Archive for the ‘Not-So-Casual Commentary’ Category

Thoughts on “The Templars”

November 16, 2018

So, quite a while ago I read “The Templars” by Dan Jones. I’ve long held an interest in knights, and had heard a number of things about the Templar Order, and so thought that this would be a good book to get an introduction to them and find out some interesting things about them. My overall impression of the book is that it wasn’t bad for that, but really just made me want to go out and find a different book about the Templars for comparison.

The issue is that while the book follows the history of the Templars from their inception to their downfall, it does seem to have a bit of a bias towards the Templars. The scandals that brought them down, especially, are presented as being complete frame jobs that are politically motivated. Which they probably are. But the book takes such a strong position on that that it makes me wonder what, if any, of the accusations were true or had merit. Which then mostly makes me want to read a more neutral account of it to see if what Jones expresses is the mainstream historical view or if he’s taking a more pro-Templar side in all of this.

Still, it’s not a bad introduction to the Templars and was a relatively easy and fun read, not very boring and not too detailed so that I got swamped in the details. I’ll probably read it again at some point.

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Thoughts on “Colony”

November 15, 2018

So the first Ben Bova novel I’m going to look at is “Colony”. The basic idea of the story is that there is a big artificial colony called “Island One” in space, which is attempting to build a more ideal structure or society because Earth itself is wracked by political strife, with the big cities mostly abandoned with those who stay caught up in crime, violence, and starvation, with the planet run by a council whose members, other than the leader, are generally more concerned with their own self-interest than that of the planet, with terrorists fighting to gain independence and necessities, and the corporations trying to sabotage countries and the council using even the weather — with weather-making machines — to do so.

Bova talks a lot about technology in his world-building, especially the sorts of things he talked about in “The High Road”, like Solar Power Satellites. He also does a good job of creating an interesting set of political and social situations on Earth, using that to drive a lot of the drama. This is what generally works the best. The problem with the book is that it focuses a lot on the personal lives of two characters. The first is David Adams, who is the first genetically perfect test tube baby, born on Island One and who has never been to Earth until the events of the novel. The second is Bahjat, the daughter of one of the council members and a terrorist leader. Unfortunately, neither of these characters is all that interesting, and so their love affair isn’t interesting either. For the most part, it often seems like their stories get in the way of the more interesting one, despite the resolution of it being critical to resolving the main story.

Despite that, though, the book is interesting. It starts in the middle of the action, but Bova does a good job filling us in on the details without boring us. As I said, the political situation is interesting and the book flows well despite its main characters not being all that interesting. I liked it a lot better than any of the 2016 Hugo Award winners and would almost certainly read it again at some point.

Thoughts on “Ant-Man and the Wasp”

November 12, 2018

So, with some trepidation, I bought and sat down to watch “Ant-Man and the Wasp”. Putting aside “Infinity War” the last four MCU movies disappointed me, and I actually fell asleep for at least part of all of them (which isn’t all that strange for me actually), including Infinity War. Would Ant-Man and the Wasp disappoint me again?

The big thing I have to say about it is: I liked Evangeline Lily’s hair in Ant-Man so much better than in this one. Her hairstyle in Ant-Man really, really worked for her and she looked absolutely stunning with that hairstyle. Her hairstyle in Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t suit her anywhere near as well, and the movie taunts us with flashback scenes from Ant-Man that only serve to highlight just how much better she looked in Ant-Man.

Now, you can all say that I’m doing a shallow assessment based entirely on looks and all of those standard criticisms, but there’s an important reason I’m highlighting that: other than that, I don’t really have much to say about the movie at all. The movie is good. I don’t really have anything big to complain about, nor does anything really stand out for praise. It filled a couple of hours and I was relatively entertained for all of that time. The theme of parenthood and how parents and children relate to each other was good. The building in of some backstory was good. Cassie was still insufferably cute. The link to Infinity War was good. The jokes mostly worked. For the most part, it worked, but wasn’t anything special either.

There were a few minor quibbles though. The first is that the secondary villain felt shoehorned in and his appearance in the final chase scene dragged it down with an uninteresting villain that did nothing but add unnecessary extra complications. And X-CON was more annoying this time because they were recycling the old or similar jokes from the first movie but there was less reason to have them in this one. But, again, those are all minor quibbles.

I even managed to stay awake through the entire movie.

So I have to give Ant-Man and the Wasp a stamp of “Good”. I’ll likely watch it again at some point, which means that I’ll be reminded of and watch Ant-Man again at some point. If for no other reason than to see Evangline Lily with the better hairstyle.

Thoughts on “Mythical Detective Loki Ragnarok”

November 8, 2018

So, a while ago I had access to an anime network that let you watch a limited selection of shows on demand, and one of them was “Mythical Detective Loki Ragnarok”. I liked it, and so after cancelling that channel I was browsing in a store that sold anime DVDs and found it, and started to watch it. As usual for me, at the time it disappointed me, although this time I remembered the reason: the main female character, Mayura, was really, really annoying. It also automatically did a “Play All”, which at the time didn’t fit into my schedule. So, I left it. With my recent push to finish things, I figured it was time to sit down and watch it.

The basic premise is that Loki of Norse Mythology fame is kicked out of Asgard and sent to Earth in the form of a child. Mayura is a young girl who is obsessed with mysteries, and the two of them end up working together at a detective agency — I think Loki had one before she came along and she just joined it — specializing in the supernatural. This is at least in part because Loki is trying to gather enough evil energy to allow him to return to Asgard, and so seeking out those things is a great way to get that. Anyway, a number of other Norse gods show up as well — Thor, Heimdall, Frey, Freya (Loki’s love interest who doesn’t remember that she’s a goddess when she’s in her child form), the Norns, etc — and there are a number of adventures that take place around the framing device, although the gathering of evil energy plot gets sidelined about half-way through.

I don’t know much about the background here, but I suspect that this anime was based on a manga, because a lot of the time the storylines seem to be based on things that would have been explained — or should have been explained — later. As an example, Loki’s daughter Hel makes what is supposed to be a shocking appearance, except the figure only appears in one episode before being revealed in the next, neither of which are shocking or very suspenseful. More of a background would have allowed for us to wonder about that.

This also impacts the ending, where a number of threads are left hanging, likely because of the expectation of there being another series to continue them, which as far as I know never happened. How Loki was going to cause Ragnarok, for example, or for Loki to finally face Odin, or for Loki and Freya to get together or to settle the love triangle with Skald, and so on. These just kinda peter out, as the gods ponder returning to Asgard and then all eventually decide to stay on Earth, which makes for an unsatisfying ending.

Overall, though, the show is kinda fun. It mixes humour with drama and action, and mostly balances it well. There are times when it inserts an odd comedic scene in a more serious episode — usually with either Frey doing something insane or a love triangle issue with Freya — but it even lampshades this at least once. Loki and Yamano are an interesting pairing with some interesting running gags — Yamano buying everything on mail order — and the gods often fit in nicely to the plots under discussion. It has its hiccups, sure, but overall it’s pretty entertaining. I’ll probably watch it again.

Thoughts on “The Conjuring”

October 29, 2018

So, if you like my general commentaries on various media, you’ll be happy, because that’s what you’re going to be getting. First, I started with my thoughts on “She-Ra: Princess of Power”. This week, because Hallowe’en falls this week — and I actually have three horror movies watched to this point and have a large current and upcoming list of pop culture things to talk about — you’re going to get three discussions of those cheap horror movies that I talk about every so often. And the following Monday I’m probably going to talk about Doctor Who. So, yeah, lots of that, so if you like it, you’ll be happy. And if you don’t, then you’ll probably want to tune back in next week when I get back to video games and philosophy.

So, as just stated, this week in honour of Hallowe’en I’m going to talk about horror movies. Unfortunately, if you want to actually be scared these three movies aren’t exactly going to do that.

“The Conjuring” has turned itself into a franchise, with at least two specific Conjuring movies and at least two “Annabelle” movies based on the doll that is mentioned and shown in the first Conjuring movie. I have the first Conjuring movie, but all of the others are ones that can, in general, be attained relatively cheaply, but I figured that I should probably watch the first one first before shelling out more cash for the sequels. This was probably a good idea, since the first one is, well, just an okay movie.

The story revolves around two plots. The first, and more directly supernaturally related, is about a family who moves into an old house and immediately ends up experiencing strange events. The second is about the husband and wife team of paranormal investigators who come to investigate the house and help them, and about the wife being a medium who had a very bad experience in their last case, which didn’t involve the doll. The paranormal investigators are the main characters in the story, but their personal story is really the B-plot, but gets explored quite a bit in the movie.

These two plots are what ultimately ruins the movie. The B-plot is in general much less scary than the A-plot, which seems to be by design as it is about a family resolving family issues. It’s therefore much more pleasant and “homey” than the A-plot. However, the scenes are interweaved with the supernatural scenes, which means that we move from supernatural horror to family drama in a relatively short period of time. This should produce Mood Whiplash, where we move from being afraid to experiencing caring people caring about each other, but it never does. This highlights, then, that the supernatural horror and suspense just isn’t that scary, especially during the first parts of the movie. Stopping the action to do the family plot doesn’t help, as that time could have been better spent building up the supernatural menace and making the movie more scary and suspenseful.

However, those parts of the movie also actually work. The family in the house is generally sympathetic and works well together, and the relationship of the paranormal investigators works as well and is interesting to watch. The plots are tied together credibly enough with only a little bit of stupidity and contortions required to fit everything together. As the main characters are paranormal investigators, the movie does a credible job of explaining what is going on and relaying the backstory of the ghosts and demons involved in the haunting. So it’s interesting enough to watch, for all of that.

So it’s not a bad movie. It’s just not really a scary movie. The threat is credible enough but the tone for most of the movie doesn’t set up the creepiness or horror required to make it all work as a horror movie. I might watch it again (or, at least, might if I had the time) but it’s not any kind of a classic movie.

So, I finished my DA2 replay …

October 24, 2018

… so expect a detailed discussion of the game in line with what I’ve talked about before in the next couple of weeks. Here, I’m going to talk about a couple of minor thing I noted while playing it.

I found that I really, really enjoyed the game this time around despite being relatively unimpressed with it the last time around. I think that part of it was that replaying it after watching Chuck’s very negative comments and reminding myself of my rather blah view of the game I didn’t expect that much from it, and so was pleasantly surprised. I also think that part of it was because I was trying to experience the plot in detail, I paid far more attention to it and so was able to notice a few things that I didn’t notice the first time around, and so was more involved in the plot and the game, which I think is important for DA2. I also think that playing it after playing DAO’s ending sequence three times in a row gave me an appreciation for what it did itself and less of an impression that DAO was, say, less grindy a game. But whatever the reason, I really enjoyed myself this time out.

I also found that DA2, for all its faults, really did manage to do emotional and personally emotional scenes really well, while DAO didn’t seem to have very many OF those sorts of scenes at all. The scene where your mother died is heartbreaking, and can play into the entire third act. And while Carver’s and Wesley’s deaths can seem like they rely on assumed empathy, they are crafted well, it is clear that the people involved care about them — your mother and sister for the former, Aveline for the latter — and their deaths are used later to drive the plot and add emotional weight. Like it or not, the game really is far more personal than DAO was, and that allows for various scenes to have much more weight.

I had decided that I was going to try to romance Merrill in this game, after romancing Isabella in the previous one. Playing as a rogue, I therefore didn’t keep Isabella in my party very much, and so she deserted me in the second act. But the odd thing was that I had the hardest time making friends with Merrill, so much so that I was tempted to try to go full Rivalry with her. But that wasn’t working so well, either. Then I did her specific mission, ended up killing her Keeper and an entire village of Dalish Elves, which improved her opinion of me. A quick flirt with her, and we were in a romance and she moved in with me. As a friend of mine commented when I mentioned it to him “I guess nothing woos a girl’s heart like a little massacre…?”. She also seemed to change her outfit at the same time to a white one that I quite liked.

I liked the companions a lot this time around … except for Anders. One of the best things about them is that if you are good enough friends with them they tend to be pretty reasonable. The first time around, I chose to side with the Templars, and Merrill disagreed. I was able to convince her to go along because there was going to be a violent response and at least with me running it it would be organized and at least potentially merciful. This time, I sided with the mages, which upset Fenris and had him go to side with the Templars. But in the end I convinced him that he had to support the freedom for mages that he wanted for himself, and he stood with me. Avelline was not happy with defying the Templars, but sided with me anyway. So, in general, the companions were reasonable … and their conversations were often quite entertaining.

Except for Anders. I think I killed him both times, but this time he talked about being a martyr for others to follow and I almost regretted the decision, but decided, in the end, that him and Justice together produced a combination of fanaticism and power that couldn’t be allowed to go free, and what he had done didn’t deserve any mercy … especially since he refused to trust me with his plan but tried to guilt and manipulate me into helping him with it. He was too unscrupulous to be allowed to manipulate others that way.

Again, look for my comments aiming at Chuck Sonnenberg’s analysis of the game starting after next week.

Very, very, very early thoughts on “Cultist Simulator”

October 17, 2018

So, I decided to buy “Cultist Simulator”. While my initial impression of it after reading the description didn’t interest me, I heard later about how the game did good things with narrative and flavour text, and finally read comments on GOG about how the game has things happen and follows the narrative even if you play the game properly — one comment talked about the cultist dying from getting sick not for any real reason other than that sometimes you get sick — and thought that this might be a game that implements my view on there not being bad ends or loss states, but only ends and decided it’d be worth a try just to see. And it would give me something else to talk about on the blog, which is never a bad thing.

Anyway, I bought it, downloaded it, and started playing it just to see what it was like. And I felt overwhelmed with all of the actions and was just placing cards on areas as soon as I could, and mostly was doing that at random and plunking in anything that would work. And then the game crashed. Or, rather, it seems to have made my graphics driver crash. But despite that seeming like a bad thing, it actually improved my view of it, because when I restarted it everything seemed to be frozen when I loaded my save. Was the game screwed up or corrupted? And then I finally noticed that … the game was paused. Which led to another revelation: you can pause the game! I realized, then, that instead of letting it run in real-time what I needed to do was pretty much pause it anytime anything happened. That would let me read the flavour text of the “cards” to get the feel of the narrative that it was building and let me see what each slot on the table was asking for and what each card did so that I wasn’t just trying out everything and seeing what worked, but was instead actually learning how the game worked. This would allow me to not be overwhelmed while still not actually having to fully understand the game to — hopefully — enjoy it.

Given that, this is a game that I need to sit down and spend time analyzing and working with. However, I already have a game that I’m doing that with.. So it’ll have to wait for a couple of weeks at least. But I do think I’ll give the “perma-pause” strategy a try and see if I enjoy the game, and more importantly the semi-random narrative that it can generated.

Back to (old) SF …

October 15, 2018

So I’ve updated my reading list. As you know by now, I’ve finished my third read-through of “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, and in addition to that I’ve finished reading “Guns, Germs and Steel” (I’ll comment on that book in the near future). This pretty much clears out my list of historical books that I wanted to read. Thus, I need to decide what I’m going to read next.

I actually have a historical book left to read, about the battle of Waterloo. I picked it up in Chapters recently while browsing for books. But I think I’ve read enough history for a while, and so wanted to do something different. The biggest non-fiction thing on the list is my long, long list of philosophical works that I want to read, but I wasn’t really in the mood for that. I considered just taking a break from trying to get things finished and just read the X-Wing books, but I tend to read those in December and it’s not quite December yet. So I’d still like to try to get something read that I can say that I made progress reading things and to generate content for the blog before taking a break from that with something that is simply pure enjoyment.

So I kinda split the difference. A while ago I went through all of my books and divided them into a number of boxes that contained books that I definitely wanted to read in the near future, books that I might want to read at some point, and books that I would never read again. I have hundreds of books in the first two categories. Among them was a collection of Ben Bova novels, whom I discovered after reading and enjoying his non-fiction work “The High Road”, which talked about using solar power satellites to solve power generation problems. Since I noted the name, I started buying fiction books that he had written. So I have ten of those, and while doing the sorting figured that I should just sit down and read them all at some point. This seemed like a good opportunity to do so. I also decided to finally read “The Mote in God’s Eye” and “The Gripping Hand” that I bought during my rant at the Hugos and and started reading but abandoned because I wanted to read some things just for fun. Since I’m now reading things not just for fun, it seemed like a perfect time to add it to the list and get one more thing accomplished.

I’m treating these like the Sheckley books I read last year: I’m going to read the books and see how well they hold up today and how much I personally enjoy them. The interesting thing is that with the Bova books I might well have read some of them before, but don’t really remember it. I had a tendency to buy books and never get around to reading them (hence some of the Sheckley works, actually). I did this less when I was really young, but more as I got older and had less time to read and more time and money to buy books, and so kept getting distracted by new and old things. Part of that sorting of books was to sort out the books that I should have read at some point but probably never did. So it’ll be interesting to see which of them I remember and which of them I don’t, which wasn’t the case for Sheckley because the only book I remember reading was “The Status Civilization”, and was pretty sure I didn’t read any of the others.

So watch for comments on these to appear in the near future (obviously, these books are easier to read than 1000+ historical texts [grin]).

Thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”

October 12, 2018

So, it took a while, but I did manage to finish reading “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” for the third time. However, this time was interesting because I read it right after reading “The Storm of War”, and I was interested in seeing how I’d feel reading this book immediately after that one. But it worked out really well. “The Storm of War” focused more on the events during and after WWII, while “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” focuses a lot more on the lead up to the war, as one might expect. So while some of their events overlapped, they really complemented each other. In hindsight, it would have been better to read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” first and then read “The Storm of War” to fill in the details of the later parts of the war that Shirer skims over, but it works out pretty well regardless.

For such a heavy book — both in terms of content and in actual weight — “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” is a remarkably entertaining and accessible read. Shirer mixes in some personal insights with detailed descriptions of events as well as copious quotes from actual memos and other documents, and yet the book rarely seems dry or technical. Shirer’s writing style works well, and he organizes the book in such a way that, in general, one set of events follow from the previous ones so you really do seem to be just progressing through history. In general, it’s a solid read.

I also recommend that people who are interested in calling other people Nazis read this book, because it gives a detailed yet mostly unbiased view of how Nazis worked and why things turned out the way they did. For example, anyone who wants to insist that one of the main reasons Nazism managed to expand was because they weren’t punched enough will note that violence was a common strategy used by all parties in the elections, and that even though they killed more members of other parties the Nazis at least claimed to have had a significant number of deaths as well. The big differentiator was the control of the media, which had been used against the Nazis until they managed to get enough government power to use those controls against their opponents. It also shows how deeply and how shallowly most Nazis adhered to Nazi values, making things more complicated than they might appear at first. For the most part Shirer avoids psychological explanations for the phenomenon and just outlines what people believed, taken at least in part from his own personal experiences, which makes them extremely valuable.

All in all, it’s a great book, and might be the best historical book that I own. Despite it being over 1000 densely packed pages, it is clear that I will eventually read it again for the fourth time.

Why DA2 is more addictive than DAO

October 10, 2018

So, I’m playing DA2 right after finishing some stories in DAO, and it turns out that DA2 has an addictive quality to it that DAO never had, meaning that it’s often hard to stop playing DA2 for the day, whereas it was usually much easier to do that for DAO. And the reason is because of the quest structure.

DAO was built around stories that took place in specific areas, with some backtracking occurring when later quests told you to go back to certain areas. Lothering is the prime example of this because once you leave Lothering the village is destroyed and you can’t go back there to finish up any quests that you didn’t finish. This fosters a playstyle where you follow a story thread to an area, do the story, do all of the sidequests you can along the way, finish the story, and then leave. Thus, you are encouraged to finish an entire full area while doing its story, and to not leave that area until you finish everything you can. Which also means that once you finish an area, it always seems like a good time to stop for the day.

DA2, on the other hand, doesn’t have those really big areas with their own self-contained story. For the most part, Kirkwall itself is roughly equivalent to one of those big areas, and the story always runs through Kirkwall and its environs. But Kirkwall is divided into a number of small areas, and there are more of these small areas than there were in any big area in DAO, and that’s even if you don’t take into account the fact that all of the city areas are duplicated at night and that there’s an outskirts to play with. Quests pop up in these areas at times and also move from area to area as you go along and resolve them. And since there’s a rough Act structure to the story, if you start the final story quests for that Act it’s like Lothering all over again; you simply cannot go back to finish quests that you started in the previous act. Thus, this structure fosters a playstyle where you start with an overall area — Kirkwall Day, Kirkwall Night, or Kirkwall Outskirts — and complete all of the Companion and non-story quests there, move on to the next area, repeat until all areas are clear of quests that don’t directly relate to the main story, do the next main story mission, see what non-story quests pop up, rinse and repeat until only the last main story quests are left, finish them, and finish the Act. Thus, the only natural stopping point is after an Act (and even there the game tends to dump you back into the middle of the action after the time jump so there are still things you can do and that the game encourages you to get on right away). But Acts are longer than most DAO areas, so you might not be able to play one through in one sitting, and the game structure gets you into a pattern where you start forgetting about time because it becomes so habitual to just hop to the next area and clear all of its quests until there aren’t any more to clear, and it’s only when you are pointedly reminded of the time or run out of quests that you realize that you’ve been playing quite a bit longer than you intended.

I really, really like DA2’s quest structure, and wish more games would do something like it rather than the “Run around looking for all the quests in a big area” thing that most do. DAI returned to DAO’s structure, but with bigger areas as they were trying to simulate the open world structure of Elder Scrolls games, and all it did was force me to grind out each area completely for fear that if I didn’t I wouldn’t have enough XP to do well at the next area. DA2 had that as well — there were a couple of shady quests that I skipped but worried that doing so would mean that I couldn’t get enough money to move on, although at the time of at least one of them I unknowingly already had enough money to move on (and the quest giver taunted Varric that I looked like someone who spent money rather than saved it [grin]) — but the quests were shorter and moved you along to different areas enough that it felt less grindy; I wasn’t doing all of them just so that I could move on to the next area safely, but to clean all of that up so that I could directly advance the story. Unfortunately, it seems to be the sort of thing that you can only justify with limited resources, because if you have the resources to build bigger areas more people will enjoy those, and it’s hard to see how to fit this sort of thing into those sorts of areas without turning it into DAI.

Still, it does mean that I play it a bit longer than I’d like to unless I have a specific appointment to push me to stop. I can’t say whether that’s good or bad [grin].