Friday, June 30, 2006

Moment of the Week

So this week is shaping up really nicely, with the massive Canada Day breakfast/Parti on Saturday, but now for the


So, on my ultimate frisbee game on Wednesday, I was chasing down a frisbee with a defenceman tight on my heels. As the frisbee passed my and I turned around to catch up with it I found myself tripping over my own feet (I swear this doesn't happen often) Suddenly, I was on all fours. The frisbee would be landing four metres away, and it would take too long to get up to run and catch it. So, I crawled enthusiastically.

Unfortunately, the only thing I got was some cheering from my loving team. Crawling is generally not a good way to catch frisbees.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Hit Me....BAM!

New meme announced:

So, for those who have seen Dave Chappelle's Block Party, you'll remember the scene where Dave Chapelle is rehearsing, with Mos Def in the background on the drum set. (For those who haven't seen this, see it!) Dave Chappelle would be going through a routine, and all of a sudden yell..HIT ME! and all the instruments would give him a nice orch hit (BAM!) He went on with some stand-up style about how awesome this would be to do have in real life.

Well now you can! At improv a few hours ago, we decided (Jim's idea first) to form a HIT ME posse. Whenever one of the posse says HIT ME! anyone else around who knows has to reply with a loud BAM (not exactly like "bam", but sounds like a hornish full orchestra hit). Variations are HIT ME TWICE! (BAM BAM)

I hope people pick up how awesome this is, and it spreads like wildfire. In the school year, I should be able to go into bars, say HIT ME to absolute strangers, and get a nice satisfying BAM back. That would be Dave Chappelle's dream.


Sunday, June 18, 2006

Cottage Weekend

This is a picture of the bros (Skyler, 11, Wyatt, 15) and Dad (50). I'm 21. This is from the awesome past weekend at our cottage in Muskoka, here.
I haven't been there in over a year. I talk to my dad really regularily, but I realized I've become really detached from my brothers. They were such a big part of my life growing up and now they've sort of dissapeared off the map now that I'm off being an adult and such.

No matter what age you're at, everyone below you will always seem immature. Skyler is in grade seven. I remember having to hide my raging pre-pubescent boner under desks at that age. I look at him, and can't imagine that he is going through that. Wyatt has out-heighted and out-beefed me. We had a few testosteronal challenges over the weekend. The role reversal is pretty scary for an older brother like me, who has always had the upper hand. At least I can superficially take comfort in being cooler and having had more sex than him (for the moment).

I'm all sunburned and chafed from tubing over the weekend, and its 30 degrees C in my room right now. It sounds like an awesome summer.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Weird-Ass Summer

I was pessimistic about this summer being awesome. Yet somehow, its starting to defy all the expectations of the 9-5 job, single-small-town way.

Two big things:
- I've discovered gymnastics.
- I'm going to live in Toronto for two weeks at the end (I know defies the conditions at the beginning)

I feel much fitter/less shitty than last summer, in general. Awesome.

Back to work.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Chapter Confusion (spontaneous rant)

Heres another thing about video games.

I'm currently in the midst of playing a few, I find its good to keep a few going at the same time for interest. They are: Dreamfall: Longest Journey and Opposing, and some others.

Anyway, I'm also reading a bunch of books. I'm reading Foucalt's Pendulum specifically, the thickest, most pretentious and hardest to chew thing around. Fortunately, its chaptered into small morsels when you digest it - usually 3 or 4 pages at a time.

And here's the rub.

Despite all the dreams and desires of a creative person, whether their medium is books, video games, or films, has to keep in mind the mechanics of how the user will consume their media. I remember a story about how a record executive in the sixties would demand that the songs his label made would sound good in crappy cars radios before he would let them be published.

Anyway, with the average book or video game (films excluded) the "play time" is more than a single sitting. So, the "delivery" of content has to be streamed into manageable chunks, chapters if you will. With books this is easy - you see a chapter end coming, you stop, put down the book and go make dinner. But video games, in their "immersiveness", tend to plow through, disregarding the gamer. So, if you ever make a save to go somewhere else, you've already seen the next few seconds/minutes of the next chapter, which ruins the whole cliffhanger mechanics of a good plot. A good contrast to this is video games which have a special loading screen between each level, but this is stupid as is completely destroys the immersivess.

The ideal case:

Excitement comes to a close after the portion of the game, and its somehow made very clear that the chapter is about to end and another will start. This don't need to be a "click here" or anything, but entering an elevator, answering a phone call, slapping your noodely appendages together, etc.

Otherwise, you (well, I at least) feel rushed through the game experience) as chapters keep ending and starting before you get to think about them.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Half-Life 2: Episode 2 Review

Holy crap. I just finished HL2:E1 a few seconds ago, and I'm going to say it was fantastic. I took tons of screenshots, and I'm going to play this again, of course, with the Valve commentary, but, for now, here's the review. I'm going to be incredibly critical because there's really no other way to do it.

Opening screenshot

Valve has certainly reached the pinnacle (for now) of combining a video game experience with art. The attention to detail seen throughout the entire game is exquisite, and leaves me feeling I can play it again and discover more, without missing anything vital the first time. The experience is cinematic, in that not only is every screenshot appreciable as a single frame in terms of beauty and quality but also in terms of modelling and architecture, but the decor of the environments is amazing. The game took me 4 hours, all of which were today, and I'd say this is an excellent length for episodic content. It means one can stop and reflect at a suitable breakpoint. Compared to Sin:Episodes, which was released a few weeks ago, this was shorter and did not drag on. Comparing this installation to the original Half-Life 2, I noticed a few things: first, the colour tones throughout this game are darker, redder, more apocalyptic. Second, the near-constant presence of Alyx changed alot of things, especially the puzzles. Thirdly, unlike the original HL2, there was almost never a slow point. More on all these as we go on...

The game starts out with Vortigons overwhelming G-man as he comes to talk to you (Gordon) in the black void. This is an interesting break in the overwhelming omnipotence of G-man, and is quite a surprising turn. Gordon and Alyx appear somewhere on the ground level next to the Citadel, and receive some messages on a nearby terminal from Dr. Kleiner.

Dog also makes a reappearance. This is the first level of the game, Undue Alarm, and as with any Valve game, its easy technically, very expository, and very cinematic.

It's in this first section that I really noticed the darker tones. I bet if you took a spectral colour graph the shape would be unsimiliar to any seen in Half-Life 2, except maybe in Ravenholm (the best level of all time). On Dr. Kliener's advice, we're heading right back into the Citadel again to shut down the reactor core, which apparently is about to REALLY blow this time (the explosion at the end of HL2 was just a trigger).
Alot of the advertisments for this installation were showing off Alyx and Dog, and it looks like they meant business. I'm amazed at the attention to detail they've put into their expressiveness (although with Dog, its obviously easier). This really shows up more later in the combat sequences, which are so well choreographed its almost distracting. For now though, I applaud the animators, and whoever they were looking at when animating Alyx.

So Gordon and Alyx go down a little cliff area to get closer to the Citadel, and then, through some interesting and comic pantomime, Dog suggests they get in an old van, so that he can hurl them at a open area in the side of the Citadel across the expanse between the edge of the ground and its base.

This is well done cinematically, and suddenly turns into a roller-coaster ride when the Citadel's structure (which is breaking apart at this point) gives. After getting our bearings, we come across two creatures, who Alyx inexplicably call "Stalkers". You'd think she would explain this to Gordon, but based on clues given later, they appear to be Borg-esque humans who were taken in by the combine.
After a few more rooms, we come across a recorded message that we heard Dr. Breen leaving at the end of HL2. This is useful to remind us of the story, and I appreciate that it is there.

Its then that this odd creature appears, covered in some sort of white cocoon. These appear again at the end of the episode, without us determing what they are. Alyx doesn't even seem to know, in fact. Looks like Valve is happy to leave some loose ends for us to give us reason to keep the episodes coming (and what is wrong with that?). At some point here, the gravity gun (which was found near Gordon at the beginning of the game) is re-activated to its blue-energy levels, so I feel like we're right at the end of HL2 again. Through some analysis of Alyx's, its determined that we need to go re-establish the reactor's safety in order to give enough time for us to evacuate, as well as the Citizens of City 17. Thus begins Direct Intervention. So begins a puzzle sequence, at the onset of which Alyx says "Good thing you know what you're doing" in reference to Gordon Freeman's MIT training.

So, here's my beef with and Half-Life "puzzle". The puzzles are obvious, in that they interrupt the shooting gameplay and demand to be solved. There is nothing wrong with that, except that I find them painfully easy. Sometimes, in good Valve tradition, jokes are made about it, just like Alyx's comment above, but if you are going to interrupt gameplay, you had better do it for a good reason, or at least have a bit of a cerebral challenge. Alot of it feels like going through the motions, which is, frankly, bad design.

The particular "puzzle" on the left here is a good example. Aesthetically pleasingly, you are maneuvered like a dummy to find these three vertical generators empty of their generators balls (before screenshot). Look! - a generator ball tube nearby (these were actually pretty fun to navigate earlier). Lets fill these up! The way the game is designed, it won't let you leave the immediate area until you do something about these. Come on.
You return to Alyx to find that blowing up the Citadel was in some way related to transmitting an important information packet (worth blowing up the Citadel apparently), and the new goal is to get this information to Eli Vance and Dr. Kliener.

A second late, we see recorded message from Judith (from HL 2) to Dr. Breen about something that the combine weren't supposed to know about. This isn't dealt with in this episode, leaving yet another thing for later episodes. Awesome.

And, as we are leaving the Citadel on an elevator, the current chapter becomes Low Life. We board a train, the first of two train sequences in the game. This one, horribly enough, is full of more stalkers. The train breaks down deep underneath the city, and thus begins an incredibly dark portion of the game. Like, actually dark physically. It almost seems that the light has become a little thinner than in HL2. Its also cool that Alyx will only shoot at stuff that you light up. I noticed at this point that Gordon has still not recieved his traditional crowbar yet - it seems its been replaced as the do-all by the grav gun. Hmmm. Some humour starts to be injected to the game at this point. As we walk towards the first dark area, Alyx starts mimicing zombie noises, and then says "just kidding". This actually made me laugh out loud. Well done. She also makes fun of the short flashlight battery life, thankfully extended by some flares lying around. We meet a new enemy at this point, this combine zombie, or "zombine" as Alyx calls it. These run a little faster than the traditional zombie, and some of them will carry grenades around above their head, so that when they die and relese the mechanism, they explode shortly. This was an interesting gameplay element for Valve to add.
We finally come across an elevator, and this is the really scary part. Its pitch black, there are zombies/zombines/running zombie-things (are these dogs with head crabs?) coming from three sides, and your battery has only some life. Also, some zombines will explode when killed. I died a ton of times here, until I found that holing myself and Alyx up in a corner fared better as I was able to predict which direction the attacks would come from.
Finally, the elevator comes and we break to the surface. It appears that Dr. Kliener has replaced Dr. Breen as the man-on-the-screen, touting all sorts of messages. This is awesome, especially because of his scientist awkwardness throughout his looped speech.
Thus begins Urban Flight. This sort of combat is reminiscent of the latter end of HL2, and nothing much has changed (though there is little wrong with that!) We notice a change in the Citadel, and it appears that the reactor has been reversed, although we have bought some time to leave City 17.
Its at this point that I'm starting to notice a difference in the "puzzles" between this game and HL2. They feel dumbed down - in fact, the whole game does. I mean, I'm all for fun, but I feel cheated by easiness, or at least the lack of difficulty. As I said, if you're going to give me a puzzle, at least give me a hard one. In alot of cases, you learn by death in this game. Then, you go back and try again, dying each time until you get it right. A game should be designed so that, barring skill, you should be able to play it through once without dying. Alyx seems to be a device as well to blatently alert you about problems - "The crank for this door must be around here somewhere." Maybe this makes the game more accessible, or whatever, but you should really challenge your audience.
In this particular "puzzle" where I had to navigate a room full of explosive, I simply threw a grenade down the ventilation shaft when I knew they were going to be there, thanks to the learn from dying technique. That shouldnt be possible. Fortunately, this sequence is over quickly enough, and we enter a "safehouse" with some other rebels. A TV is on, Dr. Kliener again replacing Dr. Breen in hilarious fashion. Dr. Kliener breaks the fourth wall repeatedly, by mentioning "exposition" just before he goes on a long rant about the state of City 17. He also alludes to the human population needing to expand itself, and there is some excellent tension thanks to Alyx.

As we're wandering through the safehouse, Gordon manages to voyeuristically spot a couple conversing, and although they dont grab much attention, they go on for quite awhile, including such wonderful snippit as
"sometimes I think everybody's a doctor but me"
"I kind of miss the combine"

Finally, we see Barney again, who gives us our missing crowbar. (Wow, I'm really mixing up the personal pronouns, eh?). There's some cool propoganda on the walls again. The next sequence is the most exciting sequence of the game, gameplay-wise, as we go through a hospital fighing zombies versus combine versus zombine, as the music heightens greatly. As a result, I didn't take many screenshorts, but lets just say it was pretty good. Finally, we arrive at the train station, just before the end of the level. Here, a pretty interesting gameplay style is introduced that I havent seen before you are tasked with rescuing a few citizens by accompanying them between two building across a dangerous area, and go back and forth several times. However each time the route and strategy is changed slightly as new enemies appear in different places, and due to wear and tear the route actually changes geographically. My issue was that there didn't appear to be any payoff for moving a certain number of citizens to the train, as some of them could die in the movement. For all I know, maybe you need to move a certain number before they "run out" at the delivery end, but I, as the gamer, can't tell that unless it was made obvious to me. There is some more anti-Dr. Breen propoganda here.

Alyx says goodbye to Barney as he leaves on the train with the Citizens

Finally, Alyx and Gordon board their own train (after some last-minute altercations) and we get to watch the Citadel as...a bunch of stuff happens that could only be descibed in pictures:

The game ends in a flash of white, after the Citadel explodes with Gordon and Alyx on the train. This was exactly the ideal length for an episode. While certainly feeling less EPIC that HL2 did, especially near the end with level names like "AntiCitizen One", it leaves alot for the remaining episodes in terms of plot and anticipation. New gameplay elements were added too, which is great for episodic gaming, as there is likely less time for playtesting to hone certain aspects of gameplay.
Verdict: Awesome. I look forward to more episodes.

Saving My Face

So, before reading this post, read about Second Life to get an idea of what I'm talking about.

For a long time, I've been trying to get my avatar (below) to match my face. You can go two ways in SL - be fantastical or be yourself. I'm currently lazy, so I opted for the second. The avatar below is the closest I could get to myself with the usual SL sliders.

A week or so ago, I got an awesome idea: put an actual picture of myself on myself. Here's the steps

1) Put a box on your head.
2) Set the entire box texture to transparent
3) Drag an appropriate picture of yourself on the front of the box
4) Adjust


I'm happy that it actually matches the clothes I'm wearing. The picture is very high resolution, so it takes a while to load.

I've been getting a ton of questions about it lately, and actually showed someone how to do it in the SL Explorer's Sandbox last night, so I making a post to make sure I can take credit for it, before it spreads like a wildfire throughout SL.