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Ted Chiang – “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” review

Like any good boyfriend, I have an uncontrollable urge to push good science fiction on my geeky girl of choice. After sort of striking out with Neuromancer, I have rallied the troops by recommending a Ted Chiang short story. I like it so much I decided to push it on you as well.

You can find an audio recording that is performed quite well by James Campanella for free here. It’s about an hour and ten minutes long.

Who’s Ted Chiang? It’s okay, I hadn’t heard of him either. He’s a science fiction author who has only written a few stories, published at an incredibly slow rate. However, he’s won and been nominated for a truly ridiculous amount of science fiction awards. Each story has been truly labored over… and you can tell. I’ve read four or five of Chiang’s stories, but my favorite by far is the one I have linked above.

It’s a time travel story. Wait! Don’t run if you don’t like time travel stories! It’s a very different kind of time travel story. It’s told in a kind of Arabian Nights sort of way, cloaking the science fictiony aspect of the story in the words of myth and legend. If you don’t like time paradoxes, you can actually rest easy here. I won’t spoil too much, but just know that you should give this one a shot even if time travel isn’t your thing.

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” feels like several mini stories that are all connected. It tells the tale of many people that use a “gate of years” to go through time and details the effects that their travel has on their lives, and more importantly, their understanding of their lives. The narrator himself also journeys through the gate of years, giving the story a sense of immediacy so it doesn’t just feel like several tales being repeated for you to hear.

The real beauty of this story is that it’s just as much about storytelling as it is about time travel. It’s about the effect (or lack thereof) that a story can have on a person. It’s about fate, the prewritten “story” of your life, and how many people attempt to rewrite their own story, improving themselves along the way. Of course it’s also left to you to ask yourself, would you change your destiny? Meet yourself? Rob yourself?

It’s a tiny little story, but the characters are all surprisingly strong. I can’t help but mentally compare this to Steven Erikson, the author of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. He can have you spending time with characters for hundreds of pages and you don’t feel you know them like you do the few people in Chiang’s story. Granted, Erikson’s characterization has gotten better in the second book, which is the one I’m still on, but that is for another review. This story makes you understand and care for it’s characters in a truly tiny amount of space. It’s really something to admire, especially in a science fiction story, where many people read just to get to the “gotcha” ending or the preachy moral.

A quick word about Campanella’s audio version of this story… it rules. He narrates it almost like The Prince from the Sands of Time video games, giving it an authentic sort of tone. The male voices are all really good; my only complaint would be with his female voices, as a few of them sound a little chipmunkish. To me though, this is absolutely the way to experience the story… so go listen to it!


Mega Man 9 – The Blue Bomber is in great shape.

I just finished Mega Man 9 on my family’s Wii. I’ve been wanting to play it since it came out a while ago, but I haven’t had access to it until now. Let’s talk about it, shall we ?

If you’re a Mega Man fan… it’s excellent. If you’re not, it could go either way.

Just in case you don’t know, Mega Man 9 is a new game in the series that is built to look and feel like an old game in the series (the 1-6 era specifically). It’s released for digital download on all the current generation consoles.

I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to Mega Man’s story, but right at the start they shake things up a bit by making Doctor Light the bad guy and not Doctor Wiley. I won’t give away where they’re going with this plot, but it was amusing enough and it didn’t dominate the gameplay. I found myself caring about it ever so slightly more than most Mega Man stories. There was also a cute reference to the other games in the series at the very end that got a big stupid grin out of me.

Gameplay though, that’s the shit that matters! Well, it’s a new old Mega Man game. For me, that’s excellent. The only real gameplay complaint I’ve heard from people is that it’s too hard. You know me, I’ll chalk this up to games getting too easy these days and so on, but come on, it’s a Mega Man game! If it wasn’t at least somewhat challenging Capcom wouldn’t have done their job.

I played through a good portion of the game trading off with a friend of mine, who wrote this guest post and one half of this guest post. It may just be fond memories or something on his part, but he found Mega Man 9 to be a huge step up in difficulty compared to previous games in the series. I argued that maybe he just thinks that because we both spent our entire childhoods becoming Aces at the earlier Mega Man games and this one is akin to starting all over again and needing to learn new things.

As it went on though, I think he might have a bit of a point (for once). All the previous Mega Man games had a few really tough parts, whereas Mega Man 9 seems to be set up to be tough throughout. Do I mind this though? Hell no! The game rules.

There is quite a lot of interesting little gameplay ideas in this game, such as section where Mega Man is floating in low gravity and he needs to fire his mega buster to propel himself in the opposite direction. Of course, this is done around instadeath spikes and flying enemies, just for fair measure.

In a bid to keep up with achievement mongers Capcom also threw in a whole bunch of absolutely ridiculous “challenges” that gamers can do to artificially lengthen their replay value. I got a bunch while playing through the first time, not knowing any of the conditions for them. I looked at them afterwards and saw some truly tough ones, such as completing the whole game without taking a hit, or playing through the game once a day for three days like it’s a damn exercise regiment.

My only complaint would be that they took out Mega Man’s slide (which has been a staple since Mega Man 3). I found myself trying to use it constantly and failing because of it. The charging mega buster I can do without, but dude… give us the slide! There was also a complete lack of Protoman in the game and in the story until the very end where he shows up in a cutscene.

Capcom, we love you. Very few other companies would do such a good job with such an endeavor. I notice you almost set the game up for a Mega Man 10 at the end though…

Get on that. 🙂


Anno 1404 – aka Dawn of Discovery

I have a weakness for strategy games that involve bustling little communities. Stronghold has always been a favorite of mine, because you can watch one little piece of grain go through its entire production cycle from seed to flour to bread to some ungrateful peasant’s stomach. All the while, you can see the hunters with their little dogs, the jester entertaining the troops, and the priest blessing people.

Anno 1404 (known as Dawn of Discovery here in North America) has the requisite amount of bustle for me. You run a series of islands and port towns that you must grow and keep satisfied. You can almost never get everything to fulfill everyone’s needs on one island, so you must colonize several and set up elaborate trade routes with ships to make sure your production never fails.

This is really hard to grasp at first, but it is ultimately very satisfying. You can micromanage to the extreme if you want to, individually performing each and every shipping run manually, or you can set up routes that your ships will run once you’ve laid out the parameters. I do a mix of both, because I’m cool like that.

There’s a campaign mode, which is surprisingly slowly paced for the most part. It’s only 8 missions, but each one will take around 3 or 4 hours to complete. The game has other continuous play modes, where you can treat it like a sim game, as well as a few scenario modes that have different goals for the player to accomplish. This is exactly what I want in a strategy game. A building campaign mode, with self contained levels that slowly teach, with the option to play endlessly afterwards.

I found the first couple campaign levels to be really fun, but towards the end it started to bug me. The naval battles are quite simple and easy to manage, but the interface for moving around your ground forces is both initially hard to grasp and incredibly clunky. There are problems with objectives throughout the campaign as well, where the game gives you objectives, but doesn’t tell you how to achieve them, or refuses to give you objectives until you do something that isn’t clear, leading you to just blindly develop your city as you await direction.

There are also a few objectives that require skills that will outright bother some gamers. In one level you need to find spies in your city within a time limit, or else they will sabotage some part of your empire. You do this by zooming in and clicking on little spy guys in your bustling metropolis. I found it gimmicky and stupid, but others will find that level of “twitch gaming” completely unwelcome in their sophisticated city building game.

I enjoyed Dawn of Discovery quite a bit though. I recommend it to fans of the Tropico and Stronghold games particularly. Check it out if you wanna build a series of cities and trade routes, but you think Settlers of Catan is overrated.

Loving the Craft – A brief HP Lovecraft review: “The Statement of Randolph Carter”. I’m going to go back and cover the Randolph Carter stories leading up to “The Silver Key”, since I felt bad about starting with that one out of sequence. This is a quick little story that Lovecraft wrote quite early in his career. It feels like an early story, too. It’s simpler than most of his other work, with a kind of abrupt but unsurprising ending. You can see the foundations of his writing style here though, so I recommend it to fans.


New Mineshaft Feature : Loving the Craft

Well I’ve yet to top my (unimpressive) Robotron score from a while back, so I need an ongoing feature to keep me coming back to the mineshaft. In addition to the normal posts, I will be spending a paragraph or two at the bottom to explore an H.P. Lovecraft story, since I think in general he is a writer that is known of, but not known well enough outside of a few key stories.

Some of the stories might warrant a whole post, though I’m sure I can capture how I felt about one of his short stories in a little blurb at the end of a post, taking the place of the Robotron Diaries (unless I top my score). We’ll be kicking this off in style, with a story that helped renew my interest in this author : “The Silver Key.”

This story is the third in the series of Randolph Carter stories. It’s not completely necessary to read the other two first, but if you wanna be hardcore about it, go for it and read “The Statement of Randolph Carter” and “The Unnamable” first. True Lovecraft fans will point out that in terms of chronology there’s really another one you should read first, “The Dream Quest Of Unknown Kadath”, but i’ve found that reading them in the written order to be more enjoyable than the chronological order. Plus, these first three stories are much more manageable in size and complexity for those who want to start reading a bit of Lovecraft and don’t want to plunge into Unknown Kadath just yet.

Randolph Carter is one of Lovecraft’s few repeating characters. By this story, he is an old man who has “lost the key to the gate of dreams”. Like several of Lovecraft’s stories, it begins with almost an essay that sets up the mind of the main character before leading in to the story itself. Carter makes several attempts to understand the meaning of the world around him, but finds himself unsatisfied, so he must find a way to retreat back into his dreams from childhood.

The story is both very different from Lovecraft’s other works and very typical for him. It very carefully walks the line between the total cosmic and ghoulish hopelessness of his stories and a kind of childlike belief in the sheer power of dreams and fantasy. It’s almost like Peter Pan with a fog machine… I love it.

Supposedly when this story was published, it wasn’t a big hit. It doesn’t have any monsters or Elder Gods or cults, so maybe that’s why. I can see how it could be less memorable and perhaps less shocking than some other Lovecraft tales. Still, this story is incredible, especially when read in the context of the previous Randolph Carter stories.

I won’t completely spoil the ending, but it is neither completely uplifting nor a total downer, but it does set up a sequel of sorts. I haven’t had time for it yet, but I’m really excited to read it and feature it soon!


Dumb shit people say after trailers.

I just watched the new trailer for “Paranormal Activity”, which is getting some serious buzz as the next big thing in the horror genre. I’ll cross my fingers for that, but that isn’t the point of this post. The trailer used night vision cameras pointed at a test audience freaking out to kind of build hype for the next “scariest movie ever made”. [Rec] did this too, and I’m sure some other horror film did it before that. I almost thought “hmm, kinda like that one [Rec] Trailer”, just in terms of how the film is pitched… but then I caught myself about to say something stupid.

What other stupid things can people say based on trailers alone? Well let’s list a few.

“A comedy with zombies? Totally rips off Shaun of the Dead…”

Example : Zombieland.

Shaun of the Dead kicked a whole lot of ass and I’m glad it got a huge audience instead of just the usual zombie loving cult people, but it was by no means the first comedy with zombies. In fact, Shaun of the Dead owes plenty of its style and tone to the Return of the Living Dead series, as well as several others. Great film, but don’t call others like it a rip off just because it’s the only zombie comedy you’ve ever seen. While we’re at it… who’s psyched for Zombieland?

OMG it’s like a documentary or something! IS IT REAL OR JUST FAKE LOL!?

Example : The Poughkeepsie Tapes. Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Blair Witch Project.

There’s a sub group for these people, the people that bash the movie because it’s “fake”. Selling a movie as “found footage” from a real event can sometimes lend it some real atmosphere, but the filmmakers are never expecting you to actually be fooled by this. Sometimes it’s done really well, sometimes it’s done really poorly, but it’s never bad because it pretends it really happened and it didn’t. Most movies pretend things happen.

This movie looks so scary can someone please give me a plot synopsis and spoil every scary part in great detail!?!?

Example : MANY.

This one seems to be mostly symptomatic of IMDB, and it seems to be relatively new. I don’t understand this at all. It seems to come from people that have a genuine interest in horror movies, but psyche themselves out to the point where they can’t bring themselves to actually sit through one. I don’t know how that can actually occur in someone’s head, since the curiosity in the story demonstrates a desire to see it, why would someone want it cheapened? If I told you I had a real interest in Tolstoy, but I don’t want to read Tolstoy, I just want to have it explained to me in great detail, wouldn’t you question that?

Maybe I’ll come up with more of these eventually, but those are the ones that jump to mind after spending a little too long browsing around online. Sorry this post was late, but I’ll keep on the normal schedule on Monday!


Tales of Monkey Island

What do you mean, you haven’t seen Annex’d episode 4 yet? It’s got some pretty talented people behind it… in fact, do yourself a favor and go back and watch ’em all. I celebrate their entire catalog.

Today, we’re going to talk about the Tales of Monkey Island. Yahtzee recently did a video about it where he gave it the usual slamming, but I’m going to stick up for it just a bit.

Tales of Monkey Island has currently released two out of five new monkey island “episodes” that will tell one complete story over the course of the series. I’ve played through the first one and about two thirds (I think) through the second, and I have to say I find them quite enjoyable.

I hear some people weren’t comfortable with the idea of moving Guybrush around with the mouse and then using that same mouse to click on things. … ‘kay? I don’t know what the problem is with this one. Sure, occasionally you’ll get hung up on a doorway or whatever, but it’s not like Resident Evil where there’s a zombie chewing on your face if you don’t move quickly enough. It’s an adventure game! It doesn’t need absolutely perfect controls. I found them completely functional. The camera also did a much better job of showing which areas are accessible than Escape From Monkey Island, the last 3D game in the series.

While we’re talking about controls, they got rid of the verbs and completely streamlined everything. Guybrush can click on objects to interact with them. He’ll do whatever the appropriate action is, you don’t need to decide whether he needs to “push”, “open”, or “use” a door, he just does it. The inventory is also made much simpler, and this might be the only time I’ll say this, but here simple isn’t a bad thing. Previous games had you lugging around around thirty different thingamajigs, some of which you would use once and then just hang onto indefinitely, and others where you’d need to keep them for multiple uses.

The graphics and environments are decent but not great. They get the job done. Again, nobody expects Monkey Island to be completely cutting edge. It’s true that the minor character models are pretty boring, but Guybrush and the other main characters are surprisingly expressive.

How’s the writing? Better than Monkey Island 4. Like all the games, it’s filled with witty references to all the other games, and often to other unrelated LucasArts games. The story is pretty good so far too. It feels like the game is trying to walk that line between honoring the past games and still telling a new story.

I look forward to the next three games. In fact, this game makes me somewhat interested in some of the other games released by Telltale, such as the Sam and Max games. Perhaps I’ll give those a shot some day.

Oh and because every article written about Monkey Island needs to include at least one dorky reference… that’s the second biggest monkey head I’ve ever seen.


The City and the city

So I’m back… I apologize for my missingness lately. It’s okay though, it let my FF7 post get a bunch of hits. I’ll be back on the normal schedule from now on. Today, we’ll be talking about one of my favorite authors these days : China Mieville. I recently finished his newest book, The City and The City (the second “the city” is printed backwards on all the covers I’ve seen).

What’s it about? Well without giving too much away, it’s a detective story. Like with Twin Peaks or Veronica Mars, it opens with the murder of an attractive and bright young woman, and a detective needs to figure out all of the questions behind the killing. However, this is a China Mieville novel, so of course it’s much more badass than all that.

The story is set in a completely new fictional world for Mieville. It seems to be roughly in the present day in terms of technology and it even takes place somewhere in normal Europe. The weird part is that it takes place in two parallel cities, called Beszel and Ul-Qoma. These two cities run together and have a very strange “cross-hatched” border system. Their cultures are similar in many ways, but different in many others. For example, some colors and architecture styles are illegal in one city and legal in another.

This is done to keep the cities distinct and separate. There is a mysterious force in play known as “Breach” that steps in and removes anyone who crosses the border between the two cities illegally, or smuggles something from one city to another. Is all of this fantasy logic involved in the murder? You betcha!

The thing is, as weird and detailed as this all sounds… it’s relatively restrained compared to Mieville’s other writings. The supernatural aspects of the story are presented more as a fact of life and they draw way less attention to themselves than in his other work. The “imagination per page” ratio is much lower than something like Perdido Street Station.

That doesn’t mean the book isn’t good though, just that it’s different for him. He clearly has a tremendous respect for the detective story genre. This story follows much of the same basic formula, but has just enough interesting little twists on it. There’s a strange kind of bureaucratic justice system thrown in on top of the already bureaucratic justice system of the two cities that makes the book consistently interesting to read. Mieville has a gift for constantly implying an even bigger degree of “world building” while developing his detailed worlds, and that is totally on display with this novel.

I would recommend this book to the middle of the Venn diagram of detective fiction fans and fantasy fans. Of course, it’s an easy sell to a Mieville fan already, but for anyone else I would recommend checking out one of his other books first. Some will find this one a little too tough to get into, but fans will have no problem with it. Check it out if you’re at all interested.

July 2018
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