Saturday, July 31, 2010

Spring Cleansing

I have to admit, I was thinking just a little of Murakami when I picked up Yukio Mishima's Spring Snow.  I knew, especially after reading Abe, that not all Japanese novelists are fantastic absurdists like him.  Sure enough, this book wasn't at all like Murakami, but unlike with Abe, I absolutely loved this one.  It's a fairly traditional story, but one that's beautifully written.  The language is just incredible, and the steady pace of the plot felt like an opportunity to appreciate the elegant composition.

I definitely am not fluent in Japanese, but I did valiantly study it on my own for over a year, and retain just enough knowledge to visualize some of what Mishima does here.  Familiar constructs like "As for..." made me smile, as did the myriad forms of apology.  I really regret not being fluent in that language, or any other non-English language for that matter... any time I read a great book in another language, I'm always curious about how much of what I'm enjoying is the original author's, and how much the translator's.  I can always give credit to the author for the idea, the plot, and the pace, but who do I thank for the excellent choice of words, the beautiful metaphors, the smoothness of the dialog?


Spring Snow is apparently the first book from a tetralogy.  It's set in Japan, obviously, during the early years of the 20th century.  I'm really curious to see where the other three books go chronologically.  This one seems to be set during a period where the nation appears to be taking its breath.  The main character's grandfather was a leader in the Meiji Restoration, which overturned the rule of the shogunate and returned the country to the Emperor.  The young characters have heard tales of that struggle, and of the war against the Russians, but their own existence is far softer.  It isn't faded, exactly, but more attenuated... there's less ambition, and even for those with ambition, no lofty goals are available to pursue.

The main character, Hiyoaki, is interesting in part because of his extreme passivity.  The son of a Marquis, whose great wealth and influence has caused their family's status to rise, Hiyoaki has been bred to be more refined and elegant than his predecessors.  However, that refinement and elegance isn't practical, and as a result he drifts.  He's indifferent in his studies, he doesn't have many friends, he gives little thought to his career, and he avoids the romance in his life.

You can certainly read Spring Snow as a coming-of-age story.  Hiyoaki grows up a lot, although not enough and not quickly.  It's very touching to see his relationship with Satoko evolve, and together with their relationship, how Hiyoaki changes as well.  He's kind of hard to like, but becomes much more sympathetic nearer the end as his experiences grow and he finally realizes what he wants in life.

Other than Hiyoaki, most characters are briefly and vividly drawn.  I loved the Japanese gentleman who deliberately emulated the English in everything he did, and his wife who chattered nonstop.  They're only on the scene for a few pages, but leave a huge impression.  Honda is an amazing friend, truly the Horatio of this story.  Unlike Horatio, though, he also has a complete inner life, which is tied up with a profound respect for the law inherited from his father.  Honda's relationship with Hiyoaki also gave me some slight impression about the complexities of class relationships within Japan.  They are sort of peers, but Honda can never dream of reaching Hiyoaki's circle, despite the fact that he is in every conceivable way (other than appearance) superior.

Hiyoaki's tutor is another brief but vivid character.  The image of him furiously sweeping out the grandfather's shrine is funny, sad, and admirable all at once.  He makes a cameo appearance towards the end, and at first I didn't recognize his name or remember his importance.  Once I did, everything clicked into place, and I was once again amazed at Mishima's great composition.


I haven't read many Russian novels, but from what I've heard, the grandeur of the book seems to recall something like War and Peace.  This is a tale of dynasties, of noble families, and of the individuals within those families.  They weave an interesting tapestry, but the threads of that tapestry are among the finest I've seen, thanks to Yishima's great wordcraft.  Like I said before, I'm curious to see where the remaining books in the series go.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Man, Neil Gaiman sure is prolific.  Not just in terms of the quantity of words that he writes, but the sheer range of mediums.  And he doesn't just dabble, but has track records in each of them.  I can't think of another writer who tosses off novels, short stories, poetry, essays, children's books, screenplays, comic books, and lyrics like he does.  Even more impressive, it's consistently good stuff. 

"Smoke and Mirrors" puts his range on display to impressive effect.  The overall content is similar to "Fragile Things," a more recent collection of his that I've read and enjoyed.  I think I like S&M (er, let's make that SAM) better, though.  It's an earlier work, and maybe just a tad rougher around the edges, which translates into some really surprising and interesting stuff.

In no particular order, here are some impressions....


He goes on a little bit of a Cthulhu kick at around the midpoint, producing both a comic short story about an American tourist who finds the original Innsmouth, and a creepier tale of sacrifice.  Both rest comfortably in their familiarity with Lovecraft... he isn't showing off with all his references, but at the same time, he totally nails the vocabulary and visual motifs that characterize the Cthulhu mythos.

There's some pretty amazingly explicit stuff in here, including a story he wrote for Penthouse and an even more, um, detailed story that was part of an erotica anthology.  It's actually pretty compartmentalized, though... there's a lot of sex in the sex stories, and very little elsewhere.

He has a GREAT introduction.  In addition to all the mediums I noted above, Gaiman is also arguably the best modern writer at talking about his writing process and talking with his readers.  I can attest that he's brilliant in person, and he's also a famously talented and prolific blogger and twit.  I'm in awe... even in my own limited writing experience, I can attest that I'm useless unless I can utterly focus on what I'm writing.  He, though, can keep up a seemingly steady stream of blog posts, tweets, and public appearances, and STILL be one of the most prolific writers around.

Anyways, back to the introduction.  He does some nice standard introduction-type stuff, sneaks in a complete short story, and then proceeds to give a brief, fascinating, insightful self-appraisal of the contents of the book.  It's a bit of an appertif, and made me look forward all the more to what's to come.

There's a lot of great stuff in this book.  My favorite, to my surprise, was one of the poems: "Cold Colors."  It's hilarious, and creepy, and unsettling, and intelligent.  The poem vividly imagines an alternate London where... well, it's hard to describe in prose, but basically, Hell and Heaven are battling on the surface of the Earth, Hell is winning, and has taken control of all the technology.  Or, rather, our reliance on technology has given the victory to Hell.  Here's a sample stanza:

It's bedtime.  I feed the pigeons,
then undress.
Contemplate downloading a succubus from a board,
maybe just call up a sidekick
(there's public-domain stuff, bawds and bauds,
shareware, no need to pay a fortune,
even copy-protected stuff can be copied, passed about,
everything has a price, any of us).
Dryware, wetware, hardware, software,
blackware, darkware,
nightware, nightmare...
The modem sits inviting beside the phone,
red eyes.
I let it rest--
you can't trust anybody these days.
You download, hell, you don't know where what came from anymore,
who had it last.
Well, aren't you?  Aren't you scared of viruses?
Even the better protected files corrupt,
and the best protected corrupt absolutely.

There's something, I dunno, a bit like a lyrical Neal Stephenson in there.

Other interesting repeating motifs: there's a pair of stories about Los Angeles in here.  Rather, both stories start off being about Los Angeles, and then switch over to being about other stories that are told within the city.  The first one feels like it must be from Gaiman's own experiences; it's a first-person story from a burgeoning English writer who comes to Hollywood to write a screenplay adaptation for one of his novels, and slowly falls into an amazingly anodyne world where the higher up the chain he goes, the less qualified people are to make decisions about art.  Frustrated with this process, he starts writing other short stories.  It all feels very meta.  The second story-within-a-story connects the earthly City of Angels with the celestial one, with a very awe-inspiring conclusion.

Of course, Gaiman wouldn't be Gaiman if he didn't muck around with mythology.  Some of his wonderful inversions are on display here.  The book closes with a wonderful retelling of Snow White as told from the perspective of the queen.  It closes with words from the original tale, but their meaning has been utterly inverted, and I for one will never be able to approach the original in the same way.  He reprints an awesome Christmas card that he sent one year with an, um, unconventional take on the Santa Claus legend.  I was delighted to read a story that recasts Beowulf as a sci-fi tale; I didn't realize what was happening until about the 2/3 point, and then I got chills, and felt the momentum of inevitability as the story marched to its conclusion.


All in all, this is another fully satisfying offering from Gaiman.  I know, big surprise, right?  I get a kick out of reading his stuff with impunity - it's almost always good, but even if it isn't, hey, I know that there's a bunch of other stuff of his that I can try out any time.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Everyone was right: Twin Peaks IS a weird show!

TP is one of those things that felt familiar to me, even before I saw it.  It became part of the zeitgeist, seeped into the popular culture, and became part of our standard lexicon.  I've seen parodies on The Simpsons, heard others invoke it when discussing more recent works, and so on.  Thanks to the magic of DVD, and a generous brother, I'm finally able to experience it first-hand.

So far, I've just seen the pilot and the first season.  It might be a while until I wrap up the second season, so I wanted to jot down some quick notes from my thinking at this stage.


Let me get the criticism out of the way first.  Exactly two things bother me about the show, and both of them are direct artifacts of its age: the music and the hair.  The music tends to be really synth-heavy.  Worse, it's rather limited and repetitive... there are about three themes which get repeated over and over and over again.  I'm sure this wouldn't be as aggravating back when people were watching one episode each week, but in my compressed viewing schedule, it gets a bit old.  The exception: I absolutely love Agent Cooper's theme, a snappy, slightly jazzy number that perks everything up when he's on the screen.  For some reason it reminds me of Hero's Quest/Quest for Glory I.

As for the hair - again, it's just a matter of how style has changed.  The men aren't so bad, but the women are in the grips of Big Hair.  After a few episodes, I got used to it.

And, that's pretty much the sum of everything I don't love about the show (except for some minor plot-related stuff below.)  On with the good!

As I watched the show, I kept thinking about how so much of what I loved about this show was the same as what people loved about "Lost."  Don't get me wrong, these are two very different shows with very different feels, but in some respects, they are rather similar.

* Movie-level production quality

Both are gorgeously shot and have a wonderful eye for framing scenes.

* Excellent natural and artificial settings

Lost has Hawaii, TP has the Northwest.  TP also has plenty of indoor scenes, which often are lush and highly detailed; Lost also ventures indoors from the second season onward with interesting, detailed locations.

* Sprawling casts with intricate relationships

This is probably the key similarity between the show.  In both cases, you have several people who are the nominal "stars" - Jack and Sawyer in Lost, Cooper and Truman in TP - but behind them are several dozen important supporting characters.  Just watching the opening credits of both shows gives you a feel for the depth of the cast list. 

I can't claim that there are no weak links in either cast, but both tend to be really strong.  They also contain a pleasing mix of personalities, intensities, and orientations; people can probably identify with someone on the show no matter what.

* Mixture of rationality and mysticism

Both shows have spooky events that defy easy explanation.  In Lost, this is the central tension of the show, as people try to figure out whether science or spirituality is behind the unusual events.  In TP, though, characters almost always embrace the mystical.  Instead, you get this interesting blend of the two, united instead of in opposition, as people try, for example, to use technology and science (voice-activated tape recorders, experiments with throwing rocks) in the service of mystical processes (divining the nature of Laura Palmer's death).

* Frustrating refusal to answer big questions

... or at least, so people claim.  For the record, I enjoy not knowing what's going on, and like ambiguities more than cut-and-dry presentations.  Still, both shows are real teases, especially in their first seasons.  I felt like TP was a little worse than Lost in this regard, especially when, for example, Cooper calls up Truman in the middle of the night, triumphantly announces that he knows who killed Laura Palmer, the episode ends... and the next episode starts with him admitting that he forgot who did it.

* Character reversal

This was actually one of my gripes with Lost: EVERY character ended up becoming the opposite of what they initially seemed (Hurley wasn't an easy-going fun-loving guy, he was a millionaire mental patient; Jin wasn't an abusive husband, he was a cuckolded softie; Sawyer wasn't a bad-boy dumb criminal, he was a sensitive bookworm; etc.)  TP's reversals, at least so far, are more limited and soft.  The biggest one by far is Palmer herself; she went from seeming like a pure and innocent victim to apparently being an awful perpetrator or criminal and moral perversion.  I get the feeling that a few other characters may be swapping around as well... Bobby is bad but may be redeemable; the widow Packard has something going on; Audrey flits back and forth between good and bad; and so on.

Okay, I think that wraps up the comparisons.  Into straight-up Twin Peaks-dom:

Like I said, I'm loving the show.  It has a wonderful, Murakami-esque sensibility where the supernatural is matter-of-factly presented as a part of the ordinary world.  There's the wonderful sense of menace and mystery around the edges of everything... the Sheriff's Department, for example, seems secure and inviolate, but when the deputies head into the woods, you feel like they're at risk.  You regularly get this sense of penetration, as when Mrs. Palmer has "visions" of strangers intruding within her very house. 

I also love all of the from-left-field non-sequitors.  Log Lady is awesome.  Both for who she is, and for the way that, within the logic of the show, people accept her.  "Who's the lady with the log?"  "She's a local resident.  We call her the Log Lady." 

The central crime is surprisingly disturbing for a network show.  Even though you don't see much blood, the descriptions of what happened are quite unsettling; today, I think this show would absolutely belong on Showtime or HBO.

Like I said above, the characters are just amazing.  Cooper and Truman are both phenomenal.  Cooper is just so... unique.  His enthusiasm, his embracing of everything, light up the show.  He can dive into the most sordid scene and make you still feel uplifted.  Truman is a calm, steady rock, but a highly charismatic rock.  Truman also has one of the most amazing gazes that I've seen.

In the second tier of actors, there's a lot to admire.  Big Ed seems like one of the nicest people, not just on the show, but on all shows; he's an incredibly decent man.  Which, of course, makes it all the better in the end of the season when he goes undercover to infiltrate a corrupt casino.  The worldly madame asks him in a sultry voice "So, what's your line?"  He answers honestly and then catches himself: "I run a gas station... uhhhhhhh... I'm an oral surgeon." 

I'm also really impressed by the young actors, both for their performances, and for Lynch making them such a big part of the show; it seems unusual to have such a big ensemble cast that spans generations like that (though I suppose Buffy did it to a smaller degree).  I don't know how old the actors really are, but they do seem fairly convincing as teenagers.  Donna is great, and very believable as the bereaved friend.  James is a bit one-dimensional as an actor, but a likeable presence.  Bobby is great to hate, and his flunky even more so.  Audrey... Audrey's probably the best of the bunch, a thoroughly loose cannon with the resources to throw off everyone's plans.

A few semi-random thoughts/predictions at the end of the first episode:

* I suspect that the psychiatrist wasn't the one who dug up James' pendant.  We never specifically saw who did it, and in one episode, one of the deputies saw him walking toward the morgue.  I think he took Laura's pendant, and James' is in the possession of... someone else.

* Cooper's alive.

* Most of the first season has been a wild goose-chase; Jacque and Leo were present on the night of Laura's death, but neither took her to the railroad car.

One plot-related complaint:

It would be interesting to see whether different writers wrote the different scripts; it sometimes feels like the episodes aren't really tracking with one another.  For example, I loved the bit where we learn about the secret society of good people who stand against the evil that surrounds Twin Peaks, but they largely seem to drop that idea in later episodes.  More specifically, if this is such a tight-knit group, then why would Truman be so quick to suspect James of selling cocaine?  More to the point, why would Truman believe "Leo"'s word in the first place?  It would be like, I dunno, Jeffrey Dahmer calling you up and saying that you should check out Michael Jordan.  Anyways, all this may be necessary to move the plot to where they want to go, but it still doesn't really seem to fit with the interior logic of the show.


Still, that's a slight complaint against the impressive accomplishment of this sprawling, spinning, evolving plot.  It looks like the second season is much longer than the first, and I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes.  Unfortunately, my receiver is currently on the fritz and is delaying audio, so it's hard to watch stuff on my TV; I'll need to either fix that (if I can, the receiver is about seven years old), switch to watching on my computer (possible but not nearly as much fun), or wait until I upgrade/replace my A/V setup.  Still, I do have an incentive to make this word soon!

Monday, July 19, 2010


Long after I saw the movie, I finally got around to reading the book "The Haunting of Hill House."  Like the movie, it's a cut above most items in the genre.  I don't think that the book is vastly better from most horror books in the way that the movie is vastly better than most horror movies, but it is really well-done, and like the movie it draws most of its effectiveness from absence than from presence.


For those of you who haven't seen the movie "The Haunting" (the original, of course), I highly recommend it.  Before you pop it in your DVD player, take a look at the rating on the back of the box.  Look again.  Yep - it's rated "G" for General Audiences.  A horror movie!  It can't be that scary, right?

Wrong.  A lot of people will agree that The Haunting is one of the most frightening movies ever made.  It belongs to that great period in the past when movies actually strove to be frightening, as opposed to today, when they're content to be shocking.  There's a world of difference.  Any hack can shock you, relying on a boring staple of technique - sudden loud noises, grisly images, bursts of violence.  Those movies can make you jump in your seat, but they rarely linger after you're done.  In contrast, the best horror movies - think Hitchcock when he's trying to be scary - stick with you, slowly eat away at you, bring a twinge of terror to everyday events in the rest of your life.

The Haunting belongs to that tradition.  The amazing thing about this movie, and the reason why it has a "G" rating, is that you never see anything.  It's about a haunted house, but you never see any ghosts.  All of the terror of the movie comes through sound, and motion, and stories of the past... you hear pounding on the walls, rattling doorknobs, the panicked reactions of the house's guests, and it all adds up to something incredibly scary.

The book largely follows the same plot line as the movie, for about the first three-fourths of the way.  It's been a while since I saw the film, but I think the plot lines and characters generally track one another... the book may spend a little more time on Eleanor's journey to Hill House, including a visit to the small town nearby and some fantasies about cottages she passes by.

The actual cast of characters seems to be largely the same as well; I think that I was projecting the movie's actors onto the book's characters, but I didn't experience any huge problems from doing so.  Eleanor is still a kindly, timid, hopeful but damaged woman; Theodora is a more vibrant and extroverted woman (and I think also a lesbian, a fact I'd missed when first watching the movie until it was pointed out to me).  Luke is a bit of a rake and a scoundrel, but good-tempered and cheerful.  The doctor is patient, interested, bright, and empathetic while still slightly distant from his charges.  I think that the doctor's wife wasn't as big of a presence in the movie, and I don't recall the character of Arthur at all; he certainly isn't essential to the action in the book, and could easily have been trimmed at the cost of just some comic relief (which, arguably, the book doesn't really need at the late point where he enters).  I don't remember the caretakers too well, either, though their role does feel familiar.

The course of events largely tracks that of the film as well.  At first the house's actions seem entirely believable - people get lost when moving around, doors that they open are later found shut, and so on.  This gradually escalates to knocks on the doors, attempts by the house to separate the guests, and eventually writing on the walls and other manifestations.  Other than a brief reported sighting of a dog, no animated creature ever appears.

I'm a bit curious how frightening this would have seemed if I didn't have the visual experiences from the film already in my head.  I think it would have still been effective, if perhaps just a tad less so.  The story is almost entirely told from Eleanor's perspective, and the way she fights to make sense of what's going on is both touching and scary.  She mentally disintegrates as the stresses of her visit mount, and seems to become another person at times.  I think that the movie kept her thoughts in the script through the use of voiceovers, which I generally dislike in movies, but does seem in keeping with the spirit of the book.


Beyond a certain point, the events in the book started seeming new to me.  Eleanor and Theo go for a walk on the grounds, and stumble across a picnic.  The description of exactly what's happening remain vague, but it seems to involve parents, and children, and a dog.  They run away, with Theo later hysterically admitting that, despite her best efforts, she had looked back at the scene.

Of course, this gets rid of the whole "they never actually see anything" angle, so I can definitely see why it was cut from the movie.  There's also a scene still later in the book where the three young visitors go for a walk during the day.  Eleanor goes on ahead, is unwittingly separated from the others, and sees footprints approaching her through the grass.  This was also cut; I think that the movie, very wisely, chose to focus on the events within the house itself.  It's much more claustrophobic and closed-in to confine yourself within its doors.

The biggest changes happen started when Margaret, the Doctor's wife, arrives.  A self-proclaimed sensitive, she seemingly believes in the supernatural as strongly as the doctor' but in a wholly different way, focusing on an Ouiji-board-like device to communicate and totally convinced that the spirits are kindly, sweet souls who just want someone to understand them before moving on to the next world.  She upends the rhythm of life in house, and more or less derails the story.  Arthur is even more out of place, an old boy who is headmaster at a school and offers to patrol the house with his pistol.

The ultimate ending of the book isn't quite as effective as the movie's, although it does hold to the same basic idea of the house holding on to the one it has chosen.  It is interesting to follow Eleanor's thoughts and words over the last dozen pages or so and try to figure out just what's going on.  Is she being possessed by a spirit?  Have the stresses of the house triggered her latent mental instability and driven her mad?  In either case her thoughts are quite disorganized, and it's hard to not pity her ultimately undramatic end.


After reading this, I really want to watch The Haunting again.  Hey, who needs sleep?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Saddest Kid on Earth

I worry about my tendency to identify with fictional protagonists, especially when they're highly neurotic.  Fortunately, I don't think I have much in common with Jimmy Corrigan, but still, I frequently found myself wincing in sympathy while reading this book.

Technically, "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth" is a masterpiece.  I've loved Chris Ware's work for years, although I've only seen it in small pieces published in The New Yorker or McSweeney's.  He has a very distinctive style, crisp and clean, highly geometric, with backgrounds that looks almost computer-generated.  The characters themselves are fairly simply drawn, more evolved than stick figures but not by a whole lot.  That said, Ware can convey an astonishing range of emotion with just a few lines; a straight line under the eyes betraying a character's fatigue; a slightly arced line above the eye showing despair.


Structurally, JC is a 90's masterpiece, epitomizing the same indie spirit of Slacker.  It's a bit of an adventure, and a coming-of-age story, and an epic.  But the adventure is a trip from Chicago to Michigan; the coming-of-age is about thirty years too late; and the epic shows how three generations of Corrigans have endured painful, emotionally bereft lives.

I think my favorite parts of this sprawling tale were those set during the Columbia Exposition in Chicago.  This is a story-within-a-story that at first seems unconnected to the surrounding narrative, and eventually takes over it.  It really isn't much more important than the present-day tale - both deal with the daily events of powerless people - but it sustains a bit more of a story, and at least the 19th century Jimmy Corrigan takes a few actions on his own initiative, even if they don't lead to anything enjoyable.

The story effectively portrays how traits can pass from generation to generation.  We see the modern Corrigan's repressed racism at its roots.  We see how abandonment emotionally stilts a child, who then cannot provide emotional support to their own offspring.  All in all, it's moving, but, man, depressing!


In terms of comics, JC seems closest to Daniel Clowe's "Ghost World" among comics that I've read, and Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor" among comics that I have not.  These are stories set in the real world, drab and dull: most of the action takes place in fast-food restaurants, hospital waiting rooms, efficiency apartments, cubicles.  There's a great interlude within the book that displays cut-out trading cards for some of the locations from the story.  On the front you see bleak scene after bleak scene: highway rest stops, shuttered businesses, strip malls.  On the back are eloquent and loquacious captions extolling the high virtues exemplified by these places.  That gets at the crux of this work.  It isn't about elevating the mundane to the level of art.  Nor is it about satirically mocking the ugliness in our world.  It's about staring unflinchingly at that ugliness for as long as we can bear, and then staring some more.  I don't think that there's any redemption in JC, but neither is there condemnation.  For myself, all I can do is mutter, "There but for the grace of God go I."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Would You Kindly?

Yeah, yeah... as usual, I'm way behind in playing games.  Still, for anyone who's curious, Bioshock is an AWESOME game.

I don't really like the idea of Action/FPS/RPG hybrids all that much; I'd much rather play a full-on RPG that lets me think about strategy and tactics rather than twitchily respond.  In practice, though, some of the best games that I've played fall into this category... the recent Elder Scrolls games, which are more towards the RPG end of the spectrum, and Bioshock/System Shock, which feel much more like FPS games with heavy RPG elements.

Somehow it works, possibly because I'm better at FPS games than I think.  Even though I don't often play these games, I've noticed that when I get into one, after a while it really does become second nature.  I develop decent reflexes, can strafe around an opponent, become adept at zooming in through a scope and pulling off headshots, and otherwise doing FPS-y things.  Games like Bioshock are great in that they offer a multitude of ways to overcome any obstacle, so even if a particular enemy is hard to shoot, you can switch to a special power for an area-of-effect attack or other approach.

Bioshock's atmosphere was terrific.  It starts out feeling just slightly dystopian - slightly crazed, slightly disheveled - but after a few hours, you reach into the full-on System Shock level of horror.  It presents amazingly creepy tableaus, haunting images that shock you and stick with you.  It isn't all art direction, either.  They do some really simple but effective stuff, like suddenly cut the lights, and make you listen to several seconds of violent sounds before the lights come back on and monsters are staring at you.  They also do amazing things with shadows, particularly early on in the game; as terrifying as seeing an act is, it can seem even scarier if you're only seeing it second-hand, flickering across a wall in a macabre black-on-orange dance.


The key to Bioshock, though, is probably its story.  It belongs to that rare element in the world of video games: an original idea.  Bioshock takes place in Rapture, a fallen paradise, a stunning technological achievement built not only from steel and glass but also from Objectivist beliefs, an unswerving faith in business, in the moral imperative of selfishness.  From that starting point, they sketch out a sprawling, fascinating tale of Rapture's rise, decline, and eventual disintegration.  Unlike a traditional RPG, you don't learn the story of Rapture by reading books; you see it all around you, in the faded posters on the wall; and you hear it, through recorded announcements and audio diaries.  That world is filled with characters, some already dead, and they grow to be quite complex and interesting over the course of the game. 

Probably the most infamous aspect of Bioshock is its morality system.  I wasn't as impressed by this as I was by everything else.  As with Fallout, it's a very black-and-white setup: press one button to be good, press another button to be bad.  It's also less varied than in Fallout, not to mention Dragon Age or Oblivion; you are only presented with the same choice over and over again, so there's no reason not to make the same decision each time.  The consequences for gameplay are minor; being evil helps you more in the short term, while being good will eventually lead to some extra benefits.  Anyways... the moral system isn't bad, it's just been done way better before.


Of course, I found myself constantly thinking of System Shock 2 while playing this.  When I first walked into Ryan's outer office and saw the dead body, I immediately thought of the scene where you see the captain in SS2.  I was glad to see that they weren't repeating themselves, though.  The final confrontation with Ryan was chilling.  Atlas's revelation was cool; again, though, it's hard not to think of SS2, and I'm guessing that it was much more effective for people who hadn't played the other game.

As I mentioned above, I do appreciate how the game supports different modes of play.  I focused on hacking abilities as much as I could; late in the game, the Winter's Breath 3 attack plus my full complement of tech splices let me convert every turret, camera, and bot I encountered with ease.  I actually rarely used my Eve for attacks, so I generally had a full bar and maximum hypos.  In combat, I relied very heavily on my fully-upgraded shotgun: 00 buck for most enemies, and electric buck for the big daddies.  I occasionally used the machine gun when in more open areas.  After the Sander Cohen level, I used the crossbow whenever I could in sniper situations.  I really enjoyed this mode of gameplay - lots of stealth (I had the splice that turns you invisible while still, and added the splices to quiet your footsteps even though I never used the wrench), coupled with rapid aims and quick squirts of death.  On the other hand, I rarely used the grenade launcher, and never used the chemical thrower, other than during the final fight with Fontaine.

I played through the game the good way.  I really liked the last couple of levels; I tend to hate escort-type missions, but with the tools at your disposal, it was actually a fun challenge to keep the Little Sister alive and unharmed.  The final boss fight was definitely challenging; I used up all my first aid kits, but managed to defeat him on my first try.  In retrospect, some more boss fights along the way would have been fun; there were just a couple, and other than having much more HP than normal, they weren't all that interesting.

Favorite character: Sander Cohen
Favorite enemy: Houdini Splicer
Favorite vending machine: Ammo machine ("Mi amigo!  El ammo!")
Favorite weapon: Toss-up between shotgun and crossbow
Favorite ammo: I love the idea of the Trap Bolt, though I probably got myself as often as I got any enemies.
Favorite primary splice: Winter's Breath, though I love the idea of Insect Swarm
Favorite secondary splice: Invisibility (whatever it's called - it really changes the way you play the game)
Favorite area: Sander Cohen's, with Arcadia (original form) a close second
Favorite music: Beyond the Sea
Favorite shocking moment (repeating): When you walk up to search a body's corpse, and they suddenly sit bolt upright and start laughing at you.  I got in the habit of always having my shotgun out when I searched bodies, just so I could quickly put them down while I was still jumping.
Favorite shocking moment (singular): Gosh, there are so many... maybe the ghost scene with Ryan's mistress, or the doctor's surgical chambers.
Favorite audio tape: Again, too many to choose from... Ryan's tended to be the best
Favorite radio conversation: "Would you kindly?"


I think it's funny that an action RPG has a much better money system than any real RPG that I've played lately.  Yeah, it stinks that they limit your wallet, but it's also realistic; it's absurd to think of adventurers carrying around the kind of change that they do.  And in terms of pacing your purchase, it works just right.  You need to buy stuff in order to progress, because you can't collect enough ammo just from your enemies; there are some good things worth saving up for (particularly if buying stuff with Adam); so, you get a nice, interesting tension between buying what you want now and what you need eventually.

Anyways.  I'm happy to see for myself that Bioshock was able to pick up System Shock's legacy.  Even though it isn't a sequel, it capture most of the feel of that great game, and I'm hoping that this franchise has a more successful end.

Stop that nonsense!

It's kind of funny to think that, in a little over a month, I've tripled the number of apps I've published in the Android Market.  Granted, I've moved from 1 to 3, but still, it's fun to be back in the publishing game after a few years' absence.

The latest entry is Nonsense.  I wrote most of this app during an intense 8-hour-long code jam at Gravity, as part of a really cool on-site team exercise.  We tend to be really heads-down on products for our clients, so this was a great exercise to get a little more creative and play around with some internal ideas.  Some people paired up, but most of us played around with random app ideas we had.

I first got into programming because I wanted to make games, which is probably true for most software engineers of my age and gender.  It's been years since I've spent any serious time making a game, though.  Having a tight deadline like this really helped me focus and actually get something done; typically, my projects tend to grow larger and more grandiose as I develop them until it's impossible for me to complete my vision.  Here, I jotted down a basic list of goals, opened Eclipse, and started typing.

The core idea behind this game was actually adapted from something I'd done over ten years earlier, on one of the last games I'd finished.  "Something Strange" (also known as School Simulator 3000) was a text-based adventure, but it opened with a quirky grid of rotating letters.  The overall visual effect is a bit hard to describe, but essentially, there's a random stream of letters appearing before you; gradually, particular letters stop shifting, and eventually, you realize that the frozen letters spell out a word, hidden in the larger chaos of the still-changing letters.  It's a bit like one of those magic eye posters, maybe... you need to look at it in the right way to see the message.

Anyways, it was a simple idea, but one that I thought I could stretch into a game.  The main graphics game together by lunchtime. I wanted to let the user highlight correct letters as they found them, so I initially experimented with having a separate TextView for each letter.  I quickly realized that this slowed everything to a crawl. Fortunately, while poking around for a solution, I found that I could use a single TextView for the entire grid of letters, and use a spannable style to add color to the particular letters I wanted.  Success!

The core game was easy to write.  A simple Handler ticks off board rotations, which are slow at early levels and get faster later on.  At each tick, every letter on the board shifts, unless it was already the right letter for the word.  A click handler converts the x/y coordinate of the touch into a letter within the grid.  The user loses a point or two if the letter is wrong; if it's right, a span will turn the letter red.  Once all letters in the word have been identified, they move on to the next level.

While I was developing, the word was always FNORD.  I knew that Android had a built-in dictionary that it uses for spell checking, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to be accessible to third-party apps; only the dictionary of user-defined words can be used, and that didn't fit my needs.  Instead, I grabbed a copy of /usr/share/dict/words.  I opened it in vi, and used a few global regexp replacements to wipe out everything except words containing only the lower-case letters a-z that were between five and eight characters long.  That still left me with an impressive dictionary to work with, and the game would now select a random letter from that instead.

The game was working, but didn't seem like much fun yet.  I spent the rest of the time tweaking it out with better mechanics and more goals and rewards.  I added a set of ranks, so the player would see their status improve as they played and won.  I added a lot of variations for higher levels; when a player first starts, they just see a very basic white-text-on-black screen, but over time the colors will change, letters will alter more rapidly, and at higher levels sections of the grid will freeze in place.  I also added music, at which point it really started to feel like a game.  I was delighted with the offerings through Creative Commons; this whole movement makes me so happy, since it lets me add professional-seeming resources to my games even without a budget.

The most important gameplay addition I made was allowing the user to guess a word before it has been fully revealed.  This adds a fun tension to the game: you get double points if you guess it correctly, but lose a bunch if you guess it wrong, and don't get any bonus if it has been fully revealed.  I found myself hesitating at the thought of whether to guess early, and smiled when I realized it.  As Sid Meier says, any good game presents a series of interesting choices.

Nonsense was well-received by the other folks at Gravity.  The following weekend, I implemented some of the suggestions I had received and some other items from my personal wishlist and made it a more commercial-ish product.  Some of these were small touches that had a big impact, like adding tiny sound effects when the user clicked a letter.  You get a happy "Click!" when you tap the right word, and a disappointed "Thump." when you tap the wrong one.  There's a cheerful "Ding!" when the game finishes.  I began to feel a little like B. F. Skinner. 

I also scrubbed my dictionary; I hadn't thought of this, but it did contain some anatomically related words that could seem inappropriate, some racial terms, and other things that people might object to.  I started to wish that I had a dirtier mind so I could think of all the bad words I should search for; there were way too many words for me to review them all, but I THINK I got the worst ones out.  I added a feature to let you look up a word at the end of a level.  Around this point, my conception of the game started to evolve... it became less about a visual trick, rewarding accurate visual perception, and more about vocabulary, being able to identify words.  Now, levels started to seem more like Scrabble or a crossword.  I found that I was using the "Solve" feature much more often.

I finally decided that I was reasonably happy with it; there's more I could do, but there's always more I can do, and if I've learned anything it's that I can tweak out on making a game forever.  I published it out to the Android Market under the Brain & Puzzle category.  It should run on every Android device running OS version 1.6 or higher.  (It technically could run on earlier phones as well, but there's a weird issue where apps built for 1.5 and earlier automatically get permission to read the SD card and phone state, which worries some users of later phones.)  If you have an Android phone and feel like trying something new, please check it out, and let me know what you think!

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Venetian Blind

My ongoing quest to read books that I should have read before continues to yield mixed results.  Sometimes I come up with something amazing, like Pale Fire; other times it's a dud.  Sadly, "Death in Venice" falls into the latter category.  I don't think it's a bad story, it just doesn't do much for me.


Thomas Mann wrote this novella, in which a middle-aged writer mopes around and obsesses over a much younger boy.  The language of the book is great - it's hard to tell how much is the translation and how much is Mann, but there are some really beautiful passages.

But - and this is a failing of mine, not a failing of Great Writers - I want more than great language from my books; if I was satisfied with beautiful similes and thoughtful construction, I'd read a heck of a lot more poetry than I do now.  When all that great writing is devoted to the task of illuminating the sad, pathetic, often petty life of a rather pompous man, well, I just don't feel that thrilled.


I wasn't enthralled by this story.  I'm sure it didn't help that my copy started with a translation of "Tobias Mindernickel", in which a strange man buys a dog, pampers it, and then stabs it to death.  (Yes, that's an oversimplification, but I don't have a lot of tolerance for that kind of thing.)

I'm definitely not done with Mann - I'll probably pick up The Magic Mountain one of these days, and may also give Doctor Faustus a whirl.  I doubt that I'll return to his short fiction any time soon, though, based on what I read here.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Practical Beginnings

Having enjoyed my one and only Christopher Moore book, the excellent "Fool," I decided to start investigating the rest of the canon.  I was at least partially motivated by Scott's observation that many of his books take place in the Bay Area.  I like the Bay Area, and I like fiction, so combining the two can be a real winner.

"Practical Demonkeeping" actually takes place near Big Sur, which may be even cooler than the Bay Area.  Berkeley and other local cities get their props as well, and much of the book is steeped in a quintessentially Northern Californian attitude.


This was Moore's first book, and it kind of shows.  Reading this felt a little like reading The Big U: both are fascinating snapshots of a writer with a lot of raw talent who is working his way towards the great writer he will become.  In this case, Moore already had a great sense of humor, a good ear for dialog, and an interesting plot.  His main weakness here is actually the same as Stephenson's weakness in The Big U: it feels like he has trouble with his characters.  Some are much more developed than others, some feel kind of inessential, and a few seem inconsistent.

That isn't a real criticism, though.  The book as a whole definitely works, I just like complaining about things.

The plot was pretty good.  I think I'm spoiled by Gaiman; any other author who integrates mythology and/or religion into a contemporary work has some seriously stiff competition.  The demonic aspect was rather Miltonic - interesting, but nothing that hasn't been done before.  The djinn aspect felt a little tacked-on... maybe it's just my Western prejudices, but I have a hard time comparing the power of a genie to the power of a devil. 

But, anyways: the actual storyline, and the whole bit with Catch being bound by rules but still basically free to do what he wanted, was done well. 

I got a real kick out of reading an early-90's contemporary novel.  There were so many things in here that would have seemed totally natural at the time but feel like anachronisms now.  Like smoking in restaurants, and aerobics programs, and BBS's.


"Practical Demonkeeping" wasn't as good as Fool, but it was still good enough to keep me interested in Moore.  I'm looking forward to retracing his progression.  Ahh... it feels so good to finally get another author whose work I can devour without waiting in agony for another book to come out.

Friday, July 02, 2010


I think I first encountered "Under the Volcano" as a context-free question in Scholastic Bowl.  Back in high school, my role on the team focused on literature, history, politics, and geography.  Some of it was stuff I already knew, but a lot involved me memorizing lists of things that might come up in a tournament.  I'm amazed at how much of that stuff has stuck with me.  Some of it might still come in useful if I ever attend cocktail parties (the names of the six wives of Henry VIII), while others will be uselessly occupying precious brain cells for the remainder of my life (Dan Glickman was Secretary of Agriculture and Rodney Slater was Secretary of Transportation while I was playing Scholastic Bowl).

Anyways, a good chunk of memorization had to do with the authors of various important books.  This ended up being at least slightly useful outside the game, as it made me look more knowledgeable than I really was.  In Scholastic Bowl, you're primed to immediately hit the buzzer the instant you know the answer; to this day, when someone mentions the name of a book, I immediately say, "Oh, that's by [fill in the blank], right?"  It makes me look like I know what they're talking about, even though I often know absolutely nothing beyond the names.  Hooray for useless knowledge!

So it was with "Under the Volcano."  That really sounds like an exciting book, doesn't it?  Just based on the title?  Maybe a "Land of the Lost"-style adventure, with modern people passing through a volcanic range to encounter pre-civilization dinosaurs.  Or maybe it's more of a Morlock thing, with a civilization of people living beneath a volcano.  Or maybe an apocalyptic science-fiction story, where evil men plot to trigger a volcanic explosion to destroy the earth.


Well, turns out that it's none of those things.  It's about a drunk mid-level British diplomat.

It's a very well-written book about a drunk mid-level British diplomat, I should say.  After I got over my initial disappointment, I started to appreciate the book a lot more.  To manage expectations: it's much more on the order of, say, Joyce, in that it's a densely written, intricate and interesting book; its plot does not excite, but its characters and language do. 

Three main characters dominate the story.  The most important is The Consul, Geoffrey Firmin.  He's a British representative who has traveled around the world, and recently been stationed in Mexico.  The book is set in the 1930's, with the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and the Mexican Revolution.  Britain has withdrawn its consuls, so Geoffrey is remaining without any real reason to be there.  He's drunk, but not just because of that.  Drunkenness permeates his entire life, his entire thinking.  We gradually learn that his drinking goes back years and years, and was the direct cause of the most traumatic event of his life, his divorce from Yvonne; the divorce, in turn, further drove his drinking.

The Mexicans in the town call him "borracho," and with good reason.  Some view him with pity, others with disdain, a few take advantage of him.  He lives his entire life in... not exactly a fog, but in an altered state of reality, under the influence of alcohol.  Malcolm Lowry uses a third-person omniscient narrator, who in each chapter is attached to the thoughts of a particular character.  It's exhilarating and creepy to see the Consul's thoughts spinning out of control, both in speech and in his own head.  He has a great education and is very knowledgeable, but now all the structure has fallen apart, and what comes out of his mouth is a kind of stew, with lots of jumbled-together references and allusions that don't add up to anything. 

It's hard to decide how to relate to the Consul.  He's pathetic, but in a way that feels slightly endearing.  We get to know him better once Yvonne (re-)enters the picture.  She still has feelings for him, and desperately hopes to rescue what remains of him from his self-destructive drinking.  She isn't an angel either, but is an epitome of rationality compared with him.  Rounding out the trio is Hugh Firmin, Geoffrey's much younger brother.  Hugh has led an exciting life as a songwriter, sailor, cowboy, and mercenary; however, Hugh is plagued by feelings of inadequacy, and constantly longs for a sense of authenticity that he seems unable to achieve.

Possibly the most amazing aspect of Under the Volcano is the way that Lowry explores and expands the lives of his characters.  We get to feel like we know the characters soon after they're introduced, but later chapters drastically revise our understanding of them.  We learn about Yvonne's history as a childhood actress, of which Hugh isn't even aware; her experiences with fame at that early age help us understand why she acts the way she does.  Conversely, Yvonne has no idea that Hugh is a talented guitarist, and he actively hopes that she doesn't find out, so determined is he to erase this part of his history. 

Huh... it just occurred to me that this might be a major theme of the book: erasure.  Geoffrey drinks to drive away his despair; drinking doesn't make him forget, but it does dull his pain.  Hugh took to the sea to destroy his image as a child of privilege; he gave up his songwriting career; he abandoned England to fight in other wars.  Yvonne may be the one creative member of the trio, with her dream of an island farm in Vancouver. 


Under the Volcano was a fairly difficult book to read.  Geoffrey's drinking can be amusing, but it's also really awful.  The writing is so dense that it takes a lot of concentration to absorb; it doesn't fit in that well with my habit of reading on public transit, and I ended up reading most of the book at home.  I think I would have gotten a lot more out of it if I'd read it back in school; I'm pretty confident that I missed a ton of allusions and themes in there.  Still, the text is strong enough to be enjoyed on its own, and I'm glad I made the effort.