Thursday, November 23, 2006

More Notes from my Fiction Career

Utne Reader reviews Beeswax magazine, favorably! They don't specifically mention my story, but I am pretty sure they were just being coy.

- Review of Thomas Pynchon's new novel Against the Day; I should have this read by QIII, 2009.
- A review of Cormac McCarthy's new dramatic novel The Sunset Limited.
- Perhaps, finally, a highlight reel of Warhammer 40K fiction. Of course much of Pynchon's new book takes place at a blimp convention in the year 40,800, so I may be able to kill two birds with one stone here.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Tristes Tropiques

In my groundbreaking review of Final Fantasy XII I mentioned a 1990s semi-interactive screensaver about a man marooned on a desert island. The Internet has generously provided me with a wealth of detail on this subject: the screensaver is Johnny Castaway, a 1993 Sierra On-Line production. In my callow youth I adored screensavers, and I remember weeping many a salty tear because I would never have "flying toasters" because it was only for Apple computers. I did have Johnny Castaway, which even then I felt was kind of a disappointment. It was one of those screensavers that was essentially way too complicated to use for its intended purpose. Basically, it was an extremely slow-paced cartoon which consisted mostly of Johnny shuffling around his island in his tattered rags. Occasionally a little canned event would play. On holidays, Johnny would set up seasonally appropriate decorations. It was probably not worth waiting an entire year to watch Johnny string up from VGA tinsel on his palm tree. The whole thing bore an air of melancholy and although I thought it would be amusing to write about this little-missed piece of software ephemera, it's actually kind of depressing.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Start Digging some Nerd Holes

A Review of Final Fantasy XII

As many of you (actually, just EHastings) may know, the demo of Final Fantasy XII filled me with disgust and I swore I would never buy it. It did not, at first, seem like a game, it was more like one of those semi-interactive screensavers that were briefly popular in the 1990s (Castaway Jim?). Yet here I am, having just spent about ten hours playing it, and it’s really awfully good.

Online review sites have, as usual, been gushing about the top-notch plot and characters. They are, as usual, giving Square-Enix entirely too much credit. Here’s the basic sketch: a disaffected, spiky-haired orphan teams up with a quiet princess to fight a cruel, mechanically-inclined empire. Is this sounding familiar, O People of the Internet? Within the first half-hour of the game, the protagonist’s female best friend plants her hands on her hips and tells him to be careful, something that every female character in every Japanese RPG is required to do as often as possible (don't worry, she gets kidnapped just a little later). The princess, whose name is something like Ashleigh Starla Modeine IV, confines herself mostly to spluttering and saying things like “I’ll never surrender!” Thomas Pynchon, this ain’t. On the plus side, although the things the characters are saying are stupid, the localization is very good, like a pretty good fantasy novel. Lord Vayne, the effeminate, long-haired villain (sound familiar again?) actually makes a very interesting, rhetorically ornamented speech early on.

The characters themselves are shopworn wares from the FF series stock – a determined knight, a determined plucky lad, a determined female sidekick, a determined princess, and a sarcastic but nonetheless determined sky pirate. The highlight character is Fran (yes, her name is Fran), an oddly accented furry who is screwing Sky Pirate Balthier in what must be some extremely awkward and unsatisfying virtual grappling. She has a neat, kind of vaguely Bjorkian accent but is otherwise a standard FF weirdo elf rabbit creature thing.

So as usual the plot and characters should be ignored, but the game mechanics, OH DOCTOR are they good. Two radical changes improve the combat system: no random encounters (all the enemies are already on the map and you fight them without transitioning to a battle screen), and no controlling your characters. The Gambit system, which EHastings accurately described as an autistic programming language, means that you can set general tactics for your characters and then just watch them level grind for hours on end. Somehow, they made this really, really fun. This isn’t as big a revolution as you might initially think: famous old PC games like Baldur’s Gate did basically the same thing, as did the more recent (and vastly better-plotted) Knights of the Old Republic series. FFXII’s gambit system is nonetheless a big improvement on the automatic combat of these other titles: the gambits let you set, in detail, actions for most possible scenarios, and the simple, intuitive system is nonetheless very powerful. You can take just a few seconds to set a behavior like, “If any of your allies are injured, heal them, unless they’re really severely injured, in which case you should give them a potion, and if no enemies are around you should recharge your magic and then heal everyone.” Afterwards, you can experience a brief moment of reverse Schadenfreude when you realize how excited you got over programming the behavior of a virtual rabbit-woman archer.

Anyway, the trademark of Final Fantasy has always been the endless parade of tedious, enervating random battles, and they are gone from this version. What could have been boring (watching your cyberdudes fight) just makes the game feel fast-paced and constantly new. Fighting, say, fifty enemies in a row take about ten minutes, gives measurable rewards, and requires only periodic nudges. Everything else is pretty much standard: you have a standard level board instead of the monstrous “Sphere Grid” from Final Fantasy X, so if you want to customize all your characters in bizarre ways, you can. If only there were a way to turn off the repetitive, vulgar music score this would be perfect. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Reviews you can Use

NB – No one will ever be able to use these reviews for any reason.

LAMY Safari Fountain Pen.

This is an inexpensive aluminum* fountain pen – no precious resins, pewter wizards or fragments of Abraham Lincoln’s DNA interrupt its smooth, industrial surface. It has a snap-on cap with a sleek but ultimately useless wire staple clip (as you can see in the picture, it’s U-shaped, so it bends whatever you clip it to; it’s also very tight). It’s very light and pretty large and the shape is very slightly squared. You could use it to write a check for €250 to a store in Munich that sells only stainless steel paperweights. The nib is almost without ornament, nearly black in color, and has a Teutonic rigidity. It seemed a little scratchy at first until I got the hang of it; it needs a very light touch despite its brutalist looks.

In a marketing move that could only come out of Germany this pen is advertised as being youthful and fun, as if “youthful” and “fun” weren’t already synonymous with fountain pens!. It comes in a variety of ultra-gay colors. If Lamy were an American company their ads would doubtless use rapping exotic animals or snowboarders. I can’t really conceive of any reason for a person other than me to buy this pen, unless you think you might like to write with a fountain pen and don’t want to invest too much of your inheritance in it.

* Mine is aluminum - they're also available in plastic for around $20.


David Fisher moves to Miami, teams up with Richard from Sex and the City and becomes a serial killer. Also, he is no longer gay and is dating Darla from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He is going to be so pissed when he founds out that she has Received the Dark Kiss of the Immortal Blood Rose of Seduction Vampire Style. In all fairness, this show is incredibly good. Dexter’s sister is appealing, the plot has been tight and, in a reversal of Showtime’s usual policy, the characters have depth and interest. Especialy Dexter. The writers have not made him a white knight who slays the guilty; he’s definitely a serial killer, a man who only feels alive and connected when he’s sawing someone’s head off.

Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction

This $20 Xbox game imagines a situation in which dynastic instability and violent conflict in North Korea result in a huge, disastrous war. Huh. The forthcoming sequel is set in Venezuela and is already drawing fire from that country’s legislature because they fear it is a tool of intimidation. This games takes the Grand Theft Auto formula to an actual warzone, but unfortunately they’ve brought along the GTA staples of uneven difficulty and unwieldy controls. If Venezuelans are afraid of tedious escort missions, getting run over by a van just as they’ve finally completed a 45-minute long operation for the fourth time, or being shot from nine miles away by some jerk-off with a rocket, then they may be right.