Wednesday, April 20, 2011


A few random notes, mostly television-related:
  • This season of Archer has been AMAZING. I enjoyed the first season, but it has become insanely hilarious in the second season. They're striking the perfect balance between episodic and serial humor: each episode is a great little self-contained adventure, but a lot of jokes become far more hilarious if you know what happened last week. I'm sad that the finale is approaching.
  • After some prodding from a brother and sister, I've finally jumped on the Community bandwagon; I've watched the first season and about twelve episodes in the current season. I think this might be the best comedy I've seen since "Arrested Development." Yes, it's really that good.
  • On the other hand, I'm getting increasingly bored with "30 Rock". I don't think it's becoming worse or anything, I'm just getting too used to it. There's a decent chance that I'll drop it from my list for next year.
  • Let's talk Game of Thrones! Consider these SPOILERS, just for the pilot, not for the series or books.
    • The reason why there aren't spoilers for the books? There's pretty much no significant difference (so far) between the two. I was really impressed by the fidelity the show shows to the source material. I think there may have been a few things that weren't in the text - one thing that springs to mind is a conversation between Jaime and Cersei. Even that fit in perfectly with what we know so far.
    • I had a feeling that they'd end the pilot on that scene. I'm glad that they did. "Ah, the things I do for love..."
    • Wow, the show looks GORGEOUS. At first I thought it was a bit of a bummer that so many of the outside scenes were shot on cloudy, overcast days; but, that just makes the blazing sun across the Narrow Sea look even more incredible. Anyways, everything looks top-notch, from the scenery to the costumes to the cinematography. (I watched a standard def version first, and can't wait to check out the HD version.)
    • So far, I'm feeling cautiously optimistic. I think my biggest hope now is that the show is hugely financially successful, so HBO goes ahead and does the rest of the series. And, if they manage to finish before GRRM does, then maybe he'll be able to finish the series through scripts instead of through novels! I would gladly accept that.
  • I don't think I ever commented on the Onion News Network. It was pretty interesting; I've enjoyed the clips on The Onion's web site, but it reaches a sort of surreal insanity when they're fully committed to it for half an hour at a time. It's pretty interesting how both it and The Daily Show can perfectly be described as "fake news shows," yet are totally different. ONN is almost a fantasy, while TDS and TDR are straight-up satire.
  • I'm finally watching a new anime: Welcome to the NHK. It's pretty good so far; it seems vaguely like a comedic version of Serial Experiments Lain. It's about socially isolated Japanese young men, and is one of the more neurotic things I've seen.
  • Quick note on the book front - I finally picked up a copy of Masterpiece Comics, from the library of all places. It was totally awesome, but much shorter than I had expected. Given that he's been doing these for decades, I was hoping for more source books to skewer. It's hard to think of more iconic comics that he could have used as a lampooning tool, though... it seems like he grabbed the best examples from each of the major genres of mainstream comics.
It's funny how time seems to flow together when you're no longer in school. When I was in college I wouldn't always know what day of the week it was, but always knew how long I had until finals. Now, I always know exactly what day of the week it is, but often need to think a while to remember what month. (It doesn't help that in the Bay Area all months seem more or less alike.) All that to say, I find I'm caught off-guard now that the TV season is winding down and my favorite shows are headed for hiatus. Fortunately, there's a wealth of great stuff out there that I haven't yet seen, and I'm looking forward to exploring more of it.

    Saturday, April 16, 2011

    The Filth

    Warren Ellis isn't exactly Neil Gaiman, but if you squint you can see the similarities: both are English, both made it big in America with their personal, idiosyncratic limited-run comics, and both branched out into regular novels. Gaiman has gone on to become the master of all media, while Ellis is content to mostly stay in the graphic novel world with occasional forays into script-writing.

    As far as I can tell, Ellis has just published one novel so far, Crooked Little Vein, and it's a doozy. The language and thematic content will be familiar to anyone who has read Transmetropolitan (which I'm tempted to call his opus, except that probably isn't fair since I haven't yet read Planetary). It's about moral decadence and the breakdown of contemporary society, and primarily revolves around sexual perversion, drug abuse, misuse of power, and cringe-inducing physical injuries. All of this is channeled through a kind of refracting lens; in TransMet it was the gleeful hedonism of Spider, in CLV it's the jaded resignation of private investigator McGill.


    Speaking of McGill, the book also centers around a MacGuffin: in the impressive first chapter, we meet both McGill and his unexpected employer, the heroin-addicted White House Chief of Staff. The job: track down the "secret Constitution of the United States." This vaguely seems like a DaVinci Code-esque bit of history-inspired creativity. According to the Chief of Staff, after writing the famous Constitution, the founding fathers got together and secretly penned ANOTHER document that laid out their private vision for the country. It includes several "invisible amendments," and has guided the actions of Presidents throughout centuries. It also resonates at the same frequency as our eyeballs, which somehow compels you to read it? And it turns people into upstanding and proper citizens? None of this actually matters at all: it's a very entertaining MacGuffin, but for all that it affects the plot, it might as well be a nuclear launch code or a bag of jewels or incriminating blackmail photos... it only exists to motivate the characters to go on their journey.

    McGill is a fairly likeable, fairly blank character. His only really distinguishing characteristic is his rotten luck; bad stuff always seems to happen when he's around. Early on he joins forces with a polyamorous girl (who I couldn't help thinking of as his Filthy Assistant), who navigates him through the landscape of bizarre sexual peccadilloes and other corruptions. They embark on a fascinating tour of America, starting in grimy New York, moving on to featureless Cleveland, down into smug San Antonio, over to tacky Las Vegas and finally ending in soulless Los Angeles. I don't think any of the later cities topped the craziness of New York, but the overpowering blandness of many suburban landscapes are even more offensive to the protagonists than, say, Godzilla fetishists.


    The book is a really quick read; I polished it off in a few days, but you could probably do it in a single sitting. It's entertaining for most of the same reasons that Transmetropolitan was entertaining: it's dirty, dangerous, funny, and direct; it gestures at the filth in our society without making you feel bad about it. Like Transmetropolitan, I personally feel a bit uncomfortable about that mental perspective; it's tough to tell when Ellis is glorifying something, or condemning it, or just gleefully observing.

    I can't say that Crooked Little Vein is high literature - this ain't no American Gods - but it's a great modern noir-ish adventure detective story, and if you can stomach the subject matter, you'll have a blast.

    Saturday, April 09, 2011

    Future Shocked

    In my ever-continuing odyssey of finishing popular games years after release, I've recently wrapped up Bioshock 2. This is the sequel to one of my favorite FPS-ish games of recent years, which in turn was the spiritual successor to the most amazing survival horror game that I've ever played. Bioshock 2 upholds the legacy, without advancing it... it's a thoroughly satisfying game that maintains the best elements of the franchise, but can't provide the same sense of exponential growth and, well, shock that its predecessors did. Simply put, expectations are now high enough that just meeting them is an impressive accomplishment.

    Graphically, the game looks similar to Bioshock, though I think the overall quality may be a tad higher. The design of Rapture still looks the same, which is excellent; it's this really cool, almost steampunk-ish / art deco look. One amazing new angle is that you periodically venture outside of Rapture, in a full diving suit, and the visuals there are just gorgeous. It's a burst of organic sealife, a nice contrast to the industrial elegance inside the structure.

    The voice acting continues to be excellent. They've brought back most of the characters from the first game; thanks to the magic of audio recordings, we even get to hear from some people who didn't survive it. There are many new characters as well, and the majors have well-thought-out, complex personalities.

    General gameplay still feels pretty similar: you will probably end up specializing in a couple of weapons (short-range and long-range), using those for most of your combat, and breaking out your plasmids for the big fights. There are some pretty significant improvements here, though. The first Bioshock game technically had traps, but I almost never bothered using them; they just didn't seem effective, you usually didn't have opportunities to set them up before encountering enemies, and they were much more of an obstacle to you than to your foes. They've refined traps in the sequel, and as a result, they're more effective and MUCH more fun. One small change: you don't set off traps yourself, so you can happily apply Trap Rivets or Proximity Mines all over the place without worrying about where you're going. There are also many more gameplay situations now where traps are useful: you'll clear an area out, know that you'll need to defend it against a bunch of incoming Splicers, set your traps accordingly, then wait for them to come in.

    That actually speaks to one of the things that I like best about Bioshock. On the FPS/RPG continuum, it's much closer to the FPS side, but it does resemble the RPG in the way that it lets you choose between multiple solutions to any problem. In the combat scenario that I laid out before, I'll generally spend a minute setting up cunning traps, and snipe off the ones who make it through. If you're more into twitchy action, though, you can just break out your machine gun and your strafing shoes and go at it. And, if you're into hacking and there are turrets or security cameras nearby, you can enlist them in your action as well.

    That's another big improvement in the sequel: in the first Bioshock, you technically could get a security bot follower, but it was really hard. You usually had to set off an alarm, wait for a bot to come, then get close enough to it (while it's pelting you with bullets) to start a hack, and hack it or buy it out. Every once in a long while you would run across a Splicer with a bot who you could kill and then hack. Because of that, I rarely had companions, and when I lost one, it would be a while until I'd get a replacement. Here, though, you can get a new Plasmid sequence called Security Command, and the second and third levels let you summon security bots on demand at any time. You're limited to two, but still, that's really awesome. For the latter part of the game I usually had both of them in tow, which gave me a lot more flexibility in how I approached most combat.

    A lot of other stuff from the first game has changed slightly:
    • You can now hack items at a distance using a dart gun. This is helpful for turrets, but I generally still hacked everything else up close like before. Also, the game no longer pauses while hacking, so you don't want to do it while in combat (and don't ever want to hack a turret at close range). There are a limited number of Auto-Hack Darts that let you instantly hack anything.
    • Hacking is way less fun in this game. I still do it whenever I can, but the minigame is totally twitch-based. In Bioshock, I could at least pretend that my brain had an impact on the outcome.
    • Most of the weapons stay the same, but the alternate ammo changes a bit. There's no more Electric Buck, but we do get one that has more stopping power.
    • Some plasmids now have alternate effects if you charge them up by holding down your fire button. For example, Incinerate 2 tosses off a quick flame when you tap, but holding and then releasing creates a fireball that can engulf multiple foes.
    Okay, plot time!


    You remember that part near the end of Bioshock 1, where you transformed into a Big Daddy and escorted some Little Sisters? They kind of took that idea and built a whole game around it. You ARE a Big Daddy, which has a big impact on both gameplay and plot. For gameplay, you have a much closer and more involved relationship with the Little Sisters. It doesn't end when you defeat their protectors; instead, you'll escort them around Rapture, find Adam-filled corpses, and stand guard over the Sister while she collects Adam, as dozens of raving Splicers swarm over you. You still have the Rescue/Harvest choice as before, but collecting Adam takes much more time. I didn't mind, though; the corpse locations are very varied, and I liked how each one requires you to study the lay of the land and work out a strategy before starting to gather.

    The plot seems to occur slightly after the events of the first Bioshock: Ryan is already dead, as is Fontaine, but Rapture is still chugging along and swarming with Splicers. The game's creators have retconned in a new villain, Doctor Sofia Lamb. She's a fascinating character, and pretty much the opposite of Ryan: where Ryan was a full-on Objectivist Libertarian, Lamb is totally devoted to collectivism and the common good. The most interesting parts of the game come through the audio diaries as we unearth the story of how this conflict between philosophies evolved, eventually turning into a physical conflict that touched off a civil war.

    As best as I could piece it together, here's the basic story:
    Andrew Ryan recruited Lamb, a psychiatrist (or was it psychologist?), to help Rapture residents cope with live under water. She hid her true objectives until after she was established in Rapture: she's fanatically devoted to strengthening the bonds between people and communities, and she sets about subtly subverting Ryan's individualist society. Publicly, she sees patients and prescribes treatments; privately, she looks for people who share her vision, and gradually forms them into a secret society she calls The Family. Ryan eventually finds out. There isn't really any government on Rapture, but there are businesses, and those businesses essentially act as the state. Ryan Enterprises puts the pro-Lamb areas of Rapture under lockdown; after a public trial, he sends Lamb off to confinement.

    Lamb has a daughter, Eleanor, whom she has been grooming to be the vessel of humanity's redemption. Lamb's ultimate goal seems to be to harness the plasmid technology of Rapture and use it to make humanity evolve into a single consciousness, thus freeing it from strife and conflict. Eleanor has been chosen to be mankind's savior. When she's sent away, Lamb entrusts Eleanor to the care of Grace, a poor singer who is one of the most dedicated members of the Family. Grace raises Eleanor. Eleanor learns that the man appointed as caretaker of Lamb's domain, Stanley Poole, has been throwing wild parties and generally debauching in her absence; she confronts Stanley, he panics, has Eleanor abducted, and sent to the Little Sister orphanage, where she's transformed into one of those creepy little girls.

    Around this same time, you arrive on the scene. Most of Rapture's residents were drawn to Andrew Ryan's vision and followed him below the waves; you, though, are a deep-sea diver who stumbles across Rapture and decides to stay. You become a Big Daddy, and become the guardian of Eleanor.

    That's all well and good, until Dr. Lamb leaves confinement. (I'm not clear on whether she was released, broke out, or if her faction seized power.) One of the very first scenes in the game has Dr. Lamb ordering you to pick up a pistol, hold it to your head, and fire; you kill yourself, while creepy-eyed Eleanor looks on in horror.

    Your Adam gets harvested. We learn in Bioshock 2 that, in addition to collecting Adam, the Little Sisters are also able to collect an individual's thoughts and personality. They usually ignore this, but Eleanor, who had grown very attached to you as a father figure, gets the other Little Sisters to secretly collect this information. They eventually find a new body, and you are reborn into it. Eleanor has a telepathic link with you, and very occasionally will send you encouragement or warnings.

    In the game proper, you initially meet with Dr. Tennenbaum (sp?) from the previous game, but before long she collects her rescued Little Sisters and flees Rapture. She hands you off to Sinclair, who provides a role similar to that played by Atlas in the first game: he's your most frequent communicator on the intercom, guiding your movement throughout the game.

    Bioshock 2 has the same binary morality as the first game. The most obvious choices to make are whether to rescue or harvest the Little Sisters. It's interesting that, in this go-round, you develop much closer relationships with the Sisters than before: after you adopt one, you'll typically lead her around for a while and defend her while she collects Adam. It would be unusually cold-hearted to harvest after that, and I always picked the rescue option. As before, this initially means less Adam, but over the long run you not only get bonus Adam but also unique gene tonics and other goodies as thank-you gifts.

    Besides the Rescue/Harvest quandary, there are several points in the game where you need to decide whether to kill or spare a high-level opponent. These were at least a little more interesting; in one case the other guy had caused a great deal of anguish for many people, and in another, the other person has very explicitly asked you to kill him. Still, it's ultimately a black-or-white, on-or-off approach to morality, which isn't very interesting to me in this post-Dragon Age era.

    On the whole, the rhythm of progress through the game feels very similar to the preceding entry. You explore one large area of Rapture at a time. In the first part of the game, each new area provides you with a new weapon and a new type of Splicer to worry about. Much of the game is spent exploring, killing Splicers (who respawn, which I hate - how can there possibly be this many people left after everything that has happened previously on Rapture?), collecting limited quantities of ammo, and eventually fulfilling the requirements to leave and go to the next area. There's no back-tracking between levels, so you need to fully explore if you want to make sure you have all of the important stuff like Power to the People stations taken care of.

    Also like in the previous game, most of the plot is revealing the past and not the present, which is overall a cool way of doing it; it gives the game world a nice sense of grounding.

    MEGA SPOILERS (for this game, as well as the first Bioshock and System Shock 2)

    In a way, I'm putting this in "mega spoilers" so I don't give away the fact that there really aren't any mega spoilers in this game. Unlike the mindtwisting, astonishing reveals of Bioshock and System Shock 2, stuff actually progresses more or less in the way you expect it. Except, of course, I had been conditioned to expect that there WOULD be a twist. Throughout the whole game I kept wondering: was Sinclair really the transferred mind of Ryan? Or maybe Eleanor was secretly an evil prodigy, manipulating events around her to bring about Armageddon? Nope: Sinclair really is a reform-minded business tycoon, and Eleanor really is a slightly scared young lady with enormous talents who wants to do good.

    Lamb made a good villain. She's philosophically the exact opposite of Ryan: her communalism to his individualism, her religion to his business, her Tyrant to his Parasite, her Green to his Libertarian. I like how the series underlines that extremism in any form is the danger, not any particular philosophy. I also like how much credit it gives to its villains, letting them speak at length and lay out their thoughts.

    A few relatively minor complaints: I totally didn't get the bit with Sinclair at the end. I could understand it if Lamb brainwashed him, or something, but it's just bizarre for him to be completely lucid and instructive and still trying to kill you. I was also bummed that there doesn't seem to be any option to save him. It felt like forced failure, especially after you were able to save the other folks in the levels before that one. Let's see, what else... mmm, I guess that might be it.

    Things I loved:
    • The final battle was really epic and exciting. I laid out everything I had and won, but it was quite challenging, which I enjoyed.
    • The new gene tonics were great. I especially enjoyed Fountain of Youth (or was it Life?) that regenerates health and Eve when standing in water.
    • Late in the game, my standard load-out was Insect Swarm 3 with two Security Bots in tow. I could take out almost any enemy without even directly engaging. A couple of times I completed an Adam harvest without any harm to me or the Little Sister. 
    • Favorite weapons: generally the shotgun, but I probably used the Rivet Gun more. Both are awesome once fully upgraded. I also had a lot of fun with the Spear Gun, and would have enjoyed even more sniping opportunities.
    • It was really fun to get the cameos from the first game. Ryan is still a larger-than-life presence, and it was cool and creepy to hear from Fontaine again.
    • That said, the whole Lamb thing is pretty ham-handedly retconned. The end result is great, but it really doesn't flow at all from what we saw in the previous game.

    I just recently noticed that there's a new Bioshock game coming up, called Bioshock Infinite. I'm very curious to see what it has to offer. The first two games have been great, but it would be cool if they can move past the world of Rapture and do something more. For two games now they've been hinting at what happens when the advances made by Ryan Industries are unleashed upon the world, and I hope we'll get to see and participate in that.

    Sunday, April 03, 2011

    Inside, Outside

    Salman Rushdie's East, West is the first chance I've had to read his short stories. I'd previously been thoroughly impressed with Midnight's Children, a phenomenal phantasmagoric expedition into events and thoughts around the time of India's early statehood.

    Rushdie is an interesting guy, and arguably one of the most global citizens in a world full of continent-hopping writers. He's a product of the British legacy in India, and seems to have spent much of his life and his career exploring that intersection. East, West is an explicit journey through these two spheres, looking at each one individually and at how they intersect.

    The first section, "East," collects a handful of stories set in India. These are the shortest in the book, and also seem like the simplest: the plots are fairly straightforward, the narration is conventional. They're still affecting, though, like something from Saki. One story features an old man who hangs around outside the British Embassy in India, scamming people into giving him money to help grease the wheels for their visa applications. He falls for a visiting woman, honestly tells her what she's up against and offers to give her a rare fake document that will let her go to England and visit her fiance. She thanks him kindly, refuses the offer, and serenely goes off to apply. When she returns, she's so happy that the old man believes she's done the impossible and navigated the bureaucratic hurdles on her own. She explains that, no, she failed to give them satisfactory answers, and her application was denied. Then why, the old man asks, is she so happy? Because since she has tried and failed, now she can live her life: she'll remain focused on her family and her friends here on the subcontinent, instead of thinking about a young man who she barely knows who lives half a world away.

    I can't exactly sum up the moral of the story, but it definitely feels like a story with a moral, right?

    The second section, "West," features stories that seem to be set in America or England. These are a bit longer and more intricate, and a little more fanciful as well. ("East" stories are either realistic or have straight-up magic, while "West" has a bit more of that dreamlike quality that people like me enjoy so much.) One of the most interesting in this section is "The Auction of the Ruby Slippers," which describes the excitement around an upcoming chance to bid on Dorothy's slippers from The Wizard of Oz. The story is, well, short, but there's an incredible amount going on: the auction itself and the fanatical devotion it attracts would be interesting enough, but Rushdie has set this story in the foreground of some sort of mass social breakdown. The narrator barely alludes to it, in the same way that we usually wouldn't bring up the sky being blue when we're telling a story, but enough offhand references slip in that they kind of jar us a bit, and give a nicely unsettling feeling to the whole tale.

    The final section, "East, West" is a kind of synthesis that brings together the hemispheres. Sometimes this is done explicitly, like in "Chekhov and Zulu," which describes the adventures of two Sikhs trying to navigate the political landscape in the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination. We eventually learn that "Zulu" should actually be called "Sulu," and that the two of them are childhood friends who were devoted to "Star Trek" (which they had never actually seen, but just absorbed through the detritus of Western culture that washed ashore on India), and use that show's metaphors to describe everything important in their lives. Also in this vein, "The Courter" is a great, fairly traditionally told story of an Indian family that has emigrated to London and their experiences there.

    Other times, "East, West" doesn't directly talk about India and the west, but rather seems to be trying for a kind of synthesis of different ways of thinking or seeing the world. One of my favorite stories here was "The Harmony of the Spheres," which describes the friendship between two men, one of whom has slipped into paranoid schizophrenia after a lifetime devoted to studying the occult. It's a fascinating and disturbing story that doesn't directly have anything to do with East or West but a lot to do about exploration, ideas, and synthesis.

    I'm pretty impressed by what I've read here. It's hard to sum up Rushdie's short fiction, but if forced to do so, I'd probably compare him to Nabokov. Not in the direct sense of sounding like him, but in the way both of them show great skill at playing around with different voices and narrations, and the way both of them take inspiration from the immigrant experience without ever sounding like immigrant writers. It's been great to see Rushdie back on the literary map for the past decade, and I hope we get to see many more stories from him.

    Saturday, April 02, 2011

    Darn good coffee! And HOT!

    I almost titled this post "Lynching," then realized that would be a very bad idea.

    As previously noted, I've finally finished the second and final season of Twin Peaks. I then went on to watch "Blue Velvet," one of David Lynch's earlier works. The one-two punch of these viewings apparently triggered some sort of deep psychological distress in me, because for the next three or four nights I had pretty bad nightmares.

    At a meta level, that's actually pretty cool. I can't think of another time that I've had dreams that seemed to be directly touched off by a piece of media. I also appreciated dreaming in general, since these days I almost never remember my dreams. Having nightmares was a different and kinda fun experience, too. When I do dream, mine tend to be rather strange and surreal, but almost never frightening. This time around, though, I was jolted awake almost every time.

    Amusingly enough, while the specific images in the dreams didn't have any overt connection to either Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet, I DID have one dream that was ripped from another David Lynch movie that I had originally seen maybe four years earlier: Mulholland Drive. Most of the dream was different, but it ended like the  scene at Winkie's Diner. Kinda funny to think that that particular image has been lurking in the back of my brain for so long before finally striking.

    Other than that, most of the dreams were a weird mishmash of violence and the everyday. I realize that that sounds like a capsule summary of both TP and BV, but mine were a bit different... for example, in one dream I was at a water park, which was frequented by several large families of all ages. There was a gang war going on, and people were being killed (in the water slides, in the pools, or while waiting around); everyone knew this was going on, but still kept on playing, even occasionally laughing. I got a sick feeling once I realized that one gang (either an individual or a small group, I forget which) had found an unguarded family and wiped them out. When I woke up, I realized that the thought going through my mind was, "im in ur base killing ur d00dz". The gap between that concept and the "reality" in my dream freaked me out. Anyone who has played, say, an FPS game has experienced the thrill at a string of easy kills, when you've broken through defenses and are able to pluck off a host of unprepared foes. If you think of those enemies as people people, though, then it becomes macabre.

    Aaaanyways, just thought I'd share that fun little nugget. I have absolutely no regrets about any of my viewing, but I think I'll wait a bit longer before breaking out "Eraserhead".