Month: December 2012

RACCOONS IN THE NEWS: One Specie’s Misfortune is Another’s Happy Day

Dead raccoons in California are turning out to have suffered from tumors in the brain.  It turns out their species isn’t really known for getting cancer, at least not from infectious diseases that cause tumors.  Apparently, this has scientists pretty excited because this may provide a hint in determining how or why humans develop tumors and–if we’re lucky–how to prevent it.

It may be fiction but don’t make it unrealistic!

I was thumbing through the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, the annual best & worst of the year lists, and noticed something odd about their best fiction books of the year: they’re all so incredibly mundane.  Not necessarily to say they’re boring, but none of them are set in anything more fantastical than Earth not of modern times (none of them taking place in the “future.”)  One of the more interesting aspects of fiction is the fact that one can work free of constraints of accuracy to some actual event or setting.  The more adventurous writers might even dare to write about things far removed from the reality we know or have known.  Crazy, isn’t it? So let’s how deeply these top ten novels explore the limitless potential of fiction:

  1. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel is a historical novel set in the 16th century focused on Thomas Cromwell.  I suppose, depending on how strictly the author adheres to known facts, this thing could pass as a biography.  In other words, not too fictional.
  2. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson is a novel set against the very real oppressive regime and politics of North Korea.  Hell, the title of the Washington Post’s review of the book proclaimed the story was “believable.” 
  3. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter takes place in the fantastical setting of 1960’s Italy and includes such far out elements as Richard Burton, during a time he was alive and famous.
  4. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is something of a mystery, apparently.  I’ll give that one a pass.  It’s some kind of a genre, at least.
  5. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain tells the story of an Iraqi war veteran struggling with  a lot of emotions while attending a Dallas Cowboys football game.  Sounds interesting, but again, not exactly going anywhere that readers aren’t somewhat familiar with.
  6. The Newlyweds by Neil Freudenberger explores international romance over the internet in the modern era.  Mind blowing, isn’t it?
  7. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is about teenagers with cancer falling in love and is described as “sad.” This sounds like the kind of book that, once the inevitable film adaptation is released, will have the words “inspirational” and “revelatory” thrown about.
  8. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is another mystery/thriller set in modern days.
  9. The “graphic novel” Building Stories by Chris Ware sounds more like a an experimental toy than a book, but hey, sometime you need to force things into a category.  It allows you to piece together the “lonely lives of people living on top of each other in a Chicago apartment building.”
  10. Finally, there’s This is How you Lose Her by Junot Díaz. It’s about a commitment fearing young man, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic.  Again, set in modern days.
I’m not saying these books aren’t good (or even great,) I can’t because not only haven’t I read them but I hadn’t even heard of any of them (I’ve been busy getting through my backlog; but even then I doubt any of these would have shown up on my radar.)  But there is a bit of sameness to these selections.  There’s so much that can be done with fiction, and it almost seems that EW (just one of several places I’ve seen this problem) intentionally turns a blind eye to other, more “genre” works. Looking at Amazon’s list of titles classified as science fiction & fantasy released in 2012 there seems to be quite a few–and I’m sure many of them are complete crap–but I have a hard time believing that absolutely none of them could have warranted a place on this list.

Nostalgic Gaming

Now THAT’S a gaming rig!
A friend of mine on Facebook recently commented on how he’s using his state-of-the-art computer to play retro PC RPG classic Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (one of those rare titles that looked infinitely better in its NES port.)  That of course got me nostalgia cruising for the copious amount of time I spent playing Ultima VII (parts 1 and 2, titled The Black Gate and Serpent Isle, respectively) back in seventh grade.  That’s one of my favorite games of all time, providing something of an open world experience before that was even a thing.  I remember finding some farm in Britannia and stealing various furnishings from around town to decorate it as my own little hideout in the world.  I gathered a bunch of crates to build a stairway onto the roof for no other reason to see if it was possible (it was!)  The purchase was also an extraordinary coup; it included both parts 1 and 2 of Ultima VII, plus the add-ons of The Forge of Virtue and The Silver Seed (“DLC” in today’s parlance,) and as I recall the package was on sale at Software, Etc.–man that name brings back memories–so I got all that gaming goodness for less than the normal price of a game.  I was prompted to get it because I had read about Ultima IV in Nintendo Power and thought that game sounded interesting, so surely something three games on in the series would have to be all the better.)
So I dug up my old copy of the game from the basement and fondled its wonderful components again.  I guess I could have done a proper unboxing video, but it turns out somebody beat to the punch (although he had to the two separate releases, and didn’t have the add ons.)
The game in its box.  Too bad the cover art only indicates it contains Serpent Isle, but the helpful sticker on the box lets you know what’s what. 
What, were they charging $50 for the games AND add ons?
Of course, you can’t talk about PC gaming prior to the late 90’s without mentioning disks.  And, hoo-boy, did this game pack them in!
Let’s just say that I can take a lot of disk.
Man, installing those must have been a tedious nightmare.  I can’t recall the process specifically, which can only mean that it was traumatic enough that my mind has blocked it from being recalled.
Manuals.  These days, games have eschewed such things, instead relying on tutorials that break logic (you play the super bad ass space marine who, in the first stage, needs to learn how to aim and fire a gun.) But Ultima VII elevated manuals to art.  That black “Fellowship” book there is both the manual for the The Black Gate, but also kind of a prop from the game.  You see, throughout the game you have to contend with a cult called the fellowship, who has their tenets in a simple black book.  This manual not only recreated the text of the book but provided the information you needed to play it.  If that was too long and detailed for you, though, there were also the quick-reference guides which let you know helpful keyboard shortcuts and the like.
When I think Ultima VII, these are the things that most immediately come to mind, two cloth maps approximately 14″ x 14″.  Nintendo games never came with awesome extras like this!  These days, if you want something as awesome as this you need to spring for some overpriced Deluxe Limited Collector’s Edition, the way I did for Dragon Age Origins.  That map was a mere 12.5″ x 9″, and it wasn’t even of the whole game world, just the small corner of the continent you could go to in the game, and since there was no free roaming in Dragon Age Origins, it was completely useless!
Earlier this year I paid for the complete Ultima VII on GOG (and they give Ultima IV for free.)  I haven’t gotten around to installing and playing it (and arguably it was stupid for me to rebuy the game, since I still have the original disks it wouldn’t exactly be illegal for me to just emulate the games myself.)  Once I’ve worked my way through much of my lamentable backlog I’ll replay this classic from my childhood.
If I could just dig up Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant I’d be all set for reliving my PC RPG childhood.  

I Beat Bulletstorm Today

The token hot chick from the game.
Because there’s always one of those!
Actually, Killzone 2 didn’t have one.

Good fun, but there was one thing towards the end that pissed me off to the point that I have no desire to bother with this title now that I’ve beaten it.

!SPOILERS!
Towards the end of the game the protagonists need to make a mad dash into a spaceship that’s about the lift off.  The player is afforded little opportunity for combat at this point, and is given two minutes to haul ass through a level surrounded by enemies toward the ship.  At the last minute, a nearby vehicle explodes, disorienting the player, and leaving them with just 12 seconds (no matter how much time was left before the explosion) to make the final leg of the run and use the leash (this title’s game play gimmick) to yank open the closing ramp onto the craft so the characters can board.  
At least, that’s how the level is supposed to play out. The first time I played the level, I avoided the exploding vehicle by getting stuck on some level geometry and so I missed the dramatic unplayable sequence of the player character recovering from the blast.  As such, I had ample time and so did not need to pull down the closing ramp with my leash; I managed to run up the ramp and into the ship itself.  At that point the game closed out the stage, showed me a screen indicating I’d moved on top the next level, and then deposited me back at the beginning of the same level (the run toward the craft.) 
What fresh hell is that? Because I didn’t do the level in the exact way the developers had storyboarded it I was punished the same way I would’ve been if I’d been killed (even the game itself seemed confused by this, considering it showed me moving on the next level a moment before)?  If it’s considered so important for the game to play out in one and only one way, they may as well have just made the whole level a cinematic and not bothered wasting my time.  I already consider storylines in gaming to be too intrusive, but when developers decide that intuitive, fluid gameplay should take a backseat to their delusions of making a movie, something has gone horribly wrong.
And with that, a bog-standard shooter turned into a shit shooter best left ignored (which audiences rightfully did.)

RACCOONS IN THE FOOTBALL!

During the December 9 NFL game between the Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals (in which the Cowboys won, 20-19) a baby raccoon was found among the crowds and had to be carried out.  Apparently, all the speciests out there think they’re just too good to watch a game with an animal.  When will we stop the hate?