Angry Robot

Dr. X Doomsday Telethon

Ah, Mr. Show. (via)

Golden Country Greats

Wow, have I really taken this long to post this here? Musical alter-ego Snake Eyes has released an EP. Grab that shit. If you like hip-hop and country, your idiosyncratic tastes are to be commended, and you should totally listen to this album. It’s free for what may well be a limited time – I just ask that you subscribe to the Snake Eyes RSS feed, which will undoubtedly be pretty low-traffic.

Map Beats Script

Hell yeah

We already build incredible, vivid places, but feel the compulsion to pave over them with our attempts at compulsory pre-authored story structures. In embracing the immersion model of meaning, one’s approach would shift away from building games around a core of Hollywood-style narrative, and toward building unique, convincing, open, integrally full gameworlds, populated by intriguing people to meet and things to do, and providing the player with tools of meaningful self-expression within that context that he might return changed by his experiences.

In my view, this is not to say that narrative does not exist – far from it. Narrative would be tied to places and people and dispersed about a map. It is also far from an abdication of authorial control – it’s less controlled, but the author still creates the architecture that the player explores.

“Meaningful displacement” is another excellent turn of phrase.

Mac Mini Media Center: Growl's Email Notification

This is a simple but effective time-saver if you use your Mini for the downloadin’ and find yourself checking in frequently to see if your downloads are complete yet.

The notifier preference pane Growl can be set up to send an email instead of showing a little notifier box on your screen. Amongst other things, BitTorrent client Transmission and also Hazel work with Growl, so you can get email updates letting you know when files have finished downloading, and confirming they have been processed by Hazel.

Mac Mini Media Center: Hazel


Hazel is a preference pane that watches folders and carries out actions on files based on rules you set. It’s presumably stuff that you could do with folder actions and applescript, but for non-scripters, it’s handy as heck. It can take a while to get your head around, and figure out the right rules you want, but once you have it set up, you can automate a lot of the fiddly file management that comes with digital media. I have mine set up to watch my downloads folder and do the following:

It doesn’t work perfectly – Plex etc. can be fussy about filenames. However, it cuts down on the fiddling drastically. The auto-iPhone-updating alone is worth the $22.

On Immersiveness and Fable 2

There’s a few things to dislike about the game. One’s first impression is that it has been cripplingly casualized. You follow a glowing trail to where you need to go, and mash a button to fight. The setting is more or less standard ye olde RPG fantasie lande. The expression system – instead of talking, your mute character interacts with others via a radial menu of ‘expressions’ including ‘slap’, ‘whistle’, ‘fart’, ‘sock puppet’ – is corny as fuck. And then pick any number of minor frustrations, like long loading times, laggy and clumsy menus, the confusing map (or lack of map), and serious bugs like vanishing NPCs, empty stores, and even wholesale freezing and game save corruption.

But here’s the rub, and OK, I can’t resist a Fallout comparison here. Fallout 3 is a game in which you can do anything you want, as long as what you want to do is crawl through dungeons and shoot cockroaches. Fable 2 is a game where you can do any number of things. Time to pray to the god of the unordered list – you can

This is to say nothing of the things that you can do that have no benefit to your character, the sandboxy moments that are too numerous to list. In total, the things you can do are limited, and the complexity of each of the things is also limited, but the developers have found the ideal cocktail – it’s enough depth and complexity that the world becomes almost completely immersive in a way that sheer graphics can never provide.


For example, the simple button mashing of early combat becomes more interesting as you level up. You have three main attributes: strength, skill (dexterity) and will (magic). Combat, items and other phenomena will earn you experience in these specific attributes (using a lot of spells gives you magic experience), but also earns general experience that can be spent on any of the three. With your experience, you ‘buy’ increasing complexity, so strength improvements are be to attack damage, hit points, and a number of new melee techniques – the ability to block, then the ability to charge up a power attack, then the ability to counter an attack. Level up skill, and you will get faster, more accurate with your bow, and eventually you’ll be able to zoom and target specific body parts. With will, you have about seven different spell types, each with five levels of advancement. So what seems like button mashing eventually gives way to a system with a great number of tactical options. I settled on a system of summoning monsters to keep my enemies busy, while I attacked from afar, either with bow/gun or magic attacks.

Similarly, the corniness of the expressions hides a communications system that in many ways surpasses those usually found in RPGs. Despite innovations like the dialogue wheels of Mass Effect or Indigo Prophecy, RPG conversations are basically menus of text options. Fable’s expressions are more or less the same, but they move the dynamics of the conversation out of the realm of text and into your character’s physical actions – which is to say back into the game space, which is a Good Thing. There is a lot of depth, too, seeing as you can interact with any character in the game, and each has different personality characteristics which will affect their reaction to your character’s traits (good/evil, pure/corrupt, famous/not famous, good looking/ugly) and your expression choices (which are numerous). Sometimes this leads to hilarity, like when a character is terrified and also crazily sexually attracted to you – they might say, “how dare you massacre all those people. Let’s go back to my place and get to know each other better.”


There’s something interesting in all this, which is that it’s not necessarily realism that makes something immersive. Immersion may have more to do with a lack of things that take you out of the world. Every time in Fable that you imagine ‘what would happen if I do this,’ you get a result that stays true to the world. Take out your sword in the town square, and people will like you less. Remove bandits from a town’s environs, and real estate values will go up. This of course assumes a certain level of complexity for it to work, but more specifically it’s a bunch of game mechanics (combat, expression, economy, job, family, etc.) that each fall far, far short of being realistic, but all add up to something that at least feels like the diversity of action possible in the real world.

If you’re into “Big World” games, this is one you need to have a look at.

Mac Mini Media Center: Harmony Remote + Plex

I’ve been falling behind with the series of posts about getting the most out of your Mini as a media center. I’ve made some tweaks, and figured I should share the joy. So expect a few updates in this vein over the next week or so.


Plex is my media center app of choice, and the recent versions introduce Harmony Universal Remote support, now with less fiddling. There’s a profile within the harmony setup app for Plex now, and it works well. Now I can put the Apple Remote aside and actually use only one remote. Sweet. Instructions here.

My Seven Things

  1. I have an unhealthy fixation upon robots, that ranges from the intellectual (I believe in the technological singularity) to the visceral (robots are fucking awesome, yo). I wear a small robot around my neck, a gift from my lady friend. I like all robots, from retro to Asimo, but I prefer giant, leaping robots – GERWALK motherfucker!

  2. I work as a promo producer for the SPACE channel. (That’s how we rock it now, all caps.) A promo producer is someone who creates commercials for the shows and movies that air on that channel, as well as interstitials, show openings, etc. It is a job that demands writing, directing, producing, and (for my channel) editing, earning us the nickname ‘predators’. I have also developed the ability to watch shit with an eye for pithy taglines, explosions, and slow-motion dollies-in as someone turns their head and gives the horizon a determined look.

  3. I listened to Rush today and fucking loved it. 20 minute songs, tempo changes, wizards and virtuoso drumming? I’m heading to Progtown and I may not be back for a long time.

  4. I love to walk – I walk to work every day, which takes about 50 minutes. Not being a sportsman, and not much of a fan of gyms, it’s an effective way to get exercise, and with some new albums or a good audiobook (currently “The Universe in a Single Atom” by His Awesomeness the 14th Dalai Lama), it passes in a flash. Although it’s going to be -20 today.

  5. When I was a child, one Halloween, I dressed up as “Squidlad,” a superhero of my own creation. Costume construction was contracted out to my father.

  6. I have memorized the lyrics to “Let Your Backbone Slide” by Maestro Fresh-Wes. This is a throwdown, a showdown, hell no I can’t slow down.

  7. I love laundromats. I don’t know why, but to me they are beautiful and magical places.

Opportunities Abound in Post-Apocalyptic Real Estate

Via the funk comes a link that led to some interesting shit – this thread on Ask MeFi, in which the existence of houses for sale for the low four figures in Detroit and elsewhere, and the merits of purchasing same, are discussed. Up here in Canada the average house price is $300,000, so this was a jaw-dropper. Various points against such properties are discussed in the thread, but none says it as effectively as the keen eye of the lonely satellite:

View Larger Map

These properties are in abandoned neighbourhoods, where most of the houses have been razed by the city, and those that remain have been stripped of their guts by scavengers. Your $3,000 buys a plot of land in The Road by Cormac McCarthy. This related thread on BoingBoing brings up a nugget of hope, which is “this house in an apparently decent, still-peopled area of Detroit”: – a five bedroom mansion for $57,900. That’s not to say it will actually gain value, which is an assumption we Canadians are used to making about pretty much all property. But it did spur a decent daydream, in which I purchase four mansions for the price of one tiny condo in Toronto.

If you really want to understand what’s going on in Detroit, you have to read this article from Harpers. Fortunately or un-, where Detroit has gone, may other North American cities will go, as we wade into the bleak seas of the post-industrial, post-car economy (post-economy?). The article ends optimistically, with farms sprouting from the slums. You could imagine that in a possible future, where the 50s flight of white people to the suburbs has been eclipsed by the flight of all people to the internet, and one’s physical place of work and residence has been rendered insignificant, these rubbly fields could again see houses built. Why pay big money downtown when you can do that work from a dirt-cheap dirt field in Detroit. But in the meantime, there are better things for the thousandaire to spend their money on.

Recent film roundup, end of 2008 edition

As always, it’s the only time of year you are guaranteed to find a few good films in theatres. So I’ve been seeing a lot more, and it seemed time to do a roundup of films I’ve seen recently. Most of these are currently in theatrical release, but some are on DVD.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Curiously uneven, and my least favourite Fincher film. Features brilliant sequences sandwiched between southern-fried folk wisdom that had me LOLing, and not in a way Forrest Gump would have wanted.


Quite liked it, although I hear the play is much better, and the film introduces a number of historical inaccuracies. Great actoring, though.


I generally hate biopics, but van Sant turned in a decent one here. Politico-historically interesting, not so much artistically so.

The Wrestler

This film has a number of great things going for it: fantastically vulnerable performances from Rourke and Tomei, a beautifully and authentically realized setting, generally good storytelling, and more than a few great bits of dialogue. It was critically wounded by a couple of broad, melodramatic strokes in the plotting. I kept on thinking of the Simpsons episode where the doctor tells Homer he can’t be shot out of a cannon any more.

The Wackness

High-five, Wackness. You killed it. I have little tolerance for highschool-slash-coming of age stories as we just see so many of them, but this one distinguishes itself with sharp writing, a great sense of humour, Real Human Emotion&trade, and Ben Kingsley’s best performance since Gandhi was the head of a gang or whatever. Perfect soundtrack, too.

Planet B-Boy

A documentary following four b-boy teams competing in the “Battle of the Year,” and a straight-up awesome feel-good movie in the vein of Rize.


A doc of the “real-life freak” variety. Documents the iconoclastic life of a money-hating doctor who raises a family of eight completely outside the system, as a tribe of nomadic gypsy-surfers all living in the same camper. It’s a mind-opening meditation on the possibility of living outside the system.

Next I really want to see Synecdoche and Slumdog Millionaire

Etrian Odyssey II and the Grind of Fantasy Work

I tend to prefer some narrative in my games, and this provides very little. I’m not a big fan of difficulty, and this has it by the dungeonload. I hate grinding, and this… well, you just read that.

I do love exploration, and this game – with its requirement that you make your own map – transmits perhaps the rawest delight in exploration I’ve experienced in some time. But then again, there are other games to try that would provide whole new worlds to explore, without the repetitive grinding.

There’s one instance at the end of the fifth floor where you face your first boss monster, Chimaera. I was about level 14-15 when I first tried to beat him, and he decimated my party. The online wisdom is that you should be level 18 to have a chance of beating him. That means you must grind up four levels, which is to say wander about the labyrinth repeatedly battling random monster encounters. This is more or less the same turn-based menu choice battle each time, against many instances of the same limited pallette of monsters. It could be a half hour, maybe an hour, of sheer repetitive time-wasting. Why? Dear Crom, Why?

Take a look at this article. Steven Poole argues that nearly all videogames present models of work, not play:

Possibly it is inevitable that, as products of decadent late capitalism, most videogames will, consciously or not, reflect the same values. You go through a period of training, and then it’s all about success and shopping, keeping your head down, doing what the system expects. Make-believe jobs, as Adorno and Horkheimer might have concluded, are the opiate of the people.

Understandably, Mr. Poole criticizes this play-is-work paradox and calls for a new model of gaming. Indeed, some of my favourite gaming memories from the last couple years are sandboxey, goal-free and open-ended (Crackdown and Halo 3’s Forge come to mind).

But ludologists would chime in that play and games are different things. Despite the phrase “play a game,” play is open-ended, whereas games must have rules, which means they will have similarities to work.

Over the past few years, I’ve come around to believing that we tend to use fiction as a form of practice for real life. When we watch a movie, say, we are evaluating characters and situations and imagining what we might do when presented with that situation in our lives. Would you do the things McNulty does in the final season of The Wire? If you knew a serial killer was afoot, would you really go into that dark basement alone? So it may not be the worst thing in the world for a game to be like work, if it is in fact training us cognitively to work better – work being an important aspect of real life, for good or for ill.

Poole quotes Mark Twain:

Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and […] Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.

So is “go to the store to buy a new video game” a type of work? I am obliged to do it if I wish to play that game. I don’t enjoy suiting up and venturing out in sub-zero weather, but I certainly will enjoy playing the game once I bring it back. So I’m willing to put up with the boring part because it will bring me the happy part. So it may not be a surprise that games like Etrian Odyssey contain ostensibly boring content that we enter into willingly. Indeed, the boring parts throw the fun parts into relief, making them more fun, as does the difficulty. If I had succeeded in defeating the Chimaera the first time around, it would have meant little to me, but since he had beaten me, and then I was required to work at improving myself, my ultimate victory meant much more.

Now to Outliers for a moment – not because I think it’s an awesome book but because it has a succinct definition of what makes work meaningful: “autonomy, complexity, and a link between effort and reward”. I don’t know if this is Gladwell’s own definition or someone else’s, but it makes sense. And it also makes sense of my Etrian Odyssey habit. I put in the half hour grinding because the satisfaction of defeating the monster will make the hard times worth it – “link between effort and reward”. Any RPG with multiple character classes, skills, and inventory management certainly has no problem with “complexity”.

But it is the “autonomy” that this game affords which most appeals. It does the minimum amount of hand-holding, rather expecting you to learn some of its inner workings. You have no pre-defined characters; you must evaluate and select from a list of possible classes, with a maximum party size of five. You could go into the game with one alchemist, or five troubadors – the game lets you decide how you want to rock it. You have your overarching main quest, which is map the labryinth, but it is handed out in sub-missions and supplemented with a great number of optional side quests. You can choose to take on the missions, or not. When it comes to leveling up your characters, and unlocking new skills, this is again left up to the player.

Choose a small team, choose your jobs, face adversity, choose how best to develop your team’s skills in order to overcome it – in the words of Jeffrey Lebowski, “challenges met, competitors bested, obstacles overcome.” This is a fantasy not about dungeons and monsters but about small business. It’s pretty much my idealized way of making my way in the workplace, and as a salaryman it is indeed a fantasy to me at the moment – no wonder I’m willing to indugle in it in my free time.