Friday, June 29, 2012

The Starveling Cat! The Starveling Cat! Louder than a dog! Taller than a rat!

Some random thoughts:

There was a surprisingly interesting profile of Ben Stiller in a recent New Yorker article. I'm a little ambivalent about Stiller, and I was surprised to see that he shares my ambivalence; specifically, he isn't a big fan of the franchises that have made him famous, like Meet the Fockers, and seems to often wish that he had ended up as a lower-tier director, working on small projects that he felt passionate about. As long as he's rich and famous, though, he's trying to use his powers to create good movies on his own terms. The main focus of the article was his film of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a fairly big-budget movie that Fox is backing, after an extended period of wrangling with Stiller over the budget. I was most intrigued, though, by a little snippet where he revealed that, for the past 15 years, he's been trying to make a movie out of George Saunder's phenomenal "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline." He's been able to attract a lot of talent to the project, including Sean Penn and Owen Wilson as the leads, but hasn't been able to raise the money to make it. The article includes this great quote from Saunders:

"It was the reverse of the cliche about the pandering movie guy and the noble fiction writer, because I would absolutely have sold out to get the movie made -- added car chases, a puppy cluster, whatever -- and Ben always insisted on returning to the darkest, oddest version of this story."

So, I'm a little bummed that Saunders' genius will continue to be hidden from broader American society; but, it's also encouraging to see that people are looking out for the integrity of his art.

Speaking of movie adaptations: Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash seems to be finally moving forward. It's still a long ways off from getting green-lit; a guy named Joe Cornish plans to write the adaptation and direct it, so there are still a lot of ways this could get derailed. In a recent Reddit AMA, Stephenson said that he's chatted with Cornish, but will be staying out of his way and letting him make the thing. That seems like a good approach to these kinds of projects: pick good people, then trust them to do good work with it. Stephenson also had some wise words in response to the predictable fears that people would ruin his book: "I think that fans' expectations can get out of whack when they use vocab like 'the book is being made into a movie,' which kind of implies that the book reaches some kind of apotheosis in the form of the movie, and ceases to exist as a book. That's not what happens. The book isn't going to change. It'll always be there. In addition to the book, there is going to be this other thing, a movie." That did give me pause. I often approach cinematic adaptations of literature with a mixture of excitement and dread. I enjoyed reading The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen so greatly that I have gone to great lengths to avoid the movie, out of fear that it would pollute my appreciation of the work. The Lord of the Rings took one of my favorite stories of all time and created one of my favorite movies of all time. I think part of the reality of the way my mind works is that I'm not great at compartmentalizing different aspects of a single work. I can watch Blues Brothers and enjoy it, but I'll also periodically cringe, because parts of the movie will remind me of Blues Brothers 2000 and how awful that was.

That said, as long as the new work is a net good, I'm in favor of it being created, even if it isn't as good as its predecessor. That probably also explains why I'm so grateful that REM stuck around as long as they did - just because they didn't create another Green or Automatic for the People didn't keep them from improving the world by giving us lots of great new songs. Snow Crash: The Movie might not contain all the awesomeness of Snow Crash: The Book, but as long as it's a good movie (either because it's interesting, or it's amusing, or it's exciting, and hopefully some combination of those virtues), I'll be glad to see it added to the universe.

Continuing to topic-hop... Louis CK is continuing his iconoclastic entrepreneurial sprint. After the rousing social and financial success of his Live at the Beacon experiment, Louis has revamped comedy touring with his upcoming shows at the end of this year. He has cut out the middlemen and gotten rid of the universally loathed TicketMaster: he is now selling tickets directly to consumers, through his website, and only playing at venues that will accommodate the way he wants to do business (no scalping allowed). In San Francisco, that means that he'll be appearing at Davies Symphony Hall, possibly the most gorgeous performing space in a city that has many to recommend. Buying tickets from Louis is such a refreshingly enjoyable experience: no extra surcharges, ticket handling fees, delivery fees, facility charges, or other cruft piled on top of the price. Just a flat $45 per seat, anywhere in the country. (We acted as a team here in the office to snag our tickets. Zac got the email announcing the tickets, and forwarded it on to Eric and me. By the time we had opened it, Zac's session had timed out so he was locked out, but Eric and I were able to proceed with the purchase. Each person is limited to buying 4 tickets, so we got 8 between the two of us, and - drum roll - we'll be in the 4th and 5th row at Davies. Nice!)

On the whole, I'm madly in love with Louis's approach. It's great for the artist, and great for the fans. However, I do wonder whether this is paving the way for a better future (a world where Ticketmaster doesn't exist and artists get to charge less and keep more), or if it's going to be a peculiar outlier that can only be offered by people at the top of their field. There's an easy analogy to make here to Radiohead's In Rainbows experiment: that was a media bonanza for them, and ended up making them a fair amount of money, but they only got away with it because they're Radiohead; other, smaller bands still need the support of record labels to publish new albums. Basically what I'm wondering is, do middlemen still have a role to play, and are we losing anything by cutting them out? Will it be harder for newer bands or comedians or authors to get big and recognized if there are no more record labels or tour promoters or publishing houses? I hope not - my ideal vision of the future is one where a wide variety of artists can connect directly with passionate fans - but I'll admit to a strain of pessimism.

Then again, there may be reason for optimism. Other comedians, like Aziz Ansari and Jim Gaffigan, have followed in Louis's footsteps with online DRM-free video sales and seem to be doing pretty well. I'd been concerned that Louis's was successful only because it was novel and got a lot of free coverage - it was reported on NPR and other surprising sources. It looks like there's a real appetite out there for honest sellers with a quality product, though. Similarly, I was very excited by the successful Kickstarter by Tim Schafer's DoubleFine, and thought that it was largely because of the novelty of old-school games making a comeback; that said, newer projects like Shadowrun have continued to do well, which makes me cautiously optimistic that the direct funding model may be a viable path forward.

Oh, on the topic of Shadowrun: Jordan Weisman is publishing a serialized story set in Shadowrun's 2050 world. The first entry is now available. I highly recommend it! I felt weirdly nostalgic when reading it; given that I had played the Genesis game for the first time only a few months ago, I shouldn't feel that level of warm familiarity with Julius Strouther and the Sega CTY-360 and Renraku Pyramid. So it goes. This kind of storytelling makes me very happy for the story-driven Shadowrun game!

Quick TV roundup:

The new season of Louie starts tonight!

I finished watching both extant seasons of Party Down. It was incredible, and I can see why people love it so much. The only downside is that, now that I've finished watching it, I have a harder time getting behind the Ben/Leslie romance on Parks & Recreation. Don't get me wrong, they're an extremely cute couple, but Adam and Lizzy had such amazing chemistry on that show that anything else is bound to feel inferior.

Game of Thrones ended on a phenomenal note! I absolutely adored the Blackwater episode, and barely minded that they got rid of the chain. That's probably the single most impressive TV episode I've ever seen. I'm actually kind of tempted to check out the director's movies now; I've wanted to see The Descent for a while anyways, and what he did here was just phenomenal. (If you like the series, or just the process of directing, I highly recommend Neil Marshall's interview with The Empire about making this episode. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that his budget for this episode is about the same as the budget he's had for his feature movies. Go, HBO! Also, there apparently really is an HBO executive whose job is to get as much T&A into each episode as possible.) The finale was also good; I felt a little let down, but mostly just because I wanted more, which is probably a good sign. (TV AND BOOK SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH): I was really surprised that they wrapped up the destruction of Winterfell into this season; I had thought that they would delay it into season 3, just so they could introduce the Bastard properly. I'm really curious to see where they take that plot from here, and if they rejoin the book's continuity or go in another direction. I missed the awesome crazy visions that were in the book's version of House of the Undying, but the couple of scenes we got in the TV version were gorgeous. I wonder if the TV series is doing anything with Rhaegar, though? He seems pretty important in the books, and has barely even been mentioned in the show. Oh, yeah: and that final shot that closed out the season was just amazing. Army of ice zombies FTW! I was pretty impressed by the CGI there.

Finally, from the I-can't-believe-that-I'm-only-now-getting-into-this-show department, I'm filling my post-GoT depression by finally watching Deadwood, and finding that it does a surprisingly good job of filling that void. Both shows are very dense, with sprawling casts, intricate plots, surprising story turns (including a willingness to kill off major characters), sex, and violence. I now totally get why everyone reveres Ian McShane the way they do. Early on, I thought Bullock was the noble hero, and Al Swearengen his charismatic villain. Swearengen is just SO magnetic and fascinating, though, that partway through the first season he eclipses Bullock (who is hardly a slouch) and becomes the center of the story. I've loved everything, but the final episode of the first season in particular was jaw-droppingly good. It whirls and spins through a staggering number of plot threads, yet feels like a close character study at the same time. It even provided some very welcome catharsis in the form of Doc Cochran and Jewel's treatment. (Man oh man, Brad Dourif is one of the many astonishing things on that show. I've always vaguely thought of Dourif as the creepy character actor; his depiction of Doc is incredible.) The show somehow got even better in the second season: the writing, which was already good, became even more elevated, to the point where it feels like I'm watching a Shakespearean play. EB Farnum and Mr. Wolcott regularly deliver soliloquies, Farnum often also acts as a Polonius figure, and Richardson is a perfect Fool. I feel like I'm witnessing some sort of fever dream whenever I encounter that unique blend of elevated dialog and base profanity. (This show has turned the compound c---s----- into a flexible and surprisingly powerful phrase.) I can't wait to check out the third season, and am already anticipating the sadness I'll feel that HBO ended the series.

Turning away from digital entertainment... summer in the Bay Area is amazing as always. I've been ramping back up on my cycling, and have finished my last few trips up Kings Mountain Road barely breaking a sweat, so I think I'll soon be ready to make my first 2012 loop trip to Pescadero. I'm also loving the Bay Area's rich bounty. Figs are now in season! Yum! Peaches are near their peak, too; I made a Peach Puzzle a few weeks ago, and I think I've finally nailed the exact right degree of ripeness to make that turn out best. (Freestone peaches are also a crucial component.) I've been doing a fair amount of baking in general lately. I've made what may be the ultimate chocolate-chip cookie, based on the New York Times recipe. I splurged and bought some Valrhona chocolate discs for my first batch, which is pretty expensive - that stuff is about $20/pound, compared to the few bucks I normally spend on a 12-ounce package of chips - so I won't be using it often, but I have to admit that it does make them even more tasty. The cookies are so huge, though, that they're pretty absurd to eat. I love having them in my repertoire, but even if these are the ultimate cookie, there's still an opening for the ultimate PRACTICAL cookie.

I'm finally starting David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. It's pretty good so far, but I'm curious to see where it goes.

Still loving Fallen London. (Slight gameplay spoilers follow for the rest of the paragraph.) I'm continuing to build up my character's primary qualities, although I haven't acquired much equipment lately. I've come to realize that it's almost always better to hold on to your goods rather than sell them, and it often costs 12 echoes or more for a simple +1 piece of equipment with no negatives. You can advance quickly enough as-is that it doesn't seem worth the expense, and besides, it's much more fun to unlock an option in an Opportunity card with your 500 rats on a string than it is to sell them and try to pick up some clothing. I've encountered a glitch in the game that game me a massive undeserved boost to my Dangerous quality; I now have a Dangerous of 79, while all my other stats are in the 40s. I've gotten much better at managing my Menaces. Early in the game, while I was trying to open the way to the Forgotten Quarter (i.e., the Fourth City), I went insane while studying the London streets. That was actually pretty cool, but made me very cautious about how I manage my negatives. Unfortunately, I'm now trying to increase my Watchful, and I'm finding that Nightmares are hands-down the most difficult Menace to keep under control. With a low Scandal, you can start doing "Attend a Church Service," which usually succeeds and not only lowers Scandal but also increases your Church connection. You can Attend to your Wounds, which usually succeeds as well. There's a Storylet in Spite that lets you blackmail a Constable to lower your Suspicion, which also increases your Shadowy progression. With Nightmares, though... the only storylet in your lodgings is "Confess your Fears," which requires (1) a Sudden Insight, which I tend to immediately and unintentionally consume while raising my Watching; and (2) a willing Friend, who is penalized and receives no benefit for their help. After your Nightmares get up to 5, you can try to Ignore the Cheery Man, but this only has a 50/50 chance of working, and no other benefit whether you succeed or fail. Anyways... as a result, I'm extremely cautious when increasing my Watchful, which has me sticking to very easy challenges, and also using extreme care to keep my Nightmares as low as possible. I don't want to get into the story here, but it's been a lot of fun. There's an astonishing variety of mini-arcs, and you generally get a fair amount of choice in how to complete each one.

I've picked up Mass Effect 2, and am absolutely loving it. I'll probably do a full write-up later on about the story, so for now I'll mostly restrict myself to the gameplay. I'd heard before that Bioware had streamlined it, and for the most part I'm very happy with how that turned out. They've gotten rid of the most tedious micro-managing aspects of the game: there's no longer any inventory, no more omni-gel, and no selling anything. As a result, the game tends to move much more quickly; it's kind of astonishing just how much time I spent clicking through a list of 50 weapons in the first game. Powers have also been simplified a great deal; I think that in the first game, most characters could build up 8 powers, which each had a maximum level of, um, maybe 12 points; Shepherd had 12 powers available. In ME2, each character has only 4 powers available, with 4 levels for each. It's a bit easier to manage, but I'm a little disappointed at how similar the progression is for the powers. In most cases, the final level 4 is a choice between "This attack has a wider radius that affects multiple enemies!" and "This attack does more damage!". A few powers like Overload have more interesting choices at the top tier, like choosing a form that makes robots explode.

I generally like the structure of the game, which has changed from a largely free-roaming experience in ME1 to a more focused series of linear levels in ME2. That's in contrast to my usual preference for open worlds in games like Ultima and Elder Scrolls, but Bioware takes great advantage of these crafted levels and makes them a lot of fun. My big complaint here is that they've put crucial power-ups in each level, sometimes in places that aren't very easy to find, and since you aren't allowed to re-visit levels afterwards, I end up being way too OCD on these levels: instead of just having fun and moving forward, I'll defeat a group of enemies, then comb over every square inch of the room to make sure that I'm not passing up a new Heavy Pistol or a Biotic Damage research project. In retrospect, I kind of wish that Bioware would give you some way to acquire items that you missed on your initial run-through, perhaps by letting your purchase them at another location or having them show up in later levels.

 Oh, and the worst part of the game is definitely the rare but infuriating bugs. Specifically, there are some cases where enemies get into invisible locations where you can't kill them and they can't hurt you, and there are some cases where you'll get stuck against a pillar or outside the geometry of the map. In both cases, the only solution is to reload your last save and try again. Much like the problem with hidden research projects, this keeps me from enjoying the action of the game in a long and fun burst, and instead drives me into the OCD behavior of maniacally saving after every successful fight, to minimize the pain of running into bugs. Granted, I've only gotten stuck this way a half-dozen times, but it's made me change the way I play every aspect of the game, which is a shame. It seems like it would have been easy for them to fix, too... just some equivalent of the /stuck command in SW:TOR that would put everyone back into a valid map location.

As long as I'm complaining... while ME2 has largely gotten rid of the tedious and time-consuming aspects of ME1, it introduced a new burden in the form of scanning planets. This is technically optional, but if you want to unlock the full capability of your weapons and squad, you'll need to do A LOT of scanning to gather the resources necessary for research. Each planet can take a minute or more to scan, and it's mind-numbing: sweep your cursor back and forth, back and forth, listening and watching for spikes, then launch a probe, wait for it to land, then resume sweeping.

The hacking mini-game is also a bit annoying, but mostly just because I'm coming off of the awesomeness of the hacking games in Deus Ex and Shadowrun, so ME2 feels like flim-flam in comparison. The two games here are no worse than the "get to the middle" mini-game of ME1.
That's pretty much it from the complaint department, though. While levels are linear, your overall progress through the game is pretty much wide open, and you can pick which planets to visit and when to go to each. Resource management is a breeze. I really love the squad combat in this game; it was already good in ME1, but it's been further simplified in ME2, so you no longer need to select which weapon each teammate is using during a fight, and they're good about using their powers at appropriate times. (The "go to" commands that you can trigger by pressing Q and E seem pretty awful, since as far as I can tell they'll go to that location and then just stay there, no longer entering cover. So, I just don't press those buttons any more.) On the whole, I think ME2 does a fantastic job of letting you focus on the most fun aspects of the game. Heh... there's even some in-game commentary on this from a nerdy Salarian on the Citadel who runs a game store. At one point he says something like, "The new RPGs aren't as good as the old ones. Today's games are all about big choices and character customization. I preferred the old games where you needed to remember to drink water, and it took five hours in real-time to fly somewhere."

That's it for now - more anon!

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