Sep 24 2012

InterventionCon and Borderlands

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So this past weekend was the third (already?) InterventionCon. It’s a fun, if smallish, local con put on by an impressively small staff who nonetheless manage to give it a “big con” professional feel. The basic theme of the con is “your online life, offline,” basically giving it a “meta-geekery” vibe similar to Dragon*Con (but on a much smaller scale). There’s a bit of comics, a bit of anime, a bit of cosplay, a bit of technogeekery, even a tiny hint of furry, but no one element really jumps out. This big tent approach is good in that everyone is welcome, but it also has its downside, in that there’s no really strong pull for any group. Despite being open to everybody, InterventionCon is not a “must-go” con for anybody, at least not yet.

Granted, I see most of the con from inside the Dealer Room (or “Artist Alley/Vendor Room” as the con refers to it), which possibly colors my perceptions. On the other hand, the Dealer Room is also usually the main hub of activity. There are several breakout panel rooms which usually have a double-handful of people in them at any given time, a videogaming room, and an open gaming room, and several corridors. Although the Marriott where the con takes place has a huge and impressive restaurant/lounge area (which at a furry con would be overrun with fursuiters and artists), as far as I can tell InterventionCon doesn’t go down there. What crowds there are to find, are in the Dealer Room.

The other thing I’ve noticed about InterventionCon, is that there isn’t much of an art culture. Most people in the Vendor Hall are there as vendors, selling books or crochet ponies or what have you, not doing art at the table– and the attendees don’t seem to be expecting it, either. I was never asked to do a badge or a sketch (my primary profit-makers at most cons), even by people who seemed very taken with my work. Furthermore, those people who were offering sketches at the table, were undercutting themselves badly. One artist wanted to charge me $10 for a fully inked, elaborate sketch; another $15 for an inked and shaded pair of characters. In both cases, I shoved $20 bills at them, just to drive the lesson home.

gneech_chanWhile sitting around at the con not doing any badges or sketches (le sigh), I decided to noodle around with new persona ideas for myself, including this cute little guy, who combines the whole “dapper lion” thing with my little buddy Keroberos. Only problem is, I still can’t figure out how to get more of the sea green and similar colors I wanted into the design without becoming garish. I’m an autumn, and if the persona is to reflect me, he should totally be dressing in gold and burgundy.

Also, I think way too much about that kind of stuff.

But Enough of That Art’n’Creativity’n’Stuff. Let’s Blow Shit Up

As InterventionCon rolls up its sidewalks at 3:00 on Sunday, that left me with all of last evening to occupy myself. I could have watched that Doctor Who we’ve got on the DVR, but instead I downloaded BorderLands 2 to give it a try. Mrs. Gneech and I are forever on the lookout for brainless shooty games we can play together, and this one is about as brainless and shooty as they come. Gung Ho FPS in a quasi-post-apocalypse SF setting with a soundtrack by Escape From LA, Borderlands 2 is snarky, sarcastic, and winks at you from the other side of the 4th wall to make sure you don’t take all the explosions and bloody head-shots seriously.

Does it work? Eh… sort of. The snarky humor and Wile E. Coyote violence are basically there to punch up pretty cut-and-dried FPS gameplay… go here, kill baddies, pull lever, kill baddies, find boss, kill boss, rinse and repeat. The loot is completely randomized, which does sometimes make for strange and amusing results. I picked up a gun which does something like 70+ points of damage and has a sniper scope (as opposed to the more common ~20 points of damage on the first level), so I spent a lot of time starting a battle from far distant cover and going “Boom! Headshot.” Borderlands 2 also floats around somewhere between FPS and MMO, with quest-givers, side missions, and explorer deeds, and encourages you to hook up with other players (via Steam) and take on missions together. However, your character model is determined by your class (all the women are “sirens,” for instance, and all the sirens are women) and the character models only vary by means of three different heads and palette-swaps. So it won’t be long before every character looks exactly identical to every other character.

Correspondingly, the difficulty seems to be all over the map, too. There’s a giant set-piece battle at the end of the first section of the game where you’re in an open area fighting a giant brute of a guy who is not only on fire, but who keeps setting you on fire as well as opening up giant fire pits all over the level. If you die, you simply respawn around the corner, which is handy, but every time you do, he goes back up to full health again. This led me into a loop for the longest time where I could just get to him, nick him a little, and then run out of ammo and get killed. Over and over. I finally defeated him basically through an exploit– I left the arena all together, which lured him over to one corner that stuck out so he could shoot at me, and he got trapped there by the AI pathing. So all I had to do at that stage was peek around the corner, snipe at him, and duck back until my shield recharged, then do it again. Since he was an otherwise unbeatable boss, I didn’t feel too bad about this– I figured that if the game is gonna cheat, I’m gonna cheat right back.

On the plus side, I do like the animation-esque art style and the western-bluesey soundtrack, which give me (positive) associations with Full Throttle. And I can see how the game would be fun with a full party, although I haven’t had the chance to try it yet. However, I suspect it’s going to be real hard to find a group that isn’t made up of four sirens, just because she’s the most appealing character design. We’ll see!

-The Gneech

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Dec 26 2011

I’ve Never Forgiven the Barrels for Killing My Son

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So a while back, a friend gave me his copy of Dungeons and Dragons: Daggerfaildale, because he couldn’t get it to run on his computer. And since I’ve been jonesing for a little goblin smackdown, I decided to give it a shot. [1]

Daggerdale is basically like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance or Everquest: Conquest of Norrath, a multiplayer action game with the trappings of D&D … throw yourself at goblins and mash buttons ’til they die. Theoretically it should be prettier than those, being newer, but it’s basically the same thing. The only problem is, the makers seem to have decided that instead of just making a similar game in the same genre, they would just do a wholesale copy/paste and call it a day.

These games don’t generally mess with a complicated plot, right? Well, the makers of the game apparently decided to go with that “etcetera, etcetera” mindset and really just phoned it in. There’s some evil guy named Rezlus in a tower who is gonna do some bad thing or other. He’s always the evil Rezlus. Or maybe “The’Evil” is his first name. What is Rezlus like or about, other than evil? No idea, except that he’s blue. And apparently worships Bane. But really, that’s enough, right? Anyhow, obviously, y’all gotta knock off all that evil, so !Galadriel teleports you into a dwarf mine so you can smash barrels and even occasionally fight a goblin. (Presumably !Gandalf was busy.)

Barrels. Really. Why. They even have the “barrel-maker crying that people keep smashing his barrels” joke. Didn’t Bard’s Tale put that bit to bed, like ten years ago? Maybe they’re depending on gamers having a short memory. The first level past the tutorial consists of nothing but a bunch of dwarves standing around while you smash all their barrels. (Smashing barrels is optional, of course, but you’ll want those health potions later.)

So you have your choice of four characters in the game: the burly white fighter guy, the white elf archer chick, the white dwarf cleric dude, or the androgynous white halfling wizard. [2] Each one is lovingly rendered in shades of sepia, and looks like they’d rather be doing anything else than going on this adventure. I kinda want to gripe about the lack of options here– I’m partial to male elf fighters and female human clerics (for instance), but none of the other games in this genre really give you a choice (Gauntlet II at least gave you color options…), so I guess there’s no point in that.

I should point out, that you don’t necessarily stay sepia. The high point of the game, in terms of low points, had to be when my character picked up a suit of armor that turned him into the Iceman from Marvel Comics. And by this I don’t mean he was wearing blue armor, I mean his entire body turned bright blue, including his skin, eyes, and hair. I know, fantasy game, magic, yadda-yadda, but wow. Even D&D usually tries to at least keep a little grounding in its quasi-medieval setting. Did some designer really want to be working on a superhero game instead? It was here that it went from “playable if weak” to “just plain silly.”

Anyway, the game’s nomenclature is all lifted from 4E, but it doesn’t mean anything. I fought “level one minions” with 24 hit points, “controllers” who just stood there and beat up on you, and so forth. You have all the usual Strength/Dex/Con stuff, but it’s all pre-set and doesn’t seem to actually do much. You fight by clicking the attack button until everything around you is dead, and defend yourself by guzzling health potions. I don’t know what the multiplayer is like, because that would have required getting another copy for Mrs. Gneech and I wasn’t willing to actually spend any money on it. We can do the same thing only better by pulling out the old Baldur’s Gate platformers or Gauntlet: Legends.

In short… meh. Don’t waste your time.

-The Gneech

PS: Oh, did I mention that the disk appears to contain nothing but an installer that downloads the game from Steam? Whee!

[1] I more or less hung up my dicebag earlier this year, at least as a gamemaster. I’d still love to play if I could find a local game, but I haven’t exactly been actively searching.

[2] Halfling wizard, really? I don’t get the gaming community’s fervent desire to include halflings but OMG can’t have ’em be hobbits, no, no! Really, guys, the only reason to include halflings is because they’re hobbits. If you don’t like hobbits, leave halflings out all together. They’re superfluous otherwise.

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Jun 29 2011

Not-Sucking Is Magic: My Little Pony

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Well, I binged on the first five (six? I lost count after the Ursa Minor) episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic via YouTube last night, while workin’ on various stuff. It was enjoyable and I can see why it’s popular, although it didn’t cause me to squee with the light of a thousand suns the way it has some others.

I can see the Powerpuff Girls influence in it, and that can be nothing but good. I also wholeheartedly applaud a Very Girly Show For Girls That Is Girly that has things like well-defined and likeable characters, plots with conflict, and themes of self-reliance and personal development, without actually being a show for boys where the characters all have long hair and squeaky voices (a pitfall PPG could occasionally fall prey to).

In the episodes I watched, it never quite reached the level of awesome, although it did have moments that approached it, such as “I cannot tolerate such a crime against fabulosity!” and “But … the rainbow one kicked me…” With a few nudges in the right direction, it could easily become awesome, but my gut feeling is that Hasbro wouldn’t tolerate it.

So what’s my analysis of the whole Brony thing? Well, some of it is the same “breath of fresh air” phenomenon that made the original Star Wars such a hit after a decade of sci-fi movies that made you want to kill yourself. My Little Pony is a well-written, enjoyable, decently-animated show, which means it blows the doors off of anything else happening right now. Since the collapse of TV animation in the late ’90s, there’s been painfully little that wasn’t outright crap, and since it’s not crap, MLP shines like gold. And while I don’t want to belittle the quality of the show, I do think the lack of competition has a lot to do with the sheer enthusiasm of the fandom that’s building up around it.

Fans are gonna glomp onto something, and if there’s only the one thing around worth glomping onto, it wins. Once upon a time, animation fans could geek out about Animaniacs, Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers, Powerfpuff Girls, Balto, Cardcaptor Sakura, Dexter’s Laboratory, The Lion King, even the good old-fashioned Looney Tunes, and all still be fairly current. But all those things are old now (sorry, but it’s true, people like the New Hotness), and even if they weren’t old, they’re not being broadcast. You have to already be a fan of those for them to still be relevant to you.

If MLP was going up against the WB at its height, or even Cartoon Network during the Space Ghost: Coast to Coast era, it would have had a harder time of it, true, but on the other hand, it is a show being made right now that could stand up to those and give them a run for their money, and in the current climate that’s an accomplishment in and of itself.

-The Gneech

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May 18 2011

Bad Dog Book Club Discussion of “Blackbird Singing”

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Gotta love positive reviews! :) Thanks for the kind words, fellas. Not sure what you were getting at re: “body movements” near the end, I’ll give it a re-listen and see if I can figure it out.

-The Gneech

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Mar 24 2011

Adrian Monk Meets Boo Radley: Something Missing, by Matthew Dicks [Review]

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Martin, the peculiar hero of Something Missing, is a burglar by profession, but not just that. Martin is a master burglar, who robs the same house again and again over the course of years or decades and never gets caught because, and here is the brilliance of his scheme: he only steals things people won’t miss anyway. Six bars of soap in the linen closet? Make that five. An unopened bottle of drain cleaner under the kitchen sink for months? Just the thing. A single dishtowel gone missing? That was probably Martin’s work.

Martin’s is an orderly and meticulous mind: he carefully researches his “clients” to find just the right fit (dog-owners are out!), and plans his thefts over the course of many, many illicit trips into the house. By taking digital photos of the refrigerator, the pantry, the china cabinet, the silver drawer, the jewelry box, he works out over time what gets used and what doesn’t, what will be missed, and what won’t. The book opens with him stealing the second earring of a matched pair: he stole the first one (but only the one) six months previously so the owner would assume she’d lost it somewhere. After all, what thief would only steal a single earring, right? Once the second is allowed to languish without its twin in the bottom of the jewelry box and thus be forgotten, Martin can safely snag it and finally sell off the pair on eBay using his cover identity of a middle-aged shopaholic housewife who’s forever selling off “last year’s treasures.”

All of this long-term, intimate research of the people he refers to as his clientele has, over time, instilled in the lonely and repressed Martin a certain proprietary feeling towards them. When he stops burgling a household, say because they have a child (couples with children are unsuitable for various reasons, not the least of which is that it adds unpredictability into their lives), Martin feels like he’s losing a long-term friend. And what’s more, as time goes on, he finds himself becoming a sort of guardian angel; he starts by befriending a talkative parrot, but progresses into an anonymous and unknown sort-of-askew Mary Poppins who patches up domestic unhappiness and makes sure surprise parties go unspoiled. With few friends and even fewer family members of his own, he has become an unrequited adopter of the people he makes his living mooching from.

However, much to his dismay, the more he gets involved, the more his life goes off the rails. His chessmaster-like planning goes out the window as he starts reacting to crises and he finds himself hiding in closets, chased by (shudder!) dogs, and falling in love. And when he finds that one of his best clients is being stalked by someone with all of Martin’s skill but much more sinister intentions, everything in Martin’s life is turned upside down.

The Good

Something Missing is a breezy, enjoyable book, and Martin is both a very likeable and surprisingly relatable protagonist. Intelligent and introverted, Martin may be a shade anti-social but he’s not a sociopath. If anything, it’s his extreme sensitivity to the feelings of others that’s led him to his peculiar line of work. Not being versed on the ways of burglary myself, I don’t know how much of the equipment and techniques Martin employs are real, but they’re certainly convincing and well thought-out. And of course there’s a lot of suspense: once Martin starts varying from his pre-planned strategies and controlled situations, he keeps finding himself deeper and deeper in unfamiliar and dangerous territory which escalates every time. A chatty parrot who keeps calling him rude names seems like the least of Martin’s worries by the time he faces off against his malevolent counterpart. Themes of redemption and grace quietly underpin the story without making a fuss about themselves, making Martin’s very moving transformation over the course of the book both inevitable and desired.

The Bad

I can’t think of any real criticisms to this book. It does take a little time to get into the meat of the story: the first major “plot point” doesn’t really occur until roughly the 50% mark, but there is enough happening with setting the groundwork of Martin’s character, establishing and illustrating his techniques and patterns, and foreshadowing the events of later in the book that you never really feel like there’s nothing going on. Something Missing isn’t a Life-Changing Masterwork, perhaps, but it has not ambitions to be. It’s a fun, enjoyable read about an interesting protagonist, and considers that to be enough.

The Ugly

As I’ve been doing with so many books recently, I read this via the Kindle app on my iPad: and like everything I’ve read this way, there are the rare few spurious line breaks or superfluous hyphens. But there’s nothing wrong with the writing itself. Readers may find the conspicuous appearance of brand names for everything to be jarring: Stop And Shop, Liquid Plumbr, Rice-A-Roni. It’s a deliberate device the author uses to illustrate Martin’s character: Martin is very specific about every little detail, including the particular brand of any item he may come in contact with. But after a while it reads like product placements, particularly as most modern readers have been trained to hear about generic items rather than specific ones. It isn’t a real problem, but it does stick out and once you notice it you can’t stop seeing it every time it happens.

The Final Verdict

Something Missing is a fun book and I recommend it to anyone who is intelligent, introverted, or has inclinations towards benevolent larceny. It’s a fast read, but one that rewards paying attention to the details. If nothing else, it will make you a bit more aware of your home security…

-The Gneech

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Mar 15 2011

It’s Been … Unexpected: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde [Review]

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Is it police procedural? Is it alternate history? Is it zany surrealist fantasy? Is it literary fanwank? Is it some variety of steampunk? Is it time-travel weirdness? Is it tongue-in-cheek tall-tale? No. Or, well, yes, but not exclusively yes to any of these.

It is The Eyre Affair, the first novel of the “Thursday Next” series, by Jasper Fforde, and it is … well … hard to pin down. And like the book, this review will also be hard to pin down. Was it an entertaining romp? Was it an impressive literary achievement? Did it have fundamental problems? No. Or, well, yes, but not exclusively yes to any of these, either.

Where to begin? The year is 1985 (as opposed to 1984, presumably) and the place is an alternate-England which is still the most powerful nation in the world, has never known Winston Churchill, is in a cold war with the Republic of Wales, and in a hot war with the Empire of Russia over the Crimean peninsula. The protagonist, Thursday Next, is a literary detective, tasked with keeping original manuscripts safe from fanatic academics or would-be kidnappers and generally protecting the extremely-book-minded people of Britain from the scourge of literary crimes. Next is born of a remarkable family that includes her time-stopping rogue temporal cop father, and her uncle Mycroft who invented a pencil with a spell-checker and is working on a sarcasm early-warning device. When one of Mycroft’s inventions, a portal that enables you to literally step into or out of a book, is stolen by Acheron Hades (the third wickedest man in the world), Next must stop the kidnapping or assassination of literature’s most beloved characters, including Jane Eyre herself.

And this, mind you, is the bare-bones description of the plot. We won’t even go into the vampire hunt gone wrong, the black hole that opens up over the freeway and tears a hole in spacetime, or the running subplot about who actually authored Shakespeare’s plays.

The Good

Lest I be too ambiguous for my own good, let me state clearly: I very much enjoyed The Eyre Affair and if the description above sounds like the kind of thing you’d enjoy, I recommend it without hesitation. The characters are well-drawn and plot clips along at a good pace, and around every turn of the page there’s a new nifty bit to discover. This is a book that’s packed full of interesting ideas thrown at you in rapid succession, so you’ll never be bored. Thursday Next is a likable and believable protagonist, which is a key feature considering how many other things the book asks you to believe as well. The book is very thoroughly, almost achingly, postmodern … if there was such a thing as post-postmodern, this book would be it. Some might consider this a bug, but I consider it a feature, at least in this particular case. I don’t always want books going all Ferris Bueller on me, but if a book is going to, then I want it to do it as well as The Eyre Affair does.

The Bad

Unfortunately, the further away you get from Next, the less believable the characters come to be. Almost everyone in this book has a clever shtick, whether in the form of a joke name (recurring annoyance/semi-antagonist Jack Schitt, earnest but put-upon fellow cop Victor Analogy, and of course the villain himself Acheron Hades) or in the mere oddness of their existence (such as Felix7 and his replacement Felix8, who are simply the latest in a series of Hades’ henchmen to have the same face grafted on in memory of the original Felix). After a while it can become hard to keep thinking of these characters as actual characters, because they’re more like a series of funny ideas that have been given dialog.

This also makes motivations start to come off wobbly. Characters find themselves in love a lot here, except with all the usual steps (meeting, learning each others’ name, actually talking to each other for more than a sentence) all being handwaved into the backstory or just left offstage entirely; not just one but two romantic triangles are introduced and then dropped again like hot potatoes. The villains of the piece are just as sketchy: Hades is just born bad and likes it; Jack Schitt aims for the moral gray-zone but doesn’t ever really sound like he means it.

Finally, the sheer weirdness of the setting also undermines the book’s core premise: in a world as over-the-top as the book’s is, how could an essentially realistic work such as Jane Eyre even exist, without also being a reflection of the weird world it inhabits? In a setting where demonic arch-criminals walk through the walls and you occasionally find yourself jumping back in time six months by accident, why aren’t there jetpacks and dinosaurs running around in the works of Charlotte Bronë?

Still, none of these things kill the book by any means, they’re just things that struck me while I was reading. Keep in mind that I have a very analytical mind, and so I pick apart everything as I go. If you’re more inclined to just jump in to a book and ride it like a rollercoaster, these things probably won’t bug you at all.

The Ugly

Very little to say here; as befits a book about bibliophiles, the language is clear and crisp and even when things go all pear-shaped you can generally follow the thread. I read the Kindle edition and there were a few odd typos in the form of hyphens that didn’t need to be there or paragraph breaks erroneously shoved into a sentence, but nothing truly egregious. I will warn the reader that there are a few spots where the text gets even more meta than it already is, and so if you suddenly think you’re reading the most badly-proofread book ever, you aren’t. It’s working as intended.

Final Verdict

On the whole, I found The Eyre Affair to be a very readable, enjoyable tale of quirky adventure, and I plan to pick up the rest of the series forthwith. (In fact it was my scooping up the newest book, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, on a whim last week that led me to grabbing The Eyre Affair.) I’m eager to have a new series to follow, and this is certainly a promising start. I already handed my copy off to a friend who is a notorious Terry Pratchett fan, with confidence that he’ll get a kick out of it.

-The Gneech

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