A really positive review and a really unfair one

18007564You should go find a copy of The Martian, by Andy Weir, and you should buy it, and you should read it.  Right now.

And I gotta say it: I’m so glad to be able to say that. I was scared of this book, guys:  when you’ve got a novel you’re about to unleash on the world and your novel is set on Mars and someone publishes a book called The Martian with a picture of a dude in a spacesuit on the cover before your book comes out, it tends to inspire… panic.  Mild panic.  Oh shit he wrote my book.

(Note that this has happened to me once already.  I had a novel entirely planned out down to small details and was ready to start writing it when a Star Wars book came out that had the exact same goddamn plot except theirs had Han Solo and Chewbacca in it.  It was uncanny.  I shelved the entire story. I was worried this was going to happen again.)

But it didn’t!  The Martian is the story of an astronaut who is stranded on Mars when his  mission is scrubbed abruptly and in the scramble to get off the planet his team is given very good reason to believe he’s been killed.  At this point it becomes, as a back cover blurb describes it, “Robinson Crusoe on Mars,” which is the greatest four-word high-concept pitch in human history.  The whole thing is tense and engaging and funny and awesome.  It’s 370-some pages and I devoured it in two big gulps over two nights; I was up until midnight last night because there was simply no chance that I was going to put it down.  It is, in a lot of ways, the perfect novel for me.

Sadly, I feel the need to issue a warning: Weir is heavy on the science– and occasionally heavy on the chemistry and the math.  Yes, there’s math in this book, although Weir isn’t actually asking you to do any of it.  But there’s a lot of math drama of the “How do I get enough calories to live X days” type.  And when the main character accidentally turns the hab he’s living in into a bomb, he explains the chemistry behind his stupid mistake.

It is possible that this might turn some people off a bit.  Those people are bad people, don’t get me wrong!  But they might not like this book as much as I did.  Despite their badness.  For me, this is already on the shortlist for best books of the year.  Awesome work; read it now.


I wrote a very brief post when I got home stating that I’d had a long day and I was going to go play some video games.  You may recall me buying a PS3 around Thanksgiving and a rapturous review of The Last of Us; the PS3 has kinda sat and gathered dust since then.  Earlier this week I got a bug up my butt and bought a couple of games that were PS3 exclusives that I’d never had a chance to play.  One of them was Heavy Rain, which took me much longer than it should have to buy because the guy behind the counter wouldn’t shut up about how great the game was for long enough to actually sell it to me.  (Generation gap warning:  He didn’t own a PS3.  He’d stayed up “all night” watching someone else play the game.  On YouTube.  I know “Let’s Play” videos exist, but… really?  That’s a thing The Kids do now?)

I’ve sat and watched Heavy Rain install for twenty-five minutes and played it for maybe twenty, so let’s not even pretend this is a fair review.  I’ve also heard in several places (and I knew this before I even bought the game) that the game starts really slow to get you used to the rather unique control system.  I’m fine with that.  I’m also pretty sure that by the time I finish the game I’ll not be griping about it.  But there is some serious nonsense in the first prologue chapter and I wanna gripe about it.

Yeah.  That control system.  The game starts with your character in bed asleep.  In his tighty-blackies.  The game instructs you to push up to get him out of bed, and wants to really impress you by showing you that the slower you push up the longer he takes to get out of bed.  For the most part so far I’m less playing a game than I am following on-screen prompts; I assume this will either get better or will become less annoying soon.  (Again: I really do believe the people who are raving about this game.  I’m just not there yet.)  Here are the things I did.  There are other things you can do; I didn’t do some of them, and part of the deal behind the game is that the story’s structured so that you can miss stuff.

  • I took a shower.  This sequence involved copious amounts of manbutt (and I’m pretty sure I’d be complaining about pointless nudity even if my character were female, so don’t think this is homophobia talking) and a ridiculous sequence where I had to shake my controller in certain ways so that my dude could dry himself off.
  • I found a note from my wife saying that she’d taken the boys out for groceries.  Note that this implies that everyone in the house is awake and dressed and out doing shit before this lazy bitch even gets out of bed.
  • I got dressed.  At around this point the game pointed out that I could hold a trigger to see what my character was thinking; this is a thinly-veiled way for the game to push you to move the story along.
  • My character thought about doing some work, but the game didn’t provide any feedback on what that meant, so I went downstairs.  I said hello to the family bird along the way.
  • I ate two grapes.  The layout of their house is really weird.
  • I drank juice.  I screwed up the prompt on how to drink the juice so I accidentally gagged on it a little bit.  Yes, that happened.
  • I made coffee.  Espresso, technically, I think.  Drank that too.  Healthy!
  • At some point in here I discovered that it was nearly lunchtime.  My character is seriously a loser.
  • Upon it being suggested that he wanted some “garden time” or something like that, I figured out how to go into the back yard, thinking that maybe there was some work for him to do back there.  I sprawled out on the grass and got back up and went inside.  No work for me!
  • Then my wife got home with the boys.  She handed me some bags, which I promptly dropped because the game made me hold down two different buttons to take them from her and I flubbed one of the buttons.  I put the groceries on the counter.  There is a birthday party for one of the boys soon; she said she was really busy and didn’t know how she was going to get everything done, and the game prompted me to help out.
  • She told me to set the table, but warned me that the dishes were fragile (because we use the good china for basic birthday party lunches.)  The game used this as an opportunity to demo the “move things carefully” mechanic, where you follow onscreen prompts with the thumbsticks really slowly.  I accidentally moved too fast and put a plate slightly off-center from where it was supposed to be.  I tried to fix it but the game wouldn’t let me; I spent the rest of the prologue wondering when that dish would get broken, but it never happened.
  • After doing a shitty job setting the table, I played with the kids’ electric car (I really thought that was going to hit a table leg and jar the plate loose, but it didn’t happen) and then went outside to roughhouse with my kids for a bit, including mercilessly beating one of them up with a plastic sword.  So much for helping my overworked wife, apparently.
  • She called us in for lunch, which was not on the table I’d set.  The boys ran in ahead of me.  I followed them and discovered that one of them had disappeared; how this happened, I don’t know.  I told my wife I’d find him and went upstairs.  He was crouching in front of the birdcage.  The bird was on the floor, dead.  He was sobbing that it was his fault.  My character (and this was a cutscene, so I had no control over it at all) assured him that it was not, with no trace of that damn bird was alive ten minutes ago, what the hell happened?

At this point the first chapter ended and I saved and quit out to go to the Internet.  There appears to be no way to save the bird; it’s not like I forgot to feed it when I got up at noon or anything.  Although given how much of a loser this guy seems to be maybe he’s actually never fed the bird.  I dunno.

I think I miss Q-Bert right now.

New rule!

UnknownWhen it is 9:30 at night, and the most exciting things you’ve done all day are 1) fixing your UNBELIEVABLY GODDAMN LOUD garage door opener by the simple fix of spray some lubricant on it, you idiot, god, did you WANT the motor to burn out, what took so long? and 2) getting really mad at your PS3 and seriously considering a 2,000 word profane rant on the failings of the online store of a video game system that is literally already obsolete, and you’re sitting in front of your computer trying to come up with one, just one entertaining anecdote to end the day with, and those two things are the best you can do?

You go to bed and read, and then you fall asleep.  Even if it’s 9:30 on a Saturday.  Because you are a grown-ass man, and no one can tell a grown-ass man to stay up later than he wants to.

Except his wife.

Who is already in bed.

Like I said: new rule.

In which kids ruin everything

TheLastofUsMankindParenthood changes you; everybody says that.  Prolly ‘cuz it’s true, and pretty self-evidently so at that.  What isn’t always obvious is the ways in which parenting messes with what was probably a perfectly good personality and lifestyle prior to having kids.  I was expecting having a kid to cut into my video game time, right?  I wasn’t expecting having a kid to change the way I related to playing video games, and that’s kinda fascinating to me.

Maybe not to you; I dunno.  Hey: my blog.  Shuddup.

You might remember I got myself a PS3 and The Last of Us around Thanksgiving.  I’ve owned an Xbox 360 (several, actually) since launch; it took until the launch of the PS3’s successor for a game to come out that finally flipped the switch and made me pull the trigger and mix some metaphors up and buy one.

A warning, the only warning you get:  hella spoilers.  If there is any chance at all that you’re ever going to play this thing, first, go do it now— it’s easily worth the price of the system all by itself– and second, don’t read this post until you’ve beaten the game.  I’ll see you in a month or so, if you’ve got my schedule.  Go forth.

A short plot synopsis:  The game starts in present day.  You’re a single dad with a fourteen-ish-year-old daughter.  The zombie apocalypse starts, except these are fungus zombies, which are neater and more frighteningly real than the regular kind.

Within fifteen minutes of the start of the game, your daughter is gunned down in your arms.

It’s… difficult.  As scenes go.  It really fucking sucks.  Badly.

Jump forward twenty years.  Joel (“you”) is still alive; society, not so much.  For various reasons you get tasked with escorting a fourteen-year-old girl, Ellie, across the country.  Ellie, as it turns out, is immune.  Your job is to get her to some sciency folks alive.  

And we’re off to the races.

Folks, The Last of Us is probably the best game I’ve played in years; certainly the best game of 2013.  There’s no real doubt about that.  But what’s most amazing about it is the way it creates this relationship between Joel and Ellie, and pulls you along with it.  You’re tasked with protecting her for much of the game, although (thank God, because otherwise a game-long escort mission would have gone badly wrong) she does a good job of staying out of trouble and eventually is able to actually pitch in and fight alongside you.  But I really don’t think you can properly put yourself inside Joel’s head unless you’re a parent– and lemme tell you something, if you’ve got kids The Last of Us is gonna fuck you up.

There’s a point fairly late in the game where Joel abruptly gets quite badly injured.  The game throws a curveball at you by making you take over as Ellie for a while, trying to pull together enough food and medicine to get Joel through a Colorado winter alive.  There is, of course, one major zombie attack during this sequence, and to me at least it was one of the hardest points in the game– not just because it was, legitimately, a difficult gaming challenge to get through successfully, but because watching Ellie, this little kid who has been depending on you for, by this time, ten to twelve hours of gaming or so, get repeatedly killed was fucking gut-wrenching.  I had to turn the game off, not out of a frustration ragequit (although that was part of it, I’ll admit) but because I literally couldn’t watch Ellie get killed again.

(What did I do then?  Like an idiot, I tried to start the first chapter of the new Walking Dead game– which provided me with a refreshing tonal shift by making me play as 10-year-old Clementine from the first series.  That didn’t work very well either; I still haven’t finished the first section, for much the same reasons.  Plus there’s a thing with a dog and goddammit enough emotional bullshit from games tonight thank you.)

Anyway.  As I said, the main plot point driving the entire game is that Ellie was bitten by one of these things (off-camera, before you ever meet her) and she never succumbed.  She’s immune, and you’re trying to get her to this organization that Joel thinks can help to figure out why she’s so special and possibly find a cure for the Cordyceps fungus.  And then you get there.  And you’re separated from Ellie for a while.  And then you discover that the doctors do think that they can figure out what’s wrong with her– but that the fungus has invaded her brain structure and that it’s going to require risky brain surgery to be able to do anything about it.

It’s worth pointing out that at no point do they say “the surgery is going to kill her.”  They say “we have to do brain surgery” and Joel puts everything else together from there.

And Joel.  Goes.  Nuts.  Previously in the game you’ve either been fighting bandits (generally poorly armed and rarely protected by anything) or zombies (dangerous as hell, but generally lacking distance weapons.)  The last sequence throws you up against dozens of trained commandos with fucking body armor and machine guns.  Now, it’s become painfully apparent by this point in the game that Joel is a bit of a monster– the game isn’t really interested in letting you forget the fact that you’re killing people for part of it, even if those people can be broadly classed as Bad People a fair amount of the time.  It’s visceral.  It gets to you, after a while– and this was clearly a deliberate design decision on the part of the designers.  Joel gets more and more frantic about reaching Ellie before anything can happen to her– and, fascinatingly, so did I– I’m generally a hoarder in games like this, keeping everything in reserve In Case I Need It.  By the time you get to the last bit of the game where you know there’s not much more than a hallway between you and Ellie, I was playing with no quarter given for anyone— you’re behind a corner?  I’m not waiting for you to come out.  Molotov cocktail.  I shot at you once and missed?  Throwing a bomb.  Four of you back there?  Smoke grenade, followed by a Molotov, then breaking the neck of the guy who I missed.  Brutal shit.

And then you burst into the surgical suite.  Ellie’s on the table, unconscious.  There are three doctors in the room, unarmed.  They see the crazy man with the flamethrower (yup) and the machine gun burst into the room… and they cower.

I was expecting, at this point, to be presented with some sort of choice.  No.  Why not?  Because the game has gone to great pains to set up Joel’s character by this point, and isn’t terribly concerned with what you want to happen.  And there is no way in sweet shrieking Hell that Joel is letting anyone stick a knife in Ellie’s brain.  None.  Period.

Your only option is to gun down the (unarmed, hiding) doctors and pick up Ellie and run– which brings you right back to the beginning of the game, where you’ve got a defenseless kid in your arms, and because you’re carrying her you can’t get to your guns and shoot back, and your only option is to run like hell or you’re both going to die.  Because as it turns out the guards do not suddenly get less pissed at you once you’ve killed the doctors and taken Ellie back.

And you know how the game handled this the first time it happened, too.  She died.  And Joel didn’t.

And just to make sure this is clear: I had an Atari, people.  I’ve been a gamer for a very long time; I’m part of the first generation of people who can say honestly that they’ve been gamers for their entire lives.  And I have never once played a game where the main character was given the chance to save the world and chose not to.  Because if the choices are save the world, or save your kid?  Fuck the world.

Like I said:  if you’re a parent, this shit’s gonna fuck with your head.  Because, as contrived as it sounds, that’s not a choice that I could make and expect to keep my sanity.

Amazing, amazing stuff; everyone involved with the game should be proud of themselves.  And you should have played it by now.  Go forth and game.

In which I like things

You knew this already: I bought a Pebble smartwatch, intending to let it and the Fitbit Force battle it out for wrist supremacy and then to decide to keep one of them. The battle was swift and decisive; the Pebble won.

Here is what a Pebble does: 1) It is a watch, which displays the date. It has a variety of watch faces that you can choose from or switch on the fly by pushing a button. This last feature is pointless but kind of fun. 2) It has a backlight activated by an accelerometer; I flick my wrist and the backlight comes on. The time is displayed constantly, like a regular watch, unlike on the Fitbit, where you have to push a button to get the time to display. 3) It does silent vibrating alarms; in this it is more or less exactly like the Fitbit. Implementation for this is better (you can do it from the watch instead of having to use a separate app) but it’s still kinda gimped; unlike the Fitbit, however, the Pebble people are aware that their alarm is gimped and are vocally and repeatedly promising to fix it up soon. 4) When I get a notification on my phone, I get a vibration on my wrist and the notification displayed. In the case of text messages, it generally displays the whole thing; everything else is truncated a bit.

I cannot really express how much I enjoy these latter two features, folks. I don’t like alarms in general; I don’t like being woken up by loud noise and my phone beeping constantly gets on my nerves. Now, I’m fully aware that I could just keep my phone on silent and check it periodically (or, God forbid, ignore it) but I’m a bit too tied into my little digital world for that. Silent wrist alarms are perfect– my phone hasn’t made a sound since I put this thing on, because I put it on silent and am relying instead on all my alerts getting piped to my wrist. It’s subtle and me “checking my phone” is no longer as disruptive to things going on around me as pulling my phone out might be. I love it. The only way it could be better is if it had a microphone built in so that I could do voice texts as responses.

Two more things, actually: it also has 5) apps (supposedly; I haven’t actually checked this feature out) and 6) it can remote-control all the music apps on my phone– which sounded useless at first but comes in surprisingly handy when I’m driving; I can check my wrist to see what song is playing (much less disruptive than looking at the phone) and I can pause when I want to, which is actually easier than fiddling with the volume button on my dashboard.

Drawbacks: it’s clearly first-gen tech in a couple of ways; the display isn’t great (but the battery life is) and it’s dropped connection with my phone once in the couple of weeks I’ve had it, for no clear reason. They make a big deal about watch apps; they don’t seem terribly useful or I’d have downloaded it by now. And I had thought it was capable of duplicating the functionality of the Fitbit– counting steps and sleep tracking– and it doesn’t, at least not without one of those apps I haven’t downloaded yet.

That said? Once I figured out that I walk a good 8000-9000 steps a day during the week (about 3.5-4 miles, if I remember right) and substantially less than that on the weekends, the Force kinda stopped being useful. If I want to walk more, I need to… walk more. I’ve got a baseline, which is useful, but beyond that it’s not good for much. Sleep tracking, too, is neat at first until you realize that you already know how much sleep you get or don’t get and quantifying that isn’t terribly helpful.

Winner: Pebble. No damn contest.

Also: I hooked up the PS3 yesterday, and The Last of Us, or at least the first couple of hours of it, is fucking amazing; if it keeps up this level of excellence it will be easily worth the cost of the system. Since I also got a code for a free month of PlayStation Plus, and can therefore get Shadows of the Colossus for free (I’ve never played it; something I’ve been wanting to fix for years) I think I can safely feel good about this purchase even before getting to the Batman game, which I won’t like as much as many others have but will be well worth the initial cost of free.

See, I’m not negative all the time!

In which I don’t like things

Geek-WallpapersWARNING:  Higher geek content than normal.  Prepare yourself as you see fit.

As I said the other day, one of my oldest friends is in town.  She’s been with us for Thanksgiving so many times that it’s basically assumed she’s going to be here by now.   She is not remotely the geek that I am, but we still spend a fair amount of time when we’re together playing video games.  The PS3 (which arrived this morning, and I had time to take out of the Amazon box but not actually hook up) was entirely her fault half her fault at least a quarter her fault slightly her fault, and she bought Lego Marvel Heroes (or whatever it’s called) for me, both of us believing that since it was co-op it ought to be a fun thing for the two of us to do for a while.


LEGO Marvel Super Heroes (that’s it) has a fun game hiding in there somewhere, I swear it does.  It combines LEGO and superheroes, for shit’s sake; I like both of those things, and the combination all by itself ought to be enjoyably goofy enough that it carries the game.  It does not.  There’s too much bullshit in there getting in the way of your fun:

  • The camera.  Sucks.  Suuuuuuucks.  There are two different kinds of split-screen:  static horizontal split, where each of you get half of the screen and you can’t see anything because your field of view is shit, and dynamic, where the border between your screen and your partner’s screen shifts and slides around and sometimes you’re on the same screen together and holy Jesus is it completely impossible to ever figure out where you are or what’s going on.  Even in the static mode you seem to inexplicably shift sides of the screen every now and again, and combining that with the fact that you can shift characters just makes keeping track of your character on screen a pain.
  • In addition, you’re frequently just out of view.  The camera’s almost completely not user-controllable, and there’s all sorts of stuff hidden behind game geometry or walls or just random junk that you can’t manipulate the camera to let you see behind.  Combine that with the game’s penchant to stick you in hallways or small areas and the inherent problematic nature of 3rd person 3D gaming, and the result is garbage.
  • Related to the last point, most of the time there’s very little indication of what you’re actually supposed to be doing.  For example, there’s a battle with the Abomination early on where you’re supposed to shine lights on him to stun him so that the Hulk can beat him up (because, uh, that’s how he works, I guess…).  Now, I’ve been a gamer since I was tiny; I speak Video Game with a fluency that my friend doesn’t, so between being trained by the game’s do-this-then-lather-rinse-repeat strategy of previous bosses and being familiar with the “weaken, then attack” trope because it’s so common in other games, I figured this out immediately from the game’s one comment that light bothered him.
  • Sub-gripe:  this is your second fight with the Abomination; the first one was outside in full daylight.  And light isn’t a weakness for the Abomination.  This is dumb.
  • Anyway, I was busy as the Hulk fighting off hordes of minions and occasionally fending off the bad guy, so it was left up to her to handle the light issues until the frustration just got to be too much and I took over.  I managed to get the second light shone on him and she beat him up, then ran over to where the third one was and… nothing.  No spotlight.  I managed to flash a light green and then had nothing to hit or break or anything.  I figured I’d forgotten to do something elsewhere on the stage, so I ran around looking for it.  For fifteen minutes.  While she beat up minions and the Abomination’s smell-attack, which shoves you away and keeps you from doing anything, got more and more annoying.
  • This is the point where my wife looked over and said “Are you guys actually having any fun?  Because you’ve both sounded really unhappy for about half an hour.”
  • At this point I discovered what I’d missed:  a couple of bricks, invisible and hidden behind a wall, that I’d not managed to smash and which turned into something I needed to get the spotlight up.  At this point we quickly dispatched the beast and ended the level.  But it took twenty minutes to find an invisible brick.  This is not good game design, not at all.  And the game is stuffed full of things like this, plus lots of LEGO shorthand where you’re supposed to play a level through multiple times with multiple different characters so there will be bits blocked off… but if you don’t know that, you’re just frustrated, because there’s a big shiny thing right there and you can’t get it to do anything.
  • Fucking fetch quests.  Game developers who use fetch quests should be punched in the dick.  And if I’m playing as the fucking Hulk and someone asks me to help him wash a window, which actually fucking happened, I should get to respond by picking that person up and throwing him through said window.  You have got to be fucking kidding me, game.

So, yeah.  Shoulda been fun.  Isn’t.  And it’s not like I haven’t played the LEGO games before; it may just be the co-op that’s magnifying the game’s/genre’s issues, but right now I’m upset that my friend paid $50 so we could play this thing.  Blargh.

(You may have thought that was nerdrage.  It was not.  What follows is nerdrage.)

Now let’s talk about Man of Steel, which I watched most of last night.  I was initially really excited about this movie, but I didn’t manage to go see it during opening weekend and the reaction to it convinced me that it was a terrible idea.  And yes, yes it would have been a terrible idea, because this film gets every single thing about Superman wrong except for his powers.  I’m not seeing any more superhero movies attached to Christopher Nolan; his Batman films were terrible (well, the first one was; I refused to see the next two) and this movie sucks too; that’s enough strikes.  I’ve said several times that I might have liked Batman Begins had it been called Ninja Bat-Costume Dude, and Man of Steel would have been a decent movie had it been called Strong Laser-eyed Alien with a Coward for a Father who Lets him Die because, well, why not?  Crying builds character.  

Fuuuuuuuuck that movie.  I would have walked out of the theater at the point where Jonathan Kent– Jonathan fucking Kent, the man responsible for Superman’s fucking moral core, which is the single most important thing about the character– blithely suggests that letting a busload of children die would have been just fine because letting people know about Kal-El’s secret (and I’m calling him Kal-El; there’s no “Clark Kent” in this movie, and the fact that they invent Clark Kent at the end is ridiculous) would have been inconvenient.  And if I hadn’t left the theater then, I certainly would have been gone (and, in fact, did leave the room and go read for an hour) when Kal-El lets his father die in the stupidest way imaginable because he goes and runs off to save a dog.

Fuck this movie.  Fuck it, fuck it, fuck itand I haven’t even gotten to the part where Superman lets millions of people in Metropolis die at the end without any real remorse at all until the point where three more are suddenly important, and he breaks some moral code against killing that he doesn’t have any reason to have because no one in his life up until now has been a good person.  Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it.