Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday Quotations: Song and Dance

"But back the wedding the band had struck up now, and what a grand noise, for the legendary red-faced fiddler who played all the best weddings had come, and had had a drink, and had got out his fiddle, he was the man to turn curved wood and horsehair, cat-gut and resin into a single blackbird then into a flight of blackbirds signing all the evenings at once, then into a spawn of happy salmon, into the return of the longed-for boat to a port, into the longing that waits in a lucky place for two people who don't yet know each other, the borders cross themselves." --Ali Smith, Girl Meets Boy.

Bibliophyte: The Literary Equivalent of a Magpie.

Once a week, I browse through the new books listing at my university library. I thought I might start noting what catches my eye.

Devil wears nada : Satan exposed / Tripp York.
I appreciate puns.
Bismarck : a life / Jonathan Steinberg
I also appreciate brevity.
Space, time, and crime / Kim Michelle Lersch, Timothy C. Hart.
And rhymes. Gotta love a rhyme.
Michaël Borremans : eating the beard. Michaël Borremans
Points for the interesting subtitle.
Everything is obvious : once you know the answer / Duncan J. Watts.
I've always suspected that this is the case.
Shakesqueer : a queer companion to the complete works of Shakespeare / edited by Madhavi Menon.
And then there's the pun that goes for broke. We.. done, Dr. Menon. Well done.

Later Days.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

It's Time for Buddha Lite.

Remember a week or two ago when RIM pulled the Blackberry network offline? And Apple chose the same time to put out a new version, and it was crashing for some people? Well, as the owner of outdated, outclassed, antique 3G World phone, I looked up the term "schadenfreude" on Wikipedia, so I could properly spell exactly how I was feeling on the Facebook. According to the austere wikipedians, schadenfreude refers to "feeling happiness in the misfortune of others." Which I already knew; I was looking for spelling, not definitions. But what interested me was the related terms list, which was formed basically by taking the schadenfreude definition and cycling through the binary possibilities:

"feeling unhappiness in the misfortune of others" -- empathy.
"feeling happiness in the fortune of others"--envy.

And, most interestingly: "feeling happiness in the fortune of others"--mudita.

If you're not familiar with the last term, don't worry; it wasn't exactly a common occurrence in my daily vocabulary either. It's a Buddhist term, and its more expanded definition is sympathetic joy, taking delight in the well-being of others rather than begrudging them of it. I'm not a Buddhist; there's something about their emphasis on non-being that doesn't mesh with my Western sense of the importance of individuality. And everything I know about Buddhism comes from a second year religious studies course I took nine years ago. (Man, I'm old.) But it seems to me that mudita is a concept worth adopting. So yes, I thought, moved considerably from my initial contemplation of cell phones and smart apps, I will try to cultivate a spirit of mudita.

It is surprisingly hard. According to the research (okay, Google search) I did, mudita is directly contested by jealousy and envy. And it is hard (maybe just for me?) to look at someone else's joy without envy. Even just thinking, "I want that." And if you do share in something similar, it then becomes a sort of self-congratulatory smugness: I'm doing pretty good, too. And that relates directly to another issue: it's not mudita if you are congratulating yourself on helping the person get to that happiness--if you're thinking about your contribution and investment, then you're thinking about how awesome you are, not the other person.

The "non-obvious" opponent of mudita is interesting as well--exhilaration. That is, it resembles the joy of mudita, but it is a joy that you cultivate in order to mask some sort of lack in yourself. So to a recently dumped individual, for example, going to a wedding is risky business. You not only have to evade jealousy and envy, but you also have to keep from throwing yourself into it emotionally to cover up for your own loss.

Again, I can see how the mudita concept relates to some core Buddhist philosophies. There's a level of detachment involved--thinking of others, feeling for others, without drawing your own baggage into things. At the same time, I wonder if that's really possible. We're all individuals, and our experiences are subjective experiences. There's always a filter on what we perceive, and trying to pretend it's not there seems like it could cause greater problems down the road. Dealing with your emotions shouldn't mean suppressing them.

But for the moment: mudita. Even if you don't subscribe to the Buddhist way of thinking, keeping mudita in mind, for me, has really drawn attention to how much jealousy and envy could influence my actions, if I let them. So let's all try to be a little more aware, and cultivate some mudita in our lives.

...Oh, I just know you're cultivating more mudita than me. And I hate you for it.

Later Days.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Amusing Comedy / Horrible Embarrassment Avoided

The latch on the screen door of my jointly-shared rented house was broken. Specifically, it was broken in such a way that were it allowed to shut entirely, it would be impossible to open from the outside. One of my roommates cautioned me about this state of affairs, and told me that since he had to both break into the house and to fix it last time, he was leaving it up to either myself or the third roommate.

"Pssh." I said, exactly like that: "Pssh. We just move the washer on the bottom so it doesn't close entirely. Beyond that, it's not going to affect me at all, so I'm not going to bother worrying about it."

Now, to the universe, them's fighting words, on par with "God himself couldn't sink this ship," and "man, if I lost this memory stick on the way home, I'd be screwed." So today, while I'm heading out the door to go for a run, I suddenly reflect on my roommate's words, and decide to take a quick look at the door. 30 seconds later, I'm standing outside and have successfully locked myself and my roommates out of our house.

At this point, I have very few resources. I'm dressed in bunny hug and gym shorts. I have no wallet, cell phone, or other communication device. I do have my house key (I keep it on a chain around my neck now, after certain badexperiences), but it's not going to do me much good, as there is another door in front of the door it opens. So I do the only thing I'm dressed for: I jog to campus, log onto a university computer, and tell my roommates the problem. By the time I get home, one of them has arrived, and has opened the door with a screwdriver. After I watch him for a few minutes, he says that I could probably just go about my day, since it was a one person job. So I go to the library, read a few pages of Love in the Time of Cholera, and when I come back, the door's fixed.

I know, the story's a bit of a let-down. Previous narratives concerning me being locked out of places have been much more interesting, or at least a lot longer. Necessity may not be the mother of my invention, but it does seem to be the source of my muse. Sure is a shame that I have roommmates and friends that I can count on for help. *finishes his blogpost wrapped in a warm blanket rather than huddling desperately outside on his front porch.* Yeah, that sure is terrible.

Later Days.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Movie Buff: Math Rules Everything Around Me--A Review of Moneyball

Moneyball tells the story of what happens when you put sabermetrics in charge of a baseball team. It stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the Oakland A's general manager, and Jonah Hill as assistant GM Peter Brand. The basic plot of the film is that, faced with the loss of several key players at the start of the 2002 season, Beane embraced sabermetrics to answer the team's pressing deficits--sabermetrics being the analysis of baseball purely through statistical means, with no concern for extrinsic factors that determined a player's worth. It's based on the A's real-life results, which were somewhat mixed: on the one hand, they set a new record with a 20 game winning streak, but on the other hand, they lost out in the first round of the postseason. The movie's story, however, is less about the rise and fall of the team and more about the life of Billy Beane in regards to the sport of baseball.


In terms of acting, the film has a relatively small main cast, with a number of lesser but significant performances. In comparison to most sport films, the players themselves are mostly bit characters. Stephen Bishop does a good job as the aging pro, and Chris Pratt (of Parks and Recreation) plays a more realistic version of his Andy character as a ball player who lost his confidence after suffering some nerve damage to his arm. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Art Howe, the team's manager. As someone resistant to Beane's methods, Howe has the thankless task of serving as the closest thing the film has to a villain, but to the credit of both Hoffman and the script, Howe's viewpoint is offered not so much as a demonized view but misguided one--which is perhaps slightly more patronizing, but you can't have everything. (I'm gathering there was some acrimonious discussions over Howe's characterization at some point--according to the wikipedia article, Art Howe in the film is "a fictional A's manager named after the actual A's manager.") Moving up, the supporting cast role is definitely Jonah Hill as Peter Brand, the economics graduate Beane hires to do the bean counting. Hill plays a much more subdued character than his usual "raunchy comedy" schtick, and it's good to see some range for him. Of course, the star role is Brad Pitt. I spent most of the film trying to decide exactly how I would characterize his performance. I finally decided that he reminded me of a mix between the father on Gossip Girl and George Clooney, which meant that he was more or less exactly like Coach Laundry on the Friday Night Lights TV series. The GM role is usually a money-obsessed villain in a sports movie, so it was nice to see the role take the lead here.

And that's what really struck me about the film--the way it very consciously engages with the genre of the sports film, and breaks away from it. To continue my wikipedia perusal, it seems that the earlier director for Moneyball was Steven Soderbergh, who wanted to frame the film with interviews from the actual players and use other touches that would distinguish it from the typical sports film. Soderbergh was replaced with Bennett Miller, and Aaron Sorkin was called in to rewrite the script, but that sense of "the anti-sport film" is still there. There's barely any focus on the players, the movie doesn't end with the team's triumphant victories, and, in one of my favorite bits, Beane's attempts to delivering rousing speeches in the locker room fall awesomely short: "Nobody likes losing! So... don't lose!" This falls a little short from Al Pacino's "Six Inches" in Any Given Sunday.

And of course, there's the focus on math over players. Though it works for a fantasy league, I imagine it was a tough sell for managing an actual team. It's an even tougher sell for the basis of a movie, as it counters our basic narrative principles--nobody, with the possible exception of mathematicians, really favors looking at numbers over looking at people. Personally, I have virtually no love for baseball, but I do have a bit of a soft spot for sabermetrics. As a former mathematician who once specialized (or at least dabbled heavily) in abstract algebra, I don't really care for math that has a "practical" application. But sabermetrics is different. First, it has the name--even though the name's origin has nothing to do with weaponry, (It actually comes from SABR, The society for American Baseball Research), it still translates into sword-math, which is awesome. And I have a fondness for it because, as Barton notes in Dungeons and Desktops, sabermetrics is a distant predecessor for the stat-based Role playing game, making it an ancestor of the modern video game and Dungeons and Dragons. But I still recognize that to a normal person, math = underdog is a hard sell.

The film manages to make it work through two main methods. First, by appealing to a different cultural zeitgeist--the constant, and perhaps growing, anxiety of the average Westerner that the top 1% perhaps don't deserve to be on top. The argument here is that the top ranked players in the league are overrated--their wages are based less on performance and more on inflated egos. Sabermetrics is a way of evening the field, and brings to the front those players who are technically better, but underrated. Thus, the math of sabermetrics isn't dehumanizing, but a way of recontextualizing value to something more fair. Or to put it a different way: you're not going to lose sympathy arguing against the salaries of the New York Yankees.

The other way the film garners sympathy is by casting sabermetrics in the lens of the Billy Beane's personal struggle. As a former player turned manager, Beane is constantly trying to keep himself emotionally distant from the game he once loved. An early scene of the film shows him, as a younger man, being recruited under the pitch (heh) that you only get one chance to do what you really love. Later, he tells Brand that you can't get emotionally involved with the players, because you might have to fire them. He makes a point out of not going to the games in person, because he finds himself too personally involved. The viewer gets the sense that, out of necessity, Beane has taken to treating his entire life at the same emotional distance, as demonstrated in a scene where he treats his ex-wife and her new husband with polite cordiality. In fact, there's another clear difference with your typical sports film: there's no love interest here. The only major female character is Beane's 12 year old daughter (played very well by the 14 year old Kerris Dorsey). So Beane keeps everyone and everything at arms' length, and sabermetrics is a part of that distance. The film's point, however, punctuated three times by a first baseman's winning hit, a heavyset player's home run, and Beane's daughter's song, is that distant isn't uncaring, and that numbers don't have to be dehumanizing--by giving them space and encouragement, Beane inspires these people to be more than they are.

In a lot of ways, Moneyball reminds me of my other favorite sports film, Fever Pitch. Both address a fan-based approach to the game: Fever Pitch, the obsessed fan compelled to attend every game, and Moneyball the desire to understand and master through numbers. And both are about individuals dealing with their attraction to something they recognize as much bigger than themselves, Fever Pitch by asking how you forge a normal life in the wake of such an obsession, and Moneyball... well, it's about the same thing, really. And that's what I like about both films, that at the bottom, they're not about baseball, but about people, and what they need to do to make it through the day.

Later Days.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday Quotations: Megalomania

The fantasy of disembodiment is that of autogenesis, a megalomaniacal attempt to provide perfect control in a world where things tend to become messy, complicated, or costly; it is a control fantasy. The idea that one could take on a second-order or virtual body and somehow leave one's body behind with no trace or residue, with no effects or repercussions is a luxury only afforded by the male subject." --Elizabeth Grosz.

Conversely, in the essay "Looking for Gender: Gender Roles and Behaviors Among Online Gamers," Consalvo et al argue that according to their findings, it's the casual female player that seeks control and escapism, whereas the hardcore female players accept technology into their lives in a more integrated fashion. (Not that that's exactly what Grosz is talking about, but still.)

Later Days.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Book Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

"It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

"The first part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been horses stabled in the barn they would have stamped and champed and broken it to pieces. if there had been a crowd of guests, even a handful of guests bedded down for the night, their restless breathing and mingled snores would have gently thawed the silence like a warm spring wind. If there had been music... but no, of course there was no music. In fact, if there were none of these things, and so the silence remained.

"Inside the Waystone a man huddled in his deep, sweet-smelling bed. Motionless, waiting for sleep, he laid wide-eyed in the dark. In doing this he added a small, frightened silence to the larger, hollow one. They made an alloy of sorts, a harmony.

"The third silence was not an easy thing to notice. If you listened for an hour, you might begin to feel it in the thick stone walls of the empty taproom and in the flat, grey metal of the sword that hung behind the bar. It was in the dim candlelight that filled an upstairs room with dancing shadows. It was in the mad pattern of crumpled memoir that lay fallen and unforgotten atop the desk. And it was in the hands of the man who sat there, pointedly ignoring the pages he had written and discarded long ago." --Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

I'd like to begin this review by stating that I hate Harry Potter. I don't mean the books, or the movies (though the existence of each makes the other a little redundant), or the multimillion dollar franchise. I quite like the concept of Hoggwarts (though "school of wizards" is hardly a new concept in fantasy lit), and Ron and Hermine are quiet nice. And I'll always be a Luna/Neville shipper, authorial statements be damned.

No, what I hate is Harry Potter, the character. I hate his insufferable, unshakable smugness. I hate the way Dumbledore, particularly, fawned over his quote unquote genius. I hate the way the entire fictional universe seemed to bend over backward to reinforce his importance. I know this reinforcement is largely there to enable the reader to project themselves onto Harry, but mostly, what it mainly did was make me root for Snape.

The reason for this digression will become clear later.

The Name of the Wind is the first book in The Kingiller Chronicle (not the best of names) and the debut novel of Patrick Rothfuss. The plot starts off simply: a man known as the Chronicler tracks down the innkeeper of a small, isolated hamlet. It turns out that the innkeeper is actually Kvothe, a man of near legendary exploits. After some posturing, he agrees to tell the Chronicler his life story, over a three day period. Each book, then, is supposed to represent one day's worth of story telling. This first book covers a lot of ground: Kvothe's early childhood in a traveling circus, a brief period as a city beggar, and, for the most part, his teenage years as a member of university. The framing device is in third person, but most of the book proper is Kvothe telling his story, so it's told in a first person format. I've seen first person/third person switches in fantasy novels before (L. E. Modesitt, Jr.'s The Magic of Recluce comes to mind), but it flows much more organically in this context.

The single main character fantasy story is a bit of an odd beast. In a lot of ways, the genre works better with an ensemble cast, ala Lord of the Rings; even the Harry Potter series places a lot of emphasis on the Rest of the Group. The single hero format places a lot of weight on a main character, and the author has to walk a pretty thin line. If the hero is too down-to-earth or non-heroic, then the reader has trouble accepting them as a the savior of a fantasy world; Stephen R. Donaldson walks this line a lot, and Peter David's Sir Atropos of Nothing explores a similar area. The other route to go is to make your hero some sort of super being, performing one amazing feat after another. The risk with this path is that the author has to not only continually one-up the last amazing feat, but keep the reader interested in the action of this uber-man. Two relevant examples here are the aforementioned Harry Potter (who also tries to play the "ordinary" card, with mixed success) and Geralt of Rivia in the Witcher series. Rothfuss is mostly trying this second tact, starting his character off in a sort of Potter mode of "amazing youth," but, as we see through the framing device, Kvothe will be becoming the Witcher soon enough.

I enjoyed the book, to the point where my complaints feel petty, but that doesn't make them any less valid. First, as you might guess from above, Kvothe's heroic balance isn't always in place. Usually, his valiant actions are appropriately valiant, but sometimes they're so idealized as to be eye-rolling. And the opposite problem is at work too--if you construct a hero that's supposed to be superhuman, then explaining away their stupider actions becomes a little harder. Rothfuss can blame most of Kvothe's errors on youth and tragic circumstances, but some of them get a little wearing. And with all the focus on Kvothe, that means that the other characters are given a bit of a short thrift--but many still shine through, from the mentally scarred magic teacher to Kvothe's own parents to his first tutor in the academic arts.

Speaking of unrealistic narrative actions, though, here's a complaint I never thought I'd be making in a post-Game-of-Thrones fantasy genre: there's not enough sex. Not enough, at least, for the way the character is set up. The book has at least four attractive potential love interests: the beautiful scholar whose life he saves, the scatterbrained wild girl, the sultry older woman who was thrown out of school in disgrace, and the shady girl who will, as we know from the narrative frames, be the love of his life. Because of his masterful ways, at least three of these are clearly interested in him, and he is an extremely handsome, late teens male growing up in a fantasy world, a genre where the age standard for these things is somewhat lowered. And yet the story tells us nothing happened. Either we're supposed to see an untrustworthy narrator (and there's not a lot of evidence to support that), or we're supposed to buy his excuse that he was "inexperienced with women." As a former teenage male myself, I can tell you that for your average teenage male, if a plurality of attractive girls were throwing themselves at you, it wouldn't matter how inexperienced you were--you would learn. You would make a point of the learning.

Ahem. My final problem with the book is the same as can be levied against my review posts--too damn long. There seems to be an issue with fantasy novels, especially recently, where length is equated to quality. If the stories were of the same quality as their shorter brethren, then it would be a simple matter of improved value. But in many cases, they're not. It's why you get things like the 16th book of the Wheel of Time series: forced to add such size to the proceedings, what the authors produce is really a lot of padding. Great swathes, in my humble opinion, could have been exorcised from the latest book in the aforementioned Song of Ice and Fire series. And at over 700 pages, some of The Name of the Wind could have been lost without me shedding a tear. I mean, it's 50 pages into the book before we're even finished setting up the framing device.

And yet. This isn't a book like Infinite Jest where every page must be pored over, the mood constructed laboriously sentence by sentence. While The Name of the Wind aims for, as the quotation above suggests, a literary quality higher than your average fantasy novel (and generally hits it), it is, for the most part, a quick read. There's a lot of dialogue, which flows pretty quickly, and a lot of action, which keeps moving as well. Despite all my complaints, I read it cover to cover in four days. That speaks to a pretty compelling read. So, while the hero balance issue may become greater in future volumes, in here, everything works out pretty well. If you're a fan of the genre (and you're either a quick reader or have a lot of time), it repays you nicely for your effort.

Later Days.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Blood on the Plumber's Hands

I'm poring over old video game instruction manuals for my dissertation research. The why is neither here nor there; at the moment, I'd just like to share my findings on Super Mario Bros. It's pretty typical of Nintendo games of the era; there clearly wasn't a huge amount of effort put into it, and it's questionable whether anyone was ever expected to read it or not. But what I found surprising was the backstory of the game. First, I was surprised that the game had an actual backstory. All right, everyone knows the basic set-up: Lizard monster kidnaps princess, plumber saves her. Repeat, repeat, and repeat, on a dozen different game systems over 30 years. But here, Bowser (or Bowser, King of the Koopa, to give the full title) had a reason to kidnap royalty, beyond the amorous intentions later attributed to him. According to the manual, Bowser is part of a clan of black-magic practitioning turtles, and they've transformed everyone in the Mushroom Kingdom not loyal to them into common everyday objects--bricks, blocks, and the like (you may already see where this is going). And the princess is the only one who can reverse the spell en masse, so Bowser keeps her under lock and key.

The weird part is that whenever Mario finds an invisible block or breaks a bit of wall with his head, he is, according to the instruction manual, freeing a mushroom inhabitant. And when he gets a power up from hitting these blocks, it's a gift the mushroom people gave him in gratitude for their freedom. I guess someone at Nintendo decided that the game needed a diegetic reason for these blocks and power-ups to be there. It still doesn't explain why a flower gives you fire powers, or why collecting coins gives you a shot at avoiding death, but it's trying. (That, or I'm misreading the passage. ...It's very possible I'm misreading the passage.)

Backstory-wise, the really interesting implication, for me, is that it means that the Goombas are really mushroom kingdom inhabitants that accepted Koopa's rules. According to the manual, there's no question in how to deal with these former citizens:

"ONE STOMP AND HE DIES." No mercy for collaborators: that's the harsh, unyielding law of the plumber.

Later Days.

Because if your life's more nuanced than single sentence phrase, however will you tweet it?

A year or two back, I posted the single sentence quotation that sums up my approach to ethics. Here's one that sums up my personal research strategy, and academia in general: "Eventually, you read everything." It's got a nice world-weary naivety to it. Now there's a combination you don't see every day.

Later Days.

Short and Tantalizing

More Spam. What can I say? It amuses me.

From:
Liu Wang
Reply-To: Liu Wang
Subject: partnership:
I am Mr. Liu Wang from Taipei, Taiwan capital. I seek your partnership

What I like about this one is the brevity combined with the ambiguity. One sentence for context, one sentence for purpose. And no articles--this is a man/bot who doesn't have time to waste on such unnecessary frivolities. But at the same time--there's a mystery. What kind of partnership? Business or... something more? Oh, Mr. Liu Wang, your circumspect coyness intrigues me.

Later Days.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday Quotations: Games Never Do the Dishes

"Beth and Lorna, in contrast, have different relationships with the game. It is variety that the game offers, and this does not necessarily equate with progression (indeed, in Lorna's case, it resulted in the cessation of play). The power relation is figured differently, with the game providing variation rather than rewarding them. They not only conceive their own ability differently (despite being competent and frequent gamers), but the relationship they have with the game is much more negotiated. It is the game, arguably, which is figured as the more 'powerful' partner in their relationships. Just when the player decides to cease gaming, the game 'offers' then something more. This is quite a playful relationship, based on the mutual desire of machine and gamer to keep playing. Furthermore, it is the promise of pleasure--pleasure deferred--which keeps them entertained. this is the promise of pleasurable fulfilment before the 'end' of gameplay, and a large part of the pleasure is the expectation of the fulfilment of it. What is also interesting is not only that pleasure has to figure into the relationship, but that the machine has to be rationalized as fulfilling gamers' needs and desires. In some senses, figuring gaming as a relationship normalizes it, to the extent that pleasure becomes non-threatening and contained. These are not the rampant urges of sexually available individuals. Rather, they are figured as normal, social relationships in which desire and pleasure are both simultaneously contained and fulfilled: they are closed, safe relationships of heterosexual couples."
--Ethnographies of the Videogame: Gender, Narrative, and Praxis by Helen Thornham

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Princess Maker 2 LP: So Where's the LP?

Astute readers may notice that the promised long play never materialized. There are several reasons for this, including, but not limited to, Thanksgiving feasts with friends, a bottle of sherry, an attempt to complete Dragon Age in a minimal amount of time but still get the level max achievement, and a viewing of X-Men: Last Stand. Also, I spent the last day at the university grading my students' papers. It's not all fun, folks.

The Princess Maker 2 LP is still going to happen, though. It will merely be somewhat fragmented. Granted, given my track record with long term blog series, I can imagine that this announcement is met with trepidation by those who actually wanted me to complete this. Have faith, folks. Have faith.

For now, I'll explain the premise of the game.

Backstory: The game's prologue defines the player as a hero who slayed an ancient evil, and was handsomely rewarded with a small pension by the local king. Already, then, we have a break from traditional gaming, as this game starts after the happy ending. Anyway, at one point in the hero's blissful retirement, the skies open up, the goddess appears, and down travels a ten year-old girl. The goddess tells you to raise her well till the age of 18, and flies away. Because apparently, in this Japanese port, that's where babies come from.

The actual game is the act of raising this girl (I'm going to name mine Joan, so we'll call her that) for the next eight years. Essentially, you direct her education. The catch is that virtually everything you do either requires money or (more rarely) makes money. So it's a mix between Rousseau's Emile and capitalism. And really, isn't that what education is?

It's a very stat-based game. As per your usual JRPG, Joan's health, magic points, strength, and defense are all given. But so are stats such as her etiquette, diligence, maternal instinct, statecraft, and so forth. The game measures the changes you make to these stats, as well as how you go about changing them (raising strength by doing farmwork is different from raising it by fighting monsters). And based on these factors, Joan chooses a career on her eighteenth birthday. I think the game's title makes it pretty clear which job it's favoring.

The game is very similar to the Sims, in that it's all based around people management and money. But it felt more personable to me, for a number of factors. There's less time spent on spatial designing (no house to build) and less focus on material accumulation. And you have only a single tenant, rather than potentially a whole family to manage. The game also has a clear goal, unlike the Sims, which never ends. You, the player, have a clear avatar rather than an abstract godlike position; I imagine if your Sims addressed you as "daddy," you'd be much less likely to let them wet themselves. (Or maybe more so. I'm not here to judge.) Finally, I felt more invested in the game because I felt like I had less control; Joan's ultimate choice is determined by more factors than I can keep track of, and events I have little control over. In that much, at least, I think the game simulates a key aspect of fatherhood (and yes, it's very clear on being about fatherhood rather than a more gender neutral parenthood): you have an enormous, even intimidating, amount of control over your child's life, but in the end, their choices are their own. And the game accurately depicts how stressful that is.

To demonstrate, I'll conclude this post with a quick summary of my first playthrough. In the opening parts of the game, I spent a lot of time focusing on housework--it was the least stressful job, as failure didn't Joan doesn't get paid, because Joan isn't actually making any money. (It made sense at the time.) Eventually, I switched over to the bakery, and the hair salon, and alternated between them. The latter gave Joan some skill in conversing, which I leveraged into the climbing the social ladder at the castle, from conversing with the gate soldier all the way up to chatting with the King's Mistress. (A position ranking below only the King and Queen.) The baking was our chief means of financial support--with a little practice, Joan was soon winning the yearly cooking contest with ease. I use the funds to support her education, mostly in statecraft and court knowledge. I was, in my mind, building a just and wise princess.

(And I'd like to state here for the record that, yes, I realize how problematic this game is, gender-wise. You're a male authority figure forcing a young girl to conform to your wishes. From princess to attendant at hair salon, stereotypes of femininity aren't so much trotted out as dragged into the center of the room in the form of an elephant. But we'll get to all that later, I promise.)

Then the 18th year rolled around, and Joan informed me that our opinions on what she was being raised for differed greatly. Apparently, all that initial time on housework and cooking had an effect I wasn't expecting. She told me, in short, that she wanted to be a housewife. The game's epilogue tells the rest: she finds a merchant, settles down, raises children. The goddess who bestowed her on me delivers what I can only imagine is the game's assessment of my child-rearing abilities: "She's happy, so that's good. But it does seem a bit of a waste of potential for a destiny-bound, god-created star child."

The most interesting thing wasn't so much the game's response, but mine. I was bitterly disappointed. Why, I couldn't say. I certainly don't have anything but respect for someone who adopts the housewife role. After all, since my avatar did nothing but direct this girl for 8 years, child rearing is clearly a full-time occupation in itself. I think it was the huge gap between what I expected her to be and what she chose to be. It was so far from my image of her that the difference made me a bit resentful. To think of all the money I spent on her statecraft lessons! And all the effort that had been put into her baking skills!

I suddenly had a lot more sympathy for my parents, with a child still in school after ten years of education. And if nothing else, the game succeeds on a level of, as Ian Bogost would call it, procedural rhetoric, in conveying, through simulation, some real event: after being so bitterly thwarted in my attempts to direct the course of my progeny, I felt I had experienced some small part of parenthood.

Next time: I delve deeper into how the game works.

Later Days.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Princess Maker 2 LP: So What is an LP?

I decided to take advantage of the long weekend by doing something I've wanted to do for a long time: A Let's Play of Princess Maker 2 (whether I'll finish it this weekend is another matter. I have a feeling these take a while). An LP is essentially a written (often with visual aids; occasionally video rather than written) account of a videogame playthrough. If you're interested in some examples, I point you towards the LP Archive website. I'm not going to secondguess people's motives for creating the LPs, but I imagine it has to do with the nature of videogames. In general, playing a game is a rather ephemeral condition. You have a piece of software whose programming is generally set in stone, but your own playthrough of it is both unique and temporary. The LP allows players to share that experience. There's also an element of what Mia Consalvo calls "game capital"--a humorous, engaging description of a game playthrough nets its creator some prestige within (certain) videogame communities. In my case, they're useful for analysis, as they provide a text that basically documents player experience. They're often a bizarre combination of role-playing and game explanation, as the player jumps back and forth between documenting their role as the character and their role as player. I'm doing an LP myself to get a sense of what they're like to compose.

They're also known as player diaries, and after-action reports. If you're interested in reading/watching up on some good ones, I recommend the group-authored LP of Dwarf Fortress, Boatmurdered, game journalist Tom Francis' LP of Galactic Civilizations 2 (which I've mentioned before), and in the off-chance that you still want more after that, there's a list of choice LPs at TVTropes.org.

So that's the LP. Next up: What's Princess Maker 2?

Later Days.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday Quotations: Let's Get Things Started

"I was going to get the ball rolling with something self-referential, some sort of long and winding narrative about how this is my first time doing a blog, how I'm not sure exactly what I want to do with it, etc. But there'll be plenty of time for that sort of thing." --Person of Consequence, September 17th, 2008

Later days.

500: So Many Posts, So Many Spelling Errors

We have a milestone here, folks: I've reached my 500th post. To celebrate, I added some new features. First, you'll notice the addition of the media tab at the bottom of each posts. I added this mostly for the +1 like feature; I figure that if no one feels comfortable in commenting, they might at least feel comfortable in anonymously indicating they liked a particular piece. And at least that way, I know someone is responding. So please use that.

You'll also notice that there is a new "tag" sidebar. The idea for this 500th post was that I'd amass a top 10 list of my favorite posts, in the process of sorting these tags a bit. It was interesting to see what tags bubbled to the top after I started organizing them. "Friday Quotations" and "book reviews" were easy guesses, but "personal," "theory," and "Comic book Wednesdays" were a bit of a surprise. But after a few days of tag sorting, I've decided that this is an ongoing project, not something I'd finish for this post--if nothing else, I had to stop in order to get the post done before the Friday Quotations was due. Oh, the arbitrarily set burdens of the hobbyist blogger!

In no particular order, then, here are 10 blog posts that I came across while sorting that I feel best represent me over the past 500 Posts:

- Yeah, So This Is A Thing Now. The very first Friday Quotation. A legacy begins.

- How to Change a Bike Tire. The culmination of many, many posts on the horrible times I had with my old bike. If there's a lesson here, it's that having broken things doesn't mean you're a broken person.

- They're Not Clouds, But They Are Fluffy and Soft. A piece on family and food. When I think of the traditions I'd want to pass down to my children, this is what I think of.

- WORDS WHAT BOTHERS ME. I think the title's pretty self-explanatory. And pretty bad grammatically. I'm glad I got that "fair enough" thing off my chest--I've been composing that rant for years.

- Spoileriffic Movie Review: Bedazzled. Because frankly, Petter Sellars deserves more attention. "Be careful what you wish for" really is a repeated trope in Western culture. Something in our cultural composition really hates the notion of a shortcut.

- A Punisher Retrospective. An in-depth examination of the Punisher as a character, and particularly Ennis' run. I'm proud of this piece. It still gets a large number of views, though that may be more for the pictures than the content. Someday, I'll write another respective on Hellblazer's John Constantine.

- Dual Book Review A dual book review of Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey and Ethel Wilson's The Equations of Love. I love the sheer audacity of the dual book review--it takes what's already my longest type of post, then nearly doubles it by looking at two books instead of one. I like the idea of contrasting themes, but this particular mash-up is insane. I like the final thought, though.

-Light Snow. A reflective piece on snow and the city at night. This essay reminds me of the early days, right around when I was switching from a course blog to a personal blog, and wasn't sure what that meant to me yet. I'm trying a little hard here, but I think that makes it endearing.

Shadow of the Bat, or, the Story of the Unsensible Purchase
. In which I detail the ridiculous lengths I went to in order to get Arkham Asylum. It wouldn't be a proper blog list if it didn't have something on both video games and my "adventures."

Welcome to The Daily---: A Story of Delayed Gratification. A discussion about the format of the Daily Show, inspired by watching it on a jerky live-stream during a work-out session. I think this post nicely encompasses my pop culture side and my analytic side.

And that's ten. Thanks for reading, folks. Here's to another 500.

Later Days.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Montreal Conference Part II: The Schmooze

Travel problems aside, the Montreal conference was great. The focus was on games and storytelling. To be honest, it's not the approach I would have taken, mostly because it's an approach that seems to be taken so often. But what marked this conference was the way it went about the discussion. Essentially, each panel focused one on four games: Assassin's Creed, The Graveyard, Mass Effect II, and Amnesia: The Descent, with David Cage as a keynote speaker to talk about Heavy Rain. Each panel had two academics, but also someone from the game industry who worked on the game's story. That meant we had writers from Assassin's Creed and Mass Effect II, Thomas Grip from Frictional Games, and Auriea Harvey and Michaƫl Samyn from Tale of Tales. And registration was open, for the first 250 people who registered, which meant a lot of those in attendance were from the fan side of things. In other words, we had an extremely diverse group of people talking together. That kind of opportunity is valuable, I think.

In terms of the papers, they were all reasonably good. The fan-oriented questions were a little eye-rolling, especially since many of them asked questions that weren't strictly relevant to the proceedings or basically repeated what someone else already said (ex, Assassin's Creed: How do you balance the Desmond story sequences? followed by Why is Desmond so bland?), and I think even David Cage was a little embarrassed by the number of questions that started "thank you for making this game." But the scholarly discussion was top notch. Certain moments were a little embarrassing for me, personally, on account of my mono-linguist skills; some presentations were in French and the translator occasionally gave up entirely, which left me a little in the dark. I suppose my favorite papers were the ones on spatial exploration in Assassin's Creed, and the visceral elements of horror in Amnesia.

What I really got out of the conference, though, was a chance to meet and talk to some of the big scholars in the field. Admittedly, I'm not the most outgoing person at a conference; it takes some time for me to get comfortable with everyone. But this time around, I met a few people, and made some connections--largely thanks to my supervisor's prodding, I'll admit. To break into self-indulgent bragging, I personally met Bart Simon (director of TAG), Brian Greenspan (director of the Carleton Hyperlab), Nick Montfort ("Twisty Little Passages," "Chasing the Beam"), Mia Consalvo (whom I've discussed previously here), and Bernard Perron ("Horror video games: essays on the fusion of fear and play.") I particularly fear I came off as a babbling idiot to Consalvo, considering that my self-introduction included the phrase "I'm probably going to sound like a babbling idiot." As far as my list of "Gaming Scholars I Must Meet," after I saw Bogost at the 2009 SLSA, the big names left now are Mark J. P. Wolfe and Jesper Juul.

But more than just establishing basic connections (and I'm not going to fool myself into thinking I really developed anything beyond that), the sessions, especially those on the second day, granted some opportunities to really get deep into some game talk with people who know what they're talking about. A chance to talk about Dead Rising with Bernard Perron, who is generally regarded as THE expert on horror video games, for example, was an incredibly useful opportunity for me. And the indie developers, from Frictional Games and Tale of Tales, were extremely forthcoming in their views on what stories in games can and should be.

So to sum up the entire less-than-48-hours actually in Montreal trip: traveling sucks. But meeting people and ideas is worth it.

I would like to point out that this is the first time in ages I've actually finished one of these "trip series." Doing them all at once seems to help.

Next post: something special to celebrate a momentous occasion.

Later Days.

Montreal Conference Part I: Never Leave Home Without It. Or just never leave home.

After some internal debate, I've decided to break the post into two parts. One concerning the travel, one concerning the conference. This is the travel one.

Remember when I said that hate traveling and get really paranoid about things going wrong? Well, it's not so much paranoia anymore when everything really does go wrong. The first big hurdle was my own fault. Due to the incredible levels of paranoia aforementioned, I got to the bus stop for the first leg of my trip three hours early. So I went to the coffee shop for a quick meal and a bit of reading time. A friend came in, and joined me. He asked what I was reading, and I replied that it was a book by Nick Montfort (Twisty Little Passages), and that he was one of the speakers at the conference. I went to pull out the program, when I realized that I didn't have it. Or my tickets. Or my paper. Or my map. Instead of any of that useful stuff, I had accidentally grabbed the wrong pile of papers from my office--I was going to the conference armed only with my professor's notes on my dissertation proposal. It has its own uses, but those tended not to apply to my current situation.

I quickly recounted my situation to my colleague, and he offered to drive me back to campus to retrieve my lost papers. (Imagine that scene with him being a lot more saint-like, and me being a lot more "crazy-panicked.") At the time, I couldn't remember whether my papers where in my office or at home, so he drove me to the office, with a promise to wait outside to see if he'd be needed to drive me home instead. I got to my office, and realized that I didn't actually have my keys with me, save my house key. Deciding that the beatified friend had done enough for my well-being, I lie through my teeth and tell him I have my papers. He drives away, and I take off running to the English department to beg the administrative assistant for the spare key. It's 4:30 on a Friday, so I catch her just as she's leaving. But catch her I do, and so I finally get back into my office and retrieve my missing papers. Then I catch a town bus back to the Greyhound bus terminal, and spend the next hour in the rain waiting for the bus. Fun.

I went over this in such great detail because it all hinged on so many different factors, any one of which could have spelled doom or averted everything. If only I had double-checked the papers, nothing would have happened. Counterwise, if that friend hadn't come in and asked about the book, I never would have noticed the papers missing. If he hadn't had a car, I would have been up the creak. If I had brought my keys, I wouldn't have had to rely on the slim chance that the administrator hadn't left yet. It's all a complex web of coincidences and random events. Remember when I said I practically live in a sitcom? This is why I say things like that.

I considered myself seven kinds of idiot for not backing up everything I needed. My friend took a more sympathetic view, pointing out that this sort of emergency was just the reason that I had shown up three hours early. History will tell who is right.

And my travel woes don't end there! My bus had connections at Toronto and Ottawa on the way to Montreal. About twenty minutes from the Ottawa terminal, the bus's transmission blows. The driver, not wanting to admit defeat, crawls at 10 k on the highway for a kilometer or two, before a passenger points out that he's endangering our lives. So he pulls over, and I have to split a cab with a guy who knew exactly where the bus terminal was (lucky) and a teenager who admitted upfront that he'd been drinking from a flask the last six hours, and he's really ready to party, man. (Less lucky). I get to the terminal just as the next bus is pulling out, and rush onto the bus. So it ended well enough, I guess, but it wasn't exactly a fun thing to add to a 9 hour bus trip.

And then I got to Montreal, at 4:30 am. I had 4 hours till the conference actually started. Not enough time to warrant getting a hotel room, too much time to do anything useful. All I had to do was get to the conference. And once again, I had reason to be grateful for extra, redundant time built into my schedule.

This is a map of the route from the Greyhound Terminal to the conference:

View Larger Map
It's a straight line. All I have to do is head south. So of course, I head north. Let this be a tip for would-be tourists: north of 505 Boulevard de Maisonneuve is not the most scenic area of Montreal. I stepped over two different hobos sleeping on the sidewalk, and walked very quickly by what looked like a pack of wild dogs. After I passed the third "massage parlor," I decided that discretion was the better part of getting the hell out of there, and fled south. Conference located almost immediately after.

Then, finally, going home, my train is delayed an hour because the signal relay had suffered water damage. At one point, we were slowly going backwards for about five straight minutes. They did a good job making up for lost time, but I'm still 20 minutes late for my connection. Luckily for me, the decision was made to hold my connection back until my train got there. (It is somewhat less lucky for anyone who was traveling from Toronto to Kitchener straight last night.) So one train trip/taxi ride later, I was home at 12 am.

Incidentally, the one part of my transportation that seemed to go smoothly was the cab transits. The cabbies were well-tipped for that distinction.

Moral of this story: I don't know. Plan ahead? Except I did plan ahead, which was why I was three hours early. So... plan ahead in different, better ways. Not that that helps with public transportation breakdowns. So I guess the moral is to take things in stride. I just wish it stopped feeling like I need to take things in sprint.

Later Days.