"You know what? Fuck it. Rocks fall and everyone dies."
- Peejee and Kim, Something Positive
March 4th, 2008
IN MEMORIAM: GARY GYGAX
Gary Gygax died today. Gygax, along with Dave Arneson, have had a tremendous impact on my life and on the lives of millions of others. Not only did they single-handedly create an entirely new form of entertainment, but D&D-inspired games were responsible for the dawn of the computer gaming industry, as well.
Rest in peace, Gary. The world is a poorer place without you.
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March 19th, 2008
I repeat only what many others have said when I describe it as the finest piece of political oratory, political thought, and political fortitude this nation has seen in at least a quarter century. (It's important to note that this speech is entirely the product of Obama's exceptional mind: It was not the product of speechwriters, but a product of his own pen -- a trait which is true of many, if not most, of his speeches.)
When this political cycle began, way back in the waning months of 2006, my first choice for the Democratic nomination and the presidency was John Edwards. I had many reasons for that, but even when John Edwards was my horse, Barack Obama was a very close second. When Edwards left the race, it was with very little regret that I came an Obama supporter.
But this speech -- coupled with Obama's extraordinary Audacity of Hope -- has transformed me over the course of the past week from being merely a supporter to a completely dedicated zealot. It is my fervent belief that electing Barack Obama is of the utmost importance.
America is standing at a treacherous crossroads. The last eight years have left us gasping as a nation. I have believed for many years now, that the 2008 election would decide whether or not America was going to reverse its decline and right its course.
But Barack Obama gives me hope that this election will be more than just an opportunity to avert disaster. Barack Obama gives me hope that this election can be about making America a better place and a stronger place than it has ever been.
McCain would be a disaster. Clinton would be acceptable.
President Obama would be exceptional.
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March 20th, 2008
Yesterday I talked about how important it is for Barack Obama to become the next President of the United States. Today I'm beginning of the process of stepping up my own personal efforts to help make that happen, and as part of that I'm asking you to visit my personal fundraising page for Senator Obama's campaign. Even as little as $10 -- pocket change, really -- will help play a part in supporting what may be the most important campaign in a generation.
So can you take a few seconds out of your day to help Senator Obama?
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March 21st, 2008
I've recently had the pleasure of playing through the God of War games for the first time. There's a lengthier blog post rattling around in my brain about these games that I may get around to writing one of these days, but at the moment I'm playing through God of War II. I have just picked up the Spear of Destiny, which prompted me to say:
"What the fuck?"
For those of you unfamiliar with the games, God of War is set in a version of Ancient Greece where all the myths were real.
The Spear of Destiny, on the other hand, is the spear used by the Roman centurion Longinus to pierce the side of Jesus Christ as he hung in crucifixion.
I can accept that depiction of the Spear of Destiny as a purple, double-blade monstrosity with a telescoping shaft -- I mean, the blood of Christ has been reputed to do all kinds of things. But what I can't understand is how or why the Spear would have been transported back in time several centuries or millennia and ended up in Ancient Greece.
It would be one thing if this appeared to be some kind of deliberate choice on the part of the game designers, but that doesn't appear to be the case: Everything else in the game is drawn directly from Greek mythology. As far as I can tell, they just didn't know what the Spear of Destiny was.
(Pursuing this topic in Google, I discover that there have been some discussions suggesting that the end of the God of War trilogy will reach a conclusion as the Greek myths come to an end and the story of Christ begins. But even if that turns out to be true, the Spear of Destiny still doesn't exist until after the death of Christ. So it still doesn't make any sense.)
PROBLEMS WITH GOD OF WAR II
This is actually just the most glaring example of my problem with God of War II: While it's visually more impressive than the original God of War, the game just isn't as good. There are two reasons for this:
First, the game is simply not as polished. The game-controlled camera angles are frequently awkward. The pacing is more disjointed. The cut-scenes are cruder. The gameplay is less fluid and more dependent upon arbitrary QTEs. The plot is less focused. The list goes on. None of these are horrible problems, but they are generally take the edge off the game.
Second, the underlying mythology of the game is not as well-executed. One of the things that made God of War particularly entertaining was that it truly felt like an "untold Greek myth". It very cleverly incorporated very specific things from Greek mythology; expanded that mythology in a lot of creative ways; and then wove a completely original story of epic scope. Combined with addictively compelling gameplay, the result is easily one of the best video games I've ever played.
But in God of War II this starts to fall apart quite a bit. Instead of a careful and clever use of the Greek myths, you instead get the feeling that they just grabbed the closest copy of Edith Hamilton and picked pages at random whenever they needed to fill another 5 minutes of gameplay. The result is a kind of schizophrenic, dissociated grab bag.
The main plot of the game revolves around Kratos trying to reach the Three Sisters of Fate so that he can re-weave the threads of his fate. This is fairly clever. The problem is that everyone and everything from Greek mythology is apparently on the same quest... at the very same time.
For example, a youthful Perseus shows up. He's seeking the Three Sisters so that he can save his love from the fires of Hades. This makes no sense: Andromeda survived the Perseus myths, fathered his children, and died of old age before being placed in the sky as a constellation by Athena. I can only assume that they were thinking of Orpheus.
A little while later an old, deranged man wearing wings shows up. He intends to fly to the island of the Three Sisters. And I'm immediately thinking, "Hey, that's kinda cool. Daedalus, driven mad by the death of his son, is trying to rewrite history in order to save him. Clever."
Only it's not clever, because the guy self-identifies as Icarus after a couple of minutes. Since Icarus died as a young and foolish man (and that's the entire point of his story), this makes no sense. It makes even less sense when you discover that the wings are literally growing out of his back.
And even if these individual uses of particular characters were not so jarringly wrong in so many ways, the collective effect of having the All-Star lineup of Greek mythology all showing up in the same place at the same time doesn't work. Where God of War takes a few elements and uses them consistently in building a unique narrative, God of War II just takes a bunch of famous names and hopes for the best.
With all that being said, God of War II is still a great game. And there are many ways in which it marginally improves on the original.
But, ultimately, God of War is the better game.
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March 22nd, 2008
If you want the full explanation for this, you should check out this piece from the Politico. But the short version goes something like this: If Clinton wins every remaining primary race by a margin of 60-40 (which is essentially impossible), she would still end up trailing Obama in both pledged delegates and the popular vote. So even in her best-case electoral strategy, she's completely dependent on the Democratic superdelegates to perform a coup -- disenfranchising the primary voters and nominating her over Obama.
How likely is that? Not very.
Many superdelegates have already declared their allegiance, of course. Others will declare over the next few weeks (like former presidential candidate Bill Richardson did yesterday). But the superdelegates who have not yet declared are probably content to let these remaining primaries play out because:
(1) The primaries generally appear to be invigorating the party base and pulling new people into the party. Allowing
(2) They don't want to give an appearance of performing a "coup". The math says that Obama has this nomination locked up, but that's not the public perception (largely because the MSM is not widely reporting that story).
So, allowing the primaries to proceed is likely to increase Democratic turnout in November. OTOH, rendering the remaining primaries moot (even if they almost certainly are moot) has the real possibility of creating a backlash that would suppress turnout in the November.
(3) While it's certainly true that Hillary Clinton's campaign is ripping into Obama, talking about how this is "hurting him" in the general election seems a little misplaced. It's not like the Republican hate-machine is going to go any easier on the guy.
If Obama can't weather these attacks now, there's no way he'll be able to weather them 2, 4, or 6 months from now. While I consider the Wright stuff to be a tempest-in-a-teapot with all the meaningful content of attacking Jimmy Carter because his brother Billy was an idiot, I'd still rather see it happening now rather than being stored up by the Rovian machine and trotted out in the middle of October.
(The exception to this is the fact that the Clintons have been practically announcing that they would prefer to see John McCain as president if Obama gets the nomination. Whenever I see another one of these glowing McCain endorsements from Hillary and Bill I have to seriously wonder if they've lost their freakin' minds.)
At the end of the day, though, the candidate who wins the pledged delegate race is almost certainly going to be the nominee. And if that candidate also has the popular vote behind them, then it's a dead-lock certainty they'll be the nominee.
And nothing short of Hillary Clinton turning out to be a man who's spent the last three decades in a secret gay marriage with Bill or Obama secretly being a member of the KKK who has spent his entire life wearing black-face is going to change that.
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March 24th, 2008
I bought Valve's Orange Box shortly after it came out. My main reason for wanting it was Half-Life 2: Episode 2, but a close second in terms of desire was Portal. So, needless to say, it's been months since I played through the game. And I loved it.
But I was in the shower a few moments ago when the following question struck me: "Why didn't I hate this game?"
I've played a lot of FPS games, and I can say that as an almost universal rule that, whenever these games decide to throw a "puzzle" at you, I am annoyed. Whether it's stacking boxes or hitting switches or navigating an arbitrary maze, I just get annoyed.
So why is it that Portal -- an FPS game that is entirely based around puzzles -- was so enthralling for me? So enthralling, in fact, that I became a maven for the game, touting its virtues far and wide and citing it as a game that everyone should play.
I see a few possibilities:
(1) Despite years of advocating for games with richer and broader gameplay options -- games like Deus Ex where it is equally possible to overcome a challenge through stealth, socialization, or violence -- I'm actually fairly narrow in what I want from a game. I want a game to stay on point with a single type of gameplay.
The supporting evidence for this is how often, in recent days, I've borrowed from Yahtzee's Zero Punctuation in saying: "The forgot what makes their game fun!" For example, the designers of God of War kept forgetting what made their game fun (awesome combat combined with epic storytelling) whenever they stuck in a lengthy sequence of balance beams or platform-hopping.
(2) Maybe it's that I want to be able to choose my gameplay. For example, I don't necessarily want to be forced to first play through a shooter; then a puzzler; then a stealth game -- I want to be able to choose, when facing a given challenge, what form of gameplay I want to use to overcome it.
This is probably true to at least some degree. But it doesn't explain Portal, because there is no choice there: The entire game is puzzle-based and there aren't any non-puzzle solutions.
(3) It's possible that what I'm reacting to here is the degree to which the puzzles break my willing suspension of disbelief. For example, it seems odd to hit a section of Half-Life 2 where the only way out of a bomb-shelled ruin is to stack the conveniently placed cement blocks onto one side of the conveniently placed teeter-totter. On the other hand, the entire scenario of Portal explains exactly why these puzzles exist. (And even once you get outside of the structured portion of the game and into a more freeform environment, the designs don't feel arbitrary.)
(4) Maybe it's the originality of the gameplay behind Portal's puzzles. All of them, after all, rely on the amazingly cool implementation of portal technology. This is just inherently more interesting than loading up the teeter-totter, shoving boxes around to create staircases (Half-Life 1), or whacking random switches (Doom 3).
I suspect that the answer lies somewhere in the combination between the third and the fourth options.
In other words, if I hit a section of Half-Life 2 where I need to move bricks around in order to progress I am immediately (a) bored by it and (b) left with an overwhelming sense that the only reason this section of the game exists is so that they can pad out the "total playing time" stat on the game box. (To Half-Life 2's credit, there are very few places where it does this.)
(And I'm pretty much all about quality over quantity: I have absolutely zero interest in grinding XP for 40 hours in your CRPG so that I can enjoy the story and the characters in the other 20 hours of your game.)
Similarly, in God of War, I have no problem navigating my way through the Rube Goldberg machinations of the crazed architect of Pandora's Temple: Shoving massive bricks around, standing on pressure switches, and searching for hidden passages are all pretty awesome. These mechanics are not only intrinsic to the game world, but are also fairly interesting in their execution.
On the other hand, the pain-in-the-ass balance beam sections in God of War are frustrating not because they switch up the gameplay, but because the resultant gameplay is simply boring. (And, in fact, only challenging because they randomly move the camera around while you're trying to complete the puzzle.)
So I guess what we can distill from all this are three maxims:
First, remember what makes your game fun.
Second, increase the amount of fun stuff in your games.
Third, if it's not fun it shouldn't be in your game.
I would also add to this by saying that, if you give your players the option to choose between different types of gameplay, you dramatically increase the likelihood that they will be able to find a path through your game which they find fun at all times (instead of just some of the time). (Although, on the other hand, you have to weigh that consideration against the difficulty of balancing and polishing multiple types of gameplay.)
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March 25th, 2008
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