Category Archives: Games

World of Wordcraft

In a week I’m headed to Paris for a sightseeing trip. When I originally planned the trip, I didn’t know any French beyond what I have picked up in pop culture, which consists of:

  1. Fetchez la vache!

  2. Garçon means “boy”.
  3. You’re a good guy, mon frère. That means “brother” in French. I don’t know why I know that. I took four years of Spanish!

So, it’s clear that I’ll be relying on the ubiquity of English to get around. Nevertheless, it occurred to me that it might be fun to learn a bit of French before I go, so a few weeks ago I got a Rosetta Stone subscription and started working my way through the basic levels.
Something I don’t have a good sense for is just how much study of a language is required before it starts being useful. On the one hand, if I know nothing (as is the case here), learning just a few words has almost no value because almost all sentences I encounter will still be unintelligible. And on the other end of the spectrum, if I’d been studying French for years, there’d be diminishing returns where learning a little extra on the margin wouldn’t affect the quality of my experience any. So the utility as a function of time spent studying must have an S-shape where it starts out nearly flat, takes off at some point, and ultimately levels off again. The important question for this project is how long it takes to get to that first knee in the curve: the point at which I start to understand some of what I hear in the new language. I don’t really know the answer to that, so this is something of an experiment.
It’s interesting to see that Rosetta Stone is basically a video game: the user proceeds through a series of levels, each of which is further subdivided down to the level of individual screens, and on each screen the user needs to click in the right places (or speak the correct sentence) to advance to the next one. At the end of each section the user gets a percentage score based on how many errors they made. You could call it “Language Hero”. At the end of each level there’s a speaking test called a “milestone” which is basically a boss battle. There are even achievements! (The program calls them “stamps”.) It’s a direct application of the Reality is Broken thesis to language learning. (I haven’t actually read that book, so hopefully I’m not misstating it here.)
The only problem is that language learning takes a lot longer than mastering most video games, so that I feel as if I’m playing some game that requires a lot of grinding for each minor advancement. On top of that, it’s an inherently social game in which I’ll get much more out of it if I seek out partners to practice with. Fortunately, I can meet such people through the online component of the course, for which I pay a periodic subscription fee. Wait a minute, all this sounds strangely familiar: Rosetta Stone isn’t just a video game, it’s a MMORPG! And I thought I swore off that whole genre years ago…

The most violent video game is rated E

The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.
—Attributed to Joseph Stalin
It’s been a while since I’ve seen any uproar over violent video games. I’m sure there’s some background level of complaint about it, but I guess with three actual wars going on and a terrible economy, most people have other things on their minds.
Nevertheless, I’d been thinking lately about one of the (many) ways in which objections to such games are misplaced. The most socially objectionable games are generally taken to be those in the Grand Theft Auto vein that allow players to run around committing heinous crimes against innocent people. (Of course, even in the GTA games one is more typically attacking “bad guys”, i.e. other criminals, but the sandbox game style gives the player the free will to go on random killing sprees.) However, if the immorality of the in-game acts of violence is the measure by which they are judged, it seems to me that there’s a category of game that’s literally orders of magnitude worse.
After all, when we think of history’s greatest monsters, we don’t think of gangsters or even serial killers. No, we think of Jimmy Carter, because of The Simpsons. But after that we think of guys like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, who killed millions and caused the suffering of millions more. What if there were a video game that put the player in a role like that, allowing them to institute a fascist police state, launch wars of aggression, and even wipe out entire nations of people?
Indeed there is such a game, and the ESRB rated it “E for Everyone”. I refer, of course, to the Civilization series. In Civ IV it was even literally possible to play as Stalin or Mao; the bounds of good taste (and the German video game market) kept Hitler himself off the roster. So why is it that we never hear about Civ from the video game moralists? Why is it bad to let children play with a single simulated machine gun, but not an entire army of machine gunners? Why restrict access to virtual rocket launchers, but not virtual ICBMs?
It’s clear that the issue is somehow graphic violence. But again, why is that? It’s certainly true that violence in Civ is depicted in a manner closer to pieces moving on a chessboard than the gorefests of Mortal Kombat. But this must be if anything even worse. What is more desensitizing than viewing millions of people’s lives as a number on a screen to be erased at the push of a button? That ESRB badge hilariously lists only “mild violence” for a game in which entire cities are routinely sacked, pillaged, and burned to the ground with no survivors.
One could argue that children can more easily pick up a gun and emulate the antisocial behavior of a GTA installment than they can seize control of a country and try for world domination. But clearly some children do grow up to be crazed dictators. And even if only one kid in ten million is a potential Hitler, isn’t it important to keep him from turning out that way?
Now, anyone who’s looked at my Steam stats knows that I’m actually a big Civ fan. And if I had kids, I’d totally let them play too. So all I’m arguing here is that there’s something strange about a moral intuition which says we need to prevent kids from playing GTA, but that playing Civ is fine. As for the potential Hitlers out there, I’m just hoping they develop a crippling addiction to “one more turn” and stay away from the actual levers of power.

Games of New York

I was walking along Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village today when I was surprised to spot someone running a shell game. Not some metaphorical shell game with sketchy accounting practices, but an actual shell game. With soda bottle caps. Maybe it’s just my naivete about the Big City, but I always imagined that while shell games probably went on in old-timey New York, the con artists moved on to a new scam once the phrase “shell game” entered the language as a synonym for cheating. But there it was, and Wikipedia confirms that shell games are still run “at locations with a high tourist concentration.”
Still, I’m shocked there are people who don’t know this is a scam. Maybe it’s a sign of the dire economic times: 50-billion-dollar Ponzi schemes are out, shell games played on a cardboard box are in.

New York City in fiction

federal hall
I’m off to New York this week to look for housing; to put me in the right frame of mind, I’d like to hear suggestions of iconic portrayals of NYC (particularly Manhattan) in fiction. Accuracy of the portrayal is less important than style, but if it captures the spirit of the city in some sense that’s a bonus. In any case the city shouldn’t just be the setting (Wikipedia has a whole category devoted to this); New York should be somehow central to the story or thematically important. Some ideas (just off the top of my head):

  • Film: King Kong, Escape from New York, Cloverfield

  • Television: Seinfeld, Sex and the City
  • Literature: Bonfire of the Vanities, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
  • Video games: Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Please suggest more, and I will check out the ones I haven’t seen/read so as to be up to speed on the cultural connections to my new location.
Bonus round: iconic portrayals of Wall Street or the finance industry in particular, such as the Oliver Stone film Wall Street.

Words and Guitar

I’m supposed to be writing the concluding chapter (!) right now, but I would be remiss if I didn’t link to Carrie Brownstein’s review of Rock Band (which I haven’t played yet) in Slate. She’s a little snobbish about it, but when you played guitar for Sleater-Kinney you’re allowed.
She’s the one on the left:

(And I still have an appendix to write, so I’m not quite there yet… also the whole “revision” thing.)

Quantum mechanical Tomb Raider

Terence Tao explains quantum mechanics by analogizing to video games (particularly Tomb Raider):

Now, how does the situation look from Lara’s point of view? At the save point, Lara’s reality diverges into a superposition of two non-interacting paths, one in which she dies in the boulder puzzle, and one in which she lives. (Yes, just like that cat.) Her future becomes indeterministic. If she had consulted with an infinitely prescient oracle before reaching the save point as to whether she would survive the boulder puzzle, the only truthful answer this oracle could give is “50% yes, and 50% no”.
This simple example shows that the internal game universe can become indeterministic, even though the external one might be utterly deterministic. However, this example does not fully capture the weirdness of quantum mechanics…

He goes on to make some macabre modifications to the game mechanics in order to improve the analogy, bringing in interference and entanglement. It’s an entertaining post, but it gets truly ridiculous in the comments where he devises a Tomb Raider level to test Bell’s Inequality.

Year-end Miscellany 2006

I usually name a favorite book, movie, and game of the year. This year none of the books I read were recent enough to qualify, so I’ll just do the other two:

2006 Movie of the Year: Brick
There wasn’t a standout film in this category, but I think Brick was my favorite of what I saw this year. (There are many reportedly excellent movies that I haven’t seen yet as well, such as The Departed.) Brick puts a classic detective noir in a high school setting, and does an excellent job of blending the two genres, much as Buffy did with horror. (The movie is definitely influenced by Buffy and works in a subtle but unmistakeable reference.) All the elements of the classic noir movies are present, from the convoluted plot to the familiar character archetypes to the eerie soundtrack. The juxtaposition with high school students is sometimes funny, sometimes striking, but never cheesy or over-the-top.

2006 Game of the Year: Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria
I didn’t play a large number of video games this year, but there was a clear winner, the sequel to one of my all-time favorite games. The original Valkryrie Profile was a great dungeon crawler with beautiful visuals and complex and interesting characters. It only suffered from somewhat repetitive combat, which was completely reworked in the sequel to one of the most interesting and engaging systems I’ve ever seen in an RPG. The signature side-scrolling dungeons (hence “Profile”) were preserved with a couple new twists—the ability to switch places with monsters, and sealstones that alter the mechanics—that gave the puzzles more depth. Overall I found the gameplay addictive in a way that I hadn’t seen in years, and the only flaws I found are by comparison to the original Valkyrie Profile (mainly in the aesthetics and the character development).

Later this weekend, I’ll post my favorite albums of the year.

Belated Reviews [Open Thread]

Here’s an attempt to take a chunk out of my review backlog, and post an open thread for the first time in a while. I’ve been seriously neglecting the blog lately, as part of a larger pattern of neglecting most of my personal projects in favor of general indolence. I have ambitions of getting back to posting regularly, but it will depend somewhat on inspiration, and the holidays usually disrupt posting anyway.
Lots of high ratings here, partly because I’m prioritizing items I’ve really liked recently.
The Prestige: A movie notable for casting David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, and for including the back of Josh’s head in the trailer (reports that he appears in the film itself are unconfirmed). The plot itself is centered around two feuding stage magicians in Victorian England who make escalating attacks on each other both within and outside their respective shows. The film opens with Borden (Christian Bale) awaiting a death sentence for the murder of Angier (Hugh Jackman), and the bulk of the story is told in (sometimes nested) flashback. The movie is intricate and clever, but it also telegraphs its secrets so that the alert viewer will figure them out before the final reveal. Still, the ending was well-done even if it wasn’t a surprise, and the film as a whole is nicely coherent and thematically dense. Rating: 4/5
Arrested Development – Season Two: Everything I said about the first season applies, only more so: it’s even funnier and more cleverly written this time around. The show takes its mastery of the running joke to a new level, and its self-referential humor gets even denser. This show builds up jokes the way a dramatic series builds up the plot, so that it just gets funnier as the season progresses. Rating: 4.5/5
Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria: I don’t know how Tri-Ace does it but I find every one of their games extremely addictive. (Except for the original Star Ocean, and Radiata Stories, neither of which I’ve played.) This game is no exception and devoured approximately 100 hours of my free time over a relatively short span of weeks. It’s a worthy successor to the brilliant Valkyrie Profile, maintaining the unique feel of the original while adding its own twists on the gameplay. The combat system in particular is much more sophisticated, and makes for very engaging battles. The side-scrolling dungeon exploration mode remains, but with a teleportation mechanic that allows for more complex (and sometimes maddening) puzzles. What it lacks compared to the original is mostly aesthetic: I found the music and art to be mostly inferior (although there are some expections); the beautiful 2D backdrops of Valkyrie Profile have been replaced by more realistic 3D settings (although, true to the profile concept, movement is still restricted to 2D). In certain locations, however, the graphics are truly spectacular and surpass any setting of the original. Overall, my aesthetic complaints are minor, and this is one of the best games I’ve played in a while. Rating: 4.5/5
Tad Williams: War of the Flowers: A rare standalone novel from Tad Williams, this one starts in familiar territory—present-day San Francisco—and then transports its slacker protagonist into the world of Faerie. Williams has imagined Faerie as having experienced societal and technological changes parallel to those in the human world; consequently his fairyland is an urbanized, deforested place in the midst of environmental and political crisis. An allegorical reading of the setting is straightforward; more interesting is the personal progress of the hero as learns how he fits in to this world. I found the prose a bit cumbersome, and the pace lags at times, but when it picks up it’s quite good, and the plot takes some nice unexpected twists. Rating: 3.5/5
The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America: Although it’s no secret that I like this album, my review of it is overdue. It’s excellent, just a notch below last year’s Separation Sunday (which was my pick for album of the year). This album is less like a story than its predecessor, with Craig Finn actually singing instead of just talking most of the time, and the songs relating individual vignettes rather than a single overarching narrative. The album starts out very strong with “Stuck Between Stations”; this and the next two songs are among the best on the record, along with “You Can Make Him Like You” and a surprise acoustic turn on “Citrus”. (“Chips Ahoy!”, which follows the first track, can be downloaded here.) The slower ballad “First Night” fell a bit flat, however, and I’m not wild about “Chillout Tent”. Even with these weak moments, though, the Hold Steady have once again recorded one of the best albums of the year. Rating: 4.5/5

Unplanned Absences [Open Thread]

Remember when I used to update my blog? You may be wondering if I have been detained by the Bush administration, but in fact I have been distracted by things like science and Valkyrie Profile 2. However, I have once again been getting calls for an open thread, and I’d better start reviewing CDs if I’m going to get through my backlog before the end of the year. Also, I’ve been playing some video games lately:
Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra: The Xenosaga series was originally meant to run six episodes, but this was overambitious and the sequence was truncated here. This meant that some threads had to be wrapped up hurriedly, and the plot picks up after skipping an entire episode’s worth of developments. Fortunately the database from Episode I has reappeared and so the player can at least read about what happened; likewise, one character’s backstory is presented mostly in database text where it might previously had been slated to occupy most of an episode. The main storyline is left to play out at double speed (by the standards of this saga, but perhaps normal speed for another console RPG).
As the spiritual successor to Xenogears, Xenosaga labors under certain expectations, especially in its last chapter. Both draw heavily from Gnosticism in their themes, and lay out the plot in a style appropriate to a mystery cult, where the player is in the dark about the true nature of the universe until it is made plain in a series of final revelations. Part of the genius of Xenogears was the way it drew together the threads of Christianity, Gnosticism, and Nietzsche—it was one of the most literate console RPGs ever—into a coherent plotline. (Especially appealing to my philosophical sensibilities was the way it ultimately deferred to a kind of scientific materialism.) Unfortunately, Xenosaga doesn’t reach these heights, and in making the competing philosophies more explicit, it loses the coherence in the story. The major revelations near the end thus fall into two categories: the kind that the observant player figured out two episodes ago, and the kind that don’t actually help the story make any more sense.
This is probably a consequence of the shortened scope of the project and the departure from Monolith Soft of major contributors to the narrative aspects of the game. It’s a disappointment for those of us who came to the series in part because of the strength of it’s predecessor’s storyline. At a smaller scale things generally work better&dmash;several of the set pieces are very well executed, in particular the chilling weapons test scene that occurs early in the game.
But in some sense all these things are secondary considerations: this isn’t a movie, it’s a video game, and the actual gameplay is a lot of fun. The battle mechanics depart from the previous episodes somewhat (moving in the direction of Final Fantasy X) but maintain the same crystalline turn-based feel, with good strategic depth but less frustration. Meanwhile the mech battles now resemble a streamlined version of the Xenogears system, as big an improvement over the second episode’s approach as that episode was over the first in this department. The dungeons are visually spectacular, satisfyingly intricate, and generally a joy to explore. The biggest disappointment was the lack of any bonus dungeons like the ones in the previous episode. On the strength of the gameplay I’m giving this a high rating even if the conclusion to the story wasn’t to my satisfaction (and even if it’s not the best dungeon crawler to come out in the last two months—it’s hard to compete with tri-Ace in that department). Rating: 4/5
Sonic Youth: Rather Ripped: I assume the venerable noise-rock band needs no introduction. One doesn’t generally have high expectations for 25-year-old bands, but they’ve put out a decent album here that’s more accessible than much of their catalog. Their trademark fuzz, distortion, and atonal singing is certainly present but it’s put into the service of some catchy tunes, especially “Incinerate” and “Rats”. They might be well past their peak but they can still write some good songs. A stream of “Incinerate” seems to be available at Geffen Records. Rating: 3.5/5