Sunday, February 22, 2009

We've got movie sign!

I have six seasons (soon to be seven) of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 on my external drive. That's over 80 gigs of silhouetted robots. I love this show, and have for about 15 years. Anyway, I stumbled across this site the other day and was reading their retrospective on the series, when I stumbled across this snippet:

"Well, Joel said something very profound about his show in an interview in 1990: "It's about liberty, in a small, goofy way," he said. And that is probably at the heart of it. It appeals to an innate human desire to unabashedly say what you think. And for young kids, that seems to be the principle draw: the whole notion of grown-ups in power being heckled and ridiculed for their obvious inadequacies is irresistible.

But there's more going on here, or this would just be Beavis & Butthead. More importantly, MST3K is a call to arms in a war most thinking people are waging every day: the battle against the mediocrity that floods our lives. MST3K is an object lesson, a demonstration that we don't have to--and shouldn't--passively accept the garbage we are spoon-fed on a daily basis. Indeed, the series places the 'bots and their human companion on the front lines of that battle. It's in this way that MST3K rises above mere heckling and becomes a compelling metaphor about fighting the good fight.

But beyond that, there is no mistaking the genius at work here. It shines so clearly that toddlers are instinctively drawn to it and senior citizens smile knowingly -- even if neither gets the Courtney Love jokes. From Joel's forehead-slappingly simple concept to its loopy yet graceful execution, the show has a cool elegance, an endearing off-kilter brilliance. It engenders an astonishing loyalty in its viewers -- a loyalty that stems in part from the way it makes its viewers feel like they are "in on" a very special secret. It manages the near-impossible by being one of the most delightfully unpredictable programs on national TV, while also being one of the most re-assuringly formulaic. "The show," as devotees simply call it, rewards knowledge and insight, punishes inattention and passivity. But most importantly, it always has been -- and always will be -- really, genuinely funny."

I though that was just great.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A nephew draws near!

Hey! I'm an uncle! My older sister April and Mike succeeded in reproducing, following the tradition of all organic life before them. Hooray! I have no idea what this kid's name is!

UPDATE! The child is named Mason Anthony Leonard.

Horizon Broadening Project #1 - King's Bounty

I frequent the excellent gaming community site Gamers With Jobs.  This year they  have been running a series and an ongoing discussion on broadening your gaming horizons.  Every month some of the contributors and many of the community are taking a game they have heard is good but would otherwise never play and taking a good stab at it.  Afterward, they share their experiences with the group.  Often times we who play a lot of games and follow the art and industry of games tend to fall into a bit of laziness, only playing the big prestige titles that come out every year or those special niche titles we tend to love.

I am taking a stab at doing this, partly due to my new found free time on weekends and evenings and partly because of my love of finding hidden, underground gems.  Mostly, though, I'm doing this because after 20 years I still really really really love video games.  It'll be 20 years this December since I received my NES (still the best Christmas gift I've ever received), and I still get wide-eyed and giddy at the scope of a new game or tense and surly when stumped by a particularly difficult or obtuse section.  Games are still pretty much the only time in which I can turn my over-analytical, obsessively thinking brain down for a bit and just relax.  Civilization 4 is my equivalent of curling up on the couch with a mug of tea.

My tweaks to the GWJ formula for this projects are that I won't be steering completely away into genres I have zero interest in (no soccer team management sims or anything) and I may not be able to do this monthly, but I plan on keeping this running throughout the year.  So without further ado, may I present Horizons Broadening Game #1, King's Bounty.
KB reminds me of why I play PC games.  Strange, wonderful, obtuse and impossibly nerdy, this game is lazer focused on a specific type of player.  It really makes no attempt to appeal to the mass market.  You like high fantasy?  You want to ride around fighting orcs and necromancers?  Interested in seeing what's over that next hill?  Oh, and are you interested in micro-managing the morale of your troop of dwarven alchemists?  Your Cursed Hammer that gives you +4 against the undead is angry - would you like to shrink down and fight the rambunctious demons inside of it to win the right to have it work properly?  Based on a genre-defining game of the same name from the late 80's, 2008's King's Bounty casts you as a treasure hunter for the king, continuously climbing the ladder of feudal society.  At the time of this writing, maybe 20 or 30 hours in, I'm a Baron.  I began the game with 5 armies comprised of somewhat standard ren-fair standards - Knights, Peasants, Archers, Mages and Swordsmen.  After hours of traveling, replacing spent armies and upgrading personnel from strange lands, my current army is comprised of range-attacking Arch-mages and Archers, slow and powerful Frost Giants, over a thousand pitchfork-wielding Peasants (a number which the game now refers to simply as The Hoard) and finally, ANCIENT BEARS.  
When faced with an enemy, you both field your armies, represented by a sole member of that army with a number indicating the amount of troops in that army on a hex-based field.  You then move, attack, cast spells and summon spirits until only one army is standing.  As you level up and find special banners through the game, your leadership level increases with allows you to buy and lead larger numbers of the huge variety of troops available at every tavern, town and castle.  The more units in a particular troop, the more powerful and resistant to damage they are.  For example, The Hoard can take down just about anything.  Sure they are slow-moving and weak, but one should never underestimate the power of 1,238 angry serfs.  But enough about the combat system.  Engrossing and fun as it is, the real reason to play King's Bounty is not in the mechanics.

KB was developed in Russia.  Eastern Europe has recently been a hotbed of amazingly unique PC games.  They've been interesting, imperfect and engrossing.  Games like STALKER and The Witcher have been some of the most celebrated PC games of the past year or so.  It might simply be that the cultures are different enough to render old tropes fresh again, but I can't believe how fighting MORE ORCS in ANOTHER FANTASY GAME seems so fresh.  I think a great deal of it may be that the developers are clearly having fun with the premise.  I can't even begin to detail the insane things that I have come across on my quest.  Here's a short list, though:

- After fighting my way through a forest I ascend a hilltop only to be faced with a dragon.  The dragon, instead of attacking, says "Hey knight."  My dialogue response : "Hey Dragon".

-  While crossing an underground lake in a stolen boat, I am swallowed by a whale.  Inside there is only a small bit of gold and a dwarf telling me that he is happy there.  I am soon spit back up.

-  While shopping for weapons from a pirate king I notice he's selling a toy castle.  Intrigued, I by it only to discover that it is inhabited by tiny gremlins and the castle is also overrun with monsters.  They need to shrink me down so that I may rout the invaders.  They insist on charging me $1000 every time I do this.

You really get a feeling that just about anything could happen here.  I'm constantly finding new things (partly to blame for this is the game's almost complete lack of instructions) and I am often reduced to laughter by the situations, dry humor, and occasionally atrocious translation from Russian to English.  It doesn't hurt that the game is gorgeous, with excellent art direction and attention to detail.  Mountain forests have squirrels scampering over the pine boughs, knocking snow into the air.  Statues of skeletons that adorn the walls of dungeons reach out to grab you as you pass, their eyes glowing orange.  Everyone has a story and probably a quest.  It's just a joy to wander around.
I don't know if King's Bounty will sustain it's manic, hilarious tone throughout but I has such a strong beginning and middle that it could be forgiven either way.  In summation, I'm going to quote from another site's write-up on the game because I think it accurately portrays my feelings on this game better and more succinctly than I could:

"Briefly, though, it's basically Heroes of Might & Magic... but, well, better: fast and sillier and bigger.  It's mad and weird and unfair and the Russian-English translation is a disaster.  It's also gloriously ridiculous and constantly inventive.  It's exactly what I want to play right now..."

Next time on the Horizon Broadening Project - Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines.  I can assure you that it'll be very, very angsty.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Paging Mr.Saxophone!

What a very busy week it has been. I shall attempt to catch you up.

A week ago the local football playing establishment won some sort of award for excellence in footballing. Directly afterward, this is what occurred outside of our apartment.
So that was exciting, I suppose. There were riot cops and flashings and drunk, weeping men locked in sports-inspired embraces.

This friday was the release of Coraline. I was actually pretty excited for it. Laika is a great and inspirational studio and Selick is a fantastic and under-appreciated guy. The movie was nothing short of wonderful.
This is another movie that goes in the films-my-kids-will-see-and-love pile. I can't recommend this movie enough and you should go see it in theaters. It's not for the youngest of kids (as evidenced by the 5 year old at the end of our row that kept moaning "No! No! No!" whenever something scary was about to happen).
A great deal has been made of the actual production of Coraline and it's really impossible to consider the merits of the film without thinking about the fact that 98% of the things on screen are real and had to work in an actual production. As someone who works in a completely digital space, it's humbling to see.
Coraline is an anomaly in animated films - one seemingly devoid of hip pop-culture references, easy characterizations and a completely happy ending. It's a simple movie, but not a stupid one. It has a singular artistic vision and it carries it through. The design all hangs together and it takes itself and it's audience seriously. It's the anti-Shrek. The trailer than ran before the movie began threw this difference into sharp relief:

Compare directly to this:

Go see Coraline.

Also, John Hodgman voices the father.

In other news, I'm playing a truly embarrassing amount of King's Bounty. The less said about this, the better.