run out of time on any Rite, and no other challenger will beat you (unless you explicitly permit them to do so).  So, take your time.  This is especially true if you are hoping for maximum points.  Every time a new Rite starts, talk with everyone in Silmaria.  Think of everything you can do related to your current Rite.

I liked the point system in this game.  Points have been in every game since the first, generally offering a maximum of 500, and have been very visible as you play.  Here, you are rewarded with a special chiming noise whenever you earn points, but they are much less visible to track.  The maximum is 1000, but I think it's actually possible to get more than that; it's just capped at 1000 even if you go over.  This is a huge gift to obsessive-compulsive gamers everywhere.  No, you do not need to play the game again from the beginning just because you forgot to make the thief sign to the Cloaked Man on the third day.

This game also adds "Deeds", which are textual descriptions of the things you did to earn points.  This, to me, is a more satisfying way to review your achievements.  In a great touch, at the end of the game you can see a list of all the Deeds that you did NOT accomplish; this gives a great opportunity to identify things to do on later replays, or determine whether it's worth playing through again.  Each character class has its own set of Deeds, though, so as a thief I only saw the missing Deeds for my own class.


One hypothetical about romance: what would a wide-open playing field have looked like?  I think Nawar is supposed to be the thief's match, but she's kind of... small-time, you know what I mean?  I opted for Elsa, personally - sure, she looks goody-goody now, but she knows the thief sign, used to lead an army of brigands, and can be surprisingly deceptive in her dealings with Minos.  In an ideal world, though... I can imagine the thief connecting with Dinarzad from Shapier, and between them expanding the Thieves' Guild into that famously closed city, building an empire of wealth and trickery.  Also, I'm a little bummed that you apparently cannot woo Erana if you're a thief.  This is playing against type, I know, but that's the fun!  You're supposed to be this sneaky guy who nobody knows is a rascal.  If you could even fool Erana - well, that would be incredibly entertaining.

In keeping with the "best thieving game of the series" theme: the Chief Thief contest and the apprehension of the Blackbird were hugely entertaining for me.  I love role-playing, and this was role-playing at its best.  I really enjoy feeling like you're part of an organization, and climbing to the top of that organization at the peak of the series was a delight.  I thought Ferrari made a great adversary, frankly much better than the real villain.

And that brings us to my greatest criticism of the game.  I think that Minos is the weakest, least satisfying villain of the series.  And that takes some doing, given the confusing and lackluster demon lord thing from Wages of War.  First of all, there's no art to it.  From the very first time he opens his mouth, you're supposed to be thinking, "Oh, this guy is the Big Bad!"  Everyone talks about how clever he is, but anyone with an ounce of sense would have invested the time in not sounding like an evil mastermind.  Even before that, though, the game's "Introduction" video clearly shows Minos ordering the assassination of King Justinian.  So, even though most of the game is supposed to be solving the mystery of who killed Justinian, it's really over before the beginning.  And that flatness of presentation continues all the way through the "climax" when he kills himself to release the dragon.  It just isn't even remotely believable.  Why would a guy with so much wealth and power kill himself just to spite another country?  I'm not saying it can't be done, just that this game gives us no reason to think he would have done so.

In contrast, think of Ad Avis from QFG2.  In some ways that was a similar setup: some unknown force is causing suffering in a city.  There, though, Ad Avis was an unknown quantity.  You simply had no idea who he was for most of the game; if you solved a particularly tricky optional quest, you would get an early warning of his name, and when you spoke with others about him, you tapped into a sense of menace and danger.  Arriving in Raseir, you encountered a stark vision of his evil aim; even then, though, you were directly interacting with his underlings and puppets, not the man himself.  You met face to face, and found him to be powerful, talented, and charming.  By the time you met him face to face on the tower, you had gone from nothing to a clear understanding of his motives and agenda.  Few moments in gaming have been more satisfying to me than when you toss a dagger at that pentagram. 

That's a good way to do it.  In contrast, Minos is nothing.  A wisp.

At least once Minos is out of the way you get to meet the dragon.  Now, there's no subtlety to the dragon, no motivation: he is a being of pure destruction.  But at least he's big, he's powerful, and he offers a really interesting fight.  After a entire series of one-on-one fights, you have an epic confrontation of five - five! - heroes joining forces to bring down the most powerful monster in existence.  A freaking dragon!  That was really fun.  Even with the constant crashing.  And the way that the roof would randomly cave in regardless of what I did.  Basically, even saving every thirty seconds throughout that fight and reloading more often than I would have thought possible, it STILL was a lot of fun.

The end-end game was reasonably satisfying. I kind of chuckled that, once again, the game ends inside a palace, with various people clustered around to testify how wonderful you are.  That said, there were still some things I would have done differently.  First, it would have meant a lot to have actually HEARD from Rakeesh, Toro, Shakra, etc., instead of just seeing them standing there mute.  And once again, things felt kind of... small.  I mean, you're the kind of a whole country, right?  And you see a grand total of, uh, fewer than a dozen people at your coronation.  It's just one of those jarring RPG things, like how when you fight in the Coliseum there are hundreds of cheering fans, and yet when you walk around the city it seems to have a total population of around twenty.  This problem is hardly unique to QFG, and frankly the only place where you can convincingly get large and differentiated crowd is in the benighted MMORPG sub-genre.

As I hinted at before, the first time I beat the game, I was astonished and infuriated to find that I was not the Chief Thief.  After reading online I figured out what had gone wrong, and did some cursing.  Then I grimaced, reloaded, and played through the entire endgame again, including regular switching between Vista and 98.  My ultimate reward was the final scene - I was quite happy that it took place after the coronation, since, after all, for the thief this will be the true crowning achievement, not some stupid crown or getting to rule a dumb kingdom.  I was doubly pleased when, at the end, you and Nawar get to heavily make out, despite Elsa's earlier announcement of your betrothal.  After all, back in the day the Famous Adventurer called out "playboy" as one of the advanced career tracks for the successful thief.  You're living the dream, baby!  Living the dream!


All in all, my feeling about QFGV is that it is an... odd game.  It's fun, and makes a nice capstone to the series, while at the same time it feels quite unlike anything that's gone before.  If you play as a thief and enjoy the thieving aspects, you might find yourself thinking that this is the best game of the series.  If you're addicted to classic Sierra-style puzzles, you'll likely be disappointed and think this is the worst of the series.  It is far from all that I had hoped, but much better than I had feared.  As franchises go, that isn't bad.  So long, Quest for Glory!  It's been a fun ride.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

End of the World as We Know It

Two things...

First, I've been meaning to share this for about a month now, but kept getting distracted. There is an excellent (and terrifying) post by Chris Farrell at Marketplace Money titled The Sky Will Fall on Many People.  If you're in a position to make your own investments, I highly recommend giving it a read.  Now, don't panic and shake up your portfolio overnight, but I sincerely believe that we need to start considering some of the scenarios described in that post.

If you aren't familiar with Marketplace Money, a little quick background: it is a weekly newsmagazine broadcast on NPR that covers personal finance.  It is run by the same people who do Marketplace, but is focused on the practical issues that affect all of us (saving money, planning for retirement, interviewing for a job, etc.) and not the day-to-day effluvia of individual stocks rising and falling.  Because of their backing and structure, it is a sober and practical program; they don't have an agenda that encourages them to move you one way or the other.  (At the same time, it may be one of the most entertaining of the many programs I listen to on NPR.  The correspondents have great attitudes, pick interesting stories, and they have what may be the best music of any show on NPR.  Several weeks ago they started a program by playing "Don't Fear the Reaper."  They also are the only people I know who have played Massive Attack, either on or off commercial radio.)  They preached caution and prudence during the speculative real-estate boom.  Now that things are going down, they are once again urging people to be cautious and not be rash.  In that context, it's a little shocking to see them talk about the Depression as much as they are.

Incidentally, if you're feeling a bit lost in the market madness and wondering exactly what you should be doing with your money, I can't think of a better crash course into personal finance than plugging into the Marketplace Money podcast and picking up a copy of Smart and Simple Financial Strategies for Busy People.

Now, on a totally unrelated note: I've gotten a fair number of questions from non-California people about the whole Proposition 8 situation.  Part of me feels like I shouldn't comment at all, since as I've noted before, I was completely surprised that it won.  My curiosity at what happened led me to poke around a little, and I figured I'd report back what I found.

Basically, the reason I was surprised is because I don't watch television.  If I did, I would have seen these ads and many more like them in the weeks leading up to the election.

So, what happened here was that the nature of the debate was successfully changed.  Instead of being a debate over rights - which they would have lost - the Yes on Eight campaign changed it to a debate over primary education.  Yep, that's correct: this vote really DID become a case of "Oh, won't someone think of the children!"

Other still-developing election news:

Measure B is oh-so-close, but it doesn't look like it will make it.  Officials are now openly talking about starting the expansion and doing as much as they can, which will probably just mean running as far as Milpitas or Berryessa.  I hate being in this situation.  On the one hand, yeah, partial BART is better than none, and it would be a first step towards what we need.  On the other hand, Mipitas is almost as useless as Fremont.  It isn't until you hit downtown San Jose and Diridon that you can link up with VTA light rail and Caltrain, where it will really become a viable option for a large number of people.  Part of me wants to get started ASAP even if we can only make it part way, while the other wants us to hold out and try again in 2009 to do it right.

Finally, the election in Minnesota is utterly fascinating.  Norm Coleman's lead has now shrunk from 700+ to 200+.  It looks like this could end up being a nasty, Florida-2000-style precinct-by-precinct slugfest between the Republicans and the DFL.  On the other hand, it IS still Minnesota, so at least it's polite.  If any of you liberals still have money burning a hole in your pocket, this is the race to drop it on.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


... or should that be post-vivification?

Or maybe I should say mid-mortem, as many of the races I care about are surprisingly too close to call. Still! This is a historic day, I'm feeling jazzed, and want to jot down my thoughts while I'm still somewhat in the moment.

I'm just delighted about the top of the ticket. As much as the victory, I am so encouraged by both candidates' speeches last night. I thought that McCain was incredibly gracious, and far better than the crowd which gathered to hear him. His sincere-sounding congratulations, and his exhortation for America to gather together for the good of the country, was a welcome change from the invective we're used to hearing spewed around. Similarly, I was delighted that near the capstone of his speech, Obama specifically praised the historic Republican party and the virtues it cherishes: individualism, freedom, and responsibility. Nearly five years ago, Obama captured my imagination through his unique ability to bring together disparate people, pay everyone respect and attention, and find common ground to make real improvements. It warms my heart to see that, after a bitter and partisan election that has run for nearly two years, that flame still burns brightly. We have a difficult journey ahead of us, but I am encouraged to know he will be the captain of our ship.

Moving down the ticket:

Exciting times in the Senate. The 60-seat supermajority was always a long shot, and I won't sneer at the big pickups. There are a few races that make me particularly happy. I hope that Senator Dole's defeat will spell the end of the vicious, hateful smear campaign strategy for the foreseeable future. For historical reasons, I'm happy to see Sununu go. I am on pins and needles over the Minnesota race - let no one doubt that every vote counts! I really hope that all my Minnesota friends voted, and I won't need to smack them. (Even if they voted for Barkley, that's fine.) It sounds like Stevens clung on to his seat, which is a major bummer; still, he's the kind of guy that I love to hate.

I am intrigued that so many of the tight races are in states where I lived for a while. Senate in Minnesota, President in Missouri.

And what about California? Well, Obama's huge margin here surprised nobody. Still, many of the most important ballot measures ended up being real squeakers.

I'm really happy that IA seems headed for victory. That's even more impressive given that almost every other bond measure on the ballot was voted down. This will be a huge project, one that is measured in decades instead of years, but could have a wonderful impact on the state's future.

A lot of the measures went different directions than I had hoped, but many of those are perfectly acceptable losses. I voted against Prop 2, but am not opposed to its passage... heck, I'm the guy who buys organic free-range eggs anyways. I'm still slightly opposed to spending public dollars on private hospitals, but still, Prop 3 can pass, that's fine.

After all the money T. Boone Pickens spent, I'm surprised (and pleased!) that his faux-renewable-energy prop did as poorly as it did.

Honestly, the biggest surprise of last night for me was Prop 8. Probably because I live in the Bay Area Bubble, and everyone I interact with regularly is opposed to it. More than that, while I haven't been following the polls super-closely, it was running behind for a while, and I was expecting that gap to widen as time went on, not narrow or reverse itself. Part of me also wonders if there may be a new form of Bradley Effect, repeating itself in the same state a generation later... once again, people may feel socially pressured to say one thing to a pollster, while they actually vote another way. I dunno. All in all I'm just really surprised by this, and wonder what the future will hold for California.

Tangent and mini-rant: I generally love California, but its political system can be insane. It blows my mind that it takes 50% + 1 vote to amend the Constitution, and a 2/3 vote to pass a budget or raise taxes. So, by a 52% to 48% vote the state could overturn the state Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage... but Santa Clara County can vote 66,23% for BART and still not get it.

Speaking of which, that's my final big local disappointment, though it's close and still a bit of a nail-biter. BART to San Jose is so right, so important, and so close... it was within our reach, and just a few hundred votes went the wrong way. Sigh. It almost makes me want to move to a county with fast, frequent, and reliable public transit...

And, to end on a positive note, it looks like #11 is in the bag. I'm cautiously optimistic. There's no guarantee that the new system will work; but frankly, after the disaster of the previous budget session, I don't think we can possibly do worse. I'll give it a few cycles and hope for the best. If it fails to help us elect grown-ups, then we can tinker with it and find a new system that does work.

For the curious - the one vote I would have changed in the three weeks since I cast my ballot was for Prop 12. I didn't understand it well enough, and thought that I was making a tough but valuable choice for fiscal responsibility when I was actually just being kind of a jerk. Fortunately for me, most Californians are smarter than me, and it is comfortably passing.

That's it for now, though there may be some more news as the final results trickle in. Meantime I'll be basking in the sunrise of a new era and eagerly awaiting the first Cabinet picks. Let's do some work!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Secret Ballot? Hah!

I'm writing this post on October 12th, right after filling out my mail-in ballot and before sending it off.  I'm scheduling it to be published after the polls close on Election Day, for your amusement and horror.

This last week I read an excellent article in The New Yorker about the history of voting in America.  I was surprised, and you may be as well.  Things that we take for granted, like the virtue of a secret ballot, heck, even the idea that a "ballot" is a piece of paper, evolved much later than I had assumed.  Even if you aren't a political junkie, it's worth a read.

Without further ado, this is what I believe.

  • SECRET MUSLIM for President!
  • WAR SUPPORTER for Congress!
  • Alquist for State Senate.
  • Beall for Assembly.  (Gotta love gerrymandering!  Silicon Valley would elect Democrats anyways, but these folks are all safe forever.)
  • Liroff for Superior Court.
  • No choice on West Valley-Mission Community College District Trustee Area 1.  (I'm unqualified to choose!)
  • Constantin for West Valley-Mission Community College District Trustee Area 3.  (I chose not to pick a second.  I unthinkingly support incumbents under the assumption that they know what they are doing!)
  • Gordon for Campbell Union High School District Member.  (I chose not to pick a second; see above.)
  • YES on the $10 billion boondogle!
  • NO on treating animals humanely!
  • NO on building hospitals for sick children!
  • NO on involving parents in the lives of their children!
  • YES on putting criminals back on the streets!
  • NO on law and order!
  • NO on green energy!
  • NO on family values!
  • NO on victim's rights!
  • NO on renewable energy!
  • YES on the power grab!
  • NO on supporting veterans!
  • YES on hospital seismic safety.  (Okay, this one's hard to make fun of.  Sorry.)
  • YES on the local transit boondoggle!
  • YES on thoughtless affirmation!
  • NO on qualified review!
  • YES on cutting taxes!
  • YES on cutting taxes again!  I don't understand why this is two measures!
  • YES on expanding government-funded construction!
  • YES on the pernicious creeping influence of corporate money over civic policy!
  • YES on tax increase!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

A Grand Sheep Chase

Haruki Murakami's first novel was "Hear the Wind Sing".  I haven't read it yet.  I'm wandering through his works rather than systematically pursuing them.  I have now wandered closer to his beginning than before with the completion of A Wild Sheep Chase.  (I had actually MEANT to pick up "A Wild Haruki Chase", but my library doesn't carry it, so I ended up with this instead.)

I find that early books, while rarely the best, are often the most interesting to a fan, because they provide insight into how the writer became the master.  Now, a few people seem to spring into the literary world fully realized; I think of James Joyce's "Dubliners", which would be a wonderful capstone to any literary career, but in his case merely ushered in the beginning.  On the other hand, there are writers who had to work hard and practice in order to become good.  I loved reading George Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia," not because it was better written than "1984" (it isn't), but because it showed a young man struggling to communicate his passionate political beliefs, worries about the state of the world, and otherwise building up the skills and clarity of mind that he would later unleash.  Or consider Kurt Vonnegut, possibly my favorite 20th century American novelist.  "Player Piano" is a fine book, but if it wasn't for the name on the cover, I wouldn't have thought it was a Vonnegut book; it is so conventional in voice, so different from the distinctive style he would later develop.  And even "Player Piano" only appeared after a decade of short stories that Vonnegut wrote for glossy magazines, each of which is interesting, none of which are worthy of being discussed in the same breath as "Cat's Cradle" or "Breakfast of Champions."

Murakami charts a middle course with this book.  It is recognizable as Murakami, but feels a little dialed-back.  He's more cautious about embracing absurdity, and seems apologetic about some of the tossed-off characters.  Still, you can see his impulses at work here... he still wants to achieve the same things as the later Murakami, he just has not completely worked out how yet.  And his protagonist is purely in keeping with the later books.  I think I was primed to look for this after hearing him speak, and was struck by how similar this book's male narrator is to the male narrator in "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles" and other favorite later books.

One potential impact of the more restrained style: this book might serve as a good introduction to Murakami without turning off too many people.  I feel like "Kafka on the Shore" sort of throws people into the deep end, where they either love it or reject it.  With "A Wild Sheep Chase," Murakami is more accommodating to readers who want a conventionally comprehensible plot with well defined characters and goals; at the same time, he allows a sense of play and ambiguity to creep in.  Whether you focus on the story or the atmosphere is entirely up to you.

His skills as a writer seem fully intact at this point, though it's hard to tell when reading through translation.  (This book predates his association with Jay Rubin, and I'm curious how many differences in writing that I attribute to his earlier period are really due to having a different person, y'know, actually writing the book.)  He has that wonderful sense of humor on display.  At one point, the main character muses over Dostoevsky and other Russian authors.  His mind wandering, he thinks something like, "The Russians have a knack for coming up with aphorisms.  Maybe that's what they do all winter."

Hm, I think I'm about to venture into the realm of


There's just a lot of really interesting stuff going on in here.  I really enjoyed a scene where the narrator meets The Boss's secretary, who is promising to help explain the first set of unusual actions which have taken place.  The secretary makes a metaphor: their exchange will be like a ship.  Honesty is at the front, and truth is in the back.  He will lead forward with honesty.  Truth will inevitably follow, and even though it depends on honesty, it is not the same thing.  I think I grasped this image, and like it a lot.  It says that words are not the same as comprehension.  You can listen to a person tell only the truth, and if you are not ready, you still will not understand reality fully.  It also suggests that, when describing something, the speaker himself recognizing the futility of actually conveying knowledge, and instead must clear the way for later understanding in the hopes that it will follow.  It isn't too much of a stretch to see this as describing Murakami's writing style.  His words are not employed to literally describe a physical truth.  Rather than driving our thoughts, they are meant to guide them.  He sets us along a path, trusting us to achieve understanding on our own.

As a consequence, a lot of this book is very abstract.  Yes, even by Murakami's standards.  Long passages describe the extremely abstract musings of the narrator, who does not seem very grounded in the physicality of the "real" world.  This is great fun, even if it will drive some readers batty.

At one point, he thinks about the world.  He feels funny about that word, "world".  It makes him think of something enormous, supported by elephants and a turtle.  I closed my eyes and shook my head.  What?  Feeling a little disoriented, I read it over again.  Yep - Murakami was seemingly describing the Discworld.  I checked the copyright page.  This book was written in 1982.  Hm, that seemed awfully early.  I hopped on Wikipedia to check on The Colour of Magic.  1983.  Wow.

I haven't done any further research on this.  It seems impossible that Pratchett, on the opposite side of the world, would have picked up an idea from a non-translated, virtually unknown Japanese novelist.  More likely, both authors are referencing some original myth or tradition that I'm just not familiar with.  Still, though... weird!

Despite the extreme abstractness of the narrator's thought process, as I've described earlier, the book itself follows a more comprehensible plot than most recent Murakami.  There are still some gaps in the logical chain of events - the most obvious being the insights that the girlfriend has into their quest.  True to Murakami form, these are never explained, or even really considered very deeply.  Those exceptions aside, though, the novel mostly unfolds like a good detective story.  They travel, research, find clues, interview people, and try to solve puzzles.  It's a good structure.  I think I might try and hit "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" next to see if I can get more of this mystery-esque influence.


So... what IS the deal with the sheep?  I love this because it is so vividly described, while remaining so baffling.  In contrast with the narrator's wandering musings, there is a direct story that you can piece together about the sheep.  He used to live in rural China where he would possess innocent villagers to sustain his vampiric existence.  After the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, he saw his opportunity to take a larger role on the world stage.  He entered the body of a handy soldier, traveled back to the homeland, and then took over a rising young politician.  Controlling the politician through a blood clot in the brain, he built an enormously powerful empire of media and political interests.  However, the politician was weak and aging, so the sheep decided he would have to take advantage of someone younger, more clever and resourceful, to take the next stage.  That stage would expand the media empire to the entire world, presenting The Rat as the savior of mankind by erasing all divisions between people, and uniting humanity under the august leadership of the sheep.  The Rat pieces together the plot and heroically commits suicide after becoming possessed but before the blood clot can develop, killing off himself and the sheep.

There, you see?  No way I could summarize the plot of Kafka on the Shore in one paragraph.

On the other hand: what the hell?  While that paragraph is perfectly comprehensible, it also makes no sense, and even less sense when you consider the other unexplained elements within the story.  Who is the Sheep Man, and what is his relationship to the sheep?  How does the girlfriend know about things - what is her "power"?  Who answers God's phone?  And so on.

All those ambiguities and unexplained mysteries make me smile.  It's what lets me know that I'm reading Murakami.


Another satisfying work by the master.  I highly recommend this book for all but the most committed Murakami-haters.