Sunday, April 27, 2008

benj gleeksman

Our friend, Benj Gleeksman is a talented artist, skater aficionado, and all-around cool dude. And while that's all well and good, you might wonder why I felt it necessary to post that sentence online. Well, it so happens that Benj's artwork is going to be on display at our local coffeehouse, Uncommon Grounds, from April 28 (tomorrow!) to May 25. I hope that if you live in the Saratoga Springs area, you'll check it out and possibly even consider buying a piece. Aili and I are lucky enough to be proud owners of one (thanks to his generosity), and are therefore tempted to wish for some sensational absurd death which would cause its value to skyrocket - but really, we'd much prefer to have Benj alive and our painting on the wall.

Benj also has an excellent website that showcases some of his professional design work, as well as his paintings. You can find it... here.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

immortal defense

I'm slowly working my way through this top-10 list of 2007's Best Independent Games - more accurately, I'm playing as much free content as I can get away with. As someone who has followed gaming culture since he was a wee boy, I can say that one of the most positive trends of the past couple years has been the rise of the independent developer. There are still huge gaming studios, like Bethesda or Blizzard, that spend millions of dollars on games that push your system specs to the limit. But the high cost of these projects mean that these companies are less willing to take creative risks; you're much more likely to see a World of Warcraft clone nowadays than something truly original (or even something that drifts just a little from people's expectations: see my post on NCSoft's defunct Auto Assault). It's very similar to the situation in Hollywood - which is ultimately why we turn to those independent film makers for something without a 2 or III in the title.

Here's an example of indie spirit. A couple years ago, some hardcore gaming nerds started using the Warcraft III world editor to create a new genre of game: Tower Defense. The idea is relatively simple. There is a horde of enemies (often called "creeps") marching from point A to point B, and you need to destroy them in some form or fashion. The two methods at your disposal are to: 1) directly attack the creeps (often by pointing/clicking your mouse on them) and 2) setting up guard towers on the map which automatically attack creeps as they pass within range. There is a strategic element to tower placement, and also how you allocate resources to either build more towers or upgrade current ones. Perhaps the most popular example of this is the flash-based browser game, Desktop Tower Defense. If you haven't tried it yet, click on the link to give it a whirl (no installation of anything required) and you'll see what this genre is all about.

I haven't been particularly intrigued by this kind of game, in part because there's an inherent level of stress in the model. The creeps keep coming, more and more and more, until your defenses are eventually overwhelmed. Your goal is to put off the inevitable Armageddon for as long as possible. In this sense, Tower Defense games are a spiritual successor to the 1980 classic, Missile Command.

Oh god, how I used to hate Missile Command! You have 6 cities to defend from a constant bombardment of missiles, that move faster and faster with each successive stage, until your enemy eventually wears you down and all your people die. Sure, they tried to put this in a sci-fi setting (missile defense on the moon?), but every 5th grader knew that this was all about defending Los Angeles from the damn Ruskies. The stress was incredible. And it didn't help that the typical arcade controller was a trackball, which depending upon the amount of pizza-grease applied by the previous player, may or may not be responsive to your immediate desperate need. Strategy was all about rapid trajectory assessment and placement of anti-missile explosions. But eventually, you would lose, and the guilt over your failure would haunt your 10-year old mind for the rest of the day.

But back to the topic at hand. Immortal Defense is a more sophisticated and abstract tower defense game, set in a creative alternate universe. There are dozens of maps to play, even in the free demo-version. On each map, there is a predetermined "path" that your enemies will take - and you have as much time as you need (but limited resources) to set up a defense network to blast the invading ships to hell and protect your homeland. What sets Immortal Defense apart from its brethren is a varied set of towers (or "points") that provide satisfying tactical options and combos, as well as an intriguing campaign replete with odd characters, bizarre platitudes, and metaphysical twists. Trying to explain the gameplay (or the plot for that matter) is actually difficult since it's a little abstract - but I can assure you that the learning curve is relatively flat and you'll pick up the basic strategy in minutes. It's definitely worth a download and a few minutes of your time. You get a healthy 32 maps to play in the free demo, and if you do happen to get addicted, the full version comes with over 100.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


Horror movies were a consistent part of my childhood and adolescence, due in large part to my father. His interest in all things horror and sci-fi heavily shaped my cultural predispositions. There were high points, like witnessing the lycanthrope transformation in The Howling (1981) as an 8-year old; and there were low points, like seeing Poltergeist (1982) in the movie theater and having nightmares about TV's for a month. Suffice to say, my dad took me to everything and now I'm fairly desensitized to anything the horror genre can think up. Don't get me wrong - I am still capable of "the cringe." Aili and I recently watched the sub-standard I am Legend and I definitely experienced a palpable fear when his damn dog chased the vampire-zombie-gutterpunks into the abandoned crackhouse. But there's one category of horror movie that I've never found particularly frightening, even if it is ripe for post-modern analysis: the zombie flick.

The slow, lumbering zombies of Romero's early classic Night of the Living Dead seemed pathetic, especially in comparison to the cannibalistic humanoids of C.H.U.D., the unseen tentacled flesh-eaters of The Boogens, or even the killer bees of the The Swarm. The zombies of The Return of the Living Dead were endearing, those of Dawn of the Dead, merely voracious. Recent attempts to make zombies more threatening by giving them speed (28 Days Later) or even intelligence (Land of the Dead) flirt with violating core criteria of zombie-ism in the interest of reinvention. Ultimately, the danger of zombies boils down to the following:

  1. They are difficult to kill. You either need to chop them into pieces, burn them, or blow their head off with a shotgun. The D&D ruleset offers a 2d10/round bonus in damage caused to zombies from fire-based attacks. Ahem... Need I say more?
  2. There are lots of them. Unlike vampires or werewolves (notwithstanding Blade or Underworld interpretations), they depend upon a horde mechanic for full effectiveness.
  3. Zombie-ism is contagious. This contributes to #2, in a exponential, Malthusian population explosion. More to the point, there is the distinct possibility of becoming that which disgusts you (physically and morally).
  4. They want to eat your brains. This is the modernist way of saying that they want to eat your soul, which should be frightening, but affects an atheist with nothing but a dry sense of fatalism.
So if we all can agree that even though zombies aren't particularly frightening, they're damn entertaining and certainly worthy of pseudo-intellectual analysis, how can we satisfy our own deep, existential craving for zombism? Here's one option...

Zombies!!! is a cheaply made but highly entertaining boardgame in which you play a "shotgun guy" attempting to escape from a zombie-infested town. It's definitely a beer-&-pretzels game, without any complex rules or deep strategic choices. I've never tried it with more than 2 players, but I'm certain that with the right group of 4-6 zombie-lovers, this game could be a hit in your household.

The base game comes with a set of tiles that make up the layout of the town. This includes locations like "The Town Square," "Police Station" and "Florist Shop." Each time you play, the tiles are laid out differently, making for a infinite variety in maps. Furthermore, there are a number of fun expansion sets to the Zombies!!! universe which build on this core concept. I've only broken down to purchase the Mall Walkers collection, which allows you to create Dawn of the Dead-esque scenarios.

There is also a deck of cards included, which feature some truly hilarious situations and events common to the zombie genre. Each player has a hand of these cards that they can play to either improve their own situation in the game (e.g. add a weapon) or make life miserable for an opponent. Here are some of my favorites:

The artwork is surprisingly good, although a bit repetitive. I really dig the idea of skateboarding on the back of a zombie. They're so stupid.

I'm hesitant to lay out the actual rules of Zombies!!! for you, since I consider the greatest strength of the game to be its modifiability. The published rules are there only as a guideline - the authors of the game actively encourage you to come up with your own unique house-rules, scenarios, and campaigns. Once I fully embraced this notion, I realized that I could come up with a playable solitaire version of Zombies!!! I mean, after all, zombie movement and attacks are pretty deterministic. I didn't need the presence of another player to "move all zombies 1 square towards you". Fighting zombies is as simple as rolling a die, but again, you can come up with any number of modifying variables that you want.

The game comes with a healthy number of plastic zombie figurines, both male and female, and you can purchase a bag of zombie-dogs separately if you're into the whole Resident Evil thing. There are also health counters and bullets, that can improve your chances of killing zombies in combat. The printed mission goal of the ruleset is to keep fighting through the town until you find the Helipad, at which point you can use the helicopter to escape and win the game. But like I said, you can come up with any victory conditions you want.

Here's a pic of a solitaire game I played in which I successfully found the helicopter after being beaten down to a single health point. Finding the fire-ax relatively early on really helped me out.

It's a fairly quick play. Solitaire and 2-player games take about 30-60 minutes. Aili played with me once and found it amusing. Zombies!!! costs a little more than I'd like for the amount of gameplay you actually get out of it. But as long as you know what you're getting into, it's a pleasant diversion. This is not a complex wargame. This is not an RPG. This, much like zombie films it celebrates, is a simple, gratuitous bloodfest with a kill or be killed philosophy. If that appeals to you at all, give it a try. As a final selling point: Twilight Creations, the makers of Zombies!!!, are releasing another expansion set next month. It's called "Carnival of the Damned" and features zombie-clowns. Hell yes.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

stop-motion tron

Perhaps not surprisingly, my 9 year-old brain was pretty overwhelmed by the 1982 Disney movie, Tron. The visual style of the digital world inside Flynn's computer was unique and impressive, with its emphasis on primary colors and glowing neon lines. I still fear the pissed off spinning Master Control Program (which South Park brilliantly subverted as Moses), and periodically suspect something like this lurks inside my Windoze PC. I figure the Mac version looks like Strongbad.

But all this is besides the point. As any Tron fan knows, one of the most innovative sequences in the movie is the Light Cycle race. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you might want to watch it here. A couple of crazy blokes recently decided to create a stop-motion version of the sequence which you really have to see to believe. And remember that stop-motion involves building models (in this case, using cardboard), capturing individual frames, and moving your models minute increments between shots. This process must appeal to either masochistic or OCD art students. Well, enough blathering - here is it:

Tron by freres-hueon

Saturday, April 12, 2008

wolfmother & the sword

MC and I went to Lollapalooza '06 in Chicago's beautiful Grant Park, and were both taken by surprise by Australian "retro-metal" band Wolfmother. I had never heard of them before and was solely attracted to their set by their awesome moniker. Very quickly, it became clear that these guys were derivative - a combination of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, White Stripes, and Queens of the Stone Age. At times, like on "Joker & the Thief", it's hard to define their sound as anything but a blatant, excruciating rip-off. What they do has been done before, and by much crazier people (e.g. Ozzy claims to have taken acid every day for two years straight - beat that, Andrew Stockdale). But I don't really care. In between songs at Lolla, random people in the crowd would yell, "WOLFMOTHER!" at the top of their lungs. MC and I couldn't stop laughing. That shit it just too good.

Wolfmother's self-titled debut album kicks ass. I like it a lot. So fuck off. Here's the song-list:

1. Colossal
2. Woman
3. White Unicorn
4. Pyramid
5. Mind's Eye
6. Joker & The Thief
7. Dimension
8. Where Eagles Have Been
9. Apple Tree
10. Tales from the Forest of Gnomes
11. Witchcraft
12. Vagabond

By the way, are you checking out that album art? If I didn't know better, I'd think Wolfmother was trying to appeal to the D&D metalheads of the 80's. Those guys that watched Highlander over and over, bought nunchucks and throwing stars, and listened to Manowar.

Since I actually don't have much to say about Wolfmother except that I think you're a wus if you don't like them, I figured I would throw another album into this post. I have OM to thank for this one...

1. Celestial Crown
2. Barael's Blade

3. Freya

4. Winter's Wolves

5. Horned Goddess, The

6. Iron Swan

7. Lament For The Auroch

8. March of the Lor

9. Ebethron

Hailing from the music-mecca of Austin, Texas, retro-metalists The Sword are yet another example of a band that should annoy the music critic in you but instead kicks its pussy ass. Their 2006 release, Age of Winters, doesn't disappoint. Try on this lyric from "Winter's Wolves":

May the mountains rise against you
May the orests block your path
May your axes chip and shatter
And know it is my wrath
I would mount your head on bloody spears
Outside your palace gates
And watch as crows peck out your eyes
And your cities are laid to waste

I feel like I'm in 10th grade again. And the entire album is like that. Put in on at the gym and run for a thousand miles, or lift a heavy rock over your head, or pull your nunchucks out of the closet and practice in front of the mirror. You will instantly become much cooler than you are now.

Monday, April 7, 2008

bicycle goddess

I couldn't resist these great vintage bicycle ads. They remind me of Carrie and her vintage/punk rock/pro-bike adorableness. It is almost her birthday.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

geek humor

This (from a t-shirt) reminded me of a dinner once with FP when he said that every time he saw the word "hadron," he couldn't help but see/think "hard-on." Once you're primed for this, your perceptual interpretation is screwed.

Some more geek humor...

Left: a Stephen Colbert World of Warcraft TCG card
Right: some eerily good fan-created Magic the Gathering cards, based on the work of Daniel Johnston

Saturday, April 5, 2008

knytt stories

It looks to be another dreary weekend here in Saratoga, and while I am thrilled that Battlestar Galactica is back on the telly, I think that both Aili and I have had enough of the soul-crushing upstate NY extended winter. If you've also got the pre-spring blues, here's something that might help.

Knytt Stories is a free game designed by an artist named Nifflas. It's a little hard to describe - I mean, fundamentally it's a barebones platform game, where you side-scroll through a diverse set of environments on a short quest. But such a description demeans the psychological experience of playing. Can I use the word "zen"? No? Alright - it's very very soothing. The combination of elegant aesthetics and an atmospheric soundtrack make this a perfect game for a Saturday or Sunday morning.

Your quest has something to do with a dystopian machine that is corrupting the environment of your world. While it remains relatively abstract throughout, I experienced a palpable sense of happiness and pride when I completed the adventure. It felt therapeutic, almost.

I'll warn you that while the control scheme initially appears simple, it does accrue some important complexity as the game progresses. At first, all you'll be able to do is move left and right (using the arrow keys) and jump (using S). But as you wander through the world, you'll discover "power-ups" that grant new abilities: like an umbrella that lets you float at a more leisurely pace if you jump off a high cliff. Learning how to utilize your new movement skills to get past certain parts of the game forms the fundamental puzzle aspect of Knytt Stories. Combat and fighting are (nearly) non-existent.

Here's what you need to do to play. Go to Nifflas' Games website and click on Knytt Stories. Download the latest version (1.1.0 r2) and then open the exe.file that will install it on your computer. You will then be able to start up the game by clicking on a "Knytt Stories.exe" icon. I strongly suggest going through the brief tutorial so that you can see what each of the power-ups does for you.

Exploring the world of Knytt is well worth your time. Even if you don't buy the whole zen thing.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

craig thompson

A short post, because the grading is heavy now and I can't quite justify the procrastination.

I've added a new URL to our "Links" side-bar, that will take you to Craig Thompson's fantastic blog. I've been meaning to write an entry on his debut graphic novel Goodbye Chunky Rice, which ranks up there among my favorite literary/graphic experiences. Thompson is about my age, which I think helps me identify with his stories, even though he was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family and has lived an artist's life (in striking contrast to a scientist's life). His blog is loaded with sketches, ideas, letters, drafts, and I find it pretty exhilarating to have this window into the artistic process of someone who's work I greatly admire.

Here's a sketch from Goodbye Chunk Rice, and its ultimate transformation.

Here's the cover design for the Chinese edition of Blankets, his 2nd graphic novel. It thrills me that Chinese adolescents & young adults will get a window into American life by reading Blankets. It is cultural exchange like this that can, eventually, lead to some kind of peaceful world community, based on the fundamental recognition that we're all fucking human.

And here's a page from his current project, Habibi (alongside a photo from his Portland garden). He's been working on this book for years now, which doesn't surprise me. He has claimed that it is primarily influenced by Arabic calligraphy and Islamic mythology, and hopes it will be a Muslim Blankets. Extraordinary.