And There Was Much Rejoicing

2 03 2010

Ah, hell yes! HBO has given the green light on a season order for a series based on George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Think of a combination of “Rome” and “The Wire” in a medieval setting and you’re on the right track toward the show’s potential.

For further explanation of why the books have earned Martin the title “the American Tolkien,” check out a previous blog posting of mine.

For further musings on the series pickup, click on through.





Gone, but Not Forgotten

18 02 2010

Fifteen years ago, one of my favorite things in the world came to an end. Bill Watterson’s comic strip creation “Calvin and Hobbes,” vanished from newspapers, retired after a seemingly too-short run from 1985 to 1995.

Watterson, who has always shied away from fame in a manner similar to the late J.D. Salinger, granted a rare interview this week to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a newspaper near the author’s home. Reading the piece led me to reflect on my own affection for the blond-haired 6-year-old and his tiger.

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My Year in Games

11 01 2010

Having finally acquired an HD TV, a mighty blow from which my credit card has still not fully recovered, I officially entered the modern era of gaming in 2009.

Thus equipped, I spent the year checking out the hype on new games, but also pursued low-fi fun by replaying of old favorites and discovering the joys of a java-version Settlers of Catan.

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The Best I’ve Ever Had

21 10 2009

On this side of the pond, the British fascination with a cup of hot tea has always baffled us Yankees as a somewhat quaint, slightly ridiculous and totally unnecessary obsession, akin to driving on the left side of the road or standing in a queue. I belonged firmly in this American camp until recently, when my mother gave me a box full of bagged leaves and insisted it would change my life. Internally, I scoffed at her suggestion, but took the carton nonetheless, confident my opinion was sure.

A tea worth fighting for.

A tea worth fighting for.

A week later, I’m completely dedicated to my daily cup of PG Tips English tea.

I’ve always liked and enjoyed tea but mainly relegated it to cold days or spells of sickness.  In my mind it was one beverage option among many, hardly an integral part of my day. So, I took my mother’s advice, boiled some water and tossed in the bag along with a slice of lemon and prepared myself to not be impressed.

The first sip, and indeed the whole first cup, seemed nothing revolutionary. Enjoyable — sure; a deeper, stronger flavor — definitely; but did it make me want start pronouncing “aluminum” like a fool — not really.

The next day, I came home exhausted from a long shift at my new job and decided to brew up a cup for myself. The effect upon finishing the hot beverage astounded me; I felt rejuvenated, full of pep and vigor but also relaxed, even serene. It was better than a cigarette (and better for you), and I suddenly felt the urge to build an armada, initiate an industrial revolution and colonize a few African nations. I had always wondered how Winston Churchill had become such a bad-ass, now I know he must have drunk nearly as much tea as he did booze.

The dumping of a bunch of tea into the ocean had never really impressed me as revolutionary, but now I understand that refusing to drink such a vital elixir could indeed be interpreted as an act of war.

In fact, I have found this tea so fulfilling that it inspired my first fully formed guitar composition. It’s a simple song, but it captures the essence of my feelings. The words go something like this…

My dark, English tea
It’s my dark, English tea

It’s my favorite kind of tea
It’s the only tea for me

…Now, I never said it was a very clever song (or even any good) but you should keep in mind the fact that I am a terrible guitar player/song writer. I’ve been attempting to achieve some level of mediocrity on the damned six-stringed instrument for the better part of two years now, so the fact that I could finally string together some words and chords, then play and sing them simultaneously (thanks to PG Tips tea) surprised me.

If all this seems a reckless exaggeration,  I would say please withhold your judgment until you have sampled this most pleasant of concoctions yourself. Just don’t forget the slice of lemon.





Another Stellar Recommendation

24 06 2009

I am motivated to write this post by the same impulse that directed me to recommend the fantasy fiction of George R.R. Martin. In conversations that cover the subjects of literature or journalism, what one likes and one doesn’t, I often deliver the same sermon extolling the virtues of a weekly radio production from Chicago NPR station WBEZ. Such endless recommending can become tedious, its listeners began faking interest and I am often frustrated that the full extent of its merits is not conveyed. Hence, this post seeks to rectify this situation by providing a definitive account of the subject.

"Every week we bring you a theme and a variety of stories based on that theme"

"Every week we bring you a theme and a variety of stories based on that theme"

“This American Life,” hosted by Ira Glass, consistently delivers a show remarkable in its storytelling, relentless in its journalistic legwork and surprising in its content. It is some of the finest American journalism being produced today.

The show is structured around a theme, conceptual creative and various in scope, with a series of stories, or acts, that relate to the week’s motif. The number of acts per show changes, two to four is typically, with bigger one-act tales coming along occasionally. One show even attempted to cram 60 one-minute acts into a single episode.

The show uses a staple of regular contributors and producers and occasionally includes work by well-known non-fiction authors such as David Sedaris or Dan Savage. Some acts are journalistic retellings, full of interviews, others are personal essays read by those who wrote them and even short stories make rare appearances. While the show has a general formula, the crew at WBEZ constantly finds new ways to tweak and explore the show and what can be with it.

The medium of radio is ideal for the show. Unlike television, which clearly separates the viewer from the performer, radio has a transformative intimacy. As you listen to people tell stories (tragic, funny, heartbreaking, heartwarming, shocking, informative, inspiring, refreshing, gut-wrenching stories) in their own voices and struggle to express them in their own words you feel a closeness to the person and the story.

With a full hour straight through, no commercials, each act is given enough time to develop, evolve and change. There are no hurried edits, one-line cuts or soundbites. Each issue is thoroughly explored and each episode gives you something you didn’t have before, be it information or insight.

For “This American Life,” the success is in the stories. As I listed a few paragraphs up, the range of emotions evoked in a single episode can vary wildly and some of the tales will stay with you for a long time.

In particular, I will always remember the story of a kid whose father, an electrician and TV repairman, dies of a heart attack. It’s the 1950s when his father dies, unwarned and unaware about the risk factors contributing to heart disease. A few years later, the kid decides in typical childish fashion, to dedicate his life to inventing time travel, to save his father before it’s too late.

And for most, this is where the story would end. The kid grows up and realizes that time travel is not possible, just the dream of a distraught child. Instead, the show traces the course of this kid’s life as he goes to college for physics, becomes an engineer and spends the next few decades of his life trying to make time travel possible. He undergoes ridicule and accolades, setbacks and steps forward, love and divorce all in effort to warn his father, to get a couple more years to spend with him.

You can hear “This American Life” as part of the weekend programming for most public radio stations or download the podcast from their Web site or iTunes. Worth a listen, I promise





A Worthwhile Experiment

14 05 2009

For many geeks out there, the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering was something dabbled in to some degree or another during middle school but quickly abandoned by most. It ranks up there with Dungeons and Dragons in the unsexiness department. However, it’s a hobby that I’ve always felt has never been given it’s proper due and with the relase of the CCG-RTS hybrid “Battleforge” from Electronic Arts, it might finally get some mainstream cred.

battleforge

CCGs still remain a staple at the fringes of nerdom and there’s really a great variety of different options to indulge in. However, few brands, with the exception of Magic, enjoy any long-term success. A couple of video game adaptations have been made in an effort to bring the hobby more exposure, but these too have failed. Yet, as one of the world’s biggest video game publishers, EA has recently thrown the resources and ambition to give this experimental project a chance.

The key difference between “Battleforge” and many of its predecessors is that EA has fused the gameplay with one of gaming’s most popular genres, real-time strategy, in order to make it accessible to a larger audience. Combine that with borrowed loot mechanics from “World of Warcraft” and an RPG-esque division between PvP and PvE and you get one of the most innovantive adentures in video gaming in quite a while.

It works like this. Before playing the game proper, you select 20 different cards from an initial pool of 160, split across four elements, and these form the “deck” you take into a match. The cards include creatures, spells and defensive structures. Once the game begins, your entire deck is available to you and you can play any cards for which you have the proper resources and prerequisites. There is very little in the way of traditional RTS base-building and expansion, which gives the game a fluid, fentic feel. The ability to instantly summon units onto a battlefield changes the dynamics significantly and helps the game stand out from the usual RTS.

The game also features a kind of practice arena called the Forge where you can test out newly formed decks. Here you can pit your creatures and spells against waves of AI foes or even face your cards off against each other. It’s alot of fun to mess around with and you can easily lose hours tweaking and experimenting with different combinations. Another winning attribute is that many of the available scenarios in the game are co-op, with increasing levels of difficulty and rewards (making it a kind of MMORTS). For anyone who’s seen the kind of disputes that can arise from a “friendly” match of “Starcraft,” the option to work together is a welcome addition.

In order to financially support continued patches and content for “Battleforge,” EA is relying on the tactic of tradtional CCGs. In order to acquire new cards after you initially purchase the game, you can buy booster packs of 8 random cards at $2.50 or bid on an individual card through the game’s built-in auction house. Herein lies a large part of the game’s gamble, as it remains to be seen whether or not players will be willing to pour in more money after throwing down $50 for the game.

This also creates another problem. The holy grail of all RTS games is balance, trying to give each faction a unique feel without any one objectively superior to the other. However, the fact that the composition of your army is somewhat subject to the random luck of booster packs creates an uneven playing field.

In the end, the game is certainly fun to play, the action is not very micro-intensive, but there are moments where the game feels dangerously shallow. The Forge, while great, can be frustrating lacking in features and the game in general, from the graphics to the lore, has a very raw feeling. It seems clear that EA won’t hesistate to cut the strings on the project if it doesn’t pull in any revenue.

The potential is there, but the future of “Battleforge” will depend on how many players the game can draw and, subsequently, how much effort EA will put into developing new content, cards and patches. Without a constant stream of new decks, maps and features the game will become stale and lose its chance to establish a foothold in the competitive RTS landscape. Afterall, “Starcraft 2” isn’t that far away.

Still, in an industry where the vast majority of titles are sequels and popular forumlas are endlessly cloned, it’s good to see that EA was willing to put up some money on such an expirment.





A Public Service Announcement

8 05 2009

My early endeavors in reading were largely based in the realm of epic fantasy material, a habit which I still indulge every now and then today. For some reason, I’ve always been obsessed by the idea of swords and sorcery, reading authors and books good (Tolkien) bad (anything Dragonlance ), and good at first then bad (Robert Jordan). However, there is a modern fantasy author who, I believe, stands way above his peers and completely transcends the conventions of the genre, thus accessible to a larger audience. So, I take every chance I can to try and recommend this particular series of books to anyone and everyone. I thought I would take the time in this space and explain to all what makes it the greatest fantasy produced in recent memory.

While George R.R. Martin has written horror, science fiction, short stories and edited many anthologies, his current project and most famous work is a series called “A Song of Ice and Fire.” The first book is “A Game of Thrones” and GRRM has said he expects to finish the story in seven book, with four currently published.

asoiaf

The name has a familiar fantasy ring to it, but his greatest strength is the way he defies the well-worn stereotypes of the genre. There are no elves or dwarfs, no righteous hero of pure heart, no wizened old wizards or epic prophecy to be fulfilled. The setting is most similar to a medieval Britain and the story can be graphic and violent as those times in human history often were. This helps give it a great authentic, historical feel that is lacking from flighty, feel-good fantasy.

His saga is a rare thing among fantasy authors as it is character-driven, with a memorable cast filling the pages. The characters are captivating because all of them possess shades of gray and undergo profound shifts with the events of the story. Many times, it’s hard to tell exactly who is the good guy or who you should be rooting for.

Beware, if you decide to read, GRRM has no qualms killing off main characters.

Part of the reason the characters are so interesting is in the specific manner in which GRRM write his chapters. Each chapter is given the title of a character and then follows that character from their point of view in third person. This allows readers to observe the story’s conflicts from various perspectives and get to know all the characters more intimately than an overarching narrative voice would allow. The effect is something similar to that achieved by gripping TV dramas, like “Lost” or “Battlestar Galactica,” which juggle several different plot threads at once and often end with cliffhangers.

Another reason to give GRRM a shot is that HBO has recognized the series’ potential and given the green light for a pilot to be produced. Casting has just gotten started for the pilot, so it still remains to be seen if HBO will actually go ahead and order a full season. I believe, like many fans, that GRRM and HBO would be a perfect fit.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s a very mature saga and many sequences or characters would have to be signified altered for a PG-13 rating. Further, the writing style of the series is a natural fit for TV given its pacing and focus on character development over epic battles. Imagine “Rome” or “Deadwood” in a medieval setting. It’s an exciting possibility and I really think HBO could do the transition from book to screen proper.

Unlike this adaptation, which I’m not excited about at all.