Thanksgiving

I spent Thanksgiving in Oregon. My friend Aaron from grad school and his wife hosted for the seventh time in a row; I’ve been to five of them. It was great fun seeing everyone again. We had a core group of friends who all started the same year. That group has started to splinter; a few are still finishing their Ph.D’s, but one’s in Virginia, another in Arizona.

This was the last year in Oregon; Aaron’s graduating in the spring and will move to wherever the job search takes him. There’s a very good chance I’ll never go there again. Although I don’t particularly yearn for the state, there’s always a touch of melancholy when you visit someplace for the last time. Still, I expect the tradition will continue wherever Aaron winds up.

The trip reminded me how treasured close friends are; I’ve been able to maintain a couple of my closest friendships despite being in different states. It’s not easy; relationships tend to fade with distance. It takes a concentrated effort to communicate. But it’s worth it, and even more wonderful when a friendship grows closer despite the distance. That’s what happened with Sean and I. I don’t get to talk to Aaron quite as much but when we do it’s easy to remember why we’re such good friends; he’s wonderfully open-minded, supportive, and encouraging. We spoke about politics (on which we disagree rather significantly), I gave him a tough critique of his cover letter, and then we moved onto some tough personal issues, all without a hint of drama or frustration.

On the writing side of things, I’m making reasonable progress on the second draft of The Wildfire Crown and am about a third of the way through. I’ve also put some more time in a short story called Luck and a Fast Horse; I finished a first draft of it last month, with the intent of submitting to the Writers of the future contest at the end of the year. Unfortunately, the first draft turned out kind of flat; not a train-wreck, but nothing I wanted anyone to read, either. I spent a few weeks trying to figure out what I wanted out of the story and changed a number of things. Over the weekend I’ve started a re-write, and feel like there’s some real promise. Not sure I’ll have anything by the end of this year, but when it’s done I think it’ll be a great story.

 

I’ll leave you with one of the most awesome music videos of all time. Enjoy 🙂

Shaken, Not Stirred

Spoiler Warning: This blog contains minor spoilers for the movie Skyfall

When I was a kid, my parents rented a condo up at Sugarloaf, a ski resort in Maine.  The owners owned the complete collection of Bond films. I put one in out of curiosity, not being familiar with the series. Ended up watching them all by the end of the week, and have been a life-long fan ever since.

There’s this great ceremony to Bond films. You almost always start off with a prologue. Right at the climactic moment of the prologue, the theme starts and the film cuts to the title sequence. You can expect the title sequence to be surreal, filled with motifs representing what you’re going to see in the film itself. Then, there’s the rest of the movie; Q, M, the Bond Girl, the Villain. It’s all going to be there, in some form or another.

Skyfall, the latest release, had it all, though some of it was unexpectedly shaped. The prologue, for example, ended in a rather dramatic failure. Q’s got a new actor and new attitude. The Bond Girl role was split, with the more classical of the two getting a rather abrupt arc. M had a far more active role in the plot than normal. Speaking of the plot, it attempted to be quite a bit deeper than Bond usually goes.

Then there’s the villain, Silva. Javier Bardem proves his performance in No Country For Old Men was no fluke; the man is capable of some downright mesmerizing badness.  A friend compared his performance to Ledger’s Joker; I don’t know how apt that is, but neither would I outright disagree.

The settings did not get left behind either; this was my favorite collection of settings in any Bond film. The finale at the old manor house on the Scottish Highlands was breath-taking. Don’t be surprised if one of my future novels takes place in exactly such a place.

For me, it all worked beautifully to form one of my favorite Bond films.

One thing I’ve noticed since I’ve started spending so much time thinking about storytelling is I get way more critical during movies. I don’t consider this a positive trait; I go to movies to have a good time, not to nit-pick plot elements. Unfortunately this tendency made at least one film this year far less enjoyable than it otherwise could be, and I was worried the same might happen with Skyfall. But the plot, despite being as nitpick-able as any Bond flick, didn’t bother me at all; I was caught along for the ride and had a great time.

Music video of the week: A wonderful number by one of my favorite folk rock bands, Of Monsters and Men. Enjoy!

Mini Video Game Reviews

As you may have realized by now, I play a lot of video games, and though it’d be fun to do quick review of the games I finished over the past year. You’ll note that these reviews are all largely positive. That’s because I’m picky about the game I play, and if I don’t like a game, I don’t finish it 🙂

Skyward Sword

I’ve been playing Zelda games for twenty years and it’s hard for one to disappoint. That said, I loved the dark aesthetic of Twilight Princess (not to mention wolf Link!) and was disappointed they were going back to a more cartoony look. I got over it. Excellent game play, fun, inventive dungeons with great boss fights, and the first game to convince me the Wii-mote was more than a glorified controller – too bad it didn’t happen till the end of the Wii’s life-cycle. My only complaint was difficulty – I wished the puzzles had gotten harder in the last couple dungeons, but interestingly enough the only time I got really stuck was in the fourth dungeon.

Fez

I first heard of this game when I watched Indy Game: The movie. The game’s creator, Phil Fish, said without hyperbole he would kill himself if the game didn’t come out. Fortunately for us all, it did. Fez is wonderful, combining exploration with challenging, ambient puzzle-solving. Some of the harder puzzles are overly obscure, but no doubt there are fans for that type of thing and I’m glad there’s a game that caters to it. The ‘2d guy in a 3d world’ theme is carried out brilliantly.  Amazing that a game developed by only a couple guys can achieve such a powerful sense of wonder.

Diablo 3

Diablo 3 has taken a lot of heat online for numerous reasons. My only comment is I played for approximately 12 hours straight on release day on a stream with my friend Sean “Day[9]” Plott, and wanted to play more when I was done. Note that my average gaming sessions is about an hour. The game isn’t perfect – the plot’s disappointingly shallow and looting wasn’t as interesting as Diablo 2 – but the sheer joy of killing monsters makes up for it all.

New Super Mario Bros 2

Formulaic to the point of frustration it might be, but it’s a 2D Mario game and it’s impossible for that not to be fun. Unlike the premiere games (Sunshine, Galaxy), the New Super Mario Bros series seems almost aggressively traditional. I’d like to see cooler power-ups, more varied level design, harder hidden coins, and better bosses. But here’s the truth – they could be doing the exact same thing twenty years from now, and I’ll still be playing them. It’s a fun game and worth the money and time.

Rayman Origins

This game didn’t appear on my radar till a month after it had come out. My boss at work kept talking about how good it was. I’d seen some screenshots and wasn’t sold – the graphical style didn’t seem to appeal to me. Boy was I glad to be wrong here; I picked it up on a whim and was blown away, not only by the graphics (which are simply lovely in motion), but by the game-play as well. This game is hard; some levels even reach Super Meat Boy levels of frustration. No platformer can get away with that without flawless controls, and Rayman Origins delivers. Also, there’s the music. (LINK).

Max Payne 3

Didn’t play the first two in the series; bought the third on the strength of reviews and that I wanted to shoot some bad guys. Game delivered and had a surprisingly enjoyable storyline to go with it. The ‘matrix’ style mechanics are fun and well-executed, as is the graphic-novel aesthetic.

Final Fantasy XIII-2

I’ll be honest; I really, really liked Final Fantasy XII. I liked the open zones and the combat. XIII decided to do away with that and go back to ‘hallway with a boss’. Worse, more than one zone was an actual hallway. The one open zone was well-enough received that the sequel, XIII-2, was built with at least some exploration possible. That along with some enhancements to the battle system and the addition of a Pokémon-like monster capture mechanic made this game a pleasant surprise. I enjoyed it and would happily recommend it even to those who did not like the first one.

There was a deluge of great games this fall. Largely due to World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria, I haven’t beaten most of them, but the good news is I’ll have plenty to do next year, not to mention I’ve got the Wii U pre-ordered solely for  New Super Mario Bros U.

This week’s video is a very silly song by a capella group Da Vinci’s Notebook, in the style of classic folk song “The Fox”. It’s strangely addictive 😉