Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party

A while ago, someone asked me who my favourite actors were. I started rattling off some names -- Ron Perlman, Bruce Campbell, William H. Macy -- and I was stopped, and asked who my favourite big name actors were.

And I don't really have any. I love character actors.

I think I love them because they can pop up in all sorts of unsuspecting places. Rather than watching a movie almost exclusively because it has Johnny Depp in it, it's nice to watch a movie and suddenly have a bunch of people go "Hey, no way! It's that guy from... oh, what was it?"

An unsung hero among character actors is Stephen Tobolowsky. A "hero" because he is so incredibly prolific: I believe he holds the record for starring in the most movies in the 1990s. Unsung because almost noone remembers his name, and he's doomed to be forever known as "that guy from.. uh.. Groundhog Day!".

Hopefully, Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party will change that. The trailer makes light of his relative anonymity - Stephen Tobolowsky asking various punters who they think "Stephen Tobolowsky" is. The answers range from "A Russian Scientist" to "Serial Killer" by way of "Porn Star".

The Incredibles

I loved The Incredibles.

It was completely unlike all of the other Pixar movies - it was grown up, had something resembling an original plot (Watchmen comparisons aside) and its production design was beautiful.

I picked up the DVD over the weekend. I still haven't gotten around to watching the movie, because I've been spending my time over on the second disk, watching the 'making of' featurettes.

Even these are completely unlike the other Pixar 'making of' featurettes. 'Finding Nemo' gave us fluff - people like Lee Unkrich and Andrew Stanton telling us how fantastic it was to make this movie, and gee whizz, isn't Pixar just great? On The Incredibles DVD, Brad Bird and various other Pixarians explaining how hard it was to make this movie. At one stage, they even show a fight between Brad Bird fighting with a producer to justify the cost of a particular scene: something I'd never seen on a DVD, let alone a Pixar DVD.

It's a fascinating set of featurettes, but the highlight for me came in the form of a closeup of their tools. The idea of building a rampantly successful motion pictures using Makefiles makes my tiny nerd heart flutter.

Digital Ireland →

The BBC are reporting that Irish cinema is set to go digital with the announcement that all cinemas in Ireland are to have their traditional film projectors replaced with digital projectors.

I would love to have some dates on the rollout of these kinds of things. Major directors like Michael Mann and George Lucas aside, 'digital filmmaking' has been relatively slow on the uptake. Perhaps this is the kind of kick in the ass it needs.

Personally, I'm thrilled at this. Aside from the technical issues, such as flickering and scratches and disjointed sound (which happened at the screening of Hotel Rwanda I saw in UGC - completely jarred me out of the movie), the major improvement I'm hoping this will bring is a quicker turnaround on movie releases here. Ireland traditionally has to wait in line to receive film reels as they do the rounds. For large films, such as the recent Hellboy or Incredibles, this wait can be as long as six months.

With digital filmmaking eliminating the needs for individual reels to be printed up, it eliminates that excuse.

Although I'm sure we'll still have to wait in line to download the 1TB that will make up the movie.

Zelda: A Cautionary Tale

"Yes" or "no"?

Two years of sitting on a shelf with a mental note of "must complete, someday", I finally got around to playing Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. And for two weeks, every spare half hour was spent playing that game, beating various bosses, sailing the seas digging up treasure, talking to everyone I met, amassing a veritable horde of spoils.

Now, after a long day in work, I've turned on the Gamecube and dragged my favourite chair closer to the TV only to find the game asking me "yes" or "no"?

It didn't say what the question was. What could it be? Load the game?

I choose "yes".

"Please wait..."

Hmm. My muscle memory spasms a little, telling me that this isn't the way I load my game in Wind Waker. Flash of panic. What have I done?!

"Done!"

And I'm taken to the quest screen.

Three empty slots. Three "New quest" buttons, empty as the day they left the Nintendo factory.

My game is gone. All my hard work. All my emotional attachment is gone. As if to pour some salt on the wounds, I checked gamefaqs, to see how far I had to go to the end of the game. Not far. A couple more shards of the Triforce and I'd be fighting Ganondorf once and for all. All gone.

Now.. I don't know what to do. I tried launching straight back into it, but there's so much to do. My sea chart is empty, my spoils bag is.. hang on, I don't even have a spoils bag yet. I resent every conversation with every character, so I don't talk to anyone. Even more, I resent conversations that I must have to progress in the game. The unskippable nature of them grates over me. Things that were beautiful and magical, even the cute little cut-scene where you change the direction of the wind and Link whips his head around - all these things are like nails across a blackboard.

And so it's going back on the shelf for another two years.

This time, without the mental note.

Simpler side of gaming

"Iwata-san has the heart of a gamer”and my question is, what poor bastard™s chest did he carve it from, and how often do they perform human sacrifices at Nintendo HQ?"
-- Greg Castikyan

Greg Costikyan recently posted a transcript of a rant he gave at a GDC roundtable talk on the topic of game production. The panel were speaking about how the cost of game production has risen to the stage where it is actually prohibitory for publishers to fund developers that aren't working on licensed or recognisable IP. In it, Greg talks about how J Allard's GDC keynote filled him with dread - the idea of welcoming in an era of HD video games with massive production costs, increased workload for developers and no additional profit for anyone but the games publishers?

He's right to be afraid.

But there seems to be a bit of hope, from an unlikely source.

Flash gaming.

No, hear me out.

Although it's never going to take over the world, we've reached the stage where people have had enough of creating silly games based around hitting/pissing on/killing celebrities and have begun exploring the medium's creative possibilities. And although they're just short, 5-minute bursts of gaming, they've been creating a bit of a buzz on among the internet community.

Helicopter game

This was the first truly addictive flash game I can think of. Although it's almost 4 years old at this stage, it's still a lot of fun to play. Simple premise - fly your helicopter, don't crash. I doubt a lot of people would pay a lot of money for this, but just think how many hours were lost to this game in offices around the world.

Treasure Box

Beautifully introduced by Metafilter as "If Rube Goldberg and Terry Gilliam made flash games, they might go like this", Treasure Box showed that Flash games didn't have to just simple affairs. Although there isn't actually much gameplay in this to keep people entertained, there's enough eccentric beauty to keep people fascinated.

Skills to pay the bills

Okay, so we've got some good flash games out there, so what? Well, some bright sparks out there have figured out a way to make money out of very good flash games and because of this, we're seeing the beginnings of a resurgence in the shareware games scene.

Some examples:

Gish

Gish is a platform game where you control a ball of tar. Using Newtonian physics (and some physics-cheating constructs), you guide your ball of tar through various obstacles to reach the end of the level. Because of its unique and superbly crafted nature, it has won all sorts of praise. But here's the rub - the developers of this game are actually making money from it because of its shareware nature (play the basic levels online, pay $20 for the full game). I don't know how much, but I'm sure it's nothing to be sneezed at.

Codename Gordon (site down right now)

What started out as a flash 'tribute' to Half Life 2 (or a way to stave off the boredom until the game was actually released, depending on who you ask) is now available for purchase through Steam. Codename Gordon: Half Life 2D is a beautiful thing - embracing the limitations of flash gaming and turning them into a feature.

Alien Hominid

Like Codename Gordon, Alien Hominid started off as a way for a group of friends to create a simple game and hopefully sell it. It started off as one of a hundred games on popular flash site Newgrounds (play the original) is now being released on the Xbox, PS2 and Gamecube. And what's more, it hasn't been significantly changed during the transition - it still retains the same look and play mechanics.

Of course, none of these are ever likely to compete with the likes of Resident Evil 4 or Gran Turismo 4 in the battle for the hearts and minds of the casual gamer, but they do go some way to showing that there is a distribution channel for these simple flash games and, providing your game is good enough, that money can be made from them.

How much money? Well, that remains to be seen. Certainly not enough to retire and live the rest of your life with cocaine and champagne enemas. But enough to keep your games sustainable?

Maybe.

Like these flash games? Want to get some more examples? Do yourself a favour and check out gotoAndPlay.it


Update

Ren Reynolds posts a rebuttal to the GDC roundtable. His conclusions are similar to mine - for all of those who are bemoaning the death of innovation in games, there are other options.

Random Nerdings

Too busy in work to find time to write anything of substance, so here's a quick list of the most nerdy things I've been doing over the past couple of days

  • Installed GeekTool After hearing so many people praise GeekTool, I finally installed it last week. Then I configured the MySQL access list on our RT database in work. Now I have a list of my open issues on my desktop - cool! I wonder if there's any (easy) way of colour-coding this list.

  • New DVD Player Dixons are selling a Philips DVP630 for a measly EUR99. This is a fantastic player that will play just about anything you throw at it (VCD, SVCD, MP3s, JPGs, DivX and DVDs). It comes locked to Region 2, but Amazon kindly provide a guide to unlocking this player.

  • GDC 2005 Interesting things from GDC this year include

  • A trailer for the new Zelda (link goes to HD version), sporting a heavy Lord of the Rings influence.

  • Some videos of Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse

  • J Allard's keynote about HD and the next Xbox

  • Ralph Koster's keynote about 'fun' in videogames

  • Microsoft's announcement of "pay-for-download-able content" on the next Xbox. Puerile armchair opinion: Fuck that.

  • Episode III Went to see the preview of Constantine over the weekend. I thought the film itself was a disgrace to the big-dumb-blockbuster name, but never mind that. During the trailers, they showed the trailer for Episode III. This trailer has me salivating, and seeing it on the big screen had me giddy for hours.

Five applications I couldn't live without

Okay, so maybe the title of this post is just a little melodramatic. I could certainly live without them. In my fits of whimsy, I sometimes imagine a life where I got rid of all my software and all my computers and went to live in a cabin in the woods with a typewriter, only peeking my head out long enough to release some bone-crunchingly beautiful prose like Annie Dillard or something.

Until that day, here's the five pieces of software I couldn't live without

(In no order)

Instiki

I don't like Word documents because they're mean and nasty and hard to access and I tend to get so bogged down in making my documents look pretty, I never get anything actually written. At the same time, I don't like text files because they're so plain and isolated and static. Yet I need some way to keep track of a lot of things.

Enter Instiki.

Just a small personal wiki site that lets you keep all of your documents together. It has all of the advantages of a full website such as links to other places and documents, and the ability to view it from anywhere but with more like an easier markup language (I am fluent in MarkDown) and an easier management interface.

I use my Instiki to keep track of work projects, personal tasks (e.g. "Move bank account") and various other notes that I want to keep in a local place, such as my personal 'wishlist' of all the fancy stuff I want to buy myself.

Quicksilver

Quicksilver is like a remote control for my Mac. It has cut the amount of time I spend doing noddy things like finding the application I want to launch or browsing to files to append a word to the end of them.

And I'm constantly finding out new cool things to do with Quicksilver. Browse over to Merlin Mann's 43 folders if you want some real Quicksilver evangelism.

Synergy

Like many people working in the IT community, I need to have a Windows machine on my desktop in work for all the proprietary applications that we use and that I can't get a Mac version of. Using Synergy, I am able to control both my PC and my Mac from the same keyboard and mouse. Without it, my desktop would be a mess of cables, keyboards and mice. With it, my desktop is empty and zen-like beautiful.

Virtue or Desktop Manager

Coming from Linux, I learned the amount of joy that virtual desktops can bring. Now, it's hard for me to imagine working without them. You might as well ask me to work with one hand tied behind my back: they're that essential* to me (Microsoft has finally picked up on the importance of Virtual Desktops and included it as part of the 'Power Tools' for Windows XP and then went on to try and patent the idea).

Both Virtue and Desktop Manager are fine, free Virtual Desktop managers. I have yet to see someone fail to be impressed by Virtue's window-switching animations (if you've seen Panther's fast user switching in action then you know what I'm talking about), but it doesn't seem to be written as well as Desktop Manager, so you will end up fighting with it a little bit more.

But it's so pretty, it's almost worth it.

Pheeder

I've tried a lot of RSS readers on the Mac, and until Pheeder, I wasn't blown away by any of them. They either try out some fancy interface tricks and end up looking just plain dumb, or else they just lack basic features (how can we have an RSS reader in 2005 without a "Mark all as read" button?!).

Pheeder is by far the best RSS reader I've found on the Mac.

I love its simplicity and its power and even the elegant choice of colours and fonts. What I especially like is the ability to click on a feed name and get a one-page overview of all the articles in that feed. This way, when I'm in a rush, I can scan over a feed quickly without lots of clicking.

I only have two complaints. It is expensive, for what it is. At $25, it's roughly a quarter of the price of Panther but with only a fraction of the functionality. And I don't know how relevant it will be after Tiger launches with its built-in RSS support.


There was loads of other stuff that deserves a mention, so quick shouts to blender, ImageWell, del.icio.us and Romeo