Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Portal, or how a minimalist game can be utterly amazing

Portal
Grade: B+
Platform: GNU/Linux, PC, 360, PS3
Genre: Physics puzzler
Steam: $9.99
Released: 2007

Portal was both an amazing game and the inspiration of far too many "the cake is a lie" jokes.

What makes Portal amazing is how such a minimalist, and very short, game could be such a huge hit, and have no imitators at all to speak of.

If you haven't played Portal, snag a copy and enjoy.  You'll be glad you did.

One thing that makes Portal so intriguing is that it is such a simplistic game.  You make portals, you bounce through them from point to point, and you try to get to the exit.  Admittedly the puzzles are often delightful and well thought out, but the game taken just as physics puzzler would at best merit a C.

What pushes Portal into the realm of greatness isn't just the fact that it had snappy gameplay and tightly designed levels.  What made Portal great was the setting, the story, and the characters.  And only one of the characters talks which makes it all the more amazing.

Portal is a deeply creepy game, one that manages to be menacing, almost frightening at times, all without gore, jump scares, or or any of the other things that are usually deployed in media to up the creep factor.  The first few seconds help establish how subtly, and not so subtly, wrong everything game is.

You waken from a "brief detention" in a "relaxation vault", to find yourself locked in a cell with no door, a radio playing a cheery tune, and everything tries to look like a shiny futuristic lab but actually looks a bit.... worn.  There's subtle stains on all the surfaces, the glass of your suspension pod is scuffed, there's cracks and discolorations on the tiles, and most disturbingly of all you can clearly see that there are no observers behind the frosted glass windows set high in the walls.

All that even before GLaDOS even has the "glitch" where she doesn't tell you the safety procedures.

There is a not so subtle menace in dialog and warnings pretending to be helpful.  "Perfect. Please move quickly to the chamberlock, as the effects of prolonged exposure to the Button are not part of this test."  The words meant to encourage the player are clearly designed to discourage, and the promised reward of cake at the end of testing seems calculated to be all but insulting to an adult.

Long before you encounter the first overt sign of anything wrong, the first of Rat Man's lairs where you see the phrase "the cake is a lie" scribbled over and over on the walls, you know that the testing is a fraud, that the computer (not yet named) is seeking to kill you.

The Rat Man lairs also provide you with your first glimpse behind the scenes.  The formerly pristine white tiles of the test chambers, now discolored and cracked, are merely a facade on ugly industrial particle board.  Behind the once gleaming lab is a grungy machine struggling to keep up a false appearance.

And then, when you reach the end of test chamber 19 and break out, into behind the scenes, you see it from the other side.

Other than the turrets, so creepily saying "I don't blame you" when you destroy them, GLaDOS is the only voiced character, but the other characters are not exactly empty or undeveloped.  Even Rat Man who appears only in the debris left in his lairs has a personality of sorts.

Like many games, Portal offers no character customization.  Unlike many games, the character you must play is a woman, and Chell is no tarted up sex object.  You catch a glimpse of Chell in the first chamber, hair pulled back into a functional ponytail, a prison orange jumpsuit, and a face with no makeup and no smile.  Chell is very far from a typical game protagonist.  She has no dialog and yet her appearnace and the setting convey some character.  She is clearly not a woman in a place she wants to be, and she will clearly let nothing stand in the way of her escape.  Chell does not fuck around, and every detail of her character is designed to say this.

GLaDOS you don't see until the end, and she is a cluster of spheres on a central apparatus of some sort.  Her voice is calm, mechanical, and menacing even before she begins directly threatening you. The dialog is cleverly designed to sound like bits and pieces of what might be actual testing dialog snipped apart and recombined for GLaDOS' own purposes.

All of which makes the shift in her tone to a less artificial, less distant, sort of voice into one with much more personality and direct interest in you seem so very much more threatening.

A physics puzzle game without an intriguing setting and characters, even one as mechanically sound and well designed as Portal, wouldn't be as memorable.  Portal, like all the best games, gives the impression that there is more to it, that if you tried hard enough you could find out more about the characters, that you could find more secrets, that you could open more doors and find more places.

The fact that the designers managed all this in a game that, even on the first playthrough only takes four hours or so, is nothing short of amazing.  Portal is pure poetry, every line and level polished to perfection.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Food Blogging: Japanese Style Curry Rice

Curry Rice

Type: Japanese
Difficulty: Easy
Non-Standard Ingredients: Japanese style curry roux
Grade: C+

It's easy to see why curry rice is one of the most popular foods in Japan.  It is one of the quintessential Japanese comfort foods, a dish eaten both in restaurants and made at home, it can be made with expensive ingredients turned into a gourmet treat, or bought pre-made in a pouch for a dollar and poured over some rice by broke college students, or it can be anything in between.  No matter how you eat it, where it comes from, or how much it costs, curry rice is always good.

This is one of the very few recipes where I'll advocate using something pre-prepared as the critical part of a main dish.  Normally I'm all about making things from scratch but trying to make your own Japanese style curry sauce that tastes right is an exercise in futility; so use a curry roux from the store.  I listed it as a non-standard ingredient, but I've found Japanese style curry roux for sale in Wal-Mart so it isn't exactly rare or hard to find.

There are two major brands in Japan, House is the most popular, followed by S&B.  I prefer S&B, but House is perfectly fine too.

As a comfort food, it's hard to beat.  Warm, filling, spicy, savory, filled with onions and carrots, it warms you on a cold night, and tastes just fine on a muggy summer night, it's great for nights alone or nights with the family.  There's never a bad time to eat a plate of curry rice.   Eat it with your family along with a conversation, or eat it watching Netflix by yourself.  It's also delicious put in the fridge and nuked for lunch the next day.  Hell, I've eaten it for breakfast from time to time.

Curry's introduction to Japan shows how secluded Japan had kept itself during the Edo Period.  India isn't exactly right next door to Japan, but it isn't that far away.  Yet curry didn't come to Japan until it was brought by British sailors in the 1870's.  

Which is why Japanese style curry has a distinctly British aspect and doesn't much resemble any any of the Indian curries, or Thai curries, or really any other curry.  Basically it's sort of like beef stew with some fancy spices served over rice.

Japanese recipes always call for potatoes, but I find that redundant since it's served over rice and so I usually leave potatoes out.  Also, if I leave the potatoes out all I have to wash is the pot I make the curry in and the rice pot.

Below is a "recipe", but really it's just my take on following the directions on the box of curry roux. This isn't just an easy recipe, it's the sort of thing a person can do if they've never cooked before in their lives.

Ingredients
1 Package curry roux
1.5 pounds thin sliced beef
1 pound crinkle cut frozen carrots (or fresh if you're super fancy)
1.5 pounds thin sliced onion
1 serving rice per person (short grain rice or sushi rice is best)

Following the instructions for your rice cooker, get the rice going.  It should be finished by about the time you're done with the curry.  If you don't have a rice cooker, I'm very sorry for you and highly recommend you get one, but in the meantime you can make your rice in a pot (don't stir it!).

Heat a tablespoon or so of oil in a very large skillet or a pot.  Slice the onions into long thin strips, and saute them over high heat until slightly browned.  While that's happening cut the beef into bite sized chunks, slice the curry roux into small pieces for quicker integration, and nuke the carrots for a few minutes to get thawed.

Don't brown the meat, normally you'd want to but for thin sliced beef and this sort of dish it'll get tough if you do.

Reduce heat to medium, add carrots, beef, the amount of water called for by the curry roux, and the cut up curry roux.   Stir until it begins bubbling, then reduce heat to low and lid.  Allow to simmer until the rice is done.

I find that the normal S&B is a bit less currylike than I prefer, so I always add a bit of black pepper and some extra curry powder.  Taste it and decide for yourself if you want to add extra spices or not.

Dish up some rice, pour the curry on top, grab a fork, and dig in, life will be better with curry.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Doom

Doom
Grade: B+
Platform: These days literally everything including toasters, originally PC
Genre: FPS before there was FPS
GOG $5.99
Released: 1993

Doom was far from the first FPS game (there were FPS games going as far back as 1974 even though the acronym hadn't been invented yet), but in a lot of ways it is the origin of the modern FPS game.  And yet it differs in a great many critical aspects from virtually all modern FPS games, some good, some bad, and some just different.

Of course, Wolfenstein 3D came before Doom, but it was Doom, not Wolfenstein, that took the title of granddaddy of FPS games, and until the term FPS was invented people described FPS games as "Doomlikes" or "Doom clones".

A good place to start with Doom is what it doesn't have, or didn't require.

Doom is not, actually, 3D.  It pretends to be, but it isn't.  You aim only horizontally and there is no vertical control at all.  This is sometimes a bit jarring, such as when you meet the first imp and it is standing on a raised platform, but you can shoot it despite your gun clearly being aimed at the platform, not the imp.

Doom does not require a mouse (though it can use one and only the most masochistic modern gamer will try it without a mouse).  In the dark days of 1993 mice were still far from standard peripherals and a great many people, even gamers, didn't have them.  I didn't when I first got Doom, in fact playing it through again for this review is the first time I've ever played Doom with a mouse.

Doom has no shields.

Doom has no regenerating health.

Doom has no regenerating anything.

Doom, compared to modern FPS games, has a shockingly low rate of fire for most weapons.

Games evolve, and Doom is ancestral to the modern FPS, but still clearly shows its descent from other games and gaming styles.  Clearly one of the parents of Doom was the shooter game, a genre mostly extinct but with a closely related descendant genre in the bullet hell style of game.  In shooter games, the player moves quickly, usually much more quickly than the enemy bullets, and gameplay involves dodging enemy shots.  Doom is like that, with the player zipping across the battlefield at high speed and dodging enemy bullets as he goes.

In the modern FPS the idea of dodging most enemy attacks is simply absurd, but it is a critical component of Doom.  Enemies fire attacks that crawl towards the player not merely allowing, but demanding, that the player dodge them.

Because, as noted above, nothing in Doom regenerates.  There are no shields, and your health is limited, and enemy attacks take off a lot of that limited health pool if they hit.

The modern FPS turns the player into a meat shield, while seeking cover is both good and necessary, it is understood that the player will be shot, several times, during any encounter, and that in between encounters the player's health and shields will fill back up, or that the player will even hide behind cover at least long enough for their shields to recharge.

In Doom you dodge or you die, and a skilled player can dodge virtually every attack directed at them. This clearly shows a common ancestry with games like Galaga and Vanguard.

Also unlike your average modern FPS, Doom isn't much on story.  Sure, there's an instruction manual that talks about Mars and demons and so on, but the story isn't in the game.  You shoot demons, find keys, and shoot more demons until you can get the BFG and kill the big boss demons.  There's your story chum.

Doom came from an era when games were, mostly due to hardware limits, fairly sharply divided into story intense but graphically limited and mechanically limited games, and games with little story but detailed and snappy game mechanics.  Doom fits unapologetically  into the second category.  It is a game, first and foremost, about playing the game.  Story is crammed in as a far distant second priority, and the game doesn't really suffer for that.

Where Doom shines is in gameplay and level design.

Once you remap the controls (using a separate utility, no in game keymapping supported) to use WSAD, with A & D being strafing rather than turning, Doom is a game with tight controls, allowing you to dodge enemy attacks with ease, while positioning yourself to take down the enemies with a few well placed shots.  I have absolutely no idea how I managed to win the first time I played Doom with the default keybinds (and no mouse) way back in the day, but I managed it somehow.

As mentioned earlier, Doom has remarkably slow animations and firing on the first two weapons.  Your pistol fires only once every half second or so, and the shotgun takes at least a full second to ready before it can be fired again.  This requires you to play defensively, dodging around while you arrange matters so your slow firing weapons can take out enemies.  Later weapons sometimes have faster firing (the chaingun wouldn't be a chaingun without a high cyclic) but many still retain a much slower rate of fire than many modern gamers expect.  You mostly can't just spray and pray, you must aim, and that's a bit tricky sometimes due to the lack of a targeting reticle.

Doom is hard, and that's part of the point and joy of playing.  Back in the old days games tended to be harder than modern games, and Doom is no exception.  I can understand why game difficulty was decreased, but I often wish games had at least an option for greater difficulty (even BioShock Infinite's 1999 mode wasn't really that hard)

Doom also features level layouts that are, in my opinion, often vastly superior to the level design in many modern FPS games.  The image on the left (a meme floating around the net since 2010) is exaggerated for comic intent of course, your typical modern FPS isn't quite that simplistic in its maps, but it is true that compared to most modern FPS games, the maps in Doom are sprawling and complex.  It's easy to get lost, especially given how few textures they were able to cram in (again, hardware limits), but fortunately there's a built in map feature that helps you out.

Doom maps were also a first for FPS games because they were dynamic.  Platforms moved, doors opened and closed, pillars lowered to reveal prizes, and monsters burst from hidden doors to surprise you.

Doom both invited and rewarded exploration in a way that many modern games don't, and due to their mechanics often really can't; regenerating health and shields takes away the urgency of finding boosters in game.  Often Doom will give you a glimpse of a valuable prize, which can be seen easily but which can only be reached by hunting around for hidden doors or finding concealed elevators.  The player has to learn to look for out of place (or sometimes backwards) textures, and is rewarded for this by gaining access to better equipment.  Sometimes finding the secrets is the difference between life and death, no regenerating health means getting the healing packs is often absolutely essential.

The modern FPS could stand to take a lesson or two from Doom on level design, and how the level design lead the players to the secrets without the need for in game exposition or explanation.  Like the way first few seconds of Super Mario Bros is a perfectly designed tutorial on the basics of gameplay, the first few moments in Doom show you that there are areas in the game that require you to hunt for secret ways to access.  The very first thing you see as you begin play is a courtyard viable through a window, but not accessible through the window, with a giant glowing set of armor set on a pedestal surrounded by toxic waste.  The invitation to find a way to get to it couldn't be clearer.  When, at the end of a level, it shows you a percentage for secrets found, the urge to go back and play through the level again to bring it up to 100% is almost overwhelming for a certain type of gamer.

On the bad news side, it turned John Romero into a crazed ego monster who harmed the developer centered model of game design with the execrable Daikatana and the godawful hype built up around it that fed his ego.

But that to the side, Doom stands up well to the test of time.  It not only spawned a genre that continues to be massively popular, but at least in terms of level design it remains superior to many of its descendants, and remains playable and enjoyable to modern gamers, and a game that programmers have taken as a challenge to port to a truly ridiculous array of low powered devices.  That's an achievement not many 23 year old games can claim.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road
Grade: A
Genre: Action

I'm not an action movie fan.  I don't particularly dislike action movies, but they aren't my favorite genre.  Which is why, watching Mad Max in the theater last year, I was surprised to notice, about halfway through the movie, that my face ached and I felt kind of stiff because I'd been sitting, literally, on the edge of my seat with a rictus grin of joy, awe, and amazement on my face.

Before I get into the more important parts of the review, there is one thing that stands out about Fury Road that makes it amazing, the severe shortage of downtime.  As Randal Monroe observed in this XKCD strip, most "action" movies are mostly about a bunch of people talking with a few spurts of action in between the talking.

I can't find an actual breakdown of action vs talking in Fury Road, I may try to time it myself one day, but there isn't much talking and there's a whole lot of action.  If, out of two hours of movie there were even thirty minutes that wasn't action I'll be amazed.

Fury Road is simply one long, extended, car chase filled with explosions and gunfire.

It is a movie that grabbed me from the first scenes, held my throat in its fist for the full two hours, and finally left me gasping for breath and begging for more at the end.  I have never, in my entire life, experienced a movie that managed to maintain the adrenaline pumping thrill of a well shot and choreographed action sequence for that long.

And yet, if that was all there was to Fury Road, it'd be a fine bit of action poetry but ultimately (like Sucker Punch) kind of forgettable.

But unlike Zach Snyder, George Miller managed to put characters you care about, characters who grow,  and even a plot and some serious thinking into the poetry he wove out of sheer pulse pounding action.

Miller takes the axiom of show, don't tell, to an extreme and manages to make it work.  The setting tells the story, the costumes tell the story, the characters tell the story by the way they look and how they stand and move and behave.  But they don't tell the story by talking much.

I'd compare this to the way that some very good written science fiction conveys a wealth of world building through only a few lines of dialog or a description that isn't directly exposition.  The exposition, the unveiling of the world, is there but only to the reader willing to invest the time to think it through and figure it out.  Fury Road is much the same.

We know, for example, a great deal about Furiosa.  We know that she believes she has crossed the moral event horizon, that she has done things to survive that violated every moral and ethical tenet she holds.  And we know this not through someone telling us, but simply by who she is, what she is, and the setting she exists in.

She is the only woman to hold any position of martial power in Immortan Joe's society.  Every single other member of his military is a man.  His entire society is based around turning women into property, valuing them only for their reproductive ability, in a way that is a cartoon caricature of the worst of patriarchy.  And yet, in that society, Furiosa, captured as a slave when she was a child, has risen to be one of his most trusted lieutenants.

All this is conveyed simply by the setting, Furiosa being who she is, and, when she was asked what she was looking for, her one word answer: redemption.

Miller writes dialog like words cost money, and the result is beautiful, rich, storytelling done with almost no words at all.  The entire evolving relationship between Max and Furiosa, a relationship that begins with them as bitter enemies and grows to them becoming true comrades in arms, is accomplished with virtually no dialog at all.  Words are almost wholly replaced by action and expression not just there, but through the movie as a whole, and it is vastly better for it.

Unlike the other Mad Max movies, there is no voice over d√©nouement at the end.  I think Miller made exactly the right decision there.  The movie stands on its own, and it doesn't need Charlize Theron explaining it to us once its over.

All told, Fury Road is well deserving of an A, it is easily two steps up from the average movie in terms of artistry, craft, and sheer enjoyment.  Especially when you remember that they did almost all of it with practical effects, not CGI.  Miller made Fury Road by heading into the outback with a bunch of cars, cameras, and actors, then shooting over 500 hours of material that he cut down to a single, glistening, gem exactly two hours long.