Tuesday, 31 May 2011

A year on the watch

So it's my birthday for another two minutes, but it'll be into the following day by the time I finish this post. In fact, I got briefly distracted and oh look, there goes midnight.
Anyway, it's been a year since I constructed the name 'Ralph Pocketwatch', which I used for this blog, combining two of the birthday messages I received on facebook last year.

So I figure it could be interesting to take a look back at what's happened to me this year.
I graduated from university, of course. Of course, by the end, I was rather burned out on maths. I still like the subject and would consider doing a PhD if I find a field that particularly grabs me, but I really needed a break, and actually at this point I'm more inclined towards the idea of becoming a librarian (Partly down to a webcomic about librarians which I read through a few months back, but really that just put the idea in my head).

The months between me finishing my degree and me moving out of my student house and back in with my parents saw a definite increase in my forum activity. I really got into that, solidified friendships to a greater extent. And of course there was the summer meetup, and then the winter meetup, really adding to that effect.

I went perhaps a tad overboard with my G&S obsession, being in four of the five societies in the area. A bit crazy of me. Though, since I had nothing else to be doing, why not?
Oh yeah, tangentially related, I grew a beard.

Failed to get a job. It didn't help that I kept procrastinating so it took me about 3 months to actually complete my CV. And then of course there was the issue that since I wasn't overly enthusiastic about any of the jobs I was applying for - since really I just wanted a job so I'd have money which would allow me to do things which cost money. And preferably move out and into a flat or something of my own. I like my family, but I also like my space. But that lack of interest meant I didn't put enough effort into any of those applications to actually get one of the jobs (At least I imagine a bit more effort could've possibly made a difference. Certainly couldn't have hurt). So, yeah, got to put some more thought and effort into that.

I started a blog! Of course. You're reading it. Or, if you're not reading it then you don't know I mentioned it just now, unless you're reading my mind. In which case, you're kind of reading the blog post in my mind as I compose it, so it still sort of counts as you reading the blog. Ha!
Please don't read my mind, though. I like my secrets, old and new and really new, like the past few days new. Most of them are pretty minor things anyway, but still, seriously, don't.

Musings on psychic powers: becoming a feature of this blog? Maybe. Maybe. (I need to write a TF2 post)

Oh yeah, I made more effort to branch out in my social circles, though I'm not very good at it. But, you know, I added a few more people as friends on Steam, I've gone into areas of the Playground I didn't generally before, seriously thought about trying to become more present in the Steam thread maybe, with the gamer people. And of course, a certain amount of social circle expansion has happened due to being in the other G&S societies.
Oh, I culled my facebook friends a bit a while back. Shortly before I started this blog, in fact.

A lot of introspection, I guess that's a fairly significant thing. Sort of.

...Hmm. I should do more with my life, really.
That's been one of the big problems I've had. Have I mentioned that before? Probably.

It's been a mixed year. Good amount of good things in there, but a general lack of activity for a decent amount of it grants a bit of a lacklustre feel overall. Endless relaxation gets rather unfulfilling after a while.
But, that said, there have been some excellent moments, as I mentioned, and the last couple of days in particular I've barely been able to stop grinning. My life seems pretty fantastic to me right now.

Oh, if anyone's wondering, here's a photo of what I got for my birthday:

See you all around in the 24th year of my life.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Snapshots of my life in which virtue is triumphant

That is, those snapshots of my life in theatrical performances. Friends of mine have blooged about their varied G&S experiences, and since today is the centenary of Gilbert's death, it seems a fitting moment to do mine.

So I cast my mind back to late 2007/early 2008. I was in the second year of my degree, still quite enjoying it, but something of a social recluse. I needed to do more things with my life, so I looked at the list of societies and saw Gilbert & Sullivan. "That'll involve singing," I thought. Let's go for it!
And after feeling slightly out of place for a little while, I got into it. The Mikado, a good show to start someone on G&S, which I have since seen performed twice without me being involved.
That red make-up was hell to get off, but I think it worked reasonably - certainly we got a striking distinction between the men, all red and black, and the women, all white and blue (Once they'd scrubbed off the red from having been men in the opening chorus).

I recall our director mentioned that since I joined relatively late in the rehearsal period, he hadn't thought I'd be able to do the performance - a clear indication that he didn't know me that well. On the contrary, come the performances, I seemed to know everything somewhat better than the other two members of the male chorus, and some of the principals (No offense to our Pooh-Bah, he was great, but I did know all his lines, while he forgot one or two).

On to a summer show, for which I was again late getting into it due to mishaps with getting me on the society mailing list. Sherlock Holmes and the House of Almost Certain Death was an excellent show to be in the chorus for, because the chorus got to be many things depending on the scene - policemen, a wall, servants, some sort of incompetent theatrical troupe, pathologists and drunkards. Actually, I did have a very small part (One line) as Second Drunk. Given I only started drinking alcohol about a month before the performances, not the best fit, but acting disoriented was quite easy - I just removed my glasses.
For the record, that gormless look on my face is me acting drunk. Entirely deliberate.
Onto another year. Main show of 2009 was Patience. Being in from the start of the rehearsal period this time, I did audition, but didn't get a part, sadly. But in any case, I still enjoyed myself as a heavy dragoon (Once I found a helmet which didn't keep falling off)
Helmet threatening to fall off, hence why I'm staring at my feet.
Odd costuming, which I still don't understand to this day - there's a line about the dragoons' uniforms, "Red and yellow - primary coloours. Oh, South Kensington!" So I don't really get why we were dressed in black, with grey sashes. I suppose there was again the contrast with the women, who were more colourful in their aestheticism, but it doesn't really make sense with that line.
Random point - a Playgrounder got married last year and I swear he looks remarkably like our Bunthorne. See the photos in this post I made. What do you think?

Summer show that year was How to Marry an Aristocrat. To my mind, possibly the ideal summer show - full of small parts, so everyone gets to do something (IIRC, we only had one person who was just chorus), but for those less confident about acting, it doesn't have to be anything too big.
I got my first principal part in this show, as Sir Rupert Strangeways, Duke of Wansworth, who has disguised himself as a commoner in order to find his true love.
Very much in the mould of the Gilbertian romantic tenor - complete with completely sincere speeches which are, in one way or another, utterly ridiculous. I struggled to keep a straight face at times, but it was gratifying to have to wait for the audience to stop laughing before delivering my next line.

And now the big one. 2010. HMS Pinafore. My first principal role in a main show, and it just happens to be my favourite role G&S ever wrote, in my favourite show they ever wrote. When I received the email telling me I was playing Ralph Rackstraw, I had to keep re-reading it to be sure it wasn't a figment of my imagination.

A lot of cherished memories, but since I did it for a second time two weeks ago (Though in a rather different style), I'll save the Pinafore comments for that post.

Summer show of 2010 was something one of our members wrote called A Tale of Liquor and Dice, about a zookeeper who's gambled away all his money, young couples in love, and getting drunk.
Much as I love romantic tenor roles, they are all more or less the same character, just in different sets of circumstances, so on this occasion I thought I'd take a break and go for the other tenor role, one of a pair of incompetent mafiosos trying to collect the money from the aforementioned zookeeper.
As a sidenote, the summer shows have had the interesting effect of teaching me more of the music for actual G&S shows, because once the summer shows are done with, I invariably look over the original words for the songs used. Just one more element in my quest to become a walking set of G&S vocal scores!

Leaving behind NUGSS now, I started getting into the other local G&S societies, to satisfy my obsession. In Ruddigore, I ended up playing the dastardly Sir Roderic Murgatroyd, the deceased previous bad Baronet of Ruddigore, which I believe I've mentioned before, is the reason I originally grew a beard - trying to look old enough to be the uncle of two of my co-stars, one of whom is about a year younger than me, and the other in the region of a decade older.

A relatively small part, but a very enjoyable one. Sir Roderic is one of a number of parts in the G&S shows, who only turn up in Act 2, but then get some of the best music, and in several cases as soon as they come on stage, the plot starts to revolve around them somewhat.

And all subsequent productions in which I've taken part have been since I started this blog, so I'll just link to the relevant posts I made about them:
The Grand Duke

Yeomen of the Guard
As mentioned, I did Pinafore again 2 weeks ago, a post about that is coming soon.
I'm also doing The Grand Duke again (Twice in one year - I shall be the envy of obsessive G&S enthusiasts the world over!), but any comments on that will have to wait.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

I have a song to sing, O!

Crazy poster. When I first saw this I assumed it was a joke. But no, that was the actual poster for the production of Yeomen of the Guard I was in. With lego.
Now, Yeomen of the Guard, or The Merryman and his Maid is not quite the incredible rarity that The Grand Duke is, but it is nonetheless something of an oddity among G&S shows. More serious, something of a downer ending, more grandly operatic. Also the dialogue feels perhaps a tad Shakespearean - Elizabethan rather, but nowadays that'll be mostly be associated with Shakespeare - with lines like "Nay, pretty one, why weepest thou?" But of course it still has the humorous side to it (For there is humour in all things). As I understand it, this was because Sullivan really wanted to write grand opera, whereas Gilbert was only interested in writing comic opera, so they compromised on this.

Dramatis Personae:
Sir Richard Cholmondely, Lieutenant of the Tower - An odd part. Very important, since he's in charge of the Tower and that's where the whole show takes place, but mostly he just comes on to sing a few pertinent words and then go off again while the chorus do their thing. Only has a couple of scenes of dialogue. I've heard it said that the Tower is supposed to have a sort of ominous presence throughout teh show, looming over the action, and I suppose the Lieutenant could represent that to a certain extent.
Potentially slightly odd to play, because he clearly sides with Colonel Fairfax, but will nonetheless impartially carry out the orders to have him executed.
Colonel Fairfax - under sentence of death for sorcery, though we are informed that he is a man of science and an alchemist, nothing more. A brave, even heroic man, who seems genuinely unafraid of death. Also something of a womaniser. To be honest, I find him much more interesting in Act 1, when the threat of death is hanging over him, but I like the part anyway, and it would have been my preferred part to play in the show.
A marked point is that despite being a soldier (Who might be expected to be rather serious) and sentenced to death, he remains cheerful throughout the show, in contrast to Jack Point (see below).
Sergeant Meryll - The solid sergeant of the Yeomen of the Guard, indebted to Colonel Fairfax, who saved his life twice; and so he hatches a plan to allow Fairfax to evade his execution. A good, fairly sizeable bass part.
Leonard Meryll - Sergeant Meryll's son, appointed to the Yeomen of the Guard as a reward for his valour. Crucial to the plot, but hardly onstage - the escape plan for Colonel Fairfax involves pretending Fairfax is Leonard, so the real Leonard can't very well be hanging around (Though I imagine most productions stick him in the chorus for most of the show like we did).
Jack Point, a strolling jester - The Merryman referred to in the alternative title. In contrast to Colonel Fairfax, one would naturally expect a jester to be cheerful, but despite expounding in his first scene the view that "There is humour in all things, and the truest philosophy is that which teaches us to find it, and to make the most of it," Jack Point is instead somewhat dull and gloomy, even a tragic figure. While he covers his sadness to an extent with his jokes, it gradually comes out as more and more things go wrong for him.
Of course, he also points out a potential feeling of tragedy which is innate to the jester's profession - "See, I am a salaried wit; and is there aught in nature more ridiculous? A poor, dull, heart-broken man, who must needs be merry, or he will be whipped; who must rejoice, lest he starve; who must jest you, jibe you, quip you, crank you, wrack you, riddle you, from hour to hour, from day to day, from year to year, lest he dwindle, perish, starve, pine and die! Why, when there's naught else to laugh at, I laugh at myself 'til I ache for it."
Wilfred Shadbolt, Head Jailer and Assistant Tormentor - The character of Wilfred is more or less defined by jealousy. He loves Phoebe (See below), but she has no interest in him, so he is jealous of everything she does care about. However he remains entirely unaware of his own flaws, thinking himself something quite special. While he claims he "I didn't become a head jailer because I like head jailing! I didn't become an assistant tormentor because I like assistant tormenting!" nevertheless he clearly displays something of a vicious streak.
His character is pretty clearly showcased (To my mind) by his first scene and his song, which was cut from the original performances but is often reinstated, as we did. More on the cuts later.

Bit parts: The Headsman is listed, but all he has to do is stand onstage in the act 1 finale and not behead anyone because Colonel Fairfax has escaped. There are a couple of lines for citizens, in one scene, and then there are the First and Second Yeomen. Confusingly, the Second Yeoman is the first Yeoman to have a solo and the only one to have any spoken lines. And while his first solo is fairly high - tenor or high baritone, in the act 1 finale he's a more a bass, whereas the First Yeoman is a tenor. It seems to me it would make much more sense for that initial solo and the two lines to go to the First Yeoman, but whatever.
I played the Second Yeoman in our production.  Sadly I don't have any photos.

Elsie Maynard, a strolling singer - Travels with Jack Point. Though they're not married, Point seems to be under the impression that they will be at some point. Elsie needs money because her mother is ill.

Phoebe Meryll - Sergeant Meryll's daughter, who has taken something of a fancy to Colonel Fairfax, based on his valorous actions rescuing her father's life, and the fact she has seen him while he's been locked up in the tower, and it turns out he's young and handsome. Rather free-spirited and affectionate, apparently - she fears her returning brother will check her too much and try to make her act like "a nun, who has renounced all mankind," and Wilfred sings that "sometimes she does fell, disposed to indiscriminate caress." I'm not entirely sure who she's supposed to have been indiscriminately caressing though.
Dame Carruthers, housekeeper to the Tower -  Fairly standard G&S old lady alto part. Has a liking for Sergeant Meryll, and a bit of a bloodthirsty streak. Tremendously loyal to the Tower, having lived there apparently her whole life.
Kate - Dame Carruthers' niece. Practically a non-entity. On for one scene, in which Dame Carruthers effectively says all her lines for her, and then she sings in a quartet.

Rapid plot summary go!
As I said in the character descriptions, Fairfax is condemned to death, the Meryll's plan to save him by passing him off as Leonard (Once he has shaved off his beard so that none shall recognise him). Meanwhile, Fairfax reveals that his cousin has had him condemned to death in order to succeed to his estate, which devolves to him provided Fairfax dies unmarried. So he wants to marry immediately, and the Lieutenant agrees to find him a wife. The wife he finds is Elsie Maynard, who accepts the offered hundred crowns for the sake of her sick mother, on the understanding that Fairfax will be dead in an hour. But of course the Meryll's get him out and disguise him as Leonard. He is presented to the other yeomen, and gets sent with two others to fetch himself to be executed, only to find that he isn't there. Wilfred is shamed for letting him escape, Elsie is distraught because she's married to him and he's not dead, and Jack Point likewise. Elsie faints in Fairfax's arms.
Act 2, Elsie has been lying abed in the Meryll's house for two days being nursed back to health. Point and Wilfred agree to lie and say Wilfred shot Fairfax, so Point can get Elsie back, Wilfred will be a hero and Point will teach him to be a jester. Dame Carruthers reveals that her niece Kate, while nursing Elsie, heard her talking in her sleep about her marriage. Thus Fairfax finds out who his wife is. He talks to her, they hear a shot ring out, which Wilfred and Point explain was Wilfred shooting Fairfax. Point tries to win Elsie back, but she's in love with Fairfax and they go off together. In frustration at this, Phoebe inadvertently reveals to Wilfred that 'Leonard' is actually Fairfax, and must agree to marry him to keep him quiet, though Leonard arrives with news that Colonel Fairfax has been reprieved. Likewise, Dame Carruthers overhears some of the conversation, and in oredr to keep her quiet, Sergeant Meryll must agree to marry her.
Finally, Fairfax reveals himself to Elsie as himself, they (And Wilfred and Carruthers) are happy, and Point is heart-broken. The end.

So, cut things. Three major ones (Though an extended SavoyNet conversation has been going on recently all sorts of possible cuts, some of them utterly ridiculous and some more reasonable): 'When jealous torments' for Wilfred and 'A laughing boy' for Meryll, both cut from the original performances; and 'Rapture rapture', a duet for Carruthers and Meryll, included in the original performances but often cut nowadays.
The production I was in included the first two but not the third. Personally, I would definitely include 'When jealous torments' because it really gives you a handle on Wilfred's character, gives him something to sing before the act 1 finale, and is just a rather good song. In our production, however, I felt that it was taken too slowly. I recorded a video of me singing it at my preferred speed, but on listening back, I'm dissatisfied and will therefore not be uploading it.
The other two, though, I would be inclined to cut. 'A laughing boy' I don't really see the point of. It halts the flow of the scene for a song about a character who only appears in that scene and one other at the end of the show, and I just can't see why.
'Rapture rapture' I don't hate like some people do. But I do think it feels out of place. Someone in the SavoyNet discussion said they would include it because it's more cheerful attitude gives some relief before the downer ending, while I would cut it for the same reason - I feel it detracts from the seriousness of the slightly depressing ending. I also think it feels out of character for Dame Carruthers, who throughout the show is very dignified and proper, to suddenly start springing around singing "Rapture, rapture!" The song might work in a different context - I thought it worked alright where it was used in NUGSS' summer show of last year (With different words) - but I wouldn't want it in Yeomen.
Oh, also, someone else said they wouldn't cut it because that would reduce the part of Dame Carruthers. Personally, I'd say the part of Dame Carruthers is big enough without it.

Now, the other strange thing about Yeomen - it's the only G&S which doesn't start with a chorus number. It starts with a solo. Or two solos if you include 'When jealous torments'. I personally feel this is a bit of a flaw. The opening choruses never (Well, hardly ever) contribute to the plot, but what they do admirably is set the scene of the show, which is rather important. As it is, for that first scene with Phoebe and Wilfred, you could be anywhere - 'Tower warders' is needed to explain to everyone that we're in the Tower of London. As such, if a way could be found to make it work, I personally think Yeomen could be improved by putting 'Tower warders' at the start and moving Phoebe and Wilfred's scene a little way into it. Of course, as with my thoughts on Rudolph's song and hypothetical scene in act 2 of The Grand Duke, the problem is that we can't get W.S. Gilbert to write the change for us because he is unfortunately dead.

Now, as when I finished the show itself, on to HMS Pinafore!

Now you're thinking with portals.

Well, it's approaching a month since it was released and I'm finally blogging about it. I guess the lapse of time makes it less of an issue if I include spoilers, though I'll still try not to.
Portal 2 spoilers, that is. Original Portal will be spoiled in this blog post, but it came out in 2007 and spawned multiple internet memes, so I'm pretty sure if you don't know how the game goes you probably don't care either. If you do care, odds are massively in favour of you knowing how the game goes, even if you haven't played it yourself.

Sidenote: If you haven't played the game yourself, you should go and do so. Like, right now. This blog post can wait. Go play Portal.

While this post is primarily about Portal 2, I will definitely be touching on the original, to compare the two if nothing else.

The basic concept of the Portal games is of course very simple - you can make two portals so if you go in one you come out the other regardless of actual distance between the two. There are a few finer details and additional puzzle elements, but it's all based around that simple central concept. The difference between the two lies to a significant extent in how much extra stuff there is - puzzle elements, different environments, plot, dialogue. So in fact I think I'll break down this post into talking about those things, though not in exactly that order.

In original Portal, you spend almost the entire game in the brightly gleaming Aperture Science test chambers, getting only occasional glimpses at the more grimy behind the scenes areas until the end of test chamber 19, where GLaDOS tries to burn you to death and you escape into those behind the scenes areas and go confront her. Even those behind the scenes areas never struck me as overly complicated. There is excellent attention to detail, but there's only so much detail needed.
The only other environment point is related to the puzzles. At some points certain panels would move specifically to draw attention to them when playtesters didn't necessarily get what they were supposed to be doing. (For example, the issue that it can be rather hard to get people to look up, but in Portal it can sometimes be very important that they do) And some surfaces would be patterned slightly differently, or have little hints from the Rat Man scrawled on them, similarly to guide the player towards the solution.

Portal 2, on the other hand, is more complicated. We come back to a facility in ruins, somewhat overgrown with plants. The opening sequence is comparable to the opening of Half Life when the train takes you all around the Black Mesa facility and you get a look at the place - but in this case you're in a moving room which is slowly falling apart, and you see other things which are falling apart through holes in the walls. So, yeah, more complicated. Plants and wreckage, things falling apart, the test chambers are not so bright and gleaming any more. And then there are more behind the scenes areas, showing more complicated stuff, so more than just getting to the other side of the observation windows and seeing pipes and things, you actually get a look at how things work at Aperture Science. Things being constructed. Things being destroyed. And so on. And there is wonderful attention to detail, though the loss of the elegant simplicity gives it a bit of a different feel.
Now, the environment guiding you towards puzzle solutions is still there. Possibily a bit too much in places. I've seen people complain about the fact that in some puzzles it's pretty much a case of putting portals on the only available portalable surfaces and working from there. Of course sometimes the portalable surfaces have to be limited for the puzzle to be at all difficult. But sometimes there certainly could be more, so you'd have to think more about where you really need your portals to be, instead of the game effectively just telling you.
Other point - linearity. Now, fair enough, linearity is how Valve do things, and obviously in a puzzle game you can't really allow a great deal of exploration. But nonetheless when you're out of the test chambers it does seem a tad implausible at times that all the wreckage is such that there is exactly one way you can continue. It's a minor loss of verisimilitude though, and I don't really know how it could have been avoided without reducing the amount of behind the scenes stuff.

Is hilarious in both games. This was one of the things that made Portal great in the first place. Because it had not just a load of rather interesting puzzles, but also some wonderful dark humour to keep things from becoming tedious. It also gave the game replay value. It's not generally that fun to replay a puzzle game, because you know how to solve all the puzzles, but with Portal it's worth it for GLaDOS' eminently quotable dialogue. Well, technically monologue, I suppose, since in the original the only other characters are you (apparently mute), the turrets (don't interact with GLaDOS) and the Companion Cube ("The Enrichment Centre would like to remind you that the Weighted Companion Cube cannot speak. In the event the Weighted Companion Cube does speak, the Enrichment Centre urges you to disregard its advice.")
Anyway, funny, and producing wonderful lines like the one I just quoted in parentheses, and "Nice job breaking it hero," and a slew of others. I think I've mentioned before that Valve have their own section in the examples of the 'Memetic Mutation' trope on TVTropes, and one of the entries therein says simply "Pretty much everything GLaDOS says."

Now, in Portal 2, we have basically more of the same from GLaDOS, though the dynamic has changed somewhat due to the events of the previous game, where you, y'know, killed her. In fact she's somewhat less creepy, because she's being directly antagonistic. You know where you stand somewhat more, whereas in the original she was incredibly polite, with only the implications of something more sinister. And it's amusing to see how she insults you. Because it's basically like the writers thought of some of the most childish and petty insults they could, but then wrapped them up in GLaDOS-style subtlety (I mean it's obviously not so subtle you can't easily recognise the jokes, but she doesn't say them outright).
Then there's a personality core called Wheatley, who is, to be perfectly honest, a moron. But an amusing one. The juxtaposition of him and GLaDOS is very interesting and amusing.
Oh yeah, there's also a pre-recorded announcer, before GLaDOS reboots. Not really a character, very impersonal stuff, but amusing, since it basically expands on our view of Aperture Science.
And then, of course, we get to hear a bit about old Aperture Science, pre-GLaDOS. And so we hear from Cave Johnson, founder and original CEO of the company. And listening to him, we realise why it seems like Aperture Science was run entirely by mad scientists. Now Yahtzee, in his Zero Punctuation review of the game, said there wasn't anything which jumped out at him as being quite so memetic as, say, "The cake is a lie" from the original. I can only assume he wasn't paying enough attention to Cave Johnson. If there are memes anywhere in the game, there are most definitely memes from Cave Johnson. (Oh, also from the end of the game, but I can't tell you about that because SPOILERS)
It's slightly disappointing that since Cave Johnson has been dead for years, you can't actually meet him, only hear pre-recorded messages which he left behind. But it struck me that, really, it doesn't matter. His personality is fairly well indicated in those messages, and also - well, it's comparable to something I saw said about Dante's Inferno. When you reach the end of the Inferno, Satan is basically described as just a big beast. No indication of the mind behind it. But then, this doesn't matter, because the mind is portrayed through his domain, the whole of Hell, through which Dante and Virgil have descended. Similarly, Cave Johnson's mind is expressed through Aperture Laboratories, in all its insanity.

If you haven't seen them already, in the lead-up to Portal 2's release, Valve released some videos about 'Aperture Investment Opportunities', narrated by Cave Johnson:

The plot of original Portal is very simple. GLaDOS puts you through tests, you gradually get the impression that there may in fact be no other people in the facility, and after GLaDOS tries to kill you you discover this is in fact the case, because she killed everyone else. Except possibly for any other test subjects in suspended animation. You destroy her, find yourself on the surface, and then get dragged back in by an unidentified robot.

Portal 2 is more complicated. Obviously I can't go into much detail because SPOILERS. But basically, you want to escape. Wheatley wants to escape. GLaDOS wakes up, she wants you to continue testing, and we go from there. Along the way you learn more about the inner workings and history of Aperture Science.

The big one, obviously. It's obviously good to have an interesting plot and dialogue and nice scenery to look at, but this is a puzzle game and so the puzzles have to be good. I've already mentioned the extra guidance-through-environment in Portal 2 with there sometimes being a paucity of portalable surfaces.
Now, puzzle elements. In the original, there aren't that many. Portals themselves, of course. Cubes and buttons. Energy balls and receptacles. Liquid that will kill you if you fall in it, turrets that will kill you by shooting you. That's basically it. And so the game follows a simple pattern. Each puzzle element is introduced, and then developed on, with your standard sort of difficulty curve, the puzzles getting more complicated as you progress and have to use more different elements.

Portal 2, on the other hand, still has portals, cubes, buttons, liquid death, and turrets. Lasers (Or 'thermal discouragement beams') fill a similar role to energy balls. But then there's more. We also have discouragement redirection cubes (Redirect lasers), aerial faith plates (Catapult things through the air), hard light bridges (You walk on them), repulsion gel (Makes things bounce), propulsion gel (Makes you go fast), conversion gel (Makes things portalable) and excursion funnels (Carry things gently through the air).
So, considerably more puzzle elements. Should make for more interesting puzzles, right?
I've seen mixed opinions.
Personally, I would say, yes, it definitely does make for more interesting puzzles. Some of them could have been more complicated than they were, of course, but there were very definitely interesting puzzles in there. One type of puzzle I liked was where you effectively have to solve something and then unsolve it. I'll explain. In most puzzles, you collect your puzzle elements and arrange them in a certain way, cubes on buttons, lasers pointed at receptacles and you can get to the exit door, which is open. But there are some puzzles where you need things one way to get partway, and another way to get the rest of the way. So you have to set things up the first way, but such that you can switch it to the second from a distance.
The problem I think people had is not that there aren't interesting puzzles, because there are. Perhaps the ones in the co-op campaign are more interesting. It is somewhat balanced out by the fact the co-op campaign has less of a story. But the real problem is the difficulty curve. Because there are so many puzzle elements, one gets introduced, you learn how it works, then you do something more complicated with it, then there's another one and you're back to more basic things. The difficulty curve goes up for each new element and down for the next, giving the impression of not going up that much because it averages out at roughly a straight line, rather than just steadily building to really complicated for the climax.
I do feel this is a flaw. Some longer, more extended and complicated puzzles towards the end would have perhaps counteracted this, to give more of the steady increase at the end, if not throughout the rest of the game. But the game is still good as it is. And to be honest, it became gradually better in my mind as I got over the feeling of disappointment that there wasn't any more. I want more! Valve, make me some advanced test chambers like in the original!

So, while I agree with Yahtzee that it is perhaps not as flawless as the original, on the other hand, it does more. The flaws are more than balanced out by the extra content, and as expected, I do pretty much feel Portal 2 is the best video game ever.

Only big disappointment: things which were in previews and trailers that then didn't actually turn up in the game. Pneumatic diversity vents, an interesting looking test chamber, and a GLaDOS line: 
"We're a lot alike, you and I. You tested me; I tested you. You killed me; I- oh. I guess I haven't killed you yet.
Food for thought."

Portal 2 has really grabbed my desire to possibly do a Let's Play video. I might do that if I can get the required software, and possibly a friend to also comment on stuff, because I fear that I might get boring on my own. It's always nice to have someone to bounce off.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Four days living in nostalgia

Well, I haven't blogged in a while, and now I have a definite backlog of things I need to blog about. And not just in the sense of "Hey, I could write a blog post about those things," in the sense of "I am going to write a blog post about those things." Three blog posts I intend to definitely write, and there'll be a fourth by the end of this week.

Anyway. Last- wait, no. It's been more than a week. I've really been dragging my feet on getting these videos sorted out. In my defence, I got back home, went immediately to a party, didn't return home from that until the following evening, then had rehearsals and a show and more rehearsals and I'm currently doing another show, and in the midst of that I also had to sort out all my photos, of which there were over 300 (Full photo albums are on facebook, here you only get selected highlights).
From the 25th to the 29th of April, I was on holiday in Minehead. Which, if you didn't know, is a small seaside town on the southern side of the Bristol channel (Which, if you didn't know, is the bit of sea between the most southwest bits of England and Wales), near Taunton, in Somerset.

The reason for this was simple - we used to go every year to visit my maternal grandparents (Paternal grandparents got a raw deal as far as visitation goes, but they brought it on themselves by choosing to live in South Africa). But since they're now both dead, we stopped going. However, I still have an aunt, uncle and cousins in that area who we hadn't seen for years, and we still have all the nostalgic memories of the things we used to do every year, so we wanted to revisit those.
So, a visit to the Tropiquaria (Animals!) and a wander around Dunster, Dunster Castle and Dunster Mill.

And so it began.
Oddly, though we continued going there until I was 17, I mainly associated all those nostalgic memories with me being a child - early teens at the latest.

The B&B we were staying in was in some ways disconcertingly similar to my Granny's old cottage. Complete coincidence of course.

A brief look around my room.

Though, we realised afterwards, that really, that room was probably for families with small children - if we'd put me and my brother both in that twin room it would have felt really cramped. So it was for the best, really.

Day 1.

Fun day. One of the great things about having this holiday was that it got me away from the concerns of my regular life, and this as a first day was perfect for that, because spending time with my cousins once removed gave me the excuse to behave like the child I was reminiscing about being the whole week.

Though I don't think I was quite as prone to posing as a child.

Day 2.

Lots of animals. Of course, an advantage of digital cameras over film ones (Yeah, yeah, showing my age, I know...) is that I can take pretty much as many photos as I want, so I made sure to photograph the signs saying what the animals were as well as the animals themselves, allowing me to identify them afterwards instead of being all "So this is some sort of snake... and this is a bird... Ooh! Ring-tailed lemur! I know this one! Um, and another bird..." etc.
It seems the man who used to say he'd feed small children to the snapping turtles is gone. As are the snapping turtles themselves. This makes me sad, but I suppose I couldn't expect everything to have remained the same, and while the newer people don't have the same flair for the comedic, they 're obviously very good at looking after the animals.
A few of my photos:
This squirrel scoffs at gravity!
Baby lemur is the most adorable thing ever. Fact.
Otters are pretty cute too.
I don't know how well you could hear what I was saying on the video clip of the otter making an escape attempt - he's the reason there's extra metalwork up around the enclosure. Wire fencing to stop up any gaps he might be able to get out through.

Oh, the Tropiquaria has some children's adventure playground type things as well:
For I am a Pirate King?
And so, on to:

Day 3.

Now this really felt like it hadn't changed at all, other than the part where my Granny's old cottage is now a B&B. We said maybe we should have stayed there, but on the other hand that might have been kind of weird. However, if for whatever reason I go back again, I may well be tempted to stay there, and take with me an old photo album so I can go "See, this is what this place used to look like."
Dunster does feel a bit timeless. It's a little village populated primarily (So far as I can tell) by old people. Not a lot changes, at least not quickly.

Selected photos:
Dunster Castle

This being the week before Yeomen of the Guard, I was interested to see the halberds on the walls.
This clearly leads to Narnia.
Immured in an uncomfortable dungeon.
 We got a tour round some of the lower areas of the castle, which haven't been restored or anything - just pretty much left as they were, and our guide told us a bit about the historical owners of the castle, including one very shrewd woman whose name escapes me, but who apparently managed to sell the castle, but then still collect some income from it. While living in a different castle. Rent free.
It was also interesting just being reminded of some of the things we take for granted now - we looked at the old kitchens and store-rooms, and while it doesn't occur to us so much now since we have refrigerators, of course back then they had to store things like meat in specific cold rooms, which had to be a reasonable distance from the kitchen itself, because the kitchen was always very hot.

Dunster Water Mill.
It makes some slightly odd noises. My mum commented that it could almost be something out of The Clangers.
Early petrol powered sheep shearer. Not entirely sure how it works, and I would be rather worried about putting a sheep in there.
And at the start of our short walk:

Day 4 I don't have a video for. We took the steam train to Watchet
-and wandered around a little before coming back and just relaxing.
Statue of the Ancient Mariner.
Mosaic of Saint Decuman, who crossed the Bristol Channel on a raft, with his cow.
And that's basically all I had. I took a little bit of video in Blenheim Gardens (The camera ran out after about 40 seconds) with the intention of adding a voice over a la John Green, in which I'd try to sound all deep and stuff. Talking about how I was reminded of the importance of family, how they matter to me and I to them even if we haven't seen each other for years, the importance of just enjoying oneself and not losing touch with one's childhood. That sort of thing. Anyway, it turns out I'm not entirely sure how to get a voice-over onto an existing video (I'm going to need better video-editing software if I want to do this more often), and I've put this off too much already, so you'll have to manage without that last video.

Onto the next blog post!