Thursday, May 31, 2012

GameCola Recap: May 2012

It looks like I've suddenly become a slacker again around videogame humor website, with only two articles to show for my involvement. Especially compared to last month. Especially because other people were the driving force behind this month's articles. Especially because the content I provided to these articles was technically from last month, and just didn't get posted until this month.

Enjoy an encore of my April contributions:


- Q&AmeCola: Anger-Inducing Games


- GC Podcast #50 Hour 5: Halfway!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Waiting for Wednesday ... Um ... Kind of

Annnnnd yikes.

So, yeah. It's 6:50 and I haven't posted a thing. have an excuse, though, don't you worry. Ya see, last night the avocado that I had from a local restaurant was, in fact, Evil.

Because of said Evil Avocado, I managed to grab about two hours of sleep before lumbering into the office...which is where I still am right now.

And, if things continue as they are, I will be here for quite a while longer.

So, no Waiting for this week, kiddies. I'm sorry. I really am.

But I'm more sorry that I had that avocado. Because, as I've mentioned, it was Evil.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

State of the Onion Address

There's really no clever tie-in; I just wanted to use the phrase, "State of the Onion Address."

Today's post is a scattershot, unnecessarily bulleted list of what's on my mind today. Not enough substance to constitute a proper post (like Sunday's post; that was a keeper), yet still worth a mention:

- Looking back on my recent post about upcoming movies, I realize that I had omitted Men in Black 3, which, from what I've seen in previews, looks to be an improvement over the second movie. That's all I really ask for in a sequel--that it's not the worst installment in the series, and that there's a compelling reason to continue the story.

- Also looking back at that same post, I understand now that Columbia Pictures, who did Spider Man 1-3, is behind The Amazing Spider-Man, and that the movie will not be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, and The Avengers. I liked Spider Man 1-3. I was on board with a remake that would have deliberate continuity with other films. But now I hear that's not the case, and now I have no interest in seeing the film.

I didn't bother with X-Men: First Class because it looked like another origin story barely ten years after the last one, and because I really wasn't digging the costumes or the actors, and because X-Men: The Last Stand couldn't commit to being the end of the franchise or just a radically universe-changing sequel, leaving the storyline in a weird place that left room only for prequels, the first of which (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) just made things weirder. Spider-Man 3 injected a bit of weirdness to its franchise, too, and I just don't care anymore about franchises that give up at the first sign of trouble and find any excuse to dance around established continuity. Especially in a case like this, where The Amazing Spider-Man is effectively stealing some of the Marvel's biggest characters away from the MCU without the justification of, "well, we already had a series going and we want to continue it." Marvel Studios seems to know how to make money by telling a good story, but I'm getting the sense that Columbia Pictures is telling this story just to make money--and though the difference is subtle, it's significant enough that I really don't care to support them for it.

- Continuing on the subject of Marvel and movies, I finally got out to see The Avengers this weekend, after managing to locate a copy of Thor a few days prior to get caught up on the characters and events that might be involved. It lives up to the hype, though the sheer amount of hype I've heard made it difficult not to be overly critical any time there was anything less than perfect. For example, any time *spoiler* Joss Whedon IMPALED ANOTHER CHARACTER I LIKED */spoiler*. We also walked into the theater five minutes before the previews were supposed to start, only to find that the movie itself had already been running for five minutes. Coupled with bumbling around in absolute darkness to find seats--because, apparently, The Avengers' budget didn't include lighting until seven or eight minutes into the film--it took longer than it should have for me to warm up to the movie.

I foresee a Hulk / Iron Man 1-2 / Thor / Captain America / Avengers marathon in my future (which should be a total breeze after Harry Potter), so I think I'll hold off on further analysis and review until then.

- As foreshadowed in a recent Sunday Spotlight, I have succumbed to the lure of Sony and traitorously welcomed a PlayStation 2 into my Nintendo-only home last night. My original plan was, at some point later this year or early next year, to pick up a PlayStation Portable and the three or four games that had caught my interest. However, boring story short, my wife and I picked up an old-style PS2 from a friend this weekend. The (as-yet-to-be-determined) price was unbeatable, and my friend takes much better care of his gaming equipment than virtually anyone else I'd potentially buy from. Ostensibly, this PS2 was to replace the one my wife had lent out and never got back a while ago, but realistically, it was because Mega Man Legends 1 and 2 were part of the deal, and because we had picked up Mega Man X7 for cheap when we still thought it might be possible to reclaim my wife's PS2.

It was both exciting and terrifying to update my standing wish list with all the PS1 and PS2 games I'm now able to play: Mega Man X8. Final Fantasy X. Guilty Gear X. Gradius V, etc. Sorry, got carried away with the X's for a second there. I'm terrible at fighting games. But I'm pretty good at RPGs, and that's what worries me. PlayStation is the console for RPGs, and RPGs take forever to play. I'll never get through my Backloggery now!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day 2012

A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. 
- Joseph Campbell

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: R&R

After concluding my massive D&D story with yesterday's post, I think I need a day off.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Let Others Choose the Way

[Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8]

In addition to verbal descriptions of locations and scenery in my D&D campaigns, I employ crudely drawn maps on an erasable whiteboard to help the players visualize the setting, and to keep track of where everything is whenever exploration and combat inevitably ensue. Some DMs will draw maps on graph paper or lay out dungeons tiles to ensure distances remain consistent and accurate, but I don't care to expend the extra effort to calculate exact lengths ahead of time when, in my head, the distance between the castle and the goblin cave is precisely "pretty far." I'm content to approximate distances with the D&D miniatures we use to represent the characters, as the base of a medium-sized miniature equates to a 5-ft. diameter in the game world.

Anymini, the players thought it might be amusing to take certain liberties with the map I'd drawn while I was away from the table.

Go ahead. You can click to enlarge. Judging from the handwriting, the room full of magical kittens, and the wonderful reference to the Ted E. Bear song from Sam & Max: Season One leads me to believe that only my wife could have masterminded this diabolical reimagining of the tower map. I let it slide for a while.

The party awakes from their slumber and opens the door into the hallway--comically bumping the door into the golden-furred cat that had fallen asleep in front of it. Hissing at the party, the cat runs off--a far cry from the friendly kitty that had fetched the key in the jail.

Doing a little more exploration on this floor before progressing, the party finds a secret door (elf senses, you know) in the dining hall fireplace, which leads into Ziggy Frood's secret bedchambers. Bedchambers also accessible by the elevator up from the basement level, which the adventurers smack themselves for not trying. Bedchambers filled with cat tapestries (depicting cats, not made of cats) and a small adjoining bathroom with kitten-scented soap. A search of the area reveals the Knockback Ring I had planted, along with one of the last strips of paper, saying, "...whose cold shell melts into ooze..."

There doesn't seem to be much immediate value to the Knockback Ring--the players ambivalently offer it up to each other until someone finally takes it. Exploring the rest of the tower's second floor, the party comes across a bathroom where the minotaur had clearly been showering earlier. They claim a paper from the drain that reads, "...nature, which is consumed to easily by flame..." as well as a potion that the half-blind minotaur apparently mistook for shampoo. Having done all there is to do here, the heroes climb the stairs to the training chamber level, unlocking a sizeable door at the top with the key they picked off the minotaur's corpse. Reluctantly, I erase the whimsy from the whiteboard to make way for the floor that will defeat the players.

Not the heroes--the players.

First comes the examination of the platform in the middle of the room, with lines carved into the platform, extending from the center, resembling spokes on a bicycle. There's an inscription: "COMING OR GOING / IMPOSSIBLE TO SAY / I REMAIN WHERE I AM / AND LET OTHERS CHOOSE THE WAY." Unable to immediately discern the purpose of the platform or the meaning of the riddle, the heroes begin opening the doors lining the room.

The first door is to the ooze chamber, where a lake of poisonous green ooze resides in the middle, with a few small platforms forming a path to a larger platform in the center, assuming anyone cares to roll a few Jump checks to maneuver across. The only thing of interest in the room is the teleporter in the middle of the room--which the heroes don't yet know is a teleporter--but it's obviously going to take a little effort to reach. Instead of looking around the other chambers before thrusting anyone into danger, Dia takes the initiative to jump across to the teleporter.

Upon closer examination, there are unintelligible runes inscribed around the teleporter's edge, along with a series of five numbered switches--which I am improvising because it is just now occurring to me that I should figure out exactly how these teleporters work. The heroes eventually discover that flipping switches summons whatever creature is in the corresponding jail cell--as evidenced by the sudden and triumphant return of their seryulin sea slug pal.

For all the hullabaloo they made about trying to take the slug with them before, the party seemed to be utterly baffled about what to do with it now that it was here. The best solution they had--and indeed, the best solution, period--was to open the door to the water chamber and let the slug swim around in a more comfortable habitat (thanks to that successful Knowledge check at the beginning of the game that gave everyone some much-needed insight about the creature). The water chamber is a dim room filled to the ceiling with magically contained water, and as with every other room here, there's a teleporter in the middle.

Exploration of the other rooms goes relatively quickly: a chamber whose every surface is covered in ice; a chamber resembling a cave, complete with outcroppings and stalagmites behind which to hide; a sky-blue room with some vision obscuring clouds floating about, and some sort of enchantment in the room allowing anyone to fly; an ash-gray room with a rounded platform overlooking a pit of raging fires; a room containing a small portion of the cogs and gears that were initially to make up the entire floor; a chamber with five pillars--effectively Tesla coils--bearing evidence of having been dragged around; a greenhouse with a variety of plants, including a concealed Udoroot (which the heroes were fortunate to not disturb) and an enormous swaying plant reminiscent of Little Shop of Horrors that rotates in its gigantic pot to keep its eyeless gaze fixed in the direction of anything moving nearby. Oh, and a perfectly empty-looking room with absolutely nothing in it but the teleporter.

Well, that, and a well-hidden trap on every square. One of the floor tiles sinks as Sally steps onto the floor, triggering a poison dart trap that prompts another discussion of what that Amulet of Delay Poison does.

After poking around in all of the chambers, there is little left to do but crack that riddle on the platform in the center. Now, I've been writing D&D riddles for many years, and I've come to understand that it is the characters, not the players who play them, who ultimately solve the riddle. Thus, I allow the occasional Wisdom or Knowledge roll to provide hints to the players that their characters would be likely to consider. Additionally, I've started trying to make the riddles somewhat relevant to the situation, or at least provide some clues somewhere about what the solution might be. None of this seems to help this time around.

The quest grinds to a halt. Knowledge and Wisdom checks aren't high enough to come up with any particularly helpful clues, and the only solid lead is that the riddle pertains to a form of transportation. Once again:


After ruling out carts, carriages, and the like, the party proposes one option that would certainly fit the description: a road. However, a road is not going to magically emerge from the floor and take everyone to the top of the tower. Stairs are. Assuming anyone says the word "stairs" before the characters die of expired patience. It's not until someone looks up at the ceiling, sees the tunnel leading up to the next floor, and receives some nudging from the DM that the correct answer is spoken. The "bicycle spokes" on the platform begin to rise from the ground, and before long a spiral staircase has emerged.

I make a mental note to ensure I test my own riddles more extensively in the future, and to plan a little more thoroughly so that I'm not realizing, "Oh wait--there's probably a hole in the ceiling where the stairs will go" after the party has already exhausted all the clues I can give them.

To help break up the tedium of trying to crack the riddle, I had suggested the players try to piece together the scraps of paper to form something meaningful. After writing everything out on paper and then tearing up the paper for a more authentic (and easier) attempt at piecing the notes together, the party soon came up with the following:












Nice, neat, orderly...but not entirely useful. Clearly, this was referring to the training chambers, but how wouldn't become apparent for a little while longer.

Anyhow, we're past that: right now the party just solved the riddle. The cat appears again at this point and darts up the spiral stairs past them. At the top of the steps is the top of the tower, completely empty except for the cat.

The cat transforms into a full-sized Ziggy Frood (who the party scribe describes as "a stoned '70s wizard"). The master of the tower had been trailing them all along, growing progressively less friendly after the party had begun slaying his staff. Of course, the players had suspected something like this for a while, but there had been neither reason nor opportunity to act on it. That quickly changed when Ziggy announced he was dragging them each into one-on-one combat with him.

Outrage. We won't fight you. Yes, you will fight me. I'll be downstairs; find me, or else--and come alone.

The way I envisioned this playing out was as follows: Ziggy teleports into one of the training chambers. One or more party members enter the room where Ziggy currently is; Ziggy has a readied action to cast a spell or fire off an elemental ray (effectively a regular ranged attack like you'd make with a longbow, but with the appearance of a magic spell) when the first person enters the room.

If more than one person is headed into the room, Ziggy will use his move action to click his heels together and activate the teleportation anklet that will take him to the next training chamber referenced on the list the party assembled from those scraps of paper. This effectively gives Ziggy the ability to hit and run before anyone else can get in an action. He'll only stick around to fight if he's facing one of the characters alone.

Once the players realize this, they can play it one of two ways: send in one person at a time to fight...or set up a series of ambushes to let the training chambers work for them.

With the help of the assembled scraps of paper (or through close observation over at least a dozen turns), the party would be able to predict where Ziggy would show up next, and lay traps for him wherever he arrived. The Tesla coils could be dragged around the room so that the electricity jumping between them (controlled by a switch on the wall) would pass across the teleporter where Ziggy would appear. Someone could lure the hungry plant in the greenhouse to be facing the teleporter when Ziggy arrived, spotting him as a new meal and taking a decent-sized bite out of him. The Knockback Ring could be used to push Ziggy backwards in the trap room, triggering any number of damage-dealing, save-requiring traps.

The seryulin could save the adventurers the trouble of trying to move and attack through dark water by swimming up behind Ziggy in the water room and reminding the characters why they were wise not to try petting it back in the prison.

Every location is designed to provide some interesting hazards that can be beneficial to the heroes if they are thinking creatively enough. However, the battle is set up so that traditional hack-'n'-slash tactics will work as well.

Aside from a failed Suggestion spell and a bat swarm summoning (allowing me to finally use the bat swarm I had left in the corner of the basement a while back), Ziggy is surprisingly conservative with his magic. I blame this on me as a DM being more caught up with logistics than actual combat, but it doesn't help that I as an RPG player am naturally inclined to save my magic for emergencies and other situations where regular attacks just aren't cutting it. Apparently, a final battle against opponents who are winning doesn't quite count as an emergency for me.

Over the course of fifteen rounds (so, about a minute and a half in game time) the party successfully manages to zap Ziggy with the Tesla coils, put him within biting range of the overgrown monster plant, and allowed him to be attacked by the ambush slug. Most of the other rooms aren't used to the potential I imagined for them, in large part because the Knockback Ring is all but forgotten in the flurry of readied ranged attacks that has Dia and Salieri firing through doorways as Sally tries to get close enough to Ziggy long enough to spear him. There's more of a focus on individual combat capabilities than elaborate setups and team coordination, but the party's approach is ultimately effective.

Toward the end of the battle, Dia summons a monstrous spider capable of entangling the groovy wizard in a web, and Salieri loads his crossbow with those teleportation-inhibiting bolts of Minor Binding he picked up after the party looted the defeated redcap's shop. Sally sets a fire on one of the teleporters where Ziggy is expected to appear next. Ziggy's best asset is his mobility, and the party strips him of it, and also sets him on fire. Humiliated, in pain, and with dangerously low HP, Ziggy transforms back into his cat form and makes a mad dash for the stairs, risking the attacks of opportunity to outrace his attackers to the top.

When the party arrives, Ziggy has a little (read: humongous) surprise for them. Four giant stone statues come to life and climb up the side of the tower, soon surrounding the heroes. Injured from the fight and barely able to contend with one of the golems in peak condition, the party is at Ziggy's mercy. Thing is, Ziggy has conceded--the heroes have survived his test, and are free to go. He produces three scrolls, each signed by one of the characters, stating that "I, the undersigned, agree to be a test subject for Ziggy Frood and to have my short-term memory wiped so as not to create any bias or preconceived notions about the test," or something to that effect. After verifying that the signatures are, in fact, authentic, the party gets reeeeaaaally upset.

Which is not what I was expecting. I was expecting an "ooooohhhhhh" revelation instead of getting angry about something they willingly signed themselves up for. Well, that I willingly signed them up for. Sally hands Ziggy the unhappy letter from Zep Neblin that was found on the ground floor of the tower--she had previously tried to shout at him that his funding had been cut and he needed to stop his tests, but he had written it off as some sort of mind game--and upon realizing that there were no more free resurrections awaiting his mangled test victings, Ziggy becomes apologetic...especially because he can no longer compensate the party for their trouble, as he had previously planned.

The party threatens to go directly to the gnomes to file a complaint. Ziggy counters that he's the only one with the creativity to prepare the kinds of challenges that reflect what real-life combat situations will be like for the emperor's son--if he's removed from his position here, the gnomes will only convert this tower into an ineffective and uninspired sword-training facility.

The party...does not care. Making sure that inconceivably fascinating sea slug creature of theirs is properly cared for before they leave, the party exits the tower and heads off for...

...actually, we have no idea where we're going. It's nothing but miles and miles of snowy expanse in all directions, and we didn't bother to ask Ziggy which way toward civilization.

Oh, well.


Piles of XP all around for a job well done. And piles of XP to you, faithful reader, for (presumably) sticking around through all eight parts of this unfathomably longer-than-expected story. I think we could both use a break--I hear there's a day spa up on the second floor that's pretty nice...

Friday, May 25, 2012

Friday Insanity

I hate Fridays.

Somehow, my Fridays are BY FAR the craziest day of my week, and this week is certainly no different. So, in order to free up all available time to do work...I'm officially cheating with today's post.

Instead of something insightful, here's an episode of the YouTube show that I'm currently helping to write. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

An Introduction to Failure

I'm back into the swing of recording Mega Man videos for my YouTube channel, and I am suddenly reminded of why I was so eager to take a break after finishing Mega Man 6. It wasn't just because I had spent almost two years maintaining a certain degree of focus on just one project; it was because I had spent almost two years on the kind of project that aggravates my perfectionist tendencies.

I don't just pick up and play these games; I practice extensively and retry excessively to yield the most impressive and unique videos I possibly can at this stage in my gaming career. I may be more experienced and arguably more skilled than the average Mega Man player, but that doesn't mean I can survive a battle with Slash Man unscathed.

There are enemy patterns I have yet to memorize, and creative solutions I have yet to think up. I push myself, sometimes painfully so, to achieve whatever goals I set for myself, regardless of how far out of my reach they currently are. It's only when there's some trick or strategy that is simply too difficult for me to consistently pull off that I admit defeat and try something different--but only after I've accomplished it at least once. Needless to say, my practice and recording sessions are often far more frustrating than they are fun. Especially when falling so far short of the mark on the intro stage.

Mega Man 7 kicks off with a simple introductory stage that involves a small area with four generic enemies, a miniboss who can be taken down in a matter of seconds if you're jumping and shooting quickly enough, a brief series of straightforward bottomless pits, and another miniboss fight that involves a pattern that is fairly easy to predict if you're observant. To add some flavor to such a mundane level, I'm going out of my way to come up with interesting and unconventional ways to tackle the challenges at hand. Everything I've come up with I can do with a reasonably high degree of consistency. The problem is doing everything consistently in one take.

I find myself sliding into enemies that, by my calculations, should already be destroyed by the time I move into the space they occupy. I'm misjudging timing and distance, causing me to stumble around and lurch forward awkwardly in a few sections. I know exactly how I want everything to look, and it's all within my grasp, but after spending an entire evening attempting to record, the only clips worth keeping were ones I could only use in a blooper video.

I recognize that I'm not always "in the zone" when I try to record, and that I often get the clip I desire within the first few takes if I step away and come back later. Ironically, I find that playing video games usually helps me unwind from playing video games. The problem this time around is that the only games I have going right now are Morrowind, which is becoming less relaxing to play due to the increased presence of a few enemies that really creep me out, and Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, which would be much more fun if I wasn't failing constantly at missions that require you to complete the same challenge multiple times in a row, with a little bit more difficulty each time, for as long as 10-20 minutes if you're not playing like an expert, with parameters that can cause you to instantly fail the stage if you or the bad guys shoot the wrong thing. I seem to have picked the wrong time to start a high-stress recording project if other video games are my retreat from it.

That's why I decided last night to sit down and play Mega Man. The original Mega Man. One of my favorites. One that I'm good at.

One that still kicks my butt on occasion.

I got a few Game Overs. I wasn't playing for speed or to impress anyone; I just wanted a casual and relaxing evening of playing a game I love. I also tried out a boss order I've never done before, following my wife's helpful suggestion to fight Elec Man before Cut Man. (Pro Tip: Don't fight Elec Man before Cut Man.)

With some practice and experimentation, I finally settled on a strategy that allowed me, for the first time in my Mega Man career, to defeat Elec Man--arguably the most difficult robot master in the entire series to defeat without a special weapon--without a special weapon.

Well, there was that time where I beat him with just the blaster in Mega Man: The Wily Wars, but I chalked it up to luck and a few technical nuances unique to the game that made it easier to succeed than in the NES original. Still, my victory was exhilarating, and I definitely threw my arms up in excitement and let out a "woohoo" that you probably heard if you were anywhere near the east coast of the US last night.

I think I needed the break from recording, but I think I needed that sense of accomplishment more. I needed that reminder that I'm not a total failure if I don't succeed on the first try--especially when I'm attempting to pull off stunts a game neither requires nor encourages. And I needed to have that sense of accomplishment as the culmination of something I enjoyed doing. Video game success doesn't matter much if the path to success isn't any fun--the whole reason I've abandoned most of the tedious optional quests in the games I've played over the past year or two.

I'm recording these videos for fun. It's time to have some fun with that intro stage.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Waiting for Wednesday, Volume 4, Issue 21

Well, it's Wednesday again, and that means one thing--new comics! Actually, it also means that Alex has four meetings in a row and hasn't spent more than ten minutes at a time at his computer.

That's okay, since I have a whole buncha stuff due in the next couple hours and I still have two more afternoon meetings to attend.

Plus, lunch, and possibly squeeze in a trip to the comics shop.

So, instead of talking at length here about...well, anything, really...I think I'm gonna cop out totally this afternoon and just encourage you all to go buy some comics today. And, if comics aren't your thing, then go to a local bookstore (preferably not one of the big ones) and buy a book by an author you've never before read.

Or, hey! If you haven't yet seen The Avengers in theaters, go do that. It's two hours of (nearly) mindless fun. But, boy, is it fun! Great characterization, cool plot, and everything that should blow up real good most definitely blows up real good!

I'm gonna go see it again this weekend, which is something I very rarely do. Actually, I think the only movie I've ever seen in theaters more than once is The Dark Knight. And, while The Avengers is not Dark Knight (my opinion, anyway), Joss Whedon's epic is well worth your time and attention.

So, yeah.

Go do one of those things. Before you do, though...what are you Waiting for?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Recovering From the Zombie Plague

Okay, so. I think I'm now at the tail-end of what can only be described as a full-on Zombie Plague.

What started out as a weird fever/minor hallucination thing turned into a full-blown and awful head cold before settling nicely in my chest for a couple of days.

Now, though, I think I may be through the worst of it. I’ll only need to fight off the minor exhaustion of working straight through this weekend and I should be back to normal in a day or two.

It’s only Tuesday, and I already have a full plate of stuff due this week, so I feel like I can never get ahead of anything. I’m always doing my best to not fall too far behind. And with all the time I put into my real job, any hope of doing anything extracurricular has gone by the wayside for the time being.

Not the best thing for someone who is supposed to be self-publishing a book.

Anyway, I’ve also noticed that my pile(s) of recently purchased-but-not-yet-read comics have become out of control. I’m about a month behind on a lot of my regular reading, but curiously enough, I’m up-to-date on my podcast listening.

I know, I know. I’m a weird guy.

With a three day weekend looming, though, you'd think I'd be in a better mood, but three day weekends mean only one thing: One less day to get all my work done next week.

Yep, that's the kind of head-space I'm in right now. But at least I no longer have the Zombie Plague of Doom.

Things are lookin' up...

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Amazing, Despicable Iron Star Age of Resident Steel Avengers Rises...2

I think it's about time to get out to the movie theater again. Between Big Life Stuff and a general lack of interest in most new movies, the last movie I immediately remember seeing in theaters was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull--back in 2008, when I was still going to the movies about once a month or so. Given a few more moments, I'll think of Star Trek in 2009, Alice in Wonderland in 2010, J. Edgar in 2011, and The Secret World of Arrietty earlier this year, among others...but the memories are few and far between, and most of the movies I've seen in theaters the last few years have been because someone else was already planning on going.

With any luck, that'll change this year.

Provided we can procure a copy of Thor within the next few weeks, my wife and I will be headed out to see The Avengers, and I, at least, will be going for The Amazing Spider-Man not long after that. My wife really dislikes everything about Spider-Man, and the Tobey Maguire movies are still too fresh in my mind to even consider watching a reboot, but I've learned my lesson about the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the individual films are more interesting because of their connections to the others. I skipped Thor because I didn't care, and I didn't find out about Captain America until everybody else had already seen it, and it's been a struggle to watch these films without starting a DVD collection I'm not willing to invest in before The Avengers disassemble.

There's a new Ice Age movie coming up. I've liked the series well enough so far, and would certainly be willing to give it a shot if someone else wanted to go. Then there's The Dark Knight Rises, which I pretty much have to see if I'm going to continue co-writing this blog with Alex. Nothing I've seen so far has triggered my "wow, awesome" fanboy reflexes, and though I deeply respect how well-executed The Dark Knight was, it was simply not my kind of movie--and Batman Begins was a rollercoaster of liking and disliking the film for me. So, it's almost entirely curiosity driving me to eventually see this one.

I can imagine one of my friends taking me along for The Bourne Legacy, and I can imagine one of my family members taking me along for the Total Recall remake, but The Expendables 2 is the next one on my radar--despite the running joke that my wife and I now have that any given movie explosion is better than anything we saw in the first Expendables. Again, curiosity, but I'd like to think that Stallone is pretty perceptive about the quality of his films, and learns from experience.

The last one on the list for this year is Resident Evil: Retribution. I am expressly not a fan of horror movies (the Alien films being the sole exception), but I'm familiar enough with the video games to be interested in the film "adaptations," regardless of how wildly they veer away from anything resembling the video games. I've seen the first four now, and despite all of their flaws and shortcomings, they're still mindless fun.

Looking ahead to 2013, I'm completely on board with Iron Man 3 despite having heard nothing about it, and I may be curious enough to see Man of Steel (yet another reboot!) if there's any indication there's plans for a DC Cinematic Universe. Despicable Me was the best laugh I've had with a movie in a long time, so the sequel is on my list, too. I might consider breaking my boycott of movies re-released in 3D to see Jurassic Park on the big screen one more time, and Smurfs 2 is a no-brainer.

Wait, how did Smurfs 2 get in here?

Now I'm just looking through Wikipedia's "2013 in film" article and discovering all sorts of things I didn't know were going to be made, and I'm genuinely interested, or at least curious, in much of what's ahead.

Curious enough to start looking at rumors and spoilers for one movie in particular. I am about as anti-spoiler as they come. A half-paragraph synopsis or a movie trailer is all I want to know before I see a film.

Unless that film is Star Trek 2: Khan You Feel the Love Tonight.

A post for another day: predicting the plot of J.J. Abrams' upcoming sequel, and then laughing about it in a year when my patently absurd plotline is proven to be not too far off from the truth. I'm counting on the film to be every bit as much of a fun visual spectacle as the last one, but I'm also counting on it to completely fall apart both as a film and as a Star Trek film when put under the microscope. Maybe a few spoilers here and there are good for the soul--let out all that inevitable disappointment in little bursts, rather than one big one.

Either way, I see movies in my future.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Part 7 of That D&D Story I'm Taking Forever to Tell

[Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8]

After one last sweep of the room, the adventurers progress upstairs to a curved hallway lined with barred windows on the left and wooden doors on the right. A little colder up here, the heroes can see out onto the snowy, barren expanse surrounding the tower. The first door they come across bears a sign that reads, "Trading Post," though in retrospect, it would've been amusing if one of the letters had been worn away so that the sign read "Trading Po t" instead. They open the door and pile into a relatively small room with a wooden counter, a pile of containers against the wall, and a small, terrifying man in a blood-red cap.
Putting on an accent that I can only describe as "crazed old man pretending he's Scottish despite never having heard a Scottish accent before," I begin to speak to the players as the redcap. Wish that I could remember exactly what I said, but the exchange of dialogue essentially proceeds like this:

PLAYERS: "Hello, creepy shopkeep. Have you any wares? We've never been shopping before and aren't looking for anything in particular. Also, we're very poor because we didn't go searching the crates in the basement for goods to sell you, so we're really not sure what we're doing here. Be afraid of us! We might attack you! Uh...just kidding. You are fascinatingly creepy."

REDCAP SHOPKEEP: "Buy something, or I'll eat ya."

The redcap continually needs to restrain himself from killing the party--though he talks openly about desiring to do so. Redcaps by nature are highly superstitious, and he's been told by the master of the tower that it's bad luck to eat the customers--something he continually needs to remind himself of whenever he begins to think aloud how refreshing it would be to cut them open and soak his cap in their blood.

Before the campaign began, I had asked the players whether there was any equipment they'd like to see show up somewhere in the quest, perhaps something they couldn't afford to buy as part of their starting equipment. I got one request for an Armband of Elusive Action, which allows the wearer once a day to avoid provoking an attack of opportunity--for example, offering an opening for the enemy to strike her in the back as she turns away to disengage from melee combat. The shopkeeper is wearing one of these armbands and is willing to part with it; otherwise, most of his wares are all the typical equipment and items you could find in the Player's Handbook. Finally, after realizing that they are not obligated to patronize a shop simply because it exists, the party departs.

They don't get very far down the hallway before they hear large footsteps coming toward them. Taking point, Sally the elan psychic warrior is the first to spot a large horned creature wearing a tattered old vest, like some sort of respectable butler polymorphed into a giant beast that's CHARGING RIGHT AT US!! Dia, the elf ranger, fires at the foe from a distance. Sally, carrying a weapon I've rarely seen player characters favor, is perhaps the first person in any of my D&D campaigns who has been in a position to mount a spear against a charge and deal double damage against the attacker. The minotaur goes down.
Loot: 200 gold, a potion of Magic Fang, a masterwork buckler, and a key ring that had been hanging from his horn.

Party divides up the loot and gains experience points from the DM...except the DM is a moron who can't read the XP chart, and wonders why the party is halfway through the tower and still hasn't leveled up yet.

In a stroke of brilliance, the party drags the minotaur corpse to the trading post and sells it to the redcap shopkeep, who is overjoyed to have fresh blood, red blood. CREEPY OKAY MOVING ON.

Continuing down the hallway, the party grabs a slip of paper fluttering against one of the bars, about to fly out the window. It reads, "...trace the lightning back to the clouds from whence it came..." Behind them is a door to a room filled with bunk beds sized large enough for half-giants, but seemingly comfortable for smaller creatures as well. The only item of real interest in this spotless room is another scrap of paper: "...and underground are hidden hazards unknown..."

The next cryptic fragment is found through the dining hall around the corner, and inside the adjoining smaller bedroom (presumably for the kitchen staff): "...flame which warms the frozen lands..." Across from the bedroom is the kitchen, with a sizable boiling stew pot fuming up some noxious smells. Sally, believing the stew is somehow poisonous (and not just a blend of really gross ingredients) decides to kick over the pot, setting herself on fire with the flames under the pot. She quickly puts herself out. She and Dia then find sharp kitchen knives (technically, masterwork daggers) and return to the dining hall with Salieri the half-elf cleric.

Salieri has been mostly hanging back this whole time, but the player controlling him has been keeping track of the events of the quest. For posterity, for historical accuracy when referring back to an adventure in future quests, and for blog posts like this one, I like to designate a party scribe who'll jot down at least basic bullet points of everything that happens--though I've had one or two people turn their notes into hysterical memoirs of the character they played. I award 250 XP up front for whoever agrees to take notes, and grant them an extra 5 XP every time they gain XP for any other reason. Fair compensation for their efforts without putting them too far ahead of their fellow party members, I believe, plus the gratitude of the DM.

Now, I wasn't expecting the players to run into the minotaur so soon, let alone take him down so effortlessly. I had hoped for at least a little bit of time spent fighting him somewhere around the dining hall area of this floor, or hiding from him in one of the bedrooms along the hallway. As they went to leave the dining hall, the characters were surprised to find that the minotaur was still very much alive, and was about to burst into the room for a real fight.

What they didn't know at the time was that they hadn't killed the minotaur--only dropped him to negative hit points. Before he could bleed to death at -10 HP, the redcap shopkeeper fed a healing potion to his ally, as it's bad luck to let the groundskeeper bleed to death. That's not to say he didn't do anything creepy before reviving the minotaur, but I prefer not to think about what my murderous characters do when I'm not looking.

So hey, the minotaur's back. Roll for initiative. Turn order is Dia, Salieri, Huggarth (the minotaur, whose name was never revealed during the quest), and Sally. The battle rages for eleven turns, or a little over a minute. During this time, Sally is engaging the minotaur in close-quarters combat while Dia and Sally learn about the penalties for firing into melee without possibly harming their allies if they miss. I like to offer the option of taking the standard -4 to your attack roll to shoot carefully enough to never hit your friends, or rolling as normal and then tossing a d6 to see what, exactly, you hit if you miss the target by more than 4.

Despite dishing out some considerable damage, the half-blind minotaur is still not quite a match against the heroes. He bolts out of the dining hall and heads toward the trading post to enlist the help of Rowdy Roddy Redcap (another name that was never revealed to the players), who is more than excited to cut open customers who have become intruders. Joining the fray at the top of the turn order, the redcap helps to turn the tide of the battle in the bad guys' favor, but the DM is too much of a softie to let one of the heroes die instantly after receiving more damage in a single blow than anyone at this level has any right to receive in a normal combat situation--there may or may not have been a fudged die roll that allowed the character to survive at around -8 HP or so. Evidently the dice were trying to make up for several turns of the monsters whiffing thanks to unbelievably low rolls.

Toward the end of the battle, the angry minotaur turns on the redcap, complaining that this isn't worth fighting and continually dying for anymore. With the extra damage dealt by the minotaur, the heroes kill the redcap--who instantly vanishes, leaving behind only a tooth--as well as the minotaur. With the trading post unguarded, the party finally behaves like normal adventurers and ransacks the place for everything it's worth.

Loot: Ring of Protection +1, 10 crossbow bolts of Minor Blinding, a Cognizance Crystal (1 Power Point), an Amulet of Toxin Delay, the aforementioned Armband of Elusive Action, a potion of Invisibility, a scroll of Glitterdust, the aforementioned redcap tooth, dragonhide gloves, a rhinohide sack, 1801 GP, and a scrap of paper saying "...the rain that brings life to all nature..."

This time when consulting the XP table, the DM realizes that all this time, he has been a moron. Now reading the correct amounts on the experience table, he awards an appropriate amount of XP for an encounter against these monsters, and gives the players everything he had inadvertently cheated them out of before. At last, the party is at the appropriate level for that last battle.


Seeing that it's a good time for the characters to take a rest and recover their HP--and a good time for the players to take a break, level up their characters, and go to bed for the evening--the party heads to one of the bedrooms, bars the door, and goes to sleep.

When we return to play again the next day, I find the players have completely rewritten my campaign.

[To be concluded in Part 8.]

Saturday, May 19, 2012

In Which Greedo May Possibly Be Allowed to Shoot First

Whenever the age-old Star Wars vs. Star Trek argument comes up, I try to stay out of it. They've both got their high points, they've both got their low points, and it's difficult to judge something that started as a movie against something that started on television. Despite any similarities they may have, Star Wars and Star Trek are simply too different and too vast for both franchises in their entirety to compete on the basis of merit.

The argument boils down to personal preference of the creative details--Tatooine vs. Ceti Alpha V; phasers vs. blasters; Bothans vs....uh...Bothans--and preference between breadth and depth. In my experience, Star Wars has more breadth thanks to its wide variety of aliens and eons of internal history; Star Trek's focus on character interactions and social issues gives it more depth. I prefer Star Trek for its depth, and for the planets, technologies, cultures, etc. that are more in line with my tastes...but there are huge portions of both franchises to which I've never been exposed, so I can't say with any true certainty that the issue of breadth vs. depth is really what the argument boils down to.

Especially after reading Heir to the Empire.

As discussed yesterday, Heir opened my eyes to a level of complexity in the greater Star Wars universe that was largely absent from my experience with the franchise. The movies, television episodes, games, and books with which I'm familiar all have their share of plot twists and clever heroics, but I've always perceived the story to be what drives the characters, and I prefer the characters to drive the story--another matter of personal preference, I might note.

Luke Skywalker joins the Rebellion because two droids literally fall out of the sky and effectively drag him along through a series of events largely outside his control. The Battle of Hoth occurs because the Imperials happen to find the Rebels' hidden base. Kyle Katarn has to muck around in the bowels of Nar Shaddaa because the data disk he needs accidentally gets knocked off the landing platform when he shoots off 8t88's arm. Clone Troopers easily kill Aayla Secura because she happens to be looking the wrong way when Order 66 is given. So often in Star Wars, things just...happen. The characters are merely along for the ride, doing little more than nudging their destiny one way or another.

To a certain extent, the characters are driven by the plot in Heir to the Empire. The key difference, though, is that every character has well-defined goals and motives that drive him or her to fight against the flow of fate. Some are in better positions than others to succeed, but virtually nothing ever happens--or fails to happen--strictly because the story dictates it must be so. Author Timothy Zahn knows the characters extraordinarily well, and ensures they use every tool, trick, and ability at their disposal before succumbing to the inevitable, or before claiming victory over impossible odds.

I find myself invested in the Star Wars movies because I like the action sequences, and some of the aesthetics, and some of the characters, and some of the creative situations in which the heroes find themselves. I found myself invested in Heir to the Empire for all those same reasons, but I found myself in awe because these characters and their universe were living up to a potential I didn't realize existed.

You think of an X-Wing as just another snub fighter until its guts are willfully burned out and ripped apart to escape a tractor beam and set up an improvised homing beacon. You assume that a Jedi is the most powerful force in the galaxy until a little furry snake creature puts his Force powers on mute. You take for granted that Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine are the baddest of the bad until criticisms from an Imperial officer and obvious contrasts with the increasingly sinister Grand Admiral Thrawn start to make you think that maybe the Rebellion had it easy. The book takes what already exists and goes to lightspeed with it.

This must be why Star Wars fans harbor such ire for the prequels--knowing what's out there, and what could be out there, makes a goofy Gungan who accidentally saves the day seem like a slap in the face. And that's to say nothing about the breaches in continuity that I've heard exist. For me, the prequels have the same kind of action and aesthetics and characters and creative situations that I like about the original trilogy. As films, they're not anywhere near as well-directed and well-scripted as the originals, but as Star Wars films, I'm getting all the sci-fi fun I could hope for.

That's what Star Wars has been for me: sci-fi fun. That is why I've steered away from those venomous Star Wars vs. Star Trek debates. That is why the rage against George Lucas over the prequels and the Special Editions has always baffled me. Dislike and disappointment, sure--but rage? I've seen a lot of passionate fans, and I've gotten up in arms about one thing or another ruining my favorite fandoms, but I have seen Star Wars turn people into irrational zealots who would hurl you into the Great Pit of Carkoon if you so much as suggested that it was maybe not beyond the realm of possibility that Greedo could potentially have shot first, you guess.

My childhood wasn't shaped by Star Wars. My adolescence wasn't spent immersing myself in the Expanded Universe. My adulthood hasn't been spent hiding or picking up the wreckage from the brand-new canon George Lucas has pointed at his fans. I watched the Star Wars films, and I liked them. I've tried out different parts of the fandom, and I've liked them too. It's been a matter of personal preference--nothing more, nothing less.

Heir to the Empire changed everything. I've read other books of comparable quality, and I've been exposed to other installments of Star Wars that have been just as captivating, but I'd never seen Star Wars as anything other than a collection of events that dragged along some interesting characters. For the first time ever, I understood both the heroes and villains as people, not just as archetypes or sci-fi characters.

Characters can never grow beyond their role as entertainment. People can become your family and friends.

Without my understanding this, the most diehard Star Wars fans became irrational zealot characters in my eyes when defending the people they cared so deeply about. Those debates were never about franchises; they were about friends. It's taken me a decade to realize this.

I don't know that I'll ever fully turn to the Dark Side (the Light Side?) and embrace Star Wars over Star Trek, but there is plenty of room in my heart for both. I've got a Dark Force Rising paperback on the table, a Clone Wars disc in the DVD player, and a Rogue Squadron cartridge in my N64. I am a Star Wars fan. That may not mean the same thing to me as it does to you, but I hope we can both come to understand each other as people before making judgments on the differences.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Amazing Adventures in Self Publishing! Part Six

[Continued from Part Five.]

So today is a pretty special day for me.

The artist on the children's book I've been writing about these last few weeks has officially finished the final illustrations. She sent everything along this morning and I had a chance to check it out before I left for work.

Even though it was but a quick look through the pages before I had to fly out the door, I'm ridiculously happy with how the art came out. It was more than a little mind-blowing to see something that started as nothing more than thoughts in my head come to life on the page.

From here, the real work begins for me.

I'll need to sit down and edit my text and make sure that the illustrations and the words mesh well together. I'm waiting on a final cover from the artist, but then it's GO GO GO to the printer with the files.

We're shooting for an October on-sale for the book, so I'll need to get things moving rather quickly from here, and I've still not 100% decided on a specific printer, though there is one that's leading the pack thus far.

I also need to figure out the marketing of the book and follow through on several ideas I've had to generate some buzz about the project online.


Lots of work ahead, but for today at least, I'm gonna enjoy where things stand.

[Continued in Part Seven.]

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Exfanded Universe

There are only three movies I can recall (willingly) seeing in the theaters more than twice: The Matrix Reloaded, Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. This should tell you something about my taste in movies. "Yeah, that you've got terrible taste in movies," you might be thinking. At a glance, to the average fan who loved The Matrix and the original Star Wars trilogy (and hated everything after them), that's exactly how it may appear. To Grand Admiral Thrawn, however, it might seem more likely that I had enough spare cash during the first half of the aughts to indulge in the pleasure of repeatedly watching a few of my new favorite big action sequences and big explosions on the big screen.

Up until three weeks ago, I had no idea who Grand Admiral Thrawn was.

I've been a Star Wars fan for years. I've marathoned all six movies in the prequel trilogy and original trilogy. I've seen the Clone Wars animated film, I'm more than halfway through the first season of the spinoff TV series, and I've watched the previous (and, in my opinion, superior) animated TV series as well. I've played Shadows of the Empire and Episode I: Racer and LEGO Star Wars 1-2. I like the Rogue Squadron video game series, love the Jedi Knight computer game series, and have spent more time with Knights of the Old Republic I & II than any other RPG in the post-SNES era. I own posters from the six main films, a handful of Star Wars trade paperback comics, about a dozen different toy lightsabers, about as many Star Wars PEZ dispensers, and nearly the entire line of Galoob Star Wars Micro Machines (and a fair number from their larger Action Fleet line, too). The list could go on, but I think it's clear that I am, in fact, a fan of Star Wars new and old, in all its forms.

Yet liking the prequels and being over the age of five seems to disqualify me from being a legitimate Star Wars fan.

I always marveled at how people could claim to be Star Wars fans when Return of the Jedi received such criticism for being different from Empire Strikes Back, and when people outright refuse to acknowledge the existence of the prequels. Liking only two, maybe three of the six films that form the canonical basis for your fandom doesn't seem to make you much of a fan. I never minded too much when someone said they liked the original trilogy and not the prequels, but it was incomprehensible to me that I might be considered less of a Star Wars fan for liking something produced by the man who created it!

It wasn't until three weeks ago that my heresy began to make sense.

Early last year I'd picked up Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command, the three Star Wars books from the early '90s collectively known as the Thrawn trilogy. I'd read a few Star Wars books before--Tales of the Bounty Hunters, Shadows of the Empire (after playing the video game), the Han Solo trilogy, and possibly one or two other novels that have slipped my mind. While they were entertaining, and helped satisfy my curiosity about this Expanded Universe that Star Wars fans are always talking about, that was about the extent of their influence on me.

Heir to the Empire--the officially sanctioned continuation of the Star Wars saga--was where I first realized how little I understood about diehard Star Wars fans.

Strictly in terms of style--at least, as far as I've read--Timothy Zahn's writing favors function over form, providing only as much information the reader needs to adequately picture the action (with a few descriptions and turns of phrase here and there to add extra flavor, such as time being measured in "a pair of heartbeats"). What is most striking about Zahn's writing is how he seems to truly understand the characters, the Star Wars universe, and how the characters interact with the universe and each other.

I fell in love with Star Trek because of the characters, the universe, and how the characters interact with the universe and each other.

The moment that connection clicked with me was the moment I began to realize that being a Star Wars fan really isn't about the movies at all. The Expanded Universe isn't just an extension of the core fandom--it is the core fandom.

Suddenly, those big action sequences and big explosions on the big screen seemed like a pretty silly reason not to be disappointed by the prequels.

But that's a discussion for Saturday.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Waiting for Wednesday, Volume 4, Issue 20

Ya know, I don’t think I ever really understood the term “my fever broke” until last night, when I alternated between being freezing cold—literally teeth-chatteringly cold—and ridiculously hot. I had a couple of very strange dreams, which someone later pointed out were likely fever dreams.

Again, another term that until last night meant very little to me.

One of those fever dream things was particularly interesting, as for a little while there, I pretty vividly dreamt that I was a character in Game of Thrones, warding off a Lannister attack while riding on the kingsroad on my way back to Winterfell.

Aside from demonstrating how utterly clueless I am about a wide variety of things, my fever-induced insomnia last night made me realize that apparently even my fever dreams are dorky, which made me laugh.

Which then made me swoon a bit before laying back down.

Anyway, after the weird dreaming and teeth-chattering coldness of the night, I actually started to feel human again sometime around 4:00 in the morning.

Not to fear, though, because not only did I make it to work this morning—I was even about an hour early. Probably because I was still shaking off the effects of whatever the heck plague I caught last night was.

All this is basically to say that I won’t be posting much today about comic books.

You know, because of the weird fever.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Lost in the Archives

I'm not sure if you ever do this, but I find myself getting caught up in extraneous research sometimes when writing. It'll start off with a quick date confirmation on Wikipedia, or a peek at a previous post or article I've written to ensure continuity and prevent unnecessary repetition. Then my productivity grinds to a halt. Such was the case when I went back through the Exfanding archives to find posts I should link to when discussing my recent resurgence of interest in Star Wars.

Instead of trying to condense my thoughts into a short blurb before my lunch break ends, I'm going to use today as a chance for longtime readers to have a refresher and new readers to have a first glimpse of my (often unpopular) opinions about this fandom I claim to like. The links below are to three different posts I've written about Star Wars that showcase the kind of thinking I tend to do about both the prequels and the original trilogy. These should provide some worthwhile background for later in the week, when I plan to discuss my experiences with the Star Wars novels and video games, focusing on one book in particular that's allowed me to finally understand why disdain for the prequels runs so deep.

On that note, please allow me to link to three posts that are really more even-handed than their titles suggest:

- Sorry, I Like the Prequels Better

- Repairing Star Wars

- What If the Empire Never Struck Back?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Amazing Adventures in Self Publishing! Part Five

[Continued from Part Four.]

Making things can be fun.

Creating something from nothing and breathing life into characters that didn’t exist before you came along and dreamed them up and clacked some keys can be one of the coolest feelings on the planet.

Going from that awesome, creative stage to the next part of the creative endeavor, however, can be the opposite of that warm, fuzzy feeling, mostly because the business end of anything just isn’t a whole lotta fun. Mostly because “business end” is a nice way to say “you’re gonna spend money, homes.”

I’ve learned this lesson (the hard way) a few times in the past, but with my latest creative project I intend to not screw it up.

Mostly because I’ve had plenty of practice screwing creative things up in the past.

But this time? This time I’m not gonna screw it up. Why? Well, it’s certainly not because I think I might actually know what I’m doing. No, no. See, I’ve learned that the moment you think you know what you’re doing is the very same moment that you realize how incredibly stupid you’ve been.

But this time, I’ve budgeted in enough money and time to account for the part when I screw up royally.


I have a lot to say about this, actually, but Blogger is driving me INSANE today, so I’m gonna stop here and try again tomorrow. Sorry, but I really don’t want to have to throw my computer out the window today…

Back with more soon. Promise.

[Continued in Part Six.]

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Colin Hay

While Colin Hay might not be a household name, chances are good that you've heard him singing "Who Can it Be Now?" or "Down Under" with the Australian '80s band Men at Work, or singing "Overkill" on the TV show Scrubs. When I discovered Hay's 2009 solo album American Sunshine at the height of my Men at Work kick two years ago, I quickly learned that Hay has been recording new music all this time...and making concert appearances within a reasonable driving distance of where I live.

Yes, that's my signed copy of the Colin Hay album "Gathering Mercury." There's a wonderful story behind it.

One to which I could never do justice in writing.

The basic story is hardly overwhelming: I bought tickets for me and my wife to see Colin Hay in concert, we drove to the concert, we watched the concert, and we stood in line at the merchandise table after the concert to meet the performer and get his autograph. Embellish a little, add a few esoteric details, slip in an endorsement to pick up one of his albums, and I've got myself a post. Easy enough if I'm telling my story of the concert; not so easy if the concert isn't really a concert, and if my story really isn't my story.

This wasn't a concert; this was an evening with Colin Hay. The man let us into his life, told us some jokes, and shared insightful, personal, and tragic stories about his family, friends, and career. Also, he played music for us. He was somewhere between storyteller and stand-up comedian; somewhere between artist and acquaintance. What he shared with us in words and music could be conveyed in writing, but it's the kind of tale that's better suited to a conversation--and even then, the humor and emotional punch of Hay's stories would almost certainly be diminished when being recounted by anyone else.

Hay talked about his childhood in Scotland, his family's relocation to Australia, and the alcoholism that consumed his life until moving to California. He talked about how much he cherished his father, his hero who rescued him from bullies and bonded with him over Beatles records. His father, who was killed in his first head-on car crash. He talked about Greg Ham, the saxophonist for Men at Work, who had just passed away. Hay was unable to attend the funeral--he was on the other side of the world, playing a concert for us that same night.

As a tribute to his friend and colleague, Hay performed a rendition of "Who Can it Be Now?" on acoustic guitar. He took a moment to explain how it the song originally intended for acoustic guitar, without the signature blazing saxophone. He played the first few notes...and stopped to point out how much the acoustic version sounds like an ominous music cue from Masterpiece Theater.

He talked about how Men at Work were never much of a drinking band. Like many bands, however, they occasionally wrote songs under the influence of mind-altering drugs. Which explains why the original version of "Down by the Sea" was four hours and 24 minutes long.

He relayed a story that was told to him by one of his fans, which has permanently altered the way he thinks of one of his songs. The fan had gone swimming at a beach, singing to himself Hay's song "Beautiful World." He was singing, "My my my, it's a beautiful world / I like swimming in the sea" and then got bit by a shark.

Another fan at one concert requested that Hay play the song about the goats. You know--"goats appear and fade away."

Prior to forming Men at Work, Hay did indeed own a goat--but that was long before the band appeared. (That part cracked me up.) At least, he claims he and his lazy friends purchased a goat to trim their lawn for them--as my wife pointed out, he himself sings in the song "Wayfaring Sons,"

I traveled home with good stories
I build them up through time
They'll all become a pack of lies
When I'm beyond my prime

And then there was that time Paul McCartney invited himself over for dinner.

Whether entirely true, completely fabricated, or just dressed up a bit, after two hours of these stories, I felt like I understood Colin Hay better than I understand some people I've known for years. The honesty, sincerity, and comedic delivery were every bit as valuable as the music we came to hear.

And the music was pretty darn good.

Verb shift: present tense, go!

My wife and I are among the first in line to meet Colin Hay after the performance. After meeting Wil Wheaton and Bill Amend at PAX East 2010, I am ready to not make a total fool of myself, but prepared for that inevitably happening anyhow.

The queue starts a few feet away from the merchandise table and continues to grow as it hugs the wall and begins to wrap down the stairs. Colin Hay emerges out of nowhere, and heads in the general direction of the merchandise table, where there's plenty of room for him...except there's already this line of people leading to an open space in front of the table. So, he stands in front of the table, off to the side of the room, more like a party guest than a celebrity.

The person in front of us gushes about Hay's music and asks for a photo together. Just observing for a few moments, it seems that either Hay is a little uncomfortable around enthusiastic fans, or else unsure of exactly how this meet-and-greet is supposed to work. I'm up next, and I introduce myself, and ask whether he'd be willing to sign my Mercury Rising CD (I actually have two CDs in hand, and he also signs the second one without prompting or hesitation, which was cool). While he's signing, I politely, calmly, and concisely express how I came across his music and how meaningful it's been over the last two years, and I shake his hand before I step aside. Just a nice, pleasant meeting.

My wife comes up and throws her arms open, asking, "Can I get a hug?"

"C'mere, babe!" he says with a grin, and hugs her.

I'm fairly certain he's not uncomfortable around enthusiastic fans after all.

That's the story, or as much of it as I've put into writing, anyhow.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Review: Final Fantasy V Advance

Every so often I'll update my Backloggery with links to the reviews I've written about the games on my list, and sometimes I'll reread my own work if I can't recall why I ended up rating a game the way I did. Such was the case with Final Fantasy V Advance, which held a measly rating of 2/5 stars on my Backloggery instead of the somewhat higher 6/10 I'd given it on GameFAQs.

In case you've never had the chance to read it, or in case you're looking for a nostalgia kick, here below is a link to my review from back in 2008, when I still wrote overwhelmingly in-depth reviews (and had enough time to finish writing them in less than a week!). It's surprisingly thoughtful, surprisingly funny, and surprisingly easy to read despite its length; hopefully you'll enjoy it as much as I did discovering it again: