Friday, July 30, 2010

Searching For the Beast Within

Our summer vacation officially kicks off today. We had been planning a much advertised 2010 trip to Greece, but for some reason we decided that we'd do something else this year. Instead, we've been busy putting together a whirlwind tour of three central European cities: Prague, Vienna, and Munich. Prague is Meaghan's pick. She taught English (the language, not the high school subject) there for a few months ten years ago and has been wanting to go back and show me the sights ever since I met her. Vienna is our collective pick. Filled with museums, parks, and music galore, it looks to be our kind of place. It also happens to be geographically convenient to the other two cities, which brings us to Munich.

This choice is unabashedly mine, and like most things it seems is inspired by a video game. In this case, the classic adventure game from 1995, Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within. Based in Munich, the game details our hero's investigation into a series of grisly werewolf murders. No, I'm not expecting to find any shape-shifters myself, but like all of the Gabriel Knight games GK2 is set in a real-world location that is portrayed with painstaking detail. As a result, ever since I first played this game back in high school, places like the Marienplatz and Neuschwanstein have been rattling around in my brain waiting for the right time to get out.

On the games front, whilst digging up info for this post I discovered that Jane Jensen (the creator of the Gabriel Knight trilogy) is finally coming out with a new adventure game, "Gray Matter", for Xbox 360 and PC later this year. It might just have to be the first new computer game that I buy in a long time. For those not familiar with the GK games, I highly recommed you give them a try. They rank amongst my favorites of all time and can be downloaded for the low, low price of $6 each from Good Old Games.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Theft is Annoying

Having your wallet stolen is no fun. It's even less fun when you're planning on leaving the country for vacation in a week. There are credit cards, driver's licenses, and insurance cards to replace. In this high-tech digital world, there are automatic payments to head off and change the source of. Heck, there are even automatically reloading coffee shop gift cards that need to be halted and replaced.

Whoever decided to break into my locker (and at least two other members') at the gym Friday night while I was swimming laps in the pool, I hope you enjoyed the $8 or so that was burning a hole in my wallet as well as the pile of cancelled credit cards you inherited. As for me, I guess I learned the life lesson (which was reinforced by the responding officer's 'blame the victim' spiel) that you're apparently not supposed to take anything at all into one of those places as nothing is sacred or safe. According to posted signs, you're also not supposed to leave anything in your car either so I'm not entirely sure where that leaves me.

I've also learned that the club "is not liable or responsible for any lost, stolen, or damaged personal property, whether from lockers, vehicles or other locations on the premises." That doesn't really surprise me, but it does make me question what exactly the point of the lockers is. Since I'm not really a complainer (other than this missive to the void), we'll see if they decide they want to do anything for me. It's been three days now and I'm still waiting for that call from the general manager they said I'd be getting. If there's another chapter to this saga, good or bad, I'll let you know.

Monday, July 26, 2010


Dom Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio) is the leader of a crack team of thieves. Using the latest military-grade technology they can extract your deepest, darkest secrets directly from your mind. How? Abduction, sedation, and infiltration of your dreams. When a job goes awry, to save their bacon Cobb's team is forced to accept the impossible job. Instead of extracting secrets from someone's subconscious, they have to perform inception, the act of implanting an idea in someone's mind. The difficulty being that the target has to believe that it was their own idea.

That's a general summary of the plot of "Inception", but to say that's all the movie is about would be a gross understatement. Equal parts heist movie, Bond homage, and philosophical dissertation, it is the latest masterwork from the mind of Christopher Nolan ("Memento", "The Prestige", "The Dark Knight"). One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the well-thought out set of rules that explains how dreams are structured and function. I'm not going to list them all here, but in short, there can be multiple nested layers of dreams and it's easy for the dreamer to lose sight of where or what reality is. In order to leave the dream, one must either receive a "kick", the sensation of falling that I'm sure everyone of you has felt that snaps you out of your sleep, or be killed. Your dream can be populated by anyone you want, but unless it's someone that has joined you in a shared dream, they're really just aspects of your own subconscious.

Cobb's dreams are constantly troubled by the presence of his wife (Marion Cotillard - "La vie en rose", "Nine"). It's not really her, as something has happened in reality that keeps her from being part of Cobb's life, but rather an aspect that Cobb inadvertantly brings with him into the dreams. Never nice, she does everything she can to foil the task at hand. What has really happened between her and Cobb is one of the questions left for the viewer to decipher the answer to.

At its core, "Inception" explores some of the most basic philosophical questions about the nature of perception and reality. At times it's difficult to tell if what we're watching is "reality" or one of Cobb's (or his team's) dreams. In the end, it doesn't really matter as we're left to think about our own lives and how the baggage we carry around colors our own experience.

You can even extend the model the movie presents to questions beyond its immediate scope. If you're killed in a dream, you escape back to reality. What happens when we die in reality? Is there some higher order of reality that we escape to? Is this what we perceive as the afterlife? Any movie that can continue to percolate in the viewer's mind weeks after they've seen it is good in my book. I highly recommend that you check it out.

Note: If you see this, please do so with curbed expectations and you'll probably enjoy it more. There's a lot of hype surrounding this movie, so much so that it's currently ranked #3 all time on IMDB. It's definitely good, but it's certainly not that good.

Friday, July 23, 2010

From the Long Box: Shadow of the Batman #1, Part 3

Note: Click on any of the images to make them larger.

Shadow of the Batman #1
(reprinted from Detective Comics #470)
Writer: Steve Englehart
Art: Walt Simonson & Al Milgrom

Will we finally figure it out? It's...

"The Master Plan of Dr. Phosphorus"

Behind the times? Refresh your memory. Last we read, the maniacal villain Dr. Phosphorus was using his glowing malevolence to coerce the Gotham City Council into "removing the Batman". Let's see if he was successful.

One of the redeeming qualities about Batman over the years is how much he cares about Gotham City. It may not be any of the things that R. Kelly sang about, but it's his home and he's going to take care of it the only way he knows how. Crime is his only enemy. Large or small, it doesn't matter. Sometimes that means he's stopping a terrorist attack that threatens to give everyone "smoking stool syndrome", but it can also mean that he's just handing a common thief over to the police.

As we pick the story up, the target of Batman's endless pursuit of justice this night is one Smiley Royal. Beyond having a ridiculous name, it's difficult to tell what exactly poor Smiley's crime is. When we first meet him, he's trying to get into... Well, I'm not sure what it is, but he's using an exacto knife to do it so it can't possibly be legal.

No sooner has Batman turned this nefarious criminal over to the authorities than he is served with a subpoena to appear before the Gotham Grand Jury.

For those of you who haven't been exposed to as much Law and Order as I have, a grand jury is a body that determines whether there is enough evidence for a trial. Given his line of work, it's entirely plausible that Batman is asked to appear in court to provide evidence against criminals all the time, but that's not what's happening here. Upon returning to the hospital to check on Commissioner Gordon and Alfred (both poisoned back in part 1), Dr. Bell tells him that Boss Thorne and the City Council is out to "close down" vigilantes like him. The grand jury is collecting evidence against Batman himself. Dr. Phosphorus's "master plan" begins to reveal itself -- remember that pressure he applied to Dr. Bell (also a City Council member) back in part 2?

Meanwhile, over in Sprang Memorial Arena another act of phosphorus-based terrorism is perpetrated, but this one goes unchecked. The joint is packed for an apparent Little Richard cover band ("Wop bop a lu bop a lop bam boom" being the only lyrics we get to see) when suddenly Dr. Phosphorus's skeletal visage is projected by the band's laser light show. It seems that he's sealed the arena and released his poisonous phosphorus fumes into the ventilation system.

No one comes to save the day. Hundreds die. Why? Just the next phase of Dr. Phosphorus's insane vendetta against the citizens of Gotham City.

Back in the Bat Cave (which I feel obligated to mention is in a half-finished subway station under downtown Gotham in this incarnation), Batman reflects upon the events of the past few days. Unfortunately, instead of enjoying any sort of detective element in this story we inadvertantly stumble upon a clue to advance the plot when the Geiger counter (everyone should have one) starts clicking when Batman comes near it. It's a bit like an early Hardy Boys mystery really, where the reader is one step ahead of the detectives the whole way and it's only dumb luck which cracks the case.

The beauty of this moment is that he's entirely unconcerned that he's been exposed to enough Beta radiation to burn him. The important fact here is that this means Dr. Phosphorus is radioactive in nature, and there's only one place in town where someone could be exposed to radioactivity.

This train of thoughts is interrupted by an urgent call from the police. It's not Commissioner Gordon, since he's still in the hospital. Police Chief O'Hara is on the other end of the line with a warning for our hero. Word has come down from the City Council that the police are not to cooperate with Batman anymore.

I'm by no means a Batman historian, but it seems like this conflict is an element of most good Batman stories. It plays heavily in the second half of "The Dark Knight", and it makes an appearance here. How do the law, government, and the public handle vigilantism? There's often a fine tightrope to be walked between cooperation and making sure the help doesn't break too many rules. (For a modern meditation on this theme, I highly recommend "Kick-Ass". If I'd been writing back in April, you would have heard more about it.) In this case, it's clear that the police still respect and want to help our hero, but their hands are tied by Boss Thorne's corrupt city government.

A quick jaunt in the Batboat takes us to the offshore nuclear plant that we saw in Dr. Phosphorus's origin story. There are two notable things about this: 1) The power plant is in remarkable shape for something that just had its core crack open in the recent past. So much for continuity. 2) The plant is swarming with mean-looking thugs with weapons. Batman, not spoiling for a fight, moves along.

Englehart reaches into the well-worn bag of tricks here and breaks out the Bruce Wayne, playboy persona. As cover for a closer investigation of the power plant, he throws a massive party on his private yacht. Per usual, Gotham's elite attend. Among the guests are Boss Thorne, Dr. Bell, and one Silver St. Cloud.

For those not in the know, to many Batman fans Silver is his Lois Lane: the one that he is fated to end up with. Congratulations, you've just witnessed her first appearance. I'm not entirely sure why everyone is such a fan, as I don't recall her being a particularly well-developed character the first time I read this a few years ago. Perhaps I'll feel differently this time around.

With an hour to investigate before dinner is served, Batman dons his Bat-Wetsuit and stealthily swims back out to the nuclear platform. To cut a long fight scene (3.5 pages) short, he goads Dr. Phosphorus out of hiding, they tussle, and the mad doctor falls to his apparent doom in the very reactor core that originally spawned him.

I know that if I were ever transformed into a supervillain by a horrific accident, I'd certainly use the place where it happened as my not-so-secret hideout. Especially since in this case the core breach has apparently been repaired and it's going to open for use sometime soon. Either that or the thugs there have no problem being dosed with the radiation emitting from the leaky core. Eh, maybe he's hoping lightning will strike twice and he'll be knocked another rung up the periodic table. "Beware! It is I, the insidiously stinky Dr. Sulfur! Mwa ha ha ha!" Let's just hope that's the last we see of that guy.

Our story wraps up with Bruce Wayne's return to the yacht. He runs into Silver again, they share an embrace (What a player!), and... Hmm, what does she suspect?

In our next installment, we'll take a brief side trek to enjoy the backup story (a short story used to fill out the page count in a comic) from this issue. All aboard! Next stop: "Hell Park".

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Play Old Video Games: Baseball

I'm a fan of old video games. They're both simple to play and fun, which makes them ideal for me when I'm looking for something to pick up and relieve the stress of a long work day. I suppose most "modern" people achieve this same feeling by firing up a cheap downloadable game for their cell phone, iPod, or Facebook account, but I like to go back to the originals. There's a sense of history that I enjoy alongside the games themselves and I marvel at how much was achieved with so little technologically speaking. I grew up an Apple II kid and have a warm spot in my heart for many of the programs I used and games I played as a child, but floppy disks are fragile and slow-loading. I've found that for my money, the best place to play games of that era and style today is on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

The earliest NES games date back to the years before the system even surfaced in New York City back in October 1985. Developed in Japan by the Big N itself in the early 80s, these games are the simplest of the simple and their names reflect that: Pinball, Kung Fu, Robot Block, Tennis. For the most part, they're exactly what they sound like: bare bones computerized versions of their real-world counterparts. The earliest of these is 1983's Baseball.

Looking at it today, Baseball bares little resemblance to a modern sports video game. Although there are six teams to choose from (all represented by a single letter [C = Cardinals, Y = Yankees, etc.] and a unique uniform), there are no rosters to manage or different players to learn the ins and outs of. Heck, there's not even a lot of evidence that the teams are different at all beyond the color of their uniforms. It's the game distilled down to the basics of throw ball, hit ball, field ball. No complicated control schemes to teach your friends, no dithering about who gets to be the Tigers (me, of course), just pop in the game and you're playing within 10 seconds.

It's essentially the simplest a baseball game can be and have it still look like the sport, and in my book that's a good thing. For me it hits that sweet spot of high playability and low complexity that in a lot of ways was the inspiration for the version of baseball that comes on Wii Sports. Yes, the graphics are a little blocky and move a bit slowly, but it's no wonder that the back of the box touts this game's realism no less than three times in its single paragraph of text. When compared to games from the same era on the Intellivision or Atari, the visuals and attention to detail for those who know the sport are second to none.

Just look at the cut-off man ready to keep the runner from going to third. Okay, so you can't actually throw it to the cut-off man, but he's still there, isn't he? At its core, 95% of baseball comes down to the batter/pitcher battle and that's portrayed well here. The advantage here is that you don't need to understand how a pitcher's arsenal works, nor are you restricted by what's humanly possible. You'll find no curveball, slider, changeup mechanic here. Instead, you can completely control the speed and movement of each pitch. There's nothing more satisfying than enticing your friend (or your wife, as the case may be) into swinging at a slow piece of junk that ultimately moves way off the plate.

I'll be writing every once in awhile about some of the old games that I like to play (or don't as the case may be). Whether I'm helping take you on your own trip down memory lane, inspiring you to check something out on your favorite emulator, or just blathering on self-servingly about things I like, I hope you enjoy the trip in some small way.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Josh Ritter

"Ridiculous and touching, like all good art." Josh Ritter was talking about the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD, but he may have well been talking about his own music. After all, it takes a certain amount of ridiculousness to write and perform heartfelt songs about mummies or love in a missile silo at the dawn of WWIII.

Last Thursday night, we went to see who is probably the best songwriter in America that absolutely no one knows about perform with the Minnesota Orchestra. As expected, it was a brilliant 90-minute set featuring some of the best songs from Ritter's last three albums. Any time you combine elite musicianship with great songwriting, it's bound to be a good experience.

In the past when I've posted about music, I usually just let the music itself do the talking. I'll not change anything now. For those of you who get mix CDs from us on a semi-regular basis, it's likely that you'll have heard one or two of his songs before, but don't let that stop you from giving him another listen.

Here's his latest album, "So Runs the World Away". Standout tracks for me include the aforementioned mummy song "The Curse" and "Another New World", an epic about Christopher Columbus's final expedition to the North Pole with a dash of Poe thrown in. However, I encourage you give the whole thing a listen.

Other great songs from previous albums:
"The Temptation of Adam"
"Girl in the War"
"Come and Find Me"

He's got some uptempo stuff, too, but I can't find any studio recordings of that stuff online. If you like what you've heard here, I urge you to check out more through whatever means you do and spread the word.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Looting for Ideas

As a DM, one of the fun things you get to do is keep on the lookout for neat ideas to incorporate into your game. Yes, I primarily run stuff from published modules these days, but I find myself constantly tweaking and massaging ideas to get various story threads (such as they are) into the mix. I especially like to throw random side treks of my own devising between main events.

I've recently come into possession of a $2 copy of the first D&D "module" ever, Palace of the Vampire Queen. I would track down an original, but they're a little out of my price range. Published back in 1976 (before TSR themselves ever did a module) by a little mom & pop shop called Wee Warriors, it tells the harrowing tale of how the Princess of Baylor was abducted by the fearsome Vampire Queen and her minions. As you can imagine, it's pretty raw, but it seems like it might be fun to try. If I can ever find people who collectively want to learn and play OD&D, it would be neat to give it a shot.

More likely, I might plunder it for ideas to throw into our ongoing 4E game. If a madman with 25 house cats or a guardpost consisting of a crossbow and a screech owl ever turns up in our game, now you'll know where they came from.

P.S. There is nothing better than the sound of a cat contentedly snoring on the couch next to you, as Scully is right now. Well, she was until I played that screech owl sound. Sorry, Scully.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Troubles Come In Threes

For the 4th of July, I went back to my parents in Michigan for a much needed break from work and weekend to relax. That mission was accomplished [Thanks for having me!], but the car rides there and back were anything but relaxing. The drive itself wasn't so bad. The hours fly by pretty quickly when you're working through a backlog of Tigers games at 1.5x speed. I've finally caught back up to reality just in time for the All-Star Break, thanks for asking.

1) The drive to Michigan was truly pretty uneventful: normal holiday traffic in Chicago, nighttime road construction in Battle Creek, and oh yeah, my power steering and A/C went out with about 70 miles to go. No biggie. I took it down to trusty old Dick Scott Dodge (where I bought my first car - miss you, Medea!) with my dad the next morning. A mere $700+ later and I had a new serpentine belt and belt tensioner (which had locked up, throwing the belt).

2) After getting back from the shop, we intended to head down to the Detroit Zoo with my brother, his wife, and their son for the pre-nap portion of the day. When we hit the driveway to shuffle car seats and other kid gear, we found that the left rear tire on their car (fresh off a long road trip from New Jersey) was going flat. Jacking it up and removing the tire revealed a 2-inch piece of jagged metal embedded deep into it. Nothing that a side trek to various tire shops in town can't fix, but by the time all of that was said and done the zoo had to be postponed indefinitely.

The rest of my stay in Michigan was delightfully uneventful. As the saying goes though, things come in threes. Knowing this, I took it upon myself to spare my brother the pain of another car problem.

3) I knew I was tempting fate when I drove my 2003 Neon with 110,000 miles on it for this trip, but it was the only way I could listen to unlimited baseball (for technical reasons that will remain unnamed). Sure enough, on the return trip my engine started to overheat... on the Indiana Toll Road... near Gary. Let me tell you that if you're ever overheating on the freeway, you don't want it to be on a toll road. There are fewer exits, when there is an exit it rarely has anything worthwhile nearby, and you have to reaccelerate (bad for a hot engine) after every toll booth. After babying the car for a few miles at lowish speeds (don't worry, the hazards were running), I had to pull over and let the engine cool for a few minutes on the narrow shoulder of an elevated stretch of highway. Did I mention that Zelda was with me? Dogs love it when you stop for no reason and let everyone blow by you at 60+ mph.

I was eventually able to limp back on to the road and made it to the next exit where, being the naive traveler that I am, stopped at the first gas station I saw to ask for help. I knew it wasn't an actual service station, but there's still an old-fashioned responsibility for folks at gas stations to know about nearby businesses. Or not. The guy behind the glass looked at me like I was crazy, said he didn't know anything, and sent me on my way. Luckily, two fellow patrons knew where I could go, pointing me to a radiator shop down the street. They filled me back up with coolant, checked for leaks, and sent me on my way once they were sure I was back to running like a top. Incidentally, if you ever break down in NW Indiana I highly recommend Chevo's Radiator in Hammond. They took care of me and were nice to Zelda to boot.

Since troubles only come in threes, I made it home safe and sound after that without a problem. Not only that, I was so inspired that I decided to reopen the Tower. Keep on the lookout for semi-regular updates about whatever interests me in the near future.