Song of the Day: Our Lady Peace — Clumsy

I got an email from SRC this morning that Our Lady Peace’s Clumsy was being released on vinyl, and I have fond memories of programming my shower CD player to play a few specific singles in high school, so I thought I’d give the whole album a spin on Spotify to see if it was worth picking up.

The short answer to that question is “not really,” but I just listened to the title track for the first time in many years, and it remains the highlight of an otherwise workmanlike album. During the last bridge to the chorus, I even timed the little syncopated pause before the last chorus kicks in perfectly, speaking to the sheer number of times I’ve listened to the song.

As I’ve written about before, I mostly consume music in the context of albums, so it’s with great shame that I admit that this wasn’t really the case until midway through high school when I started seriously buying music (nearly all of my disposable income was poured into buying albums, some of which I’d never even heard before) and listening to albums front-to-back. It began to bug me when friends would throw on an album, skip to a couple of singles, and then move on to the next, and before I knew it, I was the anachronistic full-album-listener I am today.

In any case, it was not my intention to have my first SotD in many months coincide with Throwback Thursday, but here we are. I think part of why I like “Clumsy” so much has to do with the way it builds. It starts off with little bits of piano before transitioning into the first verse, which is still stripped down until the first bridge into the chorus, at which point everything comes together. From there, it keeps charging forward until after the interlude, at which point everything backs off to create the aforementioned pause before the last chorus. It’s not particularly fancy, but it does a good job of building some drama to tell its story of trying to shrug off hang-ups and past mistakes.

Apple, iPhone 7, and the 3-year upgrade cycle

Last week, Apple debuted the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, which hold powerful new guts in external hardware that looks markedly similar to the past two years’ releases, the iPhone 6/6 Plus and their respective S revisions. This was largely seen as a disappointment by the tech media, albeit one that had been expected for a while thanks to the usual plethora of supply chain leaks. More importantly, I think that the general public is likely to see things much the same way, embracing the narrative that Apple is out of revolutionary ideas in the post-Jobs era.

There is an element of truth to this narrative, but I think there’s more to it than that. Some point to the iPhone 5 as being the last time that Apple truly innovated in their mobile hardware designs, but it’s easy to forget that the iPhone 5 (and the 5S after it) was a relatively fragile piece of technology, with a soft, easily scratched aluminum shell and an anodization process that made those scratches stand out unless you opted for the silver model and its bare aluminum shell.

Sacrifices always have to be made in order to design a product that will be mass-produced, and that mass production itself introduces plenty of additional problem vectors. (For the record, I think that the Jet Black version of the iPhone 7/7 Plus is going to have similar superficial durability problems, but Apple is hedging against complaints with a warning). Some of what is perceived as a lack of innovation comes from the reality of sustainable, durable design. Just ask Samsung about the Note 7 and its exploding battery debacle.

I currently have an iPhone 6 Plus in my pocket, and while there are a few hairline scratches on the glass (most of which require bright light and a specific angle to see), the aluminum shell is nearly blemish-free, despite the fact that I sometimes drop my phone and refuse to put it in a case. The 6S and 6S Plus apparently have even stronger aluminum wrapping around the back, and I have no doubt that the 7 series phones will continue to use it, which, when coupled with IP67 dust and water resistance, should allow this year’s phones to survive everyday life (read: clumsiness) better than any of their predecessors. I don’t think we’ll see any underwater reviews of them, but they should make the more accident-prone among us a little more comfortable with not encasing their phones in tank-like shells. Maybe.

Because my phone is still in good shape, I’m strongly considering keeping it until Apple introduces a radical new design, an event rumored for this time next year. Those buying new phones in the next few weeks and months may find themselves doing the same in another two years if the phones prove as durable as they would seem to be, which presents something of a problem for a company that relies on the iPhone for much of its revenue. From that last link:

The iPhone is by far the most important and valuable product in Apple’s portfolio, and it’s worrying for Apple shareholders that the meteoric rise in iPhone sales appears to have peaked. Particularly worrying since these lower numbers take into account the launch of a new iPhone (the iPhone SE), while Q3 2015 did not.

While the doom and gloom about iPhone sales may ultimately prove temporary, and the fact that people aren’t buying as many iPhones as they have in the past comes down to many different variables, it seems like one potential strategy to combat that peak of sales may be to take a slower approach to R&D, which Apple already employs in the Mac line (especially the Mac Pro) and, to a lesser extent, iPads. It seems counterintuitive to combat slumping sales with less innovation and iteration, but we’re also talking about the company that’s sold the same MacBook Pro for more than four years, and which some people (especially students) continue to buy regardless. The logic of such a strategy can be questioned; the results (to this point, anyway) cannot be.

We’re not quite there yet, but we may be on the cusp of smartphones becoming commoditized the same way that desktop computing has become in the past decade or so. While I just upgraded my video card, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve upgraded the rest of my computer’s internals, and I don’t foresee needing to do so for at least another few years. If I wasn’t a gamer and a savvy user in general, I could probably wait even longer. I bought a 2013 MacBook Pro with retina display when I left Apple as an employee, and as I sit here typing this on that very machine, I see few reasons to upgrade anytime soon.

Apple may be anticipating the advent of longer upgrade cycles in the smartphone world, and while slowing the pace of iteration is a very conservative approach to that looming possibility, it’s also one couched in pragmatism, a hallmark of Tim Cook’s tenure as CEO of Apple.

As far as the notion that Apple has run out of ideas, consider the fact that supply chain leaks are very different from R&D leaks. While a few tech pundits have tried to guess at what Apple’s up to in its design labs with varying degrees of success, generally we don’t hear about what’s coming next until Apple begins the process of lining up suppliers (who inevitably leak out details, because the more people know about something, the more likely it is that someone will get excited and spread the word).

It’s likely that features, device mockups and entirely new products have been left on the cutting room floor, unseen by anyone except the most dedicated of Apple engineers and designers. Apple has never been a company that diversifies its product lines arbitrarily, and while it’s a little disappointing that they’ve chosen relatively safe, iterative designs for the past few years, I think we’re at least another 5 years from figuring out whether or not the revolution is truly dead.

Got a fancy new Pascal-based video card and a Gigabyte motherboard? Staring at a blank screen? Read this

Last week, I pulled the trigger on a long-overdue video card upgrade, jumping from an aging 670 GTX to a fancy new 1070 GTX made by Asus. When it came in the mail, I eagerly shoved it into place on my motherboard, turned the power to my computer back on, and… nothing. While I don’t have a speaker in my case (does anyone these days?), it quickly became clear that it wasn’t clearing POST, which was confirmed when a press of the power button a couple of minutes later (in theory enough time for a full boot) caused it to shut off immediately.

At first, I thought maybe it was a power issue. I have a Corsair 650W power supply that seemed up for the task, but I became a little skeptical. I tried a different power cable. I tried a different PCIe slot, wondering if I’d screwed something up taking the 670 out. I put the old card back in, returning everything to normal. Nothing in the configuration in BIOS jumped out at me.

From here, I turned to the internet for help. Plenty of other people had blank screen issues, but most of those seemed to be hardware failure-related. Then I came across a post by another Gigabyte motherboard owner, who solved their problem by changing the PCIe configuration to manually reflect that it’s a 3rd-gen PCIe card.

This sounded vaguely familiar from my time spent looking through BIOS settings, and sure enough, I found what I was looking for under M.I.T. -> Miscellaneous Settings: PEG Gen 3 Slot Configuration. This is set to Auto by default, and for whatever reason, my Z77X-UP4 TH motherboard (and, I’m guessing, a number of other Z77-based Gigabyte boards) completely fails at automatically detecting the right setting. Once I toggled it to Gen3 and put the 1070 back in, everything was just fine.

So don’t freak out! Just go digging in BIOS for an obscure setting that ideally should never have to be changed.

E3 Press Conferences: Sony

I didn’t watch it in real-time.

I was out at dinner during Sony’s big pre-E3 press conference, so when I got back, I scrolled Twitter back a few hours so I could read people’s reactions to the announcements, and in the process got a preview of the insanity that had unfolded a few hours before. This dampened the impact of the hour-or-so’s many surprises, but I’d enjoyed getting real-time reactions during the Microsoft presser in the morning, so I decided it was worth spoiling things a bit.

Last night’s presentation was the perfect way to close out a day of pre-E3 press conferences that notably focused on games. This sounds kind of weird to say, considering that E3 is supposed to be all about games, but the creation and release of current generation consoles has been a distraction for the past few years, and too much time and energy has been devoted to talking about intuitive user interfaces, TV and media collaborations, and other things that technically fall under Electronic Entertainment (2 of E3, the third being Expo), but which are kind of boring to learn about. This is a weird point to make after noting yesterday that Microsoft should have announced TV DVR functionality if they are, in fact, working on it, but I see that particular feature as being a big differentiator, especially considering that the DVRs can be rented for $15 a month from cable companies generally have awful user interfaces, are draconian in what you can do with your recordings (usually nothing) and are generally terrible to deal with.

But I digress. Instead of simply talking about what we knew was coming, Sony willed three gaming unicorns into existence on their stage. They opened the show with an extended gameplay clip from The Last Guardian, a game originally announced in 2009 (!) and whose absence had been a running joke of the past few E3s. Its PS3 roots showed in the clip, with relatively sparse backgrounds and nice-looking-but-not-stunning character models, but Sony also confirmed a release date for next year, turning an infamous piece of vaporware back into the hotly anticipated title it once was. I wasn’t super impressed by the presentation (especially the young boy’s constant yelling for help from his weird bird/squirrel/cat companion), but I’m one of those weird people who hasn’t played Ico or Shadow of the Colossus, the two other efforts from the first-party studio, so maybe I just don’t get it.

More interesting to me was the next announcement, from Killzone developer Guerrilla Games, Horizon: Zero Dawn. Set in the post-apocalypse, it follows a young huntress who gathers resources from and takes down robo-dinosaurs, among other things. The gameplay looked fun and exciting, and the whole thing felt a little like a mashup between Heavenly Sword and The Last of Us, in the best possible way. Guerrilla has always had a strong sense of technical acumen, but their games have always felt a little soulless, so hopefully this will give them a chance to do something a little more character-driven, while also delivering some of the bombast and set pieces that have defined Killzone.

After two fresh IP reveals, it was inevitable that some sort of sequel or reboot would sneak into the mix, and so, after spending most of an intriguing pre-rendered trailer wondering what was being announced, it turned out to be what looks like a reboot of Hitman, considering its lack of subtitle or numeral (pun entirely unintentional). Nothing else was revealed during the presentation, but apparently it’s going to be an ever-expanding open world sandbox, which could be fun. Next came a quick reminder that Street Fighter V is coming out fairly soon, and Sony made a big deal about an exclusive beta starting on July 25 (they announced a bunch of betas–their big Destiny alpha/beta exclusive last year must have been a success!).

Then, it was back to a fresh IP, albeit one that was shown off on the same stage last year. Hello Games’ Sean Murray came out to show off how No Man’s Sky is coming along, with a small taste of vehicular space combat before jumping to a random world and exploring for a little while. Considering everything is procedurally-generated, he had no idea what exactly he was jumping in to, and he warned the audience repeatedly that things might not work right, but never actually had any technical hiccups. Procedural generation is nothing new, but taking it to its logical endpoint (literally creating an entire universe from a few basic building blocks) was an impressive technical feat, even if the game itself doesn’t really look like my cup of tea.

This was followed by something new from Media Molecule, creators of Little Big Planet, a game/experience/thing called Dreams. Like LBP, the focus skews toward creation rather than actually playing, but the idea of creating and then playing in surreal dreamscapes seems like it’ll be a singular experience if nothing else.

Firewatch, a stylized first-person game from Campo Santo, came next. While it’s already been in development for Windows, Mac and Linux, the announcement that it will release on PS4 as well was nice, and it’s a game I hadn’t heard of but am now very interested in. The protagonist is a park ranger-type looking for fire in a watchtower over the summer, and looks to have some solid character development and mystery woven in. The art style reminds me a little of Outlaws, and it’s a reminder of the kind of experience that can be built today with a small team, the right development tools, and the support to realize their vision.

An expansion for Destiny called The Taken King was announced next, along with a fresh look at Assassins Creed: Syndicate focusing on the female protagonist Evie Frye. She looks like one more strong female lead coming to a AAA game this year, and I love it.

Next, a cutesy little adventure RPG (I think?) called World of Final Fantasy was announced for PS4 and PS Vita, but that was just a head fake to talk about the second unicorn of the night: a complete remake of Final Fantasy VII. When Square Enix released a CG movie in the FFVII universe called Advent Children in 2005, fans immediately began to wonder if the more detailed art style of the movie’s characters could be grafted onto the original game. Sony stoked the fire considerably by remaking the entire introduction of FFVII shot-for-shot as a tech demo to show off the power of the Playstation 3 in 2005, sparking years of rumors and clamoring that finally paid off last night. I love FFVII and I love replaying games, so I will be all over this, though it feels like kind of a ludicrous undertaking from a time and cost standpoint. Notably, no release date was given.

After a quick compilation of indie games published by Devolver Digital coming to PS4, the third unicorn surfaced: Shenmue 3. Yu Suzuki, original creator of the Shenmue series, took the stage to announce that he was going to use Kickstarter to fund Shenmue 3 with a goal of securing $2 million in funding. That seems like a modest goal for what ideally would be a massive undertaking (the original game had a budget of about $47 million, which translates to more like $67 million today). Granted, the same development tools that allow small teams to create games like No Man’s Sky and Firewatch will definitely streamline costs, and the game has already hit its funding goal, but there have been a number of high-profile Kickstarter projects that have failed spectacularly due to not being realistic about their budgets recently, and I’d hate to see Shenmue 3 join that particular pile of wreckage.

A quick demo of some exclusive content coming to Arkham Knight followed, along with an update on how Sony’s VR headset Project Morpheus is coming along (as I said yesterday, I’m not sold on the technology yet, no matter who is producing it). Sony then touted its Playstation Vue TV initiative, which they announced as beginning to offer channels a la carte, rather than paying for multichannel packages, the way that literally everyone does it now (even Sling TV, a service that offers greater choice than a traditional cable company’s bundles, but still makes you buy multiple channels together). They kind of downplayed just how big of a deal this is, but there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario here: if Sony can only convince relatively minor rightsholders to offer their channels individually, few people will purchase the service, limiting Sony’s clout to strike further deals. We’ll have to see how it plays out over the next year or so.

Next came a hilariously terrible demo of Call of Duty: Black Ops III, which offered glimpses of both single and multiplayer (the latter of which looked suspiciously like the on-foot combat of Titanfall), but which looked unimpressive compared to most of the other titles shown off and frankly pretty boring. I haven’t been interested in CoD for a while, and BOIII doesn’t look like it’s going to do anything to change my opinion. Sony announced a new partnership with Activision to bring maps and other content to PS4 first, ending a long relationship with Microsoft, but I find it hard to care, even though I know people who will be upset about it. Glimpses of Disney Infinity 3.0, featuring Star Wars characters and content, and Star Wars: Battlefront, which continues to impress, followed.

The night closed with a long, live gameplay demo of Uncharted 4, similar to the way Microsoft closed with Gears 4. The demo featured a mix of cutscenes, gun combat and vehicular mayhem, which really just means it’s definitely an Uncharted game. I wish it was coming this year, but considering the game seemed to crash after its opening cutscene, prompting a restart of the demo, perhaps it’s for the best. It still looks great and I’m excited to play it in 2016.

Overall, yesterday was a great day to be a gamer, and I’m excited for the holiday season and beyond.

 

E3 Press Conferences: Microsoft

I went to E3 once, in 2006. It was loud, crowded, and kind of insane, and from what I read later, it was one of the conference’s more restrained years, happening just before it was scaled back and nearly cancelled entirely. I had fun, but I did a pretty terrible job of really covering anything. The biggest thing that happened that year was the Wii was playable, but actually doing so required waiting in a line for 2+ hours. I declined to wait in line, but one of the guys I went with had his mind blown by some of the early demos.

Today, pretty much everything that could be gained by actually going to E3 can be experienced and consumed by watching the various streaming conferences, trailers and interviews that publishers put up all week. I wouldn’t mind going back at some point, but it doesn’t really seem necessary the way it once was.

This morning, I watched Microsoft’s press conference that has historically served as the official/unofficial kickoff for E3 (the conference doesn’t technically start until tomorrow, but gaming press and industry types have been flooding into the LA area since at least late last week), and it was pretty good! I wasn’t really sure what to expect, since their press briefings have been kind of boring since they announced the Xbox One, but this year they focused almost singularly on games, offering little in the way of comment or filler in between gameplay demos and trailers. What follows is a synopsis of some of my favorite bits.

Halo 5 was the first game shown off, with gameplay that… mostly looked pretty familiar. With 4 player drop-in/out co-op, it looks like there will be a stronger emphasis on team play, but Halo was always more fun with a friend anyway, so this isn’t a huge surprise. Everything looked pretty detailed and fluid, though, and after skipping The Master Chief Collection last year, I’m pretty stoked to revisit that overwrought sci-fi world this fall.

Next was a brief trailer for an intriguing new IP called Recore from Keiji Inafune, best-known for creating the Megaman series (among many other games) at Capcom. The game stars a girl and her robot dog, the latter of which is represented by an AI core that can be put into various other robot forms based on the trailer and its final teaser image.

At this point, Phil Spencer took the stage and offered the only real break in trailers and gameplay, announcing backward compatibility for Xbox 360 games (via emulation, which means it will roll out in waves, very similar to the way the Xbox 360 implemented it for original Xbox games) and a new “Elite” controller that looks very nice but will cost $150 for some reason. The price was not announced during the conference, but when their info page went live, I saw multiple tweets from people who liked the idea but were shocked by the price. Consider me among them.

Bethesda actually had their own press conference yesterday, but Todd Howard of Bethesda came out to talk about Fallout 4, which looks pretty great and comes out in November. Fallout 3 was one of my favorite games of the last generation, and FO4 looks like a worthy successor.

After a fairly boring segment from Peter Moore to talk about EA Access, a service of dubious merit to pay $5 monthly for last year’s games, announcements, trailers and gameplay demos started to come hard and fast. Forza 6, Dark Souls 3, The Division, Rainbow Six: Siege (which will come with two previous-generation games, Rainbow Six Vegas 1 and 2, for free, a savvy move taking advantage of that new backward compatibility), and Gigantic were announced and/or shown off, followed by an indie games showcase that seemed tailor-made to combat Sony’s emphasis on indie games since before the PS4 launched. Some of the games looked pretty good, but Cuphead, a mashup of 1930’s-style animation and 16-bit platforming/shooting gameplay, was a standout.

A Microsoft riff on Steam Early Access called Xbox Game Preview was announced next, with The Long Dark and Elite: Dangerous available to download today. They also made it clear that you can download and try any game in the program before you commit to spending money on it. I’ve occasionally taken advantage of Steam Early Access, and the move is understandable, but it’s not a particularly exciting initiative at the moment.

After that, the deluge of trailers and demos resumed, with a 6-minute gameplay demo of Rise of the Tomb Raider being a standout. Rare announced a collection of 30 classic games that sounds like fun (in particular, I’m excited to play Blast Corps again, even though it has the potential to ruin my memories of how awesome it was when I played it on the N64 as a teenager. Rare also announced Sea of Thieves, an MMO-looking pirate simulator? The footage looked pretty early and more like a proof-of-concept than a working prototype, but it looked fun nonetheless.

Near the end of the show, Microsoft announced a bunch of different VR initiatives. They announced Xbox One to Windows 10 PC streaming previously, but today they said that you could also add Oculus Rift into the mix, streaming from Xbox to PC and then from PC to Rift. It all sounded like a great way to introduce and foreground lag, but a lot depends on how well the streaming works and how tolerant it is of network performance and interference. They also took the opportunity to talk about HoloLens, which led the audience to groan… until a demo showed it projecting Minecraft in 3D on a table. I think the whole thing looks pretty gimmicky (then again, I feel this way about all of the current VR initiatives) but I can see it being a platform seller among the tween set already immersed in all things MinecraftRegardless of how it plays out, it was an impressive demo of a technology that’s inspired almost nothing but skepticism since its announcement.

The show ended with Coalition Games (formerly Black Tusk Studios), who announced an already-rumored Gears of War remaster along with some early gameplay of Gears 4. The latter looked incredibly impressive for what must have been a pretty early demo, though it also felt just a little too beholden to the gameplay beats and concepts established by the first game in 2006.

I’ve read that Microsoft is working on adding TV DVR functionality to the Xbox One, which I’m super stoked about, and it felt like not touching on that (if it is, indeed, a thing) was a missed opportunity. There was a brief bit of lip service where we were told to “tune into our daily show to catch a preview of our new system interface” later today, but if DVR is a feature coming this fall/holiday, I would personally want to shout it from the rooftops.

But maybe that’s just me.

Replay–Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within

It took me almost 20 years to finish Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within.

I first caught wind of the game some time after its release in 1996, when my cousin Matthew had finished it and let me borrow it. This is how I played a lot of games in those days, since my parents were convinced that I was going to “grow out” of playing video games (my dad once said to me, “I stopped smoking when I was 20; when are you going to stop playing video games?”) and only occasionally indulged my habit. Once I had a job and my own spending money, I didn’t need said indulgence, but that was still a couple of years away when I borrowed The Beast Within (its full title is technically The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery, but I’ll stick with its abbreviated title here).

The Beast Within tells the continuing story of Gabriel Knight, a bumbling cad of a fiction author who manages to get himself wrapped up in a series of grisly murders in New Orleans in the first game. In the wake of that game’s events, he writes a “novel” about the ordeal which turns into a bestseller, moves to a crumbling castle in Germany owned by his family (which it turns out is a long line of Schattenjägers, or shadow hunters–basically occult detectives) and starts on renovation and a new novel. Soon he gets wrapped up in a new case potentially involving werewolves, and when he writes his partner/research assistant/not-really-love-interest Grace about it, she hops on a plane from New Orleans to Germany to help, despite his halfhearted attempt to keep her out of it. The game alternates chapters between Gabriel, hunting for clues in the present, and Grace, digging into Gabriel’s family history and its connection to the German monarchy to find a connection to the past.

The game's box, which gives you an idea of the level of pretentiousness/melodrama contained within
The game’s box, which gives you an idea of the level of pretentiousness/melodrama contained within

As a teenager, there were a lot of intriguing things about the game, starting with its box art and its six-CD length. The length was a result of filming the game’s cutscenes and interstitials and compressing them (poorly) into full-motion video (FMV), which was still seen as the wave of the future at the time. Actually playing the game was made more tedious by the constant transition to video whenever your characters did just about anything, but it contributed to the feeling of “playing a movie” at the time, and the attention to detail still feels admirable all these years later.

Unfortunately, one side-effect of the aforementioned poor compression is that the video itself now looks like a smeary mess, especially when viewed in “big movie” mode. The smaller movies look crisper, but it’s much more difficult to get a sense of what’s happening, especially when Gabriel or Grace interact with the many small objects you’ll have to find and click on. In the end, I played/watched the game in big movie mode just to get a better sense of what was happening, even with its trade-offs. It may seem weird that 3900MB of video (give or take the game’s other assets, since the game isn’t solely presented as FMV) would look like such a mess, but we take for granted that compressible video is essentially a solved problem in 2015.

It looks even worse in motion. Trust me.
It looks even worse in motion. Trust me.

The other intriguing thing about the game was its Mature rating by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. My teenage mind ran wild creating reasons why the game would have the equivalent of an R rating, and Matthew was coy about what exactly the explicit content entailed, but having finally finished the game, I do think that the game earns its rating, but only in a cheesy B-movie kind of way. There are a few swears, some late-game violence and the kind of implied sex scene you’d see during the height of Production Code Hollywood, but nothing too salacious. Had I gotten to any of that as a teenager, I would’ve likely been disappointed.

But here’s the thing about The Beast Within: if you haven’t already guessed, it’s a point-and-click adventure game, and while walkthroughs existed even when I first borrowed it, they were much more difficult to find than they are today, and I was shackled by a dial-up internet connection that made finding anything on the internet a chore. As a result, I blundered my way through the game’s early chapters (adventure games always start easy and then ramp up in difficulty as you solve the game’s early puzzles), but got severely stuck in the game’s fourth chapter, where you have to do “research” as Grace by clicking on everything you can find at a series of castles and libraries. Then, when you inevitably miss one tiny clickable zone, you have to go back and retrace your steps to find them all before you can progress. I hit a brick wall and put the game aside.

Neuschwanstein Castle, the most tedious of the locations that must be "researched" in chapter four.
Neuschwanstein Castle, the most tedious of the locations that must be “researched” in chapter four.

I returned to it at some point during my later teenage years, because once Matthew was done with games and I “borrowed” them, I tended to not have to give them back unless he wanted to replay them or explicitly remembered that he wanted them back (which was not often). Since I’d played the game’s early chapters already, I fairly quickly made my way back to the game’s tedious fourth chapter and this time managed to find all of the things I was supposed to and progressed to the game’s fifth chapter. Here I hit a fresh brick wall when I discovered that it was possible to die (in hilariously grisly fashion) at the end of the game’s fifth chapter. Once again, I moved on.

This week, I decided to finish the game once and for all. It’s now available on GOG.com, and it’s telling that the compressed download is only 2.4GB. Rose-tinted glasses quickly caught up to reality when I realized just how macroblocked the video looks to 2015 eyes. Nonetheless, I was going to finish this stupid game once and for all. I remembered a lot of the game’s early puzzles, and breezed through a majority of the game’s first couple of chapters with no problem at all. I even kind of reflexively remembered one of the game’s more bizarre puzzles from the third chapter involving a woodpecker clock and a locked door (if you’ve ever replayed an adventure game, you probably know this feeling of “I’m not sure exactly why I’m doing this, but it seems right for some reason”). I even made it all the way through the dreaded tedium of the fourth chapter… and then the game locked up.

For a few minutes, I frantically clicked everywhere on the screen, alt-tabbed out of and back into the game, and did everything I could think of to make it progress forward. Nothing. Even worse, I hadn’t saved the game since midway through chapter 3, so I had a lot of re-re-replaying to do. I eventually resigned myself to my fate, restarting the game and saving obsessively from there on out. I ran into one other show-stopping lockup, but other than that it was smooth sailing from there. The game just hates me and wanted to throw one more curveball before allowing me to finally complete it.

And complete it I did! I leaned on a walkthrough pretty heavily for the game’s last couple of chapters, but I did so more in the interest of time than anything. Especially once I lost a chapter-and-a-half’s worth of progress, I was determined to just plow through to the end. I started skipping a lot of the interstitial videos, though I did watch every bit of the game’s main plot, including a bizarre but surprisingly-well-staged opera scene near the end of the game’s final chapter. The endgame is the only time when I really, truly needed the walkthrough, because the game’s final task is timed and involves a mix of timed navigation and puzzle solving that I just wasn’t going to solve on my own.

Wander around a bit. Get shot for no reason. Rinse, repeat until you figure it out. Or consult a walkthrough.
Wander around a bit. Get shot for no reason. Rinse, repeat until you figure it out. Or consult a walkthrough.

The game’s ending was relatively satisfying, but after all the time I’d invested in fits and spurts over the past two decades, it felt pretty abrupt. I read later that the game was supposed to be eight chapters instead of the final game’s six, and that budget constraints caused some last-minute cutting that made the game’s final chapter or so feel rushed. I briefly entertained the idea of moving on to the series’ third game, Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, but then I read this description of one of the game’s early puzzles, and decided against it for now.

Song of the Day: Death From Above 1979–The Physical World

I only recently discovered DFA 1979, despite having heard a lot about them back when You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine came out in 2004. I’m not sure what exactly possessed me to listen to them, but I’m glad I did, because The Physical World was one of my favorite albums of 2014.

The title track that closes the album is just about perfect, right up until the outro (which is fine, but goes on a little too long for my taste). The weird little chiptune-like intro kind of throws you off-kilter with its asynchronous bleeps and blips. It sounds like the aural version of macroblocking; there’s structure, but it’s a little corrupted.

Once the drums and guitar kick in and we get formal structure, the chiptune elements remain as a transitional tail after each line of the first verse. Then, we get a bridge, which offers an increased tempo and a wild bass hook, and the chorus, a kind of psychedelic freakout of vocal distortion and syncopation. After that, everything slows down and it all happens again, before transitioning to the aforementioned outro.

This is where I’d usually talk about the lyrics, but uh… I can’t really make heads or tails of them. I generally gravitate toward music first when listening to an album, and then start picking up lyrics via repetition of the album. I will notice when they’re really bad and/or trying too hard to rhyme arbitrarily, but a song with bad lyrics but great music is always preferable to one with amazing lyrics and mediocre music.

In any case, if you like this song, I recommend checking out the rest of the album. I don’t consume enough music anymore to do a yearly best-of, but this album has received a lot of spins since I discovered it.

Song of the Day: Third Eye Blind–Semi-Charmed Life

I had no idea what this song was about when I first heard it in junior high. Honestly, I didn’t know what “bumped” meant in the context of this song until maybe… a coupla years ago? But it was one of my favorite songs in ninth grade, and I think was a harbinger of the sort of thing I would end up gravitating toward once high school came around and I moved on from pop music.

It’s got a good beat, some good syncopation, and a catchy chorus. I remember that there were a lot of different versions of the song depending on where you heard it. The End, Seattle’s alternative station, played the song in its entirety, while the two major soft rock/pop stations I occasionally listened to/was subjected to played a slightly different version of the song which basically avoided the part of the bridge where everything gets dark. MTV played yet another version of the song which contained more of the bridge, but avoided the overt drug references at the end.

In retrospect, it’s pretty interesting how the song was more-or-less stripped of its meaning depending on where you heard it, and I kinda wonder what Stephen Jenkins and co. thought of the ways their song was neutered.

Song of the Day: Alkaline Trio–Dead and Broken

I used to HATE Alkaline Trio.

It was always pretty irrational. My buddy Ben, who I gave a ride to most mornings in high school, decided one day that we were going to listen to a new album he’d just bought. This always ends poorly, but in this case the album was Alkaline Trio’s Maybe I’ll Catch Fire. Something about Matt Skiba’s (and Dan Andriano’s, but to a lesser extent) voice grated on me, and neither the music nor the lyrics had any initial appeal.

Eventually I was won over, even though they’re still pretty terrible live. I initially came around listening to From Here to Infirmary, the follow-up album to Maybe I’ll Catch Fire, but these days I hold both albums in fairly equal esteem, along with their debut Goddamnit and their next album Good Mourning. From there, though, things start to get dodgy. “Dead and Broken” is from the BYO Split Series Volume 5 that came out after Mourning in 2004 and marked the beginning of a transition for the band from pop-punk to punkish pop. Crimson would follow in 2005, and while the production is shamelessly glossy and overwrought, it had enough high points to justify an occasional spin when I’m in the right mood. I find everything after to be increasingly mushy, however, even though I still give every new album a try out of loyalty (with maybe a touch of masochism).

Anyway, in 2004 (I think–it’s hard to pin down exactly when it was) I went to Warped Tour with my buddies Peter and Nick, and Peter and I each made compilation CDs with songs from the bands playing to get us psyched on the way. While I love being able to create a playlist of whatever I want to hear whenever I want (on my phone, no less) these days, crafting a compilation was a different experience then. You only had 80 minutes of play time, so you had to make your choices judiciously. Each of us had slightly different bands we gravitated toward, along with different song choices, but this was one track we agreed on. The funny thing is, I don’t think Peter even really liked Alkaline Trio that much–this was just a really good song that had the perfect fast tempo and percussive beat for driving 300 miles in one day.

Alkaline Trio - Dead and Broken

Sunset Overdrive–First Impressions: Laughter

Despite being able to tell you about many books, games, and movies that I think are funny, most of them don’t actually make me laugh all that much. Sometimes jokes are enough to make me smile without actually uttering anything. Other times, I might voice a quick chuckle that barely makes it past my throat. But it’s not often that I laugh in a sustained, semi-controllable way, and completely losing my mind to hysterical laughter is something that only happens once in a blue moon. It’s not that I’m hard to please, it’s just that my humor center is… muted.

That said, Sunset Overdrive is funny. This is a game that takes place during the apocalypse, which is caused when a massive soda company launches Overcharge, a new energy drink, without doing the proper testing. Everyone who drinks it turns into a mutated creature called an OD (get it?) and those that are left split into a variety of friendly and hostile factions. FizzCo, the aforementioned soda company, cuts off the city from the rest of civilization and sends in a cleanup crew to cover the whole mess up. If this all sounds familiar, well, it should. But don’t let that stop you from playing it.

This is not the usual drab, gray apocalypse
This is not the usual drab, gray apocalypse

The game has yet to completely double me over, but it’s consistently clever and more than once has made me laugh out loud (maybe the best gag so far involves a giant inflatable mascot and its attempt to murder me with its laser eyes). Even when it doesn’t cause a vocal reaction, it’s clear that such care has gone into the script, the staging and the voice acting that it’s hard not to be impressed.

It helps that it’s hard not to have fun.

When you die (which is fairly frequent in the early going), the game breaks out a series of jokes that vary enough that they’ve ceased to be funny after about 5 hours or so. The game also rarely punishes you for doing so. You might lose a little bit of progress, but more often you can jump right back into the middle of what you were doing, though you don’t get any ammo replenishment and your combo meter is reset.

Herkers are tough to take down and spawn regular OD. Expect to be overwhelmed occasionally
Herkers are tough to take down and spawn regular OD. Expect to be overwhelmed occasionally

Said combo meter is increased by killing things and traversing the environment, and if you want it to rise and give you access to the game’s amps, you’d better do both at once. Amps do all sorts of things to your melee attack, weapons and traversal techniques, and the higher the combo threshold for an amp, the wilder the results. One early amp causes a spray of explosions in every direction when you bounce. Another augments your melee attack with a fireball. Considering that there are lots of side missions and challenges currently waiting for me to tackle them, I have no doubt that there are even crazier amps in my near future.

Blowers are fairly easy to kill, but they have a way of disrupting your traversal, killing combos (and maybe you, too)
Blowers are fairly easy to kill, but they have a way of disrupting your traversal, killing combos (and maybe you, too)

I’m excited to play more, and if I’m being honest, the biggest reason why I stopped playing is so I can charge the controller’s batteries. The game’s inclusive, cel-shaded punk rock aesthetic makes it easy to like and hard to take it too seriously, which is good, because very little in the game is serious. Some of the most well-worn tropes of video games are called out even as your character pays homage to them, and since their execution tends to be pitch-perfect, you don’t really care that it’s being a little hypocritical. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to it.