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February 24, 2005

Review: The Man Who Laughs

The Man Who Laughs

Warning: review of a silent film ahead!

The Man Who Laughs is a really terrific film, almost entirely because of the performance of the starring actor, Conrad Veidt. The film, based on a novel by Victor Hugo, is a pretty predictable affair -- you don't go into this one for the plot, which is Dickensian¹ in scope.

Just to give you a brief taste of it, the story basically tells us about the young heir to a peerage who is kidnapped by King James the Second and given to a group of gypsies via his jester (who has the unlikely name of Barkilphedro). In any case, a gypsy surgeon alters the boy in some way, producing on him a mouth that is impossible to close, leaving him constantly grinning. He makes his way from the coast where he is abandoned by the gypsies, finds a baby en route, and ends up at a "philosopher's" hovel. The philosopher, Ursus, takes him in and raises both children.

We move forward into Elizabeth's reign. Barkilphedro is still around, the Duchy owed to the young man Gwynplaine is in the hands of a pretty young woman, and Gwynplaine and the infant girl Dea (blind since birth) have grown. Gwynplaine acts in plays written by Ursus -- but mostly, he acts as an attraction much in the way freak shows did. He is "The Man Who Laughs", owing to his disfigurement.

We know where all of this is going, for the most part. Gwynplaine will come under some sort of temptation, will find his love to be true, may or may not regain his place in society, Barkilphedro will get his, all of this is known by anyone who has ever read anything from this era. Part Pagliacci, part Great Expectations.

What is truly extraordinary is Veidt's performance. I was completely taken in by his amazing grimace². At a few points in the film, I even slowed down the playback, single-framing it to see if I could count how many teeth were exposed -- 12 on the top. If you take your fingers and draw your lips back far enough to be able to see 12 teeth up there, you'll know what kind of pain Veidt must have been in to put forth this performance. I'm sure his face was contorted via some sort of metal contraption, like Lon Chaney used in The Phantom of the Opera, but the amount of expression Veidt nonetheless manages to convey with eyes and manner is simply awe-inspiring.

He has several nervous tics, befitting his character -- the most significant is to constantly bring his hand or arm up near his mouth, to cover it a bit or entirely, like a man who lives constantly in shame for what he is. Although I frequently wondered if someone with his mouth constantly open could have survived childhood in the 17th century, I was willing to suspend disbelief if only to fully enjoy Veidt's performance.

There are other items of interest here as well, things that I was surprised to see. The first was a very short bit of nudity -- the usurping Duchess' posterior was briefly revealed as she rose from her bath. I thoroughly didn't expect that -- but of course, it wasn't really until the 1950s that a prudish eye was turned towards American cinema. Another is the striking number of seriously ugly actors -- almost every supporting character is fairly hideous, with enormous noses, weak chins, frazzled hair, dirt, and every other kind of blemish one could imagine. Having been raised on Hollywood's reality, it was really something to see a time when not every woman on camera was a starlet, when not every man looked like someone who might someday be a leading man -- sure, that's an oversimplification, but you know what I mean.

If you like silent films and haven't seen this, you should³. If you love great performances of subtlety and grace, Veidt's is one to watch. Ignore the flaws (for example, the almost graceless portrayal of a blind woman, for which I blame both Mary Philbin and the director), and concentrate on what this man could achieve without speech. It's something to behold.

***½ (out of four)

A little note about how I happened upon this film: I added this to the queue based on Roger Ebert's Great Movies review. I don't remember now what he had to say about it; there are probably bits of film history and stuff that I don't recall from it. I don't always agree with Ebert (see my review of Sky Captain and contrast it with his), but everyone's got to have a starting point.

²It suddenly occurs to me that Veidt may have been the prototype for The Joker. I'm actually kind of curious to watch the first Batman movie again to see if Nicholson was aware of this film.
³Don't let Netflix' poor description fool you -- this is not a horror movie in the slightest.

Posted by Brett Douville at 07:49 PM | Comments (0)

February 23, 2005

SW Republic Commando Reviews Start Hitting

Many thanks to Jen Sloan for this link, and the killer quote from the (generally positive) article's intro:

Normally we're a tad suspicious of LucasArts for its obsession with continuously yanking on the flaccid teats of its most lucrative intellectual property - and for very good reason.

Overall, the game is doing well in rankings -- at the moment, it's between my other two games, Starfighter and Jedi Starfighter. I'm curious to see where it ends up.

Posted by Brett Douville at 01:05 PM | Comments (0)

February 22, 2005

Review: A World Away

A World Away

I read a fair amount of Stewart O'Nan. In fact, I think I've read all but one of his novels, and I intend to read that one as well. But after reading A World Away, I'm ready for a bit of a break.

I think that part of it is just how awash in World War II stuff I am right now -- we've been watching the most excellent Band of Brothers, and I finished off Call of Duty last month, and there's probably a handful of other movies I've also watched in the last year. It's a lot, and seeing yet another view of the conflict -- this time, mostly from the point of view of folks at home -- is just kind of war overload.

The story, such as it is, surrounds a family and how they are affected by the war. The father is a conscientious objector, and so was the elder son, until he lost a friend and signed up. The father was having an affair before, but he's not any more, but the mother has started having one, partly out of retaliation. The younger son is a bit confused by all of this, and he's trying to make do with the tools he has to comprehend everything -- his chapters are the best. They are living with the father's father, who is dying; the mother's grandfather died not so long ago.

The novel, which is very symmetric in its storylines, though often with symmetries displaced in time, moves from viewpoint to viewpoint of its major characters. We are the young boy, delivering papers and seeing a beautiful girl, seemingly for the first time¹. We are the old man, his body giving out. We are the young man in combat, doing his best to patch his soldiers back together out in the field. We are the mother, cheating on her husband, feeling like a woman again.

This form for the novel doesn't work for me -- it's too impressionistic. By the time I'm really vested in a character, I'm moved on to another. When something really interesting starts to happen, I move on to another viewpoint. While the form works to capture a kaleidoscope of a family's fears, concerns, and actions in war-time, it disassociates me from them too -- I'd rather spend time with just one than jump around like this.

So, I guess in the end, I have to recommend something else by O'Nan in place of A World Away. I loved A Prayer for the Dying and The Speed Queen. Read one of those instead.

** (out of four)

¹This is actually pretty touching -- I can remember being a boy just that age, seeing a girl in just that way for the first time. I think it just may be a near-universal experience for boys, though the gender of the target of affections may differ.

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:28 PM | Comments (0)

Review: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain

I was really looking forward to seeing Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow in the theaters several months ago when it first ran, but with crunch time¹ and general life craziness, I never made it out to the theaters. It's too bad, because this movie would have been very effective on a big screen.

Sky Captain basically tries to answer the question: "How far can a movie composed entirely of archetypal characters go?" The answer: pretty far, as long as the visuals are really strong, but not all the way. Since they're so strong, let's discuss those first.

There's been a lot of talk about the effects for this movie -- with the exception of the characters and items with which they directly interact (primarily hand-held props), the entire film was digitally composited together. It looks fabulous -- there's a level of detail here that really evokes films of the 30s and 40s; not too much detail, but just enough. It reminds me a lot of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, which achieved its overall aesthetic vision by using only primary colors and leaving out needless detail². Here the aesthetic is achieved by using a high dynamic range in the lighting -- light is just spilling all over the place, and all of it has been softened, giving the film a beautiful, glowy look.

But that's most of what the film has to offer. The characters are a collection of archetypes -- our intrepid hero, still bearing a bit of feeling for our heroine, the wise-cracking reporter who still has a heart under that exterior. Her editor, the older man who worries for his young charge as a father figure. His sidekick, an engineer who can make all sorts of nifty gadgets. The other love interest, not really enough to provide a foil, but enough to get our heroine looking wistful. Only rarely do these characters let a little bit more shine through -- and those moments are precious. Too precious, because they are simply too few.

The plot -- well, the plot is recycled from any number of science fiction's "Golden Era" novels and comic books, a fact to which they visually allude in any number of instances. It's cute -- up to a point. But after a while I felt like they were just waving the lack of anything significantly new in my face.

Those gripes aside, there's a charm here -- the idea of an enormous rocket ship which nonetheless has an enormous and entirely useless³ statue inside, well, that's just not something you expect to see anymore. It speaks of a bygone era, when the style in which you did something added much to its substance. It would be well had the film listened to the whole of that: this is a film which tries to carry itself entirely on its style, and it's not enough.

**½ (out of four)

¹Soon to bear fruit. SWRC hits shelves late next week, from what I hear.

²E.g. a marquee for a shoe shop simply reads "Shoes". I imagine Dick Tracy drinks "Beer", chews "Gum", and fires a "Pistol".

³Indeed, counterproductive, given its weight...

Posted by Brett Douville at 07:52 PM | Comments (0)

February 17, 2005

Reviews: Shame the Devil and Hard Revolution

Shame the Devil

Hard Revolution

I guess it would be fair to call this a review of George Pelecanos, since I'm going to hit a couple of his books at once.

It was very interesting reading¹ these books in the first couple of months after moving to suburban Maryland. These books are set in and around Washington D.C., and would frequently refer to, for example, Georgia Avenue -- which I drive on a bit every day during my commute. It was great to kind of get a flavor of the urban center not all that far southeast of me, and a little bit of its history.

The two books are related only in location. The first is contemporary, set in 1999 or so, and concerns a crime in which a robbery goes somewhat bad and several people (including a child) are killed -- and the eventual fallout from that some years later. The other is set in the late 60s, and could be said to be about Derek Strange, a series character for Pelecanos who appears in some of his other more contemporary novels.

I think it's fair to say that Pelecanos is to urban D.C. what Ellroy is to L.A. and Hollywood; both deal with a gritty, almost noirish style incorporating elements from their locales. Each weave stories from multiple threads involving people from several walks of life. Each involve lurid or heartbreaking crimes. But Pelecanos has a sparser style, in contrast to Ellroy's flamboyant (and wordy) one; Ellroy is a tabloid, while Pelecanos is reserved and strictly the facts, ma'am.

Of the two novels, Hard Revolution was the better book -- I found Shame the Devil a little less intriguing though no less a character study than the other. Revolution draws from a larger canvas, however, and perhaps that's why it struck home a bit better -- it's set in the weeks just prior to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and I came away wishing I knew more about the history of that period. It also left me wanting to read some of the other books about Derek Strange, though only just -- I'm unlikely to pick up any other books by Pelecanos because, having read two, it seems that they'll all be much the same.

A final note about the audio book -- I found the reader fairly unintelligible for the first few chapters. His voice was very gravelly and when he would slip into voices for some of the characters, I found him extremely hard to follow. (A hard Revolution indeed.) This definitely colored my enjoyment of the book -- while I was able to appreciate its construction and style, I got less enjoyment listening than I might have reading.

¹Yes, reading and listening to. It's hard to talk about a book that you've read and a book that you've listened to together. Let's just say they were "read", and be done with it.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:35 PM | Comments (2)

February 15, 2005

Review: The Castle of Cagliostro

The Castle of Cagliostro

Well, I thought I had seen everything available by Hayao Miyazaki. Sure, I've been waiting for the new release of Nausicaa and the DVD release of Crimson Pig, but those just haven't been easy to come by until now. As it turns out, I actually had seen everything, sort of, except that I sort of hadn't either. Confusing, I know, but bear with me a bit.

The Castle of Cagliostro features an adventure in the life of Lupin the Third, master thief, who was not too long ago making a series appearance on Adult Swim and appeared in a videogame last year. Like the shows, it's basically a heist -- though longer and a bit more involved, and with a sort of love story thrown into the bargain, a damsel in distress, a bit of a twist at the end, and some of Lupin's own history. It's not hugely different from other heist movies, but then, it doesn't have to be and we don't expect it to be.

I sat down to watch the movie after it turned up on Jamie's list of favorites via Netflix. I was intrigued, and I looked into it further -- I'm always on the lookout for some Japanese animation that might not be entirely boring -- and discovered that here was a film by Miyazaki that I'd somehow missed. But in the opening few minutes of the film, I was completely confused -- I had very clearly seen this movie before, with the two main characters vaulting over roadblock sawhorses at the very beginning. It was very, very familiar -- beyond déja vu -- but at the same time I was very certain I hadn't even heard of the film before. And Japanese animation was hard to come by in New Hampshire 25 years ago when this came out originally.

I started the film again, desperate to trigger a memory -- my memory is generally quite good for this sort of thing, and so I was genuinely baffled -- and my fingers started to twitch¹. And then it clicked -- I hadn't seen the movie before, I had played it!

Back in the early 80s, I was a devotee of laser disc games -- I was really intrigued by the great visuals of those games, even if the gameplay itself was thin². There were a few of them that I played, Dragon's Lair, of course, but also Badlands, Space Ace. And of course, Cliff Hanger.

Cliff Hanger turns out to have been bits and pieces cut from this movie. I never made it that far into the game -- I never seemed to have enough quarters, and this one was 50¢ a pop to boot -- so now, 20 years later, I get to see how it all turned out for Cliff. Or Lupin. Whatever.

For those familiar with Miyazaki's work, there's a lot of little nuggets here to be pleased with -- not fully developed yet, to be sure, but there nonetheless. There's the humor and physical comedy, appropriate to both the character and the genre, but also the scenes of serenity and touching sweetness which I think are really Miyazaki's gift and hallmark³. For fans, it's worth seeing just for that. While it certainly doesn't rise to the greatness of some of his later work (especially Totoro and Spirited Away), it is slightly better than others in its genre, and well worth a look for fans of Japanese animation.

*** (out of four)

¹Actually, rather more times than were necessary -- and I thought stretching gameplay was a relatively new phenomenon!
²No thinner, to my mind, than most Contra games, with their maddening memorization of a series of moves which must be exactly executed.
³It's always wonderful to me when my sons can really enjoy a movie like My Neighbor Totoro -- it tells me that they are still quite innocent at heart. They love the original Winnie the Pooh movie, too. I find both of these movies touching, and not in some simple, sickeningly precious sort of way, either.

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:32 PM | Comments (2)

February 11, 2005

Penny Arcade Really Likes Us

Penny Arcade hits Star Wars Republic Commando with some more loving today.

Thanks Gabe & Tycho!

Posted by Brett Douville at 06:46 PM | Comments (0)

February 09, 2005

Review: Young Frankenstein

Young Frankenstein

I want to love Young Frankenstein; in fact, I want to love many of Mel Brooks' movies. The idea of films in the manner of celebrated genres that nostalgically use the tropes of vaudeville humor appeals to me.

The problem is, they just don't make me laugh. I mean, I watch one, and I see what's supposed to be funny, but it's just not in me to laugh at it. This reminds me also of movies like Best in Show or A Mighty Wind: intellectually, I'm watching them thinking, "that was actually pretty funny", but I'm not actually laughing.

I mean, take Marty Feldman: one look at the guy, and I should be heaving out great guffaws. He just has that kind of face. Couple that with a roving hunch on his back and some good punchlines, and you'd think I'd be rolling on the floor.

After seeing Gene Wilder the other night in Bonnie & Clyde, I had a hankering for more of Gene Wilder¹. (As it turns out, I got more of two Genes, as Gene Hackman also had a small role in Young Frankenstein.) And while I got some enjoyment out of Gene Wilder as the grandson of the mad Dr. Frankenstein, there were only a couple of places where I even chuckled.

Everything was there -- the timing, the jokes, the off-kilter story -- and yet, it just didn't do it for me. It wasn't bad comedy, it just didn't connect with me.

** (out of four)

¹Call me strange. I don't know why. I just felt like seeing more of Gene Wilder. He has this sort of wide-eyed innocence about him, like he's not sure why misfortune befalls him, and he sort of makes his way through it, befuddled.

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:48 PM | Comments (0)

February 08, 2005

Qualities of Quality, Part 1

Jamie Fristrom recently posted in his blog some thoughts he had about quality as it applies to games, and it got me thinking about my own thoughts about quality. I started writing a comment over there, but it started getting out of hand in length, and so I've moved it over here. Not to mention that I'm just getting warmed up¹: I think there's three or four posts worth of thought that I have about the subject.

One of the things that I think makes games so difficult to describe or rate in terms of quality is the mere fact that games encompass such a wide variety of experience that it's difficult to measure them in any reasonable way. When you are speaking of a genre that can have high quality from GTA 3 to Half-Life 2 to Tetris, you at least appear to be describing a fairly wide variety of possible experiences.

When I look at a game like GTA 3, for example, I have a hard time calling all of it "high quality". The graphics are merely average, and the storytelling is not particularly strong (for someone who is a fan of storytelling in games, as I am). Yet fans of this game love the immense variety of choices -- the options you have for playing the game. The game presents an astonishing variety of play styles -- from the range of vehicles to drive and pilot to the weaponry to the sorts of missions -- and later installments extend that even further. It presents enormous breadth in its play space.

GTA 3 is a very, very different game from Half-Life 2, which presents a story told in a compelling way, incorporates some new and pervasive physics gameplay, but is very, very linear -- your play space choices are limited to things like weapon choice (itself constrained by ammo, though infrequently) and very quick tactical issues². It's a very different experience, presenting a very different set of play styles. Like GTA 3, it would be hard to describe it as anything but a high quality game.

Then you take Tetris. With Tetris, you're talking about a game which can be described fairly mathematically: at any point there's a very clear set of input states (possible blocks to drop in addition to the current alignment of placed blocks) and output states (the combination of ways in which those blocks can be added to the current placed blocks). It appeals to our pattern-matching and the intuitions that derive from that -- things that we're good at, that as a species from which we tend to derive some short-term pleasure. Again, a high-quality game, but quite different from the other two examples I've mentioned.

Add in your favorite RPG, your favorite MMORPG, your favorite text adventure, your favorite platformer... you see where I'm going. There is simply an enormous variety of possible gaming experiences to be had, and addressing them all with some sort of common metric seems very difficult indeed.

And yet, critics and their audiences in other media have found some sort of common ground for discussion even when they rate a variety of examples of the medium. Take movies and Roger Ebert³. I was quite surprised a few years ago to read his review of some sort of light summer movie and give it four stars. I'm not sure now what the movie was -- I think it might have been The Cell -- but I remember being thoroughly surprised. The movie in question was formulaic, and not all that interesting.

I had the opportunity to hear Ebert speak directly about that movie a year or so later, when a friend was interviewing him for City Arts and Lectures and asked him, "How did you come up with that rating for that movie?" reminding him that this was the same rating that he would give a masterpiece like Citizen Kane.

He said, "Well, when you're talking about this sort of film, there are... gradations." He was pointing out that people should be aware that he's not making a direct comparison with Citizen Kane, just indicating that this was a really great film... of that sort of film.

What does this mean for games? Well, one thing that it means is that you probably can't look at scores of one game absolutely against another -- you might try and use relative ranking against others of its same type. For example, if Half-Life 2 or Halo 2 is at the top of the shooter category, and Zelda is the best action-adventure title, then you might say those games are roughly equivalent in how great they are, in how high quality they are. And that might be a useful way to look at GameRankings. Also, you're unlikely to be able to look at two games that are too distant at time and directly compare them -- keep in mind that the greatness of today's game (like the greatness of a film of today) is built partly on the back of the common knowledge of some game of the past. That's a topic for another time, but in our medium especially, you can't set something from even five years ago next to a game from today. GoldenEye may have been great when it was out -- but how many people will choose it over Halo?

Another thing that stuck with me from Ebert's talk was the following quote, which speaks a little bit to criticism. "A man walked into a movie theater, and the critic was that man." But that discussion is for another post.

¹Actually, exactly to mention it.
²Where to take cover, how long, etc. Very good twitch players may find they are capable of not even really requiring to make such tactical decisions, as enemies may not live long enough to be a threat.
³I'm going to use Roger Ebert a lot as an example here, since I've read more reviews by him than any other film critic, not because he's the best living critic, nor because he's an expert on criticism, simply due to familiarity.

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:27 PM | Comments (0)

February 06, 2005

Let the sinking of time begin...

Be afraid. Be very afraid.
...And I thought I stayed up too late in the past. Tonight, I jumped in and started playing World of Warcraft -- sure, a couple of months behind everyone else I know, but better late than never, I suppose.

For the few people who read my site but don't know what I'm talking about (that'd be you, Mom & Dad, and Cara and Lea if they've found this yet), World of Warcraft is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game¹. I picked it up mainly to spend some time having fun with friends in California; I played some text-based MUDs back in college and grad school, they're fun, but this is the first time I've played one of the more modern ones, i.e. post-Everquest.

I'm not going to go into too much detail about my feelings about WoW just now, but I will say that first, it's a solid role-playing game. The quest system is elegant, the interface simple and functional; there doesn't feel like an epic story is coming, but then, it's not that kind of environment, and every now and again it's fun to just play a game.

The other thing, if you're out there reading Tim, is that tonight I was soloing out there around Camp Narache, and took on a quest that was just about the edge of what I could handle alone. I'm a Tauren druid, and I was out there running around when I ran into a Shaman² who grouped with me and helped me finish my quest. You're right about that -- the sorts of things that can happen in this environment are much better than they used to be, and it added to the fun.

So, there you have it. You won't hear it often, but I said Longo was right. Jeez, it really must be time for bed.

¹MMO or MMORPG for short. That next one coming up, MUD, stands for Multi-User Dungeon, if I recall correctly.
²Nice fellow, from Chicago. Plays a lot with his 8-year-old son, but was soloing this evening with a newer character.

Posted by Brett Douville at 12:29 AM | Comments (0)

February 05, 2005

Review: Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie & Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde... were killers! What I thoroughly enjoyed about this movie was the frank way in which the anti-heroes were portrayed. In fact, I daresay that if this movie hadn't been made, a movie like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid couldn't have been made (or at least, not so soon after this one); nor for that matter, could we have had Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, for different reasons entirely.

Bonnie and Clyde came out in 1967, in a year when different sorts of movies were out -- it's good to see this one in context, to understand how different it really was. In the Heat of the Night won Best Picture¹; Newman played in Cool Hand Luke; The Graduate opened to acclaim and launched the career of previously unknown New York stage player, Dustin Hoffman; Spencer Tracy died in June, and with him, a certain kind of movie that Hollywood just can't make any more.

Before this movie, violence wasn't candidly displayed in films, not really. It was in long shots, with flashes indicating gunfire. Or you'd see Cagney with a tommy-gun in his hands, spraying bullets at off-screen assailants. What you absolutely wouldn't see was a man getting shot in the face, his upper body in full frame, blood spurting from his features as he fell off the car he was holding onto -- the Barrow gang's getaway car.

And yet, we still feel a certain kind of empathy for the gang, which is really the film's brilliance; we know they're not latter-day Robin Hoods, but we also know that they live in a time and place of great poverty, brought home by a touching scene near the end of the film when a wounded Bonnie and Clyde are driven through an Okie camp. We feel for Bonnie, who loves Clyde desperately even though he can't achieve intimacy -- a risky role for the handsome young Warren Beatty -- and we feel for Clyde, with his brazenness, his charisma, his foolhardiness and his own errant quest for the American Dream. These are people who looked for the easy way to Easy Street -- and discovered the consequences.

I don't know much about the film's historical accuracy -- except for a few things I took the time to dig up on the internet. In particular, there are a few points in the film where pictures are being taken -- Clyde's brother Buck² has a camera -- which you can actually still find on the 'net today. The few pictures they are shown taking are eerily accurate to the real photos. Also, I know that they died in much the way the picture describes -- itself a very violent series of images.

I really enjoyed this movie, and I'm glad for what it gave to Hollywood, while at the same time sorry a bit for the innocence it took away. The innocence would have faded soon enough, I'm sure, so I guess I'll have to be glad it was this film that hastened it on its way. Better a great film than a poor one.

***½ (out of four)

¹Deservedly -- a great film, holds up pretty well even now.
²Superbly played by Gene Hackman -- himself a virtual unknown before this film.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:40 AM | Comments (0)

February 03, 2005

Gaming as Pastime: MKDD

Mario Kart Double Dash

Just this past weekend, on my birthday no less, my sons and I finished Mario Kart: Double Dash. Finishing the game means beating every "cup" at every speed -- you might think you're finished when you beat the "All Cup" at 150CC, but you're not. They unlock Mirror Mode at that point and you get to do all the tracks again, flipped 180. Once you've beaten all this, Nintendo shows you an image with all the characters in it saying "Thank you for playing" and changes the start image at boot time; you also unlock the last Kart you'll unlock for the game.

The amount of stuff to unlock was quite remarkable. Normally, I could care less about unlockables (although I liked them in the Metroid Prime games), but the shear amount of stuff is ridiculous. Karts, characters, etc., one for every gold trophy you earn. I thought that would end once we beat the normal tracks, but even in Mirror Mode you get goodies.

We play sort of a quarterbacked version of the co-op game -- I drive, they control the character on the back, and I shout out when I want them to deploy the shell or banana or whatever.

When we first started playing the game, the boys weren't all that good at it. They would forget who was holding the controller (!), forget what button to push, or have to look down at it to do it. Now I've freed them up to make their own decisions about when to do certain of the power-ups, etc., and we have been mastering the "super start". Pretty soon I'll have them add in counter-steering for the super boost, and we'll really be in business.

The amount of fun we've wrung out of this game far exceeds any I've gotten out of any other game bar none, and I've played a few games. Part of it is the game itself, sure, but largely the fun comes from interacting with my boys -- I'd never have had this much fun playing through the game alone. My sons get caught up in which characters are behind us, which character belongs to which track, and the constant struggles we had in defeating the 150cc mode for the harder tracks.

We've finished the game now, but we're still playing, working together, trying new Karts¹ and characters. It's moved from that area of "thing of the moment", which is where games usually reside with me, to "family pastime" -- quality time with the kids doing something all three of us enjoy.

Part of me, as a game developer, would really like to be able to target that experience, to move something beyond the 12 - 50 hours it takes to play a game these days to something that you constantly go back to because of the environment it engenders. As a player, I'm already wondering what else I should buy that the kids might like -- maybe a Mario Party game, or Animal Crossing, or Wario Mega Whatever -- trying to find something else that just brings out this sort of friendly competitiveness.

I know in a few years they'll want to play things like Halo 5 and the like, and they'll be handing me my hat in those games. It'll be fun, I'm sure, we'll have good bonding time, trash-talking, all that cool guy stuff I'll want when they're into their early teens and such.

But I'll tell you one thing: I'm not packing up the Gamecube for a long while. I'll want us always to be able to slip in that easy fun we've had, and keep having. Pretty soon, they'll be able to drive the Karts too, and we can move on to switching back and forth, and that'll be fun too. Before long, they'll be quarterbacking me -- "no, Dad, throw the shell forward *sigh*".

That'll be fine by me.

¹Actually, this was one of the things that made it difficult to beat in the first place. As driver, having the same Kart every time would have been beneficial. As players, my kids constantly wanted to try new Karts, leaving me scratching my head as to how to play them -- I got really good with quickly acclerating (but lower top speed Karts) and have only recently been getting better with heavier ones.

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:55 PM | Comments (0)

Penny Arcade Likes Us

Quick entry about P-A for those of you who haven't seen it.

Yesterday's Penny Arcade newspost mentioned the new PC demo of Star Wars Republic Commando, my most recent game, quite favorably. Actually, they liked my last one too. It's nice to have some fans over there, since Tim Longo and I are big fans of theirs -- we even used Penny Arcade for our "unlock everything" code with JSF.

Anyway, I'm a big fan, and their shout-out means a lot.

For those of you in my family who aren't up on Penny Arcade, watch out. This comic helps sum up their world-view. And don't even search for "American McGee's Strawberry Shortcake"... you won't get it.

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:33 PM | Comments (0)

February 01, 2005

Review: True History of the Kelly Gang (Audiobook)

True History of the Kelly Gang

True History of the Kelly Gang purports to be the real tale behind the rise and fall of Australia's most famous outlaw, Ned Kelly. Kelly is to Australia what Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid are to America; in a manner of speaking, True History is to the Kellys what George Roy Hill's movie was to Butch and his partner.

Peter Carey develops a very distinctive voice for Ned Kelly; a rough man, to be sure, but very much a product of his environment. Ned was an Irishman born and raised in the Australian colony, under the thumbs of the English, who thought them lower than low, given the circumstances which had generally brought their parents there. Colonial rule was not often kind to Australia, and discrimination against Irishmen sailed with the English masters and magistrates who administered Queensland, New South Wales, and the like.

Ned's father was himself a convict who had spent a good deal of time behind bars in a torturous environment; he left Great Britain to make a fresh start in the colonies, though it did him little good. Ned, the eldest of his large family, was orphaned of his father when he was but 12, and he took over the burden of caring for his mother and siblings.

That's just the beginning. By the time he was 26, he was the most famous outlaw in Australia, and every lawman was gunning for him and his gang. It's an extraordinary tale, expertly told, well worthy of the Booker Prize it won in 2001.

What's brilliant in this telling is two elements. First, the form in which the story is told, as a series of "parcels" written by Kelly himself as narratives to his baby daughter perfectly depicts the story, and even moreso, the character of Ned Kelly. Because of his audience, he is careful to avoid swearing, and instead liberally substitutes in "F this" and "adjectival"¹. Carey has dreamed up in Ned Kelly a character like few others -- he grows before our eyes into a man, and a leader, and ultimately, a burdened leader. He captures the romance of the character, while still giving the sense that Ned isn't entirely reliable as a narrator -- after all, what he does is illegal and immoral, though to hear him tell it, "there weren't no other way". There's almost a sly wink in the way it's told, making me think of Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday in Tombstone's shootout at the OK Corral. It's not entirely disingenuine, nor cynical, but it might be -- that ambiguity and subtlety shines through.

The second amazing element in this particular form is the reading by Gianfranco Negroponte, an Australian. Negroponte does remarkable justice to Ned, his family, his gang, the British lawmen, and all the other characters various and sundry who appear². I never thought I'd say this, but in this case, I think the Audiobook may be the ideal way to take this book in, if only for Negroponte's performance.

Truly remarkable.

¹Only once in the whole narrative does he actually swear, by my recollection, and it came as a shock.
²I wouldn't have been able to hear this many voices in my inner ear -- usually I'm only good for a half-dozen characters before they all run together.

Posted by Brett Douville at 11:53 PM | Comments (3)