Category: Tumbles

Jun2

 

Time and time again people would send me perfectly idiotic code, and when I asked why they had done it that way the answer was not that they were idiots, but that there was some issue I had not appreciated, some problem they were trying to solve that was not apparent. Not to say that the solutions were not inept, or badly engineered, or just plain wrong. But there is a difference between a solution that is inept and one that is utterly insane. These appeared at first to be insane, but on investigation turned out to be sane but clumsy.

Mark Dominus

May23

 

L.A. Noire

If you’re wondering how to reconcile the high mark to the left with the paragraphs of red ink below, let me explain. L.A. Noire is a very good game that wears all its faults on the outside.

It boasts several major achievements. The first is MotionScan, the facial animation technology that represents the boldest effort yet to bridge video games’ Uncanny Valley of facial expressions. The game’s interrogations are meant to put the technology front and center, asking the player to read these facial cues to sift truth from lies.

The second is its detailed portrayal of post-war Los Angeles. I’m no expert, but they don’t seem to have taken many shortcuts here. They’ve modeled nearly one hundred real-life vehicles, all of which are driveable within the game. They claim to have recreated 90% of downtown L.A. with painstaking fidelity to architecture. The wardrobes, the music, the signage… hardly anything feels anachronistic.

These things are well worth bragging about. But they have nothing to do with the gameplay. L.A. Noire mixes slow, static scenes, like interrogations and crime scene examinations, with open-world, sandbox-style tasks on a city map. These are tough to blend. It’s disorienting for a game to feel like Heavy Rain one minute and Grand Theft Auto IV the next.

Something else bothers me more, though. At moments few and far between, L.A. Noire is simply no fun to play, and the fact that it was fun to look at was the only thing that pushed me out of the ditch. Yes, it’s nice to be able to “read” characters, but not within the context of a dialogue tree that combines the worst aspects of Encyclopedia Brown logic and Phoenix Wright logic.

No, seriously. This is why solve-the-mystery gameplay is so hard to do well. At its best, it lets the player feel smart as he pieces together clues and has sporadic eureka moments. But far more often it feels mean, as though the player is being punished because she didn’t follow the game’s own Moon Logic. There are several places in interrogations where you’re supposed to accuse someone of lying after they’ve said something true — and, when asked for proof, present a piece of evidence that doesn’t contradict what they said.

At least Phoenix Wright allows for a bit of trial and error as a way of navigating its odd flavor of Moon Logic. In L.A. Noire, a missed question might be the difference between five stars and three on your case rating. Now, on one hand, the case ratings are ancillary and I shouldn’t take them so seriously. On the other hand, the game moves forward at the same pace whether you’re good at it or not, so the case ratings are nearly the only reward that the game offers for skillful play. I want this game to be more than a twelve-hour-long movie, but it fights me all the way.

The facial animation, while revolutionary, isn’t yet perfect. About 70% of the time, characters’ faces look like those of human beings; about 15% of the time, they look like flat images projected onto egg-shaped surfaces; and the remaining 15% of the time, they look like Vincent D’Onofrio in Men in Black. And the way they’re captured — under bright lights, in front of 32 cameras, sitting in a barber’s chair — might be to blame for some ham-filled performances by minor characters. At times I was reminded of interactive movie games, the scourge of the mid-90s adventure genre, and their tendency to feature the worst line-readings this side of a pornographic movie.

The story is solid. Often, I didn’t like the way plot developments unfolded, but I dare not complain about such things, lest we be thrust back into the age where you had to learn a game’s story by reading its instruction manual.

You should play this game. I don’t know if you should buy it, but you should certainly GameFly it or borrow it from a friend or sell it back to GameStop four days after you purchased it. You should play it not just because it’s a good game, but because I suspect it’ll be an important and influential game — in the same way that it’s important to see Star Wars just so you can know what people mean when they reference it.

Some reviews seem to give near-perfect ratings to L.A. Noire because of its technological achievements — even as they admit its flaws. I can’t do that. I can’t even spot it a few points for causing me to rewatch L.A. Confidential. Instead, it gets the most heart-wrenching B-plus I’ve ever given.

Apr26

 

The best way to think about the old NFL collective bargaining agreement is as a beautiful magic cloak. It allowed the owners a kind of charmed invisibility when it came to collusion, to artificially controlling competition, to inhibiting player movement, to making their costs certain, and generally suppressing every free market principle. The fact that they had the consent of players via collective bargaining created a non-statutory labor exemption — it gave the owners legal cover for the socialistic anti-competitive way they operate. [...] The owners, almost incomprehensibly, voluntarily stripped off their magic cloak and ripped it to shreds, when they opted out of the CBA and demanded $1 billion in concessions from players. They tore up their cloak because, they said, their share of $9.4 billion in revenue wasn’t enough to support them in the style to which they’ve become accustomed.

Sally Jenkins

Mar30

 

Holy crap. A story about a statistical anomaly is represented accurately by a news outlet: USA Today reports on a highly-irregular erasure rate on standardized tests in some D.C. public schools. Usually news articles, in the interest of “balance,” try to represent two points of view as equally likely, thus putting the crackpot on par with the scientist. (”Is the world really round? Some critics say no.”) It’s refreshing, then, to see a story that acknowledges the existence of p-values and uses them to illustrate just how unlikely D.C. Public Schools’ explanation is. Then — as if that weren’t enough — they release a heap of primary sources used to write the story. I’m in heaven. I might have to start treating USA Today as more than just a doormat for hotel lodgers.

Jan31

 

There’s a whole lot of know-nothing advocacy that’s still happening in the JS/webdev/design world these days, and it annoys me to no end. I’m not sure how our community got so religious and fact-disoriented, but it has got to stop.

Alex Russell

Jan4

 

I don’t know what I see when I watch football. It must be something insane, because I should not enjoy it as much as I do. I must be seeing something so personal and so universal that understanding this question would tell me everything I need to know about who I am, and maybe I don’t want that to happen. But perhaps it’s simply this: Football allows the intellectual part of my brain to evolve, but it allows the emotional part to remain unchanged. It has a liberal cerebellum and a reactionary heart. And this is all I want from everything, all the time, always.

Chuck Klosterman

Dec14

 

Every day in highly respected newspapers I read well-crafted stories with information that in years past I would have embraced but now know is nonsense, displaying a lack of understanding of economic theory and the regulation of business. The stories even lack readily available official data on the economy and knowledge of the language and principles in the law, including the Constitution. What these stories have in common is a reliance on what sources say rather than what the official record shows.

David Cay Johnston

Dec13

 

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

To express my feelings for Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, I had to track down a sentence Roger Ebert wrote: “Learning the difference between good movies and skillful ones is an early step in becoming a moviegoer.” In the last few years, I’ve started to notice the “skillful video game” trend: a game that’s got all the polish in the world but isn’t any fun to play.

In fact, here’s my review of the entire Assassin’s Creed series: each game gets worse even as it gets more skillful. It was plain to see, for instance, that the series of carefully-planned, oh-shit-here’s-my-chance assassinations in Assassin’s Creed had been rejiggered for the sequel; it became a series of extemporaneous situations that seemed to reward lack of planning. (“Who is this guy? Why I am I killing him? Screw it; I’ll just run up and fire my pistol.”) But it also fixed so much of what was wrong with that first game and gave me a gorgeous depiction of Renaissance Italy to freerun around. I was satisfied.

But something’s gone wrong. Brotherhood has added so many layers of sound that it’s lost the melody completely. Is Ezio singularly focused on getting back the Apple of Eden, the MacGuffin crucial artifact that can exert absolute control over mankind? No, he’s balls-deep in Roman real estate, buying shops so he can earn more money so he can buy more shops. Or he’s training new recruits with a menu-driven process that’s about as exciting as Progress Quest.

None of this has anything to do with the plot of the game, but that’s the whole point. Filler of the Brotherhood sort is quite common in modern games. It’s an easy way to parallelize the development process: the team that works on the side quests doesn’t have to keep in sync with the team working on the main quest. But it’s also an easy way to bury the kernel of an excellent game beneath a stack of laundry lists.

A stronger story might have saved this game. Any story might have saved this game. As it is, there’s only enough plot in place to set up a stupid cliffhanger ending. But it’s getting hard to care about what happens in the present-day universe of the game when I know I’ll be spending most of the next game in a machine, helping my ancestors become real estate moguls.

Nov30

 

You can be on the side of angels without having to be cautious, indecisive, and paranoid all the time. The angels actually want you to be scrappy and assertive.

David Kurtz

Nov25

 

Despite the statement of the Plaintiff in his follow-up e-mail, this phone call was not pleasurable for either one of us.

Graham Syfert

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