Things I liked in 2012

I had plans to write a big extensive wrapup review of things I really enjoyed in 2012.  The specific plan was to write that before the end of 2012.  Oops.  In the interest of getting it posted in a somewhat relevant timeframe, here’s an abbreviated version.  Note that not everything here was released in 2012, but it was the year I encountered them:


The Drowned Cities, by Paolo Bacigalupi, is one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read.  Listed as a young adult title, there’s deep insights here for adults too.  It’s got deep insights  into the nature of war and the cycle of violence it involves.  Bacigalupi excels at writing about terrible things in an extremely compelling manner.

The Magician King lets the characters from The Magicians grow up a bit, and the result is characters I found much less frustrating than in the series’ previous book.

Saga is my new favorite comic book series.  It’s space opera and fantasy and a whole lotta (sometimes graphic) weirdness in one package.  Brian K. Vaughan continues to be a must-read writer for me.

Hawkeye is a bunch of fun too, though more focused on small contained story arcs.  As the book describes itself, these are the adventures Hawkeye gets into when he’s not being an Avenger.  The minimalist covers push some nice buttons for me too.


The new Ben Folds Five album is everything I hoped it would be!  I also spent a bunch of time listening to Gotye and Of Monsters and Men.


I didn’t play as many video games this year as I have in the past, but the best two were Mass Effect 3 and The Walking Dead.  ME3 was an excellent capstone to the trilogy, and The Walking Dead gets a gold star for forcing some truly intense player decisions while building one of the best-written stories I’ve seen in a game.


I think about the cliffhanger at the end of Sherlock season 2 at least once a week, while for comedy nothing beats Parks & Recreation.


Best of 2009: Video Games


  • Lego Rock Band
  • Beatles Rock Band
  • Halo 3: ODST
  • Uncharted 2

This award is usually my most difficult to assign. Recent years have been filled with game after game of increasing quality & depth. 2009 was no exception.

Lego Rock Band tweaked the now-familiar Rock Band formula into something with a slightly more kid-friendly twist. But, here’s my secret: I actually like it better than the adult-focused Rock Band 2. Lego Rock Band has a sense of humor that RB2 was mostly lacking, and also provides more variation in career mode challenges. Throw in a track list including some of my favorite cheesy rock songs of all time (Ghostbusters and The Final Countdown!) and I had no choice but to buy a copy.

Beatles Rock Band went a different route than previous RB games – it zeroed in one band in incredible detail. From the songs themselves to small details like menu styles and sound effects, everything about this title screams Beatles. It’s also the first RB game to feature 3 part vocal harmonies. I can’t sing well enough to truly appreciate this feature, but witnessing 3 of my friends belt out the harmonies in perfect sync is a great enhancement to the RB experience – I hope Harmonix builds this into all future RB games. I’ve never been a dedicated Beatles fan before, but thanks to this game I’ve discovered a number of their songs that I highly enjoy.

Halo 3: ODST doesn’t really stand on its own. The story is very much a side tale, fitting into a context you can only really grok by playing the other franchise titles. But viewed as a piece of that franchise, the game takes on a new light. By being freed from Master Chief’s main narrative, the story of ODST is free to take some risks – I particularly enjoyed how the ‘bonus’ audio files have a payoff in the central storyline if you gather every one. And the main campaign creates a great sense of loneliness, of being outmanned and outgunned, in a way few other games do. Multiplayers new Firefight mode is a welcome addition to the Halo pantheon, since playing against bots is an option I’ve wanted ever since the original Halo 1.

As excellent as all three of these games are (any one is worth your money), honestly they were never really contenders for the award. Uncharted 2 came along in October and I knew almost instantly it would be my game of the year. The best way I can describe Uncharted 2 is to say it’s like playing an amazing summer adventure blockbuster movie. Sure, the narrative is on rails, but with rails this amazing I don’t really mind so much! Developers Naughty Dog have achieved new heights with voice acting and character animations that I’ve never seen any other game come close to. I believed that Nathan Drake and his compatriots were real people with real motivations and hopes. I’ve never before seen a video game character’s face animated so well that a facial expression alone made me laugh or grow concerned, but UC2 did both repeatedly. Sequences that in any other game would be mere cinematics are fully interactive are instead completely playable here, lending a deeper sense of player involvement in what’s happening on screen.

Plus, they got rid of the annoying zombie enemies that dragged down so much of UC1 for me. UC1 was great, but UC2 is near perfect. I can’t wait to see what they iterate onto with the inevitable UC3.

Back to life, with news!

I’ve been much quieter here than I intended to be lately, and hope to revitalize my posting routine in the near future. But first, I have news!



Melissa and I are engaged!

I picked out a ring about 2-3 weeks ago, and had to wait for the setting to come in. I picked it up yesterday and decided I’d better make use of it before I hid it so well that I forgot where I put it 🙂

A little while back, Melissa and I built a mini cocktail arcade table out of an Ikea table and an old laptop. She loves it, perhaps even more than I do. Ms. Pac-Man is her favorite game ever, since she was a little kid. I decided to leverage these facts, and modified the game a bit. After the second level of Ms. Pac-Man, there’s a small little animated cut scene that plays. Here’s a low quality youtube version of it that someone recorded:

I turned it into this (sorry, there’s no sound in this video):

She saw it, was confused, said "what?", turned around, and there I was with the ring!

Oh, and she also said yes 🙂

I feel like the luckiest guy in the world today!

More details, for those who have asked me how I did the alteration:
Continue reading

Dept. of Public Information

Walking out of work recently, I encountered this flyer on the library’s public bulletin board:

To find, please contact the UNC Department of Public Information and receive your

The pulltabs to take with you have this link:

The blog is an interesting collection of links and chronicle of events staged by this group around campus to promote knowledge of student rights on campus.

This is a great example of a semi-ARGish method being used to promote distribution of knowledge and education! One event even led people to relevant books on the library’s shelves.

It’s sort of odd to see the blog promoted now, when there hasn’t been an update for almost a month, but maybe something new will be happening soon. The flyer seems to be grabbing students’ interest – yesterday afternoon there were five pulltabs remaining, and as I write this there’s only one.

Alternate Reality Games and Information Literacy

One area where ARGs have near-unlimited potential is in teaching information literacy skills. By placing the skills’ use in the framework of a game, students/players become more invested and enthusiastic about learning these skills. In fact, they often may not realize they’re being taught at all. Here’s some random bits & pieces from the ACRL’s Information Literacy Competency Standards, with brief notes on how ARG players develop and use these skills while playing an ARG:

  • “Recognize that existing information can be combined with original thought, experimentation, and/or analysis to produce new information.” – ARGs require exactly this kind of thinking. Players must use their original thoughts to solve puzzles and interact with characters (existing information) via analysis and experimentation.
  • “Identify the value and differences of potential resources in a variety of formats (multimedia, database, website, book)” – Many ARGs require balancing information from a variety of source formats including websites, books, raw data, music, games, movies, etc.
  • “Create a system for organizing information” – Take a look at the amazingly in-depth and well organized wiki for the recent Dark Knight ARG here: This was entirely player-made.
  • “Utilize technology for studying the interaction of ideas and other phenomena” – ARGs by their very nature require the use of many kinds of technology including GPS devices, smartphones, computers, cameras (still and video) audio recordings, etc. Players are encouraged to study and investigate the world around them.
  • “Validate understanding and interpretation of the information through discourse with other individuals…” – The Unforums are an example of a vibrant community of ARG players discussing and playing games with each other.
  • “Apply new and prior information to the planning and creation of a particular product or performance.” – Players must take information from previous parts of the game and decide where to apply it in order to move forward.
  • “Manipulate digital text, images, and data, as needed, transferring them from their original locations and formats to a new context.” – This is a very generically worded skill, but ARGs can still teach it. See any of the examples I’ve listed above.

Games4Learning: Alternate Reality Games

Last Friday I gave a presentation as part of UNC’s wonderful Games4Learning initiative on Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). I think these games have a huge potential to be used as a teaching tool for both social issues and information literacy. I’ll be writing more about this topic in coming days & weeks, but for now here’s my slides:

They may not entirely make sense without my narration, but I wanted to get them linked. I’ll try to give some context in upcoming posts.

PAX 2008: Community

The whole reason I went to PAX, and my favorite thing there, was the community.

PAX was started a few years ago by the guys at Penny Arcade, who basically viewed it as an excuse to throw a 3 day party for thousands of their closest friends. It has become a shining beacon of gaming culture, a place where everyone can just hang out and geek out all weekend. Everyone is extremely helpful and extremely welcoming and extremely open to meeting new people.

Many of the weekend’s events are entirely organized by attendees. I participated in a convention-wide game of Assassins, and bought delicious snacks from the self-appointed ‘cookie brigade’ – all their proceeds went to the Child’s Play charity, and they raised $5000 in those three days! But that’s barely scratching the surface. Something attendee-organized was constantly in the offerings.

The first night I was in Seattle, a bunch of us went out for dinner. We debated things like the merits of different incarnations of Star Trek for a solid hour, completely unselfconsciously and without rebuke. At one point silence fell over the table, we all realized what the conversation was, and someone intoned (without hint of sarcasm) “this is gonna be a great weekend.” And it was. I had originally intended that PAX would be a one time event for me – something to check off my list before moving on to other vacation destinations. But now I can’t wait to return. It really exceeded all my expectations!

Now that the annual E3 gaming trade show is a shadow of its former self, the industry is scrambling and trying to figure out how to replace or rebuild it. I saw a few shades of that influence at PAX this year. There were separate press demo lines for some games, for example. And then there’s posts like Kotaku’s “The Problem with PAX”, which seems to think PAX is trying to become the new E3 but failing at it. But, see, we don’t want PAX to be a trade show. It was never supposed to be one. What the author doesn’t understand is that PAX isn’t for the gaming industry. It is for the players, for the fans, for us.

PAX 2008: Harmonix Panel

I’ll be posting more about my trip to PAX in the near future, but for now let me just say that it was an amazing experience! Some of the most fun I’ve ever had on a vacation, and a powerful example of what a community can do when it comes together.

The one major panel that I got to was Harmonix’s (The studio behind Rock Band). They had four of their producers there to talk. It was in a giant room with horrible acoustics, but I was there plenty early so sat close up and didn’t mind.

Mostly the panel was them running through a history of the company. Fun facts:

-One producer on the panel was the lead singer of Honest Bob and the Factory to Dealer Incentives. Self-described as “probably the most hated band in Rock Band”.

-Their first project was an installation for EPCOT, which is still there. ‘Music in the Air’, or something like that, I missed the exact title. You wave your arms around and it generates music based on the motion.

-Later they made a PC music creation game called ‘The Axe’ which they are “…pretty sure sold in the double digits”.

-Some of the songs in Frequency and Amplitude (PS2 games) were Freezepop recording under different band names, to fill out the track list

-Nine Inch Nails was the first band that came to them and said ‘please put us in Rock Band’

-One of the producers on the panel was a former librarian!

-The transparent note tracks in Rock Band were the result of a bug – they liked it and kept it.

-Multiplayer was almost dropped entirely from Guitar Hero 1 before release. The developers didn’t think that the odds of two people knowing each other who each had a guitar controller was high enough to even warrant thinking about. They barely even expected two people in the same city to have them! This explains why the multiplayer in GH1 was a bit sub-par.

-They will listen to a demo CD by any band who wants to be in Rock Band. I feel bad for whoever has that job 🙂

-They love to employ musicians, and recently hired the dancer from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones in some unknown capacity. (The panel seemed more impressed by this than the audience was, admittedly).

-Harmonix is now the largest manufacturer of drum sticks in the world – they make more than the next three largest combined!

-Lots of other fun stuff, I wish I’d taken better notes.

The Q&A section was pretty much wasted with obvious questions and statements that weren’t questions at all. Examples:

-“Do you guys think you could get your foot up the ass of Guitar Hero any farther? Cause you’re totally kicking their ass all over the place right now.”
The panel stared uncomfortably at each other for a bit, then responded that they’re just genuinely happy that the music game genre can support multiple products; they’re ecstatic that the market is that big. 90% of the audience applauded, and the question asker sat down in a bit of shame.

-The last question asked was a guy who wanted the panel to troubleshoot his licensing issues with downloadable rock band tracks on his xbox. The panel very nicely told him to talk to microsoft, that there was obviously nothing they could do for him there at PAX. But he wouldn’t let the issue drop. This was despite the panel being past the end time, and the panelists having announcements to make at the end that we were all anxious to hear! If there was a giant hook, it would have been employed to remove him from the premises 🙂

The final announcements were:
-The existence of this week’s downloadable songs, the ‘PAX Pack’, and that fact the proceeds from now until Christmas will all go to the Penny Arcade Child’s Play charity.
-There is an achievement in Rock Band 2 called ‘Bladder of Stee’ – you must play the endless setlist without failing or pausing at all. This was added after they saw that over 100k people have completed the endless setlist in RB1, something they never expected very many people to finish.

The panel all seemed like awesome people, who genuinely love what they do.

Review: Braid (Xbox 360)

Here’s the short version: you should go play Braid. It is amazing.

Longer version:

Braid is a brilliant independent game developed mostly by one man, Jonathan Blow. At first glance, you could easily mistake it for yet another 2d sidescrolling Mario clone. But it goes much deeper than that. You play as Tim, who is questing for his princess. The story of their relationship is revealed as the game progresses, and their relationship has a surprisingly mature and adult tone. The story takes some major twists and turns, and is open-ended enough that it practically demands critical thought and interpretation of what happens. It’s the kind of story that sticks with you and completely draws you in to a mood and tone.

Tim can manipulate time. As you journey through the game, this ability is necessary to solve puzzles. Each puzzle is extremely creative, and some require twisting your brain into severe knots to solve. Players could blaze through this game in just an hour or two, as the puzzles are almost entirely optional. But that would be robbing yourself of the vast majority of what Braid has to offer. I spent about 5 or 6 hours on the game total, taking my time. Some puzzles I solved as soon as I looked at them, and others took an hour on their own. Most fell somewhere in between, and solving each one brought a huge sense of accomplishment. This is alternately a very frustrating (in a good way) and rewarding game to play.

The creator maintained a blog chronicling the development process, and it makes for fascinating reading. I want to point out his post identifying the game’s haunting soundtrack in particular, since I fell in love with the music during the game. Each track is available as mp3s from Amazon for $.89 each.

Braid costs $15, and is only sold as a downloadable game for the Xbox 360. A PC version is forthcoming at a date yet to be determined. Some people have taken a bit of umbrage at that cost, which is more than for all but a handful of previously released Xbox downloadable games. But Braid is art, and I like knowing that I’m supporting an independent developer with something new to bring to the gaming world. I got far more than $15 worth of enjoyment out of it.

Braid plays like no other game I’ve ever had my hands on. Play the free Xbox demo, and I’ll be surprised if you’re not hooked.