Thursday, April 30, 2009
Over the past few weeks, I've had to deal with all kinds of failures in machinery and electronics. The fluorescent light in my kitchen seems broken. Two weeks ago it was my car; last week it was my computer; now it's my iPod. My humble little mp3 player (if Apple products may be deemed humble), bearer of nearly four thousand songs, stopped charging through it USB cord last weekend. It was only a matter of time before it lost the power it already held, and lay on my desk a shell of its former self.
Today, it's singing again; I've plugged it into my roommate's stereo-majigger (iStation, they call it). So now power's running through it. Whether it's actually retaining any of that power in its battery remains to be seen. My money's on "no," because technology can't be trusted.
That said, I can't live without it. For the past few days, I've been forced to walk the streets without a constant stream of my favorite music pumped directly into my ear. That's not right.
One day, I suppose they'll find a way to actually stimulate the cells in your brain to "hear" music at maximum fidelity. This will remove the need for headphones, assuming you can tolerate the brain implant. You heard it here first; I'll be first in line to buy an iBorg. Or maybe an iHallucinate.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Thankfully, the author does not make too much of the espionage angle, although I don't have any trouble believing it. Christopher Marlowe and other writers and intellectuals have historically been spies, and the theory does seem to fit Descartes' biography fairly well. Granted, there's no positive documentary evidence whatsoever, but Descartes did serve a Catholic army in some capacity for a while, and was a devout catholic and Jesuit-booster his whole life. Chalk it up as one of history's plausible maybes.
Monday, April 27, 2009
First, the check-in line. I glanced over the lead articles while kicking my wheeled suitcase forward with every advancement of the queue. Most of it was local nonsense or banality: corruption in city hall, the death of a local artist who never amounted to much. Dog bites man’s daughter’s cat. The terror story was all that really caught my interest, at least on the front page. Since it was so much more difficult to hold an open newspaper while keeping an eye on the slowly-moving line, I was content to scan it for the time being.
The basics of the story were already common knowledge. An airplane had exploded on account of a radiological bomb, set off as the plane touched ground on the runway. Added to the tragedy of the dying men, women, and children who had only just landed, about a dozen of our nation’s most cherished citizens, our warriors, had been aboard. The people wept at the sacrifice of those brave men (and women) who died in service to their country, trapped like rats in an aluminum can.
Today’s installment offered hopeful, yet sobering new information. A handful of passengers at the rear of the plane had survived, among them Captain Steve Kilroy, a decorated veteran and hero. His identity as a survivor had only just been made public, and his face was displayed prominently beside the exalting text. I examined it, a typical soldier’s portrait: sandy haired, square jawed, with steely blue eyes piercing the camera with wholesome modesty and purpose. The portrait of America’s heroism, its Saxon resolve, the portrait of an utterly admirable man.
I kicked my bag to the end of the line, and after a few more minutes of waiting, politely tucked my newspaper under my arm and handed my luggage to the Southwest employee with a smile. Smiling back, she asked me where I was bound.
“Portland,” I replied, “I’m on my way home from a family reunion.”
“Alright,” she said, her pretty eyes set sideways in a way that revealed her lack of real interest. “Your flight leaves in an hour, sir. Here’s your boarding pass.” I took it, with a slight nod of my head, and left for security as she placed my bag on the conveyor belt. Off it rolled without me.
With happily remarkable efficiency the security line approached the machines. I finished my tea and tossed the paper cup in a convenient receptacle, and stashed my newspaper in my backpack. To save time I removed my shoes, although I still had a little way to go before I reached the X-ray machines.
A sullen man in uniform asked me for my identification and boarding pass. I quickly produced them both, and he took them from me. I patiently waited for him to return them.
But he didn’t. Pausing a moment to signal to his left, he looked at me and said “Sir, you’ve been randomly selected for additional screening.” At once a lean, muscular, dark-haired officer approached and gestured for me to follow him. He did not smile, and he did not speak. I hesitated at first, and then obeyed uncertainly.
In a small room at the end of a corridor he took my backpack and my coat from me, then patted me down and emptied my pockets. He instructed me to stay put, and then left with my belongings. I started to protest; I knew nothing about the ordinary procedure, but I strongly suspected that this was irregular. The officer acted like he didn’t hear me, and then he was gone. There was no window on the door.
The little room was heavily air-conditioned and without my coat I shivered, and wrapped my arms around myself for warmth. There were no seats, so I went and leaned against a corner, my socks providing minimal insulation from the cold linoleum floor. There was no clock, and with my cell phone taken I worried at the passage of time, and hoped that they were going to hold my flight.
After standing that way for what might have been twenty minutes, two men in suits entered the room. There was no sign of my things.
“Young man,” the shorter of the two said, “your name has recently been added to the ‘do not fly’ list. We’d like to ask you a few questions.
I knew that I would miss my flight, and I didn’t know why; these two things were all that I could be sure of. The men in suits escorted me from one little room to another, and another, blindfolded and shoeless. I was lonely and afraid and I wanted to cry out, but I was out of my depth and so I said nothing. I noticed that we descended several flights of stairs, and I gradually heard the hum and commotion of those who were once my fellow passengers fade beneath the droning clanks of machinery. I could almost say that I ran, but my escorts kept me moving at an awkward half-way gait, until at last my blindfold was removed and our pace slowed. Though I could see again, my first instinct was to keep my eyes shut.
I knew that we could not have passed beyond the airport’s walls, but I couldn’t recognize the place that I was now being led through. We proceeded down one grey, windowless hall after another, occasionally turning at right angles in a sense-defying maze. The air was cold, the walls were steel, like the guts of an aircraft carrier. The floor was an oil-smirched and otherwise stained concrete slab. Of course our footsteps echoed, and it was a dreadful, maddening noise, like the sloppy but insistent drumbeat of uncertain doom. I felt a pain in my foot, but gave no indication. I didn’t think these guys were likely to sympathize.
There were doors in these halls, but they were not labeled, except with what appeared to be meaningless four-digit numbers. The numbers did not proceed in order, which seemed bizarre to me, but the men who were taking me seemed to know exactly where they were going, regardless. We suddenly stopped at an otherwise unremarkable door, the number of which I noted was “2001.” The taller of my two guards produced a single key and unlocked the door. We went inside.
The room inside was white and sterile, with an air conditioner blowing slightly too loud, and a bright fluorescent light that glowed in heavy contrast to the dank lighting of the hallway. The room was partitioned by a wall of glass and metal, with a door; I could see a man and a woman on the other side. On my side was a soldier behind a small, nondescript desk. He himself was of short stature, with shiny, short black hair and a face only a fascist could love; he gave a menacing, bureaucratic glare as I entered the room. As for myself, I decided that I must have found my way into one of hell’s waiting rooms.
I was brought before the soldier, who contemptuously rose from his desk. He made a show of taking his gun, a rather large pistol of a type I could not identify, out of its holster and laying it on the table. It sat conspicuously next to the small plaque that indicated his name and rank: he was Aaron Copeland, Sergeant. I stared numbly at the plaque, trying to forget the weapon, unwilling to look at the man.
He spoke, curtly, asking for my name. I gave it, reluctantly looking him in the eye. He asked for a few more biographical details, and I wondered; to think that they might have dragged me to the depths of hell to get such tedious information! If I were not scared brainless, I might have thought about being sarcastic.
Without warning, he asked an entirely different sort of question. “Young man,” he said, slowly, “what is your relationship to Mr. Shoul Baruk?”
I started at the inquiry. “He’s a friend,” I said, stupidly, “I went to school with him.” Though I claimed him now as a friend, I used the term loosely. More accurately, he was an acquaintance with whom I had shared a great many classes on account of our common obsession with twentieth century history. But that was decidedly in the past; ever since graduation, our bond had been no stronger than a few status updates on Facebook, a service that he used only sporadically.
“You’re being held as a material witness in the investigation against Mr. Baruk,” he said, and he lowered himself into his chair once more. I could scarcely believe my ears.
“What!? How long!?”
“As long as we need.” He gestured to the suited guards, and before I could take stock of my predicament I was on the other side of the partition.
I half expected (and desperately hoped) to find Shoul there, so that I could pry some information out of him and find out what he’d done to get me into this mess. But he wasn’t there; the only people present were the man and the woman who I had seen from the other side of the glass.
The woman looked young, perhaps the same age as me. She was slender, not quite athletic, but fairly tall with straight black hair that came down to her shoulders, and pale green eyes. She looked at me nervously, as she leaned against the corner of the room with her arms folded. Periodically, her eyes turned to the glass, but she could not see outside; it was that special sort of window that only allowed light to pass in one direction. So far as she or I could tell, the world outside was entirely dull and black.
The man was very different. Muscularly built, he otherwise gave the impression through his unkempt hair and clothes that he was unconscious of his physical appearance. His face was lean and serious, seemingly drawn with a minimum of unnecessary lines. He stood squarely in the center of the room. For a few seconds he looked me over, and then he simply stated, “We’re getting out of here.”
I looked back at him dumbly, not realizing at first the implications of what he had said. The woman did not react, but her eyes were now fixed on me, as though she anxiously awaited my response.
Blinking confusedly, I tried to get more details from him. “Get out? Why are we here, anyway?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” he said, his voice tinged with concentrated impatience. “You’re here because you’re friends with someone they think is a terrorist.” I put my hands over my face and turned to the wall, determined to avoid his voice. “That’s why she’s here, that’s why I’m here,” he continued, “we’re all in the same boat.”
A quick, angry spasm seized me, and I kicked at the wall, forgetting momentarily that I had no shoes on. I sat on the floor and cursed, massaging my aching toes.
I looked up to face him again, and demanded clarification. “None of this makes any sense!” I said. I didn’t know Shoul well, but I didn’t believe he was a terrorist. And even if he were, what could that possibly have to do with me? Of what value was I, even as a material witness?
“So what if it doesn’t make sense,” he answered, as his voice grew louder and his eyes grew wilder. “You know the score. They’ve put you here, and they’ve got no right to do it. So you’re breaking out. It’s as simple as that.”
“You’re crazy,” I said, “what kind of stupid answer is that!? You know how serious these guys must be! They’ll kill us if we try to escape!”
“You coward,” he snapped, “lick their boots clean, why don’t you? We could be here for years. No,” he paused, as his expression took on a more sadistic tone, “no, not here, but on some God-forsaken island in some God-forsaken cage, living on bread and shit while the government pretends you don’t even exist! If we don’t get out, our liberty is gone for good.”
I climbed to my feet, on the verge of tears. “You can’t be serious.”
I stared at the floor a while, knowing everything he said was true. But he was crazy. Escape was impossible. I looked up to the woman. “Are you in on this too?” I asked, looking for a voice of reason.
“Yes, I am,” she replied, in a disarmingly gentle and quiet voice. It was plain in her eyes that she was frightened, both of our captors and our cellmate, but her voice did not waver.
“I..I need to think about this,” I said. I covered my face again and turned to the wall. I didn’t want to ever make up my mind, but my tormentor wouldn’t let me be. With uncharacteristic softness, he pleaded his case to me.
“You won’t even have to do anything, man. Just back me up. I’ll take care of everything.”
Liar, I thought. You wouldn’t be asking me to do this if you didn’t think you needed me.
I turned back to face the woman. She looked less nervous than before, but less relaxed as well. Her eyes were drifting back to the glass, and I wondered if perhaps she could see through it more clearly than I could.
She was attractive, in that conventional sort of way that does not call attention to itself all at once, but rather grows more undeniable over time. I lost myself for a moment in frivolous thoughts, and shook my head at myself and my foolishness.
“Alright,” I said, doing my level best to keep my voice from cracking under the strain, “how are you planning to do it, anyway?”
In a flash, the woman began attacking the window with a ferocious series of blows; I was amazed that she did not break it. In a moment, Sgt. Copeland was in the door, brandishing his pistol. To my shock, my cellmate flung himself at the jailor, striking him with unbelievable speed and ferocity. Copeland fired a shot; a second later, he collapsed, his neck horribly broken.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
In other news, I find it interesting how little tweaking I've had to do to get this page to look basically the way I want it. I may add more pictures or applications later, but this is really all you need, isn't it? You can probably take the hard hat off, but keep an eye out for falling quote/picture generators.
*This link? It's no good, you see, because the forum got deleted. So you can just read it here:
I haven't played too many new video games lately, but I do have a decent collection of older titles to review, so I figured "why not?" Watch out, maybe spoilers.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
This Game Will Make You Crazy
One of gaming history's genuine cult classics, Eternal Darkness is a landmark title for the Gamecube. Itself not a financial success, it nonetheless paved the way for games like Resident Evil 4 to appear on that console, by lending legitimacy to high profile mature games for a Nintendo audience. Unfortunately, its status as a path breaker and its peculiar approach to the horror genre led to its marginalization. Nonetheless, Eternal Darkness is an artistic gem that should be cherished by what audience it had; and of course, with the Wii's backwards compatibility feature, it's never too late for the uninitiated to give it a first try.
Eternal Darkness is known for its unique approach to psychological horror, as opposed to the "hell hound jumping through random windows" school of fear-making made famous by Resident Evil. Not being a connoisseur of the genre, I couldn't tell you how unique ED is or was in focusing on subtler shocks, but one feature is worth isolating for consideration. That feature is the sanity meter, a critical gimmick in the experience of the game.
It must be said that the majority of monster encounters are not particularly frightening. They tend not to jump out in a surprising manner, apart from the bonethieves who pop out of people's chests, Alien-style. However, the appearance of a monster will cause a drop in the character's green sanity bar. The extent to which the player allows the sanity bar to decrease dramatically effects the atmosphere of the setting. If the player diligently restores his sanity via magic or special finishing move after each encounter, then the game is a straightforward dungeon crawling experience. Allowing for a little insanity, however, makes the situation genuinely scary: the music swells into a horrifying cacophony of wails and shallow breaths, the screen becomes increasingly tilted and off-center, and most famously, a number of visual and auditory hallucinations are experienced. These range from goofy and amusing to positively shocking and grotesque, becoming more frequent and more terrible as the sanity bar decreases. The effects combine perfectly with the already dark, grimy, and foreboding art. It's very tempting to let the sanity bar sit quite low, but be careful; keeping it too low eventually harms your life force, and playing this way at night is likely to give you the willies.
The interactive nature of the sanity bar is ED's most interesting game play feature, in the way it accurately simulates the way real humans experience fear. Our worst terrors and frights are usually the result of tricks our minds play on us, and the depths to which we succumb may be mitigated by a kind of mental discipline. ED will often force you into situations where maintaining your character's composure is exceedingly difficult, often forcing you to choose between health and sanity (and if you want to play the game right, health is the correct choice).
When it's not throwing monsters at you, the game offers a quieter kind of horror, the kind which accompanies you as you explore the malevolent mansion of the Roivas family in Rhode Island. The house is full of unusual rooms which, like those of a real house, are of a tangible character. To name a few, there is a library, a Civil War-themed guest room, a dining and music room, and a set of secret rooms which guard the house's dark secrets. You may explore the mansion as level-headed or unbalanced as is your pleasure, and either way the discoveries to be made are fascinating.
The game's other settings are likewise interesting, but are usually infested with monsters, so you may find less time to enjoy them. Intriguingly, they are all religious compounds, reinforcing the themes of the game, namely the relationship of mankind to both positive and negative supernatural forces. They are a jungle-covered temple in Cambodia, an abandoned temple complex in Persia, and an imposing Cathedral in France. The game allows you to explore these settings a number of times at different points in history, and the level designs change each time, as the progress of time erodes old paths and new ones are built. There is a mysterious fourth level, intimately connected with the secret of the Roivas house, which ties the game together. Repeating levels in most games amounts to tedium, but ED usually changes things up enough to keep things interesting, and in any event it never compels you to stay in one place for very long.
The game uses a unique narrative structure by hopping back and forth across time and space as main character Alexandra Roivas discovers more chapters from the "Tome of Eternal Darkness," a record of mankind's struggle against evil forces and a repository of magical spells and clues. The player controls a number of characters over comparatively brief periods of time, filling in pieces of the mystery until the inevitable return to the Roivas house. The characters themselves range from innocent to deeply troubled, and are well acted and well animated in the game's many cut scenes. These cut scenes link together with the action to produce a complex story web which converges at the end of the game. There are, however, a few plot holes, specifically the problem of the Tome. Every character encounters (to all appearances) the same Tome, and after a while it becomes difficult to believe that the book would really find itself being carried back and forth from Cambodia, Central Asia, France and Rhode Island on such a regular basis. Are there many Tomes which mystically contain the same contents, no matter what is written in any one of them, or is the Tome a self-sentient teleporter that always knows where and when it is needed? There's no real explanation, and it's a bit irksome.
The graphics are very strong, a fine example of the Gamecube's technical capability. In particular, human faces and bodies are rendered well, coming in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and in a realistic yet idiosyncratic style. The monsters are unremarkable in their looks, mostly, while the backgrounds are quite good, and the lighting is fantastic (an essential for any self-respecting horror game). The appearance of water and other fluids is not that great, but you don't spend very much time swimming, so I suppose it's forgivable.
The gameplay's nuts and bolts are not its strong suit. Combat is largely repetitive: lock on, attack arms, attack head, attack body. There are only four basic enemy types of three elemental persuasions: hapless zombies, vicious bonethieves, roach-like "Trappers" (who teleport you to a crazy alternate dimension), and monstrous three-headed "Horrors" (sometimes you have to fight three of these at once, and that's just wrong), in addition to the occasional boss, human, or "guardian" sub-boss. Once you've learned to defeat them, the game never figures out a way to make them more threatening apart from sending swarms at you in tight places, and that's disappointing. However, the game is quite generous in arming you with swords, crossbows, clubs and guns (my favorite weapon is the Bastard Sword), as well as a number of magical spells.
The spell system is fairly simple: combine an elemental rune with two action runes to produce an effect. These runes can later be augmented with power runes to produce a more dramatic effect. Some spells allow for healing, others detect invisible objects, others create a stronger defense, and some create powerful mystic attacks. The game will want you to first discover the appropriate runes, then the codices that reveal the names of those runes, and finally the spell scrolls which teach the appropriate combination. In practice you can combine runes as soon as you've found them and create the spells right away, but this requires trial and error if you haven't played the game before.
As mentioned before, the combat is rudimentary and not satisfying in and of itself. The game is much stronger in its puzzle solving and stealth modes. The puzzles often incorporate psychological hallucination effects and macabre elements of the plot, drawing the characters deeper into black mysteries in search of the awful truths at hand. In terms of character control, running is (somewhat archaically) activated by holding a run button, and each character can only run so far or chop up so many enemies at once, before his stamina is gone and he must rest to recover. All of your characters are weak in this way, relying upon their weapons and the protection of the Tome to survive as long as they do. Thematically, I think it works, but it's definitely unusual for what you might be tempted to call an "action" game. The combat is gritty and messy (though not quite "realistic"), and I suppose it would be wrong to ask any more of it given the nature of the rest of the game.
The most infuriating game play element is the lack of an auto-save, or even a "do you want to save?" prompt. I myself have more than once ploughed through a quarter of the game only to die at the hands of some fool enemy, and find that I had not saved once. There are no continues, only the collective middle fingers of the development team kindly instructing you to suck it. I urge all new players to save at least twice a stage; you're not especially likely to die at any given time, but when you do, you don't want to have to go back far.
It should be noted how critical sound is to the Eternal Darkness experience. The music is alright (only a handful of background tracks, all appropriately foreboding), but the sound effects are superb. The pop of a torch (your character's head will turn at the sound of it), the slop slop of a wet zombie's footsteps, the clanking of far off doors and gates, all of these things serve the experience quite well.
The game offers additional secrets and cut scenes if you play through three times, once for each elemental alignment. I'd say the replay value of the experience is at least high enough to cover that, even if the story is most viscerally strong in the first go-around. It's a step forward in the history of video games, and a compelling combination of history, mythology, psychology and characterization that absolutely deserves the rank of classic, "cult" or otherwise.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
I'll mainly be updating once or twice (but at least once) a week, typically on Mondays. The purpose of this blog will be to provide an outlet for my various literary works (by which I mean the short stories, poems, and essays I produce in my spare time). I've been working for a while on some of these pieces, writing them by hand, and I will continue to produce them in this manner. In order to get these things out there, though, I've made this blog. That way, you won't have to fly out to my apartment and flip through my three ring binder to read them. Lucky you!
Today is Saturday, and the first proper entry, part one of a short story entitled A Young Man's Tribulation, will be up on Monday. In the meantime, I'll be tweaking various things on this site, fine tuning the aesthetic, working on my profile and such. I believe they call this period "construction," so until Monday, consider this page to be a hard hat zone. Watch your head.