Category Archives: Games

Uniformly good [Open Thread]

In which I review something from almost every media category (but I should read more books) and give them all the same rating. Maybe I should go to increments of 0.1 instead of 0.5, so I can make finer distinctions: I would rate Asobi Seksu’s Citrus (reviewed last week) slightly higher than The Knife’s Silent Shout (in this post) for example.
The Descent: A heartwarming British film in which six women forge strong bonds of friendship during a spelunking expedition. At least, that’s what it looks like until monsters show up and start eating them. Hell yes. I mean, we’ve all been stuck in boring dramas where we wish it would turn into a monster movie and kill off the most annoying characters, and this movie actually does it. Except that it’s not boring at all; one thing this film excels at is ratcheting up the tension well before the monsters show up, with a series of plausible but legitimately scary or shocking events leading up to the gory climax. The cave where most of the movie takes place is itself a source of much of this tension, filmed in a way that conveys the claustrophobia and disorientation of the spelunkers. The descent referred to in the title isn’t just the literal descent into the cave but also the descent into madness of one of the characters, and this is paralleled in the increasing chaos and confusion as the caving party disintegrates. Overall, a very well-done horror movie. Rating: 4/5
Arrested Development – Season One: I kept hearing that this show was excellent, but didn’t really know much about it. Josh was happy to educate me, and we fairly rapidly went through the first season’s worth of episodes. The show is best watched in bursts of several 22-minute episodes at a time; it is very self-referential and excels at recurring jokes. Arrested Development centers around the Bluth family, most of whom have freeloaded off the wealthy patriarch George Sr., until (in the first episode) he is arrested for massive fraud. Most of the episodes have Michael Bluth, as the voice of responsibility and moderation, trying to rein in his flakier relatives. It’s the quality of the writing that makes the show stand out; the dialogue is very funny on several levels, and a narrative voiceover (by Ron Howard) is used to create an ironic interplay between an omniscient observer and the very self-unaware characters. Rating: 4/5
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow: The portable Castlevania games have been improving incrementally since Circle of the Moon on the GBA, and Dawn of Sorrow is the latest iteration, a refinement of (and direct sequel to) Aria of Sorrow. As with its predecessors it is a side-scrolling dungeon crawl, and preserves Aria’s mechanic of earning new abilities from defeated monsters. There are a few token uses of the DS’s touch screen (admittedly, finishing off boss monsters by drawing a magic seal is especially satisfying) but otherwise the gameplay will be familiar to veterans of the series. This installment does an especially good job with an interesting dungeon layout, smooth control, and challenging but not frustrating difficulty. The free-fall boss battle is particularly inspired. Rating: 4/5
The Knife: Silent Shout: The Knife, mentioned in yesterday’s post, has a new album out this year. Different in mood from “Heartbeats”, it’s a dark and ghostly record, perhaps another candidate for a Call of Cthulhu game soundtrack. Indeed, Josh and I listened to this in the car before and after seeing The Descent, and it was creepily appropriate to a claustrophobic horror movie. This one strikes a stronger emotional resonance than the similar atmosphere of Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead, and is also more danceable. Listen to “Like A Pen” and “Silent Shout” at their MySpace page; in further recent-post-synergy, the latter track appears to be a free download for Facebook members this week. Rating: 4/5
Live: Zero 7 with Jose Gonzalez at the Fillmore: Sure, I panned their latest album, but their earlier work is really good and I love going to the Fillmore. (I am ignoring Jessica’s suggestion that I post an entry titled “I Went to Zero 7 with Three Hot Girls”, but this might also have had something to do with it.) Jose Gonzalez’s opening set was a mellow and competent performance on acoustic guitar; afterwards he did vocals for Zero 7 along with Sia Furler. (The band proper is just two British guys on synths, but here they had a backing band and the two vocalists. The lack of their other singers meant certain songs couldn’t be played; “In the Waiting Line”, which appeared on the Garden State soundtrack, was particularly missed.) Naturally much of the set was devoted to songs from The Garden, but there was a good fraction of older stuff as well so I can’t complain too much. Sia seemed pretty drunk (or otherwise chemically enhanced) and her vocals were much more slurred than in the recordings, which detracted a bit. Fortunately they played a number of instrumental pieces, which tend to be my favorites out of Zero 7’s catalog. It would have been nice to hear “Speed Dial No. 2″, though. Rating: 3.5/5

A different Monte Carlo method

A recent preprint appearing on the arxiv:

Do superconductors violate Lenz’s law?
Authors: J.E. Hirsch
When a magnetic field is turned on, a superconducting body acquires an angular momentum in direction opposite to the applied field. This gyromagnetic effect has been established experimentally and is understood theoretically. However, the corresponding situation when a superconductor is cooled in a pre-existent field has not been examined. We argue that the conventional theory of superconductivity does not allow a prediction for the outcome of that experiment that does not violate fundamental laws of physics, in particular Lenz’s law. Instead, an unconventional theory of superconductivity predicts an outcome consistent with the laws of physics, through the creation of angular momentum. We discuss how to test these assertions experimentally.

The argument, which I’m not sure I buy, relates to the angular momentum in the body of a superconductor when magnetic fields are expelled in the Meissner effect. But the author challenges me to put money behind my skepticism with this:

Comments: Readers are invited to place a wager on the outcome of the proposed experiment, this http URL

Yes! Now you can gamble on experimental physics! Next: bribing experimentalists to throw the results.

Climate Control [Open Thread]

Since I tagged archived posts for the past year, I’ve put the category listing in the sidebar under the monthly archives. I may tweak the formatting some. I’d also like to tag posts further back in the archive—at least as far as the beginning of 2005—but it may not happen immediately.
I guess it’s been a while since I posted an open thread, partly due to not having much to review lately and partly due to pure negligence. I need to listen to some new CDs so that I can get back to my usual schedule of posting reviews. (The new Sunset Rubdown album is good on first listen; I’ll probably review it next week.)
An Inconvenient Truth: I finally got around to seeing Berkeley’s most popular date movie, in which Al Gore delivers a Powerpoint talk on global warming. I’m not someone who needs convincing at this point, but I was curious to see what he had to say. Maybe it’s just that I’ve seen too many scientific Powerpoint talks, but I thought it was rather disorganized—it seemed to jump around between different topics without a clear direction. The film is interspersed with vignettes from Gore’s life, to explain why he’s taken up this particular issue; I thought these were mostly just distracting, but for a popular audience maybe it helps humanize the issue. Visually the film is sometimes very compelling (especially the section showing various major cities flooding as the sea level rises—there’s a GMaps app where you can try this yourself) but sometimes a little too twee (the polar bear, the frog). Gore is optimistic that global warming can be solved through what seemed like relatively minor improvements in energy efficiency and emissions reduction. Maybe this kind of ending is necessary to convince people the problem can be solved at all, but I’m much more pessimistic. Rating: 2.5/5
Metroid Prime: Hunters: I’m catching up on all those DS games now that I can play them. Unlike the Gamecube predecessors in the Metroid Prime series, this installment is focused much more on deathmatch than exploration. In the single-player mode the various maps are often clearly just the deathmatch levels stitched together, and the layout is more straightforward than is typical for a Metroid game. Combat is faster and more dynamic than in earlier Prime games as well. There’s a steep learning curve for the stylus/d-pad control scheme, but once I got used to it I was suprised at how well I could move and aim. The game’s biggest flaw is the bosses: a game this combat-oriented should have appropriately interesting boss fights, but instead of coming up with eight different enemies it keeps repeating the same two with slightly different capabilities. Apart from this, the single-player game is pretty solid. Now I just need to round up some opponents for the multiplayer. Rating: 3.5/5

What’s missing from Guitar Hero?

Stylus offers a list of songs overlooked for inclusion in Guitar Hero. Despite one selection that is clearly crazy and a fixation on hair, it’s a respectable list. But the real reason to post this is to start a thread on the subject. What else should have been on the Guitar Hero setlist? I’d like to see some of the dueling guitars of Pretty Girls Make Graves (“Something Bigger, Something Brighter” would be good) or Sleater-Kinney (“I’m the Drama You’ve Been Craving”?) for the two-player game. Or anything by Built To Spill.

Strongly recommended [Open Thread]

I spent the weekend with a mild cold, which still persists. The worst part isn’t the physical symptoms, but the sense that my brain is fogged up, which led to an interesting series of careless mistakes in the lab yesterday. (Fortunately I didn’t break anything.) On the other hand, my illness gave me a good excuse to spend the weekend with my new video game purchase.
New Super Mario Bros.: It’s really good to have a new side-scrolling Super Mario Bros. game. Of course, the 3D installments Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine are both outstanding games, but the 2D platformers have their own character that is revived in this DS edition. This was the game that sold me on the DS and so far it has not been a disappointment; it’s a worthy addition to the series. Previous games managed either solid level design with some attendant repetitiveness (Super Mario World), or quirkiness but with an uneven feel (Super Mario Bros. 3). This game manages to find a happy medium in which the levels are distinctive but well-balanced. One aspect imported from the Super Mario 64-style is an appeal to my obsessive completist instinct: I haven’t been able to leave a world without collecting all the star coins and opening secret exits. Fortunately these tasks are challenging enough to be interesting but not so much as to be frustrating. I’m now halfway through World 7 and some of the star coins are pretty deviously placed; it remains to be seen how much longer I make it before I give up on completeness and make a run for the end of the game. Rating: 4.5/5
Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood: I mentioned this book in an earlier entry, but I want to give it a proper review. One of the things I like about Murakami is his extensive use of surrealism, but this book was different in that there was no surrealism at all; in fact it is the most straightforward and accessible of all of his writings. Despite the lack of this distinctive element I enjoyed it as a beautifully written and resonant love story. Murakami’s protagonists are typically introverts, but Toru Watanabe particularly so, and much of the book concerns his sense of isolation and his search for connection to others. So it’s not hard to see why I identified with this character, although to a lesser extent I saw parts of myself in each of the characters. (In fact, it’s tempting to say “If you want to understand me, read this book,” but Toru and the others are also different from me in various respects, so it might just confuse the issue.) This book also made me realize how unfamiliar I am with The Beatles: the song that’s referenced in the title was central (so naturally I went and listened to it) and many of their other songs are mentioned as well. It’ll be a few years before I get to ’60s music in my ongoing survey, but maybe I should remedy my ignorance sooner than that. Rating: 4/5
Islands: Return to the Sea: I was skeptical of this band with their insular-themed name and lyrics and calypso-tinged music, but this turns out to be one of the best albums so far this year. In fact the calypso elements combine with guitars (and strings and horns) to create terrific pop songs that are sometimes light-hearted and sometimes epic. The best songs come at the beginning: “Swans (Life after Death)”, “Humans”, and “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby” are all top-notch. and “Rough Gem” comes in just behind the first three in quality. After an instrumental track there’s a slight departure in style with “Where There’s A Will There’s A Whalebone”, which adds a dash of hip-hop with mixed results. “Jogging Gorgeous Summer” is beautiful, and “Volcanoes” is fun; the last couple of tracks after this aren’t as exciting, but only because what came before was so good. This is a great album for these warm summer days; buy it and take it to the beach. Rating: 4.5/5

Vaporware watch: The Duke Nukem Forever list

If you read Kotaku this is last week’s news, but someone has compiled an amusing list of things that have happened since Duke Nukem Forever was announced. (For the non-gamers in the audience, this is a PC game that was announced nine years ago and is still in development.) They start with video games (75 Mega Man games, I assume that counts remakes) and proceed to more general categories, e.g.:

Movies that were filmed, released in theatres, and have made it to DVD:

  • All three Star Wars prequels.

  • The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, with extended editions.
  • Every Pixar movie aside from Toy Story.
  • Three (possibly four) James Bond films.
  • Every movie, animation, and video game from The Matrix series.

Also note the occasional liberal bias. (“The national minimum wage has remained $5.15.”)

Christian video games, where Jesus is the resurrection, the life, and the 1-up.

Via Pharyngula, here’s a slightly alarmist article about a video game based on the Left Behind novels.

This game immerses children in present-day New York City — 500 square blocks, stretching from Wall Street to Chinatown, Greenwich Village, the United Nations headquarters, and Harlem. The game rewards children for how effectively they role play the killing of those who resist becoming a born again Christian. The game also offers players the opportunity to switch sides and fight for the army of the AntiChrist, releasing cloven-hoofed demons who feast on conservative Christians and their panicked proselytes (who taste a lot like Christian).
Is this paramilitary mission simulator for children anything other than prejudice and bigotry using religion as an organizing tool to get people in a violent frame of mind? The dialogue includes people saying, “Praise the Lord,” as they blow infidels away.

The article focuses on the disturbing eliminationist elements in the game, but I think any game that lets you play as the Antichrist can’t be all bad. I can just imagine playing this game as Team Evil, cackling madly as I unleash my demonic horde. Sounds like fun!
More seriously, I’m never quite sure how I feel about games like this (or the similar jihadi video games that show up in the Middle East). The usual worry is that the eliminationist scenario and dehumanized opponents will make the player more inclined to real-world violence. But the counter-argument is that video games provide an outlet for political frustration and revenge fantasies, and hence reduce the amount of real-world violence. I’m not thoroughly convinced by either argument: really this is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of paranoid and apocalyptic rhetoric in the conservative Christian subculture that comprises Left Behind‘s target audience, and thus is merely a symptom of a larger problem.

The Part Where I Always Get Killed [Open Thread]

I wasn’t going to buy a Nintendo DS, but the New Super Mario Bros. is making me seriously rethink that. Meanwhile, in music:
The Boy Least Likely To: The Best Party Ever: This is twee pop in a highly purified form, so sugary I suspect I’m getting cavities just by listening to it. There’s a song called “Sleeping With A Gun Under My Pillow” and yet it sounds like something that could appear on Sesame Street. I do enjoy a certain amount of tweeness (see: Architecture in Helsinki) but this record is pushing the limits. On the other hand, the aforementioned “Sleeping With A Gun” is the only song that’s actively annoying, and there are several really good tracks: “I See Spiders When I Close My Eyes” and “Hugging My Grudge” are both extremely likeable, and “I’m Glad I Hitched My Apple Wagon To Your Star” is fantastic. This latter song wins philosophical points for including the line, “I never would’ve got here if I’d followed my heart.” Usually one is encouraged to follow one’s heart, but for some of us these intuitions are really bad (especially when coupled with shyness) and can lead to a pretty dull existence. A much better strategy, as per the song, is to find some more adventurous and dynamic person to use as a guide until better intuitions develop. So let me thank those people to whose stars I’ve hitched my apple wagon over the years. As for the CD, it’s very cutesy but generally enjoyable. Rating: 3.5/5

Colloquium Blogging: Silly Edition

Today’s colloquium was Steve Chu, Nobelist and director of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, giving an account of his biophysics experiments. However, rather than report on this I’m going to share a thought I had in the middle of the talk. At one point he was describing a standard optical tweezers technique in which ribosomes are engineered to stick to a tiny glass bead, which can then be manipulated with a laser beam. I was thinking there was something familiar about this, and I realized you could make a game out of it in which you have a biological sample with lots of components designed to stick to the bead, and then roll the bead around with the laser beam to pick them up… yes! Optical Trap Katamari Damacy!
On the other hand, I don’t think the King of All Cosmos would be impressed by a 3 μm katamari.