Sunday, August 30, 2009

Classes Start Tomorrow! Stop Having Fun!

Yeah, you heard me!

Rather than do my usual itemized game review thingy, I'm just going to rant on a bit about some games I've been playing lately. I've been back at school for the last week for band camp and classes finally start tomorrow, so I've got to get a bit of bloggery in edgewise before I'm required to have actual duties again.

Texas Cheat 'Em

Let's see what new icons I have on my desktop... First one that jumps out at me is Texas Cheat 'Em. For those of you who would never believe I'm a poker addict, you're actually quite right. I played a bunch of Triple Jack back when it was popular on the site, but I never really got into it as much as some. I've never gambled real money, nor do I intend to anytime this century. (And yes, the opportunity has been there.)

Texas Cheat 'Em, then. Unfortunately, with only the demo, there's only so much you can really do with the game, but what I saw was enough to convince me not to buy it. The main selling point of TC'E is that while you're playing, you can use cheat points to alter the community or hole cards, peek at someone else's cards, steal someone's chips, and all sorts of otherwise-illegal tactics, pending your success on a small skill mini-game. The problem is, especially when playing against a somewhat thick AI (and I had selected the hard difficulty, mind you), it becomes a bit too easy to skew the cards in your direction a little too often. I don't know if online multiplayer play changes this at all, but it just seems sorta flawed. The advert videos stress that "it's not whether you win or lose, it's how good you are at getting away with cheating" or something like that, but frankly, the cheating's rather unlimited if you do it right.

So it's a shady concept, but how about the execution? I appreciate the fact that you can play the game pretty much entirely with the left hand (on WASD keys), and I like the little twist on how you bid (all players put in a "maximum bid", and anyone below the max has to call to keep in), but stylistically, it rather sucks. There's really nothing that jumps out as amazing in the graphics or sounds, but the "annoyance factor" gets a tremendous boost because it takes literally ten seconds to begin a new round. Once the winner is revealed, there's a (not) flashy animation with a (not) flashy sound effect telling you that "You Won!" or "You Lost!". This is then followed by a recap of what cards you had in your hand, and if you lost, what the winner beat you with. This is then followed by a recap of everyone's hands and whether they won or lost money over the course of that hand. It's not until this screen has been up for at least two, maybe three seconds that you're finally given the ability to press on with the game. This entire process takes about ten to twelve seconds, and if you think I'm exaggerating, an on-screen timer confirmed it for me.


So with poker out, I guess I now have to justify some other game genre. Let's go to the adventure platformer Trine. There was only an hour-long, two-level demo that came along with this one, so I can't really critique too much of it, but from what I experienced, it was pretty fun. In a nutshell, a wizard, a knight, and a thief become kinda "bound" in the way that magical crystals of weirdness usually do, and you've got to get from point A to point B switching between their three forms, using their special abilities to get there. The levels are beautifully designed and have a lot of nice physics puzzles to wrap yourself around, although it can get tricky at times, and you might wish you had more checkpoints lying around.

As I only have the demo, I've only played a bit of the one-player campaign, although there is apparently a three-player co-op mode, which sounds like a lot of fun, each person controlling a different aspect of the team. Trine also gets definite bonus points for getting a reasonably good review from Zero Punctuation (note: if you're at all familiar with 0P, you'll know not to click that link until there are no kids in the room). And while I've probably given enough reason to like the game enough to buy it, the main thing keeping me from buying this game is the $30 price tag. I dunno, I guess I'm cheap. I usually try to pick out games that are either on ridiculous markdowns or are just inexpensive to begin with. I'm sure this game will probably come down in price eventually, hopefully down to $15 or less, then I'll pounce.


Speaking of things that were on sale, I grabbed Droplitz on sale this weekend for two bucks. In a nutshell, Droplitz is like most Pipe Dream-esque games that you know, in which you rotate the pipe segments to direct the flow to a certain goal. In this case however, the pipe tiles are hexagonally aligned, and the flow of droplets [sic] runs with gravity. Using splitting pipe segments, you can rack up a ton of points by making a bunch of top-to-bottom connections at once. On the whole, it's a very simple game to learn, and you'll end up losing a lot of time to this game.

The truth be told, as you progress through levels, you really don't notice the changes of background and graphics as you're playing. If anything, you'll notice the changes in the music tracks. The music seems to be on perpetual music loop, which, just off the top of my head, is a strange chord progression that runs something along the lines of vi-IV-I-V, but the music changes to match (somewhat) the themes that you pass through, from a coffeehouse theme to a valentine theme to an arctic theme to a warm jungle theme. And when you do rack up those huge combos, the music swells and a heavier drum beat kicks in, to let you know you're kicking butt and taking names. So aesthetically, it's a game that you can let yourself get lost in, and play for hours.

...Which is exactly why I'm not sure I should recommend this game. It's relaxing, and it's addicting, but I'm surprised to hear myself say that I'm not entirely sure that that's good. There is a point where a game might get to be a bit too addicting, and you don't realize until 45 minutes later that you've been playing the exact same game, repeating the exact same process hundreds of times over. And while replayability is definitely a good thing, I started to wonder why I was replaying it. It was simple enough that I could go on for hours, even though I shouldn't have. It was addicting enough that I found myself imagining ideal situations in my mind while not playing the game, trying to mentally rack up a ton of combos with the X blocks. But for some reason, it still doesn't feel "right" recommending this. I guess it's because I know some people will genuinely hate this game, but then again, that's the risk of recommending any game. So let's settle this once and for all: If you've got the ten bucks to shell out, this is probably worth a look. If you're still not sold, wait until the next sale rolls around. (Good luck.)

The Lightning Round

Bedtime's coming soon, so I'd better hit the rest of these icons on my desktop kinda quickly. 3Tones could have made for an interesting match-3 game, if it actually lived up to its promise of taking your music files and creating a unique gaming experience from them. That's bull, there's no correlation between the music and the game. Fail. Yumsters! 2 takes an interesting concept of threading like-colored objects while making sure your ropes don't cross, and kinda spoils it with the premise that you're helping a bunch of musical worms. Sorry, the plotline's just killing it. The demo for Plants vs. Zombies has been sitting on my desktop for months now, and I've not felt the urge to buy it yet. It is quite fun, and all the characters you get to play as are quite hilarious, but I guess I'm just not feeling the push to buy it. Coming down the pipeline, I pre-ordered AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, and if it's anything near as fun as Dejobaan's The Wonderful End of the World (which comes as a free bonus for pre-ordering AaaaaAA!), then I know I'm in for a good time.

So go play games! Before school starts! DO IT NAO!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Poetry 'n Ocean

Two thoughts I want to get off my chest today. First off, today was the first time the entire summer I went swimming. I find this terribly sad for several reasons. Number one, it's less than a week before I go back to school. I've had the entire summer, as well as a semester before then that I could have gone to the Y and jumped in the pool, but I never did.

Secondly, I really like swimming. Or if it's not that I like swimming, then I definitely missed swimming. It's safe to say that the last time I was in a pool prior to this was with a bunch of screaming day care kids, so "swimming" was limited to whatever you could do in a wading pool with a nice pipe system spewing water in a few different directions. Before that, the last time I was in a pool was in Slovenia during the choir trip last July. We had one night in that country, and the hotel we were staying at (absolutely gorgeous, by the way) had a pool. I went up there after a long day of sightseeing and generally being touristy and had so much fun jumping in a nice, relaxing pool. And with friends, too. Fun times to be had by all.

Though, if I could have the chance, I'd love to have a pool to myself for a day. Or if not a pool, then a nice stretch of beach. For some reason, I just like to be out there, swimming. I don't exactly have an aerodynamic body, but there's a really simple pleasure to be derived from pulling one's self through the water. You just float there, letting your own natural buoyancy keeping you afloat. Then you thrust both arms above your head and pull them back down to your waist in an arcing motion, and you're gliding along on your back. Add in an appropriately timed frog kick, and you've got the elementary backstroke. Lather, rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat, and you've got bliss in its simplest form. You glide over the water, and the water glides past you.

Way back when I was a Boy Scout (a chapter of my life I usually neglect to mention, for whatever reason), I would go to the summer camp each year. The merit badges probably didn't mean as much to me as the mile swim that'd take place every year. On Monday, those interested would swim a quarter mile inside the confines of the roped-in waterfront area. On Tuesday, it'd be a half mile. Wednesday was given as a day off, and anyone left who was still up for it (usually just me, in the years that I went) would do the full mile on Thursday. Rather than sticking to the designated waterfront area, the mile swim started by jumping off the dock and swimming outside the yellow rope perimeter, out into the Allegheny Reservoir, going from the green buoy to the red buoy (intended as markers for speedboats), back and forth several times before coming back in to the dock. There would always be a rowboat or two sticking close by for safety purposes, but aside from that, I was alone in my own little world. I would switch from breaststroke to side stroke (switching sides periodically) to elementary backstroke and back to breaststroke, relaxing the entire way. There was no rush to get done in a certain time, so you could conserve all your energy and mellow out in the water. Of course, traditionally, as soon as I would get back to the dock, I'd always get a foot cramp, but it'd be worth it. An hour of constant swimming, with nothing in your way... It was bliss. I think I did the mile swim at least three times (maybe four, possibly five, but I can't remember). And at a ceremony at the end of the week, they'd recognize you with the patch and card saying you did it, but who cares. It's an elementary joy fulfilled out in the middle of nature, where the only thing stopping you from enjoying yourself is the guy in the rowboat telling you you've veered a bit off-course. ...So? Let me be.

I don't think I could ever do competitive swimming. Soon after I earned my Shark patch from the YMCA, I received a letter asking me to join the swim team. Which sounded all fun and dandy, but I think I passed because of other time commitments. I can pleasantly say that I do not regret this decision. Swimming was always a fun thing for me, and I don't think I could enjoy adding a competitive edge to it. If it takes me a bit longer to swim the length of the pool compared to the guy next to me, so be it. I enjoyed the trip more than he did. Fine, so I'd never get my name up on the board of records mounted on the wall of the pool room at the Y, and fine, I won't end up like Michael Phelps, but that's a loss I'm okay with. I'll just get my gold medals whenever competitive blogging becomes an Olympic sport. (Look ma, I'm qualifying!)

During the summer, I'm a generally boring person. It's rare that I take a "vacation" of any sort, except for the ones that are required (choir trips, etc.), and they're really not true vacations at all. You could say that I'm a workaholic and don't want to leave my insignificant part-time jobs to spend away my hard-earned money, you could say that I'm just intolerant to traveling, falling asleep on hour-long car trips and waking up cranky. Whatever reason it is, I just don't get out and see the world as I probably should. So when a reviewer friend of mine, John Bardinelli, told me he was visiting some friends along the coast, I was genuinely jealous. On one day, he wrote to me and said that he was playing Dragonball Z against the ocean. "You know, where you stand your ground, let the waves pound you while you block and let it push you back in the sand. I withstood over 9,000 waves, and I am in pain. The good kind of pain!" Now, whether or not he actually stood in the ocean and faced incoming waves all day long while screaming for no apparent reason while his hair turned large and an aura of energy started to flare up around him, or if he just spent the day playing around in the water getting knocked back by the occasional large wave, I haven't the slightest idea, but in either case, there was nothing that I wanted more than to be right there at that moment. I missed water.

So this was probably the first time I've swam since last year. I had to leave the pool early due to other commitments, but I enjoyed every moment I was in there. I still got a bit of sunburn, despite putting on some lotion beforehand, but who cares. I was in my element for a while, and there was nothing that could stop me from enjoying it.

Pseudo-related: The I-fluid review finally went up today. I felt that I needed to include that, not just for plugging purposes, but also so there's a little more clearly-defined break between the first portion of the post and the upcoming second.

I can't say I really understand poetry. I know I ranted about my dislike of poetry before, but a new thought has crossed my mind regarding poetry, comma, what is. If I understand the basics of written language decently enough, then I think it's fair to say that the "opposite" (for lack of a better term) of "poetry" is "prose". Or, that which is not written in verse or meter or what-have-you is of the essay nature.

But what's really the difference between the two? The reason I ask this is because last night, I turned on the radio to A Prairie Home Companion while traveling to the Warren County Fair. Oops, sorry, I meant to give a few moments to acknowledge some fun times I had at the fair... And we're done. So I turned on to the radio to PHC, and I recalled in the adverts airing earlier in the week that said this was (I think) their annual poetry show, with much of their skits, songs, and guests dedicated to things poetic and bardly. I turned the radio on right as William Farley, the 2009 winner of Poetry Out Loud, was announced to read Langston Hughes's Theme for English B. It was an interesting poem, but the thing that caught my ear was how he read it. The poem didn't seem to have any rhyming scheme or set meter, so I wondered, if someone were to come in right when the poem started, having not heard the introduction and knowing that it was a poem, would they be able to tell it was a poem and not just prose?

Consider the following sentence: So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water, beside the chickens. It's an awkward sentence yes, and that's not even counting the punctuation I tried adding in. That poem, presented above in "prose" form, is presented again in its original "poetry" form:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

William Carlos Williams, everyone. Let's give 'em a hand. That was XXII, or The Red Wheelbarrow, depending on who you ask. I'm not going to try to elaborate on the meaning of that (cough) poem, I'll leave that to someone else's blog. Besides, I've already told you that I can glaze over poetry like any piece of prose, so I'm now left to ask, what's the difference?

Modern poetry (ie, just about anything that wasn't written on the title page of a Berenstein Bears book or by Shakespeare himself) seems to relish in the free-form poem, where rules of rhyming and meter go out the window, as well as proper grammar, capitalization, and spelling. This seems extremely unfair to me, as I have had numerous English teachers in the past who have asked me to write poetry, expecting proper meter and rhyming. I had one teacher who deducted a point or two for a "near-rhyme", something like trying to rhyme "elation" with "devotion", where the last syllable rhymes (or, it is the same), but not the preceding syllable. "Elation" and "decoration", perhaps, but "devotion" just wasn't going to cut it. Come freaking on, what did you really expect from us? I would have loved to have written a paragraph about my dog (which I never had), then broken it up into random phrase segments with punctuation peppered in like... well, like salt, and handed that in to the teacher. But no, everything's gotta be either AABB or ABAB. (There's an ABBA joke in here somewhere... Poetry is my Waterloo?)

The rules of what poetry were and weren't changed as we got older and started to experience more exotic writings. Things weren't as cut-and-dry as a Shakespearean sonnet anymore, and this is probably where my hatred for poetry started. There was no longer any defining line for what could be considered poetry, so long as, and I'd recommend reading this next part as though you were a high school drama teacher, it had emotion. So long as it was flowing from your heart to your paper, it was poetry. So now, when asked to write poems, we (or at least, I) had the impression that it had to be some lovey-dovey bag of sap in order to be poetry. I now know better, but when you're asked to "write from the heart" about something you don't really care about, it's really hard, and almost a bit painful.

I apologize for going a bit off-topic, what I really wanted to discuss was what the difference between poetry and prose was. My answer: There is no difference, it's just how drunk the guy running the printing press is. And in order to prove my point, I thought it would be totally neat to write this entire blog post up to this point in rhyming iambic pentameter, with ABAB rhyme scheme. It wouldn't be very pretty. In fact, most of the end-of-line rhymes would be mid-sentence or possibly even mid-word, but so long as every tenth syllable held some sort of rhyming power, who would care. Of course, to prove my point, I wouldn't reveal this until now, and then I'd include a portion written in proper iambic pentameter form, just to show you what I had done right underneath your nose without you realizing it. But I have nowhere near enough rhyming skill to be able to pull that off, so the idea was quickly dropped.

But coincidentally, while looking up the name of the poem and whatnot that had appeared on A Prairie Home Companion, I noticed that a listener had written in to Garrison Keillor, asking why rhyming wasn't a part of poetry anymore. GK's response, which I strongly encourage you to read, gave a fun-poking answer to the question, putting much of the blame on the listener's hometown of Berkeley, CA. However, it was done in rhyming couplets. There doesn't seem to be any meter, but every pair of lines rhyme. However, if you took out the spaces and extra capitalization and read it as a paragraph, you could get the exact same response, but without the jerky stop-and-go of a poem. I really wish I could quote the poem here, because he goes on to elaborate on the actual nature of poetry and what it's intended for, but strangely, I truly feel afraid to post something here for the first time because of legal reasons, knowing I'll somehow mis-cite it, and this is the first poem from someone still alive that I would've posted in this blog, so I know he can still sue me for it. I do strongly encourage you to go and read the letter with the title "No Time for Rhyme?" here, and if you're reading this some time later and the post has disappeared from the front page, find it in the July '09 archives, second one down.

The bottom line: Poetry confuses me in uncomfortable ways. If not by the deeper meanings of a lot of poems, then by how they're supposed to be written, read, and enjoyed. The rules of poetry have been bent more than an overused paper clip, and the line between poetry and prose is becoming so thin, it's practically non-existent. I'd like to think this is one of the reasons why I find it so hard to get an emotional rise out of poetry, and a lot of other songs and lyrical media. I don't know how to elaborate further on these thoughts, but just know that I would be more than willing to jump into your swimming pool this week if you have one available. (Nice dodge, that.)