Monday, November 23, 2015

The Leaden Finger Gamer’s Review – Game of Thrones Episodes 2 to 6

Late last year I reviewed the first episode of Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones video game series. Now episodes two to six have been released, with the final episode coming out this week. The series has had mixed reviews, but I’ve enjoyed it enough to keep an eye on when each new episode is about to be released, and played each one almost as soon as it has come out.

As I said in my previous review, the series centres round the Forrester family, who are a noble family that were aligned with House Stark. Like other Telltale Games such as ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘The Wolf Among Us’ the choices you make as your character affects how the game unfolds. Unlike those other games though in ‘Game of Thrones’ you play as multiple characters, in this case multiple members of the Forrester family.

There are five different characters you play as in the course of the game, from the lord of the House to one of its faithful squires. The stories are set in different parts of the Games of Thrones world, such as King’s Landing, Meereen, and the far North. In each of those stories you encounter characters from the TV series voiced by the actual actors, including Jon Snow, Daenerys, Cersei, Tyrion, Margaery, and Ramsay. 

Most of the game consists of choosing dialogue and actions. Apart from perhaps ‘The Walking Dead’, ‘Game of Thrones’ seems as well-suited as any TV show to this type of gameplay, given that much of the tension in the show derives from the choices the characters make. Being responsible for the fates of the characters, many of which are ‘your family’, does heighten the intensity of being involved in this world. I was worried that the specific choices I made were causing more characters to perish; as it turns out I don’t think I killed off many more people than other players.

Given the mortality rate of ‘Game of Thrones’ though, trying to save characters’ necks probably shouldn’t be your main aim in this game. As one of the characters, Mira, points out – at least in my play through – how you go about living in the face of your fate and therefore how you are remembered are possibly more important than whether you live or not. Without giving too much away, you will be confronted with how you ‘lived’ and how you will be remembered before the credits roll. And even though the other characters were all two‑dimensional figures, I still felt failure when I disappointed them, and triumph when a rare smile came across their face, though more often fear at their narrowed eyes.

While things come to a head as the episodes progress, the last episode ends on a somewhat anti‑climatic note, which made me suspect that another season was in the works, as indeed there is. The more interesting ending actually comes in the penultimate episode, which as I understand it, really affects how the final episode unfolds. I’m not sure I felt as into ‘Game of Thrones’ as much as ‘The Walking Dead’ or ‘The Wolf Among Us’, but I am still a sucker for these games, and very likely will play the next season when it rolls around.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Beatles’ Big Five Albums

The Beatles are my favourite band ever. But for me my love of the Beatles pretty much rests on just five of their albums, though supported by some great non-album singles from the same period. Those are the five albums made between 1965 and 1969 which are typically considered their greatest – ‘Rubber Soul’ (1965), ‘Revolver’ (1966), ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967), ‘The Beatles’ (1968), and ‘Abbey Road’ (1969).

It has been almost twenty years since I first got into these albums, but I still love and admire how each of them is very different from the others. Many have written about what these albums mean to them. This is what they mean to me.

Rubber Soul: In my view, this is when the Beatles were just on the verge of getting interesting, and it is not as creative as their later albums. However there are some really good, catchy pop songs on here, such as ‘Drive My Car’, ‘You Won’t See Me’, ‘Think For Yourself’, ‘The Word’, and ‘If I Needed Someone’. Then it also has the less poppy, but compositionally interesting John Lennon tracks – ‘Norwegian Wood’ with the sitar, ‘Girl’ with the pot smoking, and ‘In My Life’. Overall, ‘Rubber Soul’ kind of marked the Beatles’ transition from pop/R&B-combo to artists, and that puts it up with the top Beatles albums for me.

Revolver: Now, and for some time, my favourite Beatles album. There is not a weak track on it, and a huge array of styles. George Harrison’s ‘Taxman’ kicks things off right with an infectious bassline and guitar. ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ is a beautiful piece of psychedelic pop. Paul McCartney’s ‘Here, There, And Everywhere’ is just a beautiful song full stop. ‘Yellow Submarine’ is fun and I love the effects and how the Beatles sound half-drunk when singing the final chorus in unison. Lennon’s ‘She Said She Said’ and ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ are great pop-rock tracks packed into two minutes each. ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ is an excursion into soul that works. And ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is one of my two favourite Beatles tracks ever. Ringo’s drums are humungous, and John’s voice does sound like he is calling from the end of a tunnel. Also, not one of the backwards guitars, unlike many other psychedelic tracks, sounds the least bit out of place.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: The first Beatles album I ever bought, but perhaps in part because I listened to it a lot when I didn’t own many CDs I don’t listen to it much nowadays. It has only three standout tracks to me: the opening title track backed with ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, and the amazing closer ‘A Day In The Life’, which is my other favourite Beatles track. But a lot of the other tracks are good stuff as well, such as ‘Lovely Rita’ and ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite’. This album just doesn’t seem to flow as naturally as ‘Revolver’ and ‘Abbey Road’ do though. I still have a fondness for it, particularly the album cover.

The Beatles (White Album): I remember listening to both discs all the way through for the first time on a Sunday afternoon, and being somewhat pleasantly confounded by them. The Beatles seemed harder on this album than any of their others, which indeed they were. On tracks like ‘Back In The USSR’, ‘Helter Skelter’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, and ‘Birthday’ the Beatles have a raw rock sound that they don’t really have on any other album – parts of ‘Abbey Road’ and ‘Let It Be’ excepted. John Lennon wrote his greatest batch of songs for this album, apart from ‘Happiness …’ there was also ‘I’m So Tired’, ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘Cry Baby Cry’, ‘Revolution No. 1’, and others. Most of Paul’s tracks are pretty good as well, and George contributed two classics of his own. And count me as one person who actually quite likes listening to ‘Revolution No. 9’.

Abbey Road: Having played together for a decade the Beatles never sounded as effortless as they did on this album. When I first heard the medley I was surprised to hear the album end when I thought it was only up to track 10. Now the medley is the highlight for me – possibly Paul’s finest ever fifteen minutes – along with George’s great songs ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’. They sound like they are taking the piss half the time on this album, or can barely be bothered, but they still have enough love and commitment for the tunes to make it work.

And those are the big five. Can any band come close to matching that for peak output? A few may be close: the Stones’ big four albums in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, Bowie’s ‘70s albums if you excise ‘Pinups’ and ‘Diamond Dogs’, Radiohead’s output from ‘The Bends’ to ‘In Rainbows’ skipping over ‘Amnesiac’ … But a lot of those albums sounded similar even if they are fantastic, whereas the Beatles’ ‘big five’ albums have so much variety on them. Even twenty years after I first heard them there’s still, for me, nothing quite like them.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 114

AUSTRALIAN RULES FOOTBALL/HUMOUR: The AFL club songs ranked by ambition and boastfulness.

FILM: Someone tries to argue that the big bad guy of the first three Star Wars episodes was meant to be Jar Jar Binks. I would like to believe it was true – it would make those movies a lot more interesting – but I still think Jar Jar was simply an attempt to appeal to the kids.

FILM/BOOKS/TELEVISION/COMIC BOOKS: Still on Star Wars, an argument as to why Disney’s erasing the expanded Star Wars Universe – i.e. the novels and comics that followed the movies – was a good thing.

ECONOMICS/CULTURE/SPORTS: Sadly my favourite website, and one which I linked to often here, GRANTLAND, is gone. This article discusses the problems about making a website like GRANTLAND profitable, and how it may be done so.

BOOKS: The 10 worst typos in the Bible, including the incorrect translation of Yeshua.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Wooden Finger Five – November 2015

5. Clearest Blue – Chvrches

There is not really all that much to Chvrches – lyric-wise, songwriting wise, voice-wise, or music-wise. But their beats are pretty good, and their new album really works, at least for the first six or seven tracks.

‘Clearest Blue’ gets my nod as the best of the tracks, mostly for the moment when it explodes into a beat and sound that is kind of like Depeche Mode’s ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, but possibly better. Chvrches seem to think it is the centrepiece of the album as well, deciding not to follow it up in the track sequence with another Lauren Mayberry-sung track that is likely not going to measure up, but shifting the mood by inserting in a track sung by Martin Doherty instead.

4. One Thing – Beach House

I saw a link to a review for a new release by Beach House, and I thought that it surely couldn’t be a new album, given that their latest ‘Depression Cherry’ came out just a couple of months ago. But indeed it was. As opposed to a lot of their recent output, which seems to just float on by to me and is barely remembered, ‘One Thing’ lurches along, particularly in its intro, with a guitar reminiscent of late ‘80s British rock bands such as Ride and My Bloody Valentine. It then doesn’t have too much up its sleeve after that, but I always like a good shoegaze guitar riff.

3. Namaste – Swim Deep

What does Namaste mean? What are the lyrics to this song? Even if I see the lyrics typed out I don’t know what they mean. The bursts of sound are what get me on this one, both the keys at the start, and then later on with Austin Williams’ scream/shout. The Swim Deep album as a whole is actually pretty good as well, with ‘Hotel California’ (which I’ve mentioned here before) and ‘Great Affection’ being other seemingly instantly recognisable tracks.

2. All The Same – Deerhunter

‘My home, anywhere, expect no comforts save for air’ sings Bradford Cox to start off Deerhunter’s seventh album.  The lines suggest adaptability, but by the time Cox gets to the chorus of ‘it’s all the same’ they are more suggestive of apathy instead. Except Cox is not a guy who ever really sounds apathetic; that is more the domain of his bandmate Lockett Pundt (see Lotus Plaza, ‘Desire Lines’). Hence rather than sounding like it doesn’t give a damn ‘All the Same’ gets Deerhunter’s new album off to a lively start. 

Grimes has a lot more lyrics on her new album. Since I like a good pop song more than I like a good instrumental track this is a good thing to me, and therefore I’ve probably listened to her new album more than her last, with ‘Oblivion’ being the obvious exception.
‘Flesh Without Blood’ comes from the popular 21st century genre of pop disses to exes, though reportedly not an ex-partner in this case. ‘And you had every chance/You destroy everything that you love … If you don’t need me/Just let me go’.  But the tune is so jubilant that it took me a couple of listens to realise that essentially the cat claws were out. Going ‘pop’ can be a dicey proposition, but if it means Grimes keeps making music like this – which does sound like the type of music we imagined we would someday be listening to in 2015 – then I am for it. (I’m less keen on her making album covers like this.)

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Leaden Finger Gamer’s Review – The Beginner’s Guide

For a leaden finger gamer, and one who is not averse to selecting the easiest difficulty setting, a game that is known as ‘The Beginner’s Guide’ sounds like it is made for my type of skill level. In that respect this game does not disappoint – one does not have to do much at all except for move around a bit through various settings, and occasionally click the mouse button. Also if you are stuck on a part for a minute or two the narrator will bail you out, and you are on to the next location. Basically then you cannot fail this game, and it will only take you about an hour and a half to complete. Achievement unlocked!

As one may suspect then, offering a challenge to the player is not really the point of ‘The Beginner’s Guide’. However it is difficult to talk about what the point is without spoiling the plot, and the experience. On the other hand, after I played this game all I did was want to talk about it. What then can I say about it here?

One thing I can say without giving away too much is that ‘The Beginner’s Guide’ did change my view somewhat about what could be called a (video) game. Without wanting to sound too highfalutin about it, one could think of ‘The Beginner’s Guide’ as art taking the form of a game as much as it is a game itself. That description not only applies to the overall game, but also to the games within the game; that is the games supposedly produced by a designer named Coda which ‘ … Guide’ creator Davey Wreden has repackaged for his own purposes. Few of these games really have all that much that is ‘gamey’ about them; they are as much set pieces, or pieces in a gallery, as they are an interface for the player to interact with. Some of them even seem to resist being played, are almost ‘anti-games’. Yet you still have to do the tasks to progress, even though some of those tasks are rudimentary, so I guess games they are.

Apart from the somewhat unusual imagery what stayed with me from this game was the story. Again I cannot say too much about this without spoiling the game. But what the story of the game does explore is the relationship between the game and the designer, and what each may say about the other. It also explores the relationship between a game and its audience, and the question of whether a game necessarily has to have widespread appeal. It is a question often asked of other media, but not often of video games.

So the game made me think, and it was easy to play. Given my preferences and gaming dexterity I would not be surprised if I end up getting a lot more enjoyment out of this than I do from ‘Fallout 4’.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 113: Counterbalance

‘Counterbalance’ was a weekly web column on PopMatters, in which two (mostly rock) music aficionados would discuss one of the greatest albums of all time, starting from the ‘best’ of all and going down the list. This list was deemed The Great List, and referred to a list of the most recommended albums put together by another fellow using a mathematical formula from more than a thousand ‘greatest album’ lists by critics. Hence by following the list the two authors were considering the albums that the critical consensus had determined were the best, rather than simply advocating for their own personal favourites.

The result was not only a discussion of the albums themselves, but how critics viewed those albums, particularly how critical favour gathered around certain records. One theory they used several times was that some albums often appeared on ‘best of’ lists as representatives of entire genres or eras; for example, Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’ is a ‘placeholder’ for the early 1970s singer-songwriter genre, and Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ is the jazz record that is often included. A theory they had that I quite liked is that ‘great’ double albums can generally be categorised as a Grand Artistic Statement, or A Pile, with the latter term not necessarily meant in a derogatory sense, but just meant to denote that the album is more a hodgepodge of styles than a focused effort. The Beatles’ self-titled ‘white’ album, for instance, is a definite example of a double album ‘pile’.

One trend that I noticed is that rarely did both authors consider a particular album as being among their favourites. Further, often the reaction – such as, for example, with Bob Dylan’s ‘classic’ records – was that an author would like the album and appreciate it, but not love it. Considering the list myself, there are probably quite a few albums on there than I own and like, but don’t play all that much: Bob Dylan’s records for me as well, but also, say, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, and even the supposed greatest album of all time, ‘Pet Sounds’. I found their approach quite an honest one as opposed to the fawning evaluations of great records that accompany many ‘best of’ lists. It highlights that, to most listeners, some of the great albums will seem vital, while others will seem merely important, and which is which will say as much about the listener as the album itself.

Dave’s Music Database has links to the ‘Counterbalance’ columns on the top 100 albums of The Great List. Of those first 100 columns, these are my 10 favourite discussions:

10. The Sex Pistols – Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols: Both authors think the myth of the Sex Pistols far outstrips the music.
18. Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run: Can one buy into the world of the Boss?
28. The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead: Two Americans try to appreciate a quintessentially British album.
31. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV: How you can come to like music that was liked by the wrong sort of people during your youth.
42. Stevie Wonder – Innervisions: On learning to love Stevie Wonder.
54. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica: In which the narrative that this album is an obscure masterpiece is stomped upon.
58. Fleetwood Mac – Rumours: The important album from 1977 that was actually a hit, and for which perhaps more has been read into than is actually there.
59. Pixies – Doolittle: These guys love the Pixies.
67. John Coltrane – A Love Supreme: An example of how jazz can be hard to get into, but can be rewarding if you do (I haven’t yet, though I own this album).
95. Back in Black – AC/DC: A band that was looked down upon by music snobs has now, seemingly through sheer longevity, made its way into the canon.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Who Has The Easiest AFL Draw in 2016?

With the release of the 2016 AFL fixture this week, it is time for my annual assessment of the difficulty of each club’s draw. Which clubs have the easiest and hardest draws in 2016?

To recap here is how my assessment is done: a club’s draw is rated by summing up over every match the ranking points of its opponents as determined by my end-of-season AFL Power Rankings, while adjusting for net home ground advantage.

This means the rating for each club’s draw is in effect the result of three components:

-          The effect of not playing your own club: If every club played each other the same amount of times the best club would have the easiest draw and the worst club would have the hardest.
-          Net home ground advantage: This is the net effect of the adjustments for home ground advantage across the season. Not playing your home matches interstate helps out here, as does playing clubs from out-of-town.
-          The effect of which clubs your club plays twice: This is the collective strength of the opponents that each club plays twice. A higher rating for this component means that you have easier opponents in your return bouts.
Putting that all together, the easiness/difficulty of each AFL club’s draw in 2016 is shown in the table below, ranked from easiest to hardest:

And the winners of this year’s fixture are … the Gold Coast Suns. The Suns have relatively easy return bouts, playing Brisbane, Essendon, Melbourne, and GWS twice, with only Fremantle expected to be a tough return engagement.

After years of tough draws Geelong’s can look forward to an easy fixture in 2016 after missing the finals for the first time in nine years. The Cats also get Brisbane, Essendon, and GWS twice, and as always, are considered here to be helped by playing some Victorian clubs down in Geelong.

Port Adelaide, Carlton, and St. Kilda should also be pleased with their fixtures. Essendon should be pleased about which clubs it plays twice, but less pleased about the number of times it travels interstate compared to the number of times it hosts out-of-towners.

At the other end North Melbourne is rated as having the hardest draw, slightly ahead of Adelaide. North Melbourne’s chief executive even admitted to the difficulty of North Melbourne’s fixture, though it is not helped by the Kangaroos playing some home matches in Tasmania. Adelaide, meanwhile, has the toughest return matches against clubs, playing West Coast, Fremantle, North Melbourne, Port Adelaide, and Geelong twice.

Reigning premier Hawthorn also has some tough return engagements, playing West Coast, North Melbourne, Sydney, and Richmond twice. But as has been the case for the past few years Hawthorn’s biggest advantage is that it does not have to play Hawthorn. That puts it from having one of the hardest draws to one that is rated somewhere in the middle.

Note again though that the difference between the easiest draw and the hardest draw averages out to about a goal a match. Surely North Melbourne can easily make up that difference with Gold Coast, can’t they?