We’ve all heard that tragedy + time = comedy. But sometimes, people do things that start as funny but then just get pathetic as time goes on. I’d like to propose we formalize this as comedy + time = just sad.

Something they never tell you in career counseling is that the people you work with can be divided precisely into these two groups: people who will avoid eye contact with you in the restroom at all costs and people who will start chatting you up in the restroom if they realize they are in the stall next to you.

There is no middle ground.

if there is one thing radicals/progressives/liberals have failed to get right in the new age

navigatethestream:

its the notion of boycotts

you wanna know why the bus boycotts of the civil rights movement were so successful?

because an alternative black run transportation system was created for those who couldn’t walk to work or whatever they had to go

they didn’t just tell…

Oh mercy. It’s like I’ve always known this but never knew how to articulate it.

Spoiler Alert: a Need for Speed: Most Wanted Review

This article is part of a series called “Reviews You Can’t Use”, in which the author reviews a video game and lets nothing get in the way of his journalistic integrity unless there’s at least a 30% chance it would be funny.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a game that will need some context. So grab a jacket, put on some sensible shoes, and come walk down memory lane with me.

I remember my introduction to the Need for Speed series back in 1998 or 1999. One day, I was brought over to the house of a family friend. Her new boyfriend was (and is) really into computers. He showed me this:

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It was called Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit. Nowadays, it looks like a game you would get for free for your iPhone that charges $5 to unlock new cars, but I assure you that this was played on a desktop. It was a different time then. WinAmp, still the media player of choice, had only reached version 2. 3dfx’s Voodoo graphics chips were the best on the market. Rosie O’Donnell still had a TV show and was still in the closet. Mark, the boyfriend I mentioned, saw how taken I was with the game and burned a copy for me (which blew my mind because CD burning was still a novel thing).

So much has changed. WinAmp made it to version 5.5 before AOL gave up on it. 3dfx exploded with the tech bubble and was absorbed into Nvidia. Rosie O’Donnell is a known lesbian, and no one cares anymore. Mark the boyfriend ended up marrying said family friend. CD burning is almost obsolete.

One thing that hasn’t changed? They’re still making Need for Speed games. But today, they look like this.

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The Need for Speed series is a long-running guilty pleasure of mine. It’s just not something I should like. It’s brainless, twitchy fun, and it’s not even self-aware about it. The series takes itself so seriously. As much as I dislike the American marketing assumption that life as a man is about beer, sports, and cars, when presented with the opportunity to ram through a police roadblock with an Italian sports car, I say, “OK.” When they mention that the police cars are Corvettes, I say, “Yes, please.”

I’ve stuck with this series through a variety of twists and turns as EA tried to reinvent it and keep it popular. High Stakes followed Hot Pursuit, and added the game mechanic of winning your opponent’s car if you beat them. (I don’t know why I bother with the gender-neutral pronoun. There are at most two women in any NFS game.) There was some other Porsche-themed one after that. I started to have money around the time that Hot Pursuit 2 hit, for the PS2. I bought it and loved it. Underground came after, and it was fun, but strictly rental material. There were no police chases, but it did introduce what would be the most striking feature of NFS games for many games to come: a story mode… with terrible, terrible acting. Most Wanted hit at the end of the Xbox era and reunited the street racing and campy acting (have a little taste) with police pursuits. I was back in. I won’t lie. I enjoyed it. It wasn’t Proust, but then, I’m not Kierkegaard. It was followed by Carbon, which was the same game, but prettier and set in a city called Palmont, which was Los Angeles, but without the trouble of actually being LA. Shift and ProStreet happened at some point, but they were supposed to be realistic. I wasn’t interested. Undercover looked promising, but it turns out that they doubled down on the acting and slacked on the gameplay, and the result was something I didn’t care to play for any longer than an hour. This was followed by Need for Speed: World, which looked pretty, but it was entirely online, and I don’t buy video games to talk with strangers on the Internet.

It was around this time that the NFS franchise was in trouble. It just wasn’t making the money it was supposed to, and critics were accusing EA of just remaking the same NFS game over and over for money. Also, the acting wasn’t helping. That’s when EA decided to turn the series over to Criterion Games, a UK studio responsible for the Burnout series. For the uninitiated, Burnout is a series of racing games with a focus on wrecking your opponents. One game even features a mode where your goal is to launch your car into a busy street and cause as much damage as possible. The last Burnout game had been well-received. The last NFS had not. So EA decided to have Criterion take a shot at making an NFS game. The result was called Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Yes, again. It was, predictably, focused on police chases, and it brought back the ability to play as a cop, something I’d missed. Violence with self-righteousness is the best kind of violence. Gone were the actors. That’s not Criterion’s style. Their cutscenes are instead about cars, scenery, and a disembodied female voice telling you what you’ve won. Black Box, the studio that made Underground and Most Wanted, made one more NFS game after that. It was called Need for Speed: The Run. In what I can only assume was a desperate attempt to justify their past attempts at plot and dialogue, they hired Michael Bay to direct the game. This was the last NFS game Black Box made before they were “restructured”.

After The Run, Criterion decided to make another spiritual successor. They produced Need for Speed: Most Wanted. A new one. That’s the game this review is about.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted, like its predecessor, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, has a single-player campaign that revolves around rising to the top of a list of racers called the “Most Wanted” list. You do this, of course, by racing them and beating them. The main difference between the two Need for Speed: Most Wanteds is that the older one, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, had people in it. In addition to Sgt. Cross and Lt. Eye Candy from the clip linked above, you meet Razor Callahan, best known for theatrically betting five grand—FIVE GRAND—on your race with him. There’s Mia Townsend, who very importantly calls things “hot” and makes that face where her mouth is open enough where you can see her teeth but not anything else but she’s also not really smiling. Each of the racers on the list has a name, a picture, and about five seconds of animated video in which to taunt you. In contrast, the newer game, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, has no people. The Most Wanted list is a list of cars. There are, of course, no pedestrians. And even when you drive a convertible and the game is obligated to render a driver for it, you get an unremarkable man in a black helmet. The only voices you ever hear are police chatter on the radio and Disembodied Female Voice explaining the game and congratulating you on winning something. When you beat a Most Wanted “racer”, you just beat “Porsche 911 Spyder Concept”. You don’t beat “Sonny”, who uses his connections to get new parts before they hit the street or has some other worthless flavor text thrown in. I never thought I’d be defending the shallow stories of Need for Speed: Most Wanted (the elder), but here I am. I miss them. They weren’t much, but they were something. Razor Callahan was flatter as a character than a piece of paper that hasn’t hit puberty yet, but at least I wanted to beat him. He took my car. He upset Female Character 1 of 2. He’s a jerk. Why am I racing Koenigsegg Agera R? Maybe he volunteers at the animal shelter on the weekends. Maybe he’s a great guy. Maybe he’s actually the second female character! All I know is I’m supposed to beat this car so that I can be the “Most Wanted” in Fairhaven, a title that would seem to carry few rewards and make it very hard to go to public places.

Look, I’m going to save you some time and spoil the ending for you. Disembodied Female Voice congratulates you on becoming Most Wanted and gives a brief but accurate synopsis of who you have beaten and what one can thus deduce about your driving talents. A montage of cars racing and being chased by the police plays on-screen. Roll credits. Then, you go downstairs, pour yourself a glass of water, sip it, and look out the window and ask yourself in a half-sigh, “Why did I do that?”

The setting of Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a richly detailed city called Fairhaven. I found it immediately tantalizing to try to pin down which city Fairhaven was, because the NFS series likes to base its cities on real cities. Need for Speed: Most Wanted (the first one) had Rockport, which echoed New York. Carbon had Palmont, which is clearly Los Angeles (with a bit of Vegas mixed in), and Hot Pursuit (the new one) took place in Seacrest County, which was an amalgam of the California wilderness. Fairhaven is a city of brick buildings and coastline, receding into forests and cliffs. This, combined with the American flag motif on the license plates, had me thinking of Boston, Philadelphia, or DC. I decided it couldn’t be DC because there weren’t enough monuments. Then, I discovered the best clue someone could ask for. It was a sign, briefly displayed in close-up, that said “NO PARKING EXCEPT MASS STATE POLICE”. So there you go. It’s Boston. Maybe it’s a good thing you never hear anyone talk in this game. (For what it’s worth, the police and Disembodied Female Voice talk with a Midwestern/Californian accent.)

Fairhaven is nonetheless quite pretty and offers varied landscapes in which to race. Wide highways, tight city streets, country roads, and pavement-free rally courses are all available. You navigate between them in an open world littered with billboards and security gates to smash, adding a fun collectible element to the game. New cars are unlocked by finding them in the city and driving up to them. They’ll just be sitting there, lights on and engine running. It’s fine. No one will steal them. There are no people in this city. The only exception to this is the cars on the Most Wanted list. You can’t drive those until you beat them in a race and then make them crash. Fans of the series will note that this is a departure from the car purchasing model utilized in Need for Speed: Most Wanted's predecessor, Need for Speed: Most Wanted.

Speaking of cars, there is a dizzying array of them available. Criterion did a good job of modeling them, too, so they look as expensive, powerful, and overall fetching as they do in real life. As you accumulate bumps and bruises, the car will show damage, though you can drive through a repair shop to instantly repair and repaint it. This is obviously grossly unrealistic, but then, there’s no whiplash, either, so I’m not about to ask questions. The cars all sound different, which makes me think they put a lot of work into making the sound realistic, but I’ve never been around any of these vehicles, so I really have no idea. You can customize the cars using a system called “Easydrive”, which is a small menu in the upper-left that you can use while driving. Theoretically. This menu uses the control pad, which is located below the joystick on most controllers. This means that you can use the menu while driving, so long as you don’t need to turn. In case some of you don’t have much experience with driving games, turning is something you occasionally have to do in them. Oh well. It’s still a way to change your tires after running over a spike strip. Did they have to call it Easydrive, though? I guess Cumbersomedrive doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.

The music selection is good. I actually discovered a couple new favorite albums from this. There is a slighly English bent to the selections, since Criterion is a UK studio. Criterion’s Britishness does not show up very often, and Fairhaven is a convincing facsimile of America. However, every once in a while, you can detect a slight tinge of Britishness, as if the game had been sprinkled lightly with the crumbs at the bottom of a bag of prawn cocktail flavoured crisps. Criterion’s biggest contribution is the game’s crash system, lifted from the Burnout series. You can earn extra nitrous by wrecking other racers and cops, and if you crash, the game simply shows your crash in slow motion and sets you back on the track. Criterion wisely deduced that if you’re going to give someone such rich masculine fantasy, then don’t waste their time making them undo their mistakes. In Need for Speed: Most Wanted, if you crashed, you had to back up, get back onto the road, and pray that no other racers hit you as you begin to accelerate again. Not so in Need for Speed: Most Wanted. A close second to the crash system is the intros that are played before each race. They are, for the most part, shots of the city and your car with artful camera angles and color shifts, but they show off the beautiful surroundings and set the stage. Most Wanted races are preceded with a pre-rendered video that usually pays tribute to the car design and manufacturing process in some abstract way. Ambush races easily have the best intros, though: surreal chase scenes that probably look like a police ambush would look if you were on LSD. Cop pyramid, anyone? Cop tornado, perhaps? Cop Voltron?

This game’s primary problem, in my eyes, is that I don’t know its audience. Its biggest selling point, back when it came out, was that you could compete with your friends. There are hundreds of leaderboards where you could compare your time to all of your friends’. One for every track, billboard, and speed camera. You could play live against them, too. But I don’t have any friends that like this series. I’m kind of ashamed of liking it myself. I cannot see telling one of my friends, “You should buy this $60 game so that we can race each other. But probably not anyone else, because I don’t know anyone else that likes these games.” I suppose one could have also played with strangers from the Internet, but I don’t buy video games to talk to strangers on the Internet. Now, I’m not saying no one enjoys that, but it’s not my cup of tea, and of the people I know that do, none of them like this series. I’m kind of wondering who bought it in the first months after it came out. Need for Speed: Most Wanted must have leaned heavily on its online support, because the story wasn’t keeping anyone around. Oh, and you might have noticed my deliberate use of the past tense in this paragraph. That’s because EA shut the servers for this game after 2 years, so none of the online stuff works anymore. Come on, EA. I’ve been to Redwood Shores. I’ve seen your place. You have some money to throw around. You can keep a server running. No one’s playing it anymore, so you’d only have to run one server.

So there you have it. It’s pretty. It’s fun. Until you realize that there are no people… just an endless stretch of expensive cars seemingly driving themselves incredibly dangerously.

Maybe this game was set in LA after all.

Final Score: Ford Mustang Boss 302/Shelby Mustang GT500

Humdinger: A Transistor Review

This article is part of a series called “Reviews You Can’t Use”, where the author analyzes a game he’s played until he can be sure that you won’t ever be able to enjoy it yourself, either because you don’t appreciate it on the same level as him or because he doesn’t like it and your liking it therefore makes you a philistine.

Transistor is the newest game by Supergiant Games, the studio that made Bastion. Have I already told you about Bastion? If not, it was surely an oversight on my part, because I should have told you to play Bastion. Bastion is so wonderful. Play Bastion. Finish Bastion, because the ending is great. You don’t need a fancy computer. You literally can play it on any computer that runs Google Chrome.

The building I live in does its best to keep religious proselytizers out, but if one day they fail and the Jehova’s Witnesses come knocking, I already know what will happen. I will be very polite and let them leave their pamphlets or whatever, I will remain essentially unchanged in my beliefs, and they will leave my dwelling with a burning desire to play Bastion.

So I guess what I’m getting at is that I might have come into this experience a little biased.

Transistor borrows a lot of things from its predecessor. The voice actors and the composer from Bastion have returned. The gameplay is, at its core, the same. Isometric perspective. Real-time combat. Forced perspective. That feature where you can turn things on to make the game harder? It’s back, too. You can still re-equip to change your attacks and add buffs, though the system in Transistor is more complex and customizable than the weapons and potions of Bastion.

Is it just Bastion 2, then? What’s different? Well, I’m glad you asked that, imaginary reader. The atmosphere. The plot. The world in which this game mechanic lives is entirely different. Bastion's world seemed like a fairy tale. Admittedly, it's a fairy tale that deals with some heavy themes, but the art has a whimsical feel and the narrator gives one the sensation that you're sitting on a grandpa's lap in front of a crackling fire. (Not one of my grandpas. They weren't very warm people. But one of the ones you see on TV.) Transistor trades this for a cyber-utopia called Cloudbank. It’s inside a computer. No one actually says this, but it’s clearly inside a computer. It’s understandable. If you lived in a computer and everyone else you’d ever met lived in that same computer, you wouldn’t really feel compelled to talk about how you live in a computer. You can tell because there aren’t any spoons in the game. If you don’t have spoons, you’re living in a computer simulation. I learned that from The Matrix. Perhaps “utopia” is generous. It’s definitely a post-scarcity world, but there’s clearly something wrong. All of the function names are capitalized, which I seem to recall being a C++ convention. If this world was indeed programmed in C++, then it would make sense that something no one anticipated has gone horribly, horribly wrong, as is the fate of all C++ code run for a sufficient amount of time. As I’ve been hinting at, the tone of the game isn’t quite utopic. Transistor is not a happy game. You start out next to a man that’s been viciously impaled with a sword, and all that you can really do is pick up the sword and start running, because according to the sword, you’re next. Your sword is by your side to cheer you on, but otherwise, the world is not there to encourage you. You’re fighting for your life.

I’m tempted to talk more in-depth about the plot, but I know I can’t. The plot is not fed to you linearly. You have to piece it together yourself. So basically anything I could say would be a spoiler. I will say this much: it’s exceptional for a video game. You really begin to care about the characters after a while. I also find it impressive that Supergiant didn’t need to rely on plot-gameplay segregation. It’s always clear what you need to do. There are no moments of “I guess I should trigger this or the story won’t advance” or “the great cataclysm will wait while I finish this minigame”. This comes at the cost of linearity. If you like to explore, your options will be limited. In fact, the one time that I was able to go back for something I missed, the sword actually said, “There’s something back there?” It wasn’t an experience we’d had before. There are no secret weapons or items. The biggest Easter eggs you’ll find will just be more plot. I happened to still enjoy this a lot, but your mileage may vary. One fringe benefit to the relative obscurity of the plot at the beginning of the game is that a second playthrough becomes much more rewarding. Like Arrested Development, you won’t catch everything the first time around.

The presentation is breathtaking. Cloudbank manages to combine art deco and steampunk aesthetics with a bit of 1980s Tron future-kitsch, and it looks beautiful. On top of this, the attention to detail is outstanding. Red, the protagonist, is given a sword almost as big as she is, and this means she has to drag it behind her, but the art accounts for this. As she walks, the sword digs into the digital ground beneath her and gives off sparks. All in all, the environments of Transistor look like the concept art of other games—the dreamy illustrations of artists asked to create a universe, free of any constraints about what’s feasible to program. But in this case, the actual game looks that way.

The music is similarly top-notch. And really, when your protagonist is a singer, that’s the way it should be. The soundtrack of Transistor is a dreamy, pedal-heavy, post-rock-inspired affair that matches the atmosphere perfectly. A heavy dose of synthesizer is added, because computers. Perhaps my favorite part is that every track has an accompanying vocal part in which Red hums along. Making a player feel like he/she is the protagonist is a very effective way to create a touching experience in a video game, and the humming does an excellent job of putting you in Red’s shoes. It’s not a kind of singing that you do for anyone else. It’s personal. It’s wanting to sing along with the song in your head, but keeping it to yourself. And in this game, you can hear it. It’s used especially well in the combat system. There are two sides to combat. One is real-time, and is simply running around and using attacks on enemies. This is one of the tracks that plays in this mode. The other, called Turn(), is a planning mode where the action freezes and you can queue up a sequence of moves and attacks that are executed immediately afterward. This is what would play during Turn(). The real world melts away into the background, and you focus on thoughts and plans instead. You’re in her head. You can even hear her humming.

Transistor is not for everyone. There is no multiplayer. If you remove the story and presentation, then it becomes merely a good game, rather than a great one. And honestly, if you’re not as obsessed as I am with the idea of video games maturing as an art form, you probably won’t get as excited about it as me. I’m also probably biased because the game reads like a love letter to anyone who’s taken a mid-level computer science course. Attacks have names like Crash(), Ping(), and Load(). There’s a music venue called The Empty Set. Such references might not make sense to you (in which case I apologize, because about 50% of my social media activity probably doesn’t make sense to you, either). Nonetheless, it’s for almost everyone. It’s beautiful, it’s fun, and in a world of sequels, rehashes, and pay-to-win iPhone games, it’s creative.

Final Score: 0xFFFE/0xFFFF

How Have These People Not Fired Me Yet, Part II

When you work with Ruby, you usually need to have a program of some sort that can change what version of Ruby you’re working with. A few of these have already been made and are freely available, but one of my colleagues decided to write his own. The other day, we were discussing what he had named this little utility. Since it’s a command-line tool, the name is somewhat important. You have to type it every time you use it, more or less. Among the highlights:

  • rp (“Oh, you’re one of those LARPing types? Maybe I shouldn’t be teaching my son Ruby after all.”)
  • ruby-select (“It’s still the store-brand Ruby, but it’s the expensive store-brand Ruby.”)
  • RuPath (“The drag queen of Ruby version managers.”)

Eventually, the author chimed in again and told us that there was no use in coming up with a catchy name because he doesn’t want rpath (as he actually calls it) to actually become popular. If other people start using it, they’ll start complaining about it, and he’ll have to fix it. This prompted us to change strategies and try to come up with the name least likely to get the utility used. We eventually decided on Microsoft IntelliRuby Assistant 2013 Starter Edition.

How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot in Ruby

Call the foot’s toes method. It will give you an array of toes. Call that array’s each method and pass in a block with a call to shoot!. Be sure that you call shoot! (pronounced “shoot bang”) instead of shoot, or you’ll create five new toes that the foot doesn’t know about and shoot them instead.

How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot in Node.js

Hire a band of mercenaries. Tell them, “Shoot me in the foot. Then, tell me to say ‘ow’. I’ll pay you as soon as my foot tells me it’s been shot.”