Archive for July, 2009

New or Old Times

July 26, 2009

Old friends are hard to come by. By definition, they have to be friends first, which are not the easiest thing to find all the time. Second, they have to be friends for a period of time long enough to start sentences with phrases like, “remember the time back then, when” or something similar. And third, they can’t be hard to catch up with. If you can’t talk to them now, then something has changed drasticaly or you just got along well and might not have been friends. There’s a difference.

I was happy to see a lot of old buddies and to eat a lot of good food. I was proud at how much fun my son was in company and how he impressed so many with his wit and charm. I am humbled by all the other people who said thanks to me for serving in the Army and have never gotten used to people doing that. It does make me feel appreciated.

But most of all, I found out there are people who mean something to me even if i hadn’t seen them in four years or four days, and the fact that they still care about me blows my mind into a fine particulate of former disbelief. To all those who stopped by, thank you again. You made my night.

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First Blackberry Post

July 23, 2009

Every night I put my son to bed, I have been surfing the mobile web while I wait the 10 or so minutes for him to go to sleep. Now I have found http://m.wordpress.com which allows me to read, post, and work on my blogs each night. I think this is a good thing.

Perhaps I can use this time which is currently used to re-read the same twitter, facebook, and myspace postings all over, and instead be working on a draft post or publishing something on my blogs. Perhaps.

In Japan, they have these novels people read on their phones that were written by other people on their phones. Let me repeat the significant part of that statement: written on their phones! Granted, I have not heard of anything that rivals a Dickens or Steinback yet, but mediums are changing quickly if I can write this very post on my new Blackberry Curve smart phone. Review is forthcoming of the phone.

For me, knowing some other imperfect human has done something gives me a bunch of encouragement to at least try that same thing, and makes me realize how much we human beings are capable of if we try and think hard enough. The current 40th anniversary of the lunar landing is an example of the intellectual upper echelons of human achievement, with Michael Phelps being a good example of the physical. I understand I might not have the physical ability to swim 4 miles a day, even if I worked hard for the rest of my life, I do know I could swim at least one.

This kind of thinking is what led me to running 26.2 miles in April and to sign up for another marathon, the Fort Worth Cowtown in February. If amazing singular humans can walk on the moon or write novels on their cell phones, a more well rounded individual like myself can be posting small updates like this one, work on a poem or a book, or run a few marathons.

Now I conclude, hopefully, the first of many posts from my phone, and hope these rambling words (which I think the late hour, darkness-save-for-the-cell-phone-screen, and soft bed are inspiring) provide you the mental feul to think of some realistically fantastic goal to set for yourself and take the first few steps towards it.

Review: Video Game: Mass Effect

July 17, 2009

The review I write of any piece of art is going to focus more heavily on the narrative aspects of the work because that is what I am interested in. All media has some sort of narrative, whether it’s a simple or understated one, like in a painting, or complex and fully fleshed out, like most books. If you’ve kept up with this blog, then you know that I expect video games will be the primary means of artistic expression in another generation or two, just as movies have replaced books for the majority of the population. Bioware has made a good effort of shuffling this process along by releasing Mass Effect.

The opening title screen is what sets the mood. A slow, synth-orchestrated intro of a sun rising over a view of a planet from orbit, with the title slowly fading in. My first thoughts were “Blade Runner” due to the sublimely sublimated soundtrack. It continues to get better through the entire game. The voice acting for the different player and non player characters is superb as well, compared to games, and acceptable when compared with movies.

Graphics are good, with minor loading issues that eventually fill in as you enter areas.

The game play is good. Combat feels like a slower paced third person shooter, but it can be hard to determine what is going on around you unless you constantly pause the combat. At the end of the game, I was able to single-shot kill most enemies with an upgraded shotgun, and I skipped some of the larger side missions. The game deserves a derogatory mention of the way you collect weapons and armor from enemies and manage the resulting inventory. I couldn’t program it, but I could think of 10 different ways that other games have handled it better. The elevators are clever disguises for loading screens, but due to the inability to do anything inside of them, they are just as sharp of a break in the experience.

The main bread and butter of this review is the narrative and dialogue system. First, the narrative.

There is a slight build up of escalating mission goals with Shepard, a special military agent, leading a hunt for a rogue agent, which slowly turns into an epic “save the civilized galaxy” story. But like the best dramas, the plot is somewhat inconsequential. The secret to most good narratives is the characters that the plot works around, and while the nature of the primary character that the player controls is somewhat malleable, it is the group of other adventurers that accompany Shepard that shine.

The female Chief Petty Officer with a family history she’s living down in the military; the wanna-be tough cop Turian who can’t respect the rules; the wandering Quarian who has to find something before returning home; the Krogan who is the last of a dying species and working for whoever pays; the naive anthropologist looking for the nurturing relationship her mother couldn’t give her; the Lieutenant who has to come to grips with the limitations he has placed upon himself; all these characters are enough for individual short stories, and Bioware takes its time and spends considerable resources fleshing each one of these people out. The result is a rich tableau of interconnecting stories, even amongst a galactic backdrop. Bioware is concerned with the villains as much as it is the protagonists, as the enemy agent, Seran, has a fascinating story and psyche that is revealed through clever cut scenes and interaction.

The game requires you to weigh the needs of one companion against the other. For example, one time you are forced to make the choice on which person, who, after this much time together you would call most of your companions friends, you have to volunteer for a possible suicide mission. If or when a character dies, you feel the loss and your other companions deal with it as well, either through viewing your subsequent actions differently, or supporting you.  The game is not afraid to have plots that don’t end happily, or some which are never completely resolved, which gives a feeling that there is more going on in the galaxy than even one extraordinary person with a space ship full of extraordinary help can accomplish. This is a good thing.

Also notable is the considerable amount of pregenerated history and lore the game comes packaged with through the use of a Codex or in game encyclopedia. The characters talk about their surroundings, history, life styles, and other people as if they were real people. Bioware’s money on hiring a “professional” writer to flesh out the timelines, details, and “fluff” necessary to create a believable world is well spent.  Obviously Bioware is setting this up for a trilogy, as stated in press releases. Other media, who have not taken this much effort to create the setting in which the story takes place, have watched their sequels ring hollow as the continuous “make it up as we go along” approach results in an unweildly narrative with a reliance on plot devices to close holes, instead of believable decisions by the characters.

The dialogue system, I’m sure, will be incorporated into future Bioware products quickly, due to the ease of use the system brings to dialogue. A small circle with choice appears at the bottom of the screen with various selections that indicate the general nature of the response Shepard will actually give. An example is necessary. During a hostage negotiation, Shepard can respond a couple of ways. The choices available to you are “You don’t have to do this.” “Can we talk this out?” “Go ahead, I don’t care.” What he actually says, is “Just put the gun down, let the hostages go, there are other ways to deal with this problem,” or, “Let’s talk about this. Tell me what we can do to resolve this so no one gets hurt,” or, “Shove it, bad guy. I don’t care if you blow their brains out or not, I’m still going to kill you afterwards.”

This system works 99% of the time, with the occasional “No” turning into an angry retort you didn’t expect, or a “Yes” being said with more sarcasm, and offending someone you didn’t mean to. Regardless, the system works more than most of the time and makes the dialogue interesting since you are not hearing Shepard re-speak the exact words you just read. This keeps conversations more interesting than in some games, and provides an immersion that there is a real narrative that your character is an actor in the events with real decisions, not just a puppet on strings for some omniscient player.

In whole, Mass Effect was a wonderful experience for the 32 hours it took me to finish. I did two thirds of the optional content,  and could have spent another six hours in the universe if I chose, but unfortunately many of the side missions are a bit repetitive. If you focus on just the character driven ones, instead of the “random ship is hit by random pirates. Go investigate at random point,” then your experience will be a bit shorter than mine.

I am anxiously awaiting Mass Effect 2 which has been announced. The characters and story are well above the average, and I hadn’t had this much fun in a role playing game since Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer. It mixes the best elements of Blade Runner’s exploration of humanity, Star Wars’ space opera, and Star Trek’s exploration of possible futures within an interactive experience that none of those movies could provide in their native media format.

I recommend Mass Effect to anyone with a computer or XBox 360 who enjoys a great story, role playing games, science fiction, or easy shooters.

Father – Son relations

July 13, 2009

I’ve been home since the 7th of July. You’ll have to excuse my lack of posting, but I am enjoying the time with my son too much to sit on a computer for too long, unless he is sitting in my lap as we play a game. I am sure the parents who read this can understand.

Tonight, he is asleep and this is the first night I haven’t fallen asleep at the same time he has (curse you, jet lag!). To give you an idea of the kinds of activities that are keeping me busy as a slowly reintegrating father, I have, in the past week: gone to the park 3 times, McDonald’s twice, helped make cookies, fought countless battles with plastic lightsabers, taught my son 10 vocabulary words (I am an aspiring English teacher), swam in the grandparent’s pool every day but one, woken up before 8 AM every morning, made several dozen juice drinks, taken a couple of pictures, and gone to church. All of this is, of course, with Luke.

The highlight of my week, if any single activity is more precious than another, has been playing Lego Star Wars with Luke, on the Nintendo Wii. We have played through the Episode IV content, and are working on Empire Strikes Back. And, because we’ve been playing the games, we’ve also watched A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back in the past few days. My son, who was excited about Star Wars before he ever watched a movie, and had only seen a couple of episodes of The Clone Wars on Cartoon Network, is now ga-ga for Jedi. I couldn’t be happier.

The best singular moment, though, was when Luke Skywalker learns that a certain someone is his father. Last Christmas, my mother, being the savvy mother of two geeks like she is, bought me a red plastic lightsaber and my son a blue lightsaber. When Luke, Skywalker type, has his hand cut off by his father who wields a red lightsaber, Luke, my son type, looks over at me with a very suspicious look on his face.

“Darth Vader was Luke’s father,” he says, more as a statement than a question.

“Yes.”

“But he cut off his son’s hand with his red lightsaber.”

“Yes. Luke Skywalker didn’t know it was his dad he was fighting, who is a bad guy.”

“His dad is a bad guy?”

“Yes.”

“My blue lightsaber won’t really cut anything off.”

“Right.”

“Or your red one.”

“It definitely will not cut anything off for real.”

“Ok. Can I have the red one anyways?”

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