Four Years in New York

I don't often share my music, but on a whim I decided to put together a mixtape to commemorate the past four years spent living in New York.

It's an "enhanced podcast" in m4a format, and should play in Quicktime or any of your more versatile media players. I spent far too long mucking around figuring out how to make it, but at least I got an excuse to take Garageband out for a spin.

I couldn't begin to describe the musical tastes this particular compilation might appeal to. All I can say is I hope you'll enjoy.

Four Years in New York

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Interesting Choice Episode 2: Remember the Fish

Episode 2 of Interesting Choice is now up.

Polls are open until noon EST tomorrow, so go to www.interestingchoice.com to vote!

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Blog discoveries for February


Interesting Choice Episode 1: "F" is for Fish

Episode 1 of Interesting Choice is now up.

Polls are open until noon EST tomorrow, so go to www.interestingchoice.com to vote!

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Interesting Choice Episode 0: The Pitch Line

The first episode of Interesting Choice is now up.

Polls are open until noon EST tomorrow, so go to www.interestingchoice.com to vote!

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Interesting Choice

I've got a new project in the works. Announcing Interesting Choice: A Webseries As You Like It, a crowdsourced narrative where the viewers decide what happens. In this five(-plus?)-week class project, collaborators Brian Bernhard, Christy Sager and I will be producing a weekly webseries, with each new episode followed by a poll where you are invited to vote on what happens next.

Follow along and join in at http://www.interestingchoice.com.

Our first video will be going up first thing tomorrow morning. Stay tuned!

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The Last Book

Last weekend, I attended the second annual Global Game Jam at NYU. The Game Jam is a sort of worldwide endurance/speed game-development event in which teams come together and in the course of 48 hours conceive, design, and produce an entire game. The results tend to be quick, dirty, and a little rough around the edges, but often innovative and off-the-wall.

This year, the theme was "Deception," and in the GMT -5:00 time zone, the design constraints were "Rain, a Plain, or Spain." You can check out all the games created for the event at the GGJ website.

I'd like to present our team's game: an action/strategy game for the iPhone called The Last Book.

In The Last Book, civilization has been destroyed by a neverending rainfall. Everything, it seems, has been washed away. Generations after the onset of the deluge, you are the Librarian, tasked with protecting the last book in existence, the only remaining example of the written word. Keep the book dry by collecting and diverting the falling rain, and do your best to hold back the flood.

The rain falls relentlessly, wearing down whatever it touches. Play by arranging pots to collect the water and protect your structure from damage. As the pots get full, you can dump them safely out in the wells. Over time, your pots will wear down, too, so use your kilns to fire up new ones. Protect your kilns, also, because the rain will quickly put them out if they get wet.

Just hold out until the clouds break (two minutes) to collect your reward.

And at all costs, don't let any rain fall on the Book!

Controls: Tap the pots to move them. Select the brick you want to place the pot on, or tap a well to empty the pot. Up to three emptied pots will be stored in each well; tap the well again to retrieve a pot. Tap a kiln that's fired up to start a new pot, then tap it again to remove the pot when it's done.

Currently, in order to play The Last Book, you must have a Mac with the iPhone SDK installed. Download the package and compile the game file in Xcode to play.

For those who are unable to try it out personally, here's a video showing the gameplay:

The Last Book was made with a five-person team, which we christened Brainfall Studios. It was a wonderful group to work with, and I'm glad to have had the opportunity to get to know them. Here are the credits:

Design, Story: Jess Haskins
Level Design: Ray Reilly
Programming: Ulf Schwekendiek
Art: R.M. Sean Jaffe
Music & Sound: Justin Mathews

(The team from left to right: Sean, Ray, Ulf, Jess, and Justin).

We had a great time, and we're all interested in continuing to work on the game to flesh it out and eventually release it on the app store. I'll be sure to let you know about it when we do!

For now, here's the link to the game's page on the GGJ site: The Last Book.

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Blog discoveries for January


Grinding for glory

In Upgrade Complete!, you play a Galaga-style shooter to blast enemies and collect money for upgrades in order to max out your game — not just your ship, but everything from the music and graphics to menu buttons to the copyright notice. You even have to buy the shop screen and preloader before you can load up the game. Not only a cheeky parody of mindless grinding games, it's actually well-balanced and surprisingly fun to play.

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Seeing green

Nice video showing the ubiquitous use of greenscreen effects in television, often in unexpected places like ordinary-looking exterior shots for shows like Ugly Betty.

Via Mental Floss.

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So real it almost looks real

The Golden Age, a series of photographs by Kevin Best recreating the effects of Dutch Master still life paintings.

The series is featured in the Role Models, the first issue of Second Nature, an International Journal of Creative Media. Thanks to editor Shiralee Saul for pointing me her way — I've found a lot of interesting things there!

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Under the tree, on the shelf

The good folks at Atlas Obscura have put together a lovely list of book gift ideas, including offbeat guidebooks, strange history, and curious collections — compendia of wonder for the curious wanderer and adventurous wonderer.

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Blog discoveries for November


Charming comics

Thanks to Maktaaq for turning me onto the witty, whimsical comics of cartoonist and illustrator Tom Gauld.

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The Republic of Zombies

"Into the Zombie Underworld", a September 2009 article from Men's Journal about the search for a young Haitian woman reportedly turned into a zombie, and the legal and political battles that were fought to recover her.

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New Neil

I've belatedly discovered that the entire second season of the hilarious Zelda parody webseries The Legend of Neil is out, and even better, it's still funny.

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Effeminate sheep

The Gay Animal Kingdom, the 2006 SEED article about animal homosexuality that Illinois high school biology teacher Dan Delong was almost fired for assigning to his students.

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Bits and blocks

In this New York Times feature from last winter, illustrator Christoph Niemann spots bits of New York in Legos.

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Roots to robots

It has been fascinating to follow the evolution of Amanita Design's work from the original Samorost 1 through to their latest offering, Machinarium. The first, while it introduced an innovative visual style and type of gameplay that inspired a slew of imitators, was formally little more than a loosely associated collection of hallucinatory set pieces. Machinarium, by contrast, is a much more mature and focused game. Samorost 2 was an important intermediate step, utilizing motifs from the original game and just beginning to rationalize that surreal, oneiric world by introducing elements like characters, plot, spatial continuity, and logical causal relationships. Machinarium takes the final step and brings us to a world that is solid and grounded, with rules and interlocking parts that fit together like — well, like a machine.

In Samorost 1, nothing was grounded — not even the ground.

It's like the druggy haze of Samorost 1 was already starting to clear in Samorost 2, and now with Machinarium Amanita has clambered out of the beanbag, combed its hair, put on a suit and tie, and gone out into the real world. Interestingly, the references to hallucinogenic substances that peppered the Samorost series (the name "Amanita" refers to a type of toxic mushroom, which is also the studio's logo) are largely absent from Machinarium, and the earthy roots, furry forest creatures, gnomes, and cosmic little green men of Samorost have been replaced by an industrialized metal cityscape of dive bars, jails, factories, and bombs, populated by rusty robots and hunks of junk, cops and crooks and gamblers and beggars. Is this what the world looks like when you come down?

The brave new world.

Paralleling this aesthetic evolution is a complementary formal one. Samorost 1's "click anywhere and things happen" mechanic has been gradually whittled down to a more traditional system of agency, and in Machinarium the player directly controls the main character, a charming tin-can robot, who walks, stretches, collects and manipulates items within his immediate sphere of influence. (Except for during the first two minutes, that is, where the player acts on the environment at large in order to bring the pieces together to assemble the robot in the first place — a final transition from the old ways to the new.) Gone is the out-of-body dissociative experience of Samorost 1, where the player's and main character's motivations were aligned, but their actions disjointed: the player operated directly on the environment while the sprite sat down and watched, with the player in the role of an unseen godlike manipulator, or maybe the world itself. It was the perfect gameplay model for what represented essentially a really groovy trip.

Sitting back and taking it all in.

It would have been interesting to see that mechanic developed further, but Amanita chose the opposite route and made the game world and mechanics more concrete, not less — and Machinarium is definitely the stronger for it. It's a rich, tightly-constructed game, made with purpose and clear direction. I would love to see Amanita — or someone else — go down the other path someday, though. It's perhaps a greater challenge to make a sustained, meaningful experience out of the whimsical illogic and disembodied agency that characterized Samorost 1. Can the player's sense of identity be even further shaken? Can the bounds of cause and effect be further strained? Can the resulting journey cohere and add up to something more than a succession of novel and entertaining images?

The first denizen of Samorost you encounter: a toked-out dude with his hookah.

Amanita seems to have shelved the hookah for now, and I'm glad to follow them out of the wild and into this exciting new urban junkscape. But I wouldn't mind going back occasionally into that wild forest, just for a little while. Just one more hit...

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Blog discoveries for October


Pixel pushing

Small Worlds by David Shute. Technically a platformer. Less about running and jumping than the thrill of discovery, or uncovering.

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An aesthetic defined

I just came across this New York Times article from July, which pins down and gives a name to a style that's been gradually gaining a lot of momentum: the "New Vintage". So that's what you call it.

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A four-minute recording of the tank at Japan's Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, the second largest in the world. PZ Myers of Pharyngula recommends that you "let it load in HD, put it on full screen, and set back and mellow out for a few minutes." (The embedded video is HD quality, so you can pop it into full screen right here.) It's definitely better than any screensaver you've got.

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When game design philosophies collide

Tale of Tales makes non-linear, narrative, exploratory "art games" that largely cast off the trappings of traditional games (rules, goals, challenges). Frank Lantz of area/code is a vocal proponent of the idea that video games need to be more "gamelike," and that designers should focus on games as formal systems of challenges. Tale of Tales interviews Frank Lantz.

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Machinarium is here!

Machinarium was just released on Friday, and it's bigger, longer, and better than anything Amanita Design has done before. It's got gorgeous visuals, an intriguing world, well-constructed gameplay, and a truly stunning soundtrack.

I'll elaborate on my impressions of the game in another post, but for now, I just want to remind everyone that it's time to go and play it. Go buy it now, or try the demo first if you really need convincing.

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New releases from Tale of Tales

Continuing in its line of artful, boundary-pushing not-quite-games, Tale of Tales this month released Fatale, an "interactive vignette" inspired by Oscar Wilde's 1894 play Salomé.

Explore a living tableau filled with references to the legendary tale and enjoy the moonlit serenity of a fatal night in the orient. Fatale offers an experimental play experience that stimulates the imagination and encourages multiple interpretations and personal associations.

There's also The Path, released earlier this year, a meandering, introspective horror game based on Little Red Riding Hood in which six sisters wander in a foreboding forest and one by one lose their innocence. Completely open-ended, the game eschews goals and challenges and invites the player to simply explore and experience.

Six sisters live in an apartment in the city. One by one their mother sends them on an errand to their grandmother, who is sick and bedridden. The teenagers are instructed to go to grandmother's house deep in the forest and, by all means, to stay on the path! Wolves are hiding in the woods, just waiting for little girls to stray.

But young women are not exactly known for their obedience, are they? Will they be able to resist the temptations of the forest? Will they stay clear of danger? Can they prevent the ancient tale from being retold?

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New Gargoyles trade paperbacks are out!

After months of waiting, two new Gargoyles trade paperbacks were released last month. There are new books from both the main Gargoyles series, Clan Building Volume 2, which collects the last of the published single issues plus four more issues that were never released individually, and the spin-off, Bad Guys Volume 1, which collects all the single issues of Bad Guys plus one new one.

Disney raised the cost of the Gargoyles license in the middle of the production run and Slave Labor Graphics wasn't able to renew, so the previously unpublished issues were allowed to be released in the trades only through a fortunate loophole where they are included as "bonus material." No more issues are currently in production, and the future of the Gargoyles comics looks uncertain — but at last we have a complete set of the Clan Building and Bad Guys arcs, and we get to see the conclusion of Redemption, the Stone of Destiny arc, and the very first Timedancer story with Brooklyn's journey through time. This isn't a cheap knock-off or filler material, but the true, canon continuation of the story as penned by creator Greg Weisman. It's a great set of wonderful new material, required reading for any Gargoyles fan.

Get the full collection:

Gargoyles: Clan Building Volume 1
Gargoyles: Clan Building Volume 2
Bad Guys Volume 1

A great place for reconnecting with the Gargoyles universe is Station Eight, a hub which links an active comment room, info about the comics, a Q&A with Greg Weisman at Ask Greg, and the comprehensive GargWiki, which might be useful for keeping track of the comics' sprawling cast of characters if you can't remember your Canmores from your Constantines or need to brush up on the Battle of Bannockburn.

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The natives are very friendly

Stephen Fry and zoologist Mark Carwardine encountering a rare flightless parrot in New Zealand in Last Chance to See. It has been suggested that the behavior displayed in this video may explain why it is so endangered.

Via Bioephemera.

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Blog discoveries for September