Saturday, December 30, 2006

Fun With DRM


New sound system.

Digital cable.

New DVD burner/VHS.

A hi-def version of the movie "Airborne" on the DVR.

Sorry, but this movie contains DRM that will prevent the DVD burner from properly copying it.

So, let me understand this:

I pay for cable. I pay for the equipment. I can record thousands of shows and movies and put them onto VHS. I can back up my old VHS tapes onto DVD. I can rip music and DVDs onto my computer and then burn copies to play in my DVD player.

But I can't record directly onto DVD a movie that doesn't even have a Region 1 DVD release?

A movie from 1993.

This is progress? Paying for crippled equipment?

I suppose it is progress to the manufacturers.

I'm really gonna stay awake at night wondering why so many people visit torrent sites.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Ask and Receive

Way back
on this blog in February 2005, I asked for a sequel to the underrated Disaster Report.

Well, turns out there was one. Released in Japan earlier this year.

Now Agetec is bringing it to the States. Thanks, guys.

Very interesting game mechanics.

Hopefully it doesn't contain any hokey avoid-the-mercenaries subplots.

Monday, December 18, 2006

This Sword is Broken

I played
Broken Sword: Angel of Death.

It made me remember everything I hate about adventure games.

Just check out the walkthrough. Even with the walkthrough's help I hit a brick wall when I got to the hotel. I talked to the guy in the chair, through all of his boring, stupid, stilted dialogue and apparently wasn't doing the one little thing I needed to progress.

The first level was just ridiculous. At one point you run into some live wires. Now, if you haven't yet gotten your companion across a chasm (keep in mind she only needs to come down one level, so why she can't hang off the ledge and have you lower her down, I have no idea) when you run across the wires, then when you do rescue her then she'll have no idea why you ask her to hold down a breaker switch that turns off the live wires.

Yes, it's that stupid. So you have to go back to the wires, try to run into them until it tells you that they're live and you're an idiot, then run back up and have Anna hold the breaker (when you select her it won't allow you to actually control her, so if you want her to do anything you need to be on the same screen).

Really, just unforgivable. I think I'll buy the new Sam & Max game as a palate cleanser.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Captain's Log

If you play
only one Star Trek-themed game this year in honor of the 40th anniversary, play Bridge Commander from Totally Games - you may be able to track down a copy in your neighborhood gaming shoppe.

If you play two, try Starfleet Command III.

If you play three, try Elite Force.

I think you get the picture.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Leave it All Behind

Alternet is up in arms over the Left Behind videogame. They urge everyone to send a message to Wal-Mart to have it removed from their shelves.

Bollocks to that. I have no problem with the game. Well, except that it's poorly-designed and the interface is awful.

Even the T for Teen rating seems justified to me. There's no overt bloodshed and, while thematically it's offensive to some, to me it's no different from any other game of a similar stripe. What makes it okay to massacre all those units in every other RTS yet this one is suddenly exceptional?

Asking Wal-Mart to take it from the shelves simply because I don't agree with the worldview it promotes is not my cup of tea. This is really no different from religious groups demanding that Wal-Mart remove Grand Theft Auto, because the objections are based upon content.

Now, by all means people should criticize the message of the game, since the makers view it as a vehicle for fundamentalist propaganda. There's no getting around that. However, I always think it's better to challenge than suppress.

And I know the GTA analogy isn't perfect in that Left Behind is a "message" game, an attempt to promote certain ideas as truth, and GTA is crime-fantasy (no matter how much some "concerned citizens" might claim that GTA urges kids to go on crime sprees), but the drive to remove them from the shelves amounts to the same thing - censorship.

Of course, to present the other side, as a citizen I think it's fine if you feel that the best way to register your objection to propaganda is through censorship.

I wonder how long it will take Hillary Clinton and Holy Joe Lieberman to condemn this game?

As for Left Behind Games, I don't have a lot of confidence in a videogame studio that doesn't seem to realize that the term "God Game" has been around for a long time.


Here's something I had been putting together for a post on Bully that got out of control and meandered and then just fizzled out. I don't think I'll ever publish it, but here are a few bits that are relevant to the business above.

No, More Questions

If a football player commits an act of violence against a fellow student, how likely are parents and teachers to blame football?

Why is the CDC not investigating competitive sports for their link to violent behavior?

Is aggression necessary at this point, or should we actively discourage any kind of aggression?

If you see your child playing Cowboys and Indians, is this an acceptable activity despite its intimations of violence?

What about wrestling, with its actual contact?

What is the evidence, if any, of a direct link between video games and the activities they simulate?

If a child plays a game in which they shoot enemies, how could this function as training for the actual activity? What about other activities? Will a medical game turn your child into a doctor?
Why were the Three Stooges allowed to have a TV show in which they constantly inflicted brutal punishments on one another?

Why does it seem that cartoon violence, in which no party suffers permanent injury, is generally acceptable for children? Does cartoon violence lead to a belief that violence will have no serious consequences? Will the CDC investigate cartoons?

How healthy is it to expect that a child will never engage in any risky behaviors against the parents' wishes?

Japan produces many videogames that feature rape and violent sex, yet its overall violent crime rate is much lower than that in the US. What might account for this dramatic difference, especially considering the consumption rates of videogames is larger in Japan?

Do you feel that violent art helps to sublimate more brutal aspects of ourselves or does it encourage more brutality?

Permit me to rant a bit about the current heated rhetoric concerning video game violence.

We live in a culture in which a purportedly religious "child care expert" regularly enjoins parents to beat their children.

We live in a culture in which the President can strip habeus corpus from non-Americans and Americans alike, and give torture the air of legality, while neutered Senators aid and abet and the media fawns or shrugs.

We live in a culture in which an addle-pated drug addict can bloviate that the abuses at Abu Ghraib, beatings and sexual humiliation and even murder, can be chalked up to "frat pranks."

We live in a culture in which, arguing against the recent Lancet study of Iraqi casualties, certain people have claimed that the total is nowhere near 650,000, perhaps "merely" 200,000.

We are all primates with a remarkable history of fantastic violence stretching back to the first genetic differentiations that marked out our current species. Brutality has been a hallmark of every human society, violence of every stripe at every level.

I reference all of this to make the point that strenuous objections to cartoon violence of an interactive digital nature and attempting to draw a link to some kind of "degradation" of culture is to completely ignore the clear, bloody line of history and invent a fictitious past. The argument essentially boils down to saying that, since the media culture of yesteryear was more repressive of violent content, then the culture itself was less violent than today (where the media is more

My references to examples of our brutal society are not meant to say, "Sure, Bully's bad, but what about this?" Rather, they are there to show that demonizing pop culture media while ignoring influential figures advocating real-world brutality is a remarkably immature and ludicrous position. Likewise, pretending that violent or sexual media should be completely restricted from children seems to be a surefire way of stunting their development, especially those entering their teen years.

This is not a call for unfettered access to all media for children, but a measured approach contingent upon parental limits and careful discussion.

I realize my bias here, in that I feel open information and exploration is always preferable to denial and repression.

Ubi or Not Ubi

And as a small follow-up, what did Ubisoft do that makes it so darn special?

Here's a listing of Ubisoft games.

Lots of Tom Clancy sequels ad nauseam. Prince of Persia, which was excellent, but spawned a meandering sequel and a solid third game - cashing in, or supporting a popular title? Devil May Cry, a series which I found execrable control-wise, story-wise, difficulty-wise but nevertheless, again, maintains popularity amongst hardcore gamers.

Brothers in Arms, a well-produced World War II shooter - that's a novel genre. King Kong, which was beautiful but still a beat-em-up mixed with an FPS (not to mention its major flaw). The Myst series. Movie tie-in games for Star Wars: Episode III and Rocky and Charlie's Angels. Lots of Disney games.

For every Beyond Good & Evil Ubisoft puts out 10 decent sequels and 20 games of no import whatsoever. Rayman seems to be almost the entire reason for Ubisoft's goodwill - if I'm missing something, please let me know.

Postscript: I'm looking and looking, trying hard to find the magic. Grandia II was pretty good, played that on Dreamcast. Pool of Radiance? Even now I remember this one, not because I played it, but because it was released in a horribly broken state. Is it Will Rock, a serviceable Serious Sam ripoff? I know for a fact it's not Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu. Eh, I'll keep looking.

What Other Reasons?

EA is kind of the de facto whipping boy of the videogame industry and this is not without reason. The EA_spouse whistleblowing highlighted some incredibly pernicious business practices.

Of course, by all accounts they have at least made an effort to change. What about other major game companies guilty of the exact same things? Where is the widespread call to regulate the industry? Are we so naive to think that Nintendo doesn't have voluntary-mandatory crunch time? Most studios probably ducked their heads and said, "Thank god it wasn't us. And thank god nobody is urging industry-wide oversight."

Lack of innovation. Let's all turn and stare and point at Madden, class. But let's be real about this: Madden is a football game. This is not meant as a diminutive but to point out that right from the start innovation is limited by a stringent ruleset made even more stringent by its brand licensing. Some years Madden is a great football game, other years it's passable.

But they've been publishing Sid Meier for quite some time. They released Ultima Online, flawed but still with more options than most other MMOs. Dungeon Keeper. The Sims. Shogun: Total War. Populous. Lots of stuff coming out of small, quirky studios.

Of course they have a raft of shallow, derivative titles and outright duds. Look at any game-publishing company and you'll see the exact same pattern. A few innovative sellers, lots of generic retreads that sell gangbusters and a whole host of failed product (not to mention all the unseen games killed off at some point in development).

There's a reason crap games get made. They sell. I remember being shocked when I heard that the third and fourth rate games coming out of my employer made the company more money than the AAA titles. "That can't be right," I said. But it's true. Doing things different means more risk, which means more time, which means more money - the higher risk means less income should the game not live up to its potential, and a higher chance of dropping a project when it starts missing milestones because the concept can't be proven.

All of which comes back to my question: Other than the complaints that might be lodged against any corporation and the specific beefs with videogame corporations, why reserve specific ire for EA?

Mostly this is for Corvus. But anyone else can feel free to chime in.

Fire Away

to the Play with Fire team. I look forward to giving it a whirl.

I do think that Chris isn't giving the game enough credit if he thinks it can't be a mass market success. It just depends on distribution, and whether you're willing to work with those who hold the keys to the realm of the mass market.

What Will "Work" Do to the Uncanny Valley?

Was watching
Las Vegas last night. Wayne Newton was on. He has apparently entered the "hideous ghoul" stage of celebrity life. Pinched, lifeless face, slitted eyes, botox-ed into a static mask betraying not even the slightest humanity.

So what of the Uncanny Valley? Would a decently-rendered avatar of Wayne Newton be more convincingly realistic than footage of the actual Mr. Newton?

In a world where plastic surgery and botox and makeup present more abstracted versions of humanity through mass media, will this ameliorate some of the effects of the Uncanny Valley, or will our interactions with relatively-unaltered* humans maintain the disconnect?

*I use relatively-unaltered because even those of us without plastic surgery typically get haircuts, shave faces, legs or more, wear clothing, etc.

Friday, December 15, 2006

A Copy of a Copy of a Copy

I was watching
a Hunter S. Thompson profile called, Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride, and there's a part where Thompson talks about typing out whole sections of novels from Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. His motivation, says a friend on the program, was because, "I just want to feel what it feels like to write that well."

Thompson later described it as almost like performing a piece of music.

This process, apparently, has a healthy history. And a present, it seems.

I may have to try it out sometime.

Already Embalmed

I know some haters might question
the relevance of this, yo . . .

But continuing in the same vein as Wednesday . . .

Want to see a bunch of wankers fellate a living corpse?

I'm pretty sure you don't, but just in case: Cheney and Bush praise Our Most Clueless Defense Secretary.

AKA, Mr. Gosh-Golly-Gee, The War Won't Last More Than Six Months.

Right on the nose.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Bury Him on a Garbage Scow

Want to see
a bunch of wankers fellate the corpse of a mass-murdering thug?

I'm pretty sure you don't, but just in case: National Review Celebrates a Despot.

Props to Thor Halvorssen, whose response seems horribly out of place amongst the laudatory and the laudatory with small nods toward the messier points of despotism.

And to all those conservatives and libertarians who talk about the miracle of Chile's economy under Pinochet, repeat after me: I do believe in fairies, I do!

Party Time

Andrew Stern over at Grand Text Auto has dished out
some enticing information about the next step for interactive drama beyond Facade. It's called The Party and it's about . . . a party. Cool. Read the press release for the premise.

He also asks a few questions. I'll pick and choose a few to answer.

Issue 2) Even if there is richly generated story, can the player affect the generation of the story in significant, meaningful ways? I.e., is satisfying agency possible, and did this occur in Façade?

Response: Yes. Yes. Okay, fine, I'll give a longer response. Satisfying agency is definitely possible within the confines of a story. This is, in fact, the major premise of most pen-and-paper role-playing games. Much of the elasticity of PnP RPGs comes from having a human gamemaster's imagination to generate content on the fly, but most GMs put a strong narrative in place to provide focus. My experience attempting to play a pick-up game of D&D ended in boredom while the GM got stuck, threw cliches at the player characters and created an incoherent mess.

I got a few moments out of Facade that made me feel as if I truly affected the story - getting kicked out of the apartment is particularly memorable. My criticism rests with the premise. Having the couple argue is a good way to keep conversation moving, but it's also a good way to make players so uncomfortable that they don't want to get involved. Not getting involved is not what you want from a game. Be careful about the possible social reactions you might spark in your players.

Facade might have worked even better structured like the movie Two Girls and a Guy. The titular Guy has been dating Two Girls. The Two Girls find out when they are waiting outside his apartment. Guy gets home and the arguing begins. Accusations, flirtations, apologies, etc. As interactive drama, the player could choose the gender of the third person in the triangle. Maybe they would be the Guy role (think of this as a gender-neutral Guy), defending Guyself against the Two Girls. Or one of the Girls (gender-neutral Girl), trying to find out how long Guy has been cheating, who he really loves, all those nagging questions cheatees ask themselves.

Issue 3) Using an open-ended natural language (NL) interface, Façade attempts to allow the player to speak anything they like to the characters. What succeeded and what failed here?

Response: People suck. Nothing failed. The problem is that, when faced with limitless options, people will be disappointed when their own clever, obscure query comes back with a stock answer. "Ah ha!" they think. "I've foiled the system." No, dumbass, you just don't know how the game is played; Never be my improv partner.

Issue 6) By rendering its characters in a more illustrative style a la alternative comics such as Optic Nerve and Eightball, Façade attempts to break away from mannequin-ish, stiff-faced polygonal characters, hyperrealism and the uncanny valley. Simultaneously this technique allowed for the faces to be drawn procedurally, and therefore results in them being quite fluid and expressive. Yet, many players and reviewers considered Façade’s graphics to be crude. What’s the solution here?

Response: Sorry to say guys . . . the graphics were crude. This isn't an impediment to making a good game, but it is to bringing one out to the mainstream.

The problem might be the flat cartoony look. Think about South Park - it's bare minimum stuff. There's no musculature, which can be very important for reading emotion, not just eyes and mouth. Sure, anime uses a similar style, but anime is really good with overexaggeration, not subtleties. Interactive drama can only be helped by subtleties.

I wouldn't mind seeing a 3-d cartoony look. The humanoid characters in the Ratchet & Clank series or Jak & Daxter have a lot of weight to their faces, muscles that are both exaggerated yet allow for a great amount of subtlety.

Also - body language. This is a tough one. Facade's body language was passable. Barely. Good luck with this one guys. I'd start maybe with a core set of open/closed, familiar/protected stances (standing and sitting) and then tweak from there, add in beats that can be remixed procedurally, maybe even personal tics for each character.


As for The Party . . . maybe give us something a little more meaty to do, something to tie everything together. A mystery of some kind.

Which makes me think. This format would be great for an Angela Lansbury-type murder mystery. A dinner party in an out-of-the-way mansion. An eccentric millionaire, shot in the back. Whodunit?

Monday, December 11, 2006


Just when I thought I had said
my piece about greedy fucking music companies, I read the latest in the New York Times about the myriad ways in which Universal Music Group and its ilk use their inflated sense of entitlement to bilk both artists and consumers.

Major labels are starting to demand cuts of concert earnings, t-shirts and other merchandising revenue.

That's right, the best (and probably the only) way for a band to get and stay profitable for any length of time, and the major labels are sniffing around like frat boys at a high school prom afterparty.

They're pissed, see, because overcharging for CDs isn't making them a ton of money. Digital downloads are growing in popularity (the online-savvy like Apple and Amazon have gotten a jump on the major labels) as are other unconventional methods of getting a patterned series of vibrations into peoples' ears. This cannot stand!

No, really, fuck these clownshoes.

Also contained in the article is the single biggest reason to never, ever buy a Zune player (did anybody really need a good reason?): Every Zune you buy gives a $1 kickback to Universal Music. Because you might beam a song to the other loser in your town with a Zune. This is a travesty.

Remember, when you listen to music that is audible to other people, you're stealing from Universal Music.

Steve Rifkind says that illicit file-sharing online and burning CDs for friends is what can account for the minor drop in album profits. Because people have never been able to record and share music for friends until this point in time. I know I've said this before, but I want to drive this home: People who steal music can not count as lost sales, because there is no reason to expect that, were stealing not an option, they would pay for it.

First, CDs still cost too much. This is a fact. I can barely find a CD for less than 15 dollars at a retail store. Ten years ago I bought most CDs for 12 bucks, when the industry was desperate to get everyone to stick with this new format. Then, when tapes were successfully killed, prices went back up. Even though it costs pennies to mass produce CDs. Anyone else see a problem there?

Of course, the real problem is that buying CDs supports all those really shitty artists that get overhyped by the industry. One catchy single gets spit out, payola gets it on the radio, more payola gets it on MTV, Pharell does a beat, it gets sold as a ringtone, the single turns out to be the only half-listenable thing on a wretched album, the artist disappears and the industry churns out something new the next week. So not only do you contribute to that ridiculous cycle, but then you also put money in the pockets of washed-up hacks like Britney Spears and Ashlee Simpson. They get millions from labels to be "names," while not contributing anything to any facet of society. Meanwhile, all those B and C-list artists on the label are lucky to get table scraps; Hell, they're lucky to be able to afford their own contracts (most artists end up paying for their own marketing, production, management, crew, etc., then splitting whatever's left if they have a band).

I've gotta go. I have to finish playing this tiny violin for the execs at Universal Music Group.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Needlessly Political

Matt Taibbi just might be
the best contemporary American political writer. At least for my philistine generation, a bunch of uncouth louts with no appreciation for conventional wisdom. We hardly remember bipartisanship except as something right-wingers shout when they've lost all power and are afraid of even the slightest retaliation.

So go read his assessment of the kabuki that is the Iraq Study Group. This is distantly amusing to me inasmuch as the President has already announced that he will ignore any of the ISG suggestions that even remotely represented changes in policy. Basically, he's going to stay the course. Big fucking surprise.

Really, if Iraq didn't want to descend into a brutal sectarian civil war, then why did they allow themselves to be invaded by the United States?

The Three Main Options for Not-Leaving Iraq are:
1. 15,000-30,000 more troops accompanied by boisterous clapping and only a vague sense of what might constitute "victory"
2. Hunting al-Qaeda, or people who might be al-Qaeda, or people who might have once said something similar to "al-Qaeda", dragging them into the night to some dank CIA gulag where they will be tortured for years and never charged, then dumped onto the streets of an Eastern European country, broken and alone
3. Support majority Shiites in their "cleansing" efforts against the Sunnis

Those are all very viable options. For continuing Operation Massive Fuckup.

The truth is, the White House is waiting for the hard-hitting facts sure to come from the reports of the Department of Defense and the State Department before making any firm decisions to stay in Iraq indefinitely.

President Bush asked for cooperation on the new old Iraq plan, which means he wants critics to shut up and do whatever he says. That's the definition of cooperation. Never mind that the majority opinion wants to begin withdrawing from Iraq and that almost 70 percent of Americans think we're losing ground. Bush wants us all to play along until he can figure out how to declare victory.


In other news, we're Number One!

The US has the most prisoners in the world, ahead of both China and Russia.

A large portion of them are drug offenders.

Prohibition totally works! Well, it works in the sense of creating a permanent criminal underclass which are easily exploited and have very little participation in greater society.

It feels good to be a winner.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Value of Things

I quit Emusic because
I haven't been listening to music much lately. It got to be too much of a hassle to browse through a whole lot of unfamiliar artists. The genres were only a minor help and there was never any clue as to the professionalism of a recording. Clicking for a preview caused an obnoxious pause, which meant that there was little enjoyment to looking for new bands.

The best thing about the service was the basic MP3 format and lack of DRM. But a few months ago they changed their plans, charging more for fewer songs. This didn't affect current subscribers, but made me suspicious nevertheless.

I'd really like to see how my dollar breaks down for digital downloads. Emusic, for example, typically charged about 40-60 cents per song. Itunes charges 99 cents across the board. Emusic claims to be supportive of indie artists, but how much of a cut are they actually getting? From what I've read, Itunes is particularly heinous in this regard, taking a huge profit and dropping a few pennies to the respective artists.

Itunes is essentially the Wal-Mart of digital music. They set a baseline price that must be adhered to no matter what the circumstances. The sheer scope of the service is tempting to new artists - all those eyeballs. But in exchange they have to settle for a very low cut, much lower than they could make if they regulated their own downloads.

I'm also interested in knowing whether my money will reach an actual creative person, or just some asshole who dropped a bunch of money on copyrights and has been squatting on them for years.

Case in point is Vongo, a new video download service. I grabbed their downloader and browsed their collection. Not bad, but not great. The prices suck. Renting is cheaper overall than at Blockbuster, and you have the added luxury of not leaving the house. Buying movies ends up being just as expensive as getting a used DVD or searching the bargain bin at a department store - except, you know, with a whole mess of DRM attached to keep you from burning copies or putting it on too many computers. We're at the stage where a digital copy of a movie should cost about five bucks, maybe a little more for new releases.

Now it's true that streaming a movie from computer to television is possible, but that requires a technology buy-in that is out of reach to many, and can be needlessly complex even for those who desire such a setup.

TV and music and movie downloads are hopelessly beholden to the greed of their respective distributors. While I'm not opposed to making money, per se, that's not what the current business model is about. The current business model is about continuously elevating profits. If profits don't go up then it must be the fault of the no-good consumers, whose constant piracy is taking money away from hard-working CEOs.

Hollywood is notorious for bitching about this, putting out commercials about the lowly grip who can barely feed his family. To which I say: Stop pouring millions into spoiled "stars" and shift some of it to those lowly grips or toward cutting production costs.

More griping to come.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

License to ill

Last week I was hit by the flu from hell. It's still here with me, clogging up my head and sandpapering my throat. I've missed three days of work so far.

So that's been fun.

In game-related news, I picked up Guild Wars: Nightfall and re-activated my WoW account. Yes, two MMOs. I am that insane.

To be honest, though, Guild Wars doesn't really play like an MMO. At least, not for me. It's really a decent single-player RPG that happens to allow you to team up with other people. Except you don't have to team up - that's its beauty. The combat is incredibly fast, which is good, and you can take on groups of enemies (like in City of Heroes). I leveled up to 20 in about a week, which is the cap, and yet only got 1/10th of the way through the storyline. This is an interesting way to tackle the grind, but it doesn't quite feel right. After you reach max level, you no longer earn more stats, just points to upgrade the skills of your NPC heroes. Your bar continues to fill up, though - when it maxes out it goes back to zero and still shows level 20. This is especially frustrating when you run into enemies that are level 26 or greater, or when you get owned again and again by a large group and you know that beating them won't be as easy as leveling.

Instead you have to juggle your skills. I thought this would be an interesting dynamic but found it tedious. There's no way to auto-loadout yourself. There are also the aforementioned hero NPCs which require the same micromanaging - no auto-loadouts for them, either. So most of the time you just throw some skills into the bar and hope for the best. Because each skill is so specific it's difficult to compare them - they definitely need to add meaningful choice into the selection. The only time I'm sure that a skill is worthwhile is when its elite (which you capture from monsters much like the Blue Mage, except it only works on bosses).

The crafting system is decent, I like it better than WoWs (easier to manage, for one, and not based on separate professions). While there are standard weapons and armors, you can add different kinds of runes, et. al., as well as customize weapons to you for a damage bonus. This means that you can truly make a specialized set. It's also nice to be able to dye your armor, a pretty basic feature that WoW should consider for, at the least, capes.

Which brings me to WoW. I created a new character so I could join some friends. I made an Undead Warlock on Thunderlord, a PvP server. I don't like PvP servers, and this one hasn't changed my opinion at all, not after some high-level Alliance wasted twenty minutes of my time ganking me in Sun Rock.

Blizzard has done nothing to prevent that sort of behavior. They never implemented dishonorable kills (not that I've noticed). I also can't help but think that not being able to communicate from Horde to Alliance makes it that much easier to grief people. At the very least it would be nice to be able to say, "Kill me, you assholes!"

Still, it's WoW. Probably the most fascinating reason for their success is that their style is largely based on limitations of the RTS games that were made into strengths. The first Warcraft, while simple, introduced an abstract quality. This was changed into a cartoony, hand-drawn style for the second. The third game brought in 3-d and, because of the necessity of zooming in and out and panning the map quickly, low-poly models were necessary. They also extended the abstract nature, turning the buildings into ballooning, angular representations.

Blizzard took all of those pre-established styles and leveraged them into their MMO. The abstraction allowed all kinds of jutting plants and buildings to dot the landscape. The hand-drawn cartoony graphics made hi-res textures unnecessary. The low-poly models of Warcraft 3 allowed for a simplified 3-d modeling style. All of these, in turn, made it so much easier to deliver a stable, fast, lag-free online experience. The art is synergistic with the technology. So almost by accident they got this completely distinguishable image.

I also have yet to play an MMO that can give me the same sense of awe. Guild Wars has some gorgeous scenery, evocative of each area, the water sparkling as if full of jewels in one area, stagnant water and heavy plant cover in another. But what it lacked was any kind of place where I could feel part of a great huge world. Part of this is due to the way every zone in Guild Wars has a portal - nothing is seamless. A little thing like that can have a big effect.

Oh, and one other thing I liked about Guild Wars: last names.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

House of Card

What the hell happened
to Orson Scott Card? Does anyone know?

I'd blame it on Mormonism, but he's been deep in that since the early 70s.

While Ender's Game might have had its flaws it was nevertheless provocative and unpredictable. The way it showed children wrapped up in society's greater struggles and political machinations was incredibly powerful. To a fifteen year old that kind of message can be life-altering.

My favorite of his books is one called Treason. I would still recommend it.

I also enjoyed his short story collections.

But I first knew something was amiss when I picked up one of the later Ender books, Ender's Shadow. The writing was atrocious with a capital-A and, hell, capitalize the C, too. There were even numerous grammatical errors. I thought two things:

1. Either Mr. Card never wrote any of his earlier works, or
2. He hasn't written any of his later works

His new book, Empire, looks to have that very same lack of quality mixed in with some bullshit political formulations. It reads like a tenth grader ripping off Robert Heinlein and combining it with Red Dawn. I especially cringe at Card's characterizations of his military men, perfect copy for a fascist pamphlet. Add to that a completely ridiculous scene of the President getting killed by men with rocket launchers.


Of course, I'm not sure what to expect from a guy who calls himself a Democrat, idolizes Zell Miller and hates liberals. They used to call those guys Dixiecrats. He also supported George Bush, hated Kerry and Edwards and defends Fox News. There is nothing at all Democratic about him. He's virulently anti-gay, denies global warming, "distrusts" Darwinism and wholly supports every aspect of the bogus War on Terror. In short, he's a big fucking phony. Political parties should be able to sue for slander when someone claims allegiance to a party and yet voices opinions that are wholly antithetical to the party's platform.

Maybe the ravages of lifelong hypocrisy can turn you into a shitty writer.


And to add to Thomas' addendum: I think it's clear that Card obviously doesn't have even a sliver of knowledge of American government and culture. Brunswick, Maryland isn't really different from Winchester, Virginia. Hell, Rib Lake, Wisconsin isn't very different from Fitzgerald, Georgia. The red-state/blue-state division is so generalized that any fiction based on it will be caricature of the worst kind. It makes me wonder if Mr. Card has actually traveled at all in the US. Maybe that's where things went wrong - as soon as he started writing about Earth (Ender's Shadow also took place on Earth) then all of his ignorance could shine.

It's a shame, really.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Zombie Laws

Yet another
video game law has been struck down.

Censors will never stop wasting money with these frivolous attempts at criminalizing something better left to social regulation.

I especially liked this part:

"An integral part of the court's analysis was its concern that the statute would criminalize the sale of material 'without concern for the game considered in its entirety or for the game's social value for minors.' As a case in point, the court looked to the game God of War, which tracks the Homeric epic Odyssey in content and theme. Although that game shows exposed breasts, the court held that 'there is serious reason to believe that a statute sweeps too broadly when it prohibits a game that is essentially an interactive, digital version of the Odyssey.' "

Whoever issued that opinion gets it.

It being the notion that videogames are just as deserving of respect, and protection, as any other expressive medium. They looked at more than the surface content and went for a deeper analysis. This is laudable.

Here's an old post dealing with this topic.


I was away for a week in Albuquerque, seeing beautiful scenery and eating wonderful southwestern cuisine.

I had more written for this post, but the most recent Firefox sucks and crapped out on me, losing half my words to the abyss. Perhaps more on the trip later, with pictures.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Here's the Procedure

If you haven't read
up on procedural textures, you owe it to yourself to become familiar with them. They will be very important to games in a future not far away at all. There are many reasons for this, a few of which are:

1. They can yield a 90% reduction in texture filesize. The example given in the article was 480MB reduced to 3MB. That is completely insane. And since most games nowadays will copy over 1-4GB of data when installing, cutting those numbers down pleases those of us who prefer to save their hard drive space for legitimately obtained pornography and cartoon sitcoms.

2. Because of number 1, digital downloading will get a big boost. Not everyone has a great internet connection and people definitely don't like to wait to play a new game (at least, I don't).

3. Save on development time. It's more about defining parameters than using photoshop or some other art program. That means you can make a lot of similar textures in very little time versus hand tweaking.

4. With sufficient advances (or maybe now?), the system could be made to generate hi-res textures for different zoom levels, avoiding the pixelation that still occurs in games today when you get close to a surface.

5. The effects of time can be shown easily.

I'm most excited about number five. There are many exciting possibilities inherent in being able to completely redefine a texture's parameters over time. It allows for great weathering effects, showing wear and tear. You could have wood take on a saturated look in the rain and dry out slowly in the sun.

It also makes things like seasons easier to model. Imagine how much grass changes during the year. Lush and green in the spring, sparkling with rain. Thicker in the summer. Thinning out and drying as it pushes through Fall. Then dying patches as Winter does its work. Try to do that the traditional way and you need textures for each season, in addition to transitional textures. Enough transitions to make it look smooth, which could turn out to be a lot.

With procedural textures you describe the general changes that should occur in reaction to what input. Which means seamless transitions. Just check out the article, go to the third page or so and watch the .mov file of a bathroom that falls into disrepair. Tiles drop from the walls, the mirror shatters and the backing honeycombs, the radiator rusts and the floor is covered with grime and mold.

Now, I don't think procedural textures are the best solution for every game, or that a game should only use them. But they're worth checking out. Personally, mixing traditional texture art, procedural textures and Carmack's megatextures could make quite an impact.

I guarantee Molyneux and Will Wright are studying this technology in great detail and thinking of some amazing applications.

Now all of you do the same.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Lost in the Sauce

I was gonna comment
over at Cathode Ray Tan, but stupid beta blogger won't allow comments on regular blogger. Why that wasn't a primary concern before urging me to upgrade I'll never know. And while I'm bitching about it, they should really add the functionality to tag posts from the actual post listing, so I can go back and tag all my archives without having to enter edit mode and re-publish everything.

Regarding Lost, I'm beginning to think that there is nothing special (i.e., supernatural) about the Others. When the plane first crashed, they had to infiltrate the Tailies and spend a few days in order to make their lists. Ethan seemed abnormally strong, but died all the same - I've known a few wiry guys that could regularly bench 250, so it's not impossible that Ethan could be a brute without positing superpower.

A few responses, going on the assumption that the Others are "just folks":

Sawyer's Age
While the Others have access to volumes of information, they don't necessarily know everything, and can still be surprised. Assuming they have a decent investigator in "the world," Jack's info would naturally be easier to acquire than Sawyer's, since Sawyer no doubt left a trail of lies whereas Jack wasn't actively trying to hide every aspect of his life.

Crash Cart
No mystery there. I'm pretty sure they said it was broken. Even with technical knowledge, without parts it's gonna stay broken.

I'm in agreement that The Amazing Desmond shtick doesn't bode well for his character.

Polar Bear
This is from an earlier CRT post. The bears were explained on the Hatch Map. The Dharma Initiative was experimenting with radical environmental acclimation, e.g., getting polar bears to survive in a tropical climate. The big question, then, is, "Why?" I think if we knew that, we might have at least some idea of exactly what Dharma was trying to accomplish. One idea is that they were looking to colonize other worlds/dimensions (and that they had a way to get there). I assume that it might be easier to alter an organism's structure than terraform an entire world.

The Others
The motivation of the Others seems to be a major puzzle. If we go off my assumption that there is nothing supernatural about them, then their actions can be explained by (relatively) mundane matters.

The Others have been on the island (well, their island) for a long time, some of them supposedly their whole lives. I'm thinking they were either family of Dharma members, experimented on by Dharma, castaways, prisoners, or some variation/combination of all of those. Ben for one remarked that he grew up on the island.

While the Others appear to act truly bizarre, they react just the way a tightly-knit, very isolated community might toward the sudden appearance of other, unfamiliar people. It's very possible that the island of the Others exhibits none of the strangeness of the Island, so they feel relatively safe. However, people that land on the Island end up going a bit nutty, maybe, and end up threatening the Others (or have in the past).

Thus, the Others infiltrate and spy and attack and threaten and set boundaries.

Now, what of their lists? Let's assume that Dharma messed with these people. Some torture, some mindless work, disorientation, mixed with random bits of decency (for whatever purposes - at this point we don't know quite enough hard facts about Dharma's goals). It's likely that the Others only know how to react in a like manner - with good cop, bad cop mind games and sinister, mysterious motives. They've been on this Island in the middle of nowhere. They receive television and books and supplies, but imagine if all you knew of society was media and pop culture. You might have some messed up notions, too.

Anyway, that's my basic feeling. The Others were once abused and now carry on that abuse because they never had any other examples. Maybe Dharma even left specific orders, contingency plans, the like.

And there's always the idea that Dharma leaving is all part of a very long con, manipulating the Others to manipulate the Losties to manipulate the Island.

The best part of the show is that you can come up with ridiculous theories like those displayed above and you won't sound crazy to any other Lost fan.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Game revolution has
a pretty interesting feature that breaks down three aggregate video game review sites (RottenTomatoes, Metacritic and Gamerankings) and shows why they're all just fantastic pieces of shit.

I'd care, except I never use aggregate review scores. I find those sites useful because they collect a wide range of reviews in one place. Relying on a fudged average of letters and numbers from sites of varying import is something that seems a little silly. I kind of assumed that nobody else took those scores seriously, either.

When I do check out a game on Metacritic I read a large sampling of the individual reviews, noting each reviewer's unique perspective. If I'm on the fence about a game, I'll rent it or wait for a friend to purchase it. In fact, friends have more influence on my game-purchasing habits than anything else.

Ah well, I do so love reading about flawed methodologies.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Game the System

If you've ever wanted to set up a dream team of congresscritters, look no further than Fantasy Congress.

I'm in the WesternDemocrats League, with a team called The Extended Middle. It's meant to evoke images of flipping the bird. I really am that juvenile.

The great thing about drafting up a team is that you earn points based upon actual bills and whether any members of your team participate in different parts of the legislative process. How cool is that?

In this post I asked whether a game could lead to political action. I would consider Fantasy Congress a step in that direction. I think a small amount of competition could make politics more interesting and accessible.

I'd like to see stat pages with lists of donors, especially the corporate sponsors, so I could see at a glance who owns which congressperson. And extra points should be given for number of earmarks.

Hell, I can't see any reason why we shouldn't have some fun with this broken fucking system before it self-destructs.

Oh, and for a rollicking fun time take a look at the list of 2005's Top 100 Contractors and tell me how many are producing things for the "Defense" Industry. Or "Health Care."

Then try and figure out how much your Reps and Senators raked in from those big names.

What a racket.

Why Take This Asshole Seriously?

I know people love
the crazy. I, personally, enjoy a good dose of lunacy now and then.

But can someone tell me why the media treats Jack Thompson as credible in any sense? I don't care so much about his hijinks with the law - that's just a part of the American system available to all of us. I just can't seem to figure out why the news media would ever put him on as a voice fit to speak on anything relating to video games. He doesn't have an opposing viewpoint - he's a fanatic teetotaller, lacking either brains or a substantive understanding of the issues.

So it is that we come to two juicy tidbits of news.

First, the bisexual smoochfest that is Bully. Jack Thompson, after hearing of the schoolboy action, exclaimed, "Gay stuff? That gay game is gaying it up in the gayborhood. Gay." No, actually, he said something equally bigoted and nonsensical: "We just found gay sexual content in Bully, as Jimmy Hopkins makes out with another male student. Good luck with your 'Teen' rating now, Patty."

Kissing is sexual content? Holy fuckbeans, Batjack! I guess I'll have to destroy all my copies of that kiddie porn, My Girl.

Oh, wait, no. Thompson singles out the boy-boy kissing. I'm sure he'll claim that the game will tear apart the fabric of society. I'm going to guess he's a 'social conservative', which means that he masks his bigotry behind a stunted morality.

The other bit of news is that Thompson may face contempt charges for his courtroom behavior during his Bully media stunt. If I had to take a guess, I'd say that Jack was throwing his feces all over the place.

I'm not asking why gamers keep talking about JT. He's the ultimate gamer supervillain.

What I'm wondering is why he shows up in newspapers. Why he's allowed to advise politicians. Why he pops up on talking heads shows.

The short answer's probably, "Ratings."

It's still annoying. How can we destroy this guy's credibility, considering he has none?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Missing the Point

This article from Forbes
discusses Richard Stallman's attempt to re-write the GPL (the GNU General Public License) under which Linux operates.

Some of the proposed changes include "new restrictions on IBM and any other tech firm that distributes software using even a single line of Linux code. They would be forbidden from using Linux software to block users from infringing on copyright and intellectual-property rights ("digital rights management"); and they would be barred from suing over alleged patent infringements related to Linux."

Forbes says this new "crusade" could topple the Linux "revolution he helped create."

Stallman sounds like a bit of a tool, there's no doubt about that, but this article is such an abject lesson in corporation and capitalism-worship that it reads like parody.

Frankly, I would delight in dividing the forces of Linux between the money-hungry and the anarchists. Companies can either join completely with the idea of open-source or spend their own green to develop software from this point on.

The gist of the schism (which Forbes describes in delightful Cold War language - "putsch" and "radical" and "Orwellian") is that Stallman wants to keep DRM off Linux, and keep patent protections off Linux. Those are two sweet fucking ideas that make perfect sense if you consider the very nature of Linux.

When Forbes puts a big whine job like this on the web, bitching about "which tech companies Stallman's attack could hurt" I think, "Fuck 'em. It's not like they have a soul. Stallman, on the other hand . . . "

Economic magazines are always like that, though. If there's an underdog in the story (a union, a nonprofit, an open-source crusader) fighting against a GRUNCH of Giants, the econ rag will always side with the GRUNCH.

My heart breaks for the corporations. Really, it does.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Not Quite the Open Source Band, But . . .

Palast, one of the best investigative reporters ever (and largely unpublished in the US, naturally), has put together an audiobook of his latest work, Armed Madhouse. Special guests include Jello Biafra, Amy Goodman, Randi Rhodes, Larry David and More.

Not only is it free on the Intertubes for your listening pleasure, but Greg has made each chapter available for download under a Creative Commons license.

But wait, there's more. There is a re-mix contest going on. Simply snag whichever files you desire, mix them together with a thumping industrial bassline, the ethereal sounds of a theremin and barnyard animals bleating in the background and submit them to the contest.

At the very least, give them a listen. And then go ahead and buy The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.

It's a great way to further shatter your faith in American elections.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Opening my Brain

I'm gonna dump an idea
I had awhile ago onto the web. I've seen similar things, but nothing that takes the form I'm going to describe.

Still, I wouldn't be surprised if something like this has been done before.

I've dubbed it the Open Source Band. It's built around the Creative Commons License, specifically the Attribution-ShareAlike.

Boiled down to its essentials:

1. A Band Name is Chosen. This name is free to be used by any band/musician for performances or recordings. The name is completely hackable. Change it completely. Under no circumstances can it be trademarked.

2. A Website is Built. Registration is free, but contributors must get a special pass from a moderator. Regular registrants can post and add to the sheet music database. Contributors can upload sound clips.

3. Standards are Decided. Sheet music and sound clips will use common filetypes, carefully limited to ensure maximum compatibility among all involved.

4. Music is Created. Musicians write songs. They upload the songs to the website. In addition, they upload the components of a song (the separate parts before a mixdown). Participation is contingent upon accepting the terms of the license.

5. Music is Remixed. All different song parts are tweaked and chopped and remixed and reversed. New songs are formed. Those songs become a part of the Band's setlist, usable by all for any purpose: benefits, albums, concerts, soundtracks.

6. New Bands Form. Given enough interest among contributors, a Band Name might rotate, or a new one might be created.

What I really imagine is a concert poster. The lineup starts out SCREAMER in big bold letters and underneath that "Opening for" and underneath that SCREAMER and then "Followed by" SCREAMER'S SISTER and then REMAERCS and then "Next Week:" and then SCREAMER.

And every band plays something wildly different but wildly similar - some of the lyrics sound just right but a bit off, so people have trouble singing along. Riffs repeat, bandmates merge in and out, wondering if they're with the right version of SCREAMER and ultimately not caring.

And when the people leave the club and are walking to the Metro, they struggle to put it all together. Someone on the street asks if they liked the band and they wonder, "Which part of it?"

Not necessarily earth-changing, but at least a small bit of reverse branding. Instead of attempting to force a symbol to take on certain meaning, a symbol is morphed and twisted until it evokes a wide range of feelings and reactions and defies predictability.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Don't Fear the Round Table

This month's Round Table
concerns the topic of fear.

I associate fear with Leary's first consciousness circuit, bio-survival. This circuit controls fight or flight response and territorial concerns, what could be termed avoidance behaviors.

A large percentage of videogames utilize fear, though many people may not recognize it as such. When a player must keep Mario away from the Hammer Brothers' terrible hammers, fear drives the reactions. Platformers, first-person-shooters, racing games - what are typically known as "twitch" games rely primarily upon activation of the fear response.

Working in tandem with fear is another emotion: dread.

Where fear is predicated on acknowledgment of an antagonistic situation, dread is predicated on anticipation. Dread is about hidden knowledge; Fear is the recognition of a threat.

Dread is more often used in horror games, where the use of visual and aural cues can alert the player to unseen danger and build tension. An RTS with a fog-of-war component also sparks low-level dread - will you run into a fleet of carriers or a weak gatherer?

One game that struck a great balance between fear and dread was Resident Evil 3.

RE3 carried over most of the tropes of the previous games - shuffling zombie creatures, sparse ammo, dreary ruined environments. Avoiding the denizens of an undead city provided constant doses of fear.

Then we come to Nemesis. Most game bosses appear every few levels to taunt the player, have a quick battle and retreat to grow even more powerful. Not Nemesis. He follows you through the entire game. The very idea of him appearing starts to gnaw at you. His points of entry onto the screen are semi-randomized. He screams "STARS!" constantly and is unstoppable.

The only places safe from Nemesis are the save rooms, a lone typewriter the only adornment. I would spend a lot of time in a save room, building up my courage to tackle the next few sections of Nemesis' relentless hounding.

All of that tension naturally builds to a stirring boss battle, but that's not all. The endgame becomes a race against time as you try to escape before a nuclear strike annihilates the city. Fear and dread merge as you struggle against time itself.

Constant invocation of the fear response can grow tedious, which is why using dread to ratchet anxiety works so well to alleviate some of that tedium. A lesson that would be interesting applied to many different genres.

Following Up

A follow-up to the previous post. It was running long in the comments.


Q: If military folk have a flame war on a forum, does that mean the loser has to die?
A: Naw, but I hear that Marines have to kill their families to earn their stripes.


Q: But are those tendencies institutional--that is, are they encouraged by the military? And are they unavoidable? Clearly, some people do leave the armed services without becoming misogynistic bigots. But it also seems like there's been a fair amount of misconduct in the Iraq war, even assuming that there are always atrocities in war, and I'd like to know if those attitudes are the reason why.

A: Definitely not encouraged, but on the other hand largely institutional. You see similar attitudes in nearly any kind of male-dominated environment, especially in ones where a certain level of aggression/anxiety is maintained. Couple that with the current socio-political climate and a lot of ignorance bubbles over. Price of the patriarchy, perhaps.

I don't know that there's more misconduct in the Iraq Invasion than any other war, which to me is a sad fact. But there's no doubt we're seeing a lot. There are lots of explanations, I'm sure - a few off the top of my head:

1. Mission creep - with no clear goal, either on a strategic or tactical level (if you have to clear a city every few months, it's obvious you're getting bullshit missions), unit cohesion, morale, training, community relations break down. Familiarity breeds contempt, not just for Iraqis vs Americans but within military units themselves. I still find it ridiculous that the Marines are even involved at this point - they aren't Swiss peacekeepers.

2. Dehumanization - Dehumanization of the enemy is almost standard practice at this point, and it's especially dangerous. Everyone uses slurs and repeats the worst kind of racist myths about, not just the enemy, but civilians. While this makes combat easier, peacekeeping is much harder. A lot of people joined after 9/11, and got shuttled off to Iraq revenge-minded - they're idiots, but I put more blame on the bastards at the top for pulling off the deception.

3. Broken military - Not enough time/money for training/equipment, way too many deployments (when I went in, a deployment was 6 months max - now it's over a year), loads of risky vaccinations, a completely poisoned environment in Iraq (they ask you if you were exposed to various things - radiation, burning fuel, etc. - and I ask "How would you know?").

They've done a good job pretending that recruitment is fine as they lower the minimum test score and raise the maximum age, but they're hurting. They can fix the numbers because a unit is only required to have a certain percentage of job spots filled in order to claim 'readiness' - I think my comm unit was at 74% when I left over a year ago. You have two companies, essentially mirror units, the idea being that one deploys, one stays behind to train, then replaces the first unit, but we were cannibalizing the other company and even other units just to get the minimum numbers (and other units were doing the same to us). Juggling will keep it going for awhile, but meanwhile training is going to shit (very hard to stay current in the sandbox) and people are getting promoted just because spots are opening up, not because they're qualified.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Le Sigh

read a story about a group of Gitmo guards allegedly bragging in a club about beating detainees.

Then, if you dare, go to the forums. Read a few threads until you start to feel ill.

That's why I avoid military/prior service forums and functions.

If I wanted inane conservative talking points, media-bashing, woman-bashing, bigotry, violent fantasies and piss-poor excuses for unprofessional behavior, I'd visit Little Green Footballs.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Television Uber Alles

I watch
too much TV.

My wife is in charge of the television schedule, because I can't be bothered. I've never liked to pore over schedules and set up recordings and plan out blocks of time, juggling shows like flaming chainsaws.

Of course, she plans out seasons worth of shows, researching time-slots and when to catch repeats. Her idea of a bad day is when the DVR messes up. As a result, I watch a lot of shows, and I watch them chronologically. Were she not here, I probably wouldn't even have cable.

So I'm listing a bunch of shows coupled with throwaway critiques. Since I have no concept of seasons, some of these shows have already had their finales and some are just starting.

There will be a shitload of spoilers. You have been warned.


Blade - This was one of those rare shows that I actually suggested watching, so naturally it's been canceled. It started off weak but found its groove. Alas, too late. The end of first season set the stage for a great second season. Nuts.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip - Lawyers, Guns and Money has much to say, as does James Wolcott, and while I've enjoyed the episodes thus far I also see the much-discussed flaws. It doesn't bode well when negative criticism rings true for someone who actually enjoys the show. Warren Ellis talked about the tv history revisionism on display (remember the golden age of tv? neither does anyone else) and I think that holds as well. What helps me is that Sorkin doesn't seem to write gritty expose' so much as pedantic wouldn't-it-be-nice-isms. I've only seen bits of the West Wing, but what I have seen resembles a Frank Capra version of government doing work - purposeful striding, earnest, competent employees, can-do attitudes and nobility even in the villains. Of course, I like Frank Capra's body of work, so that my be why the unreality of Sorkin's dramas don't unnerve me.

A scene that bothered me occurred in the third episode. The Christian character, Harriet, comes in to complain about a sketch mocking a town that banned The Crucible from being performed. Of course, she comes in with a great little story about how it's just a small town and they all work in a bread factory. It breaks my fucking heart, really. And of course Matthew Perry's character caves. And the thing is . . . given everything that Sorkin has set up thus far, he shouldn't have caved. I've lived in small towns, and let me tell you that people there are just as worthy of mockery as big-city folk or what-have-you. If you're running a sketch comedy show going for bite, then don't dance around your targets. So right there this show that Sorkin's writing about, this failing show that wants to be edgy and biting - drops a sketch because of a misreading of the nature of power. Harriet convinces everyone that the small-towners aren't worthy of mockery because they aren't powerful or hypocritical enough. But exercising censorship over local plays is an abuse of power, and in a free society it is hypocritical - it's not the scope, it's the act itself. Rant ended.

[Warren on Studio 60:1] [Warren on Studio 60: 3]

Heroes - Masi Oka is awesome as the space/time manipulator. Ali Larter and her evil reflection have enough menace that it's unclear whether her role will be hero or villain. Greg Grunberg plays a psychic cop with measured steps - awkward but not bumbling. The flying Petrelli brothers are boring. Even Nathan's exploitation of Peter's "suicide attempt" for political purposes didn't come off as sleazy as it should have. Hayden Panettiere as the indestructible cheerleader isn't terrible, but she's not interesting to me for this reason: Joss Whedon already covered the whole 'popular, pretty adolescent with tremendous powers attempting to just fit in while clearly called for greater things', and covered it with such tragedy and humor that Heroes doesn't have a chance to compare. So it's not that her character is poorly done, it's just that I've seen it all before, all seven seasons of it.

The drug-addled future-painter (Santiago Cabrera) isn't really a character at all, he's a plot device attached to a conflict. As for caveats, I'd like to see sub-plots over the season instead of stretching out the nuclear situation for a whole season. I also wonder how the show will change assuming that all the interconnected heroes actually make contact with one another - will it turn into a Superfriends villain-of-the-week? The show reminds me a lot of The 4400, which bored me as a miniseries and didn't draw me in first season, but got decidedly better and better. We'll see.

Help Me Help You - I keep hearing that Becker was good, but never heard that when it was on. Anyway, Ted Danson is funny, his deadpan delivery unchanged since forever - he's not quite as bitter as House and not quite as straight-faced over-the-top as Dr. Cox. It also has Charlie Finn from Life On A Stick, a forgettable sitcom that my wife and I loved. Thus far all of characters in the therapy group have gotten good lines and decent jokes, and while the show takes the trope of 'each person has a disorder that leads to wacky situations' it's not as slapstick as the Deuce Bigalow movies (let's have the narcoleptic fall asleep everywhere! well, yeah).

The Nine - Hated it. This was my wife's choice, I watched out of the corner of my eye. The show's trying way too hard to be high-concept. The characters all felt slotted into their reactions - okay, you're the guy who acted bravely, you're the guy who was a coward, you're the person with a secret - and never go anywhere beyond those roles. It feels like a playwriting exercise brought to life. The aforementioned heroic person was, before the siege, a nebbish dork - do you see the contrast between those two roles? Well, if not, don't worry, because they'll hammer that contrast into your brain before the episode is over. I know, I only saw the premiere, but it failed on two major counts: I don't care about any of the characters, and i don't care that they were hostages in a bank robbery. Boo.

Lost - I'm completely biased here, this is one of my favorite all-time shows. Ever. They make me care about every little look, every background character, every turn of phrase. The season premiere started off with a stunning revelation, and then downshifted, leaving some people disappointed. Not me. I like that this show plays off of expectations. the season two premiere was pretty low-key, as well. The second episode gave more Jin and Sun backstory - I like that I go from thinking Jin is an asshole to thinking he's a big softie. No revelations about Sayid, though. I'm gonna make a guess here and say that third season is going to really be all about the Others. Next week looks like it'll deal with the losties, especially Locke and Mr. Eko, my two favorite characters.

Smith - Canceled already. Good. The first episode was impossible to follow and I didn't even care. I think I asked 'what the hell is going on?' about five minutes in, and then gave up.

Standoff - Laughable, but I like Ron Livingston. I don't see this one lasting very long. It's Moonlighting, except they're hostage negotiators. Far fetched crime dramas are a dime-a-dozen, but this one has the unenviable task of coming up with a plausible hostage situation week after week. As if they're regular occurrences.

Law and Order: SVU - Finally convinced my wife to give it up. I've regularly bashed the show even as I watched for its plodding, heavy-handed moralizing and stuck-in-a-rut characters, who have now morphed into complete caricatures of their tropes. Stabler's the hot-headed anger-ball - give him another case about child molestation and watch him bug out - he has a teenage daughter, for crissakes, won't somebody think of the children! The worst of this was a recent case where a young woman who had a disorder that rendered her physical appearance forever childlike was mistaken for being actually underage. Stabler continued to be mortified by the whole thing long after the facts came out - she looks underage! the guy's only going with her because he's a pedophile, except he's not since she's of age! - but don't worry, Stabler will get him another time.

Also, with Mariska Hargitay on a leave of absence, they chose to pair Stabler with a partner more hot-headed and prone to violence than himself. What a great move, two characters I can't stand. Put that together with the secondary characters relegated to ever more background parts and the show has nothing going for it anymore. I should have quit a few seasons ago when they did their bullshit Grand Theft Auto episode, with obligatory footage making the whole point of the game out to be beating prostitutes to death (a fictional game, but we got the point). The shtick at this point is to take a story from the headlines, get the stock conservative and liberal viewpoints, have different characters defend each side and then throw up hands in frustration that it's just too hard to figure out, now let's find someone to prosecute.

Especially egregious was an episode concerning a journalist protecting her source, an obvious stand-in for Judy Miller going to the clink, and they tromped out the idea of a federal shield law, which was a big conservative talking point about that particular case even though Miller wouldn't have been protected by a shield law (and neither would've the fictional journo, so far as I could tell). I can't really explain why I stuck with this show at all except to say that I multitask while I watch, so shitty shows don't really take time away from other endeavors.

Justice - The first episode was so boisterous and noisy and filled with MTV quick-cuts that I very nearly got vertigo. They've pulled back on that, though it's still Bruckheimer sound-and-fury, signifying nothing. I like the lead lawyer, he's a complete dick and never pulls back from that, but I don't see him as a villain - a fine line to walk. The Nancy Grace-styled "reporter" character had an atrocious, nasally accent that has all-but-disappeared, making her overbearing but bearable. The other lawyers lack any emotions other than competent and strident, but there have been small attempts at development. The big reveal at the end (what really happened?) has worked so far, but how can they keep it fresh? Haven't yet seen one where the 'good guys' got it wrong, which will be inevitable. But then what?

America's Next Top Model - Guilty, guilty pleasure. I can't stop watching this show, cracking snarky commentary along with my wife the whole time (unless Nigel's on, in which case my wife becomes speechless). I mean, the season opened with a nude shoot - how could I not watch? Tyra is completely ridiculous, which makes her a great representative for the fashion industry. Jay Manuel is great as the perky no-bullshit slavedriver. Twiggy (looking good now that she weighs something) is a voice of moderation. J. Alexander is, well, J - his personality defies description.

Everything hinges on whim and a bevy of unwritten rules (I've opened a text file with ideas for an ANTM board game). The girl who cries during judging always goes home. The girl with short hair will hate her hair, no matter how many times she is admonished to get over it and focus on modeling, until she goes home. There will always be a trash-talking loudmouth who stays in long past her due. The only time I dislike the show is when Janice Dickinson is on, since the sound of her voice physically grates on me. I get it, Janice, you're a bitch and you don't care what people say. You weren't even relevant when people thought you were relevant.

I just discovered, during the writing of this post, that the episodes follow the naming convention 'The Girl Who . . . '. Sounds like great fodder for a series of card-based challenges.

Eureka - Season's over. Coming back next season. It's extremely light fare, fluff even, but the characters are rock-solid and the plots are basically modeled after the funny episodes of the X-Files. Warren Ellis labeled this a 'tween' show, and he's probably right, but I like it anyway. I mean, Miles Dyson from Terminator 2 and Max Headroom in the same show? More fluff, please.

Gilmore Girls - Do I get to have a second guilty pleasure show? With the creator gone, people were worried about this one. The season premiere rubbed me the wrong way (none of the dialogue popped) but it's gotten better. I'm still not happy about Lorelai and Luke being over, mostly because it felt oh-so-forced - that, and I liked them together (word is the whole plot was trashed by Amy Palladino before leaving because of a contract dispute). Lorelai getting back together with Chris is blah territory. Rory remains a judgmental idiot. Lorelai's parents are still fantastic, they manage to be sympathetic characters even though their uber-rich classism is repugnant. Really, this show shines with its quirky/lovable side-characters - Lane, Sookie, Michel, Paris, Miss Patty, Babette. Even Kirk, straight out of A Confederacy of Dunces, is amusing. This will be the last season, so even if it gets worse at least it doesn't have a long decline.

Bones - An all-around great show, and this comes from a person with an intense dislike for David Boreanaz (hated him as Angel, until around Angel third season). This is one of the first shows I've seen that actually fleshes out its geeks. Their social dysfunction comes off as a tone-deafness to social niceties, not a goofy Jerry Lewis routine. The science isn't as fast-and-loose as CSI (though the artist's holographic 3d projector is a little science-fantasy), possibly because the show's concept is based on a book about a real-life forensic anthropologist. I'm a little mad that they got rid of the old museum director - he was, loosely, an opponent in the bureaucratic sense, but his poetic archaeological musings (which infuriated the facts-only team) were a good reminder that research of the past based on remains is in large part an act of imagination as well as detailed scientific rigor. Even the superhero cosplay episode a few seasons ago was well-presented.

Supernatural - Middling spookfest with two actors who do a convincing job of being brothers. Also, this has the greatest tv soundtrack ever (though Reunion would probably take that honor had it not been canceled). You get Zeppelin and Blue Oyster Cult and AC/DC and a lot of other gutchurning footstomping rock and/or roll. The first season of the show didn't impress me, but it didn't repulse me, either. Usually I was mad because I'd already read the folk tales from which they draw their plots, said tales typically unchanged in the slightest.

Still, last season ended in grand style, and this season opened with perfect tragedy. The father which the boys spent most of first season tailing is now dead, having made some deal with the demon he'd been tracking his whole life. I assume the new carrot will be the demon, the boys leaving a trail of solved mysteries and tragically-killed allies in their wake as they go to confront their father's killer (and that of their mother/younger bro's college girlfriend, so far as we know).

Nip/Tuck - There's almost no way to compare this show with any other. It's melodramatic and cheesy and the main characters oscillate between do-gooders and sleazoids, often in the same episode. The plots are admixtures of Jerry Springer reruns, urban legends, soap opera schlock and sexual peccadilloes. But I don't think I've ever rooted for a more ambiguously gay/bi couple to finally get over themselves and shack up than I have for Sean and Christian. Matt's sponge personality went from an Oedipal relationship with a life coach to attraction to transsexuals (after the life coach's gender switch was revealed) to white supremacy to, naturally maybe, Scientology. This show should probably have been called people behaving like absolute shits to each other, but that wouldn't look good in the TV guide.


I want to be watching/have watched The Wire, but it's impossible to wring any more viewing time from the week.

I'd also like to recommend Veronica Mars, even though I don't watch it (though I'm well-versed, owing to the wife's insatiable love for the program and everything surrounding it) and don't like it at all. That doesn't make sense, you think? I thought the show was put together well, but Veronica grates on me personally. She's an insufferable know-it-all, and the perilous situations never really felt particularly perilous. I remember seeing the first few episodes, and while they talked often about how Veronica's date rape was awful and terrible, it never really conveyed that she felt that way about it. I never saw that it had damaged her at all - maybe it had soured friendships and disconnected her socially, but that's tangential. There were times when it almost drew me into the compelling mystery of the season, but I was immediately turned away by its cloying snark. Veronica's father, however, is brilliant. Steve Guttenberg's great, too, but wholly unrelated to the show itself. Anyway, take a look, see if you like it, and if you don't like it immediately, I doubt it'll grow on you.

Simpsons, of course, is on the menu. That almost goes without saying. I will continue to watch long after they do the 'bumble-bee man runs for mayor' episode (h/t William). Daily Show and Colbert Report are required viewing.

The wife also crams in scores of soap operas, which I catch out of the corner of my eye. As a result, I've merged them all into one single Vast Opera Of Soap (VOOS). I've managed to pick up on some of the character names, but can't spare any brainspace to divide them up by show.

I will say this: there are a lot of attractive women on soap operas. This is the main draw for me.

'Honey, who's that?'
'That's Kendall.'
'She's fuckin hot. Who's that?'
'That's Susan Lucci. She's like 60.'
'And smokin. Damn. I'd do her.'
'How nice to know.'

I first started paying attention to soaps when I was told that two gorgeous women were lesbians.

'Lesbians? On daytime TV?'
'Yeah, it's pretty raunchy.'

Yes, I am that shallow. [see: "Bianca Montgomery" played by Eden Riegel]