November 2018


I got nostalgic for this flick (タンポポ, 1985, dir. Jūzō Itami) after seeing a Mefi thread on it, so my wife and I watched it again. Not only does it hold up well, I think it’s just about a perfect movie.

tampopo

A recap, if you missed it: Two truck drivers, Gorō and Gun, get hungry for ramen, and stop at a hole-in-the-wall shop run by Tampopo, widow of the previous owner. They get into a fight with the thuggish customers and get beaten up. Tampopo takes care of Gorō, and asks him how the ramen was.  The answer is, not good.  It’s “sincere, but lacks character.” Tampopo is desperate to make the best possible ramen, and Gorō takes on the task of training her.

This turns out, like a video game quest, to involve an escalating series of complications: spying on other restaurants, strength training, and building an unlikely fraternity of counselors: the king of the hobos who knows all about broth; a rich man’s chauffeur who knows noodles; and finally the thuggish customer who was bothering Tampopo earlier: after a fistfight with Gorō he becomes a pal and offers to remodel the restaurant.

This sounds like a thin plot for a movie, and that’s the first joke. Yes, they’re treating this as an epic quest, with overtones of samurai movies and Westerns– Gorō even has the hat for it. And yes, it’s like finding the perfect barbecue or gyros: ramen is (or was at the time of the movie) unpretentious street food.

But people are passionate about food, and that’s really the theme of the movie. At one point Gorō  is building up Tampopo’s strength by having her run (while he rides a bicycle). We see a line of businessmen, and “for some reason” (as Itami says in the making-of documentary) the camera follows them. This turns into one of many vignettes about food. The businessmen go to a fancy French restaurant, and all the important people– who can’t read the menu– order the same thing. Only the youngest (it’s obviously his first such outing) consults with the waiter, and orders an excellently chosen gourmet meal with appropriate wine. The five others stare at him, completely red-faced.

Most of the vignettes revolve around a joke, but some are about sex: they center on a yakuza and his girlfriend, both dressed all in white, who use food as foreplay. The yakuza meets his comeuppance near the end of the film, and as he lies dying, confides to the crying girl a recipe for boar sausages he would have liked to share with her.

On a less intense level, the film shows a developing romance between Tampopo and Gorō . But Gorō moves on at the end.  He has to, as a Western hero or as a video game protagonist. The next quest awaits.

It’s hard to convey in words just how assured and controlled Itami’s film is. The tone could falter at any moment. We could lose interest in the vignettes; we could find the overall ramen quest silly; the actors could play it too seriously or too hammily. But it never does falter. At one point early in the movie an elderly man is teaching a young man how to eat ramen. He says, in the reverential tone of every martial arts master on film, “Caress the pork slices with your chopsticks.” It’s absurd, but it’s delivered completely straight, and it works. The film is about people who are passionate for food, to the point of being a little ridiculous. And it’s like, yeah, why shouldn’t we be both passionate and ridiculous about food?

The making-of documentary has a fascinating bit where Itami plays the final scene for us three times, with different choices for the music– not even choosing different music, just differing places to start. It’s a little lesson in rhythm and the emotional effect of music, and another demonstration of Itami’s attention to detail.

I don’t think you can watch this film without coming out hungry for ramen. Or the beautiful rice omelette that’s made at one point.  Or boar sausages.

There is way, way more to the movie than I could explain without going to film school. Apparently it’s full of homages to other movies, Japanese and Western. The choice of actors must be meaningful: Itami seems to have assembled every older character actor in Japan.

If there’s any very slight weakness in the film, it may be Tampopo herself. She’s the perfect martial arts student: quiet, but whip-smart, absorbing everything she sees in order to win the big boss battle at the end (in this case, the final ramen-tasting). There’s nothing wrong with her, but maybe that itself is something wrong. She isn’t really allowed to have any vices or make any mistakes. But perhaps that’s what the other characters and the vignettes are for. (And maybe our own convention that the hero has to be flawed needs to be challenged.)

Interesting factoid: the actress, Nobuko Miyamoto, was 40 when the movie was made. She was also Itami’s wife, and the son in the movie was their actual son.

From the Mefi thread, this appears to be a movie that only a minority of people have seen, but that almost everyone remembers with affection. So, enjoy, and then have a great meal.

 

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The Overwatch World Cup Viewer is great for reviewing World Cup matches.  It’s also great for no-clipping around the world, seeing how the maps are put together and getting views you’re not supposed to be able to see.

OW NEPAL

For instance, above you can see the entire Nepal map.  All three stages are loaded at the same time, but you can’t see one stage from the next.

And here’s an unusual view of Ilios showing all three stages.  You can see this statue from Ruins; it’s interesting that it actually has a face (and belly button), which you can’t see when playing.

ow ilios 2

If you compare Blizzard World to the map of it, you can see that not everything is actually modeled. There are supposed to be a Spawning Pools Water Park and a Caldeum Market to the right, a Blackrock Mountain to the east, and a pirate ship in the water; none of these exist. But the rest of the park is pretty much all modeled, though only just enough to look OK from a distance:

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The house marked with an asterisk isn’t even on the ground.  Also note the shadowy figures in the foreground… apparently this part of the park is still open, and has visitors. You can see them moving around as you play the map.

There are even cars and riders on the monorail– though they’re rendered as minimally as possible:

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Here’s an unusual view of Hollywood. I’m really surprised that so much of the city is rendered, even if there’s also a lot of model re-use. You can see the theater where you spawn– the green roof in the middle background– so all of this is off to the left when you exit spawn, so most of it can’t be seen, even as Pharah. It’s interesting that they have enough of a polygon budget that they can model all this– including the backsides of buildings that you absolutely can’t see from the playable area. (And all those pipes and air conditioning ducts and curved roofs are really 3-d modeled.)

OW HOLLYWOOD

(I’m surprised because in Hammer, the level editor for the Valve games, anything you can’t see is scrupulously removed.  If you put a cube in the distance, only 2 or 3 sides will actually exist in the level. Evidently we now have polygons to burn!)

Here’s the theater itself– the green area is the lobby of the theater where you spawn. Behind it, a little disappointingly, there’s just some random tiny buildings; they didn’t block out the actual theater.

OW HOLLYWOOD theater

I wondered if the Rialto map has all the extra bits required for the Archives event (where you are the Blackwatch team sent to deal with the Talon guy).  Nope.  They obviously re-used a lot of the map, but not the extra parts (like the restaurant).

Finally, here’s something you’ve probably seen, but only while plummeting to your death. It’s the Omnic shantytown located under the King’s Row power plant.

ow kingsrow

This view is looking up toward the power plant. Again, this is suprising in the level of detail. You can see the track for the cart; the bright yellow circular thing just visible above the track is the dynamo (or whatever it is) above the final point.

Hmm, found some figures on the web. Alyx from Half-Life 2 has about 8000 polygons, which was a lot for 2004. (The Combine soldiers have only half that.) By contrast the Overwatch characters have 30,000, not including their weapons. That’s… a lot of polygons. So a few buildings with 100 to 200 polys are nothing to worry about.

(One trick which the game engine probably uses is to load low-poly versions of things that are in the distance. Still, the point is, the polygon budget is mostly thrown at the characters.)

A website suggested finishing the main quest in Destiny 2 rather than doing all the side quests, so that when you do get to them, they give you better gear. So, OK, I finished the main quest. Only now I think I’m done.

destiny-1au

Destroying the Death Star with handheld weapons

The main story is, I dunno, about 20 hours? It includes one mission I absolutely hated, because of the damn tank. Its controls are horrible, so I spent half the time driving it into walls and trying to extricate myself… you can call new tanks, and not infrequently I ran to the next spawn because that was easier than getting the old tank pointed in a reasonable direction. Plus I kept dying in one particular location, till I realized there was a separate fire mode I needed to be using.

But! The last few missions are actually pretty good! You have to eliminate the Legion’s Deathstar, you see.  So you go to a Legion base, fight your way through the absurdly chunky structures favored by these space fascists, kill a big bad, and steal his key codes and his ship. This apparently isn’t noticed at all, so you can fly to the Deathstar and cause havoc.  You blow it up and then head back to Earth to take out the biggest bad, old Ghaul the Inexplicable.

As I mentioned, you’re a mute unkillable zombie with no civilian applications, and that’s your secret weapon.  They can’t kill you.  So you get into a rhythm of shooting bad guys, hiding behind walls while you recover heath, and shooting some more. And occasionally ulting the hell out of them. (I still think the ults are doled out too sparingly, so you can never quite count on them. But if you think of them as a treat rather than an ability you should have, you’ll feel better. Plus, in the final battle they actually give you extra ults, so for once the final fight is kind of fun.)

There’s one brief section where you have to go into space. Now, the Deathstar is at the orbit of Mercury, so it’s hot. So you have to jump from shadow to shadow, while shooting enemies… or letting them fry as they cross the sunlit parts to come to you. This was pretty damn neat.

(The game, with its gift for astounding scientific illiteracy, calls this mission 1 AU.  That of course is the orbit of Earth; Mercury is at about 0.4 AU.)

So, Ghaul doesn’t get to blot out the Sun, plus he’s dead. After this, the game lets you back in the Last City, suddenly filled with other players.  Plus you get an engram, finally, which turns out to be a coupon for one piece of gear, and you can join factions, and you get a new spaceship, and the major NPCS have some gifts for you. And you can go back and do all those side missions.

I might, but it turns out killing Ghaul has done a number on my motivation. Look, I just saved the Sun and the entire solar system, rescued the Traveler, and now everyone’s got the Light back rather than just me. And you want me to go fight some straggling aliens here and there? You got thousands of Guardians now, let them do it.  I still have to go murder more of Ancient Greece.

I still don’t know what the other currencies are, and I think I only spent half my skill points. They have a dumb system where new skills replace the old ones– e.g. you can have three different types of grenades, but only use one kind at a time.

If I’d paid $60 for the game, I think I’d be a little disappointed… but for free, it’s a great diversion. It’s beautiful, it gives you plenty of things to shoot, and it has its moments (such as that run in the sun, or Nathan Fillion’s character). But it’s also rather clunky and confusing, it never quite knows what to do with its ideas, and it’s huge without being diverse.  And the story is overblown, throwing in threats like “destroying the sun” without having this either make sense or have any real impact.

An example of the “ideas” problem: the enemy aliens are all just murderous things with red health bars. Only two of the Legion even have voice lines, and there’s not a moment where anything they do inspires respect or sympathy. Within the same company, you could look at, say, World of Warcraft, where a lot of effort has been put into making the Horde an interesting rather than just eeeevil; or Overwatch, where the villains have something to say for themselves and the heroes may be questionable.

Another example: the game is set all over the solar system, but they don’t (say) play with gravity, or distance from the sun, or atmosphere, or temperature. The surface gravity of Titan is 0.14 that of Earth; that’d be pretty interesting.

As for the hugeness, I think the best open world games don’t just give you things to shoot, they add other stuff.  The Arkham games give you Riddler puzzles; Mass Effect has its romances; Beyond Good & Evil 1 throws in races, photography, and space pool; Fallout 4 has settlements; Saints Row lets you play dress-up and listen to the radio.

So, again, not a bad game. But, I dunno, it feels like a 20-hour game that thinks it’s a 200-hour game.

Blizzard gave me a free game!  Well, me and everyone else, but it’s still nice to get a message that you have a gift.  It’s also huge, 80 gigabytes… well, sorry, Team Fortress 2, it was finally time to uninstall you.

So, Destiny 2.  First impressions: it’s like Borderlands without the cel shading or the southern fried attitude. And weirdly rough around the edges.

destiny2-nessus

You have learned the Gek word for genocide

The story– did you know it had a story?– is that Earth is in the middle of a bunch of interstellar war. Humans are almost extinct; they live in one last city, called the Last City (names are terrible in D2), until some interstellar fascists called the Red Legion show up and destroy it. Their leader is called Dominus Ghaul and will make you miss the more caring, friendly nature of Zinyak.

You are a mute, frightening zombie.  This isn’t perhaps what the PR guys say; they call you a Guardian. But: you have a little floating robot who can resurrect you, and this is an explicit part of the story, not just a gameplay thing. You’re a fighting machine and you never talk– the robot talks for you. Clearly he’s not your “helper”, he’s the actual intelligence controlling you, and you’re a zombie.  Nonetheless, you’re humanity’s last hope.

It really does feel like a more serious Borderlands. You go on pretty linear routes, killing everything in your path– monsters named the Legion, the Fallen, the Vex– look, names are not the game’s forte. They thoughtfully drop guns and armor slightly better than your current ones. Occasionally you level up and get points to increase your superpower.  I’m a Hunter, so basically I dress like Reaper and my ult is Genji.

OK, positives:

  • I really like Borderlands, so the whole concept is pretty nice.
  • It’s very pretty, for post-apocalyptia. I mean, there’s nowhere left with a good restaurant and even the hubs are full of monsters, but it looks great.
  • Do you like Firefly?  They got most of the actors here somewhere.
  • In the hubs you can run into other players, and fight the monsters with them.
  • You can play co-op, but I haven’t yet.
  • You can triple-jump, which is 50% better than a double-jump.
  • Inventory management is pretty streamlined… it’s generally really clear if a piece of gear is better. This is actually an improvement over Borderlands where you had to do calculations in your head to find the actual DPS given things like round size and reload speed.

Negatives:

  • It’s full of stuff it doesn’t bother to explain. I have no idea how one should upgrade a character, or what the three different currencies are. I get messages that I’ve acquired something and can’t find it, nor do I know what to do with it. There are whole mechanisms– emblems, engrams, triumphs, gear customization– that are referred to but don’t seem to exist for me. (I get messages that I have a “triumph”, but the character screen says I have 0.) My character is an “Awoken” and there’s no explanation; they seem to be basically Dark Elves.
  • It seems buggy in places. Twice I’ve had to quit because enemies didn’t appear and nothing happened.
  • There’s an annoying, punishing half-attempt at platforming. Get the timing wrong, or fail to invest in that triple-jump, and you die. Come on, games, this was solved by Arkham Asylum in 2009.
  • The ult is really powerful, but they dole it out so slowly that you never know whether to use it, or save it for the next boss.
  • You have powerful grenades, and they’re on an over-long cooldown too. Devs, if you’re terrified we’ll actually use the powerful tools, maybe make them a tad less powerful rather than not letting us use them?
  • I know, suspension of disbelief, but I’m kind of put off by an utter disregard for physics. The story has the Legion wanting to destroy the sun, which makes little sense… they don’t even bother to provide a reason, or even explain why they’d do this while their own troops are scattered over the solar system. Plus, firing lasers at a star won’t make it go supernova and stellar explosions can’t go faster than lightspeed. You visit an asteroid named Nessus. A planetoid of under 100 km diameter out by Uranus would be a rather interesting setting, but in the game it’s a lovely warm planet with plants and running water and breathable air and Earth gravity.

In between: game devs, it’s not that hard to make a multiplayer game with a single-player story that does not contradict the multiplayer. Conan Exiles or The Secret World or DC Universe Online all managed it: they came up with stories where the player is not the Chosen One; rather, lots of people have these neat powers. Destiny 2 does not manage this– you are apparently the only Guardian who can take on the story missions. Yet you see other players and can play other missions with them, or even run PvP sessions. It wouldn’t even be hard to fix this up: oh look, we have a corps of Guardians.  They seem to outnumber the civilians, since the writers insisted on near-genocide, but since the Guardians are immortal zombies, perhaps it makes sense that their numbers would accumulate.

Anyway, it looks like I’m more than halfway through the story, so I expect I’ll finish it.  Googling, it looks like the thing I found and couldn’t identify was a Relic which unlocks more powers, which requires, astonishingly, killing more monsters.  Well, OK.

Does it sound like I don’t like it?  I don’t think I dislike it. The price is right, and it’s not actively tiresome, like say Agents of Mayhem. I wish it were a little more comprehensible, though, and maybe that the story went beyond apocalyptic space opera.

Update: Rest of review, after finishing off Ghaul.

Tricksy move: write a whole book about a single day of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy. That’s the one pulled by Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden in How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels (2017). The bulk of the book is devoted to the strip for August 8, 1959, shown below.

nancy

I’ve purposely shown a view of the strip among other strips, on faded newsprint, rather than the big clean black & white version, in order to help make the authors’ point: Nancy survives poor sizing and reproduction intact. It’s a fast strip to grasp: bam, bam, gag. Bushmiller is a master of minimalism; the drawing and the text are just enough to carry the gag and no more.

The book reprints the strip 43 times, highlighting something different each time. The gimmick is a little misleading— e.g. one highlight is on the character of Nancy, which really covers her personality and appearance over the life of the strip. Another is devoted to the copyright notice and date, as a digression into the business of comic strip creation. (Like most strips of the time, Nancy was owned by the syndicate; Bushmiller was technically just an employee.)

The book is a pretty good primer on Nancy; as a bonus it includes about 200 full strips, plus a retrospective of Bushmiller’s career. Fun fact: he started out as a copyboy at the New York World at the age of 15, hung out with the cartoonists and started doing graphic odd jobs, such as drawing the lines for crossword puzzles; he was publishing a strip by the age of 19. When he was just 20, in 1925, he took over Larry Whittington’s Fritzi Ritz, a comic about a ditzy flapper, itself an imitation of the similar Tillie the Toiler. Fritzi was quite successful, though even then Bushmiller preferred single-strip gags to any sort of ongoing story.

Occasionally a kid cousin or nephew or niece would show up and invariably be smart-alecky— always flustering Aunt Fritzi— and in 1933 one of these was Nancy. There was something about her that outshone the other kids; she stuck around, and in 1938 the strip was rechristened Nancy. And so it went till Bushmiller’s death in 1982.

Now, Nancy used to be the comic strip sophisticates cordially hated. The 1976 World Encyclopedia of Comics complained that it seemed to be made by “some guy with Joe Miller’s Joke Book and a set of Nancy and Sluggo stamps”, and dismissed it as “the last thing the Lawrence Welk generation read and liked in the comics.” Well, 1970s hipsters, the joke’s on you: the next generation of hipsters developed a deep appreciation for Nancy. 

There’s something to be said for it, especially with Karasik and Newgarden’s help. Nancy is above all honest. It’s a half-century-long paean to the gag and nothing but the gag. It has no satirical import, no story, no pretensions to be a Graphic Novel. Based on the comics reproduced in the book, the gags are rarely LOL funny, but they’re amusing and harmless, and not tiresome in the way of Beetle Bailey or Marmaduke. (Ha ha, Sarge is beating up Beetle again.) There’s even an appealing dash of surrealism, such as a strip where Nancy and Sluggo exchange heads. (Though it’s kind of ruined by Bushmiller lampshading that it’s April Fool’s Day.)

If you value clear and direct cartooning, there’s much to learn from Nancy. Simple writing isn’t as easy as it looks, and neither is simple cartooning. As Wally Wood put it, “By the time you decided not to read it, you already had.”

The strip is still going on, and ironically, 2010s hipsters actually like the current incarnation, by Olivia Jaimes. We’ll probably be able to celebrate the strip’s centennial in just four years.

I think both the dismissal and the adulation can go too far. Bushmiller’s Nancy is workmanlike and reliable, but it achieves its effects because it sets a very low bar. It’s hard not to compare it with Peanuts, which matches it in minimalism but far exceeds it in variety, perceptiveness, and draftsmanship. Bushmiller’s cartooning is highly competent— and this goes double for today when almost all the nicely drawn adventure strips are gone, and almost the whole comics page is devoted to sketchily drawn gag strips. But his line is stiff, his facial expressions are stereotyped, and the characters barely attempt to be human. And though Nancy might make you smile more than you expected, it’ll never wow you or challenge you or inform you or shock you.

Karasik and Newgarden do great work in pointing out Bushmiller’s skill and simplicity, and pulling out lessons for cartoonists; but I think they could have gone much farther in recognizing that alternative approaches are OK too. You can go for better drawing, you can go for sketchier drawing; you can tell stories, you can be satirical or serious, you can draw five rocks instead of three.

Not content with playing Overwatch, I’ve been watching it– i.e., pro streams and games.

For the World Cup, Blizzard created a separate viewer, which lets you follow any player, and indeed control the camera. This is pretty damn neat, and I hope they’ll implement it for Overwatch League– heck, for any games.

You can also use it to look at the whole map in ways that you can’t when playing. Biggest surprise: the three-stage maps are really one map.  E.g., Lijiang Tower:

ov4

I really thought these were separate maps with skyboxes to show the bits of the other stages that you can see.  But with the viewer you can fly from one stage to the next: everything is there, down to the last health pack. Note that you can see some of the player info– the actual gameplay is at Control Center, but we can see Night Market in perfect detail. (And note that the spaceship spawns are there, although this isn’t the current stage.)

Another example: here’s a view of the Busan map showing both the temple and the city. (There’s still some culling that goes on– if you pull back far enough from the city, it disappears.)

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And here’s a closeup on the hillside, showing that at this distance from the city, the trees
are just 2-d pictures on flat quads.  (You can see a bit of the city center to the right.)

ow2

What about the actual pro play? Well, I really enjoy seeing Space or Emongg play D.Va or Zarya, or Surefour playing anything, or Fareeha playing Pharah. I don’t know if I learn much, but some things amuse me:

  • Pro players still destroy everything in spawn.
  • Space changes his players-to-avoid after almost every match.
  • His ult tracking is amazing.
  • Wait times for Top 500 are terrible: 5 minutes or more.  Nice for streamers: they can look at chat.
  • Top 500 players still complain about unbalanced matches.
  • If someone’s out of position, the callout is e.g. “Zarya feeding.”
  • Surefour sounds infinitely chill.

And speaking of Surefour, if you watch just one pro game, find today’s Canada-France game and watch the Busan map, especially the Meka Base.  He has some game-winning Sombra ults.