Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Sifting through the past

Well, that's a delightfully pretentious way to say 'tidying', now isn't it?

Lately, I've been going through a load of my stuff, trying to tidy things up, sort them out, etc. Partly because I thought depending on circumstances I might be having a visitor and didn't want to confront them with the kind of disarray my stuff is usually in (But as things turned out, we didn't come to my house, so it was fine!) But partly also because it is kind of a good idea. It's another one of these things where your behaviour is influenced by the trappings you surround yourself in. If you're trying to be organised, it helps if you're in organised surroundings because it puts you in the right mindset.

So, an interesting thing I observed was my rather odd approach to tidying. Well, actually I don't know for sure that it's unusual, but it seems so. What I do is not to immediately reduce the amount of mess, at least not much - rather I take the mess, and pack it into a rather small area.
To be precise, I say "These things should be here, these things should be here, and these things should be here." Then I put the things in the relevant places, but still in a mess, just a mess strictly confined to certain areas. Then I start sorting things out. Possibly. I may not get that far.
The thing is, I think to start with I'm not really reducing mess. In fact, given my haphazard manner of grabbing things and throwing them into their designated area, I may be increasing it. Only the increased mess is all placed out of people's way so they don't notice.

So, as I say, this may not be as unusual as I think it is, so I have to ask, how do other people go about tidying?

The other interesting thing about tidying is of course coming across things you haven't seen for a while. I found my missing cufflink! (They're not very good cufflinks, I got them out of a Christmas cracker, and then repeatedly lost one, then the other, so I could only ever find one) Also programmes and flyers for shows from a few years back.
And of course there were things which hadn't been there that long, but I'd forgotten they were there, like a book I was given by a friend who doesn't really read, and I haven't read it yet either.

On a sort of related note though not exactly but enough that I can stick it in this blog post rather than making a separate one, I also looked through some of my youtube stuff. Added things to my favourites so I can find them easily. And it strikes me that I am gradually getting more and more into youtube stuff. As of right now, I don't see myself becoming a proper vlogger; but it seems much more like a possibility now than it would have, say, a year ago. In that time I've made a few videos which are basically vlogs - me talking to the camera, also those very basically cut together Minehead videos (Even if hardly anyone actually watched them). So... I guess I'm already a vlogger, just a somewhat sporadic one, and all my videos are unlisted so they can only be viewed by people who frequent my blog or GitP. But at the start of this year I had no videos on my youtube, now, unlisted or not, I have 22, with views ranging from 2 or 3 to about 44. So, things change. I'm just not entirely sure how or how much they're going to change.

Hm. Didn't have as much to say about either of those as I thought. Meh. Big post coming up, once I record video clips for it.

Monday, 27 June 2011

First Complete Set

Hazyshade insistently told me I had to make a blog post about this, so here you go.

Thanks to three of my friends, my parents, and myself, I now have a complete set of G&S vocal scores! Last two were Trial By Jury and The Sorcerer, belated birthday presents, the latter of which I just got tonight.
Next goal is to see or perform in all the shows.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Dice and Dementia

Well, tabletop RPGs aren't generally linked with insanity and the like, but... sometimes you could be forgiven for thinking so.

Last Saturday was the day of my belated birthday party.

No... wait. That's not what this blog post is about.
Let's try again.

Last Saturday was Free RPG Day.
There we go. OK, now onto the excessive nerdery. I imagine soem of my followers may drop out before the end of this post. I mention this only by way of contrast with two of them who have recently espoused a belief on their own blogs that I only read their G&S-related posts, which is not true.

I said to the guy in Forbidden Planet that I hadn't played for ages and was interested in anything. Which is true, but it would have been more accurate to also say that I had only ever played D&D (Mostly 3.5, plus a little 4E) before and would be interested in something different, because I like to dabble. I wonder, if I'd said that, if he would've given me different things. If nothing else, he probably wouldn't have then given me the 4E thing, but it's free stuff, so I'm not really complaining.
Anyway, I thought this would be an auspicious moment to talk a little about that most nerdy of hobbies. Does this still count as a date-appropriate post, given it's almost a week late? Maybe. Whatever, post content stuff now.

While RPGs are a rather niche interest, there's no reason why they necessarily should be. They appeal for the same reason we like reading fiction, or acting - escapism. You get to imagine a different and interesting world, tell a story in collaboration with your fellow players and GM, exercise your imagination and creativity. Just find a group, learn the rules and go!
OK, not quite that simple. You also need someone to run the game. But it shouldn't be that hard to find someone willing to be in control of the universe.

First, a fairly standard point about tabletop RPGs nowadays is that they all (As far as I'm aware) have a single consistent resolution mechanic. This is a good thing, because things can get confusing otherwise. In first edition D&D, for example: "Roll [this]" "OK, I get-" "No, that was the wrong dice." "Oh, sorry, I get a 20! Great!" "No, in this instance you wanted to get a low number." You get used to the quirks of the rules, but it's much simpler to have something consistent. So I'm going to talk briefly about those first.

d20: d20 is, to my knowledge, the most common. Roll a d20, add some numbers. Everything you're trying to do has a certain difficulty associated with it, represented by a number you have to equal or exceed. Used by D&D, d20 Modern, and various others.
GURPS: This system may be used elsewhere, but I only know of it from GURPS (General Universal Role-Playing System). Roll 3d6, try to get less than or equal to a certain number. Rather than having bonuses, as you improve, the number you're aiming for less than gets higher. Obviously there's still a lot of scope in there, but the numbers are inevitably capped at a certain point, which feels restrictive.
Burning Wheel: Again, may be used elsewhere, but this is how I know it. Well, to be precise I know it from the Mouse Guard RPG, which uses the Burning Wheel system. Roll Xd6, count how many dice come up 4-6, those are your successes. You need a certain number of successes to do anything. The more skilled you are, the more dice you get to roll, and you may have means by which you can get re-rolls etc.
d6: I believe there exist d6 systems, which are similar to d20 systems in that you're aiming to exceed a certain number, but rather than d20 + bonuses you have Xd6 + bonuses, increasing with skill. I don't have any rulebooks or anything for such systems though.

So, obviously there's some variation in there. In principal I think any resolution mechanic can work well enough, so long as it's fair and consistent. Of course it may work better for some things than others, but in general anything can work. When trying to find out a little more about d6 systems, I saw some people on some website saying how d6 systems were so much better than d20 systems and they hoped people would realise this sooner or later. I disagree. Now the systems they espouse might well work better in various ways than the more commonly used systems, but that would be down to the details of the rules of the system rather than the resolution mechanic.

So, onto the systems themselves. Starting with the big famous one, Dungeons & Dragons.
I'm omitting my brief experiences with first edition, amusing though they were ("Is this poisoned?" "Only one way to find out!" ... "Jay's paralysed, should we-" "NO TIME! RUN! ... WAIT! GET THAT TREASURE CHEST!")
So, 3.5 edition. It is known across the internet, or at least that part of it interested in tabletop RPGs, for having serious balance issues. For the uninitiated, I will summarise the basis of the problems:

Martial classes like Fighters and so on can be strong and tough and kill enemies in a fight.
Skilful classes like Rogues can pick locks, sneak around to strike from the shadows, etc.
Spellcasters, once they reach a certain level of power, can rewrite reality so they don't have to deal with any of these problems.

I'm simplifying, of course. But the thing is, a lot of D&D 3.5 represents how heroic fantasy is often imagined. There's a limit to how much variation you can really imagine into someone killing things with a big sword, but magic can do anything. So there's a bit of an imbalance there. There are other things, like poorly thought out feats, prestige classes, etc, or things which independently are fine, btu when used in combination break the game, allowing optimisers to make things like infinite damage loops (You take infinite damage every round) and become all-powerful deities at level 1; but you get the idea.
All this aside, it's still a very good, very fun system. for one thing, a lot of the seriously game-breaking things you're unlikely to come up with unless you think too hard about it. Also, as far as the incredible power of magic goes, part of the problem is that while the two start out roughly equal, magic scales up in power far more quickly than regular fighting does, so you can just stick to relatively low levels. It's certainly possible to enjoy the escapism of running around a heroic fantasy world in D&D like this.
Also, Pathfinder. Pathfinder is remarkably similar to D&D 3.5, but with assorted adjustments, at least partly made to try and balance things out a bit more. It hasn't necessarily worked, and there are some things in Pathfinder that I prefer the 3.5 way, but it still gives some interesting alternative ideas.
It's/they're fairly combat-focused. Some skills are relevant to the role-playing side of things, but there are some issues with some of those rules, and they're somewhat simpler in any case. In some ways, I quite like this - it can be good to do the role-playing parts of an RPG simply by playing it out, rather than by rolling a load of dice - but this means really the game does work somewhat better for the combat aspects. It's fine if you want to kick in doors, fight monsters, and grab treasure, but not quite so good for, say, complicated political intrigue.

Overall, I like 3.5/Pathfinder. Were I to run anything in it (Which I do have some ideas for), there are some things I'd definitely want to tweak, and I might develop a propensity for inventing circumstance modifiers to allow characters to do things they shouldn't technically be able to, but I would like them to. But in general, I like the feel of it. It really gets that feeling of heroic fantasy for me. Shining knights and so on.

And onto 4th Edition D&D. 4th edition was rather controversial when it was being developed. Or at least so it seemed on the Playground. I personally feel it's too simplified. That said, the Aspect system (For which I got a free thing, you can see it in the photo above) uses some of the same mechanics and I don't have the same problem with that. So it's possible my opinion of 4E is coloured by the fact that I'm comparing it to 3.5, and there are massive differences. On the other hand, Aspect is a separate system, which happens to use some of the same mechanics, whereas 4E, while it's been altered greatly, still has a lot of baggage held over from past editions of D&D. So maybe that also plays a part. Also, of course, for Aspect I only have that little quickstart adventure, which makes it harder to judge.
4E did a lot towards trying to balance things, but the way they did that was by making everything work the same way. That's one of the biggest issues I have with it. I miss the variety. I think 4E combat mechanics are good for martial classes and so on, but imbalances aside, I like 3.5 magic.
Overall, I don't know exactly what it is that I don't like so much about 4E. There are lots of little things, but there are also good things about it. It's basically just the feel. 3.5, as I said, gives me the feeling of epic heroic fantasy. 4E feels much more bland for some reason. Just my personal taste, for which there is no accounting.

GURPS. GURPS seems to me to be decent for trying to be realistic - your hit points never increase that much, so getting shot (for example) will always be pretty lethal. The combat system seems like it would get boring really fast though. It's balanced - it has to be, because everything's done by point-buy, so anything is balanced if you assign the right points-value to it.
That's rather neat about it - that everything is point-buy. You can pick and choose exactly what you want. But on the other hand, I personally quite like having character classes. Or at least, I like having particular sets of class features. I suppose you could put those kinds of particular sets of class features into GURPS by giving them points values, and make some things prerequisites for others to limit how much you can mix and match them willy-nilly. But as I said, I feel the particular resolution mechanic is potentially restrictive. It could work, if you want to stick to relative realism - the reason there's a limit to how good you can get is just the limit of human ability - but GURPS, as the name suggests, is supposed to be universal. It's supposed to work for things where you can be superhuman.
Also, it's inconsistent in ways I dislike - you can get more points by giving your character flaws. Say you decide your character is missing a limb. Then you get more points which can be used for other things. But if you find some advanced technology or magic which allows you to regain that limb, you have to pay of the point cost or take another flaw of equal value. Fair enough I guess. But, if you lose a limb in the course of the game, you don't get points for it. Personally, I feel it should work one way or other, but not both. Either you can overcome your flaws and thus end up with a higher-value character (But you gain no compensation for flaws inflicted after character creation), or any flaws you inadvertently acquire in the course of play should come with points attached (But any flaws overcome must be bought off). Personally I'd go with the first option.
So, it's neat for the fact it can be universal, just plug in some additional rules and go, but in general I'd only use it for a couple of things:
1) Possibly a modified version for trying to make a tabletop version of the video game Might & Magic VII (I may blog about that at some point - basically I think much of it would work better as tabletop than it does as a video game).
2) There are GURPS rules for Discworld.

And, Mouse Guard/Burning Wheel. Everything I say, incidentally, is from the Mouse Guard rulebook. I'm just assuming that Burning Wheel has all the same stuff. My basic impression of this is that it seems very good for the role-play side of things, but the system doesn't strike me as great for combat. Which is fine, it's just a case of different priorities in the game design. Combat in this system, it seems to me, is less about beating the enemy through tactics and so on, and more about making it a cool imaginary action sequence.
Balance really isn't something that could come up with this, because it's so much on the roleplay.
It's interesting in that it there's actually a mechanic for giving some control to the players. You have a separate GM's (Game Master's) turn where the GM gives the PCs obstacles to overcome, etc, and a Player's turn where each player has an opportunity to say what their character specifically wants to do (This is in the downtime from the main adventures the GM pits you against).
Main reason I got the Mouse Guard rulebook,being honest, is that when I was younger (And still now, somewhat) I rather liked the Deptford Mice books  by Robin Jarvis, and I wondered if Mouse Guard would work for modelling something in that world (I think it would). Though also because I overheard some of a Mouse Guard session being run at my first UKitP meetup.

At the upcoming meetup, I'm playing in a Star Wars session being run by Lensman (Not Star Wars d20, another system, a d6 system, not so widely propagated). I'll probably talk about that in a blog post after the meetup but obviously I can't really comment on it now.

There are other systems I'm interested in, but I don't actually know anything much about them as yet.

In general, I think my hypothetical 'ideal' game system would be a hybrid. Bits of 3.5/Pathfinder, bits of 4E, bits of Mouse Guard. Possibly some GURPS, though I'm not sure. I'd probably get a better sense for what I'd want to port in from different systems if I actually played/ran some of them. Of course, even then, it'd be quite a bit of work, so I'm unlikely to do it. More likely just to use the existing systems, flawed as some of them are in my view, for different things, each picked to (hopefully) suit the system. Possible RPG campaigns, that's probably going to be another blog post at some point...

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

"It's a very groovy mutation."

Another film post. Quite recently I went to see X-Men: First Class.
Now since, I've seen people were apparently confused beforehand about whether it was supposed to be just a prequel or a reboot of the franchise. And afterwards... well it's still not entirely clear. Certainly it contradicted some things from the other films, but for the most part, none of them were of much significance, certainly those from the first two films. Inconsistencies minor enough that they could possibly get away with them if they want to make it all be in the same continuity. Certainly if they want the first two and this to be in the same continuity. Inconsistencies, sure, but retcons are not completely forbidden. They can work. Especially if they're only minor details.

I'll just mention at this point that I do not know the X-Men comics at all. Well, I've read some stuff on wikipedia, but that's it. Never read any of the actual comics, so I don't know how much of what they included in the film is consistent with comics lore, and frankly I don't think I'd care even if I had read them. It's a different medium, things get changed. It's not like they're trying to reproduce onscreen events which happened in the comics, it's a whole new story which just happens to have a selection of the same characters.

Now it's really interesting to see Professor X/Charles Xavier and Magneto/Erik Lehnsherr in their younger days. You can see in them the seeds of what will become the characters we know and love, but they're not there yet. We see Erik as a child (Reproducing and then following on from the scene they already had where child Magneto bends a fence to try and get back to his mother) and then as a young man looking for revenge. And we see Charles Xavier in university. It's amusing seeing him like that, because you can see he's a smart guy, and he already has that serious side to him, but he's also a university student. He likes getting drunk and flirts with women (Albeit through the medium of identifying their genetic mutations, and saying "It's a very groovy mutation.")
It takes a little adjustment at least once. There was a moment when I thought "Wait, but that's made of metal, so Erik can just- oh, there we go, but he's not powerful enough? Oh, right, 'cause this is like 40 years before the first film."

So that was interesting.

One thing this film did very well was including a few little details early on which later come back with more significance and it's a great payoff. Also of course there are a few tongue-in-cheek references to future events which of course we know about due to having seen the other films (Like joking about how Charles is going to go bald). Also there's a rather amusing cameo at one point. Pointless other than for a quick laugh, but it should provide that laugh (At least, so long as you've seen at least one other X-Men film).

Another good point about this film - good and interesting superpowers. Including some interesting uses of superpowers. For example, of course we know that Magneto's superpower is not actually controlling magnetic fields, it's controlling metal. All metal, whether it's magnetic or not. But, in this film we see that it still behaves as if it were using magnetic fields - if he tries to draw something towards him, it's a two-way force and he is also drawn towards it. That sort of thing.

OK, and onto issues with the film. Minor issues - Michael Fassbender is fine early on when he's speaking first German and then French, but once he switches to English, his accent starts to sometimes slip back into his native Irish. Not his fault of course, but it's a minor issue. Child Erik's acting was also not entirely convincing.
Also, well I haven't mentioned yet - Beast/Hank McCoy is in this film. He isn't blue and furry to start off with, and when he becomes so (Mentioning that's not really a spoiler - you can see it coming a mile off), something about it seemed kind of off in my opinion.
Also also, I'm not so keen on the fact that by this, apparently the government knew about mutants in the 60s. In which case why was it only just becoming a big issue at the start of the 21st century? OK, so maybe it's not the same continuity, but it still feels like it is. Also also also, there may be some plot holes lying around (Can a hole lie around? Around, anyway)

But the big issue with the film for me is that I think it tried to do too much. From the trailers, I assumed it was going to be pretty much all about Xavier and Erik, their friendship, founding Xavier's school, that sort of thing. And that would have been enough. Instead they also included a big world-threatening villain situation, detracting a little bit from the important stuff. While the superpower fights are cool, really this film should've been just about those two men. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender absolutely could have pulled it off as well, they were brilliant in their respective roles. I'm not saying there couldn't have been any sort of external conflict. Just it didn't have to be something so huge.
Alternatively, if they had to have that big world-threatening plotline, then some of the character relationships stuff should have been extended. They could have stretched it to two prequel films instead of one, to give those relationships the time they deserved to be properly played out, rather than feeling they had to resolve every little detail by the end of the film (This also could have avoided some of the inconsistencies with the existing continuity, if they wanted to pay attention to that, but the character  stuff is the more important stuff).

All the same, that aside, the film is still very good. The character arcs are still interesting despite their brevity, and on the whole the story is very well constructed. I would definitely recommend this film to people.

Friday, 17 June 2011

"You seem somewhat familiar, have I quoted you before?"

Title's not great. But I refuse to do something as simple as naming a blog post after what I'm writing it about!
In any case, I think the people responsible for On Stranger Tides had a similar problem. I mean, compare with the other three Pirates of the Caribbean films:
Curse of the Black Pearl - film is about the  crew of the Black Pearl, who are cursed.
Dead Man's Chest - OK, the chest belongs to Davy Jones, who isn't technically dead, but it's a pirate cliche. Close enough.
At World's End - Well, they're sailing off the edges of conventional maps to get Jack back. And Beckett could be said to be trying to bring about an end of the world the pirates know. Qualifies well enough.

On Stranger Tides - The fountain of youth has what exactly to do with tides, strange or otherwise?
Though, wikipedia has just reminded me it was named after a book from which it was adapted. So maybe there was more relevance in the book?

Anyway, titles aside, onto talking about the film. I went to see this film about two and a half weeks ago, on my birthday. I should really get into the habit of blogging about things sooner, lest I forget important details. Though on the other hand, those details which I remember for a couple of weeks afterwards are likely to be the more important ones.

OK, firstly, things which slightly coloured my impression of the film going in:

Review by Jeremy Jahns.
Blogpost about Captain Jack Sparrow by Jeremy Jahns.

Now, I don't agree with everything he says, and in fact that's how I'm going to approach this post, by saying where I disagree with him. I feel he's too harsh on the second and third films, which while not so well constructed as the first, were still perfectly enjoyable. Especially the third. On his points about Jack in the blogpost, I definitely take his point about how he became something of a caricature of himself in the second film, I think less so in the third, though there were still some moments.

That's the first point I'm going to talk about with regard to the new one - I feel they really regained that original appearance of confidence and being in control that he had in the original. There are still moments of apparent stupidity, but it should be noted that he was not entirely without those in CotBP either. ("Parsnip, parsley, parley!" anyone?) The distinction to me is that I think in the first and fourth films these come across more as Obfuscating Stupidity (No TVTropes link, but you can go find it if you want), whereas in the intervening two he appears at times to be actually stupid, or in the third film, insane (Yes I know he was stuck in Davy Jones Locker and went a bit mad, but it didn't entirely work for me). As he should be, people may assume him to be an idiot, attributing his attitude to arrogance and his successes to simple luck - but in fact he's a very canny character, who, while boastful, is nonetheless perfectly willing to take advantage of people who underestimate him.
I should note also that some of his success is due to luck. But not that much of it. The point is, he's astoundingly good at improvising, and just takes everything as it comes - it doesn't always go his way, but when it does, he always takes the opportunities. You can say "Oh, that only worked because he was lucky enough that such-and-such happened," but if such-and-such hadn't happened, he would've had a change of fortune somewhere furtehr along the line.
I had most of these thoughts during the big chase scene early on in the film. Which is magnificently Jack Sparrow.

Another point Jeremy Jahns commented on was reusing things - now, I don't recall noticing any other than the one he mentions: "Have I threatened you before?" They didn't transfer it over directly, it was adjusted to fit a different context, but it still doesn't really work for me, it only works because people will recognise the line from the first film. But personally, that disappointment was easily compensated for by his following claim to still  not know who he was talking to even after the man was identified (Minor spoiler, not really significant - it was the King of England). Now that to me exemplifies the supreme confidence of Captain Jack Sparrow.
As a sidenote - though it was only a bit part, Richard Griffiths gave a brilliant performance as King George. Same goes somewhat for the other bit part - Captain Teague, Keith Richards.

Other characters - Gibbs is good as usual. Barbossa is brilliant - they gave him more of a character arc than in the previous films, rather than just being there to antagonise Jack. On which note, we also got to see more of the friendship and rivalry between those two, and the comparison between them - in a straight contest, Jack is likely to come out on top due to his superior improvising skills, but Barbossa is quite possibly the most treacherous pirate in the series.
New characters - now Jeremy complained about there being too many factions going after the fountain, but I disagree. You have Jack, Blackbeard, the British under Barbossa and the Spanish. You could perhaps lose the Spanish, but I didn't really mind them, because they're not so much characters as they are a plot device. They serve their purpose and don't detract from the important characters.
Actual new characters - There's a missionary on Blackbeard's ship. If anyone is the replacement Will Turner, it's this guy. Morally upstanding among a crew of self-interested brigands. But he works well enough, and again doesn't detract from the other characters (Not saying there would be anything wrong with that character having more to do, but clearly the writers wanted the film to be about Jack, Barbossa, Angelica and Blackbeard - the missionary is a side-plot). There's a mermaid, whose purpose is mostly to be attractive and naked. There's also something where aither she's different to the other mermaids or she simply responds differently to the missionary than to everyone else, but it's not really explained.
On which note, the mermaids. A friend of mine described them as "vampire mermaids who are apparently also Spiderman." I don't really see the vampire element, but they do have some unexplained ability to grab people with something remarkably similar to Spiderman's web-shooting ability. No idea how that works, as I said, it's not explained, and sort of comes out of nowhere. That said, the initial portrayal of them is very good.

Finally, I get to the really interesting new characters. Angelica, for me, works better as a lady pirate than Elizabeth Swann did. A hot-headed Spanish woman is perhaps a bit of a cliche, but it is so for a reason, and her interactions with Jack really allowed both of them to shine (They have history. He met her in a nunnery, having mistaken it for a brothel).
And Blackbeard. Given his apparent reputation, one has to wonder why he was never mentioned in the third film - but on the other hand, he doesn't seem like much of a team player, even by pirate standards, so he'd probably have nothing to do with the Brethren Court, and maybe he was just too scary even for Davy Jones to attack. Given the portrayal here, I could believe it.
Now he is potentially relevant to an interesting point regarding villains in general. Because people will criticise villains for being too one-dimensional, for just being evil for the sake of it or because it's fun, rather than having a more complicated motivation. And yet, one of the best moments in the film is when the missionary is coming up with some explanation for why Blackbeard is the way he is, and he says "It's a lot simpler than that. I'm just a bad man." (Note: this may not read as such a great line, but when Ian McShane says it, you better believe it's amazing)
And of course in contrast, people can get rather tired of almost every villain having some sympathetic backstory, and it has been observed that one must be cautious about exploring your villains' backstories too much because you risk 'devillainifying' them (Yes, that's a word). So, really, it seems to me that the issue is not so much the villain's motivation or lack thereof, but rather how well they're written in general. It's not what is done, but how it's done, that really makes it good.
Anyway, Blackbeard is a truly wonderful villain.

And without giving any significant spoilers, we are decently set up for them to make more films, with a few really interesting elements they can do something with. I believe there are plans for 5th and 6th films for the series, and I'm looking forward to them. Impressive, given that when I originally heard about this film, I was skeptical, thinking it was just a money-grabbing idea, that I'd probably be amused by Captain Jack Sparrow but otherwise expecting to be fairly disappointed. On the contrary, it's revitalised my interest in the franchise. If they can keep going like this, I'll  be very pleased.
I think that's about all I can say without talking about details of the plot, and I prefer to avoid giving people spoilers. Go see the film if you haven't already!

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Social anxieties

OK, this isn't what I was planning for my next post, but I saw this video by meekakitty on youtube, and it kind of resonated with me because I have the same issues.
Watch the video. Yes, I'm about to summarise the pertinent points before talking about them myself, that doesn't mean you shouldn't watch the original video. Anyway, it's amusing.

So, the point is, rather specific social anxieties - specifically, as mentioned in the video, phone calls and chance encounters (Not to be confused with random encounters, which are a D&D thing and usually much simpler). Like meekakitty, I sometimes have problems with both those things.

One of the significant reasons for this, I think, is lack of context. Both cases are things which happen in real time, so you're taking your interlocutor away from whatever they were doing beforehand, and you don't know what that was. Was it something important that they really need to get back to? Or were they just procrastinating, nothing significant and they'll be happy to chat for a while? You don't know! So you don't know on what sort of footing the conversation should be. It's confusing.
A slightly relevant, though somewhat insane, quote to this may be found in an episode of Coupling. (Wikipedia link for those unfamiliar with the show)
Jeff (An endless source of strangeness and insanity) comes out with words to the effect of this (I can't remember it word for word):
"I hate phoning. You never know what's going on at the other end. It's like, all of a sudden, you're in the middle of someone's house. There could be anything out there. There could be old people naked."
"...You wouldn't be able to see them."
"Yeah, but they could be out there! Rustling."

And while I don't generally imagine that there will be naked old people in the vicinity of people I'm phoning, the fact remains that you don't know what you may be interrupting. And I don't like feeling like I'm intruding, so it becomes potentially awkward. This is why internet communication is generally fine, particularly internet forums - it's not in real time. You say something, and other people can respond in their own time.
That said, there are sometimes things which work much better with real time conversation, so for those I just have to swallow my anxieties, screw my courage to the sticking place, and pick up the phone.

Of course, if someone phones me, that's a different matter. Because they're dictating the conversation so it'll obviously be suited to them, the relevant context is mine, and I know what I'm doing. So then I only have more usual social anxieties to worry about, and the fact I can't get anything from their body language which I can't see and I'll worry that I'll mishear something. So still some issues, but not so bad. Oh, unless if I've been phoned up by someone I don't actually know. Then it's still an issue, because there's a lack of context again. I don't know this person, I don't know how to respond to them.

Interesting. I've never really thought this through before, but it makes a lot of sense now I am. Not that this is likely to help me feel less nervous the next time I have to phone someone, but at least I know why it makes me nervous. I value that.
Oh, also if a phone call was pre-arranged I'm fairly OK with it.
And I'm OK with phoning my mum to ask for a lift home, because even though I might be interrupting something, I suppose there's an admittedly slightly selfish natural assumption that she will be available at my beck and call because she's my mother.

Now, onto chance encounters. You randomly bump into someone you know in the street. You feel somewhat obligated to say "Hi," and chat for a bit, but again there's a lack of context. How much time do they have to chat? Now sometimes one of you will be in a hurry and just go sort of "Hi, can't stop to chat, sorry, bye!" Or you might just wave at each other and keep walking and that'll be assumed. But once you've reached the point of stopping to stand there and chat, you're in unknown territory.
And there's another sort of lack of context here - in general, if you phone someone, you have some specific reason for doing so, something in particular to talk to them about. If you see someone at some pre-organised event, a rehearsal, a cinema trip, a party, there's some context for what you can talk to them about, determined by the nature of the event. And you know with a fair amount of confidence how much time they have for this chat so you know how much detail you can go into.
But a chance encounter? You don't have the prompting of an event having a specific purpose. You don't know if your interlocutor has to rush off momentarily or if they have time to hear a more detailed recital of your woes. So often you get something like this:
"So how are you?"
He probably has to be somewhere, don't want to keep him, so I'll keep it short. "Fine. You?"
Ditto. "Fine."
"So, uh... I guess I'll see you soon?"
"Yeah, see you."
Man, that was awkward.
Seriously, we get on fine normally, why was that so weird?

Also,  because of course it's an in-passing sort of thing, you may not feel at your most comfortable. At other events, you'd be able to find a seat, or something to lean against, or at least choose a specific place to stand, rather than just being paused somewhere between places. This can lead to feeling awkward even if the conversation goes fine - particularly if said conversation is longer than you anticipated.

So there you have it. A little insight into the mind of me, and probably numerous other awkward nerdy people.

Friday, 10 June 2011

"Alternately maddening and sublime"

Another quick video game post. Title is a quote from a review of this game, which I think describes it very well.

I bought Inside a Star-Filled Sky because it was cheap, recommended by people, and it looked like an interesting idea. The interesting idea being infinity. I'll refrain from going on a tangent about infinity, because that would probably take quite a while and have very little to do with the game.

In IAS-FS, you control a little spaceship-type thing. Appearances vary a bit, but in general they look somewhat like more detailed space invaders. You can see one in the picture up there. You move around using the WASD keys, and shoot by clicking the mouse in the direction you want to fire. I find this control system rather odd, and I can't say I'm really used to it yet, though I imagine if I keep playing the game I will become more so. You move around maps, shoot enemies, and pick up power-ups. And if you find a relevant little area, it will take you up to the next level (You start on level 0). Having moved up, you then gain the benefits of the power-ups you picked up in the previous level. And you just keep trying to move up.
Then, there is one more interesting mechanic: you can go into things. If you want different power-ups, you can go inside yourself to find some, then go back up to the level you were previously on. You also go inside yourself if you get killed - it knocks you inside yourself. If you want a better power-up than the one you've found, you can go inside the power-up and change what it is by what you get while inside it. And if a particular enemy is bothering you, you can go inside that enemy and hopefully make them less dangerous by what you get while inside. Of course, while inside any of those things, there are more of those things, which you can go inside. So you can keep going down levels if you want, just as you can keep going up. This is where the infinity comes in. I assume there is actually some limit, because apart from anything else, surely there must be a limit to how high the level number can go? But practically speaking, you can go on pretty much forever I think.

Now, of course, because the game is infinite, you can never complete it. You can only do some more. But, well, it's fun. I rather like it for this, because it's something I can just play a bit of, then stop, at any point. There are no specific points I might want to get to before stopping, I can do so anywhere, and play as much or as little as I want.
The graphics are simple and pixellated. As I said, it feels a bit like more detailed Space Invaders. And that's fine. They may be simple, but they're functional. They suit the nature of the game - for something like this, you don't want beautifully rendered 3D landscapes, because they're not the point of the game, and they'd limit the ability to have the game go on forever as it more or less does. Also, a point which I haven't mentioned is that the levels you move around are essentially the things you're inside. You go inside an enemy, it zooms in on that enemy and gives you a load of spaces inside it, which you  can move around. You go inside yourself, you are inside yourself, and I'm pretty sure the levels you're otherwise moving around are what you will then become when you move up a level.

So, to the most important point - the gameplay. As I said, I feel it's very well summed up by the quote I used for the title: "Alternately maddening and sublime." It's very fun, moving around the levels,  but it can be very frustrating when you suddenly run into 3 enemies and find you really don't have the right power-ups to easily dispatch them. Difficulty does increase as you move up, and also sometimes when you go inside things - power-ups, I think. They want to make it hard to improve your power-ups. Makes sense, but can be frustrating. Because, while the difficulty of the levels increases as you go up, you remain able to only hold onto 3 power-ups at a time. So you have to pick which ones you want, and sooner or later you'll find you really need different ones (Because, say, the enemies have longer range than you and you have no space to dodge), and go in search  of more useful ones for what you're now facing, have difficulty finding them, and end up struggling with some particular area, several levels down from what you're really wanting to be going for, and possibly having forgotten why you are several levels down.
In particular, extra hit points can only be gained through appropriate power-ups, which means one less slot for upgrading your weaponry. This is something I would definitely want to change. I feel that you should have one set of power-up slots for health and possibly shields and the like, and one set for your weaponry. It'd make things much easier, because you wouldn't have to worry about a useful weapon upgrade knocking out your extra HP or vice versa.

In general, though, it's very good. Fun, and easy to dip in and out of, as I said, rather than requiring an appreciable time commitment every time you open it up.

OK, next post will be about something other than video games, definitely. I had something in mind, but I've forgotten what. Shakespeare, possibly. Anyway, see you round. Now I'm going to try and go inside myself to look for a better 'job-finding' power-up. =P

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Zounds! I am undone!

OK, so for the past few weeks I've been playing a fair amount of video games. Steam keeps putting things on sale, so I bought a couple. Most notably, Worms Reloaded.
I think this is actually the first time I've owned a full version of one of the Worms games, and therefore been able to play it properly. I think we had a demo of the original Worms, and on occasion I played one of the subsequent ones (I think it was just Worms 2) because a friend had it. But that was it. They've refined the formula somewhat since then.

I assume most people are familiar with the basic premise of the Worms games, but just in case, I'll explain: The players control teams of worms. The worms have a variety of guns and other weapons, which they use to try and kill each other. Oh, also there are some things used to get around the landscape (Which can itself be destroyed, potentially dropping worms in the water, where they will drown).

So, firstly, in Reloaded you can customise your worms with different headgear and voices. Now one of the really notable things I remember about the original was the voices ("Oi! Nutter!") They were fairly iconic. But nonetheless, offering a variety is definitely a good idea. Particularly given multiplayer play is an inevitable element of the experience, something to help distinguish your worms from your opponent's is, well, helpful. Also it's amusing to put your worms in top hats, roman helmets, or whatever else takes your fancy from the options. Or to have them in an accent of your choice, or a particular themed voice, like Roman ("You are very dreary, much like the senate."), Cad ("Can't say I appreciate that, old chap."), or in my case, Thespian ("Zounds! I am undone!" "Gadzooks!" "Hell hath no fury like a well-timed grenade!")
There is a bit of a lack of variety in what they say. A few more phrases would be nice. But it's still pretty good.
Oh, you can also choose you tombstones. Mine are little Stonehenge things.

Good variety of weapons. Some of them are very situational, of course, but since the first game they've managed to adjust things such that by my reckoning, almost all the weapons are worth using under some circumstances. This was less the case in the original, when things like the uzi and the shotgun were just unambiguously worse than the bazooka (With which typically you have infinite shots). Well, unless you're close up and want to completely avoid the explosion damage. But it's highly unlikely you wouldn't be able to just move a bit further away.
Some interesting things included. Ferrets. Termites. Electromagnets. The concrete donkey and the buffalo of lies, which seem to be religious idols in the Worms universe. And then classic like the Super Sheep and the Holy Hand Grenade.

Interesting different game modes. There's a campaign, mostly consisting of standard deathmatches with varying numbers of worms with varying amounts of health on your and the somputer's sides. But there are also a few levels which are basically puzzles. They're not overly complicated puzzles, but they do neatly teach you to use some of the less intuitive things, like ninja ropes.
Then there's Body Count, wherein you have one worm, while the opposing team have four, who start with only 10 HP each, but respawn every time you kill them, and gradually start getting more starting HP. You try to kill as many as possible before they kill you.
There's a mode called Bazookas and Grenades, wherein you have infinite bazooka shots and grenades, and nothing else. It would be helpful if you also got some items to allow you to move around - jetpacks, blowtorches, etc. Otherwise there's a distinct possibility you will end up firing bazooka missiles from one end of the landscape to the other, which can get a bit tedious.
Then you also have Rope Racing. Ninja ropes have become popular enough to have a game mode devoted specifically to them. One worm each, infinite ninja ropes and nothing else, you race from a starting point to a destination. It's not possible to play this mode against the computer, presumably because it would always win.
And Fort. Two forts, one team in each. Gives a different feel to a match than the normal random distribution.

The only notable issue I have with Worms Reloaded is that it could do with having better artificial stupidity. Most notable with regard to grenades. Now naturally, the computer can perfectly calculate the effect of the wind and the way the grenade will bounce and how long it'll take to reach its intended destination. But when the computer-controlled worms do this, it feels somewhat unfair, as no human player could ever be that perfect. And this is in contrast to other things - the computer-controlled worms will make mistakes with other things, accidentally blow themselves up, or into the water, sometimes through the simplest of errors. It's just grenades where they seem to be perfect.
Oh, there was one other problem I had, but that wasn't down to the game, it was down to the cat from two houses down the street, who comes to visit. I quite like having him sit on my lap, but it becomes a problem when he tries to put his head on the keyboard. He caused me to fire a bazooka point blank into a wall.

So, yeah, overall I like the game. And it's handy if I'm feeling frustrated to be able to start it up and blow up cartoony worms with a variety of ridiculous weaponry, sound effects, and things like "Pow" and "Bang" flashing up on the screen as I do so. Definitely worth however much I paid for it.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

For he himself has said it

Alright, I've procrastinated on this long enough about this. HMS Pinafore!

My favourite of all the G&S shows, also one of the best known and most popular, and the only one so far which I have performed more than once. The fourth show Gilbert and Sullivan wrote together, and, I believe, the first to be a really massively big hit.
It's worth mentioning at this point that the two productions I was in (One last February, the other about two and a half weeks ago) were rather different - the first was fairly traditional, while the more recent was updated to the 1940s - the patriotic feeling working well for wartime - and otherwise messed about with. The latter I will refer to as the Dauntless production, as it was done by Dauntless Theatre (in collaboration with NUGSS).
OK, I realise most of my readers will already be entirely aware of that, having been involved in or seen one or both productions, and where they weren't involved will have heard things on facebook, but maybe some day I'll catch the interest of people who didn't know all this.

Dramatis personae:
Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, First Lord of the Admiralty - A genial buffoon promoted to a position for which he has no aptitude whatever. Believed to be at least partly based on the real First Lord of the Admiralty of the time, a Mr. W.H. Smith, who, like Sir Joseph, had never actually had anything to do with the navy prior to receiving the position.
Dauntless had him with the air of an overgrown public schoolboy - a comparison was made in the character notes to George from Blackadder, which just seemed perfect to me.
Captain Corcoran - The captain of the Pinafore is portrayed as a fairly reasonable and generous man, and a good officer - but he is rather set in his ways, and feels quite strongly about the hierarchy of social rank.
Ralph Rackstraw - (Reminder, Ralph is pronounced 'Rafe') The romantic lead. Fairly standard romantic tenor stuff, but to my mind the best romantic tenor part there is. My favourite role in all of G&S (I think I've mentioned that before).
Dauntless Ralph was a recovering alcoholic. I'll be honest, not a character interpretation about which I'm overly enthusiastic, though I can understand the rationale behind it and it makes a certain amount of sense. I just love traditional Ralph though.
Dick Deadeye - Antagonistic. All the other characters dislike him, abotu which he's resentful. At times it actually seems like anything he says, the other characters will automatically disagree with, even if it makes perfect sense. And sometimes he is the one saying the thing that would make sense in the real world, but it's rejected by the others because this is topsy-turvy G&S World.
Dauntless interpretation had him more creepy and unpalatable rather than angry, which I loved.
Boatswain - Voice of the chorus, basically. Gets the Englishman song. Generally just dependably there. Kind of a glorified chorus member to be honest.
Carpenter - A less glorified chorus member. Basically I think he exists because they needed someone to sing the bass part in the trio. In my first production he was specifically pitted against Deadeye, and nailed him into a box at one point.
Dauntless made him the Cook instead of the Carpenter and gave him one spoken line, but he's still not much of a character without the director specifically giving him something special to do.

Josephine - Captain Corcoran's daughter. Haughty and proud, but also in love with Ralph, despite his low rank. Agonises about this to a certain extent, but eventually goes with love.
Cousin Hebe - Sir Joseph's cousin, she adores him, while he is somewhere between oblivious to and irritated by her. But she keeps trying. Doesn't have much to do, especially spoken lines, though there is a certain amount of dialogue which was cut out of the original performances but which is sometimes reinstated. And rightly so, because it's hilarious.
Dauntless added a second cousin called Phoebe, giving us a comedic double act, which worked very well.
Little Buttercup - Her real name is Mrs. Cripps, but that doesn't actually come up anywhere in the show, it just confuses people when they see it in the vocal score. A poor bumboat woman, who comes onboard the Pinafore to sell her wares and just doesn't leave. In love with the captain, but he's not interested because he's too proud. Delivers the crucial plot twist at the end of the show.

Rapid plot summary:
Ralph and Josephine are in love, but not telling each other because of the difference in rank between them. Corcoran and Buttercup similarly. Corcoran wants Josephine to marry Sir Joseph, who arrives with the admiring crowd of sisters, cousins and aunts that attend him wherever he goes (In Dauntless we had two sisters, two cousins as already mentioned, and one aunt. Reduced company style of thing). He disrupts everything by forwarding his view that a British sailor is any man's equal - excepting his. This prompts Ralph to pluck up the courage to talk to Josephine. She rejects him, but then he tries to commit suicide, so she admits she loves him. They plan to sneak away and get married and everyone is happy! End of Act 1.
Corcoran is unhappy because Sir Joseph's unhappy and causing his crew to be unruly. Buttercup claims to be able to read destinies, and says a change is in store for him. Josephine wavers, Sir Joseph tries to convince her to marry him and accidentally convinces her to go off with Ralph. Deadeye reveals their plan to Corcoran, who turns up and tries to stop them, despite the fact that Ralph is an Englishman. However, he gets so annoyed as to lose control and use the unforgiveable swearword "damme". So Sir Joseph sends him to his cabin. He asks Ralph what happened, Ralph reveals that he and Josephine are in love, and Sir Joseph sends him to the dungeon. But then Buttercup reveals that Ralph and the Captain were swapped at birth, so Ralph is really the captain, and Corcoran is just a lowly Able Seaman. So Josephine is now too lowly for Sir Joseph, and Ralph can marry her; Corcoran and Buttercup are of equal rank and can marry each other; and Sir Joseph marries Cousin Hebe because, well, there's no-one else left.

The first Pinafore I was in was, as I said, done in traditional style, so there's not that much I can say about it. The Dauntless production, however, was (and is, since we're taking it to the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival in Buxton come August) a very impressive case of managing to give the show a different feel without actually changing that much. Just the way things were performed, of course the addition of Phoebe to make the cousins a double act, and a few minor line changes. It was also a fairly immersive experience (Presumably it'll be less so in Buxton, though. Pity) with the hall decorated with union flags and posters and so on, air-raid sirens, the small orchestra being the ship's band, and the floor and the aisle being used by the performers at times. While it's certainly not all things I would want to do with a production of Pinafore (Though some of it is, and should I ever be directing a production of Pinafore it is highly likely I will steal some of those ideas), it was very good and well-thought out directing.
(I feel like I'm milking this praise a bit too much. Is it too much?)

Now, while all G&S shows have a significant element of romance, HMS Pinafore is the one where it really grabs me. Partly, I suppose, because it's basically the whole show. I mean, there are obvious themes of social rank and so on, but the alternative title is The Lass Who Loved a Sailor, and that's the show. The romance actually grabs me more than the comedy, at least in traditional versions. The Dauntless version was different. Much more comedic.
And while, yes, considering it realistically, Ralph saying he'll commit suicide if Josephine doesn't give him hope could be considered emotional blackmail, and he can't really know Josephine that well so it's really more on the level of lust than love. But, here's the thing. G&S doesn't happen in the real world. In G&S World, love at first sight can definitely exist, virtue is always triumphant, and so on. Well, that's kind of true for a lot of fiction, potentially any work of fiction, but G&S in particular very much follows that mould.

Back to my point, Pinafore is the romance for me, certainly out of G&S. It's unrealistic, and ridiculous, but it's also incredibly sweet if done right and I love it to bits.

Edit: Ahah! All of HMS Pinafore: The War Years is now up on youtube and in a playlist. Go watch it!
You can see me, playing the Boatswain, easily recognisable by dint of being the only cast member with facial hair.

I might edit this again with links to my first Pinafore, in which I played Ralph, if I can be bothered.