I’m happy to once again post the out-of-context comments of Bissy Eddy, wife of Andy and deep thinker in her own right. Every so often Bissy says something that makes sense in her head, but not in anyone else’s ears–such as noting the appearance of a “hearing-eye dog” on a local newscast. But in discussing stuff over dinner, this snuck out:

“One is all I do at a time.”

And you know, I wrote down the quote, but I don’t remember the original context. Maybe it’s better that way.

Condemned at last

My pal Greg gave me a spare copy of Condemned: Criminal Origins when the Xbox 360 came out.

I just finished it.

I may have soiled myself. I’ll have to check.

Short version: Think about Seven or the big ending scene from The Silence of the Lambs, then turn that into a game with a first-person perspective. Creeping through sewers, abandoned buildings, burnt-out libraries and other stuff I won’t ruin here. You’re armed with whatever you can physically pull off the walls–pieces of pipe, 2x4s with nails in ’em, locker doors, you name it. You’re hunting a serial killer, but violent junkies and freaky homeless people leap out at you, armed with whatever they could scavenge. This was one of the most disturbing, truly scary games I’ve ever played, and it didn’t rely on shock value or even its plot–it was all about the pacing.

I started playing the game four days after the 360 came out, November 26, 2005. Thirteen months later, I finally got around to finishing it.

And I got my most prized achievement doing it–I used only melee weapons from start to finish to be dubbed a Gold Melee Master. Guns are in the game, but I felt that was not why Condemned was made. Hey, I can use a shotgun or a pistol in any other first-person game out there.

You can find the 360 version used for about $25 but there’s also a $30 direct-download PC version–try the demo, I dare you. You will not find a more terrifying game for the money.

Hurry Holidays

Aside from the real-world magazine work that I could do over the break (both deadline oriented and optional-but-a-good-idea), I set myself several goals over the Christmas holiday. Most are fairly modest and don’t sound like work: Catch up on that stack of magazines. Update my guitar magazine database. Finish Condemned: Criminal Origins on 360, which I started last year and really want to complete. Play, like, ten other games that are sitting on the shelf. Work on a secret project that has been languishing for two years. Solve some puzzles. Make a mix CD for a friend. Play some games with the readers.

I can’t seem to get most of ’em done because every time I start one fun project, three or four more nag at me like “Oh, so that means you’re not going to take care of me, then?”

I could take a month off and maybe get it all done. But when could I ever take a month off? You know you’re in trouble when you start wishing you’d get sidelined by a major illness.

Christmas Eve with the DINKs

How do double-income, no-kids families spend Christmas Eve when their shopping’s all done?

– Go to Fry’s, which Andy once perfectly described as “the nerd supermarket.” It’s on our way to a destination a little later on in the day, so we swing in and I get a proper DVD burner for Kat’s system, which not only gives her core functionality but makes that front bezel all black now.

– Go to Watercourse Way. This is the main Kat & Dan Christmas Eve tradition: Hit the hot tub at the Zen spa. Super relaxing, super decadent.

– Go to Gryphon and drool over the guitars. Got to try out one I never thought I’d see in real life, a Rick Turner Model 1 Lindsay Buckingham, and a Taylor T5 Thinline Fiveway in Sage Green. Kat loved the finish, I loved the price (well, it’s a $3K guitar priced used for $1925–not that I’m ready to pay that, just that I’m happy to see that they sometimes do appear in stores, used). I actually have ideas of selling two or three of my guitars to get one T5, and if I do that, it would be this one. So it was really good that I was able to put my hands on one to properly fall in love and start mulling that over. Gryphon also has a cool machine: Insert an expired credit card, stomp on the foot pedal, and out pops a guitar pick. So I played with that for a while with a stack of expired cards that were lying around.

– Fancy dinner out at Boston Market

– Swing by Target to get a few necessities and see all the last-minute shoppers. There were a lot of people there, but it was actually pretty mellow.

– Home for some MMO time, then Miracle on 34th Street and waitin’ for Santa. I also said “Feliz Navidad” to my friend Jose Cuervo.
I know the holidays mean family to most people, whether they choose it to be that way or are forced. It means the same thing to me. This is just my definition of it.

PC makeover

Kat inherited my old PC (Athlon XP 2100+) when I upgraded about 18 months ago. It ain’t much to look at:

It was built on the cheap (this Antec was the least expensive case I could find that wasn’t beige), the USB 2.0 headers at the front were hit-and-miss, and it has always had overheating problems, hence the giant fan on the outside and the permanently-ghetto lack of a side panel. I should have bought tiny cinder blocks and propped it up. But she only uses it for some audio recording and WoW/CoH, so no biggie, right? Well, random lockups and restarts have made it more of an issue and I started to wonder if the mobo wasn’t shorting out on something. When Maximum PC gave away some cases at work, Kat snagged a silver and blue Cooler Master Mystique and I promised that during the holiday break I would migrate her machine to the new aluminum housing and try to diagnose along the way.

Then the OXM intern Thomas upgraded his rig and gave me his old video card, proc, and mobo, so w00t, I suddenly had a near-fresh build on my hands. It turns out his old Athlon 64 3200+ rig is only a teensy bit slower than my main PC, and it’s built on the same MSI K8N Neo Platinum motherboard, so I already had the instructions and the drivers. That didn’t stop various Windows-related disasters from happening over the course of the afternoon, but when all’s said and done, it looks like it worked:

It’s much quieter (the side panel helps, as do the funky front doors), more convenient thanks to the top-mounted power switches and USB/audio jacks, seems to be running much cooler, and of course, it will be much, much faster compared to what Kat’s used to. I kept her DVD drive, RAM (1GB of DDR-333), and Radeon 9800 video card (256MB is still beefy) but Thomas’s old 128MB version of the same card will replace the GeForce 3 (!) in my MAME rig downstairs.

So, Kat gets a new PC for Christmas, and it’s not thanks to me or even Santa–it’s thanks to Thomas the intern. Huzzah!

Why Guitar Player isn’t cool

To me, the answer is Editor-in-Chief Michael Molenda.

I grew up learning to play guitar from magazines. Most of the magazines had sheet music in them–the “put your fingers on this number fret” guitar shorthand known as tablature–and most of them were rock-oriented to the point of excluding other styles like jazz and classical. But every so often I’d pick up Guitar Player, which didn’t bother itself with the war to print as many songs per issue as possible; they made a traditional enthusiast magazine with excellent interviews and generally a wider view of what guitar was all about. Unfortunately, I wanted to rock, so I never really appreciated it; GP always felt like a magazine for old people. I’d pick it up now and then if the cover story interested me or if one of my favorite players was profiled. And I always secretly felt that I was missing something by not being open to the magazine more often.

Well, I’ve grown up, and I still read the rock mags, but I do realize there’s more out there. I have been eager to check out Guitar Player again; a friend who works for the publisher brings me recent issues, and I particularly liked the new redesign and cover treatment. I also learned a few things about making magazines in the intervening years, and that’s why I’m so disappointed to see that while I was evolving, Guitar Player devolved.

A recent issue featured a story on rock and roll fantasy camp. Putting aside the inherent cheesiness, it’s still an interesting topic. Are we going to find out what motivates a popular artist to spend a few weeks with middle-aged guys living out their meager dreams? No. We got a lot of souvenir photos of Michael Molenda attending rock and roll fantasy camp, living out his own meager dreams. Smile for the camera, guys, you’re going to be in Guitar Player and make me look really cool!

That struck me as a self-indulgent editorial choice that didn’t bring much to the reader (or what my current boss Fran calls the “look at me, I am awesome” school of journalism). But the January 2007 issue of Guitar Player really showed me that I’ll be much more interested in reading this magazine when Molenda has moved elsewhere.

Page 70, a feature on GP’s sponsored Guitar Hero 2006 competition. Written by Molenda, it’s a six-page feature a lot of photos. And while the captions to the photos tell most of the story–like, who are these people and what kind of music do they play–the actual body copy is little more than a self-congratulatory list of entrants, prizes from generous sponsors, and a reminder that the readers can still vote (and increase the mag’s website traffic). Wait, who are these guys? What inspired them to play, why might we ever hear from them again? Why are we looking at photos of the marketing manager holding a bunch of gig bags with the prizes (you can feel the excitement), let alone Molenda himself giving the competitors “a pep talk”? No wonder this article is surrounded by fractional ads–it’s right at home.

The self-indulgence trickles down to page 94 and the two-page article on the Fender Custom Shop’s remaking of Eric Clapton’s most famous guitar. We get one full-body shot of the guitar and…a photo of the article’s author. Alex Thompson, playing one of the guitars. Not, like, the back of the guitar, an exploded photo of all the individual parts that had to be manufactured juuuust right, or a photo of the team who built it (not to mention a shot of them actively building one), or an annotated diagram of all the things that make this limited edition so rare or interesting–but a picture of a Guitar Player editor just standing there playing it. Again, what does that give me as a reader? Only the impression that the GP editors really like themselves.

I’ll skip the flatly-written, passive-voiced, largely list-oriented review of the Taylor GS (one of the guitars I was in the market for…four months ago) and point out page 56, a review of Police guitarist Andy Summers’ book One Train Later, where Molenda quizzically calls Frank Sinatra “a painter, a lover, and a Nazi of cool.” Um, what? Fanatic, zealot, arbiter, lord, take your pick. But that’s just not what Nazi means. There is no positive connotation to that word, at all. Misusing words is just poor writing, and this particular hot-button word’s incorrect usage is empty sensationalism at its least and outrageously poor taste at its worst. But again, I look at the author, who is also the editor, and I realize I have to consider the source.

There was a time when I thought I might like to apply to work at Guitar Player; they’re local here in the Bay Area and I always thought I could have learned some great things if I joined the team, because it was so different from my guitar experience. That time has passed.

Psycho 360…and puglilism!

Microsoft released a new backward compatibility update today, adding support for a boatload of excellent Xbox games that will now run on Xbox 360. Three of my favorite fighting games–DOA Ultimate, Soul Calibur II, and MK Armageddon–and the oft-cited Psychonauts are among the new batch. That last one is one that I’ve had for a long time and only played a little. I got bored with the hop-and-bop-and-collect thing and really lost my taste for what grew out of the “platform” genre, but Tim Schafer and his team at Double Fine are not your average developers, and the game has a wonderfully twisted sense of humor that makes me really, really glad that it’s on the latest hardware, so more people might enjoy it. I’m gonna dive in and play.

And that’s the key…you have to play these games once they support them on 360. A lot of people like to make a lot of noise about “oh, this game’s not supported, neither is this one” but then they don’t actually play the games once they become compatible. I was not too far into my MKA career so I am tempted to restart that. And if you missed Psychonauts, why, you can buy it for full price and know that you’re doing a good thing. This one really was worth all the critical hype it got, even if the sales didn’t follow suit.

Open letter to Gears of War players

Hey, guys. Use the microphone. It’s a ranked match. We all work together, we all go up in rank. The smart teams communicate. The stupid teams are the ones I’m on. You are not tougher or cooler or enigmatic because you refuse to talk with other people. If you don’t like actively working with other real live human beings, stick to single player. Otherwise, you’re meat, and you’re causing me to be meat. Play smart, work together, or go away already.

Chainsaw Fodder