July 2008

I finally picked up the Orange Box, and man, that’s good gamin’. 

Portal is a blast.  It’s a lesson in where to apply effort: in essence it’s a simple puzzle game— I think the kids call them platformers— which keeps gameplay elements at their simplest, and lavishes resources on environment.  The lush 3-D rendering, the huge impressive spaces, the dark humor of the AI gone bad, and the little hidden spaces (the cake is a lie!) all add to the intensity and immersion.  At the same time the mechanics are simple, focussing your attention on the wonderful toy, the portal gun.

You can have your plush companion cubes… I want my own turret.

I just finished Half-Life 2, and I’m even more impressed by Valve.  I’m not generally a FPS guy, so I didn’t expect it to be my thing, but I enjoyed it a lot— I want to play it again now that I know what I’m doing.  Though “enjoyed” is a strange term for an experience which included a whole lot of cursing and hitting F9. 

I admire the smoothness of HL2’s storytelling.  For instance, there’s a moment where some crows fly up in front of you— right into the mouth of a barnacle.  That alerts you very nicely to this new kind of monster.  Similarly, you get in-game tutorials for new weapons as you get them. 

The gravity gun is another great idea.  Of course, several times I wished I had a portal gun.  Freeman may be able to save the world from extraterrestrial scum, but he’s completely defeated by any step more than than two feet high. 

You can tell a game is immersive if you actually move around in your chair as you try to make precise jumps or swerves…

Naturally, I took the occasion to re-read my friend Chris’s HL2 comic, Concerned, now that I can get all the jokes.  Chief new reaction: Chris has insane patience.  Just finding the locations in the maps, some of which are huge, must have been a job.

Next up: episodes 1 and 2.  And Team Fortress 2 if I can figure out what servers tolerate utter noobs.  I’m surprised there’s not a single-player learning mode.


Bob, what’s your take on Garfield minus Garfield (http://garfieldminusgarfield.net )?

I mean, it’s the only webcomic in my feed reader (well, okay, xkcd I can’t avoid, and there’s ELER, which is moribund).

—John Cowan




It’s cool, but I prefer the original bit of messing with Garfield: erasing all of Garfield’s text but leaving him in the picture.  I can’t improve on Neil Gaiman’s description: ” a perfectly paced, rather sad strip about a man whose life is wasted and a cat who says nothing”.  It doesn’t always work (mostly because of the annoying facial expressions), but it’s a brilliant idea. 

By the way, for those who don’t check zompist.com any more, I’ve got two new comics reviews up today.

Lore seems set to make a series of Monster Manual comics:


In most pop culture that comes in series and remakes, the rule seems to be that whatever its inherent quality, we best love the version we first encountered.  (Yes, I know, there’s Battlestar Galactica, but that’s about it.  Besides, I never saw the original, so the rule holds for me.)  D&D monsters are, for me, the ones in the 1978 Monster Manual.

I don’t think any campaigns I’ve run or been in unearthed (or unfilthed) an actual rot grub, possibly because the DMs had taste.  They fall in the category of “monsters for when the DM just wants to fuck with the party”, along with rust monsters, mimics, trappers, and ear seekers.  How did an entire ecosystem develop around dungeon exploration? 

Gelatinous cubes, however, are awesome.

The Reader, I think it was, advised that the spy movie parody to see this year was not Get Smart but the French film OSS 117: Cairo, nest of spies.  So we gave it a try.  I haven’t seen Get Smart, so I can’t directly compare.  OSS 117 pretty much covers the ground, however.  (Ironically, it’s based on a non-parody series of French spy novels that predates James Bond, featuring an American of French descent.)

The film’s hero is Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, alias OSS 117– suave, good-looking, and the absolute model of fatuity.  The actor, Jean Dujardin, nails the required attitude: he may be stupid and sometimes goofy, but he believes in himself utterly.  American comedians generally can’t do this: if we do parody it’s over-the-top and knowing; we don’t like to look like idiots.  (At the same time, 117 isn’t quite as stupid as Johnny English.)

The look of 1960s spy flicks are very affectionately re-created, down to the film stock, cheesy establishing shots, and fakey rear projection.  There are some nice meta-jokes, such as 117 waking up in bed, hair dissheveled, and running his hand once through his hair to comb it immaculately, and an agent who is employed solely to report to his superiors exactly where 117 is, till they get sick of it and eliminate him.

The jokes are a little skewed by American tastes.  Some are silly in an inspired low-budget way (such as two spies throwing chickens at each other), some strange and subtle, such as a scene where some suspicious character toss around gnomic, absurd statements at each other as a sort of existentialist one-upsmanship.  A lot of the humor comes from pure embarrassment: 117 is so insulting or condescending that the other characters don’t even know what to do with it.

It doesn’t always work, but it’s fun.

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