Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni is Helene Wecker's debut novel. Set in turn of the century New York City, it blends together Arabic and Yiddish myths (from whence the Jinni and Golem comes from) into a story that ties together the two disparate myths in a surprisingly satisfying fashion. This mix of myths, of course, is old hat to anyone who's played D&D, but is actually fairly rare in literature.

The story moves fairly slowly, with flashbacks to the past frequent, or even a diversion to tell the story of a secondary character. These transitions are occasionally jarring, reminding you that this is Wecker's debut novel, but as far as complaints go, it's not a bad one.

The two major characters are interesting, and pretty well developed, and surprisingly enough do change as the story progresses, which actually goes against the mythos of these creatures. Wecker does, however, provide reasonable-sounding rationale (as if you really would need rationality in terms of mythic creatures) as to why these two are special.

The human characters are more much stereotyped, with one secondary character's recovery from a Jinni-inspired illness happening without explanation. I would argue that more than any single human character, New York City is itself a major character in this novel. The setting is detailed and you do get a good sense of a living city, but since I'm not a big fan of cities, I'd just leave it at that and not speculate as to whether it's an accurate depiction of New York for those who are.

In any case, the story is interesting enough that I didn't complain about how slowly it moved, but went along for a ride. That's a great accomplishment in itself, which means that I will be looking for future novels by Wecker. Recommended.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review: Little Big Planet PS Vita

The Playstation Vita is easily Sony's least loved gaming platform. It's weaker than the PS3 or PS4 graphically, but despite that it's got a ton of potential. For instance, it has both front and rear cameras, front and rear touch screens, multi-axis gyrocsopes, twin joysticks, a d-pad, and 6 buttons. Unfortunately, relatively few games make use of all that latent potential. Golden Abyss and Tearaway are the only two that come to mind.

Little Big Planet (PS Vita) promised to also be an implementation of the game that made use of all these elements of the Vita, and by all accounts has the best implementation of Little Big Planet because of the touch screen. Set against that was that it's a platformer, which is my least favorite genre of game. The net result was that I waited until there was a sale on the game and picked it up for $7.20.

Well, it's a great platformer and an amazingly beautiful game. The voice actors were the same as the ones used in Tearaway, so the game gave me warm fuzzies the minute I booted it up and heard Stephen Fry's narration. Then the game walked me through the tutorial levels and I was hooked. Because platformers are such an old genre, the general tendency in platforming games is to set the difficulty such that "Easy" means "Difficult", "Medium" means "Not for anyone over 11", "Hard" means "Even those who are under 11 need to fake a fever to stay home in order to finish this game."  The result is that critically acclaimed games like Spelunky and Guacamelee are pretty much unplayable for me.

I'm happy to say that Little Big Planet was not designed like any of the afore-mentioned games. The difficulty is set low, and for all levels except for the stage-ending boss fights, you have infinite lives. That means even if you can't consistently do a jump or finish a stage, all you have to do is to complete it once (by accident or otherwise), and you won't ever have to do it again. The fact that this is a Vita game makes what's otherwise a frustrating genre much easier: while a PS3 or PS4  game would have to be turned off every so often to watch a video, stream a movie, etc., the Vita game can be suspended indefinitely so you can resume exactly from where you last left off. This game was compelling enough that I kept it on for days at a time, being careful to recharge the Vita in order to preserve my game state.

And yes, the game does make use of both touch screens, and the rear camera, but not the front. The two touch screen techniques in fact foreshadow their use in Tearaway, and are very usable. There's even a touch screen in a boss fight, and it's staged well enough that the fact that sometimes touch screens are finicky don't cause you to lose purely due to a hardware issue. And of course, the touch screen is delightful when it comes to customizing your protagonist hero, sackboy. You can change costumes, put stickers in the game levels, and even take pictures and use them to create your own levels.

The game has an extremely shallow story. This is par for the course for platformers. You don't play them for the story. The final boss was very challenging and required multiple attempts before I succeeded (the bosses always have a life-limit so you don't have infinite restarts), but the game played fair at every stage, requiring repetition but not insane skills.

When you're done with the story, you can turn to creating your own levels, playing contributed levels downloaded from the internet, or side games that were unlocked during your play. The side games are actually pretty fun, and some of them are even two player touch screen games, such as an air hockey simulation which I would have killed for when I was a kid on long car rides with my brothers. The sheer amount of content is incredible, and more than enough to justify the precious storage space the game takes up on the Vita.

In any case, this is definitely a must-buy game if you own a Vita. I'm glad I finally got a chance to play it. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Review: How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big

Authors are strange and irrational creatures. Ask any author with multiple books out which book they wrote they like the most, and they almost invariably point at their worst selling book. For instance, Douglas Adams was very fond of his one non-fiction book, Last Chance to See. I myself am not immune to this, and despite every other book of mine being much more successful, and having been less work to write, Independent Cycle Touring is still easily my favorite.

How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big, is by Scott Adams' account, his least successful book. Therefore he spends every other blog post touting the book despite its apparent failure. I succumbed to his marketing spiel, and of course, checked it out of the library, because I'm a cheap skate and I work that way.

Part autobiography, the book is exceedingly easy to read. I'll summarize a few main points:

  1. Processes and Systems are more important than goals.
  2. Affirmation works (surprisingly well), but he has no idea why.
  3. To be able to help others or contribute to society, you need to take care of yourself. That means that the following should be your highest priority: exercise, diet, and optimizing your personal energy level.
  4. Success depends very much on luck. It's very difficult to become successful by being world class at one or two skills. You have much better chances by learning multiple skills, and being the only person who can combine those skills in a package.
  5. Certain skills are particularly important: public speaking, business writing, a knowledge of practical, applied psychology, understanding basic technology, social skills, proper voice technique, good grammar, and basic accounting.
  6. You can reprogram your mind to do anything. Humans are not rational, and if you think of your brain as being subject to being able to be reprogrammed, you'll be able to do things that others routinely find difficult.
  7. Drink coffee. It lets you regulate your energy cycle deliberately, has many health benefits, (chiefest of which is that it puts you in the mood for exercise) and few side effects even if you become addicted.
The most comparable I've read on this topic is John T Reed's Succeeding, which I enjoyed. This book is much cheaper, but it's also much less practical when it comes to dating methods, for instance, or risk analysis, but they both come out on the same things, which is that process and systems are critically important.

The biggest weakness of Adams' book is that he's a smart guy, but he doesn't point out how important geographical location was, despite his success depending entirely on it. He mentioned moving to the Bay Area early on in his career, and his resulting career couldn't have succeeded without that move. You should always move to a location that's appropriate to your talents as much as possible.

In any case, Reed's book is much better, more detailed, and more likely to be of practical use to the average person, but Adams' book is funnier, cheaper, and probably more accessible. In any case, the book is smart and well written and worth your time.

Recommended.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Review: The Walking Dead Season 2 (PS4)

After playing the first season of The Walking Dead on the PS Vita, I decided that there was no way I would pay full price for Season 2, and that the Vita was not a great platform for these games. I noticed, however, that The Wolf Among Us on the PS3 didn't have any of the technical issues that the PS Vita version had, so when there was a sale on the PS4 for Season 2 for $6.25, I decided that it was worth the shot.

You see, what I've noticed is that while the games aren't really games, they've so far been consistently the kind of games I'd play all the way through to the end. The reason for this is that they're not really games, and don't depend on acquiring skill through repetition and frequent failure to discourage you. They're really more like slightly interactive TV shows, and if you view them that way you don't feel so bad that as a "player" you absolutely have no control over what happens in the story line.

In many case, Season 2 is even worse than Season 1. At least in Season 1, you made a choice early on in the game which affected which characters showed up in the next few episodes. In season 2, that illusion was completely stripped away, and you truly have no control over the outcome of the game.

This places more of a burden on the writing, and by and large the writing is actually pretty good. There are several tense moments, and in at least one episode I felt outrage and betrayal, which the added interactivity did enhance over a TV show.

The production values are excellent, with custom music (and different ending theme song for every episode!), and rendered beautifully. Because it's an animated feature, there should be no difference between playing it on a PS3, PS4, PC, or smart phone platform.

In any case, don't pay full price for this work of interactive fiction (where you actually don't have many choices anyway). Pick it up when there's a sale, and enjoy it as though you're watching a TV series, just with a controller in your hand.

Recommended at a discount.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Review: Joyland

Joyland is Stephen King's serial killer/murder mystery set in an amusement park. It is a short quick read, but a lot of fun and well worth your time.

As time goes on I've come to appreciate Stephen King's writing more and more. His voice is incredibly authentic, and serves the narrative perfectly. What's more, his narrative works on two levels: one is that of an old man in his 60s recounting an event that took place in his youth. The second is that of a man explaining how a carnival works.

King deftly sketches out all the main characters quickly and succinctly while still making each of them 3 dimensional. Like all mystery novels, every detail's important in the novel, and casual scenes described earlier in the novel become important later. Yes, like all King novels there's hints of the supernatural in the novel, but King has great restraint and a little goes a long way.

In any case, the novel is very readable, moves along at a good pace, and has next to zero padding. While not deep literature or even deeply moving, it's a fun read kept me coming back to it over and over again.

Recommended.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Review: Infamous First Light

I don't usually play or buy downloadable content (DLC) for computer games. They're rarely discounted, and at full price represent unusually poor value. For instance, Infamous First Light costs $15. Unlike typical DLC, it doesn't require the main game, Infamous Second Son to play. However, unlike DLC, main games such as Infamous Second Son are frequently discounted, and I got my copy of it at $19.95, which provide quite a bit more content. This pricing structure is usually because while main games have to be distributed through retail outlets and deliver only 50% of their retail price to the developer, DLC are instead distributed through online stores and deliver at least 70% of their retail price to the deliver. (In the case of Infamous First Light, since Sony owns the Playstation store, it gets 100% of the take, unless you go through an intermediary like Gamestop)

This month, however, Playstation Plus (which has a well-deserved reputation as the best deal in gaming) provided First Light as one of its games, so I gave it a shot.

In my review of Infamous Second Son, I noted that the neon powers of the game are the most fun to play with, and indeed, developer Sucker Punch must have recognized this, since they focused the entire DLC around Fetch, the character who had the neon powers. The story is told in the form of flashbacks from a period when Fetch has been captured by the DUP and is forced to reveal her powers and train as a DUP lackey. All this takes place ahead of the main story in Infamous Second Son, and so can be considered a prequel.

In terms of story, Fetch is a better character than Delsin: she's much less of a punk, and far more sympathetic. The problem with the plot is of course, you can see the plot twists a mile a way, even if you've never played the main game. This is the norm for video games: the plot exists as nothing but a series of set pieces for the game play to hang on.

The game play is fun. Fetch's neon powers are varied and interesting, and the game does a good job introducing those powers gradually and incrementally as part of the story. Even better, unlike the main game where you felt like you had to pursue a substantial part of the side quests in order to have a decent shot at finishing the game without a large number of deaths, the game is designed such that even if you didn't finish any of the side quests you could complete the main storyline with ease.

The reason for this is that the game is designed to keep you playing if you're a competitive gamer by comparing yourself with others on the leaderboard in a set of fixed arenas. I don't enjoy repetition, so I didn't bother with any of these, but if you are, then the game would probably keep you playing for quite a bit past the 4-6 hour main storyline.

In any case, as I've noted, DLCs are usually poor value compared to the main game, but if you can get over that or if you really enjoyed Infamous Second Son, this DLC gives you more content with the best parts attached. And of course, this month, it's yet another reason to get a subscription to Playstation Plus.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Gaming Nostalgia

I've been playing a lot of Resogun, recently. Now usually when I finish  a game, I don't ever go back to it. But Resogun has something that more recent AAA games rarely have, which is that it's very replayable.

Resogun, of course, is a throwback to the original Defender, which was an incredibly tough game. I never got good at Defender, because at a quarter a pop, as a kid I never had the kind of money to get good at any of those games, and my parents never had a game console in the house.

All the old games I have nostalgia for that I actually played, therefore had to come on a PC. What springs out to my mind is the old time infocom text adventure games. Those too, were also incredibly hard, and the only one I ever completed was A Mind Forever Voyaging, which was one of those specifically designed to be less challenging.

I remember once after an all night session of Infocom text adventures Larry Hosken, my brother, and I attended a party at Paul Holland's place on Sand Hill Road. We were playing ping pong next to an air hockey table, and one of the ping pong balls fell into the swimming pool. We looked at each other, read each other's mind, and said, "GET PING PONG BALL. PUT PING PONG BALL ON AIR HOCKEY TABLE. PUT QUARTER IN AIR HOCKEY TABLE." Clearly, thinking let an Infocom game all night had affected our brains.

And yes, I did write TinyMUCK 2.0 earlier while an intern at Bellcore (Jon Blow told me at one point that his first exposure to C was trying to read my code/modification of the original TinyMUCK).

To be honest though, when I think back to the games of that era and compare to the games of today, I'd say that today's games are better. In general, they have more finely tuned difficulty levels, the in-game tutorials are fairly well done, and  of course the visuals are just amazing these days.

So if you asked me what I'd put in my own man crate for nostalgia gaming, I'd stick in a USB 3.5" Floppy Drive and one of the Lost Treasures of Infocom packs. Or, since nowadays you can just pretty much download those games on the internet, if you ask me, I'd much rather have a PS Vita loaded with a big memory card and Resogun.

We live in the golden age of computer games, and there's just no comparison.