How to Become a Rock God, part 4

You know, I should probably title this post “How NOT to Become a Rock God,” because it is all about failure: my failure, Activision/Red Octane/Neversoft’s failure, and the failure of rock to conquer all. I am sad, and it is Guitar Hero III that has made me sad.

Don’t get me wrong—it’s fun. I enjoy it. I like the way it handles some songs better than the way that Rock Band handles some songs, though I maintain that Rock Band has a greater proportion of great songs to kinda decent songs (and a lack of kinda crappy songs, which I can’t say for GHIII). Anyway, I enjoy GHIII enough that I decided to forego Rock Band for most of the day (well, after playing a bit online with Dan) in order to play through nearly all of GHIII on Hard mode.

Then I got to the last song, which is a “battle” between you and the devil, where the goal is not to actually play the friggin guitar, but to play key notes to deploy as “attacks” against your opponent. It sounds stupid because it is. The people behind this game managed to find the most irritating part of narrative games—annoying, repetitive “boss” battles where you have to hit just right in order to strike their weak spot and proceed—and migrate this god-awful mechanic to a game genre that we never imagined would ever have to deal with it. If Activision/Neverwhatever tries to pull this kind of crap ever again, I will actively boycott the next game in the series.

The main reason I was trying to play through the whole game, though, was that I was looking for a song. So begins another story of failure.

While playing GHIII with Evan, we kept hearing this one song playing in the background at the title screen and on menus. We looked through all the songs he unlocked and all the bonus tracks. He still hadn’t beaten the game yet, though, so I figured it must be one of those tracks. So tonight, I (nearly) beat the game. But by the time I got to the last song, it was clear that the track wasn’t revealing itself. I got fed up trying to beat that song, so I went online to play with strangers, figuring the song I wanted might only be available in co-op mode (which it was). I played the song, finally getting to hear it all for once. But just playing online with strangers doesn’t unlock it so I can play it; I have to play co-op mode with someone in my home. And I only have one guitar controller that works with this game. So tonight I was reduced to playing through “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” on easy just so I could figure out how to play Guitar Hero with a regular Xbox controller. Now, next time someone else is here, I can make them play through career mode with me just so I can unlock songs. (Remember: D-pad for star power!)

Playing through co-op mode on easy with a handheld controller just so I can get access to content on my game disk is not good game design. This does not make me feel like a Rock God. When you pay such-and-such amount of money for a game, you shouldn’t have to be forced to stoop to such levels just to get at the actual content on it because you don’t happen to have a second super-expensive guitar. (I say this more in principle than anything else because I didn’t spend money on this at all. You know what I mean, though.)

In conclusion, I am going to need some help soon with a very stupid task. Let me know if you feel like doing some co-op Controller Hero III sometime soon.

How to Become a Rock God, part 3

Last night, I got to wondering whether we, The Flaming Mongooses, had rocked too hard. The guitar that came with Rock Band simply ceased to register down strums, or else it double-registered them. The result was that we had to get very used to strumming up, which is cool as long as you’re playing bass (and in fact gets the game to call you an “Authentic Strummer,” we believe), but is kind of a pain in the arse for the more complex guitar sections.

Turns out it had nothing to do with the hardness of our rocking, however. A post at Kotaku titled “Rock Band Controllers Failing” quotes from the official Rock Band community forums:

The majority of the problems reported on the official Rock Band community forums indicate that the controller’s “down strum” simply won’t register or will double register notes after a few hours of playing.

Oh really? Hmm.

I was pretty pissed, seeing as how I had paid a metric assload of money for this game, and I felt like it should work for more than three days at a time. Fortunately, EA (the game’s distributor) handles the warrantee and replacement process decently well. If you give a credit card number as collateral (which shouldn’t be charged as long as you hold up your end of the bargain), they’ll rush ship a new guitar out to you with postage-prepaid packaging to return your old one. If you prefer not to give your card number, they’ll send you the packaging to return your old guitar and then they’ll send a new one upon receipt. I like being given options, and I like getting stuff rush shipped to me for free when junk I paid tons of money for is broken.

In the meantime, perhaps Gen and I will revisit our “side project” band, Örko, with the Guitar Hero III controller. Oh, or I guess we could go outside or something. Maybe.

How to Become a Rock God, part 2

In our previous episode, we learned that I acquired Rock Band on its release date, and that Dan loves it but has a couple gripes.

Personally, I haven’t checked out the headset adapters yet, but I agree that the handling of characters is kinda stupid. It should be easier to get to the character creation screen, and a character should be able to play any instrument. The way it handles profiles is really confusing, as Dan points out, too. I got the impression that you could have a singer and a guitarist both signed in to my Xbox Live-enabled profile, but you needed to sign in a second guitarist and a drummer from separate profiles. Maybe this is so that anybody can play one instrument and sing in an online game, but still, it does feel kind of stupid that I couldn’t be playing guitar with Gen in the room with me on drums and Dan online with a guitar (because Gen doesn’t have a live account), but I could have Gen here singing with me with the same setup (I think). Having a game packaged with fewer tracks, tons of downloadable content lined up right off the bat, and this kind of online play restriction makes me feel like some game company is patiently but menacingly waiting by the swingset, ready to collect my lunch money if I want to make use of the whole playground. Oh, except I already paid $170 to get into the playground.

My other gripe is that there’s a lot of repetition built into the multiplayer campaign mode (called “Band Tour,” I believe), perhaps to hide or compensate for the fact that the complete track list is smaller than Guitar Hero III‘s. So much of the repetition occurs during sets of randomly chosen mystery songs, after everybody’s chosen their own difficulty level, making it impractical to switch instruments once you know there’s a repeat. It would be nice if there was a way to change difficulty level on the fly without losing fans, as I think I played the guitar on Expert level for the same song several times, and I would’ve liked to have challenged myself with some other role.

All of that said, the game is still Mega Awesome. Angel and Keith dropped by Wednesday night with Guitar Hero III, an unexpected reward for my recent dogsitting adventure. But we did not play GH III, not yet—instead, we broke out the wireless guitar and played four-player Rock Band, and it was glorious. Our band is called The Flaming Mongooses, and I appreciate when the game made a tour poster for us with our name and a slogan in the language of our native lands (i.e., some European country I forget). Rocking with four people does indeed kick the fun up to a new level, and also make it clear how important it is for a band to be working together (especially the drummer, who can’t afford to suck, and especially when someone fails and others have to rescue using star power “overdrive”). In addition, Keith taught me how to play the drums without getting shin splits, so I still suck but now it hurts less to suck. And speaking of hurting to suck, I sang a lot, too (but I’m not the one that was hurt by that, I suspect). I can’t wait to play more.

And I must also play Guitar Hero III soon, featuring a song that keeps getting stuck in my head (which has a really great ’70s-looking sci-fi Western music video).

How to Become a Rock God

I just picked up Rock Band for Xbox 360 yesterday at Best Buy. I had preordered the thing on Amazon, but then Amazon said it would be delayed for a couple weeks. So I called Amazon, whose phone support guy didn’t really get what I was asking until I said, “Listen: I could leave my apartment, walk down the street right now, and buy this game. It’s out now. The delay is not the manufacturer’s fault. I’m already not buying through Amazon anymore. Just tell me why there’s a delay because I want to know for future reference in case I ever ponder preordering through Amazon again.”

He was, of course, unable to answer competently. And I was, of course, lying. Rock Band was indeed out, but Best Buy is not down the street. I guess I could’ve gone down the street to FYE and spent an extra $30 on it, but instead I took out a Philly Car Share car, which probably cost me about $10. And then I got charged about $11 in taxes I wasn’t going to have to pay through Amazon. An email support guy got back to me to offer expedited shipping for free to make up for the delay, but by that time I had already made up my mind. By the time Gen arrived in her rental car after dinnertime, we were ready to rock out (some assembly required).

It’s still too early for me to really review it (even a “short review”), but I will say this of it so far: The graphics and animation are better than Guitar Hero III, and though it has far fewer songs than GHIII, it feels like it might have more really good songs. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was when I got to play Boston’s “Long Time” and the Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation” as part of a “Local Artists” set. It was before I realized how to check which songs were in a set, so I got something of a pleasant surprise. Oh, and also, the user interface is really confusing at first. Also, drumming gives me a shin splint. No joke.

Our band, incidentally, is called Örko. I think I might start a solo band so she and I can just play that one with Gen, and maybe I’ll go ahead and start others to play with other friends. We’ll see. I’ve been waiting to use the name “Shredder and the Technodrome” as a band name for some time now, and “Cockatrice” has a nice ring to it as well.

My Secret Christmas List, 2007

Last year I made a secret Christmas list of the stuff I didn’t expect to actually get because it was too expensive, too hard to explain to my family how to get it for me, or too tight to ever fit me. In the end, it worked out surprisingly well, as my family did their darndest to get me a Wii. (I ended up just using the Wii money for an Xbox 360.) I figure I might as well continue the tradition this year. I’m not holding my breath on anything here, of course, but isn’t pining over what you wish you had what the holidays are all about?

Item: Katamari Damacy t-shirt with a golden castle
Reason I won’t get it: Can’t even link directly to one shirt, let alone add it to my Amazon wish list.

Item: Quisp cereal
Reason I won’t get it: I’m not even really sure I want the “first internet cereal,” and it would certainly make an odd Christmas gift, but I am definitely fascinated by the retro design and the promise of Cap’n Crunch that doesn’t cut the roof of my mouth.

Item: Coach Ride to the Devil’s Castle
Reason I won’t get it: German tabletop games are sometimes hard to find in this country, especially when the packaging is in German.

Item: A Wii or a 60GB PS3
Reason I won’t get it: They pulled that trick last year.

Item: A flatscreen HDTV
Reason I won’t get it: This is one of those things that just seems like such an unreasonable luxury item to anyone who doesn’t understand the value of detailed graphics when murdering strangers over online games. But really, can’t I justify this as a research expense if I put away some Christmas money?

Reflecting on Half-Assed Halloween Costumes

This Halloween, I dressed up as Peter Parker, Spider-man’s secret identity. This is admittedly a pretty half-assed costume. All I did was buy a Spider-man t-shirt and wear it under a half-buttoned white shirt (yes, with pants etc.). I reused the plastic reading glasses frames purchased for my astonishingly similar costume from last year, when I went to a costume party as Clark Kent. This costume was even easier than the last one, as Peter Parker is less known for wearing suits, being more of a casual sort of guy.

I did hit one hitch, though: I have a beard, and Peter Parker does not. I had planned to shave my beard for a more authentic Pete, but when the day finally came, I was much too busy, sorely lacking in shaving cream, and wondering if it would grow back in time for the conference I’m attending in a couple weeks. I decided to just leave it be and continue on with my day.

Fortunately, the Marvel Universe has got me covered. I figured that sometime in the last 40+ years, Parker must have grown a beard, right? So I googled around and, well, no, it looks like he hasn’t—except for in alternate realities! Thank goodness there’s a parallel universe out there somewhere where all the Avengers have beards. Nobody really called me on it anyway, though.

This I swear

After my last post, I remarked to Jason that I’ve long found linguistics fascinating and, if I’d ever pursued a career in academia, I think it’s one of the few fields I’d have considered studying. Language has a fascinating duality: it’s at the same time one of the most practical, basic processes in all of life and yet, at the same time, is capable of being used to create great beauty and art. I used the analogy of a woodworker poring over his tools at the end of that post, and I think that’s a metaphor that fits well. Woodworking is another example of something that can be both extremely practical in use as well as expressing art and beauty—often at the very same time.

That really just skims the surface of what there is to say about language, but without going into too much more depth, I wanted to offer up this link (also courtesy Daring Fireball) to a fantastic article in The New Republic by Steven Pinker on the subject of swearing: why we do it, where it comes from, and why it’s considered so objectionable (a piece that, as it turns out, Jason linked to almost a month ago. Curses!).

I personally didn’t start swearing until I was in high school, despite the fact that I was exposed to it much earlier by peers and likely by the media as well. That’s one of those things that has always totally perplexed me about the restrictions on language on television and in other media—always ostensibly “for the children.” As Pinker points out, “This claim is made despite the fact that everyone is familiar with the words, including most children, and that no one has ever spelled out how the mere hearing of a word could corrupt one’s morals.”

If anything, I’d argue that most kids have a more extensive and varied repertoire of curses than their parents. And it makes me wonder if those parents so concerned with the welfare of their offspring’s ears have forgotten what it was like to be a teenager—because if any were to claim that they’d never sworn at that age, my response would be an appropriately hearty “bullshit.” Perhaps the argument could be made that they want to give their children the benefit of a “better” upbringing than they themselves had, but I agree with Pinker’s sentiment that merely hearing—or, for that matter, even using—a word isn’t enough to “corrupt one’s morals.” That said, I wrote in my last post that language is undeniably a weapon, and it certainly can be wielded in a harmful fashion. But weapons are, by their very nature, amoral, relying instead on the intent and use of the wielder to take on any sort of moral meaning. Or, to sum it up in a pithy capsule that’ll fit in the compact space offered by a bumper sticker, “Guns don’t kill people, people do.”

Nowadays, it seems to me that the shock effect of most traditional swears has been largely diluted by their widespread use. Consider the fact that entire books have been written on the extensive and variegated uses of the word “fuck.” It’s now arguably used as a simple intensifier even more than as a swear (and, in fact, it’s grammatically useful in places that other intensifiers don’t quite scan: consider “that’s very awesome” vs. “that’s fucking awesome”—of course, we could debate the eloquence of that sentiment all day long, but that’s a different topic). The fact that our arguably most taboo of expressions has entered popular parlance in such fashion has in turn necessitated the creation of new, more “shocking” swear words in a kind of obscenity one-upmanship. Not that this is anything new: you probably won’t find too many people who would look askance were you to loudly exclaim “God’s wounds!” (other than those who just think you’re a nut job). This, despite the fact that in Elizabethan England, it was a swear considered offensive enough that it had to be “minced” into a new “sanitized” expression. Just like socks, swears wear out and lose their effectiveness over time.

And so I wonder if in fifty years times the debate over televised/published obscenity will still be raging as fiercely as it is today (worth pointing out, the Times Q&A I pointed to in my last post has an interesting section on the decision of printing obscenity). When people talk about the process of legislating violence in video games, it’s often pointed out that in fifty years, the people making the laws will have grown up playing those video games, as opposed to most legislators today who can barely tell Grand Theft Auto from Wii Sports. That may or may not be the case, but I feel like swearing is much more acceptable in today’s culture than it was fifty years ago; I know many parents who swear around their children, and even children who swear around their parents. While that wouldn’t necessarily be the way that I’d choose to go with my own (still hypothetical) children, I don’t think I’d try and hide from them that swearing and obscenity exist, especially since my own childhood experience points to that being a losing battle—as with sex, they’ll just learn about somewhere else, so why not educate them about it?

And besides: swearing, as Pinker points out, is useful and, heck, sometimes downright fun.

The Best Laid Plans of Macs and Men

My continuing quest to make my Mac products work better has met its newest obstacle: funny keyboards.

I got around this by using Doublecommand on my Powerbook, which gives a few options for remapping generally useless keys into rather useful keys on a Mac keyboard. The only option I was using was one that remapped the extra Enter key, next to the right Command key, into a second Option key. This meant I could navigate through tabs in Camino with just my right hand. (Get your dirty jokes out now. It has nothing to do with that. Probably.) I also updated the keyboard shortcuts for Safari to work the same way; by default, you navigate tabs in Safari with Shift-Command and an Arrow key, but that just ends up selecting a line of text if your window happens to have Gmail or WordPress up. Option-Command just works nicer.

Or rather, it just worked nicer. Somehow, this only partially made the transition onto my Macbook. Option-Command-Left Arrow works normally, and I can use it to navigate tabs without a problem using either the original Option key or the modified Enter-as-Option key. However, Option-Command-Right Arrow only works with the original option key. My computer firmly refuses to believe that this keystroke even exists, to the point where I can’t even manually assign it as a shortcut in the Keyboard preference pane. I press it, and nothing registers. I am totally at a loss and mostly just wanted to vent, but feel free to speak up if you have any alternative ideas.

This doesn’t even begin to address how challenging it is to use a Mac keyboard when running Windows, so I’m looking for a keyboard remapper for that, too. (Or maybe it’s just that Windows keyboard shortcuts generally suck. I mean, seriously, Ctrl-everything? I am much more dextrous with my thumb than with my pinky. That is how we defeated the apes.)

Oh, and in case you were wondering how things went with Fusion, I’m going to try getting my money back, but I will probably fail. Running it off a Boot Camp partition just doesn’t work as well, as it forces Windows to shut down every time you quit (as opposed to saving the state). So, in addition to taking awhile to start every time you want to use Windows, it means that Windows is stuck installing a crapload of updates while you’re trying to get out of it just to free up some freaking RAM.

Why We Write

This Neil Gaiman blog post, Why Write?, is a spot-on assessment of the best and worst of being a writer. I’ve been trying for the last several months to finish up the third and final book in a series that I’ve been working on for about eight years now, and I’m feel like I’m still taxiing around the runway, waiting to take off; I’ve rewritten (from scratch) the first chapter about four times now. One storyline has progressed fine—I have about seven or eight chapters of it written—but the other has been lacking something. In the moments where I worry that I’ll never get off the ground, I remember that I have been in the air before, so I do another loop around the airfield.

On a related note, there’s about two weeks until National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) commences. I’m planning on starting on a completely different project, something that’ll hopefully let me clear both my head and my palette. If you’ve ever thought you might want to write a novel, NaNoWriMo is the perfect opportunity to give it a go. This will be my third consecutive year participating and I’m hoping to go 3-for-3, though admittedly I’m a little worried, since this’ll be the first year I’ve tried to do it while working full time. And there’s still that ever elusive task of getting published.

Please Pester Airtran

Airtran Airways is canceling its Boston-Philly route. If, like me, you feel in any way invested in seeing that route not canceled, please send them a note saying so.