Monday, March 25, 2013

Adam Sessler compares Bioshock Infinite to Half-Life

I'm going to go ahead and apologize for the lack of updates this blog will surely see due to this game coming out in three hours:


This is really a bad time for this game to come out. Every aspect of my life that tends to get busy (my working life, my writing life... okay, that's about it) is absolutely busy as hell at the moment. Damn it, Irrational Games! I don't need this shit right now!

PS
I'm working on a short horror story right now. Surprisingly, I just finished a horror story, too. It was about (well, sorta/kinda inspired by) the Phantasmagoria ride at Bell's Amusement Park. It's definitely one story I'm going to shop around rather than stash in a drawer and forget. It's been nearly three-quarters of a year since I published my last story so, yeah, I need to get my ass into gear. Too bad Duotrope costs money now. It's almost enough for me to use a frowny face emoticon... almost.

PPS
If you're a speculative fiction writer, seriously click that "Duotrope" link above.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Radiolab: "Sleep" (The Tetris effect)

Radiolab is my favorite show on NPR. It alone is a solid reason why any politician who wants to defund public broadcasting must never be taken seriously is a fucking moron. In the latest episode of the incredibly entertaining and informative show, the investigators find the most important piece of science literature on dreams in the last forty years focuses on the Tetris effect, the phenomenon in which gamers see Tetris pieces in their sleep. A researcher found that 60% of his test group dreamed about Tetris after playing it for prolonged periods of time.


My friend and I played several hours of Civilization 5 last Saturday and both of us had dreams about the game. My girlfriend admits to experiencing the Tetris effect when she played a lot of Bejeweled. I've gotten it from Minecraft and paintball among other things.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Last Circus, the (not-so) big 3-0, and the brilliance of Lucifer's Hammer

This blog post is going to be all over the place. Not very professional, but then again I'm not a professional blogger. I just use this space as a warm-up for the writing I take seriously. 

So here's the trailer for The Last Circus (aka Balada Triste de Trompeta), but don't watch it. It really is best to go into the movie fresh, without any idea of what you're about to see, just so long as you're not the type who's sensitive to simulated sex and violence. And if that's the case, what are you? Six?

a movie clip related to The Last Circus

I have two or three complaints about The Last Circus, but they're so minor it'd be trivial to mention 'em. Want my review? Here you go: it's a great movie, damn near perfect. That's all you need to know. No need for a two or three page review.

So I just turned 30. Same shit, different day as the characters in the awful Dreamcatcher might say. My girlfriend's going through a family crisis and I'm watching her parents' dogs until the waves calm. Meanwhile I've been reading Lucifer's Hammer. It's a book I've been meaning to read for years. The time has finally come and it's been getting a lot more attention than these damn dogs.

And holy shit. I had no idea what I was in for. This is the best piece of disaster fiction I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. It reads like an extremely vivid nightmare.

Sagan said that building our civilization on science and technology, but not understanding it, was "a recipe for disaster." Lucifer's Hammer is the worst case scenario in a world in which tax payers and politicians don't understand the return value of scientific research—the worst offender in recent memory was Sarah Palin who publicly made fun of fruit fly experiments. Perhaps "worst case scenario" is misleading because the events in the book become more plausible everyday it doesn't happen. Only the most hopeful (or completely ignorant) could hope the planet won't be struck by a life-threatening object while humans are living on it, especially when you consider it's happened numerous times before we were here. As one character points out the chances of an extinction-level threat occurring on our planet is almost a certainty given enough time. 

Indeed, a pretty big impact event might be happening as soon as 2014—not here on our planet, but on Mars, just next door. 

It would be an event on the same sort of scale as the impact that drove the dinosaurs extinct 65m years ago. If it really is that big, and if the comet were to hit the side of Mars facing Earth (it seems that it might do, but it might also hit the far side), then the blast could well be visible to the naked eye, even in daylight.

While Jupiter's size and influence acts like the inner planets' magnet-like security system for such things, it's foolish to expect it to thwart all such events. As Lucifer's Hammer points out (as well as Arthur C. Clarke in his more optimistic novel, The Hammer of God) comets are incredibly unpredictable because the closer they get to the sun, the warmer they get and the ice tends to vent, which changes the object's trajectory like crude retros. 

Niven and Pournelle make the civilization-destroying comet in their book a character in and of itself, one that's almost as old as the universe. The way they write about its past almost makes you think it's been destined to hit us all along, which really beefs up the sense of dread. The characters are plentiful and they're real enough to care about. The decision to set the story in the seventies was probably the right decision at the time (the book is well known for its sense of urgency), but now the novel sort of comes off as dated, particularly in a scene which features Johnny Carson. Quick fix: just imagine it's an alternative universe. 

The scientists in the novel spend several pages assuring humans there's nothing to worry about, but continuously revise the odds as the comet grows closer. The "one in a million chance" of impact eventually dwindles to "one in a thousand" and, well, bad things happen. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of characters who insisted tax payers' money should be spent on "problems a little closer at home." Even environmentalists don't worry much about comets and space rocks even though they're probably the biggest threats. 

Does it hit? Do the scientists thwart it? Any summary on the internet will give the answer away and, as with The Last Circus, I suggest going into it cold. Let the book surprise you. It will. I guarantee that.

The Frighteners is uneven, but worth a watch

One of the reasons I like science fiction so much is I like rules. No, not rules like "don't swim an hour after eating" or "no running." The rules I like are more along the lines of "light is the speed limit of the universe" or "Don't feed them after midnight or get them wet." Any kid knows Dracula shouldn't walk around in the daytime unless, of course, he slopped on a higher number SPF. When Asimov invented The Three Laws of Robotics it didn't restrict his work as one might expect, but set him apart from the rest of the SF writers of that era in a major way. Restraint's a good thing. You need it in addition to a healthy imagination. Crafting a story should be more like playing chess as opposed to Connect Four.

The problem with ghosts is they have no rules. Silver bullets don't work and they don't have a brain to destroy. Did you ever see the 1999 version of The Haunting? Ghosts could do absolutely anything or nothing at all, depending on what the writers needed at any given moment. Man, I hate shit like that. The same problems infect The Frighteners, too, but thankfully they're fewer and farther between.


The first time I saw The Frighteners I was twelve or thirteen and I absolutely hated it. I'm still trying to figure out why ghosts fall through walls when they try to lean on them, but can walk on horizontal surfaces (at least if it's on the first floor of a building) and ride in car trunks. And why can some ghosts smack Michael J. Fox around while others get stuck in doors? While we're at it, why the hell is one of the dead sidekicks cursed to wear 1970s clothes forever while R. Lee Ermey's ghost can change his clothes just by thinking about it? Speaking of Ermey's character, I don't know if I disliked it more when his early scene seemed like an unnecessary (and not very funny) cameo or when the plot curved back around to reveal it was a setup to an ultimately pointless twist.

Let's get one thing straight: I love Peter Jackson's work. I really do. I'm not knocking the director and, to be sure, I'm barely even knocking the movie because it's actually pretty solid in terms of structure and sometimes—okay, rarely—it plays like a bizarre version of Ghostbusters. I was somewhat invested until the tiresome climax which seems to go on for half an hour. And let's face it, the jokes in the movie feel more like afterthoughts. I have a feeling someone with money on the line called it too dark and hastily told a script doctor to "make it funnier." As a comedy it just doesn't work. Having an elderly ghost screw a mummy is a pretty dumb gag, far below the credibility of the guy who made Heavenly Creatures, especially when the ghost is initially turned on by the bone structure in an x-ray.

Oh, and as a horror picture it doesn't work either.

If you must know the plot, let me rattle it off as quickly as possible. Michael J. Fox is a former architect who had a car crash in which his wife died. The traumatic event apparently gave him the ability to see ghosts (just go with it). His only friends in the world are three ghosts who he uses to terrorize people who recently lost a loved one. You know, this guy just seems like an asshole when I put it in words because then the mourning people typically pay him a few hundred bucks to rid their homes of the evil spirits.


In addition to Jackson I'm also a fan of Jeffery "I gave him life!" Combs, but here he's more like a Jim Carrey impersonator, not to mention his character is a rip-off of Major Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark. In that movie there's a gag in which you think he's going to torture Marion, but it turns out his would-be instrument of pain is just a portable coat hanger. In this movie the character reaches into his jacket and instead of the expected gun he pulls out an inflatable donut. Yes, hilarious.

That's it. I have nothing else bad to say about this film. I mean, other than the sound effects of the squirt gun. I'm not sure what was going on in that scene, but—you know what? That's it. All my complaints are out of the way. Well, okay, except for the fact Michael J. Fox drives like a maniac despite the fact he killed his own wife in a car accident. But anyway, I'll bite my tongue if I remember anymore complaints from here on out.

You should know this movie looks amazing. Seriously amazing. If you're not watching it on a projector or an LED screen, you're likely missing out. The best shots are in the opening reel, but the breathtaking views are peppered throughout. Then there are the special effects which had to have been a nightmare for the filmmakers, but they pay off. Wikipedia says:

The visual effects were created by Jackson's Weta Digital, which had only been in existence for three years. This, plus the fact that The Frighteners required more digital effects shots than almost any movie made up until that time, resulted in the eighteen-month period for effects work by Weta Digital being largely stressed.

Also worth noting is Trini Alvarado who doesn't have much to do as the leading lady, but damn it, she should be in a lot more movies. She's just one of those people you like to look at. Fox, on the other hand, does what he does very well, but he's not right for this picture, which was his last leading role. As for Jake Busey... well, what the hell can you say about Jake Busey? He's another one of those people you like to look at and while I didn't buy his character, it was interesting to see him paired with a brunette Dee Wallace.

The sum is greater than the parts, but it really is worth a look as it's currently on Netflix Instant. Perhaps the reason I hated it so much the first time is because I had to pay to see it. Or maybe I was just expecting a bigger, better version of Bad Taste or Brain Dead. If you do watch it, pay attention to the opening shot, which floats through a window in a very familiar manner. What does that shot remind you of? If you had HBO in the nineties, you'll probably place the connection in an instant. I'm guessing it's no mistake the first credit is "Robert Zemeckis Presents."

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Piers Morgan: "I can't believe I have Penn Jillette defending my church."

When his staunch libertarianism isn't getting in the way, Penn Jillette exudes the qualities all skeptics should admire: thoughtful of other people's beliefs, absolutely reasonable, unimposing, and not in the least bit condescending to non-skeptics. Oh, and keeping a debate from devolving into the usual shouting matches on cable TV doesn't hurt either. After reading some of the comments, I get the impression that's what Piers Anthony was hoping for—either a screaming match or a joined attack on his own religion.


While Penn & Teller's Bullshit was a great show as long as you were already part of the choir they were preaching to (and you took their more libertarian episodes with a grain of salt), Jillette's public appearances elsewhere are becoming considerably less cringe-inducing to watch. Level-headed debate may do nothing positive for ratings, but it's what all sides of any argument needs to make an actual point.

I don't know. I find this video noteworthy simply because I'm so sick of negativity and arrogance in the main stream media. I think we need less people like Bill Maher (who's far from being an actual skeptic, but seems to claim the title anyway) and Richard Dawkins (too arrogant), and more nice guys like the new and improved Penn, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye.

Video courtesy of the following tweet:


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

For better or for worse, you've never seen a movie like this (Dreamcatcher review)

Dreamcatcher is a fascinating film from first to finish. I'll give it that. As terrible as it is, it deserves some sort of praise. Check this out: I've seen the fucking thing twice. I haven't even seen Gone with the Wind twice. When you take the director of The Big Chill, the writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and adapt a book by one of the hottest writers of the twentieth century, you don't expect to have a bad time.


Lawrence Kasdan said the film damaged his career. Directing a Hollywood film must be one of the most stressful jobs in the industrialized world. All it takes is a single hiccup to turn a hot director into a director nobody wants to take a chance on. On top of that, these guys have to deal with assholes like me who talk shit about their hard work. The fact is they can't change that, and neither can I for that matter. These things need to be discussed—that's just integral to the creative arts. If there's no risk of harsh criticism, what's the point?

And man, I hate being negative. That doesn't change the fact that Dreamcatcher is one of the worst horror films ever made, but also one of the most expensive. It's the Cleopatra of horror films. Don't get me wrong, here. I'm glad they made Dreamcatcher. The best art is always teetering on the edge of failure. You just can't make a classic film unless it takes huge risks. Dreamcatcher is one of the movies that fell over the line, but where else can you see what is essentially a big budget splatterpunk novel on film? And let it be known I usually have nothing but praise for the guys who made it. Usually. These are some of the best actors alive and yet some of the worst acting I've ever seen.

Seriously, have you ever seen Morgan Freeman so... terrible?

I finished reading Stephen King's novel the same day I watched Dreamcatcher. While most of us complain about all the stuff a movie adaptation left out, this time my mind is boggled by the amount of stuff they left in. In some places they even added stuff. In the book you don't see all four of the main characters interacting nearly as much as they do in the unnecessary scene towards the beginning of the movie. There the characters discuss, ironically, movie cliches. I have a feeling there's a reason you don't see the characters together as adults much in the book, but I can't quite put my finger on why King chose to write it this way. The movie seems to confirm that whatever King's reason was, it was a good reason.

Instead of adapting the book into a screenplay, William Goldman just reduces entire chapters to one-minute (or less) scenes. This makes for one of the most jumbled paces I've ever seen. It's all choppy. Nothing seems to flow. Without flow, you can't have any expectation of true terror. But even though they crammed too much into it, there are places where they left too much out. My favorite scenes in the book were flashbacks to the mentally challenged kid who the main characters befriend when they're children. I liked the children. I liked the mother of the mentally challenged boy. Yet, even in the book it seems like a retread of familiar King material and he's done it better in the past. Still, I wish the movie had focused more on that.

Then there's the memory warehouse. This part is hard to explain, but I'll do my best. See, the filmmakers wanted a way to show what was going on in one character's mind when he was possessed by an unforgivably typical movie alien. So they invented a method of loci gimmick where the camera can visualize his mind as an actual place. The character can even gaze out the window of his memory warehouse and see himself. Which kind of doesn't make any sense. Actually, when they first introduce the memory warehouse (to the tune of Roy Orbison's Blue Bayou) I liked that aside a lot. Initially, anyway. Like so many other scenes in the overproduced film, it brushes brilliance just before it overstays its welcome.

The memory warehouse... why exactly does he need to sneak memories away from himself?

There's also the lack of restraint Stephen King is known for, which doesn't translate well to the screen. The book is very much about cracking his brain open like an egg and spilling the contents across the page. In other words he lets his imagination run wild. Going back to what I said about risk-taking, this is sometimes a good thing. I haven't read much more than a third of his bibliography, but even the book is one of King's weaker efforts so I wonder what drew the filmmakers to it. Perhaps it was the fact most of his other stuff has already been made into movies? I get the feeling the book was so sub-par for King, even the made-for-TV producers who tend to get a hold of his work passed on this one.

If any one thing sums up how stupid this movie is, let it be the scene in the bathroom. I don't care how much you set up a character's eccentricities, I will never believe that even the most addicted of crackheads would have made the same mistake for a fix that one character makes for a fucking toothpick of all things. And we all know it's going to happen, too—a slow-motion shot erases any doubt of that. So where's the suspense in knowing what's going to happen?

As terrible as the movie is, I can't recommend you don't watch it. I wasn't being facetious when I said it's fascinating. And no, it's not funny-terrible like the movies the MST3K guys rip on, but that doesn't mean there aren't unintentionally funny moments. How 'bout the part when a character is skiing very slowly and falls down for no apparent reason whatsoever? Or when Morgan Freeman's character, Colonel Curtis, sincerely tells Tom Sizemore, "Okay, you just drove over the Curtis line!" I think my favorite part is when one character answers a pistol like a phone and talks to his friend via telepathy. That's funny.


And now, a word about the ending: What the fuck was that? One gets the feeling that, in typical Hollywood fashion, the filmmakers decided the book's ending was unfilmable. What they come up with, however, turns out to be even less filmable. And yet they filmed it anyway.

Then: cue credits abruptly. No time for explanations.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Cypher: A Cyberpunk Text Adventure

I've always had a love/hate relationship with text adventures. I love them so much I even began to program one when I (briefly) learned how to code a little bit in Python. Alternatively, I hate them so much that, to this day, I think I've only completed one and it was a very, very short one. So what was I thinking when I bought Cypher, a modern cyberpunk text adventure that costs $15?

This is what I was thinking: I already own practically every game imaginable on Steam. I needed something new, something different, and something utterly mind-bending in terms of complexity. I know, I know: all of the older gamers gripe about how easy games are today, but I'm about to, too. I recently replayed System Shock 2 and wondered exactly why games are so stupidly easy these days. Even its spiritual successor, Bioshock, was considerably simplified. Simplified means, in a nutshell, less freedom.

And that's boring. I'll take getting stuck for several minutes, even an hour, as opposed to the usual gameplay that seems to mimic the tutorial stage from start to finish. And button prompts: WHY?!

a gameplay vid

So of course Cypher's promise that you can do anything you want appealed to me the way tabletop RPGs appeal to the people lucky enough to have friends willing to play them. I gladly paid $15 for the promise of a video game experience like no other. I don't regret spending that money, either, even though the game's far more complicated than I expected. And I do mean complicated. Like, you have no idea how complicated it is.

Here's the deal: you're a data smuggler who lives in a rundown building in the corporation-city NeoSushi. I don't understand why it's called NeoSushi, but there it is—deal with it. As far as evoking the feeling of cyberpunk I can think of no other video games that compete. Yes, it comes perilously close to the world of stereotypes, but damn it, as far as video games there really is nothing as perfectly cyberpunk as this.

Which leads me to the first "problem." This is a game with a very specific audience in mind. Chances are you're not that audience. I'm barely even that audience even though there have been entire months I have eaten, slept, and breathed cyberpunk fiction.

Before I go any further I want to tell you about all the things I liked: it looks great. This game is sleek and the artwork is fantastic. I love the "feelies" (advertisements and brochures from the game universe that you can print out for added flavor) and the overall feel is great. When you're not struggling with how to phrase something you want to do, the game really is hyper-immersive. Even so, it's hard to flat-out recommend it because most people would have no desire to play it. (No, this isn't a "I'm better than you" argument. If this game had come along just a few months earlier, I probably wouldn't have been in the mood for it either.)

What this game needs is a firewall for potential players. I'm here to provide you one. If, at any time, you answer "no" to the following questions, just go ahead and close this tab and go play System Shock 2 instead. This may sound harsh to the game itself, but damn it, I really want the people who would "get" this game to try it. I also want the people who won't get this game (that's pretty much everybody) to save their money so they don't give it a bad review.

Cypher firewall:

1. Do you like to read... a lot?
2. Do you like cyberpunk worlds, a la Blade Runner and Johnny Mnemonic?
3. Do you have a mother lode of patience?
4. Can you deal with the fact the developers' native language isn't English and this will make for a few grammatical errors and typos?
5. Can you deal with the fact that the text parser is extremely unapologetic at times? For example, I got stuck for several minutes because I couldn't figure out the exact phrase for getting through a window. Then I found myself stuck hanging from a hover car for several more minutes.

If you answered "yes" to all of these questions then you should probably check out Cypher. I enjoyed it a lot. It really is unique and not just because it's a modern day text adventure. But damn, it really is insanely hard.

I'm warning you.