Goodbye Microsoft

After 27 years as a PC user (Commodore and TI before that, with some Apple programming in high school) I’m done. Enough is enough. This is what you’ve driven me to, Microsoft:

2015-08-04 13.50.28Did any of my PCs ever have Snoopy and Woodstock toasting their logo over a campfire? No they did not. When I started up my PCs they did everything but punch me in the face and steal my milk money.

Yeah, I’m keeping a gaming rig on the side, but it’s no longer my work computer. And I hear that once you go Mac, you never go back. My wife is being very kind about the transition (the Mac I’m using for now is hers), and has only reminded me a few times of all the years I spent mocking Macs as toy computers for unserious computer users.

Well, I’m about to be 48, and I aim to be unserious in my impending dotage.

Something happened” indeed.


Hand of Fate [Fun Friday]

The rise of indie game development leads to all kinds of strange and fascinating mashups of game genres that no major studio would ever put together. There’s a good reason for that: shoving deckbuilding, choose-your-own-adventure, and arena combat into one game will result in a hot mess unless it’s done with great skill. IMG_3061-1.JPG

Well, the folks at Defiant have that skill, because Hand of Fate (Defiant Development, Teens and up, Xbox One/PS4/PC/Mac: $25) all three of those things in one package, and it’s a blast.

The game shifts between a card-playing engine and third-person combat. You sit across the table from a dealer who controls the game. He places cards on the table to form the steps through a dungeon, with different cards triggering encounters and attacks. In addition, he’ll play cards to throw some extra challenges your way, and deal out a kind of three-card monty that can increase or diminish your chances for success.

Meanwhile, you have your own deck, which grows as you go through different levels and defeat a sequence of bosses. This deck can be customized at the outset of each game, allowing you tailor your approach. Cards feature different game elements that are drawn, such as food and health to keep you going, weapons and armor, and other features. As you progress through the story, your character gains more sophisticated attacks and better equipment to meet the challenges of increasingly fierce foes.

Different stages of your journey are accompanied by text descriptions of characters or events, allowing you to choose an action than can draw you deeper into an side adventure, or just letting you trade for a special item.

The final major element in this strangely appealing soup is the combat engine. When it’s time to fight the battle indicate by the cards in play, the game drops into a respectable-looking 3D combat engine. The system plays like a simplified version of the Batman games, with turns, attacks, and blocks timed to counter a variety of monsters. Some might find this a jarring transition, but it really adds a bit of flavor and excitement to the card play, even if the encounters grow slightly repetitive in the long haul.

The total effect of all these elements is to draw the player into a randomly generated duel with a dungeon master and then bring that duel to life with combat and storytelling. It’s quite a neat feat.

Should We Be Panicking Over #NetNeutrality Rules?

No. Stop that already! We’re panicking entirely too quickly and too much about everything. Just relax, pour yourself a bourbon, watch some Rockford Files on Netflix, and chill the heck out.ball-419199_640

I wrote an analysis piece for the National Catholic Register about the FCC’s move to implement net neutrality rules which can be read here, before the FCC rules were made public. You can read those rules here if ambien isn’t doing the trick for you.

I’ve done a quick scan of the report and there were no real surprises. There’s going to be a lot of noise about “4oo pages of rules.” Wrong. It’s 8 pages of rules, 80 pages of conservative dissent (some I agree with, some I don’t), and the rest is history, precedent, justification, and the like.

The rules are simple: no paid prioritization, no blocking, no throttling.

I have no problem with any of that in theory. Libertarian-leaning conservatives who say there’s no danger to open internet, and thus no need for net neutrality, are all wet. The providers are functional monopolies for most consumers. The market alone cannot ensure the open internet. Anyone saying it can is engaging in a kind of quasi-religious free market fundamentalism, not rational thought.

However, the seizure of regulatory authority by the FCC, in particular the way they’re going about it, bothers me a lot. I’m far more worried about the ever-expanding power of the alphabet agencies than I am about having to wait for “Archer” to buffer.

For this reason, I have to oppose these regulations, even though I support the general goals of net neutrality. They are doing the right thing in the wrong way. And the way a thing is done matters.

Here’s an excerpt from my Register piece:

There is a line between what is desirable and what is possible within the limits of our government. Where legislators are failing, the FCC is attempting to step in, and in doing so they certainly appear to be exceeding their authority.

The current problem is “paid prioritization.” The internet service providers—represented in the public imagination by widely hated companies such as Comcast and Verizon—want to create tiers of service. This allows them to “throttle” internet speeds for high-bandwidth users. Throttling slows down the flow of data between a service and a user. In order to remove those limits so the data can flow at the highest possible speed, the service would have to pay.

The most obvious is example is Netflix. The popular video streaming service consumes approximately 34% of all internet bandwidth in North America. By comparison, superstore Amazon (which also streams music and movies) accounts for less than 3% of all bandwidth.

Last year, customers who watched Netflix through ISPs such as Comcast or Verizon saw their internet speeds throttled, leading to downgraded video quality, buffering delays, and interrupted service.

Read the whole thing. 

Ars compiled this selection of replies from opponents, which is notable most for 1) wingnuttery, 2) lies, 3) idiocy.

Everything in this statement from US Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) is utter nonsense:

“Ironically, this order will likely do nothing to address the fairness issues raised by Democrats and Internet activists. Rather, under the guise of keeping the Internet ‘free and open’, they simply advocated for an approach that allows Big Brother to step into the shoes of service providers. The government will regulate rates, create its own fast lanes, control the placement of content, and raise fees and taxes. If you like your service plan, you will not be able to keep it. The age of ObamaNet is upon us and I hope the government proves better at running a network than a website, but logic would seem to dictate that I not hold my breath.”

I have very real problems with what the FCC is doing, but we won’t address it by engaging in this kind of soundbite-driven, fear-mongering stupidity. Nothing in the rules would allow the government to “regulate rates, create its own fast lanes, control the placement of content, and raise fees and taxes.” The providers would need to be reclassified as utilities for those things to happen, and I can’t see how that could be done short of Congressional action.

The Democrats are attempting a power grab. The Republicans are responding like howling lunatics. Neither side represents the will of the people.

Gesundheit! [App o the Mornin’]

Look, snot happens, and Gesundheit! (iOS: free, Mac: $5) just wants to put it to good use. The game, one of the better titles in the app store, was pulled for a while because of developer/publisher issues, but it’s back now and to bring attention to its return, it will be free for a limited time.

I imagine there are quite a few people who won’t be able to muscle past the premise of Gesundheit! in order to enjoy the treasures of the gameplay itself. Their loss. Sure, it’s a game about a little green pig whose allergies are so horrible that he sneezes giant globs of snot across the landscape. And, yes, said landscape is populated by monsters who find these globular goodies so unbelievable tasty that they’ll ignore that temptation to eat fresh green pork, at least for a few seconds. But once you get past all the booger blasting and snot snacking, you’ll find a game that’s not only fun and clever, but even charming.

Much of this charm comes the visual style of Gesundheit!, which is striking, colorful combination of storybook backgrounds and and child-like drawings. The music, animation, and art are all the work of Matt Hammill, while the game itself is made by Revolutionary Concepts. Thanks to the graphics, none of the mucous mechanics ever come off as all that gross. Believe me, I’ve seen apps that go for the gross-out just because that’s the only arrow they have in their quiver, but Hammill isn’t working that side of the street. His sneezing piglet is just a cute little outcast who turns his problems (horrible allergies) into an asset, making him a kind of superhero of snot.

The game is comprised of 40 single-screen levels, with gameplay that combines puzzle solving with some stealth-strategy elements. Each level has a monster (or monsters), and the now-ubiquitous triple-star challenge. The goal is to collect as many of he stars as possible before trapping all the monsters inside monster-eating traps. This is done by luring the monsters into different areas of the maze-like map with your gourmet nose nachos. Simply tap the pig, draw back to choose force and aim, and fire away. If your loogie lands where a monster can see it, he’ll ignore you and run straight to his favorite snack, even if it’s inside a trap.

Lacking a snack, the monster will run straight for you, and you need to shake him by sneezing, or try to just lose him in a maze. The trick is luring monsters away from the stars without letting them walk over the stars, which they’ll crush. And then luring them to the traps. And then not gettin’ et.

As triggered obstacles, multiple monsters, superpowered mucous, teleporters, and other challenges are added, things start to get pretty tricky. Not long into the game you develop the ability to create a snot-slingshot (snotshot?) that catapults you from one location to another. It’s kind of like Tarzan swinging on horizontal ropes of phlegm

Although there are puzzles I still haven’t been able to solve at the 3-star level, basic level-completion is only moderately difficult, making this a good choice for both kids and adults. There’s a timed element to the game, and you’ll need to think pretty fast on your feet in order to escape certain monsters.

This is a wonderfully weird and appealing little puzzler with some genuine challenges. Don’t be put off by the theme. Within a few minutes, you’ll forget you’re defeating evil by wielding the mighty power of boogers and just lose yourself in the clever puzzles and wonderful graphics.

Content: Rated: 9+. Game includes boogers. And monsters. And monster boogers. You have been warned.

Note: I’m taking a break from App o the Mornin’ this week. Too much to do on the magazine and elsewhere.

Jack Lumber [App o the Mornin’]

Jack Lumber hates trees, and he has a good reason: trees killed his beloved granny. Now, Jack has sworn everlasting vengeance against all forms of lumber. He has an axe, he has a mission, and he has a woodchip on his shoulder.

Jack’s tale of vengeance forms the extremely silly connective tissue for this funny, polished riff on the slicing game genre pioneered by Fruit Ninja. In fact, there’s far more to Jack Lumber (PC/Mac: about $8; iOS/Android: $4) than just dexterous slicing. The visuals are terrific, with a sharp cartoon quality and some extremely funny touches. (Fruit Ninja was fun, but nobody would ever accuse it of being funny.)

For example, there is a completely random animal-collecting element which allows you to stack up critters in your log cabin as you encounter them in the game itself. Why is it there? Who knows. They don’t serve any purpose other than a bit of comic relief in between levels. It’s like asking why someone randomly shouts “PLAID” when you make a cut. Why? Because it’s funny.

Each level begins with logs of various shapes and sizes tossed in the air. When you touch the screen, time slows down. You need to trace a single line through the ends of each log, cutting them crosswise. When you lift your finger, the cuts execute all at once. If you missed a log, traced over a side rather than an end, hit an animal, or didn’t cut through every single endpoint, you’re penalized. Enough penalties and you fail the level.

Sometimes you need to pass through the same log multiple times to use it, or break bottles of syrup (purchased back at your cabin) in order to slow down time. There’s a lot less luck involved than in most slicing games. You really need to examine the screen quickly and find the fastest and most effective way through each log. This makes the game more like a rapid maze, since if you take a wrong “turn” with your finger, you’ll mess up.

Good humor, strong production values, and a dexterity element that also requires quick thinking: Jack Lumber is a winner all the way through.

DuckTales Remastered [App o the Mornin’]

I’m too old to have any nostalgic memories of the classic DuckTales game, originally released in 1989 as a tie-in to a popular TV show. My children and I are, however, huge fans and collectors of Disney comics in general, and Duck comics in particular. The Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck books from artists/writers Carl Barks and Don Rosa are some of the best comics ever published, and the DuckTales show and game both used a lot of that material to great effect.

The original DuckTales game has become something of a legend. It may have started life as just another TV tie-in product, but once Capcom got involved with the actual production, it became something more. The Mega Man team took over, and created one of the most beloved and fondly remembered platform games on the NES.

Now Capcom has revisited their classic in DuckTales Remastered (PC/Xbox/PS3/WiiU: $15), a completely faithful update of the original. The five levels from 1989 have been recreated, and two new levels added. These levels are expanded, however, with more areas, more secrets, and different patterns in the way enemies (particularly) boss appear.

The biggest change is in the production. The old 8-bit visuals have been updated to lush, colorful, handpainted graphics that really do the game and its multiple worlds justice. It uses 2D sprites on 3D backgrounds to add depth to each environment. For those who want some of that old retro feel, there’s a toggle to switch back and forth between the new and the old visuals. New cut scenes have been added with full voice support, including the great Alan Young (now 93 years old and best remembered as Wilbur on Mr. Ed), the only man to ever voice Scrooge McDuck.

The gameplay is top-notch. It would be easiest to just say it’s a straight platformer, with lots of jumping and fighting and careful timing, but it’s more than that. Scrooge’s cane can be either a weapon for bashing enemies or a pogo stick for reaching high places. Using your cane to bouncing across the heads of a series of Beagle Boys, knocking them out without ever touching the ground, it just one of those classic game moments resurrected by DuckTales Remastered. It’s a bit sure, but loads of fun.

Content: Rated E for Everyone. Lots of bouncing on enemies and other genial low-level cartoon violence.

Bumpy Road [App o the Mornin’]

Bumpy Road (iOS/Mac/PC: $3) is the sophomore effort from the creators of Kosmo Spin, and it has a delightful aesthetic, with a muted but eye-catching color palette and charming art. It’s a look that works perfectly for game about an older couple out for a Sunday drive on a corduroy road past windmills and impossibly narrow houses.

The gameplay is just as interesting as the visual element. Bumpy Road uses a novel mechanic to create a twist on the 2D platforming, move-to-the-right genre that has thrived on mobile touch devices. In this case, you don’t control the car, which moves at a steady pace, but the road itself, which is comprised of a series of little bumps. Touching the road raises it a little bit. Touch behind the car to create a hill that makes the car go faster. Touch in front of it to create a hill that slows the car down. Touch beneath it to make the car hop.

It’s as simple as that. The levels consist of multiple platforms and occasional water hazards, with minor variations for the two gameplay modes. In Evergreen Ride, you need to go as far as possible without falling into one of the water hazards. The trip is endless, with little powerups found along the way to close traps and allow you to focus on gathering items to improve your final time. There are no traps in Sunday Trip mode, so the goal is to get to a finish line as fast as possible by grabbing the accelerator powerups and avoiding the brake powerups. The result is a great little app, with a novel mechanic and engaging gameplay.

The Stanley Parable [App o’ the Mornin’]

The Stanley Parable (PC/Mac: $15, free demo available) is one of the most peculiar, unusual, and daring games to come down the pike in a long, long time.

Where Papers Please has a clear gameplay element, The Stanley Parable has none. Like Dear Esther, it’s part of the new genre of “first-person walkers” in which things happen and story unfolds simply by walking through a game world. In Dear Esther, walking around an island triggered fragmentary story elements that eventually coalesced into a narrative. It was an interesting experiment, but ultimately unsatisfying.

The Stanley Parable makes Dear Esther look like a Dick and Jane book. It is unrelentingly clever, overflowing with ideas, jokes, hairpin mood shifts, and narrative jolts, all of it adding up to a striking meta-commentary on the process of playing games.

The titular character is an office drone who sits at his desk looking at a monitor and punching a key whenever instructed. The tone recalls Terry Gilliam’s dystopian film Brazil, where humans are reduced to cogs in a mindless bureaucracy that exists only to perpetuate itself. Just like modern America.
Everything we know about him is explained by an omnipresent narrator, who alternately directs Stanley (you) what to do and explains what you’re doing. Sometimes he taunts, sometimes he tried to coax and teach, and sometimes he just goes mad. The narrator is one of the best-written, best-acted voices in any computer game since GLaDOS in Portal. With his light and soothing English accent, he sounds the way I imagined the voice of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

Since you never actually see Stanley (not even, as the narrator observes at one point, his feet), the narrator is the true main character: simultaneously your own voice and the voice of the game designer. It’s a frankly stunning bit of writing and performance that is at the center of the entire experience.

The game begins one morning as Stanley gets up from his desk for a meeting, only to find his entire office abandoned. Not a soul is in sight. He follows the prompts of the narrator and walks to the meeting room. He comes to two doors. The narrator directs him (you) to take the left door.

Of course, you take the right.

And The Stanley Parable is off. The most you ever do is punch a couple of buttons. You can’t run, jump, move objects, or interact with almost everything. All you can do is choose where to walk, and the odd button to push.

The result is a surreal choose-your-own-adventure in which you rehearse all the tropes of interactive entertainment, search for meaning, and try to understand just what’s going on in this world. There are many “endings,” including the most obvious “good” ending in which you emerge into the sunlight of a beautiful day, free of a totalitarian system that was created to crush your individuality.

Oddly enough, that’s the least interesting ending. I can’t say too much because it would spoil the surprise of what The Stanley Parable is attempting to do, but I can give you a small taste. At one point, the narrator is taunting you because your choices indicate you don’t like this game very much, and suddenly you find yourself in … Minecraft. Actually in the game Minecraft! And from there you travel down a hole and fine yourself in … Portal! (The Stanley Parable began as a Half-Life mod.)

The meta-commentary folds in on itself so many times it turns into a Chinese puzzle box, almost impossible to unfold in any rational sense. In the course of unfolding, the game actually falls prey to the cliches its attempting to mock, creating even more folds in the meta-commentary.

It’s a dazzling display of narrative chutzpah, and the most potent commentary on the medium of gaming I’ve ever experience. It is not for everyone. Its “gamelessness” and in-jokes will put off any but real devotees of the medium. But for those who’ve been playing games a long time, it’s like a combination surrealist film and insightful essay all laid out in a game format that ask you to do little more than walk.

ToodleDo Task Manager [App o’ the Mornin’]

I’ve lost track of how many task managers I’ve tested over the past two years. I can’t say “all of them,” because task managers are as common as match-three games in the App Store and online, but I can say “all of the major ones, plus a dozen more.” Some I used longer than others. None ever really worked for me, until I found ToodleDo (web based: free with premium options; iOS/Android/Blackberry: about $3).

Choosing a task manager is like choosing a pair of shoes. You have to try on several to find one that fits. What works for me may not work for another. It depends upon what kind of tasks you’re managing, if you’re collaborating with others, how you prefer to enter tasks, what platforms you use, what kind of tags and sorting you need, and how you like to be notified.

This was what I needed the software do: track writing assignments, including those with multiple parts (subtasks such as interviews and research); manage school projects (no longer needed since I finished grad school); track a section of the magazine I edit; try to slide in non-assigned (“spec”) work so that I don’t keep putting it off; and synchronize all of it among four devices: iPad, iPhone, laptop, desktop. It does all these things very well.

ToodleDo is free to try right here. The mobile apps cost extra, and upgrades are available to add features. I paid $15 to get subtasks for a year, but after working with them I found I could live without them and just piece out the different sections of an assignment task-by-task.

The strength of the app is in its ease of entry, scheduling/priority options, and management features. You can add a task quickly just by typing in “Quick Add Task” field on the web, or the “Add Task” field on the app.  It will add the task without any other data, or you can open up a simple submenu to set priority level and due date/time, assign to a folder, choose a repeat option, add subtasks, and set a notification alarm.

Once created, tasks can be searched and sorted in myriad ways, grouped into folders (Home, Work, School, Projects, etc), assigned to a hotlist, re-prioritized, and more. You can organize a list of tasks just about any way you’d like.

I like the ease with which you can attach documents, links, and blocks of text for each task. If you look at the web version, you’ll find some nice extra features on the tabs at the top: Notes, Outlines (simple outlining software), and Lists (field entry for making different kinds of customizable lists).

It’s simple, flexible system: a list with sorting and scheduling features. It works very well with the GTD system and other productivity techniques. It may be less or more than you need. Some people need massive collaborative software and project tracking, others are fine with a simple TaskPaper app. Some want slick mobile graphics, clever layouts, and all kinds of graphical flourishes. I wanted a sorted, data-heavy, scheduling list, and that’s what ToodleDo gives me.

Papers Please [App o’ the Mornin’]

I have no idea whether to recommend Papers Please: A Dystopian Document Thriller (Steam/Lucas Pope, PC/Mac: $10) to you or not. It’s intended for a very particular kind of gamer and its elements and retro visual style are guaranteed to drive the majority of players away before the first game-day is over. But if you read to the end of this review and think, “Hm, that sounds kind of interesting,” you may be the intended audience.

How to describe Paper Please? You play as a low-level border official at some backwater boarder crossing in a ghastly imaginary Soviet bloc country in 1982.

Your job is to check the papers of people attempting to enter the country, and either approve them or not.

And that’s it.

You never leave the screen you see in the accompanying illustrations except at the end of the day, when your meager salary is calculated and you determine whether or not you can keep the heat on tonight, feed your family, and buy medicine for your sick son.

So what do you actually do?

You check people’s travel documents. And then stamp them. The only actual action you take is choosing which stamp to use, but much hinges on that choice and it requires long and careful consideration.

To quote Thomas Magnum, “I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right.” You’re doing someone’s boring job. For free. As entertainment.

But it’s more than that. The game introduces complexity gradually. On the first day, you’re just checking some basic facts to make sure passports are valid and issued by your country. This means comparing expiration date to today’s date, the place of issue to the list of valid issuing locations, and small details like that.

Each day, new complexity is added. Foreigners are permitted. Work visas are needed. Local ID is issued. Visitors from certain countries need full body scans (complete with optional minor nudity). New details need to be checked. Do the codes match? Is that mannish woman actually a woman? Is the strange man with his own handmade passport a harmless crank, or a dangerous nut?

Each morning, there are news releases: be on the lookout for certain fugitives, be aware of human trafficking, watch out for terrorists. Once in a while a radical breaks through and kills the border guards, shutting down your crossing for the day and costing you vital wages.

Too many errors in a day, and you get hauled away to the gulag. You’re clinging to survival by your fingernails with only a few bucks a day to keep you and your family alive. There is no room for error.

From such minimalist elements, Papers Please weaves a gripping tale and a tense gaming experience. The choices are puzzle-like and observational, but each one can be a matter of life or death.

It’s a unique kind of game, and it gets under your skin. It is not for everyone, but to see a game weave such an odd, suspenseful spell from so little will be utterly fascinating to connoisseurs of unique games.

Content: There is a full-body scanner that shows some mild nudity, but the nudity may be turned off. People break through the lines and kill guards (and are, in turn, killed), but given the pixelated quality of the retro visuals, it’s not graphic. You may have to make some pretty grim decisions at times, including whether or not to keep the heat on and feed your whole family. Characters may die. Sex trafficking is a plot element, but it’s not handled in an exploitative way. Except for assorted messages, the game really does only have two screens: the one pictured and the end-of-day screen. Some may be offended that a serious subject (immigration, exploitation, repression, and violence in a totalitarian state) is treated in a game, but I thought the material was handled well: alternately horrifying, depressing, irritating, bittersweet, funny, and even touching.

It is not ESRB rated, but would probably earn a T for the dark subject matter.