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April 26, 2008

36 Rounds - 2 Grenades - 25 Kills - HIKE!

Okay, here’s some unusual linkage of the moment. Now, as should be obvious from the last post, I’ve been playing a lot of the Halo 3 lately, enough that Vickie’s been feeling a bit slighted, so I know I need to put the brakes on some. Still, at the moment, she’s watching A Touch of Frost on Seven, so I nipped upstairs to bask in the glory of my Halo 3 Service Record, all the more radiant tonight as I achieved a Team Slayer Skill of 20 earlier this evening and got promoted straight from Lieutenant Grade 3 to Captain Grade 3! Yay!

Anyway, I also checked the Bungie.net news feed, and at the top of the list was “MLG ESPN Saturday Night Rebroadcast Available Now”. For those of you who, like me, don’t live in the US, the acronyms might need a little explaining. ESPN is, as I understand it, North America’s largest pay-TV sports provider (if the URL is an indicator, they're part of Disney's media conglomerate). While I don’t think I’ve ever known exactly what ESPN stands for (I think I’m safe in assuming the S is for “sport” and the N is for “network”), I do know what MLG stands for: Major League Gaming. That’s right, a major media outlet has dedicated a portion of its resources to covering (and hosting) video game tournaments.

So I’ve watched the first three of eleven videos of this MLG Saturday Night event, and I feel like shaking myself just to make sure I’m not asleep or hallucinating. I’ve heard talk over the past decade or so about how video gaming could develop a pro circuit, but I always expected it to be supported solely by game developers, hardware manufacturers and retail chains; it never occurred to me that an actual sporting broadcast network would go as far as kicking off its own pro gaming leagues. And even then, watching those videos is an almost surreal experience. They're hosted at an exhibition centre, complete with stage and lighting rigs. There's a big crowd of spectators, with huge screens catering to them. There are commentators - freaking commentators, for crying out loud - giving a play by play on the match, calling out the players by their Gamertags! It’s like Gladiators or pro wrestling, except intelligent! (Okay, fine, semi-intelligent, I’ll give you that.) One of the teams has a damn coach!

Anyway, take a look at this yourselves. It’s a tournament match-up between two professional teams, “Final Boss” and “MoB Deep” (trust me, the names make sense – well, the first one does, anyway), playing MLG games of Halo 3 against each other. It’s And let me just type this again, because I’m still shaking my head: professional gaming teams. These guys get paid to play video games in front of live spectators!

I do wish FE Thebox of MoB Deep would get a bloody haircut, though. Oh, and will you close your mouth while you’re at it, kid? Are you trying to catch flies?

Anyway, I've just finished the fourth video, which ends the round in the ledge for the two teams:

  1. Introduction
  2. Capture the Flag
  3. Team Slayer
  4. Team King of the Hill

I don't dare to find out what the other seven are about!

April 20, 2008

I’ve created a monster…

It’s hard to believe that just a scant few months ago, Karlos was of the belief that online play just wasn’t his bag. I’d mentioned Xbox Live to him a few times last year, but he usually responded to any suggestions in the negative. He only had dial up Internet access and wasn’t interested in the extra monthly expense of broadband, and the yearly Xbox Live fee of $89.00 seemed an extravagance.

Then around Christmas time I made the mistake of setting up a Matchmaking session on my 360 with him signed in as a guest. He was hooked almost immediately, and would pop over for more whenever he got the chance, especially when his Elite displayed the Red Ring of Death and went in for service. In fact, the two months’ free Live play he got out of combining the Xbox 360 package deal and the complimentary 30 Day card from the warranty repair allowed him to get his own Gamertag – and when he started earning Experience and Skill increases in Halo 3, he was so thoroughly hooked that he started looking at his ISP’s broadband plans.

A few days ago, I noticed he’d changed his Gamertag’s motto to “THE FORSAKEN ONES”. This should have been a clue, but for some odd reason I thought that it was maybe a rock song title or some such. I was confronted with the horrid truth on Friday, when I met up with him online and he started trying to recruit me - okay, fine, successfully recruited me - into the Halo 3 clan that he’d joined, talking about regular practice sessions and codes of conduct. Now, he’s getting me into playing more video games!

If only I’d known back then…

April 18, 2008

Stardust: The Book

You know, I’m becoming more and more impressed with the quality and diversity of stock that the Cairns Libraries have in. Books I wouldn’t have dreamed of searching the Hornsby Shire computer system for, like Callahan’s Con or Red Seas Under Red Skies, are present out here in what many would consider Hicksville. After getting the movie out on DVD from my local video rental place I decided to try my luck with the library. Right there on the G shelf was a copy of the novel Stardust by Neil Gaiman, but this was just a plain prose novel; I wanted the original with Charles Vess’ artwork. I hit the computer system and found that the library had three more Stardusts in stock, including one with the full title of Stardust: Being A Romance Within The Realms of Faerie at the Earlville branch. Figuring I had nothing to lose I put a reservation on it. Within a pair of days the library had e-mailed me with confirmation that it had arrived at the city branch, and when I went in this morning, there was the Vertigo graphic novel.

Naturally, I ploughed through the whole thing during lunch break, afternoon tea break and at home this evening. My feelings on it are rather ambivalent, perhaps no surprise as I’m coming to it from its mass-market adaptation and not the other way around. The artwork was well worth hanging out for, and the greater depth to the world of Faerie was wonderful. It didn’t have the same energy or light heartedness as the film (perhaps not surprising as said film has only one and a half hours to entertain its audience) which I sort of miss.

Being a novel, it’s definitely more character driven than the film. All three main threads of the plot – Tristran and Yvaine, the brothers of Stormhold and the Lilim, only come together the once, so there’s not as much sense of immediate danger to the two leads. Most of the set-pieces and buffoonery of the movie were added in to fit an adventure movie’s pacing; the ship’s captain who plays a solid part in the film is in the original text for a scant few pages and gone again. Some aspects, especially Tristran’s parents, hew more to the tone of the novel’s set era, something that perhaps the movie chose to modernise. Finally, the ending is more bittersweet than happy.

I dunno. Maybe I’m still a big kid, but I prefer the movie. The novel ambles rather than rollicks, and I think I like my fiction to rollick along a bit more. If I were given the choice between purchasing the movie and the novel I’d pick the movie easily, but I’m glad to know the library has the original illustrated novel, and I’m sure I’ll go back to it again.

April 17, 2008

Some are born and some are dying…

There’s a rule in fiction: Show, don’t tell. If something’s going on, show it happening; don’t have someone in the fiction talk about it.

On Tuesday night, the first season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles came to an explosive end. Apparently, this was due to the US writers’ strike, but it left the show on a very neat cliffhanger to be picked up next season (and although it’s never a sure thing until it hits the screens, signs seem pretty good that T:SCC will be picked up for Season 2).

The capstone of a very intense final episode, though, wasn’t the bright last couple of shots, but the major fight scene near the end. Except, it wasn’t a fight scene.

To explain: There’s been a B-story right through the season involving FBI Agent James Ellison, who was assigned to the Connor case right after Terminator 2. His case underwent an eight-year hiatus when Sarah, John and an unknown woman blew themselves and most of a bank up in 1999, but a couple of odd murders in 2007 have brought him back to the Connor case again, and the anomalies in the murders are bringing him to the conclusion that Sarah Connor’s psychotic tales of time travelling robot assassins might actually be true – and that one such has been using the face of an out-of-work actor in its masquerade as an FBI agent. There’s enough evidence to have the individual in question brought in, so Ellison organises an armed FBI response team and storms the apartment of the out-of-work actor.

Now if this were another Terminator movie, what happens next would probably be handled in full action style; prop firearms firing gas flares, squibs, blood and other makeup effects. But this is one episode of a TV series, so there’s no way in heck they’d have the budget or the shooting time for something like that. What the creative team does instead not only bucks the Terminator trend (the first two films featured hefty versus-cops shootouts) but it also appears to violate the “show, don’t tell” rule. See, the apartment block has a pool, and when the first of Ellison’s armoured team enters the upper-story apartment and begins firing, he’s almost immediately hurled backward. Some quick cuts show the trooper hurtle through the air, and from there on, the action is recorded by an underwater camera in the pool. While we hear muted through the water voices shouting and yelling and guns firing, trooper after armoured FBI trooper splashes down into the pool and floats, bleeding, unmoving.

Accompanying all this is Johnny Cash’s apocalypse ballad, “When The Man Comes Around”.

It’s a powerful contrast to the films, where we’re routinely shown Terminators shot, stabbed, burned, run over, all the while dishing out as much death as is being served to them, just to demonstrate to the audience how tough they are, usually to Brad Fiedel’s stark synth soundtrack. In this case, though, what we see is what usually gets glossed over in the films: the body count. Not in any gory detail, just corpse after corpse after corpse, falling, floating and bleeding. And not to anything hard or synthesised or industrial, but instead to a doom-laden folk song chock-full of biblical symbols, written and performed by one of America’s best-known country singers. Telling us what's happening turned out to be even more bloody powerful than the best action scene could ever aspire.

And in case we’re left in any doubt of the cause of the carnage, the final sequence of shots shows us Ellison, staring down the barrel of the very image of the apocalypse that his religious upbringing has been nagging at him over for the last few weeks, a man whose face has been torn in true Terminator fashion to reveal parts of the metal endoskeleton beneath.

As TV series go, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is pretty damn grim; I’d go so far as to say it’s even grimmer than Battlestar Galactica, itself telling the story of a desperate band fleeing the apocalypse. It’s not been quite so consistently great as Galactica was in its first season, possibly because it has a smaller cast of characters to draw plotlines from. But if the creative team can keep breaking the rules with as much style I’ll stay up as late as Channel 9 screens Season 2.

April 12, 2008

Stardust

I think – heck, I’m pretty sure – I have a new favourite movie.

I’ve gone trough favourites a lot lately. As many will tell you, my favourite movie from between 1991 and, I don’t know, 2000 or so, was Aliens. Things got uncertain for a while after that. A Knight’s Tale was in there for a while, then Serenity and recently, Transformers.

Last night, though, I went to the DVD store to find something to tide away a dull-TV Friday Night. I narrowed it down to three films; Surf’s Up, Stardust and Ratatouille (I was in a kids’ film mood and Enchanted isn’t out yet). I was keen on Surf's Up (Shia leBoeuf and Jeff Bridges jamming on dialogue sounds like the hot-buttered awesome), but I figured I'd leave the final call to Vickie, and after telling me I didn’t have to get a kids’ film (no, she loves them too, she just wanted to be sure I didn’t think I was being brow-beaten into a genre) she asked for Stardust.

Now, I’m not a fan of Neil Gaiman; I’ve read Good Omens, his collaboration with Terry Pratchett, and American Gods, and that’s about it. I don’t mind him; I’m just rarely in any hurry to read his work (no, not even Sandman). Vickie’s even further down on the spectrum: She started reading American Gods under sufferance (we’d joined a very short-lived SF&F readers’ club at the Hornsby branch of Borders Books) and got as far as the chapter where Bilquis is introduced before expressing utter disgust and putting the book aside for ever more.

But after seeing Stardust, I told Vickie that I’d love to own a copy of the movie sometime. I’m even tempted to track the illustrated novel down, and am wondering what else of Gaiman’s is in a similar vein. While I’m a sucker for feel-good movies, Stardust felt like occupied a higher order of magnitude; it didn’t make me feel as though I’d had to, I don’t know, reduce myself to its level in order to love it, because it wasn’t afraid to hide its intelligence either. The acting was top-notch all around, I loved the appearances by all and sundry, Robert de Niro was – well, for crying out loud, if you don’t already know, go and rent the fucking thing. The women were great; Michelle Pfeiffer always does quality villainess and although I’ve kind of liked Claire Danes in other work, damned if she didn’t have me falling in love with her myself (only a little, Vickie love!) in this. Oh, and that Charlie Cox fellow? Yep, no problem with him whatsoever.

You know, I’ve always been willing to forgive sequels a little, mainly because in movies, we’re introduced to a bunch of characters with whom, if everything is working properly, we’ve come to like a lot – and after only an hour and a half, they’re gone. And that’s how I felt at the end of Stardust. I want to know more about the world of Stormhold and its people, but especially Tristan and Yvaine, I want to spend more time in their company. But the second greatest complement I think I can give the film is that it needs no sequel. Their story is told and over, and to try and shoehorn more into another movie would simply dilute the magic (even more so than the obligatory soft-rock tune over the end credits).

The greatest compliment? Simply that there are few things that make me quite as wistful as the thought that hopping through the gap in that high stone wall won't really take me to Stormhold. Not even Peter Cullen lending his voice to Optimus Prime again could elicit that kind of feeling. Transformers is a guilty pleasure, whereas Stardust... well, that was magic.

April 06, 2008

Vickie's Response to Spam, #1

" 'Do what millions of other men are doing today!' What, wanking?"

April 04, 2008

Movies and Movie-Based RPGs

In a little under sixteen hours, I’m going to be running the fourth session of my Star Wars: Tarmadan Sector campaign for my players. Naturally, I’ve saved all the prep-work until the last minute. I doubt I’ll be burning the proverbial midnight oil, as I have some shopping to do tomorrow morning, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be up until around twelve to finish things off.

Last week’s Feng Shui session was fun. If you’ve never played it, Feng Shui is meant to encourage the kind of frenetic, stunt-laden set pieces seen in Hong Kong action films. Our GM, Leon, stripped out the standard setting in Feng Shui for one of his own, a cross between Blade and The Terminator where we players (Tracey, Patrick, Tracey’s daughter and myself) are trying to halt a future vampire apocalypse. I found myself coming up with lines of dialogue for my character more readily than improvisational stunts, and it was a great relief to be sitting on the other side of the GM’s screen again!

In between games, I’m hoping to drag Vickie out to see some films. At the moment, she’s keen on The Spiderwick Chronicles, Nim’s Island, The Bucket List and Vantage Point. I’m keen on most of those too, especially Nim’s Island (Jodie Foster and Gerard Butler? Where do I sign up?) although I must confess an interest in St. Trinian’s. (A), it has Rupert Everett in it, playing two roles, and (B) it’s the newest film in a grand British tradition! Okay, maybe not grand, but Colin Firth is in it as the villain!

Speaking of movies, I got a couple of comp tickets to see Step Up 2: The Streets a couple of weeks ago. Due to a brief bout of sickness on my part, I wound up taking Chooks instead of Vickie as originally planned, but I think Chooks got more out of it anyway. The plot had a couple of minor variations on the genre’s theme (low-class kid and gang of misfits make good at prestigious school), but the dancing was very impressive. I wound up looking up local hip-hop classes on the Internet for Chooks, and I will confess I was semi-tempted by the idea myself. Vickie reminded me that I’m a little past the point of picking up dance acrobatics like those! :-)

Oh, and I’m going to have to drag Karlos off to see Iron Man in a month’s time!

On a bit of a downer, that Sony 40" screen of ours has started running a diagnostic routine every other time we start it up. Thankfully, it's still (barely) under warranty, so I was able to get a tech in via Sony to take a look. Apparently the main power supply is starting to fail, so we're waiting for him to get back to us next week with a replacement.