Saturday, August 6, 2011

[chat] Ceiling: The Redeadlinening

So, who is going to ensure that octogenarian Tea Partiers get their not-at-all-Socialist Social Security checks after the August 2nd deadline is not reached and the U.S. pulls a Rome, collapsing under the might of its own awesomeness?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens: It's really quite Terrible

I walked into Cowboys & Aliens with no expectations. I had been outvoted 3 to 1. It was not my choice. As we were walking out of the theater I turned to Sarah and Brian Jolly and said, "It of been worse. At least it was better than Indiana Jones 4. I could write pages about Cowboys & Aliens crimes. But there seems to be little point in that. Its plot makes very little scene. Things happen for movie reasons. Than the movie ends. Its that sort of movie.

I could talk about painful-orgasm face (Olivia Wilde) whose character only exists to play the titular part of the ampersand. I could talk about the only reason they had to be old-timey cowboys was in order to justify the tortured alien-ships-hog-tie-humans visual effect. I could talk about how the characters were so poorly drawn as to make it hard to tell them apart*. I could talk about all of those things. But its not the point. The point that these are problems that any wide release summer action film have. No one goes to see an action movie staring Bladerunner and Layer Cake with the expectation of seening deep meaningful story telling.

Here is the central problem with Cowboys & Aliens. The action sucked. There were four big action scenes. The attack on the town. The attack at the River Boat**. The attack on the gang's camp. The final batter.

1 and 3 are exactly the same with the added stupid "we're flying" thing. POF has flown before. Worst. The second was Spielbergian child torture. And the final battle was the same 3 stunts repeated endlessly. Despite being out maned and out gunned, the cowboys and indians don't seem to suffer any major loses. At one point the whole battle seems to come to an end while the character stand around and talk while their friends are being slaughtered. Inside the ship, POF and The Golden Compass seemly have no problems. The aliens just run and at them for him to kill. Its like the worst First Person Shooter ever.

I cannot wait for the sequel Cowboy and Alien. Worst.

* Harrison Ford's character was involved in 3 different wars. As a boy he was involved pre-civil war indian wars (which may or may not of been the Mexican-American War). As a Young man he fought for the North in the Civil War (maybe) and that fought in later Indian campaigns. Maybe. Its Unclear.

** Is this a reference to something? I think we are lead to believe that the aliens brought it there, but it is never clear.

Olbermann Debt Ceiling Special Comment

Diablo 3 Auction House: Semi-Baseless Speculation

Most of us played Diablo 2 for a considerable amount of time. I'm assuming that those of you who played on traded items, or at least paid attention to trade spam, so know how that marketplace functioned. Additionally, I've spent quite a bit of time playing WoW's auction house, and generally understand the trends of that online marketplace. If we combine our knowledge pools, and our considerable intellects, I'd like to think we have a fairly robust position from which to semi-baselessly speculate about Diablo 3's You Cans Buy Shit With Real Monies auction house.

Let me start by saying that I like this auction house, as a concept. For one, I am excited at the prospect of profiting off the time I will inevitably spend farming gold and loot in Diablo 3. For two, I applaud Blizzard's willingness to join 'em, rather than fight 'em. I know people buy gold / items off third party sites; you know it. Blizzard's willingness to accept this reality, and try to legitimize the whole process, just makes sense. While I have never bought or sold items or gold online, I think the ability to do so can enhance the gaming experience, and add a new level of value / meaning to the items and funds acquired in-game. For three, Blizzard's initial statement that all content on the AH shall be player-farmed seems to keep this from turning the game into a pay-to-win system since all content is farmed and sold by players. It takes something that already existed, then legitimizes and streamlines the process.

That being said, there are some obvious points of concern that I wish to discuss with respect to how this auction house will function, and the impact it will have on the game. I've broken these concerns down into categories, of a sort, based upon some key questions.

Question 1: How much will it cost, in real money, to post items, for real money?

"We plan to collect a nominal fixed transaction fee for each item listed in the auction house. This fee consists of a fixed charge to list the item, which is assessed whether or not the item is successfully sold, and an additional fixed charge that is assessed only if the item is sold."

If I post a Stone of Jordan to the AH (I'll abbreviate "auction house" this way from now on), and it does not sell, I lose some money. That fee will play a great role in determining the success or failure of the new AH. If it costs a penny to list, then the AH could be flooded with worthless, overpriced items. If it costs a quarter, few may participate without first taking out a small loan. What do you think an ideal fee would be, and how do you foresee this charge affecting your own participation?

Obviously, sensible people will chart the marketplace and then strategically craft their own auctions, in the same way that persons play the stock market or WoW's AH. But these people are, most likely, the individuals who already sell items and gold via third party sites. This leads to question two.

Question 2: Will this new Auction House stop third party sites?

No: To avoid Blizzard's transaction fee, third party sites will continue to sell gold / items on their own. Additionally, avoiding the AH can allow these sites to occasionally scam individuals.

Yes: Since the combined transaction fee total is less than their site hosting / management costs, third party sites will utilize the AH. Additionally, the availability of this AH will make players less likely to seek out third party sites.

In my semi-baseless speculation, it could go either way. I think it depends on how much Blizzard charges to post items, and takes from the selling price. Thoughts?

Question 3: Will the real money AH kill the gold AH? Immediate follow-up: How much will gold be worth, anyway?

I think these two questions are inherently linked. Why would I sell a Stone of Jordan for 5,000 gold when I can sell it for $5? There are two answers: Either the transaction fee is too high, so selling for $5 just isn't worth it, or the gold-value of the item is higher than the dollar value of the item.

This is the point at which my speculation explodes on itself, for the following reason: "Players will be able to buy and sell gold through the currency-based auction house at whatever the current market price is, as established by the player community."


Not only does this make gold farming a viable job prospect, but it also creates tension between the two AHs. If a one Stone of Jordan is listed for 10,000 gold, and another is listed for $5, and the price of gold is 1,000G = $1, then it only makes sense to buy the SoJ for $5. Alternatively, if I can buy a SoJ for 5,000 gold, and resell it for $10, why the hell wouldn't I?

This is the aspect of the system that fascinates me, at the moment. For one thing, it seems to suggest that gold will be valuable in Diablo 3, similar to how gold is valuable in WoW. However, this will drastically modify gameplay. In Diablo 2, one has to put effort into not maxing out their gold. As that system changes, so, too, does gameplay with respect to the cost of items, repairs, potions, scrolls, etc. Additionally, it makes AH farming a lucrative enterprise, whereby one can spend hours either reselling items that were undervalued by their original posters, or by converting items to gold, and reselling that gold. But this realization, and the answers to previous questions, all funnel into perhaps the most important question about the new AH.

Question 4: Will this AH change how you play Diablo 3?

Answer: Yes. Of course it will. How could it not?

Previously I thought of Diablo 3 as a new, shiny installment to the Diablo franchise. It was another context in which I could lose myself, farming for hours to amass countless digital treasures I could lord over people on message boards in an effort to feel superior. But now? This could be a job. An amazing, fantastic, wonderful job.

But more than that, I recognize that it will change how I play with people, how I fundamentally conceive of the game. Whenever I die, I'll realize that I just lost money, in terms of the loss of gold paid to repair my items. Whenever I loot D3's version of Mephisto, I'll conceive of each item as a dollar amount, as rent, food, or booze. When I create characters, I'll assess their utility in terms of gold / item acquisition. When I gear my characters, I'll pause at each unique to choose between using it, or selling it.

I'm already an asshole about Diablo 2 and WoW with respect to loot and gold, and in those games it's only about the inflated sense of self-importance I get from wearing item sets, or passively bragging about my gold total. But when those items, that gold, translates to real-people money? Fuck, man. Fuck!

But then I take a breath, and realize the flaw in my thinking.

There are many other people asking these same questions, engaging in these same speculations right now. The part that is glossed over is the fact that item/gold sellers can turn a reasonable profit as a result of their limited competition. When everyone is a gold farmer, that significantly decreases the competition and demand, by drastically increasing the supply. Once the initial absurdity subsides, and the AH is regulated by individuals who understand basic economics, how significant will the AH actually be? Moreover, how will it affect people's conceptions of their own characters?

Diablo is about item collection. The game, at its core, is a system for amassing randomly generated items the value of which is found in their rarity. But when these items are readily available for purchase, and translate into a direct dollar amount, will they still maintain that value to the players?

I'm not sure. At one moment I think the items could be more awesome, since they maintain their initial appeal via rarity and gain that economic value as well. But then I ask myself, "What would I think of my Aldur's set, my WoW gold, if I could have obtained it by spending $20 five minutes into the game?" And I have to answer that, honestly, it makes them kinda meaningless. Sure, the gear and the gold have utility within the game for accomplishing tasks and defeating monsters. But I don't fucking care about that part. I don't want to kill monsters, I want to brag about my loot. Yet if any jackass can obtain my loot by stealing their dad's credit card...where the hell is the fun? What can I lord over other people if not my gear?

Maybe I could find enjoyment in the gameplay, I could focus on the new pvp system, or perhaps I could simply appreciate the experience of playing a game online with people whose company I enjoy.

Yeah, that's not gonna work. I guess I'll have to be an achievement whore.

Anyway, what do you peoples think about the Diablo 3 AH?

Cowboys & Aliens: It's really quite good.

In the tradition of Snakes on a Plane, Cowboys & Aliens utilizes titular clarity to make explicit what it is all about. In deviation from Snakes on a Plane, though, Cowboys & Aliens delivers more than simply Cowboys and Aliens. This is a well-shot, well-acted, solid summer film that strives beyond the requirements of its title to deliver a cinematic experience the totality of which will cause any reasonable person to conclude, “That was much better than I was expecting.” It’s know how at the end of Constantine you thought, "That film was better than it deserved to be”? Cowboys & Aliens is like that. You go in expecting goofy shit, yet receive something that was worth your time and money. Plus, the dialog contains enough pauses that it will one day serve for a nice Rifftrax.

[Spoilers from this point on.]

Cowboy Daniel Craig awakens alone in the desert with both a large metal bracelet and amnesia (Read that ‘amnesia’ in the way MA17 / Hedonism Bot would say it). He makes his way to a town, whereupon the town’s sheriff recognizes Craig to be a fiendish outlaw and so apprehends him. As the townsfolk gather to watch Cowboy Craig’s imprisoned departure, aliens attack, since, well, that’s what the title promised us. The aliens cattle rustle away most of the town’s inhabitants before Cowboy Craig realizes that his handy-dandy bracelet doubles as a kick-ass plasma cannon and he guns down one of the alien ships. Realizing that the arm-gun provides them with a fighting chance, they embark upon a pursuit of the aliens to rescue the captured townsfolk.

Up to that point we’re good. But then there’s Olivia Wilde, whose character serves as an incredibly sexy foundation for the film’s MacGuffin.

See, Cowboys & Aliens tries to be more than just Snakes on a Plane, tries to be more than the cinematic execution of a novel idea. In many respects it succeeds at being more than “Cowboy James Bond and Cowboy Angry Han Solo / Indiana Jones fight aliens”. But it strives beyond its titular promises by way of Olivia Wilde’s character, who, sadly, just fails to make any god-damned sense at all. She is the plot device by which the Cowboys and the Indians recognize their commonality and so combine their forces against the aliens. It’s supposed to be an inversion of that classic motif of cowboys versus Indians, us versus them, by portraying the cowboys and Indians as the us, and the aliens as the them. Yet to get this team going, we need a common resource to serve as the point of conflict. What that resource turns out to be is, well, here’s the dialog, as I remember it:

Cowboy Harrison Ford: What do they [the aliens] want?

Olivia Wilde: They want your gold.

Cowboy Harrison Ford: (Flustered) But that’s…that’s ridiculous!

Olivia Wilde: Yeah, the aliens are just as surprised as you are.

Yeah, the aliens are trying to steal our gold. And Olivia Wilde is a shapeshifting alien from another planet, whose gold was stolen, and so she came to earth to stop the bad aliens from stealing more gold. She’s like a sexy version of Ron Paul…or something.

Ok. That part is stupid. I’ll grant you that the plot, with respect to the aliens being intergalactic claim jumpers, is kind of retarded.

But if you ignore the stupid shit, what remains is some spectacular acting, compelling character development, and, you know, cowboys fighting aliens. Harrison Ford is great and Daniel Craig once again disappears into a character to deliver a spectacular performance. The film also offers well-crafted moments of peripheral character development. From the orphaned child’s transition into manhood, to various characters overcoming previous adversities, the movie does some things quite well. And there’s a dog that follows Craig around being all doggy and awesome. I mean, that’s cool, right? He’s a cowboy dog. And he kinda fights an alien at one point.

Ok, you’re still stuck on the aliens thievin’ our gold, aren’t you? Well, what if I tell you that Olivia Wilde is, at one point, wet, in a very tight-fitting, light-colored dress? Will that make it up to you? Plus there’s this:

She has really pretty eyes. And she's single now.

Look, it’s a good movie that happens to contain a stupid plot element. Everything else is quite, surpringly, well done! They fight some aliens, they learn some lessons, Olivia Wilde gets wet, and a dog runs around being great. It’s a nice, fresh take on classic westerns that rehumanizes the genre by pitting humans against aliens rather than pitting white humans against not-quite-as-white humans. It’s a tale of humanity versus non-humanity, with Olivia Wilde as a sexy, shapeshifting alien who is there for exposition, plot points, and boobs.

I give Cowboys & Aliens one cowboy dog out of a possible no cowboy dogs.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Diablo 3: Fun & Profit

Blizzard will let you sell your Diablo III loot for real money.

Built into the game's client, the Diablo III Auction House will let players swap items—weapons, gems, armor, runestones, even characters—for other items, in-game gold or regional, real-world currency. Buyers can search by character class and item type, with the option to auto-bid on or instant buy virtual goods. Transactions between players are handled anonymously.

On cash-based transactions, Blizzard will charge sellers both a listing fee and a "nominal fixed transaction fee" if the item finds a buyer. The developer says the listing fee was designed to prevent players from putting up every item they own up for sale. It plans to offer an unspecified amount of free listings to Diablo III players who might want to experiment with selling their game loot.

Diablo III players who opt to sell in-game gear for real world currency have the option of funneling the cash proceeds into one of two accounts: an e-balance that players can use to buy other Blizzard products (games, World of Warcraft game time, virtual pets) and an unannounced third party payment provider that will simply let them cash out their winnings (minus another fee from the third party).

Looks like I have a new economic fallback plan.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Human Centipede

Look, I'm not made of stone, Netflix. If you keep telling me that there is a movie called Human Centipede that everyone seems to know about and has somehow gained sufficient cultural relevance to get a South Park episode of sorts then eventually I will goddamned watch it.

The first thing I noticed about Human Centipede is the way that natural dialogue, like what people say when they're just reacting to the real world and each other and making conversation, probably works best on film when the editing is quick enough to at least give it snappy timing. I reason that if you can't be interesting you can at least be brief. Conversely, you can take all the time in the world when the dialogue itself is clever or important in some way. Even silence can be useful if the audience has enough information to know how to interpret it or trusts the film to have a reason for it.

And hell, If you have witty dialogue and brisk timing, then I guess you're Quentin Tarantino directing Rosalind Russell. But if, god help you, you're pacing a mundane script to the languid metronome of two regular people talking about nothing for minutes on end, then you are making Human Centipede.

Fortunately, as I'm guessing most people already know, a couple of these characters end up not being able to talk before too long. As if to reward us for making it to the halfway point, the people who never say another word are the ones who were stumbling through what I hope were the ad-libbed opening scenes. We're then left with a guy who only speaks Japanese (actually, he mostly yells Japanese) and the mad doctor who soliloquizes often, at first to warn us about what we're about to see and then later to remind of us what he did.

Other than that, I don't really know what to say. Seeing this experiment come together elicited some disgust, mixed with relief that there would be some shutting up and the confusion of how this would actually work and why the doctor even assumed it would. I hesitate to grant any metaphorical significance to the actual human centipede beyond what horror movies in general can typically claim. As a freak show attraction on film, it delivers, I suppose and there is some suspense every now and then.

Honestly, I expected to see a lot more graphic stuff happening a lot more often, just to keep pace with Saw and others. Obviously, there is nothing pleasant about Centipede but neither does there really seem to be much to it at all besides the ostentatious premise. Unless someone takes ninety minutes to explain the central conceit of movie to you, you're probably better off hearing about it instead of actually watching it.

Captain America: The First Avenger

So, back when they were starting out this whole Avengers dealie with that Iron Man movie everybody went to see, I was a little worried about the future. I mean, Iron Man is a pretty easy sell: he's a slick douchebag by day who fights crime in a suite made of technology porn. Sold.

But then we have to do The Hulk, which really isn't so bad since everyone at least already kind of knows this guy. And even though there's been some dumb shit associated with him put up on movie screens in recent memory, he is recognizable and his film came out close enough to Iron Man to maybe sell a few movie tickets, free ride style.

Years pass. Thor is next and it is going to have a rainbow bridge and a dude who flies by throwing his hammer and holding on. Is he going to spin his hammer really fast and use it as a dimensional gateway? Fuck, he might! He's magic! He's got wings on his helmet and pals around with a big fat guy whose super powers are apparently belly laughs and gruffling turkey legs. The future of this franchise is in danger because the odds of this movie sucking are good. Mighty good.

After him comes Captain America who promises to throw his shield at people like a fearsome boomerang and punch a guy with a red skull for a the face...but not before that dastardly villain makes a thrilling escape in his whirly-bird rocketship! Cap's going to have little wings on his helmet that look like he could use them to flutter gently to the ground from high atop ridiculousness, if he were actually inclined to do that. Shit, this movie might suck, too. There's just too much stupid stuff related to some of these characters and no amount of Samuel L. Jackson is going to distract from that.

Which is why it came as a great relief to find out that Thor kept a lid on the goofiest aspects of the character and world while giving us a reasonable enough explanation of why the things they left in exist. The movie acknowledges that we already know who Thor is and that we know he is the god of thunder, but then distances itself from that interpretation of him (wisely, I think) by making him an awesome superman from an advanced world. In this version, magic is technology is magic, misunderstood by the ancient Teutons who saw the Asgardian aliens in the distant past all zapping dudes and freezing each other and jotted all that down into what became their (and our) mythology.

Captain America goes one step further by embracing the campy nature of a guy in blue pajamas before moving on to him being awesome. Yes, he wears a dumb costume and prances around with tiny wings on his head. Yes, he lets people call him Captain America, but he only does it because he takes a job shilling war bonds with chorus girls after his barely-begun military career falls through. Via a montage of can canning and fake Hitler punching, we see Cap build a popular character out of a government run marketing pitch. Hell, we even see kids buying up Captain America comic books, which means that, unlike Thor, his mythology wasn't the result of a misunderstanding by primitives, it was invented to appeal to them.

After that, he finally gets to realize his potential as a super soldier, so the action ramps up and before long he's jumping his motorcycle in front of a tank that explodes behind him in slow motion, and he hangs there like he's modelling for a splash page. It's pretty fun to watch and, for me at least, finally assured me that this franchise is no longer in critical danger of sucking.

Cowboy Bebop - Session 8: Waltz for Venus

There are a few themes worth keeping track of throughout Cowboy Bebop, but I consider only two to be central to what the series is all about. First is the subject of time -- particularly one's past and its relationship with the present -- which we have thus far seen primarily through Spike's eyes. This will eventually become an important concern for every principal character in some way after we get a much clearer look at the histories of Faye, Jet, and the rest.

The other element, critical though it is, doesn't really surface until Waltz for Venus. It's the ultimate futility of it all, which benefits greatly from the information about the character's pasts given ostensibly in service of the other theme. I'm sure I must be quoting someone, though I can't determine who or how loosely this is paraphrased, but, in essence, "there is no sadness without memory". In other words, for this futility to have any impact, it helps to get a little perspective via backstory. It's still far too early to say anything definitive about how anything or anyone winds up at the end of Bebop, but this episode does provide a nice preview, in miniature, of what is to come.

As gloomy as that may sound, Venus doesn't start out as a drag. In fact, after a successful bounty collection by the on-again team of Spike and Faye, the Bebop crew is temporary flush with a little cash. To celebrate, Faye seizes the opportunity to resume being broke by way of the casino and Ein gets a nice meal. On the whole, though, their lives don’t really change much for the better after this rare victory, even temporarily. Shortly after the bounty is turned in and the reward has been distributed among the crew, Jet is already looking for the next bounty to start the whole process over again.

And now that we’ve seen the meager rewards for success in their work, it raises the question of why they even bother doing it at all. Considering the risks involved and, perhaps more importantly, their constant failures, it is surprising that they’re able to earn enough money to survive. They must be cashing in on some bounties between episodes, because the available evidence does not suggest that they could last this long otherwise. Leaving Faye and her gambling aside, if the money they get from turning in bounties goes towards food and other basic necessities plus ship maintenance and fuel, the purpose of which is to allow them to continue hunting bounties, well, the entire thing seems basically pointless.

To clear the air of existential funk, this episode introduces Roco and Stella, a brother and sister living on Venus whose motivations are much easier to define. They represent a solid sibling relationship with the older brother being willing to do anything to help the younger sister, who in turn loves her older brother unconditionally. This relative simplicity gives them a certain innocence that sets them apart from most of the other people we meet in this universe. It manifests itself first in the way they are both surprisingly quick to put a great deal of trust in Spike, even doing so independently from each other and under circumstances that wouldn't exactly justify it.

Although Roco does so partly out of desperation and necessity, Stella's intuitive judgment of character stems from her blindness, caused by an uncommon reaction to the plants used to terraform the planet. She tells Spike that she can understand things more easily because she is blind, which is how she can quickly tell that Spike is basically a good person, even if that goodness is buried. She compares him to her brother, who is still good even though he is doing bad things with bad people, because he is just using them as a way to get the cure for her blindness.

One way to interpret Stella is through a zen sort of filter which allows her blindness to be the strength by which she can ignore the superficial things that get in the way of understanding. I think the sad reality, though, is that she’s a kind, well-meaning person who is cut off from the world and therefore rather naive as to how it works. Roco is similarly naive, but since he doesn’t have the excuse of being holed up in the desert, I think he is more likely to come across as mostly foolish. None of this is meant to imply that these two are pitiful or stupid, only that their innocence leads them to do some foolish things.

This is most obvious in the way Roco tries to use the criminal gang as a way to secure the rare Grey Ash plant that will cure his sister. In this respect, he’s a little like Faye and her gambling in that he is taking a big risk in hopes that a big payoff will follow, despite the odds being decidedly against that outcome. In his mind, he must have imagined that he could get what he wanted from them and escape, not quite realizing how good they would be at keeping that from happening.

The defining moment in this episode comes during the showdown with the gang when Roco finally succeeds in throwing an attacker the way Spike had showed him. As he smiles to Spike and gets a thumbs up in response, he is shot, without warning, through the chest. As he falls so does the Grey Ash, which withers and dies seconds after its protective glass case is broken. This scene, to be echoed later in the series, makes it achingly clear that not only can life end in an instant, but every important thing gained in that life can disappear just as quickly.

The bitterness of this outcome is sweetened somewhat when Stella is still able to be cured by way of the Grey Ash seeds Roco had smuggled to her earlier without her knowledge. This ending removes much of the futile edge from Roco's life and death, but it also says something about how this series intends to treat earnest though naive people. Specifically, it gives some support to "loss of innocence" as one of the other minor themes worth keeping an eye on as we progress. Its contributions to the overall futility of the series pay off spectacularly.

Side Note:
Faye’s lone-wolf bounty hunting story gets almost no time but is still worth a mention. Mainly because she is in no-nonsense badass mode which is all kicking down doors and shoving pistols into dude’s mouths. I think part of her knows that she’s been making a poor seductress and so she tries the more aggressive stance we’ve hardly seen since her machinegun-accented introduction in the second episode. It’s a great time for her to use this tactic, too, because it puts her in clear opposition to Spike’s Bruce Lee-inspired “like water” style that simply redirects the aggression of his attacker.