A Requiem for Livejournal

March 15, 2011

Ad perniciem solet agi sinceritas – Phaedrus

In which rows of asterisks function as transitions:

I suppose it’s come to a point now where I really have to admit it to myself and make it real by writing it (“Write it!”): It is gone now, or at least, no longer alive. The online community where I felt the most comfortable of any space on earth, digital or analog, is now relegated to artifact and memory. The space in which I met the most meaningful people of my life, the safe place where I could really be myself since high school – is gone and never, ever coming back. The space where I spent my youth – even if this space is reducible to mere 1’s and 0’s – is an ex-thing. It was not even afforded the dignity of total destruction, but rather, it petered out into insignificance.

Oh, sure, the site is still up, the servers humming somewhere. It’s all the rage in Russia, apparently, but the US-based Livejournal is dead and gone, a digital post-nuclear holocaust inhabited only by a few unkempt survivors who are suspicious of outsiders. I know. I am one of them.

For years, as Facebook has gotten creepier, I’ve urged people to repatriate to Eljay, but it never happens. I hit reload on my empty friends list; I look at the IP hits on my journal; I think of the dozens of people who have left the site, drifted away, one by one. I look at the empty landscape and wonder, how did we get here?

***

Once upon a time, I was 17 years old and my friend Andrew Like-Slettuce kept urging me to join this blogging site. I already felt pretty cool because I had been on Blogger, but one day to humor him I opened the URL and saw what he’d been talking about. I saw the user profiles listing interests and was charmed. I saw the field for “current music” and was utterly enthralled. Surely, what was missing from my life was a way to blog that let me broadcast to the world my interest in Werner Herzog and apocalypses. I needed to tell the world what I was listening to while writing about New Jersey diners, verbs, and dollar stores. I missed achieving “early adopter” status by mere weeks, but I was hooked within minutes.

Before social networking was all the rage, Livejournal connected users in a meaningful way. With a few clicks, I could add new friends to my journal who shared my interests in “seedy diners” and “old classroom films.” Before all the hand-wringing about internet presence and privacy, Livejournal offered “granular” security – a feature Facebook will never have and that Twitter can’t seem to implement. Before all the inane memes and surveys hit Facebook, we on Livejournal answered them, and more cleverly. I knew what serial killer I’d be and what disease I was no later than 2003. Before blogs had effectively coalesced into a sphere, Livejournal brought people together, and used language to do it on one site.

The summer after I graduated from high school, I loved coming home after spending time with friends and reading a different account of everything that had happened; it was Rashomon before I ever lived in a place where I could have seen the movie Rashomon. Livejournal illuminated for me the infinite possibilities of experience, writing, and perspective. Livejournal let me keep in touch with friends from each of my left-behind lives, as I embarked on a relatively transient adult life (New Jersey, Florida, Germany, New York, back to New Jersey, now the Midwest, hopefully somewhere else soon). Livejournal created a nexus of meaningful communication among all the people who meant a lot to me in each place. Livejournal archived all my writing, throughout each chapter of my life. Livejournal helped me learn about new books, places, and lives. Most of my exes are or were on Livejournal. Heck, I even got one of my cats because of a Livejournal post (he has a Twitter now).

In its heyday, almost everyone I knew – everyone who mattered, anyway! – was on Livejournal. At one point around 2005, I had met most of the people on my friends list not only because I tend to get evangelical about things I think are cool, and thus got people to sign up (remember those invite tokens?), but because I felt a certain intimacy with the people on there, enough so that I made a point of meeting up with Livejournalers.

The deep emotional intimacy – that’s  something I really miss and will continue to miss about Livejournal. In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer describes how we never or rarely think about the intimacy of dead animal flesh in our mouths. I immediately thought of Livejournal: I thought of the intimacy I felt with the people who knew me only from the inside of my mind, and how inadequate other human relationships sometimes felt in comparison. Livejournal felt authentic, it felt important. Food is in your mouth, but the friends who read my writing – and, more importantly, the people whose writing I read – were in my head. I could keep an online presence but lock my entries so only friends could read them. I could keep some things public. It was freaking awesome.
Through Livejournal, the quotidian could be transformed into a document, a collaborative experience to which many people responded. While I too was occasionally guilty of living life so as to generate Livejournal posts, I never saw it as solely about me. My life as documented was only meaningful due to the participation of others. My Life, The 17 to 28 Years, was made by Livejournal. For me, Livejournal was made by the comments of others.

***

In 2009, I wrote a paper for a grad seminar about the LJ Community EFW, in which I argued that this community was an instance of performance of early adopter status. Now I would revise that argument slightly to note that these days, merely being on Livejournal is an inconsequential act of resistance. What are you doing there? Is that site even still around? That’s so 2003. Everyone’s on Facebook now. I like reading your stuff, but Livejournal is too annoying.

At least in the USA, the site owners have managed to fail spectacularly at adapting the site in a meaningful way to the changes in the Internet. At the same time, they have also managed to alienate a large portion of the strong community that made Livejournal what it was. The site has changed hands numerous times in the past few years: Six Apart, SUP, and Livejournal, Inc have all owned it, insofar as anyone can really own a site powered by user-created content (a topic for another blog post, but the answer is probably: total ownership, you’re just a content farmer for a corporation). Nobody has ever leveraged the user base for anything meaningful, and the site seems to operate on a delayed-reaction strategy.  Only a few weeks ago, they implemented a pathetic attempt to add social gaming / data mining (and, that’s like, so 2009, right?). It was late in the game before they established Facebook / Twitter implementation, which as usual was implemented in a way that managed to alienate, confuse, and upset a significant portion of the user base, who were sure this meant non-consensual exporting of data elsewhere on the web.

I’m not sure how things are on the Russian-language version of the site, but the English-language site has become a tacky ghost town. If I am accidentally logged out, the sheer annoyingness of how the ad-plastered site is presented to “free” users makes me kind of dizzy. My paid account is expiring in a few months, and for the first time since 2001, I think I will let it lapse.

Many of those who remain on the site are blasé about it, even condescending towards my nostalgia. Of course all things end, of course all sites and all forms of beauty must fade and die. Of course everyone in my age cohort (except me, I guess) has moved on to Careers and Families and Home Ownership and Children and God, Everyone Just Grows Up, Get Over It! But that doesn’t make it any less painful – not after a decade of it being a big part of your life. Any space of one’s youth, even if it’s virtual, inspires pain and melancholy when it goes to seed.

***

One of the things I found most moving about the movie Up was the function of the space of the home itself, and how it performed a resistance to change by retaining its charming mid-century aesthetic, even in the midst of hideous corporatization. The interior of the house indexes a lifetime of stories, hopes, and dreams, some achieved, some not. In the scenes that show the house, the most vibrant colors in the palette are in the balloons that buoy the house over the anonymous gray urban corporate-scape. One could over-read this as a metaphor for the hive mind – that the remaining indexes of the past are buoyed, perhaps, by the buoyant nature of collectivity. Maybe.

the house from up leaving the 21st century city

To me, Livejournal has become like that house (which, I suppose, means that I have become cantankerous Ed Asner). As the web has gone  multimedia, Livejournal remains totally rooted in the textual origins of the Internet itself. As the Wild West of the 90s Internet has consolidated into a few corporate-owned cookie-cutter type chains, Livejournal remains a “humble and solid” index of what the web used to be.

Those of us left, perhaps, assert our early adopter status by continuing to use an online social network / platform that is rooted in the textual Internet. On one level, using the textual in this way reflects an identity claim as a literate citizen: after all, using the Internet once required significantly more intellectual, economic or educational privilege than it does today (and of course, privilege is still needed to access it).

Building worlds and communities through words alone is a more difficult and powerful goal than doing it with bells, whistles, and cat pictures. On one level, participating in a relatively old-school site like Livejournal in the current Internet environment is a statement of “I was there way back when. I was there before you.” Or, “We were there before those other people.” These are statements about which I feel ambivalent. At its core, could my nostalgia merely be no more than an index of my discomfort with the web being accessible to more than an elitist few?

Of course, this too leads to interesting questions. Where does a space exist, particularly if it is digital? What is a space and where is a public?  If an easily-accessible archive remains of a time that is gone and nobody has died, is anything really lost? Can it ever be reconstituted? What is the Live in Livejournal? If the site simply shifts and grows in one country and dies in another, is the space really gone? What, if anything, will replace it?

Of course I can look back over the 10 years of my writing, but the thing that made Livejournal alive is no longer there. Of course most of those people are still alive, but the online diaspora has scattered everyone to the digital winds.

Of course, maybe there’s a future, a new place to write and meet new people. At least, I need to hope so. But Livejournal, I miss you- and I’m using Livejournal as a synecdoche for those of my friends who drifted away from the site and thus from me. Keep in touch.

–Miranda / audesapere

Current mood: Nostalgic

Current Music: “Come Dancing” by the Kinks


Cool Cats and Dirtchambers

December 22, 2010

Since the 1990s, the boundary between electronic musician, producer and DJ has been a question of pure market distinction:  (supposedly) electronic musicians finely craft soundscapes in their cobbled-together studios, producers provide electronic backing and mixing to “live” artists, and DJs assemble impromptu mixes for parties outside of the studio.  But anyone in the industry could cut these distinctions down as bullshittery in an instant — most people who do one are fully capable of doing all three roles well (or four, if you count the dubious term “remixer”).  In fact, I’d even wager everybody’s an electronic musician of some kind.  Have you ever made a mixtape?  An iTunes music list?  If yes, you’ve engaged in a similar curatorial effort to those employed as DJs or electronic musicians, meticulously selecting/arranging samples.  But doubtlessly some people do have a leg up over the rest of us in terms of quality.

Anyhow, the issue at hand is really the electronic artist-curated mix CD.  Halfway between a DJ set and a personal home playlist, these CDs have more than anything else clued me into the musical origins/influences of my favorite artists.  Every selection becomes a statement, and every mash-up or beat-matched song combo a revelation about musical possibilities.  This is musical education incarnate, live and direct from an artist whom you like and who, like you, was once a kid listening to other artists and so on.  But the rights for an ideal music education are a prized commodity.  Some of those can get expensive, which is why only celebrity DJs/electronic musicians/producers/remixers (okay, awkward neologism time: depremixers!) with deep-pocketed labels can afford to put out their definitive mixes to enlighten and rock out their listening public.  The tension between two mixes in particular intrigues me to no end.

Case 1 – The Dirtchamber Sessions by The Prodigy (1999)

I’m a giant Prodigy fan, from Liam Howlett’s teenage keyboard noodling on the What Evils Lurks EP and The Experience (1991) to the wry samples on Music for the Jilted Generation (1995), from  the aggro-breaks of “Smack My Bitch Up” and “Breathe” on The Fat of the Land (1997) to the laptop mania of Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned (2004).  Their songs combine rock samples, no-nonsense drum loops and acid synths with MC work by vocalist-dancers Keith Flint and Maxim to form an entirely idiosyncratic and immediately recognizable sound.  There is essentially a “Prodigy style” that they have to live up to on each album, and they continue to do so even with their recent Invaders Must Die (2009). Howlett’s 1999 mixtape The Dirtchamber Sessions thankfully gives us a little insight into the progenitors of his band’s sound.

If you look at the track list, several facts become apparent:

1. No Kraftwerk to be seen.
2. Half the artists are African-American.
3. Nods to fellow big beat artists Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and Propellerheads. The Prodigy *gasp*, too.
4. Mash-ups of hip-hop, punk and funk in equal measure, with some added keyboard action as transitions.
5. Dramaturgy guides the endeavour, with musically scripted highs and lows.

Overall, Howlett appears guided by artists from fairly humble origins who were cutting together pop, jazz and funk tidbits to create an innovative, living sound.  Several successes include his mash-up of Propellerheads’ “Spybreak” with the Beastie Boys’ “Time to Get Ill” or LL Cool J’s “Get Down” with “Humpty Dance” by Digital Underground.  The album actually introduced me to the greatness of Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy in one fell swoop, and got me into the old skool hip-hop sound in general.

In any case, I know of few artists who would have assembled such a mix and put it forth with such confidence.  What’s more, there are definite stylistic breaks from what we would consider the Prodigy sound:  the B-Boys paired with Babe Ruth, for example, or Primal Scream. In any case, the Prodigy successfully conveyed the gems of its generation onto my generation, interesting me in artists leading in divergent directions — but whom I now loosely associate with The Prodigy.

Case 2 – Cool Cats by Justice (2009)

Enter our generation, represented by the French superstar group Justice (who actually only have one major album – † (2007) – to their credit).  The Prodigy actually cited Justice as a major influence on the formation of Invaders Must Die, particularly their glitchy, bass-driven form of French house.  The Ed Banger sound, exemplified by artists such as Busy P, DJ Mehdi, or SebastiAn, reached its apogee under Justice’s watch and is still a major player in the club scene for Europeans in their early-to-mid-20s.

Anyway, they apparently put together a tracklist for the Ed Banger “Cool Cat DJ” crew, which then somebody else mixed for them.  So I don’t actually know who has agency for this thing, but it certainly relates genealogically to the Dirtchamber sessions:  artists publicizing the music that influences them.

Looking at the tracklist, we can make the following observations:

1. Oh, there’s Kraftwerk.
2. Most of the artists are white European electronica artists.
3. Nods to Prodigy and Fatboy Slim, but goes out of its way to prove its edge-y cred: Aphex Twin, Basement Jaxx, and Audion. And Justice, of course.
4. Assorted electronic noise is added to tracks –  in the “Justice” style.
5. Endeavors are made to keep the energy level as high as possible — even older hits are sped up.

Most of the tracks I actually owned as a mainstream electronica fans, meaning that they are as well.  Rather than absolutely identifying with their taste, I am instead sensing a careerist tinge:  they are profiling themselves with their/our favorite artists, rather than paying homage to them.  In effect, I listen to the Cool Cats mix and learn nothing new about myself as an electronica listener, only an affirmation that A) big beat was/is cool and B) this should rub off on Justice and their Ed Banger friends.  This is disappointing in particular because the Ed Banger Rec. series is otherwise so well conceived.  And though Justice’s sound may have raised the bar with regard to hard-edged dancefloor party-mixes, their inspiration comes from a place that cannot inspire me.

Put another way:  Schoedsack and Cooper created the (horribly colonialist) masterpiece King Kong (1933) because they had been “adventurers” and “explorers” which qualified them to project fantasies about places they had, in fact, visited.  Peter Jackson created the 2005 King Kong on the basis of, well, the fact that he had seen and enjoyed King Kong.  I feel this one level of media remove affects the Prodigy / Justice split as well:  the Prodigy drew on the roots of funk and hip-hop, and communicate the enthusiasm about it; Justice drew on those who drew on those roots, and feel sufficiently divorced from the source material to self-aggrandize as artists-who-rock-the-party.

Listening to them back-to-back prompted this rant, and now that it is done, I’m going to put on The Dirtchamber Sessions again…


My experience in the 2009 ICFP Programming Contest (part 1 of 2)

August 18, 2009

How hard of a problem could you solve in only three days? Who would you choose to help you do it?

The ICFP Programming Contest is an international programming competition organized in conjunction with the International Conference on Functional Programming, which is an annual academic conference about programming languages. Each year, teams from around the world compete in the ICFP contest to demonstrate the supremacy of their favorite programming language by solving a challenging problem over a 72-hour period.

The contest is organized by a different institution every time, typically a university, and the organizers work well in advance and sometimes take years to prepare the contest problem, which is kept secret until it’s time for the contest to begin. On the appointed day, which is usually a Friday in June or July, the organizers unveil an elaborate problem description on the Internet. When the problem is released — at a time that may be convenient or wildly inconvenient, depending on the difference between the organizers’ time zone and the time zone one’s team happens to be in — the teams go to work, using whatever tools they like to solve the task at hand. Past contests have challenged competitors to control a Mars rover that has to get to a home base while avoiding hostile aliens, design an ant colony capable of defending itself from invaders, and decode a string of letters resembling DNA (not coincidentally, the letters chosen for the bases were “I”, “C”, “F”, and “P”) and “resequence” it to draw a picture. The problems often include strange and hilarious twists, and the problem descriptions may be filled with in-jokes and cute asides.

Read the rest of this entry »


Ahoy There! An Excellent Swashbuckling RPG!

August 8, 2009
A fanciful new RPG from the people who brought us Spirit of the Century

A fanciful new RPG from the people who brought us Spirit of the Century

Opening Salvo

“Air pirates? AIR PIRATES!” I shouted with glee as I seized the Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies from the “Indie Press Role-Playing Games” section of my local comics/gaming store. Completely un-phased by the $30 I was about ready to fork over for a softcover, I ran to the cashier and exclaimed with elation: “You know you’ve finally got a tabletop RPG about air pirates?” He shot me a look back.
“Well, there was always Skyrealms of Jorune, Castle Falkenstein,” he said, tallying them on his fingers. “And we just got a new steampunk book in: Victoriana.” The wind still billowing my sails, I laid it down on the counter and said in my most gallant voice: “Avast! my good sir, for this one appears to be good.” And he took my money.

Preface

A few words of explanation are warranted before I dive into a thorough review of said book purchase.  First of all, why the heck was I looking for a book in the “Indie Press Role-Playing Games” section of the store anyway?  Well, it just so happens that I A) live in western Massachusetts, a kind of mini-Mecca for the budding independent role-playing game designer (give the proximity of New York and Boston and number of nerdly college grads in the area), and B) regularly run these people’s RPGs at local and national gaming conventions.  Having been a convention gamemaster (GM) for 16 years and counting, I’ve discovered that this is where all the action is happening these days. These games (by which I mean my Top 11: Primetime Adventures, InSpectres, Mist-Robed Gate, 1,001 Nights, Dread, Dogs in the Vineyard, Shock, Annalise, Misspent Youth, Tales of the Fisherman’s Wife, Shooting the Moon) are the best in system design, the most conscious of social exigencies involved in the role-playing hobby, and the most academically cross-referenced and critiqued.  Many are designed by women, and most by graduates of small liberal arts colleges.  All I have to say is: check them out.  They are the future.

Furthermore, I’d like to say for the record that I’m not really a pirates fan per se (otherwise I’d be reviewing 7th Sea here), but for some reason I really dig the idea of air pirates.  I attribute it to an unhealthy amount of Skies of Arcadia played and Last Exile viewed while I was in college, as well as a desperate urge to see a kind of Star Wars-style epic played out in skyships – as opposed to space in a galaxy far, far away controlled by an indifferent, bearded Lucas-man.

A Brief Summary

Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies (S7S), written by Chad Underkoffler (whom I think I met at Dreamation 2008, and who wrote some great Unknown Armies supplements), is a game of fast-paced, swashbuckling action set in a world where islands float in a vast sky over a mysterious substance called the Blue.  Players create characters intended to accomplish great feats of derring-do and, without much ado, dive headlong into dangerous situations for a chance at eternal glory.  The system is designed on the Prose Descriptive Qualities (PDQ) model, which is synonymous with quick task resolution and immediate character empowerment (as opposed to waiting sessions and sessions to become effective against the big, bad mega-villain, characters in S7S tend to be ready to take him on right out the gate).

It’s a Big Sky Out There

A full four chapters of this book are devoted to the dense setting of the 7 Skies, which ironically serves the primary purpose of catapulting characters into the action without bogging them down with too much back-story.  A kind of fantastical pseudo-18th Century world order is established among 6 primary sky islands and a plethora of secondary islands.  There are the intrigue-obsessed Barathi (more like 16th Century Italy under the Borges — noble houses and poison, etc.), the resolute Viridese (Nordic/Scandinavian-type folks), the passionate Colronan Royalty (France), their neighbors the aloof Colronan Zultanistas (Ottoman Turks), the cosmopolitan Crailese (think 19th Century New York with some religious nutjobs outside the city limits), the ascetic Sha Ka Ruq (a cross between the Congo and Japan — Orientalism meets Token Fetishism, but I digress), the rebellious Ilwuzi (a pirate isle in the Caribbean) and the lost island of Kroy (Atlantis… or Laputa).  Each nationality is basically an excuse to have a different flavor of sword-wielding badass, from a weapon-snapping, fur-wearing Viridese to a tough-talking, cutlass-bearing Ilwuzi and so forth.  Magic and skyships are smoothly integrated into a world system that is believable as a fantasy setting – Underkoffler did a great job of creating a world that’s basically one giant opportunity for adventure where one nevertheless knows what to expect in each port, so to speak.  Read enough of his Bibliography – with entries from Wu Ch’eng-en to Alexandre Dumas, from Neil Gaiman (Stardust, of course!) to Rafael Sabatini – and you will understand that the world exists to put crazily passionate people with swords at odds with each other in dangerous, exotic, and breathtakingly beautiful locales.

System, Shmystem

The PDQ system is also particularly well-executed in this book.  I played Spirit of the Century – another Evil Hat production and an RPG-geneaological predecessor to S7S that has you generate pulp characters who are starring in a number of cross-overs – and found it to be surprisingly difficult to master at first.  S7S, however, seems to have struck an enviably perfect balance between – using the terms of Ron Edwards’ Big Model theory – Setting Simulationism, Style Simulationism, and Narrativism.  “Whoa!” you say, reaching for your musket.  “Where’d all these landlubber ‘-isms’ blow into port from?”  In simpler terms, the game does a good job of A) giving players a deep and enriching established world to explore, B) allowing stylistic tropes from swashbuckling books/movies to become game mechanics (i.e., you can have your cape flapping in the wind give you game benefits), and C) encouraging creativity in the storytelling realm, as opposed to that of maximizing personal player power.  In S7S, if you succeed with your dice roll, you may narrate how you succeed.  If you fail, you get points toward giving your character an extra oomph in the future and can choose to narrate how they botched this job.  It allows for and encourages Princess Bride-style antics in the way that games like 7th Sea only vaguely dreamed about.

One of the nicer bits of the system is a comprehensive ship combat system that revolves around teamwork – a captain giving orders to a crew in the heat of battle – while preserving a dueling system that emphasizes the primacy of individual coolness.  Another is the Style Dice mechanic:  players get handed dice to use in their favor if the GM decides to screw them over rather nastily.  There is an economy established that notably resembles the narrative economy one witnesses in swashbuckling fiction.  All suffering becomes more pleasurable when the hero can take the sweeter reward in the end.

Why You Should Get This Game in Great Haste

Actually, you should be checking out all the RPGs I mentioned in my Preface:  they’re the games so many of us were waiting for as we hunkered down in our mediocre games of D&D and Shadowrun, waiting for some narrative control to be handed back to us.  Why you should go pick up a copy of S7S is simple:  few games are as accessible, intuitive and richly devoted to players’ creative well-being as this one.  Now I’m off to liberate a Crailese freighter of its most burdensome cargo!


The Top Eleven Old Skool Video Games in No Particular Order

July 29, 2009

In this Gilded Age of the motion-controlled Wii, the Internet-friendly X-Box 360, the mega-military hardware of the Playstation 3, the guitar and drum controllers, the upcoming Project Natal motion-capture controllers and all the rest, I find it somehow refreshing to delve into the “classics” on emulation (without needing to pay a cent by the way!)  See anything you haven’t played?  Now’s the time to become more gamer-literate!

1. Rampage (1986)Lizzie passive-aggressively clings to the building she destroys

Play George (a.k.a. King-Kong), Lizzie (a.k.a. Godzilla), or Ralph (um… Fenris or Amarok?) as they destroy major metropolitan areas and eat human beings while being shot at by military forces.  I distinctly recall first learning of the existence of cities such as Duluth and Toledo through this game, as well as the lesson that most U.S. cities look pretty much the same when they’re being kicked to the ground by giant monsters.  Requiring almost no brainpower, yet fulfilling a deep-seated wish to be in control over the destruction of one’s own civilization, Rampage will remain a pick-up game for all ages for years to come.

2. X-Men – The Arcade Game (1992)

Back when I was growing up, the malls still had thriving video-game arcades with an assortment of quarter-eaters to waste my disposable income.  The best of these was a 6-player, 2-screen beat-em-up extravaganza starring none other than Cyclops, Wolverine, Colossus, Storm, Nightcrawler and Dazzler.  Few people might understand the joy of being one of 6 pre-pubescent boys crowding around a set of sweaty joysticks and beating the living tar out of a giant pile of mooks that come at you on-screen.  I’ll be this one would still make money in any surviving arcades today.  Not too many 6-player games came after this one, after all…

3. Full Throttle (1995)

“You know what would look good on your nose?”

“What?”  *nose ring grabbed and slammed down on the bar*

“The bar. Now don’t mess around with me.”

Probably one of the best animated adventure games released for the PC, Full Throttle showcases the best of LucasArts’ SCUMM engine while offering a meaty array of bad jokes and crazy biker action (including a climax involving a chase between a bike, a semi and a wing-less cargo plane).  I find I can just sit someone down at the computer and play through it in about 2.5 hours… the length of a solid, well-made animated movie.

4. Maelstrom (1993)

Ambrosia Software certainly didn’t invent Asteroids – the 1979 Golden Age game that served as part of Atari’s main stable of games – but they certainly brought it into the 90s for the Macintosh user.  Chock full of Simpsons, Beatles and other pop cultural references in its soundtrack and brightly colored, 3-D-looking sprites, this game plays like a hyperactive stepchild who found the meth supply… in space.  Now if only they were to option this for a movie!

5. Maniac Mansion (1987)

Not to spend this whole blog singing LucasArts’ praises, but they did produce some damn fine adventure games.  A group of hapless teenagers are off to save their cheeleader friend Sandy from a sentient evil meteor and the weird family it has corrupted in a mansion filled with surprises.  Maniac Mansion adopts much of the crazy object-based logic puzzles inherent to the genre (“So I need to grab the faucet handle in the garage to turn on the shower to move the corpse to find the number I can call Nurse Edna with so I can get her out of the room so another kid can get up to the telescope and steal her money while they’re at it.”) but it self-referentially mocks its own silly set of errands often enough.  You can stick the hamster in the microwave in some versions!

6. Super Bomberman (1993)

Many nights I slept not a wink because of this Super Nintendo game’s excellence.  In Battle Mode, 4 players have two minutes to be the last one alive in a grid filled with bombs laid by you and your fellow players going off every which way.  A 30-second looping soundtrack amplifies the tension in ways you wouldn’t believe.  Most of its sequels are actually not as good as this original, a fact for which I cannot account.

7. Cyborg Justice (1993)

1993 must’ve been a good year for video games in my mind… This Sega Genesis beat-em-up features a combination of excellent sprite graphics and over-the-top ultra-violence (i.e., you can rip off an opponent’s arm and use it as your own).  You’re a cyborg and you’re seeking, well, justice!  It’s too bad that Sega was never able to keep up with the other franchises – their game design was always above-par.

8. Return to Zork (1993)

’93 also saw Activision’s great adventure game release Return to Zork, which pre-dated Myst by several months and involved a much more interactive environment than said game.  In any given room, you can do like 50 things involving various objects you’ve picked up, etc.  What I really enjoy about this is the Neil Gaiman-esque dark fairy tale plot and the video-captured actors whom you can all kill if you get frustrated (and then you’re told by a guy in a funny coat that you can’t complete the game!)

9. XCom (1993)

Speaking of 1993, there was a turn-based strategy game for the PC produced by MicroProse that knocked our socks off.  In XCom, aliens have invaded Earth and you’re part of a worldwide task force sent to kick their ass.  The game features a sophisticated tactical engine copied by games like Fallout and later games like Freedom Force.  I watched fellow college students piss away whole semesters on this thing…

10. Marathon (1994)

So you’ve played Halo, right?  Let’s call it “Marathon 4” and be done with it.  Marathon brought all kinds of innovation to the first-person shooter table:  network multi-player, a flexible map and sprite editor, and an intricate plotline of an almost literary quality.  You play a marine dispatched to a multi-generational colony ship that is under alien attack and has multiple AIs also vying for control of your activities.  We used to haul computers over to each other’s houses just for the opportunity to kill each other on maps we had created.

11. Hunt the Wumpus (1973)

The scariest game ever. You’re hunting a goddamn wumpus with these crooked arrows, and if you miss, it’ll come and eat you.  It fills your screen with its awful face.  I played this on my Commodore back when I was like 6, only to discover that the labyrinth is a cruel place.  The psychological environment of this deceptively simple game still gets me every time.

In summary, 1993 may have been a pivotal year in game development history – self-conscious, impressively addictive games made their appearance around that time.  But at least in 2009, we can still revisit all of these classics! After all, all our culture is nostalgia.


The problems of the Kindle

March 26, 2009

inspiration_bookshelvesAh Kindle, how the literati hate you, or sing your praises. Two years ago, when the first version was released, Dana posted about them and I made my feelings clear in the comments section. Well, it’s been a few year and we now have Kindle 2.0. My feelings haven softened, but not really changed.

I do not really want a Kindle at the moment for a few reason:

1. They are expensive. Do you know how many books I can buy with that money?

2. There’s not (yet) a mechanism yet for sharing Kindle books. If I buy a Kindle book, I can’t loan it to my friends and I can’t check out a Kindle book from the library. (I can check out other e-books from the library–can I read these on my Kindle? I don’t know. Do you?)

3. I fear reading a Kindle in the bathtub, which is the best place to read books ever.

4. Books smell good. And they’re pretty as objects.

5. Do they have an optional back light yet? While I do like that there isn’t one there by default, it would nice to have one so you can read in the dark.

6. Seriously dude, expensive.

I think some of these objections will fall away with later versions– price will fall, I’m sure we’ll figure lending out…

BUT! Over at Marginal Revolution today, another problem presents itself that I never thought of–

We can’t see what you’re reading, and you can’t signal things with what you’re reading.

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The apparent difficulty of genre classification

December 9, 2008

Or: The utility of occasionally judging books by their covers

My nearest local library recently closed for an 18-month renovation project, leaving me with a sudden distressing lack of access to fiction I hadn’t already read. (Not that I’m averse to rereading books, since my policy is not to buy it if I don’t want to read it more than once, but sometimes I do want something new.) The solution was obvious: place an Amazon order.

I was quite pleased with my Amazon order. I ended up with books from 3 new fantasy/sci-fi/speculative fiction series, all of which turned out to be good. Two of them had similar themes: a female main character mediating between members of different supernatural races. This would seem to put them definitively in the fantasy category, urban fantasy if you want to be even more specific. One series, the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs, has three books so far that all follow a murder mystery storyline, which the main character ends up needing to solve for the werewolf, vampire, and fae communities respectively. The other series, the Negotiator Trilogy by CE Murphy, is more like Law & Order meets the supernatural realm, because the main character is a lawyer with a strong tie to the police detective who inevitably ends up investigating all the crimes involving the gargoyles, vampires, and so forth that the lawyer is trying to negotiate with.

But this post is not actually meant to be a book review. This post is meant to be a rant. Because what did purchasing these books from Amazon cause to happen? It caused me to get an Amazon ad in my email telling me that based on my purchasing habits, they think it is clear that I would enjoy the following titles on the vampire romance theme. Their algorithm tells them that I am now a woman who reads vampire romances. And I object.

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