Monday, January 28, 2013

Dead By Dawn

I can definitely see why The Walking Dead won so many game awards last year. It has one of the most gripping stories I've ever experienced in a video game, and also reinvigorates the genre of the adventure game, my first love in gaming and a genre that has been written off as dead for over a decade. (I'll refrain from a belabored analogy about a deceased style of game lurching up from the grave and lumbering towards its critics.)

I'm not sure if there's ever been an adventure game as brutal as this one. There have been other "adult" adventure games, but even the edgiest fare like Police Quest or Phantasmagoria gets limited by its adherence to tropes or unintentional slide into campiness. Much like the comic and TV show, the game of The Walking Dead violently assaults any sliver of hope that comes into its world, building up an incredible atmosphere of dread and despair.

As I noted earlier, though, what's awesome about this game is that by placing you into the world, you gain a sense of agency that's completely lacking in the other media. Sometimes this feels horrible, since you can blame yourself for the bad things happening; however, you can crucially define your own reactions to the misery around you, and choose what kind of attitude you wish to project. I found that, often, the choices that made me think the hardest weren't the action-oriented, life-or-death stakes questions like "Should we hit the road while there's still daylight, or wait for the cover of night?" or "Should we burst in with our guns blazing, or try to sneak past them?" Rather, the questions I worried over the most were how I would frame our situation to others in my group. Would I reassure them and promise that everything would be okay? Would I try to joke and lighten the mood? Or would I seek to harden them, warning that life was bad, would only get worse, and we needed to do everything in our power to have any hope of survival?

I was also highly impressed by the episodic aspect of the game. Releasing a game in episodes is very common for Telltale - they do it in Sam & Max and other adventure games of theirs - but this is the first I'd played from them that was this highly serialized. You can jump in on Abe Lincoln Must Die without playing the earlier games and quickly get into the swing of it, but it's literally impossible to start in the middle of The Walking Dead without having played the earlier episodes and made your crucial decisions in each. This comes across very well in the "Previously On..." and "On the Next..." segments that open and close each episode, seamlessly covering your choices and the implications they create.

The episodic structure also lends itself to gameplay very well. Each individual episode is long and meaty enough to play over the course of a few days, assuming you don't obsessively play it constantly. Each individual episode has several points within where you can easily set it aside for a while without feeling like you're in the middle of a cliffhanger, and the end of each episode is also a natural place to take a break (though there are some pretty painful cliffhangers there). Personally, I really appreciate being able to take a break... I love the story, but it's so relentlessly dark that I like setting it aside to do other stuff.


The characters in the games were terrific. They're complex, varied, and well-drawn: you get a real feeling for what motivates them as individuals, and how to inspire them. As in real life, some people are enormous jerks, and there isn't much you can do about that; others are kind souls who will put up with almost anything you do. I'm still amazed at all the intra-group dynamics that the game supports as well... you can seek to control the flow of information, over who knows what, and that can have significant ramifications on how the story unfolds. These people have long memories, and the things you say in early episodes can pay dividends or come back to haunt you much later.

I found myself thinking a lot about Warren Spector's infamous rules for games, and particularly the one about avoiding forced failure. Basically, it isn't fun when the game forces you to "lose" at something (e.g., being knocked unconscious) without having alternative options (e.g., get the upper hand on your attacker). The Walking Dead is a game that's full of choices you can make, but it's also a game full of forced failure. It's an interesting kind of forced failure, though... people will die no matter what you do, but your choices can affect how they die, and why they die.

Particularly for this sort of game, which is a low-budget independent game with a complex script and a ton of voice acting, I can totally understand the very practical reasons for forced failure. Imagine that there are, say, ten people you can meet throughout the game. And, if any of them could be saved or killed at any time, there would be an unmanageably complex nest of game states, not just in the final outcome, but at any moment along the way. So, the game lets you control certain variables, but others will end at the necessary times, winnowing the field of choice back down to a few possible scenarios rather than the thousands that could be theoretically possible.

There are good dramatic reasons for forced failure as well: after all, this is a game about the zombie apocalypse, and it wouldn't carry the same punch if you could play a "perfect" game where absolutely nobody was ever hurt. Yeah, it sucks when someone I have looked after and gone to great lengths to protect is killed, but it's exactly that sense of hopelessness and senseless waste that drives this genre of fiction.


Episode Three was by far the hardest one for me, emotionally. There's plenty of intense stuff that happens in the final episode, and a lot that I regret, but nothing that tore me up quite as much as that death did. Much as it pains me to say it, I would probably have been willing to sacrifice everyone (except Clem) to avoid that.

I really like Omid and Christa. Heck, I like a ton of characters, but they were great, late additions to the party. I liked their relationship, and Omid's gallows humor, and Christa's self-reliance. I figured out Christa's condition sometime in episode four; I think I missed the opportunity to make her acknowledge it, but one of Lee's comments to her makes it clear that he knows what's going on.

Speaking of which: after finishing the game, I looked through the FAQs to see what I missed. A few things jumped out at me. First of all, I had totally missed the chance to learn about Molly's past: apparently, when you're left in the nurse station after Vernon and Christa leave, one of the tapes is new and explains what happened between her and the doctor. That said, I already had a pretty solid general idea of the pain in her past, and we eventually parted on a good note (I got a hug!). Secondly, I was really surprised by how many events that had occurred in the game, that I had thought were contingent on the choices I had made, would actually have occurred regardless. That's a testament to not only good storytelling, but great game development: taking two paths, that both lead to the same destination, yet make the player feel like that destination is unique to the one they chose. Specifically (and these are even bigger spoilers than usual):
  • I thought that Kenny jumped down after Ben because I had just spent so much time and effort emphasizing to Kenny how he needed to treat Ben better. After that happened, I thought, "Man, I bet if I'd been a huge jerk, and let Kenny keep on hating Ben, he would have let Ben die alone."
  • I also thought that Omid and Christa survived because I had asked them to look after Clementine, and figured that, if I'd appointed Kenny to be her guardian, he would have lived and they would have perished or left.
I figured that Lee was a goner as soon as he was bitten. I actually had a period of hope after deciding to amputate the limb; in both the comics and show, characters succumb to death after amputating a bitten limb, but at least a few are able to save themselves (Dale in the comics, Hershel on the show). I worried that I'd waited too long to amputate it, and that may have eventually proven to be true.

Anyways, I found that whole final episode very touching... sad, of course, for a multitude of reasons, but it also felt like I could say goodbye to this character who I'd been playing for so long. Getting bitten is a death sentence, but also freeing (that sequence of walking through the streets to the hotel door is incredible) and an opportunity to focus on what's most important in life.

One aspect of The Walking Dead that has gotten a lot of attention is the final report: at the end of each episode, you can learn how your choices compared to those made by other people. One thing that struck me was the difference between the first episode and the subsequent ones. In the first episode, almost all of the major decisions players could make came down to about 50/50; in some cases, that meant that as many players were "bad" as "good" (e.g., lying to their companions). The one exception: a strong majority of players (I want to say something like 80%?) chose to save Carley. In all the later episodes, though, I noticed that solid majorities of players regularly chose the "good" options. (Just to be clear: certainly not every choice is a clear-cut good-or-evil situation. It's impossible to play Lee as a fully bad man, even if you wanted to. I just mean, for the cases where there did seem to be a clear "right" decision to make, most people did the good thing.) I kind of suspect that this may be because the first episode is available for free, and anyone can try it; the people who are playing the later episodes are the ones who bought them, which likely means that they have become invested in the story, which probably means that they are thinking deeply about the situations the game places them in and feeling drawn to virtuous behavior. Or - and this just now occurred to me - maybe it is because, after seeing the final report after the first episode, players are vaguely aware that someone is watching them and potentially judging their behavior, and so feel some sort of social pressure to be good.

I think that I generally made "good" decisions that sided with the majority of players. Some exceptions:
  • I didn't loot the station wagon at the end of Episode Two.
  • I (and the majority of players) did not shoot the bitten woman at the start of Episode Three.
  • I saved Ben in Episode Four.
  • I didn't fight Kenny.
  • In the end, I didn't want to make Clem shoot me (much as I couldn't make Kenny shoot Duck), so I accepted life as a walker.
Oooh, I haven't written about Kenny yet. We had a very complicated relationship, and I'm impressed with how well the game was able to keep track of all our nuances. Basically, I generally tried to be a good friend to everyone, which often included Kenny and his family, but made him mad when I refused to take his side in an argument against another group member. I consistently helped out Duck (saved him on the farm, fed him cheese and crackers, deputized him, got him water, ended his pain), was honest with everyone about my past, but refused to attack Larry, supported Lilly (even after she flipped out), and was never too enthusiastic about the whole boat plan (mostly because I've seen the remake of Dawn of the Dead). I felt it was a little unfair that Kenny kept ragging on me for minor slights instead of all that I'd brought to the group, but it did feel like a realistic relationship in this kind of supremely stressful world. At the end of Episode Four, he seemed very ambivalent about me; I mentioned that Clementine was like family, and he emotionally thanked me for all my support and pledged himself to Clem's cause.

I was intrigued by the survival debates that crop up near the end of the season. It feels like what we've been doing (gathering a group and holing up somewhere) is the worst possible solution; you become a target for less friendly survivors, must deal with inter-personal friction, and see people picked off one by one. Two seemingly successful alternatives are presented. First, Molly's approach: always be by yourself, and never stop moving. Other people can make mistakes and slow you down. Grab what you need to care for yourself, and avoid other people. Secondly is Omid and Christa's philosophy, which has caused this very unlikely duo to survive in a world that has killed far stronger people: stay out of cities, and stay away from large groups. This is a question that's very much on Lee's mind at the end of the season: should they keep trying to find a boat, or try and live in the countryside? The cities have been horrible so far, but would another place actually be any better?

A note on the very ending: I asked Omid and Christa to look after Clem, and told her to find them by the train tracks. The ending is ambiguous, but I feel pretty sure that, at least in my story, it's the two of them. The silhouettes certainly seem to be walking like the living and not like the dead, and the relative heights of the figures seem right for those two (though, with the uneven hill terrain, it's hard to be sure of that). Clem's expression certainly seems worried, but I choose to believe that she's just expressing a healthy caution about her situation, and will shortly be reunited with the others.


Telltale Games recently announced that they will be making a second season of the game, which is awesome. They haven't started work yet, and I'm very curious to see what direction they go in. I think that, of necessity, the games will need to be less serial than the comics or TV show. I could see them telling a completely new story, also set within the new world, with perhaps some minor crossovers with the comic and the first season of the game. Apparently, Telltale is checking to see if they can let players import their first game as a "seed" to the second season, which I think is a really good idea; I see it less like, say, importing a Mass Effect 1 game into Mass Effect 2, and more like [how it should have been when you] import Dragon Age: Origins into Dragon Age 2. A few broad strokes and character outcomes will be honored, and make you feel like your choices have lasting consequences, while also giving the developers a relatively clean slate to play with.

As for whether I would actually play that second game... I don't know. I'm still kind of furious at something that happened in my game, but my temper may have cooled by the time the next season comes around. If nothing else, I'd like to cast my vote for well-designed, thoughtful story-based games. It's awesome that an independent developer is having the impact that they are, and hopefully stuff like this will help prompt the major studios to follow suit.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

"Bleagh! I Think that Piano Has a Ghost!"

Sketchfest is in full swing! It always feels like an embarrassment of riches - the sheer number of talented people performing in a limited span of time can feel overwhelming, and I usually end up just picking one or two shows to attend. This year, I plan to make it out to more, and so far, it's been off to a fantastic start.

Thanks to the largesse of my wonderful sister, I scored a ticket to Paul F Tompkins and Friends Real and Fake. Paul might be my favorite comedian - his stand-up is good, but more than that, he works in an amazing variety of modes, including raconteur, character, performer, and pal. If I were to meet someone like Patton Oswalt or Louis CK, I would be delighted but incredibly nervous, worried that I would inadvertently do something (like say "hilarious") that they could seize on and expose as foolish. I'm sure I would be star-struck if I ever met Paul one-on-one, but his style of humor is one of the warmest, most positive (yet still funny and occasionally revelatory!) that I've heard.

That warmth was on fine display at his show on Friday night. At previous Sketchfests I had attended the Paul F Tompkins Show, a wonderful vaudeville-type extravaganza. This one was quite different, with no music or sketches. Instead, it had a series of stand-up performances, interspersed by Paul's characters. I had seen all of Paul's "real friends" previously in sketch shows, but it was the first time I'd seen any of them do standup, and all of them were terrific, using very unique perspectives to make us laugh.

I'm going to refrain from sharing my favorite moments from the standup, mostly because I suspect they will be touring with the material, and some of it may eventually end up in some special or other, and there's no earthly way my typing words into a blog could match the effectiveness of their delivery. I'll confine myself to some general reactions, and recalling moments from the show that seem unlikely to be repeated in the future.

First, to run down the real friends: I only know Steve Agee from The Sarah Silverman Program, where he played Brian Posehn's stoner boyfriend. Much of his set involved telling stories from his past, and either extrapolating from them or imagining unseen aspects to the tales. Mary Lynn Rajskub looked stunning; I've only seen her in Mr. Show with Bob and David, but apparently she has done some major television and film work as well. Her comedy focused on introspection, and had some wonderful moments where a totally unexpected "fact" arrived from left field. Finally, Kevin McDonald from The Kids in the Hall did a set anchored around the idea that he, as a sketch comedian, had no business doing stand-up. This was the most meta of the sets, and Kevin masterfully interwove his standup with commentary on him doing standup.

Paul may be the most gifted riffer in the business, and at the start of the show, he opened with several minutes off the cuff purely about the surroundings. This is the first year that the Verdi Club has hosted Sketchfest shows, and this was the first show held at Verdi. It's a pretty cool venue - the room is fairly intimate (capacity 299 people), so everyone is close to the stage; the floor is level, but the stage is elevated, so everyone has good sightlines. There's also a well-stocked full bar. Anyways, Paul came out after being introduced by a Sketchfest founder, and immediately started some business with the microphone, whose cord had been looped around the stand. Um... I'm going to get this wrong, but his opening went something like this, with lots of laughter from the audience interspersed:

"Ah, good - three microphones. I'm so glad that the Verdi Club was able to accommodate my request: I said, 'I require no fewer than three mikes! And, if you could make sure that one of the microphones isn't plugged into anything, that would be great.' Actually, I remember now that I specifically asked for a cordless mike, which makes me feel foolish. Great job, Paul! Way to start off the show! Idiot. But I am grateful that Verdi could fulfill so many of the things I require for my show. I said, 'I'll need some chandeliers from the movie Logan's Run.' They said, 'No problem, we got you covered.' I said, 'Please make sure to have a depressing bar stool from [some era or movie? I forget...]' They said, 'We can get that for you.' I said, 'You're really going to hate me for this... but is there any way you can get a haunted piano?' 'Poltergeist or ghost?' they replied."

Needless to say, all of this was just responding to things in the room, things that I had totally missed during the half-hour that I'd been sitting and waiting for the show to start. Those comedians, always ready with their observations and their jokes!

A lot of Paul's comedy is based around anecdotes and telling stories, so after his intro most of his set was about an incident that occurred at Christmas. Hopefully you'll get to hear it! For the rest of the night, he did his characters. If you haven't had the pleasure of experiencing these before, you can get a taste on YouTube, but most of the "mythology" around them has accreted over years of appearances on podcasts like Comedy Bang-Bang and The Pod F Tompkast. His characters are based on real people, but they aren't really impersonations in the standard comedic vein. Instead, he takes only the most basic facts about the person (Werner Herzog is is a German film director who made a movie about a man getting eaten by a bear; Ice-T is a rapper who acts on the show CSI: Miami), then extrapolates goofy premises (Werner Herzog is obsessed with the awfulness of nature and wants to fight it; Ice-T is obsessed with creating new business ventures). The most impressing thing is the canon - while Tompkins inhabits a character, he is constantly making stuff up in response to questions or statements from other people on the podcast, and these become established "facts" for all future appearances. Over time, this makes the characters evolve into hilarious personalities that are barely unrecognizable (Werner Herzog married a beautiful robot who he fashioned from the parts of a zeppelin).

Paul performed as probably my three favorite characters of his: Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Garry Marshall, and The Cake Boss (cakeboss!). He had basic but effective costumes for each: a fabulous cape as Lloyd Webber, a white wig for Marshall, and a black wig and white chef's jacket for Buddy Valastro. Tompkins did a great job of setting up each character so newcomers wouldn't be totally lost, while also not feeling like he was just retreading old material for the hard-core fans. For example, he re-told the story about how he was bitten by a cake bug, as he usually does as that character; but he also discoursed for a little bit on why cake bugs occupy cake kitchens and the role they play in keeping predators under control.

As Lloyd Webber, he reviewed his musical oeuvre and laid out his plan to compete against the awful "juking-box" musicals of the day. Garry Marshall provided some insights into his hit sitcoms of the past, and gave a very long and entertaining description of how he's going to find Bigfoot, and what he'll do once he captures it. My favorite set of the night was the last one, though. After the Cake Boss (cakeboss!) described the horrible time constraints he has to work under and explained how he received the curse of the second sight, he offered to go into a trance (er, "tranche") and answer any questions about the future we might have. This was incredibly impressive - I'm always amazed at seeing great comedians thinking on their feet and responding to something unexpected.

Paul selected someone, who asked, "Who's going to win the Super Bowl?" (In case you don't follow football, San Francisco is going to the Super Bowl next weekend, to play against the Baltimore Ravens, so it's a question high on the mind of many residents here.) Tompkins good-naturedly mocked the question for a while - "That's a real important question right there! I mean, out of all the things in the entire future that you could possibly want to find out about... well, okay, sure, we'll find out who wins a sports game. Good forbid you should have to wait a week to find out." He went into his tranche, then moved "All the way into the future... parting the curtains... all the way to two weeks from now.. it's so far! I don't know if I can make it!" He then described the scene: "I see a stadium, filled with people! They are tossing the coin... the coin is flipped, and they're ready to... do the first football thing... then... oh, no! Suddenly, the ground falls out from below the field! It's Bane! He's at the stadium! That's right, he's crossed over from Batman into our own world! It's a Purple Rose of Cairo type of thing. A woman was watching The Dark Knight Rises and fell in love with him, so now he's here. And, that's it! The game is called on account of Bane. And this gentleman here made a lot of money on the game. That's right, he bet on Bane winning the Super Bowl... and the odds were very long! So he did quite well. Okay, does anyone else have any other questions?"

While still in his tranche, he selected a young woman who asked, "Will Garry Marshall ever find Bigfoot?" He cracked up a little before replying, "That's a bit of a callback there. Okay, let me check." He described Garry Marshall, in a far-away, distant land, coming across a tall, mysterious shape. [I forget exactly how the next part of the story unfolded - I think that it turns out to be the actor who played Bigfoot, and Bigfoot, standing on each others' shoulders, or something.] "And then... oh, no! It's Bane again! He's here too! He kills Garry Marshall and takes Bigfoot for himself! And that gentleman from before makes even more money by betting on this. It's off the main book, too... the odds of Bane finding Bigfoot were four thousand to one. He really cleans up. Okay, final question!"

Another woman asked, "Who will be our next president?" "That's a... okay, that's a pretty good question, I guess. It does affect your life, so whatever. All right, I'm - hold on, before I proceed, a follow-up question: the president of the United States?" Yes. "Okay, just checking. I'm moving through the future again... all the way to 2016... oh, wait, now I'm going back to 2015 when the people are actually running. Okay. I see that the Democrats will nominate... Hillary Clinton. She's good, she's doing well. She's done something with her hair that I approve of. And the Republicans nominate... a bag of angry worms. The bag of angry worms is making some progress, it has a few good points. Okay, now I'm at the first major debate. Hillary is winning the debate. The bag of worms is doing well for a bag, but c'mon, a bag of angry worms can only do so much. Oh, no! It's Bane again! That gentleman made even more money by betting on Bane in the 2016 election, he wasn't even a candidate. But he ends up winning. So, that's it. Bane is the next President."

The show ended with gales of nonstop laughter, pretty much starting from the introduction of the bag of angry worms until well after Paul had left the stage. It was, needless to say, a fantastic show!

Fast-forward a day to the next event: the Thrilling Adventure Hour! I've actually only recently gotten into this - I contributed to their recent Kickstarter project, then started listening through their voluminous archives. This is a live show that's been playing in Los Angeles for nearly eight years. Every single month, they were a completely new script and put on a single show. It's done in the style of an old-timey radio serial, like The Shadow or Buck Rogers; if you listen to A Prairie Home Companion, it's a bit like a hipper version of the radio sketches they do on that show. The show is anchored by two recurring segments: Sparks Nevada: Marshal on Mars, about a literal space cowboy (a man from Earth who comes to Mars, rides his horse, tangles with outlaws and ruffians and whatnot); and Beyond Belief, with Paul F Tompkins and Paget Brewster as Frank and Sadie Doyle, a psychic married couple constantly confronted with paranormal mysteries who just want to be left alone and drink with one another. In between they feature a rotating assortment of other programs, commercials, and the occasional song.

The TAH is a surprisingly dynamic program, with a steady core of performers playing multiple roles, but a constantly rotating slate of guest stars, from the world of comedy but also featuring many "straight" actors known mostly for their dramatic roles. Their cast at Sketchfest is always impressive, and this year did not disappoint: Reggie Watts, Jonathan Coulton, John Hodgman, Colin Hanks, Gillian Jacobs, Rider Strong, Steve Agee (remember him?), Keegan-Michael Key, and an uncredited but excellent Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.

This was my first time seeing TAH live, and I was really looking forward to it. I enjoy listening to the podcasts of their LA shows, and one thing I notice is that, in every program, the boisterous audience will respond well to the jokes and such within the script, but there will also be moments when they crack up at something physical happening on the stage. Of course, this is completely lost in the audio-only version everyone else consumes it in, and I really wanted to catch a glimpse of that sort of business. I wasn't disappointed - sometimes it's as simple as Paul F Tompkins scowling at the audience, other times it's an inspired bit of blocking.

I'm pretty sure that these programs will enter the podcast stream soon, so I'll avoid spoilers. Instead, here's a random list of personal favorite moments from the show:
  • Kevin Murphy's talented instrumentation.
  • Paul F Tompkins as the King of Coffee, doing one of the very best types of characters he does.
  • ... and the way he exited the stage from these segments, constantly glowering at the audience, never turning his back.
  • The very rich songs, nearly all done in chorus, most of which Jonathan Coulton joined.
  • Keegan-Michael Key's incredible character of a nazi from the future.
  • Rider Strong's animated performance opposite Marc Evan Jackson.
  • Reggie Watts as a hangdog minion.
  • All of the wonderful ladies - the sunny Annie Savage, the impassioned Gillian Jacobs, the magnetic Autumn Reeser. (And the terrific harmony they sang at the end.)
  • Seeing Amelia Earhart fly her plane.
  • I like to think that I was the first person in the audience to realize which Shakespearean play was being parodied in the final WorkJuice commercial.
  • Beyond Belief doing a rare call-back to a previous episode, which happens to be one of my all-time favorites.
  • Seeing the Bens (or at least one of them) pop onto the stage and wave at the very end.
 It was an incredible show, and left me kind of wishing that I had tickets to the 9:30 as well. Apparently, they're keeping the serialization of Sparks Nevada between both shows that night, which is amazing.

The entire experience was fun and strange; it's reminiscent of a lot of different types of entertainment, while not being like any thing I'm used to. There's frequent laughter like you would expect from a live sketch or stand-up show; but what kind of entertainment these days inspires frequent applause? I guess it's a little like watching a play or musical, but instead of holding your reaction to the end of an act, it spills over at opportune times, like an actor entering or exiting. In terms of interactivity, it might be closest to something like a special screening of a favorite movie; but you have the drama and malleability of a live performance. Well. It's a unique, fun, funny experience, and hopefully one I'll get to see next year as well!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Absolutely Fabulous

Absolute Sandman is the sort of thing I could never justify buying for myself, but that I'm delighted to own (thanks to the largesse of my brother). I've heard about the Absolute series of comic editions for several years, but this is the first one I've ever held in my hands, and I finally see what the fuss is about. The comics look larger, richer, and more detailed than ever before. With a seminal title like Sandman, that helps me pick up on some particularly subtle and graceful things I'd missed in my initial reading of the book.

DC Comics / Vertigo reserves Absolute editions for its most high-profile and lasting books: Sandman, Frank Miller's Dark Knight, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and a handful of others. The pages are much larger; Amazon gives the dimensions at about 9"x15", which seems right to me. Of course, these aren't just the original comics blown up: they look wonderfully crisp, so they must be working off of some higher-resolution original masters. In the case of Sandman, the art was also re-colored, and looks absolutely gorgeous.

I'll be honest: I love Sandman mostly for its story. It's an epic, sweeping, brooding tale, filled with highs and lows and endless digressions. It can be difficult to talk about art in Sandman because it changes so much: Gaiman deliberately switches between artists from issue to issue and from arc to arc, and does a great job of selecting partners whose particular strengths and interests dovetail with the themes he works with in a given issue. That said, I think this presentation helped me understand and appreciate the art better than I ever had before. When I read a comic, I too often race ahead, eager to flip the page and read what comes next; this edition (plus the fact that it was a re-read) encouraged me to longer a bit more, absorbing the beautiful drawings and intricate compositions.

And intricate they are. This edition's most impressive aspect may be the way that it reveals, and even highlights, the tiny details that could otherwise get lost. I may have noticed before that a character was reading a newspaper; now I will read that newspaper's headline, and realize that even the lede's text is legible. I may have noticed before that a character's walls are filled with portraits; now, I can see the face of each portrait subject, and note their resemblance to other characters within the story. Of course, I'm constantly finding little trinkets buried here and there that point sideways, at other elements within the story, or forward, at events yet to come.


The first Absolute edition collects the first 20 issues of the comic, which means that it has all the comics from the first three trade paperbacks (Preludes & Nocturne, A Doll's House, and Dream Country). That equates to the first two major arcs of the story and several impressive stand-alones.

I won't rehash my earlier reviews of Sandman, but I'll say that I was much more positive on Preludes & Nocturnes this time around. It's a stretch that I often feel like I need to apologize for when I'm getting someone else into the series - I feel compelled to offer disclaimers like, "He takes a while to settle on the tone of the comic." What impressed me most this time, though, was how much is already in place. That's particularly true in terms of plot: little hooks like Nada are delivered so fleetingly and offhandedly that you could easily overlook them, only to be blindsided by their eventual import. Conversely, while The Doll's House is still one of my favorite arcs, it loses a little of its surprise and suspense if you already know the final outcomes of characters like Gilbert and Jed.


Like many collections, this edition comes with some delicious extras. High on the list is Neil Gaiman's original proposal for The Sandman to DC Comics, where he lays out his vision for the character. It's interesting to see the things that eventually changed, and how much of his vision was already intact. It's gratifying to see that he didn't just stumble into the idea of the Endless, and had already planned to withhold the reveal of Death for as long as he did - and, from the beginning, he knew pretty much what Death would look like.

I may not have planned on buying this, but now that I have it, I'm increasingly tempted to grab the rest. The first four Absolute volumes cover the entire main run of Sandman. I think I'll pass on the fifth volume, which covers some Gaiman-written spin-offs, and Absolute Death, a slighter volume at the same price point that collects the Death stories (including duplicates from the main Sandman run). I'll try to hold off as long as I can, but I feel like the acquisition is inevitable.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Increasing Randomness in a Chaotic World

Another grab-bag of thoughts about half-finished games, finished short books, and half-baked theories about choice in games…

I am furious at The Walking Dead! I'm in Episode 3, and got so mad at the story that I nearly hurled my tablet at the wall. Which I guess is a testament to what they're doing here - it's rare for a game to get me that worked up.

The game fills an interesting niche within the Walking Dead franchise. I've been pretty happy so far to see that it doesn't exhibit the same streak of sadism that can be found in the comics, which largely turned me off from reading them after the first few collections. At the same time, though, it's an unabashedly adult game, complete with the bad language and shocking violence that implies.

MINI SPOILERS for Walking Dead (Game, but also a bit for the show and comics):

The game, particularly the first episode, is set during the very start of the zombie apocalypse, and so you can witness first-hand the chaos and the breakdown in social order that Rick Grimes slept through. You encounter several ancillary characters from the main story, but for the most part you're striking a new path in another part of the same world.

That said, the overall arcs of the game feel quite familiar to those of TWD's Rick Grimes story. A small and close-knit group, including several families, forms. Internal tensions within the group threaten to tear them apart. The group works to overcome their differences, certain members die, and things enter an uneasy status quo. Just when it seems like the walkers might be stoppable, though, other groups of human survivors enter the picture, threatening the safety of the group. The group spills from crisis to crisis, and ultimately betrayal and violence threatens to destroy the group.

There's also a healthy dose of the macabre. The first episode was relatively tame, meaning that it just included the stuff you would typically expect from a zombie movie. (I played this on an airplane, next to a middle-aged woman, and felt a bit self-conscious when a part of the game had me repeatedly tapping the screen to cave in the skull of a ravening zombie with a hammer.) The second episode takes a sickening turn; I kind of suspected where the story was going halfway through, but refused to believe it until it was too far. The third episode… well, let's just say that it was a gut-punch, and at this point I'm not sure if I'll be able to keep playing. Telltale Games already has my money, though.

The impact of that gut-punch really got me thinking, though. After all, I'm decently well acquainted with the tropes of the zombie movie. I expect that good people will die and bad decisions will be made. Being a participant in the story changes things, though, and being able to help shape the story changes them even more: I feel invested in this group of survivors in a way that I never would by simply watching a group of idiots running around on the big screen. I might curse the writer of a movie if a character I liked gets killed; but I kind of expect it, and understand that this loss is part of the contract for a zombie movie. When a character in a game dies, I definitely curse the game creators, but I also kind of blame myself a little as well. I shouldn't - there is no way I can save this person - but there are enough other lives I've been able to save within the game that it FEELS like I could have, should have done something differently to preserve this one.

On a related note: anyone who has ever watched any variation of a zombie instantly becomes an armchair quarterback, dispensing the essential pieces of wisdom to beleaguered characters. Typically, this is one of the following:
1. "He/she has been bitten! You have to shoot them in the head NOW!"
2. "That person can't be trusted / relied upon! Get rid of them now, before they get everyone killed!"
3. "Don't split up!"
Consider #1. As the viewer of a movie, it's an easy call to make. You know the calculus: there is no hope, and once someone has been bitten, that's it. Why prolong the misery and risk them turning at an inopportune time?

Of course, if this were real life, that would be an impossible call to make, especially if the person in question were a relative or a close friend, perhaps someone who has saved your life numerous times in the past. We have deeply ingrained senses of empathy, loyalty, and optimism that would keep us from following through.

The game puts me at a midpoint between those two perspectives. I saw one of my companions get bitten. This is someone who I had traveled with for three episodes, covering many hours of gameplay. I had gone to great lengths in the past to save their life and keep them safe. I'd shared precious, limited food with them. I knew people who cared about them.

And so, what did I do? I knew how it had to end - with a bullet in the head - but I wanted them to experience every remaining human moment they could have. So we journeyed onward, keeping an eye on them, knowing the great risk we were taking, but unwilling to make the tough call and end it immediately. I have become the sort of person who I would yell at in a movie. Becoming a character in a zombie story has helped me understand why they can sometimes do foolish things for perfectly good reasons.


A brief gaming note: I have "beaten" Fallen London! Okay, okay… not really, but I have wrapped up the last few pieces of content that I hadn't completed yet, including a really fun Christmas-themed arc that played out last month. I've also acquired the outfit I wanted. At this point I'd just be grinding materials and Echoes, so I'm going to cheerfully set it aside for a while and wait for the next phase of the story to unlock. It'll be interesting to see what comes next - lately, Failbetter has seemed to be focusing on expansions that players at a wide range of levels can enjoy, instead of extending the story towards its conclusion (publishing the next phases of the Ambitions, expanding the level cap, etc.). That's probably a wise decision, since it gives players even more stuff to do; on the other hand, I never felt like I needed to grind until well after I became a Person of Some Importance, so the players at the level cap probably appreciate it even more than those who are at lower level do.

I just finished reading "The Running Man", a short novel by Stephen King. It was a pretty good read… very pulpy, and in many ways uncomfortably prescient, with its anticipation of competitive reality shows the least of its disturbing premonitions. It's also pretty disturbing to read what appears to be a positive portrayal of Stockholm Syndrome.

I've finished my second play-through of Dragon Age: Origins. Rather than lay out yet another impenetrable blob of expository text, I shall lay out an impenetrable blob of expository screen-grabs, EACH WITH ITS OWN IMPENETRABLE EXPOSITION. You're welcome! (For once, I captured images from the entire run of a game, from start to finish. Spoilers in abundance.)

I then continued on in playing the Witch Hunt expansion, following my originally published plan through the new DLC. That was fun, but I realized after beating it that I had misjudged the intended order. There wasn't an option to import my post-Witch Hunt save into Golems, and after doing some research online, I realized that the intended order is actually DA:O -> Awakening -> Golems -> Witch Hunt. So, I'm now starting off on Awakening. I'll save my thoughts on Witch Hunt for when I'm through with all of the DLC.

However, I will share a few thoughts on Awakening (potential spoilers have been replaced with incredibly vague allusions):
  • I really like how they've added entirely new abilities and skills. The feeling is very reminiscent of BG expansions, where you could grab some precious new spell tiers that significantly change how you play the game. I was initially a bit annoyed that I had dumped so many skill points into marginally useful skills like Herbalism now that they had added some newer and more useful skills; but it looks like there's an item that should let me re-allocate everything, so I'll eventually need to take the fifteen minutes or whatever it takes to re-build my character.
  • I got a very nice note in my inventory at the start of the game, which affirmed a crucial character choice I had made throughout the main game; this was a great gesture, that should really help soften the blow of the corresponding character likely not appearing in the expansion.
  • On the flip side, though, the dialog from Mhairi near the start of the game directly contradicts another crucial choice I'd made near the end of the game; she references a person, of a certain gender, holding a certain position. Well, that's not how it happened! A single word could have been changed to make this work. Ah, well. It goes to show how failing to follow-through on player choice can be more annoying than denying them choice in the first place.

After taking a break, I started watching season three of Doctor Who. I THINK I like Donna more than Rose, but I'm just one episode in so far, and will reserve judgment.

New season of Archer is off to a fantastic start! Second half of Parks opened strong! I'm waiting with nervous trepidation for Community's delayed opening (can't wait for that Halloween episode to air on Valentine's Day!). And the 49ers are going to the Super Bowl! That'll keep me occupied for a while.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Branching Narrative

My recent gaming experiences have deepened a longstanding obsession over agency in video games: the ability of the player to make meaningful choices that change the game. This week Gameological Society published an intriguing think-piece/interview with a game designer that directly addresses some of the problems I've noticed with modern story-based games.

The great expression Charles Amis comes up with in this interview is the "uncanny valley of choice." The term "uncanny valley" is often used when describing simulations of humans in digital media (games, CGI movies, etc.). In general, the more realistic a simulation is, the more we like it. However, once it reaches a certain point, increasing realism actually repels us. (For example, a stylized robot might look "better" than a purely chrome robot; but if that robot gains realistic human skin, while still retaining robotic movements and unblinking eyes, we will feel freaked out.)

When it comes to gaming, we generally (and I certainly) prefer having more choice. I love feeling like the decisions I make are having a real impact on the story of the game. As Amis points out, though, we may actually end up with a greater sense of agency in a more constrained environment than we do in a free one. If we are using a simple gamepad with four arrows and two action buttons, we will think of all our choices as flowing logically from our limited means of interaction. But, in modern games that give us characters who can seemingly go anywhere and do anything, it feels a bit shocking when we run up against the edge of what designers have planned for, and realize that we actually are in a maze after all.

This reminded me of a recent experience in Skyrim (minor spoilers follow in this paragraph). One quest that I was initially quite excited about was a murder mystery in the city of Winterhold. You can investigate a crime scene, interview witnesses, and do other things that one would expect a detective to do. I was quite pleased with myself when I discovered who the killer was: I entered his shop, and snuck around while his back was turned, eventually picking the lock on a chest and finding definitive proof inside of his culpability. Sadly, though, the game couldn't acknowledge what I'd done: the quest was designed to unfold in a very linear sequence, from A to B to C and so on, and I couldn't simply jump ahead to step G without having first activated all intervening triggers. So, I had to go back and retrace all the earlier parts of the quest, which led to even more maddening sequences when my character had to say he was ignorant of who the killer was.

A big part of the reason why this was so frustrating was because of the thing I love so much about Skyrim: how it's so very large and you can go anywhere and do anything in any order that you want. If the game as a whole was more constrained and structured, it would not have seemed odd, since I wouldn't have had any opportunities to "jump ahead" in the story.

I just finished playing Episode One of the Walking Dead game, by Telltale Games. It's a pretty stunning experience. I watch the TV show and have read the first three collections of comics. I have mixed feelings towards the Walking Dead franchise... when it's good, it's one of the best things ever, and when it's bad, it's incredibly annoying. So far, the game is probably my favorite manifestation of the franchise, and a big part of that is due to Telltale's approach to storytelling. Structurally, Walking Dead is an adventure game: you have a character who you move around the screen, you chat with other characters, you collect items for your inventory, and solve puzzles to progress the game. However, where most adventure games tend to run on rails (there's only one way to escape the garbage freighter in Space Quest III, Rosella will always make the same choice at the end of King's Quest IV, Manny and Hector will never become friends in Grim Fandango), Walking Dead lets you make choices that can radically influence the tone of the game and the direction of its plot

When games do allow meaningful choices, the impact of your decisions is generally conveyed in one of two ways. The first is a branching narrative. I recently encountered this in my current re-play of Dragon Age: would I fight a virtuous yet misguided opponent, or would I surrender to them?  Depending on my choice, I will play through entirely different sections of the game. The path I didn't choose is closed off to me, at least until I re-play the game later. The second way to communicate the impact of choice is through flavor. If I steal from people, guards will address me as an untrustworthy thief; if I refrain from theft and act kindly, then guards will hail my presence. In this case, the actual gameplay remains unchanged, but my emotional reaction to it will shift based on the feedback I'm receiving.

The Walking Dead has been very interesting: I haven't re-played it yet, but as far as I can tell, it seems like your choices impact the CONTENT of the game, but not the STRUCTURE of the game. In other words, you may get to choose between saving person A or person B. You'll still go to the same destination after that is done; but only one person will be there when you arrive. Of course, each person will have their own unique dialog, and other characters will respond differently based on the choice you made.

Now that I write this out, I guess that it isn't that unusual of a structure - it's quite similar to what Mass Effect accomplishes. The difference may be that, with The Walking Dead's more constrained structure, it feels like you are constantly making choices that have deep repercussions. Mass Effect's choices are just as sweeping, but perhaps get buried within the larger context of the action game around it, so minute-by-minute your decisions don't seem to make as large of an impact.

Since I started typing this up, I received a link to a fascinating new magazine called Haywire. Its most recent issue is dedicated to exactly this topic: choice. The whole thing looks pretty interesting, but the bit I've glommed onto is a long interview with Chris Gardiner, the creator of BELOW and one of the main writers in Fallen London. Chris gives a cogent overview of Failbetter Games' philosophy towards choice, which is both pragmatic and effective. As he points out, it is wasteful and frustrating to make choices that permanently close off experiences to players. At the same time, you want to help players feel like their decisions have significance. Failbetter uses several techniques to balance these tensions. First, about 90% of each game should be accessible by everyone; that makes the remaining 10% that's unique (e.g., content related to Ambitions or your faction alignment) feel particularly special. Secondly, it seeks to acknowledge your decision, while not necessarily creating unique story for each decision. For example, after completing the Affair of the Box in Mahogany Hall, you will always move on to Spite regardless of the decision you make in the Hall, but the game gives you an opportunity to reflect on your choice afterwards. Third, Failbetter uses "qualities" to track progress within the game, so instead of a pure binary position (did you save the princess or not? did you ally with the Dothraki or the Stormlords?), you can measure your progress along a scale (how much does the princess like you? how deeply do the Dothraki respect you? how many times have you aided the Stormlords?). This in turn can drive other content in the game: advancing a quality to a certain point may open new possibilities for you, or provide different flavor. (Fallen London has a good example of this: every player can start the Theological Husbandry storyline, but your Aligned: Church quality will affect the flavor text describing how you begin it.)

Ultimately, there's no one right way to do choice in a game. Some games are going to be able to provide seemingly endless possibilities and reward players for thinking outside the box. Other games will deliberately restrict themselves by designing limited interfaces, and create compelling choices from the few options they provide. While there's no single right way to create good choice systems, there are many ways to make bad ones. Teasing a gamer into thinking they have the freedom to come up with their own solutions, only to reveal that they are actually constrained in a narrower system, will doubtless frustrate people. Reneging on the consequences of a player's choice will also anger gamers (witness the debacle over Flemeth's fate from Dragon Age Origins to the sequel). Choice is a compelling factor, but also a delicate illusion, and the more a game relies on choice to drive its emotional impact, the greater the threat of disappointment when the illusion fails.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

How to Archer

Quickie review for a quick book:

How to Archer is a cash-in, but a very entertaining and well-written one. Narrated in the voice of Sterling Archer, the protagonist of the FX show Archer, this book fully inhabits the weird world described by that show, both in maintaining its comic tone and its weird anachronistic milieu.

It's structured as a how-to book, with each section focusing on one particular aspect of Archer's career as an international playboy secret agent: cocktails, firearms, prostitutes, gambling, tailoring, and more. He maintains the sense of smug superiority throughout, openly disparaging the reader's ability to even hope to operate at the same level as himself.

That voice is probably the best point of the book. It's almost impossible to not hear H Jon Benjamin's voice in your head while reading this, complete with the appropriate pauses and sotto voce asides. This is done particularly well through footnotes, which perfectly communicate Archer-isms: the little thoughts he has out loud when speaking about something else.

As a printed tie-in to a beloved comedy show, this book reminded me in a good way of The Daily Show's America (The Book). In both cases, the show's writers produced the content of the book, but presented it in such a way that it seems to spring from the lips of characters on the show (the Daily Show correspondents or Sterling Archer). Coincidentally, both books are also somewhat loosely structured: you can easily flip around, find a section header that sounds interesting, and then jump in and be amused.

It's a slight book, with consistently high quality inside, and makes a great gift for fans of Archer. If you're thinking of getting it yourself, you might want to wait until after Season 4 ends so you'll have something to help tide over the time between seasons.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013


Hey, remember when I was playing through Dragon Age: Origins for the second time? Well, that's still happening. I had played it through several major arcs, then set it aside while playing Skyrim. I've since jumped back in, which required a period of re-orientation. That took a while: this is a huge game with a lot of side-quests and complex tactics. On the plus side, though: this is a huge game with a lot of side-quests and complex tactics. And the journal rocks; it's infinitely better than the more recent one implemented in Mass Effect 3. My companions' tactics had been configured beforehand, so it just took me a few fights to re-acquaint myself with their abilities and high-level strategy.

Very minor MINI SPOILERS follow.

My main character, Kiriyon the elf mage, has finally filled up her quickbar. The spells she uses most often are:
  • Fireball - most fights start off this way, unless I'm ambushed. It reliably knocks-down low-level enemies and sets up a nice little DOT. This is also the only friendly-fire spell I've bothered learning, so I don't re-cast it after a fight starts unless I'm hitting a distant cluster of archers or mages.
  • Arcane Bolt - my bread-and-butter damage dealer, I typically fire it whenever it's off cooldown.
  • Sleep - Another awesome spell for dealing with a large number of weaker enemies. It has an enormous range. My Magic is now a bit under 60, so it's practically a guaranteed knock-out, even hitting some lieutenants. Best of all, it sets them up for...
  • ... Horror, which I'll spend if there's a lieutenant or higher suffering. After that, I'll move on to...
  • .... Waking Nightmare. The fight is essentially over at this point, with many of the enemies turning on one another or wandering around in confusion, and it's just a mop-up.
  • Crushing Prison. This is my main damage-dealer against higher-level enemies.
  • Hexes. Affliction is great for setting up a Sleep spell, though I generally don't need it. I'll usually try to cast Vulnerability on a boss before hitting with Crushing Prison. I'll try and keep Misdirection and Hex up on a boss as much as possible.
  • Curse of Mortality is one of the newest spells I've learned, and I love using it on bosses. I remember how much I hated having this one cast on me!
  • Death Magic. Another newer addition for me. I'll keep this active unless I'm fighting a solo boss. It helps keep healing pressure off Wynne.
  • Bloody Grasp. A good fill-in for my rotation in a boss fight when Crushing Prison is on cooldown.
  • Mind Blast. I didn't used to use this one too often, but it's very handy when we get swarmed by low-level enemies, particularly in ambush situations.
  • Flame Burst. Limited use, but if I have an opportunity to line up a shot that will hit multiple enemies without my own guys, I'll take it.
  • Heal. In high-damage situations, I'll assist Wynne with this.
  • Blood Magic. In long-lasting boss fights, eventually I'll run out of mana. Instead of chugging Lyrium or ceasing spellcasting, I'll switch over to Blood Magic. By the time my health runs down to about 1/2 remaining, I generally have enough mana recovered to switch back again.

Even with only my major spells and no items, that fills up my quickbar pretty... quickly. I have a couple of other spells that I keep on there even though I don't generally use them (Death Cloud, Dark Sustenance). I'm starting to wonder if I should just stop spending new spell points on new spells, and save them up for when I start Awakening, but I don't know if unused points carry over or not.

I almost always let my companions run on their custom-tuned tactics, very rarely interjecting direct commands. (I think I might have done this a bit more earlier in the game, but at this point their higher power lets them get through at 90% efficiency without needing 100%.) Alistair is probably the simplest. He's the tank, so he always has Threaten and Shield Wall active. He's set up to Taunt the nearest enemy at all times, but I recently realized that, thanks to the massive armor he's wearing, his Stamina is so low that he can only Taunt a single time before needing to regenerate. So, I'll be dumping some more points into Willpower soon! Anyways, besides that he just generally fights whoever is closest, using Shield Bash and such when they're available.

Somewhat frustratingly, this doesn't work too well for a lot of fights. Much of the AI seems programmed to zero in on ranged attack threats, which means that a lot of the time Alistair will engage with one enemy while everyone else simply runs past him and swarms Leliana. I guess I can respect that as a smart tactic on their part, but it does make for a more frustrating game experience. She often ends up switching repeatedly between her melee weapons (dual-wielded daggers, one Crow and one... something else?) and her bow until the rest of us kill the bad guys for her. So, during more important fights, I'll manually switch to her just to instruct her to run to a safer distance, then resume control of Kiriyon. She recently took the Mark of Death talent, which has already proved very handy in boss fights. She usually supports us with the Song of Valor, stays in Rapid Shot mode, and uses her special archery attacks when they come up (Critical Shot, Shattering Shot, Arrow of Slaying).

Wynne's tactics are pretty simple as well. She keeps her Cleansing Aura up, and prioritizes healing party members, then buffs, then attacks. Lifeward and Heal on anyone who drops below 50%; Rejuvenate for anyone (other than her) running low on mana or stamina; Regeneration for anyone who drops below 75% health; Heroic Offense on Alistair; Heroic Aura on anyone getting attacked by missiles; Heroic Defense on Alistair. She keeps the whole party running effectively without needing much attention; I only need to keep an eye on her during particularly long boss fights (High Dragon or Gaxkang, anyone?) and make her chug Lyrium if she's running low.

MEGA SPOILERS (kinda, plot-related,  but only through the first 75% or so of the game):

While I am role-playing Kiriyon differently from how I played Seberin the Dwarf Thief, most of the big events have turned out the same way. Both of the characters are fundamentally "good", it's just that Seberin is a more larcenous Han Solo-esque type of good, while Kiriyon is a more virtuous Aragorn-esque type of good. I do sometimes wish that I could enjoy playing as an evil character, just because I'm intrigued by what I've heard of the other ways you can make the story go. In particular, I've heard that you can:
  • Side with the werewolves and kill the Keeper, keeping the curse intact, and recruit them to your cause.
  • Side with Lord Harrowmont. (I was less invested in Bhelan this time around, without the personal ties to Rica, but ultimately more attracted to his platform of social reform.)
  • Ally with Branka and save the Forge. From what I understand, this gives you golems in the final fight. I could never stand for that extension of torment, though.
  • Agree to spare the desire demon and damn Connor.
  • Let Arlessa sacrifice herself to save Connor.
  • Corrupt the Urn of Sacred Ashes. (I actually did this, once, just to unlock the Reaver specialization. That was in my last game, though.) I THINK that this might cause the Arl to die, and Bann Teagan to take over.
  • Coming up: there's all sorts of stuff you can do differently in the Landsmeet, including claiming the throne yourself (if you're a human noble open to marriage), sparing Loghain, letting Anora rule by herself, and so on.
Honestly, simply knowing that those options exist make the game more fun and exciting for me, even without picking them myself.


I don't think I've written about this lately, but I love the tactics system. It reminds me in some good ways of the Gambit system of Final Fantasy XII. I remember initially being a little turned-off and thinking that it felt too MMO-ish, but in practice it's brilliant: it makes you more of a general, overseeing your army and controlling the big picture, rather than an infantry grunt, pushing a button repeatedly.

In lieu of my previous blow-by-blow accounting of the plot, which I have already finished once and is unfolding much the same way this time through, I'm planning on marking-up and eventually posting a link to the screenshots from this play-through. So, uh, I guess you have that to look forward to?

Saturday, January 05, 2013

It's a Rigid Air Ship!

I do love live shows, and this was an unusual one: Archer Live! In a brief publicity tour in the run-up to the start of Season Four of Archer, most of the cast is traveling to four cities to put on a... thing!

As you may be able to tell, I had no idea what to expect. It turns out that they really didn't, either. Part of the night was devoted to reading through some classic scripts, giving a live sneak-peek at the Season Four finale, and showing some awesome videos. The bulk of the show, though, and the stuff I'll remember most, was pure riffing: responding to audience questions, chatting amongst themselves, telling stories, drinking prodigious quantities of bourbon.

The evening began in a style reminiscent of a Paul F Tompkins show: an off-stage voice introduced our host, a man who "is handsome, and insanely talented, and, ladies, he's available after the show for smooches and BJs! The one, the only, LUCKY YATES!" It was, of course, Yates doing the voice, and he swiftly trotted onto the stage to raucous applause.

Yates voices my favorite supporting character on the show, Dr. Krieger. Krieger didn't do much in the early episodes of the show, but over time, he's become the kind of guy who will pop up in a couple of scenes, and say the weirdest, most disturbing, funniest stuff of the show. Yates asked if we know why he doesn't appear on the opening credits to the show. "Originally, Krieger wasn't going to be a speaking part," one guy said. "NOPE!" Another voice called out, "Because the producer's an a-hole!" "HEY!" a voice shouted from offstage as the crowd dissolved into laughter. "Yes, exactly!" Yates said, enthusiastically endorsing that line of thought. He then proceeded to record the entire audience chanting "KRIEGER! KRIEGER!" as he slowly panned his camera phone back and forth. "Thanks," he said when done. "Maybe now we'll finally see my name on the credits.... in the eighth season."

I knew already how some cast members look in real life, but I think this was the first time I'd seen Yates. He's far younger than Krieger, of course, and has more of a goatee than a beard. At one point someone yelled out, "WHERE'S YOUR WIFE?" "Didn't you hear me asking for BJs at the beginning?" Yates asked. "I'm not married. Oh, wait... you mean Doctor Krieger's wife. He's a CARTOON CHARACTER. And she's a HOLOGRAM."

Yates then introduced the remainder of the cast. Amber Nash is far more petite than Pam, with a really nice smile; she was less crazy than the rest of the cast this night, but still fully engaged with the show. Chris Parnell looks exactly like Leo Spaceman, of course; he was very wry this night, not speaking as much as the "stars," but dropping in with some perfectly-placed quips throughout the evening.

The biggest acclamation came for Aisha Tyler, who somehow looks even more lovely in person than I'd imagined. She's very tall, and slim, with a casual but assured manner. Before she took a seat, she lifted up her outer shirt to reveal a sports logo. At the time I'd thought it was the Seahawks, but now that I think about it, the Falcons would make more sense? I dunno. She didn't really comment on it.

Aisha is a native of San Francisco, and a stand-up comedian, so she had some great jokes about the city throughout the night. We're the greatest city in the world - and we don't let anyone forget it! Whenever someone graduates from a San Francisco high school, they get a Prius and two gay friends. They might already have some gay friends, of course, but the ones after graduation are complimentary.

After Aisha was seated came Archer! No, not H Jon Benjamin: Archer. This was the first of several kinda bizarre but funny bits of the night: a tall, slim guy with styled black hair and wearing a black turtleneck strode out onto the stage, mugged for the audience, and badly lip-synched to Archer's voice, inviting all assembled to bask in his glorious presence. This was all pretty clearly being done live, as the actor worked frantically to keep up with the monologue. "Check out these abs! Check out these lats!"

He eventually waded into the audience, looking for someone ("girl.... or guy, but he has to be very good-looking") to smooch. Of course, the source of the voice couldn't see who the actor was pointing at, and so the steady stream of invective and slams on body weight hopefully were discounted. At one point, he stood in front of the first row, unloading for a while, before Lucky Yates (who had been on mike the whole time and would periodically guffaw) broke in. "Oh my god, Jon... he's, like, twelve!" Whoops! I don't know if there was actually a minimum age given for the live show, but given the amount of sex and violence on the cartoon, I'm a bit surprised that any parent would bring their kid. And the f-bombs were definitely flying all night, and not about to stop just because of one minor in the house.

Eventually he selected a woman, who graciously (and with some encouragement) came up on the stage. He was leaning in for the kiss, when his voice said "WAIT!" H Jon Benjamin ran in from the wings, carrying a little pedestal. "Archer" left, Benjamin climbed up on the riser, and planted the kiss while the audience erupted in laughter and applause.

Um... this probably takes us about five minutes into a nearly two-hour show. I can't give all the blow-by-blows, so I'll skip ahead to the best part of the night:

Fairly late (after the cast had drained more than half a bottle of B&E [breaking and entering] that had been delivered from the fine folks at St. George Spirits in Alameda), the producer Matt Thompson was reading through some questions that had been submitted from the audience. One of the questions for Jon had been submitted by four people - something like "Brad, Kelly, Brian, and Ox." "OX?!" Jon exclaimed. "Who's named Ox? Where are you, Ox? Stand up!" Ox, seated close to the back, gamely arose. "Whoa," Jon said. "You're a bear, ox?" He then asked Ox to take off his shirt, and proceeded to lead the audience in a thunderous chant of "OX! OX! OX! OX!"

After maybe ten seconds or so, Ox relented, taking off his outer shirt to reveal a black tank top and some sizeable tattooed arms. The crowd went nuts, and Jon handed out the evening's award: an Archer Spy Pen, which comes with the printed warning, "Careful! The cap slips off for no reason." Sure enough, even though they had brought over a dozen pens, only three had caps left, so those were reserved for people like Ox who worked hard to deserve it. (Also: The guy who agreed to get shot in the nuts by Aisha Tyler. Long story.)

Matt proceeded to ask the guy's question again, but Jon interjected. "No, wait. I'm not done yet. Ox! TAKE OFF YOUR OTHER SHIRT!" This led into ANOTHER chant of "OX! OX! OX! OX!", even louder than the first. I thought he wouldn't do it... but he totally did! Ox ripped off his muscle shirt and stood bare-chested, proud or ashamed at the adulation of the crowd. In return for his sacrifice, he received the ultimate reward of a black Archer T-Shirt. That shirt might or might not have been fired out of an air cannon. My memory is a little fuzzy at this point. Jon collapsed in laughter while Ox strode triumphantly back to his seat. "That guy's, like, Seal Team Sixty!"

Throughout the rest of the evening, Jon treated Ox as his personal attack dog. When someone in the front row annoyed him, he would roar, "OX! Attack! Get him!" He even threatened to unleash Ox on Chris Parnell at one point. Late in the show, he got Ox to come up one more time by throwing him a dollar bill. "That's a real dollar! Thanks!" Ox rejoiced.

There was lots of other great stuff from the show, of course. I have no idea if they were taping it or not - I didn't see any camera, so I'm guessing not, but it would be great to see at least one of the shows pop up on a DVD extra or something in the future. In no particular order, here are some highlights of the night. Minor spoilers for Season 4 are sprinkled within there.
  • Most exciting thing I heard this night: Anthony Bourdain will be a guest star on the show! We saw a clip of his appearance, where he's either called or appears on a show called "Bastard Chef." He appears while smoking a cigarette in chef's whites, of course. Aisha told a great story about meeting him at Comic-Con and introducing him to the rest of the cast ("I didn't meet him," Parnell quietly and sadly reflected. "That's because he's my friend!" she shot back.), and hooking him up with the producers. She also made a crack about a sexual activity Bourdain would engage in, involving oysters, which prompted Jon to go on a long, detailed riff that reduced Tyler to incoherent laughing sobs by the end.
  • Also on next season? Timothy Olyphant! He and Archer have a bromance!
  • Something big happens with Mallory... but I won't spoil it, even after the spoiler warnings! (Sadly, Jessica Walters didn't make it to the SF show, though I think she's scheduled to appear at some other stops.)
  • A great example of how these people work: one of the questions was, "How much of ISIS's budget goes to paying for alcohol?" Aisha tackled this first: "Well... most of it, I would imagine. Sterling and Mallory alone drink insane amounts of alcohol. Nobody could drink that much in real life without destroying their bodies." Jon: "I... I drink about that much." Audience: "*Laughter*" Jon: "Shame on you for going there so quickly." Aisha: "I think... yeah, probably a majority of ISIS's dollars go to booze. I think it probably costs at LEAST a million...... dollars." Amber and Matt then talked about how the real-life actors don't drink as much as their characters, but still a lot. Aisha loves bourbon, but her drink of choice is Jager. Amber calls Jager "Mistake Juice." She'll announce this just before she starts drinking it, so other people know what she's about to do (have sex with strangers). After several minutes of chatting, Chris Parnell, who has been quiet lately, speaks during a lull: "Actually, I just ran some calculations. Sterling and Mallory drink pretty good stuff, so we can estimate about $500 a day for alcohol consumption. Multiply that by five days in a week, and that by fifty weeks in a year, and we come up with $125,000." The audience went nuts, and Parnell/Cyril took a bow.
  • They showed us a hilarious/disturbing video that was supposedly created by Krieger. It starts off in a shojo anime style, with him and his lovely girlfriend going for a walk and Krieger declaring his love. It rapidly transforms into a tentacle porn anime. Apparently, this will be a DVD extra in the future.
  • We also saw an incredible video that depicts Archer after suffering a horrible accident: the doctors save his life, but he's been turned into, well, H Jon Benjamin. The remainder of the time he desperately tries and fails to hit on beautiful women, reach the gas pedals of his car, and receive any modicum of respect.
  • One of the live script reads was for the Season Four finale, during a meeting in Mallory's office. Amber very gamely read Jessica's part, despite some light ribbing from Jon. Matt narrated the major scene events (like, "Mallory presses a button, and the map switches to a view of the world.") The scene involves a B-52 that has crashed near Bermuda, and it's utterly hilarious. It was a great feeling to experience something like this before anyone (well, other than those jerks in LA the night before) had, and the comic timing between all the actors was spot-on. Which is especially incredible, since, as they noted, they always record separately; the timing we hear on the show is purely a function of editing, but it's exactly what they do live. Great stuff!
  • They did two classic scenes. One was from my favorite first-season episode, "Skytanic." Even though Chris Parnell was there, they asked for a volunteer from the audience to voice Cyril's lines, with Parnell serving as an acting coach. They auditioned a few audience members to find the right person. Yates: "Let's get that guy." Matt: "Wait, is that the guy who said the producer was an a-hole? No way! Wait. Hey, do you want to do this?" Guy: "Sure!" Matt: "Well then f--- off!" They eventually got one guy, who sounded pretty decent during the audition, but when the scene started, he talked kind of like Kermit the Frog. Jon LOVED this. The scene is the one where Lana is trying to shove a bomb off the blimp (excuse me, rigid air ship), while Cyril is trying to apologize to her for his unfaithfulness, and Archer, who has been shot in the leg, is hopping around on one foot. For a prop, they had a gigantic cardboard box with the word BOMB written in black permanent marker. And I think a drawing of an old 18th-century-style spherical bomb with a sputtering fuze. It was... hilarious. I need a thesaurus to describe this event.
  • The other classic scene: the season 3 episode, where "we learn that Pam is actually an awesome drift racer for no reason." For this, they set up the chairs to roughly simulate the four-seater car. Jon sat down in front of the first chair, simulating Archer's position clinging to the roof. Aisha and Yates had awesome toy automatic assault rifles that they shook around during the firefight. Yates was playing George Takei's character of the Yakuza mob boss. Aisha: "The great thing about Lucky playing this character is that you know it will be super-racist." And Yates.... hahaha. It really doesn't communicate well in blog format, but Yates did his part with the most glorious, rich, deep, Russian accent you can imagine. 
  • Oh, yeah: we probably heard the Danger Zone song at least six times throughout the night. They would just randomly start playing it, then the actors would scramble around, find the air gun, and start firing t-shirts into the crowd. It was awesome. They also did an audience recreation of what is, by far, the most-requested scene of all time: "Lana. Lana. Lana! LANA! LANAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" "WHAT?!" "Heh heh... danger zone!" Meme: satisfied.

There was plenty more, but you get the idea. I loved the loose, free-flowing feel of the night... they were gifted improvisers who obviously liked one another and knew how to push one another's buttons (Jon, in particular, could incapacitate Aisha at his whim), and created an organic show that was full of serendipitous comedy. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to see it all unfold.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013


I've finished reading what I think may be the last financial book I ever read: A Random Walk Down Wall Street, by Burton Malkiel. I suspect it may be the last for several reasons. First, it's a phenomenal book - well-written, funny, wise, and practical. It will be hard to find another book that can instruct better than this has. Second, it reinforces the investing principles that I've been following for the last decade and that have served me well during that time (while deepening my understanding of why they work). Finally, since the core advice for intelligently investing is so simple, there just isn't much more to learn after finishing this book. Oh, to be sure, times will change, and markets will be re-evaluated, and my personal allocations will gradually shift, but the basic principles Malkiel lays down should remain dependable.

Part of what's so wonderful about this book is seeing its track record. The book first came out in the early 1970s, a very different economic time than we face today. He has regularly revised the book every few years, and each edition helps explain what has happened in the past, but his core advice hasn't changed in the forty years since the book was first published. And, well, that means you can track the records of people who followed his advice, comparing them with those who didn't. As he makes clear in his book, that's the key component to any financial advice. Anyone can pore through past data and come up with a trading model that would have made money during that time period. The problem is that those models almost never work when you're working with "real money," into an uncertain future.

Malkiel is a wise person, and finds great, memorable ways to communicate important information. For example, he says that it's impossible to get rich quickly: you can only go poor quickly. Getting rich takes patience and time. Very pithy, and very true.

At the start of the book, Malkiel gives an overview of the madness of markets, taking a tour through massive bubbles in our history, all the way from the original Dutch tulip bulb craze through the American housing bubble that popped in 2008. He shows how many fortunes were destroyed in all of these crazes, laying a firm foundation of risk under all future discussions. There's a lot to get from this part of the book, but one of the most important is realizing that bubbles are obvious only in hindsight. When investors are surrounded by a crowd all pulling one way, it's very easy to get pulled along. Finishing this section should convince everyone that they need to take care while investing, or else they could be wiped out.

In the second section, he describes two of the primary approaches people take to stock-picking, and points out their flaws. This is probably the most combative part of the book, and also highly entertaining. He delivers particular scorn to technical analysts, who he calls "chartists." These are the people - he estimates that they represent about 10% of Wall Street investors - who ignore any information about a company's fundamentals (industry, size, dividends, price/earnings ratio, etc.), and instead focus on trends in the stock's price. They convince themselves that, by studying where a stock has been in the past, they can predict where it will go next, and can then profit by buying it or selling short. Malkiel gives example after example of how people have failed at this, and even lost fortunes trying. As he observes, someone will always claim that their method is different, so they will make money where everyone else has failed; but the problem always comes back to realizing that models which perfectly predict the historic movements of prices do a horrible job at predicting future movements.

He treats fundamental analysts with more respect. Fundamental analysts (who I will call "fundamentalists" just because it amuses me) rely on experts who know the company and the business well. They look at the key factors for a company: its dividend, the company's growth rate, its size, its book value, and so on. Based on this, they will try to determine what the value of the company "should" be. They compare this to the stock's market capitalization (the value per share times number of shares) to determine whether a stock is undervalued, and if so, they will purchase it, with the expectation that eventually the market will fix the "mistake" in the price up to its proper value, at which time they can sell it.

He sympathizes with fundamental analysts, but points out that historically, they have under-performed the benchmarks for the market as a whole, particularly when considering the fees charged by the analysts. He offers several reasons for this, some of which are quite amusing. Malkiel started his career in the finance world, and observed that most analysts are, frankly, not more bright than you or me, and the best analysts are quickly promoted to higher-level positions where they don't do much analyzing. Beyond that, though, fundamental analysis has a, well, fundamental problem. One of the key components in fundamental analysis is determining a company's growth rate, and the growth rate is inherently unknowable. Knowing the growth rate requires accurate prophecy of the future. Will the company discover a new mineral mine? Will a terrorist attack destroy their office? Will Congress create a subsidy? Will a drought occur next year? It's no wonder that we don't know what value a stock "should" be, since much of a stock's value is based on the earnings of the company in the future. Secondly, Malkiel contends that, with the modern regulatory regime (especially post-Sarbanes-Oxley) and with instant dissemination of information via the Internet, it's virtually impossible for fundamental analysts to gain access to "new" information that isn't already known by the market as a whole. There are some periods where the price of a stock may lag behind new information - like if a corporation announces better-than-expected earnings - but for the most part, everything that's known about a company is already reflected in its price. Thus, stocks mostly change value based on changes in the real world, and in response to the market as a whole. Fundamentalists may have once been able to give an edge in picking good stocks, but no longer can do so.

At this point in the book, I was feeling pretty bleak about the stock market and investing in general. If nobody knows what's going to happen, then why bother investing at all? He then lays out his hypothesis, the random walk of the title.

A "random walk" is a concept used in mathematics and probability theory which means that the likelihood of an event occurring is independent of the events that have preceded it. The simplest example is flipping a coin. Any time you flip a coin, the odds of it coming up heads will be 50%, regardless of whether the last flip was heads or tails.

Interestingly, our brains rebel against the concept of a random walk. We know that, on average, when you flip a coin a bunch of times, it "should" come up heads 50% of the time. So, if we start flipping a coin, and it comes up tails the first four times, then we'll start to feel like it's "due" to come up heads. Maybe it comes up tails again. "Okay," we'll say. "This time, it's GOT to come up heads." Except, well, it doesn't. The odds of a series of coin flips ending up as TTTTTT is no less likely than the odds of it ending up as TTTTTH or even THTHTH.

With this in mind, it's very easy to see why people so easily convince themselves that they can predict where the market is going to go. Maybe they see a stock going down, down, down. "Aha," they think. "It's due to come back up!" Well... maybe. Or maybe it's Enron. Malkiel's point is that, in the short term, the movement of individual stocks and the market as a whole is essentially random. We can try to explain it, and convince ourselves where it's going, but we're just telling stories to make the world seem more reasonable. We don't actually have any control.

Gosh... that sounds pretty dire, too, doesn't it? If the market moves randomly, then why invest instead of going to Vegas? Well, Malkiel argues, in the short run the market is a voting mechanism: it follows the madness of crowds, mis-values hot stocks, and overlooks mis-priced equities. In the long run, though, the market is a weighing mechanism. Every time that a market is brought too far out of whack, it has eventually swung back to a more realistic level. That process can take years, which is why nobody should get into the stock market unless they can stomach a long downturn. Over the long haul, though, nothing can make you as much money as reliably as the common stock market.

This leads into the third part of the book, where he discusses modern schools of thought on investing. First up is a strategy for investing dubbed modern portfolio theory, or MPT. Previous generations of investors saw investment as a matter of picking the right stocks at the right time and holding them for the right duration of time. MPT, which has been significantly influenced by Malkiel's own theories on efficient markets, and is championed by many today, provides a practical way to achieve fairly high returns on investment with fairly low risk by diversifying your holdings. This means both diversifying across different asset classes (stocks and bonds) as well as diversifying within an asset class (holding at least twenty different assets that are not strongly correlated).  The goal is not to make sure your portfolio will always go up - in bad markets, nearly every portfolio will decline, reflecting the real loss in economic activity. Rather, the goal is to help a portfolio weather the downturns, while continuing to take advantage of the long-term superior earnings available from the stock market. Interestingly, MPT has demonstrated that, by mixing together assets from two different risky investments, your combined investment can both perform better and have less risk than either investment alone.

Malkiel includes a lot of graphs and charts in this book, and they do wonders at communicating his points. One of my favorites shows the returns that you could get by purchasing a stock market index fund and holding it for a certain number of years. For each period, he shows the most it could earn, the least it could earn, and the average it would have earned. For example, if you purchased the market in 2007 and held it for one year, it would fall enormously; if you purchased in 2009 and held for one year, it would gain enormously. If you purchased in 2007 and held for three years, you would fall a little; if you purchased in 2009 and held for three years, it would rise a lot. What's remarkable is that, for every holding period, from one year to thirty years, the average expected profit remains consistent. However, as the holding period grows longer, the best- and worst-case outcomes retreat, with the worst-case shrinking most dramatically. Beyond ten years, no time period has ever lost money (assuming dividends are re-invested); at twenty-five years, even the worst-case return looks quite good. That's the magic of compound interest: the dividends keep working for you, even in down markets, and accumulating over time, eventually working the alchemy of lowering risk without lowering profit. One can get rich. It just takes time and patience.

(Note: that image is from the 2007 edition of the book. The averages have all slipped down slightly since then, thanks to the latest bear market, but the overall shape is the same.)

This section of the book also includes a fair discussion of several modern schools of thought that seem to challenge Malkiel's random walk hypothesis and accompanying theory about efficient markets. The most interesting of these is a chapter devoted to the insights of behavioral psychologists. Malkiel is, at heart, clearly an academic, and he certainly respects the scholarship behind behavioral economics. He concedes the point that traditional economic theories tend to assume that investors are rational, when clearly they are not. Behavioral economists posit that, because investors aren't rational, markets can't be truly efficient. Malkiel engages with this concept, pointing out that while this is true during a bubble (even if a canny investor does figure out that assets are overvalued, it can be extremely risky to conduct arbitrage and profit if the bubble continues for years), over long runs of time there's a consistent reversion to normalcy. Movements are chaotic and unpredictable in the short term, and have upward momentum over the long run, and have been ever since we started keeping records hundreds of years ago. Now, as to whether that upward momentum is the result of market efficiency, or behavioral psychology, really doesn't matter much in practice: the demonstrated safest and best way to invest is to buy a broad, diversified portfolio, and hold it forever.

The last section of the book is devoted to application: practical advice on how an individual should construct their portfolio. This was the part that felt most familiar to me, thanks to the way Malkiel's teachings have seeped into mainstream personal finance education. He shows several pie charts showing different hypothetical allocations for different people at different ages: a young businesswoman in her mid-20's; a parent in their late 30's; an adult in their mid 50's after putting children through college; and someone approaching or in retirement. As expected, the earlier allocations focus more on stocks, while still holding respectably portions in bonds and other holdings like real estate investment trusts (REITs); the later allocations shift to more conservative allocations, although it's interesting to note that in his view, stock equities should still stay at around 40% even in retirement, and the allocation for cash doesn't grow past 10%.

Throughout the book, he gives good guidance on the importance of recognizing one's own temperament and capacity for risk, repeatedly returning to the mantra of not investing past your "sleeping point" - the level of risk that would make it difficult for you to sleep at night in a bear market. So, with this as with all things, an individual might do well to forego his suggestions and invest in a more conservative allocation. In that case, one would probably want to save even more to help make up for what will likely be a lower return over the long haul (but a much higher quality of life thanks to lower stress!).

The book closes out with some very pointed and specific suggestions: particular funds to consider buying, the ideal allocations between US, international, and emerging markets. This is probably the part that will get dated most quickly, but for now it remains very useful, since it's just a few years since the book came out. (Though I think the Vanguard international fund options, at least, have changed a little since publication.)

For me, personally, I'm considering three tweaks to my investments. Two were largely inspired by this book, and the third is something I've been mulling for a while.

First, Malkiel is pretty explicit about the importance of giving large exposure to international markets: he recommends an even split between US and international equities, and within international, a strong exposure to emerging markets (basically, countries other than Europe, Australia, and Japan). When I first started investing back in 2004, the general consensus seemed to be around 20% exposure to international markets: enough to offer some diversification from problems in the US market, while leaving the bulk of your holdings in US companies. There were several good-sounding arguments for this approach: the US stock markets tend to be better regulated and more investor-friendly than foreign markets; many US-traded companies (like Coca-Cola) are global companies, and thus you get international exposure anyways from your US stocks; and investing in shares that are not priced in dollars exposes you to currency risk, so even if an investment does well your gains could be wiped out if the dollar fell in value.

Since then, though, the pendulum has definitely shifted, and most guidance I read now is pushing international stocks into a higher position. Malkiel's 50/50 split is the most I've seen recommended, but 20% is now the floor instead of the average. I'm currently sticking to making international stocks 20% of my total portfolio, which equates to just 25% of my stock holdings.

There are many good reasons to consider making this higher. The big one that Malkiel emphasizes is that most growth, not just now but that's likely in the future, will be in emerging countries. He thinks that the long run of roughly 10% growth in America is likely coming to an end, and we'll be seeing returns closer to 8% in the decades to come. Other countries, though, have much more potential to grow their economies, and investing in them will help raise one's portfolio. Beyond Malkiel's predictions, there are some other arguments to be made as well. For example, the global economy is so strongly interconnected now that it may not be useful to view international funds as really protecting against risk in the US market any more; after all, in 2008 the US housing market collapsed, and took the world economy down with it. So, it makes more sense to view international stocks as a means to help your portfolio grow at a rate similar to the whole world's economy, rather than as a counterweight to the US markets.

Honestly, a big part of my reluctance to increase exposure is tied to my reluctance to mess with my allocation. One piece of advice I absorbed early in my investing career is to be as inactive as possible: don't chase the hot sectors, don't get scared and dump stocks when the market takes a dive. I felt comfortable with my 60/20/20 plan when I first created it, and doubling the amount of international stocks in it feels like a big shift. Knowing that today I would make a 40/40/20 portfolio doesn't make it much easier to make a major change in my existing portfolio.

Malkiel has some detailed explanations for what he does in his own portfolio, including a slightly unusual step he takes to increase his exposure to the Chinese stock market. I don't think I'll go that far, and I won't change my 25% to 50% overnight. But, I think it might be prudent to start working my international exposure higher. I won't be selling any of my US total stock market index fund; I think I'll set a goal to direct new investments so they're weighted a bit more towards international markets, with the objective of reaching 30% by the end of 2013. If that feels good, I'll keep moving in 5% increments over the coming years until I reach a point that feels comfortable to me.

The second major idea this book has made me consider is holding an REIT for more exposure to real estate. This plays a fairly modest role in his portfolio of just around 10%; nonetheless, he demonstrates how, in most markets (not the 2008 recession), real estate has shown a very low correlation with the stock market; furthermore, it also tends to do well in inflationary periods. Keeping an REIT would allow a portfolio to weather a bear market more easily. And, since we seem to be past the worst years of the housing crash, they aren't likely to be overvalued.

I've avoided REITs up until now for a couple of reasons. First, as a homeowner, a decent chunk of my wealth is already invested in real estate (albeit a highly undiversified investment!). Second, it's hard to get excited about the long-term returns of REITs, which lag noticeably behind those of stock funds. (Granted, though, that's also the reason I resisted investing in bonds for years, which I now realize was shooting myself in the foot - in small amounts, diversifying from an all-stock portfolio both reduces risk AND increases yields.) REITs are also more complicated than equity mutual funds, which adds some small hassles to tax planning and preparation. Finally, I'm attracted to simple portfolios, and am tempted to just eliminate something which would only hold a sliver of my total assets.

The book has made me seriously consider REITs for the first time. I still don't think I'll necessarily rush to buy an REIT, but it's on my radar now. Once I pass a certain threshold where a small 10% investment in an REIT wouldn't feel like chump change, I might dip my toes in those waters.

The third change I'm considering making to my portfolio isn't something that Malkiel directly addresses, but is a thought that's been percolating in my head for a while, and that his discussions of tax-efficient planning have triggered yet again. I'm lucky enough to be able to max out my tax-advantaged retirement accounts, and have some left over to hold in taxable accounts. Which is awesome, but I increasingly feel like I'm not taking the best advantage of my retirement accounts.

Currently, all of my retirement accounts (401(k)s and Roth IRA) are in Target Retirement Date funds. I love these funds - they are super-simple, and largely match the allocations I would want anyways. Internally, the Target Retirement fund holds its money in a Total Stock Market, a Total International Stock Market, and a Total Bond Market index fund.

In my non-retirement account, I have pretty much exactly the same holdings (total stock market, total international, total bond, and some CDs), albeit in slightly different allocations. The "problem", such as it is, is that the interest I earn from bonds and from CDs gets taxed at my regular income tax rate. It would be better if I held those investments inside my Roth or my 401(k), since that way I wouldn't have to pay tax on the earnings each year. I also pay tax on dividends and (theoretically) capital gains on my stock funds, but those tend to be really small and don't add much to my bill.

To give a contrived example: suppose I had $1000 in my 401(k) and $1000 in my non-retirement account. Suppose each was divided up with $600 in US stocks, $200 in international stocks, and $200 in bonds. Every year, I would pay tax on the interest I earned from the $200 of bonds in my non-retirement account. However, suppose I decided to shift around my investments. Instead, I would have the $1000 in my 401(k) divided up with $400 in US stocks, $200 in international stocks, and $400 in bonds. In my non-retirement account, I could then have $800 in US stocks, $200 in international stocks, and nothing in bonds. Then, I wouldn't need to pay any taxes at all on the money earned from my bond funds, and I would still own exactly as much of each fund as I did in the first example.

So, I'm a bit tempted to start shifting more of my less tax-efficient investments into my tax-sheltered account; but doing this would require getting rid of my beloved Target Retirement fund, and paying more attention to my overall investment picture. Frankly, I'd rather not do this: while you would never know it from this blog post, I like to forget that I have any money invested at all and actively ignore how each investment is doing. (I have annual automatic rebalancing enabled in my retirement funds; for non-retirement, I use a Google Docs spreadsheet I created to direct future contributions to maintain a balanced portfolio without ever needing to sell any funds. In both cases, I never need to learn how much a fund has won or lost over any time period.) Also, while I definitely won't be tapping my retirement accounts before age 65, it's certainly possible that I might want to use my non-retirement funds for something else, and I'd like to have some sort of mix of funds available there so, if I need to make any withdrawals, I can do so without being forced to sell stocks, possibly at a significant loss.

I'll probably revisit this question after filing this year's taxes. If my investment income is fairly minor, then I'll maintain the status quo for at least another year. If I start feeling the pain of interest taxes, though, I might bite the bullet and start shifting my funds to be more tax-efficient.

Moving on from my personal response to the book: I think this book would be a perfect read for anyone who is interested in investing. Note that I didn't say "anyone who invests" or "anyone who wants to invest." Rather, I'd recommend this book to people who actually enjoy the topic of investing, and want to learn more about how it works and different strategies that have been tried over the years.

For people who are looking for more of a basic financial primer, I'd still recommend one of Jane Bryant Quinn's books: either Smart and Simple Financial Strategies for Busy People or Making the Most of Your Money Now. When it comes to investing, her recommendations are very much in keeping with Malkiel's suggestions and those of modern portfolio theory. However, Quinn takes more of a holistic view towards finances, spending time on the subjects that most consumers will face: budgeting, credit card debt, direct deposit, student loans, 401(k) plans. S&SFS4BP gives good advice on investing for retirement without diving too deeply into the details about how markets work. MtMoYMN gives really good and lucid explanations of the mechanics of different investments - that book did more than anything else to help me really "get" bonds - and, somewhat similar to Malkiel's final chapter, has some sections that operate along the lines of, "I don't think you should buy individual stocks, but if you do, here's how." Malkiel's book, while very practical, is ultimately a more academic work, that's more concerned with the how and the why of market behaviors, whereas Quinn's is more focused on what you should do about the market.

In other words, A Random Walk Down Wall Street is primarily a tome for investment nerds like myself. (It may also be of interest to math and statistics nerds.) It's one of the only proven investing books that has withstood the test of time, through markets both good and bad, and remains at least as vital today as when it was first written.

EDIT 1/19/13: Man, I love Vanguard.  This post gives a really thoughtful perspective on the use of REITs. The immediate effect is to cool my enthusiasm for buying into an REIT - it could still have some use as a portfolio diversifier, but looking at that graph definitely cools any sense of urgency I had about adding one.