Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Review: Heavy Rain (PS3)

It's a good thing I picked up and played Heavy Rain after The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead. It makes those two games look sad by comparison.

These games fall into the category of "choose-your-own-adventure". The puzzles provided per-se aren't particularly challenging, so what I evaluate these games on is the deepness and richness of the content: how often are the decisions meaningful? How many different ways can the story end? Does the story provide emotional impact? Is the story coherent?

By those standards Heavy Rain is outstanding. In fact, if you own a PS3, just stop reading, find yourself a copy, and play!

Still with me? OK. Heavy Rain is a story about parenthood. It starts with Ethan Mars' interaction with his family, and a defining incident in which he fails to save his son from a traffic collision. Years later, we find him depressed and subject to occasional blackouts. During one of those blackouts, his second son disappears, kidnapped by the "origami killer", a serial killer who focuses on killing children. The rest of the game follows Ethan's attempt to rescue his son and uncover who the origami killer is.

There are 3 other playable characters: Madison Paige, a reporter, Scott Shelby, a private detective also investigating the case, and Jayden, the FBI agent assigned to the case. The viewpoint of the game shifts between these playable characters, and you see them cross-paths, or even watch one storyline uncover clues while another storyline is oblivious.

The script is exceedingly well written. The characters are believable, and their interaction choices don't leave me frustrated. Furthermore, when the reveal happens, not only was I surprised, when I thought back to all the clues previously provided I felt that the mystery was fair: I had enough clues to figure out who the killer was, but the misdirection and setup had distracted me enough that I didn't put them together. This is exceedingly hard to do, and Heavy Rain succeeds.

What's even more amazing is the game play. In The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us, if you fail at one of the "game" section, the game restarts at a checkpoint and then you play it over until you succeed. Heavy Rain throws away such conceits. If you fail at one point, your viewpoint character can die but the game carries on! The story changes, and you can get a different ending. I'm not a great game player, so by the time I finished the game two of my characters have died, and poor Ethan Mars was a mess of injuries. But the ending still satisfied me and didn't leave me feeling as though I was cheated of storyline that I should have observed but didn't.

What's more, the game did a fantastic job making me feel what the characters were going through. Because lives were at stake and because I could fail, the story was intense. At several points I winced as the killer put Ethan Mars through trials to see how far a father would go to save his son. Whenever I failed one of those trials, I felt devastated. Some of those scenes had me shaking while pushing buttons on the controller, events that never happened in other games.

When I bought the game, I thought I'd sell it when I'd finished. Now that I'm done, I realize that like a good movie, it's a game I wouldn't mind playing again, especially since you can get different endings. (If you want to shorten the time it takes to watch all the different endings, you should save frequently so you can try both success and failure scenarios --- I wasn't aware of this feature until it was too late) I liked this game enough that I'll probably hunt down Quantic Dream's other games in the future.

What are the nits in the game? The controls are a little painful: sometimes you have to hold down multiple buttons and then shake the controller in order to get certain things to happen. If your controller is broken in that the six-axis sensor is inconsistent this can drive you nuts. This game definitely depends on a low latency screen as well. My plasma screen even in game mode made this game harder because of the induced latency. The background music is not as enjoyable as I would like: the game uses the same themes too often, which makes it repetitive. Being a PS3 game, the graphics are fantastic for that era but of course cannot compare to the PS4. I'm looking forward to Quantic Dream's future games on the PS4. Finally, the adult situations and nudity means that this game is unsuitable for pre-teens.

But despite these faults, I'd say that this game is exhibit A in why a dedicated home console (especially Sony's) makes sense. You can't get games of this quality on any other platform, and it's clear that Quantic Dream's efforts are of a level of maturity, sophistication, and emotional impact that makes other efforts on competing platforms look like they're multiple decades behind. Highly recommended!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Review: The Winter of The World

The Fall of Giants was so compelling that I immediately checked out The Winter of The World from the library to follow along the novel. When you read history in novel form, especially the history of this episode from the previous century, it's easy to think about how compelling the narrative of the story is. It's almost as though real life thought that "World War" was so good that it deserved "World War 2: The Sequel".

The big difference for me personally is that while I wasn't as aware of what happened during World War I, World War II was something I was much more knowledgeable about. As with the prior novel, the prose is compellingly readable and transparent, while the characters get sent all over the world in increasingly unbelievable ways so the author can get them into the midst of the action. One character in particular went from working in Roosevelt's state department to witnessing Pearl Harbor and then parachuting down into France as part of D-Day all in the span of a few years.

Another interesting consequence of the approach the author took is that while the first novel started everyone more or less in poverty, by the start of the second world war, most of the characters are wealthy people. It's easy to understand why: in order to be able to ship the characters all over the world in order to cover all the events during this period properly, they need to do so. But as a result, you can see the gears grinding behind the plot and events.

By far the biggest problem in the novel is that it doesn't do a good job explaining why such people stayed put and put up with the obvious disasters that were moving towards them. For instance, by the end of the war, the fairly wealthy characters in Berlin had been through hell, and could see the iron curtain moving in, yet they stayed put instead of moving to West Germany. Now, we know this is needed so the author can get some viewpoint characters in the sequel, but a more compelling explanation of the characters' motivations would have made the novel stronger.

Nevertheless, the novel is compelling reading and a lot of fun, while reminding me how important this history was. For instance, this novel did a better job in explaining why Churchill lost the election after winning the war than any source that I can remember. Recommended.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Review: The Fall of Giants

After reading The Pillars of The Earth, I went back to the library and placed a hold on The Fall of Giants, to see if Follett was consistently book. I deliberately didn't read any reviews, as I didn't want to be biased.

To my surprise, The Fall of Giants is even better, and still compelling reading. It's a long novel but I plowed through it rapidly, not wanting to stop. The novel covers the events surrounding World War I, including the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of women's suffrage, and of course, the involvement of Germany, the United States, and Great Britain.

Now, I'd read enough history and even literature (nobody's ever allowed to skip Animal Farm or Wilfred Owen) to know at an abstract level what happened during those years, but Follett manages to make it personal, and in doing so, create empathy for the common people who were caught up in those historic events. By doing so, he enables a deeper understanding of why events unfolded during that period the way they did.

In particular, by the end of the novel, Follett had gotten me to care about  Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, which was something that had horribly bored me in history classes (and which I'd never cared very much about. That's a considerable achievement.

Now, in order to get such a wide ranging set of people's narratives to tie together, Follett had to include some fairly improbable events (though as a novelist he's great at ensuring that the characters' motivations are consistent). But that's easily forgiven in a novel with such great scope.


This novel's a great achievement, and did far more for my understanding of those events far more than both my history and literature classes in school. Highly recommended. Needless to say, I'm ready to keep going and read the next novel in the series.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Music Lessons

Living in Silicon Valley sometimes feels a lot like living in Singapore for one reason: sometimes, it feels as though people around here (the ones with kids anyway) engage in competitive parenting more than any other sports. At one point, someone told me about how she forced her kid to practice music in order to earn hours at video games. And then there's the mandatory after-school Chinese language lessons (for those who are Chinese). There's nothing like useless jumping-through-hoops hyper-competitive parenting to make kids resent the subject.

You hear a lot of junk science about how this is supposed to teach kids self-discipline, or teach them to persevere to be good at something. There's also the frequent comment that it's harder to learn music as an adult. There's the real-science behind it mentioned in Brain Rules for Baby, which discusses how about 10 years of music lessons is correlated with better understanding of emotions or empathy. (I don't remember which)

Anyway, Xiaoqin said, "if those parents like music so much, why don't they learn the instrument themselves instead of making their kids that way?" My tip for kids is to make this bargain with their parents: they'd spend precisely as much time practicing their instruments as their parents spend playing Bloodborne. (Those kids who want to have mercy on their parents can choose an easier game like Uncharted 2 instead) (No, I'm not afraid of my kids doing this to me --- I've been secretly practicing video games)

In any case, I grew up hating piano lessons as well, just like many other Asian kids. Thankfully, my parents let us give up on those lessons before any permanent damage was done: I'll never love classical music, but at least I can enjoy some music.

In any case, I'd always thought that I'd enjoy the flute. I bought a tiny white recorder-toy for Bowen, and could play a few tunes for him, but the recorder's range is pretty limited. And then during a re-watch of Battlestar Galactica (we knew to stop at Season 3, Episode 4), I heard Wander My Friends, which captivated me. Coupled with my wife's comments about learning an instrument, I decided to buy a cheapo flute and a book and try to learn how to play.

A few days into it, I realized that learning an instrument from a book was a recipe for giving myself bad habits, and engaged an instructor for private lessons. A couple of weeks of practice later, and I'm beginning to hit high notes. Most of all, I'm now actually able to play tunes that I like, albeit not mistake free, and perhaps at a halting tempo. (I've long been able to play anything by ear, with minor experimentation, so this is not a surprise --- my sight reading skills are still piss-poor, however, mostly because playing by ear has made me neglect those skills)

The flute's a much tougher instrument than the piano: rather than just working your fingers and hands, you have to form an embouchure. Worse, the embouchure varies from note to note, so you're changing the embouchure and your fingering at the same time, which makes for challenging practicing. On the other hand, it's a much more fun instrument than the piano.

For one thing, you don't have to sit! I never realized how much I disliked sitting in front of a piano until the day I realized that the flute didn't have to be played sitting down. I can stand and play, walk around and play, and generally move around. The instrument is portable, and if I ever got really good at it, I supposed I could hike and practice at the same time. If you're a cyclist, hiker, sailor, a piano is a ridiculous thing to bring with you on trips, but it's entirely feasible to bring along a flute, or its cheap but robust relative, the fife.

So a couple of weeks later, my cheapo flute developed an air-leak that made me unable to play certain notes. My instructor looked at it and asked me how much I paid for it. When I told him, he said that he was surprised that it even made any noise at all. He recommended that I upgraded to the Gemeinhardt. That darn thing cost $300, but it was a revelation! Now I can easily hit every note I can form a decent embouchure for, and I could now play Wander My Friends. The day it arrived I spent a couple of hours playing it because it was so much fun being able to play whatever I wanted without the instrument getting in the way!  I was never that motivated as a kid! Note that the technical practice still sucks. It's still boring to repeatedly play the same piece over and over again, and it's still annoying as heck to fail for 4-5 days until suddenly everything clicks and you can do it on the 6th.

So the argument that it's easier to learn music as a kid doesn't really pan out for me. As an adult, it's easier for me to tolerate having to do technical exercises in order to get better. I've learned to reward myself by playing tunes I like after I'm done with the technical exercises. I also have low standards. I'm not going after orchestra-level performance: I'm playing for my own satisfaction and fun. When it gets boring, I stop.

And of course, Bowen after seeing me play, wants to play too. But even if we start him on lessons (most music instructors will agree that 5 years is about the right age to start, not earlier), there's no way I'm going to make him practice or let him treat music as anything but fun. Though having read this answer on Quora, I'm tempted to force him into music lessons and use math or cycling as a reward instead.

I think as far as music lessons are concerned, the advice written by Antoine de Saint Exupery from decades ago applies, more than anything else:
"If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."

Monday, April 13, 2015

Review: The Altar Girl

I'll admit that while I religiously pick up my free Kindle First book, I rarely get around to reading them, let alone finish them. They don't usually have good writing, and frequently have all too many cliches like Vampires, Zombies, or marrying a billionaire.

The Altar Girl promised to be an exception. First, the protagonist is unusual: a Ukrainian woman  (Nadia Tesla) who separated from her community, and estranged from her family. When her godfather dies, she comes back and discovers that he was probably murdered. Like any other noir novel, her investigations leads her into deeper and deeper trouble, until a "thrilling" conclusion.

The Ukrainian background is authentic (the author himself is Ukrainian), and the heroine herself is more or less competent. The mystery, however, is kinda matter-of-fact, and has a cliched twist that doesn't quite play fair with the reader. (That means that the novel properly falls into the "thriller" category rather than the mystery category)

There's a flashback thread involving an incident in Nadia's childhood that doesn't actually add much, and serves more of a red herring than anything else. While it's good to depict Nadia's character from a young age, there's too big a discontinuity from her childhood event to her depiction as an adult for it to carry much weight.

Nevertheless, the novel is short and doesn't cost a lot of time, so I'd recommend it as an airplane novel. Mildly recommended.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Review: Skinny Mini Pen

If you're like me, you can never find a pen whenever you need one. I'm forever borrowing pens in order to fill out customs forms while traveling, or even to write a check. I've tried buying boxes of pens from Costco or Amazon, but that doesn't work. Before I know it, the  pens have disappered, and I'm back to borrowing random pens from strangers if I'm lucky, or just searching through every nook and cranny of the house in the hopes of finding one that works.

The solution for me, it turned out, it to forget about traditional pens, and buy a wallet pen. If you Google that, you'll get outrageously priced garbage that's pretty to look at but actually won't fit in your wallet. However, during a recent sale, I found the Skinny Mini Pen. This device is actually engineered to fit in the fold of your wallet, and when I keep it there, I hardly ever notice that it's around.

However, because of its location, I can always find it, since I usually have my wallet with me! The pen telescopes to become longer in case you have bigger hands than mine, but for me, I can just use it without that feature. The biggest issue I have with this pen is that the cap is a screw on cap. That slows things down for me, but much less so than desperately having to look for a pen would. It even has replaceable ink fillers, which is very nice, but given how little I need to write nowadays, I'll be surprised if I have to replace the filler more than once every 5 years.

In any case, this is highly recommended. If you never have a pen when you need one, this is the solution for you.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Review: Camelbak Podium Bottle

I'm a notorious cheapskate, and have been using my Google-issued water bottles for at least the last 8-9 years. But they recently sprung a leak, which would normally have me keep using them if all I had in them was water and/or ice, but because I've been adding Nuun tablets to my bottles, end up with all sorts of electrolytes bursting out. Not really acceptable, since it would cause rapid chain wear.

There was a deal for the Camelbak Podium bottle, so I got 2 effectively for free, despite my skepticism about them truly working. I'm abashed to say that they actually do work, and work well. Even with an effervescent tablet in them, they don't leak, and when you squeeze the bottle, they do provide water. There's a fully lock out tab, which I've used by mistake, but it's easy to undo while riding.

My biggest problem with them is that I still keep bumping the bottle spouts with my chin in an attempt to close or open them out of habit.

Recommended. When it comes time to replace my insulated bottles, I'll seriously consider the insulated "Chill" version of these bottles as well.