Scott Pilgrim is coming to Netflix as an animated series, written and run by the creator, produced by Edgar Wright, and starring the voices of almost everyone from the original movie. This is the good news I needed on an otherwise sour Thursday afternoon.
I spent the first two days of this week working from home, but had to come in to the office Wednesday to film participants at a seminar. Washington is strangely quiet due to the snow, but life moves on. Meanwhile, Finn has been off all week because Baltimore County couldn’t be bothered to plow the sidewalks in front of her school.
Our first week of teaching at UMBC got cancelled as well; the move-in/first day stuff got plowed under and pushed back everything. I don’t know if they’re going to extend the semester another week to make up for time lost, but we’re ready to roll when the doors open back up. I’ve got 13 students in total, two of whom I had last semester. This class is going to be heavy in Illustrator and information design, which is an exciting new avenue to explore.
After the game on Sunday, I found myself in front of the TV when the new X-Files came on, reconfiguring my syllabus for the third time. Much like the old X-Files, the new version is a retread of the same dumb plot point bullshit I remember:
“It’s a conspiracy”
Weird shit depicted in lousy CGI
“This conspiracy goes deeper than we thought”
All evidence gets blown up by guys in black suits
Fuck the X-files.
We are the parents of a teenager, which means she would rather sit and watch incomprehensible YouTube compilations of TikTok videos instead of enjoying mass-market media with us. It’s not for lack of trying; there have been multiple series we thought she’d enjoy that she’s waved off in favor of screamy narrated speedruns of games she’s never played. So it was a surprise when we sat down as a family for the first time in forever to watch a TV series together: Willow, the follow-up series to the 1988 movie. The first couple of episodes were challenging to get through from a narrative perspective; the writers set up almost all of the main characters as assholes, treating each other poorly and generally being unlikeable. It wasn’t until the fourth episode or so where the character arcs all thunked into place and people began redeeming themselves. The rest of the series is solid: the production values are to-notch, the acting is great (in spite of the writing) and the action is generally OK. We’re looking forward to finishing this series out.
The second series Jen and I have been watching is Andor, which has been absolutely stellar from the opening scenes. It’s sad to say, but watching a Star Wars series written for adults is refreshing; having recently rewatched The Force Awakens for the first time in several years I was struck by the amount of fan service and yuks there were in lieu of real stakes. Andor’s main story is that of a lovable rogue for the first three episodes, pivoting to a study of bureaucratic fascism and a heist story for the next set. Personally, the Empire is scarier to me when it’s depicted as a faceless omniscient DMV with tall ceilings than it is as a bunch of Stormtroopers lined up waiting to get shot at. We’re only four episodes in but we’re riveted and can’t wait to see what happens next.
LEGO is selling a modern-day version of the Galaxy Explorer, possibly the best original LEGO Space kit they made. This one:
The OG space minifigs were red and white for the first iteration of the Space kits; when LEGO realized they had a hit on their hands they changed them to blue, which is what most people recognize. PUMP THIS DIRECTLY INTO MY VEINS.
I’ve gotten to the point where I’m getting tired of my latest video game. I’ve been playing The Division 2 for several years now, and I’ve replayed parts of it enough that I’m bored with the challenge. So now I have to find another game, something I find very difficult, because I don’t fit the mold of the average player. Most games are set up for online multiplayer and structured so that you can’t go very far without buying extra shit in-game. I like solo games with a good story that I can do on my own; I don’t want to deal with a league or a clan or scheduling gameplay—the majority of my life is ruled by a calendar and I spend enough time on virtual calls; I don’t need to be in another one during my time off, especially not with a bunch of trash-talking fifteen year olds. And fuck any game that demands I buy better gear to advance; I have enough trouble convincing Finn that she shouldn’t spend $10 on an iridescent dragon skin for her Roblox character.
So the hunt is on. I’ve bought a couple of video games that looked good and got great reviews. They start out, like most video games do, in some kind of tutorial. Sometimes these are set up as virtual shooting ranges, and other times, with more clever games, they get you into the action up front but carefully introduce you to harder and harder things so that you can gradually build up your skills. I’ve had several games do very well at slowly ramping the difficulty up so that I wasn’t aware the game had started; the original Halo did this, and Fallout 4 did this very well. Which was important: Halo starts out as one game and somewhere in the middle goes to WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING but by then you’ve developed enough skill through gameplay to pivot to that new tempo. As a result, I played these games a lot. Hours and hours of them. Other games will start out with a tutorial and get you into some gameplay and there’s a gentle ramp-up and then suddenly WHAM they throw five mini-bosses at you with nuclear weapons, but you’re still a fluffy bunny hopping through the meadow and BOOM you’re dead.
I’m not saying I want all games to coddle me like a newborn faun; I just want them to slowly introduce me to their concepts of gameplay instead of throwing three new types of enemies at me while simultaneously sending wave after wave of grunts behind them. Game AI is a tricky thing to code, and everybody does it differently. Some games are built so that the bad guys will run around and try to flank you; The Division does this very well, and it took me a while to develop strategies for this. (I’m terrible at PVP combat, which is basically running around as fast as you can shooting at whoever is in front of you; I have terrible virtual situational awareness in these situations, and so I usually just die.) When games let me figure it out gradually, I enjoy them a lot more.
Other games will do the surprise gotcha thing where you walk through an empty corridor or alley that has no doors or means of entrance, get to the end where there’s a locked door, and suddenly thirty bad guys have beamed in behind you to smoke you while you’re trapped. When you’re used to this bullshit gameplay you can anticipate it, but the first thirty times or so it’s annoying.
Most games these days have introduced huge complicated tiering systems for customizing weapons and gear. Some people get off on spending more time tweaking their machine gun or sword than they do shooting or slicing; hooray for them. I prefer to get in to the game, shoot the crap out of something, and bounce. But to advance in the game you have to dive into these systems or you wind up as the guy with a pocket knife going up against a roomful of Navy SEALS, which ends predictably. One thing I’ve found about all of these systems is that even when the good games teach you how to shoot and play the game, they do nothing to teach you how to use these customization systems. And most of them are more complicated than nuclear physics. Typically you can break down stuff you have to make other stuff better, but they don’t tell you the rules; thus you go and disassemble something really good only to find you did it wrong and now you can’t use any of it. The choice then is to wade through hours of annoying YouTube videos just to learn how you did that one thing wrong, or go have another beer. Against increasingly difficult gameplay I resisted this in Fallout 76 and The Division 2 for as long as I could; I tried and gave up on the former but did relatively well in the latter as a solo player.
Some games are more like moving cutscreens. I bought a cheap copy of the new Tomb Raider a year ago and made it through about the first half hour of gameplay before giving up on it forever. I like immersive gameplay, where I’m in the world and things are happening, and I can react to them and move on. Tomb Raider is about moving from one thing to the next, dying quickly, and redoing that thing over and over again until you do exactly whatever the game designer wants you to do. Laura Croft died about a hundred times until I was fed up, and then I deleted it from my Xbox. I can still hear her screams of agony. Call of Duty Advanced Warfare felt like nothing but one big masturbatory cutscreen; I stopped playing that one after about a half an hour. When the computer continually takes control of my character and shows me doing things instead of letting me play the game, I’m out.
And some games just kind of suck. Red Dead Redemption, a game people raved about Back In The Day, got shitcanned after I couldn’t finish a fucking timed horse race. Yeah yeah, I should be able to ride a horse, but the mechanics sucked and I got fed up quickly. It’s also 12 years old, so my expectations weren’t high when I got it at the thrift store for $2.
The latest game I bought is one called Titanfall, which was $1.50 on Amazon used, and featured a big mech on the cover blowing stuff up. Sweet, I thought; mech games are fun. Run around in a big robot and blow shit up. I loaded all 20GB of it up and started playing the tutorial as…a human. It took me a good hour of gameplay to even get the mech powered up, and then I used it for about three minutes before the game made me dismount and run around as a vulnerable fleshbag again flipping switches. Then I was faced with a standoff scenario, where the game designer locked my fleshbag in a room with about thirty NPCs and a bunch of exploding beach balls that I couldn’t kill fast enough. I’m supposed to be able to clear the room and then get to my mech, but after about twenty attempts over two days I gave it up in frustration, because they never showed me those things before, I don’t have the right weapons, and they don’t make the right weapons available to me. I can see why it was $1.50 now. It’s worth about $.75.
So the hunt is on; I think for the time being I’m going to step back and play some Fallout 4 until a new interesting game shows up on Amazon used for pocket change, and I’ll give that a try.
I’m not a farmer, but I come from a family of farmers; my Dad graduated from the agriculture program at Cornell by shoveling horse manure between classes. One of my subscribed YouTube channels featured a segment this spring where they revived an abandoned tractor and a bunch of planting equipment and put corn in on their fields in Iowa. Well, it’s harvest time, so they dragged a 50-year-old combine out of a barn and brought it all in. Mechanical equipment like this is fascinating to me; luckily they chose to use a combine that ran two years ago instead of trying to refurbish a completely broken-down unit, so things went smoothly.
I picked up some inexpensive watch bands from an outfit called cheapestnatostraps, and finally found a strap that makes my Vaer diver look better. The straps it shipped with are pretty garbage in terms of style: a black rubber dive band that takes cues from the crappy rubber bands of the 60’s, and a thick nylon band in a khaki-adjacent color that never felt right and didn’t look very good. I got a leather NATO strap in a medium tan that pairs well with the face, and after trimming about 3/4″ from the end with an X-Acto it fits perfectly. They’re currently out of the color I really want, a darker distressed brown, but this will do nicely until that comes back in.
I’ve been playing with different way of brewing coffee for the past couple of weeks, and I haven’t found the right science yet. At the risk of sounding like an insufferable coffee asshole, I’m trying pourover with some French paper filters, and so far the results haven’t been that great. I’m looking to get a better flavor than the dishwater a French press has been providing, even though I’m paying a premium for good beans, but I haven’t figured it out yet. I’m using a plastic funnel in place of a $50 Chemex coffeemaker, but it might be that I need better filters. I did learn that my water wasn’t hot enough and that I need to let the funnel breathe as I pour; next I’ve got to grind the beans differently. More experimentation is required.
© 2022 Bill Dugan