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The Graveyard Book and the meaning of life October 6, 2010

Posted by Cesar in living me, thinking me.
Tags: , , , , ,
5 comments

“He looks like nobody but himself,” said Mrs.Owens, firmly. “He looks like nobody.”
“Then Nobody it is,” said Silas. “Nobody Owens.”
It was then that, as if responding to the name, the child opened its eyes wide in wakefulness. It stared around it, taking in the faces of the dead, and the mist, and the moon. Then it looked at Silas. Its gaze did not flinch. It looked grave.
“And what kind of a name is Nobody?” asked Mother Slaughter, scandalized.
“His name. And a good name,” Silas told her. “It will help to keep him safe.”

The quote above is from “The Graveyard Book“, from Neil Gaiman. The other day I was talking to my friend Wallace and I remembered I never wrote about one of my greatest passions: literature. And my first post on the subject couldn’t be about any other author: in my mind Neil Gaiman is one of the greatest writers of our generation. His fantasy books tell of amazing tales. Adult, deep, thoughtful fairy tales, and they are all great.

Neil Gaiman got famous for writing the Sandman graphic novels, and I love all of them, but after he started focusing on books he went from great to remarkable. I think we’ll talk about his books as classics if you give it a couple of decades. If you never read one of his books, you might have seen one or two movies. Stardust and Coraline were adaptations of his work (Stardust was alright, Coraline was awesome, but I digress).

Back to the matter at hand, I wanted to talk about literature and about Neil Gaiman, so I decided to make a review of his latest literary work: The Graveyard Book.  The book was written as a children book but, just like Coraline, adults who didn’t read it don’t know what they are missing. Neil Gaiman’s style is so interesting, his writing so close to poetry, his stories so full of meaning, that they transcend age constraints.

The Graveyard Book tells the story of Nobody Owens (you can call him Bod), a living kid raised by the dead in a graveyard. I won’t give away any spoilers. Zero. But Bod’s life has it all: his personal troubles, his interaction with the living and the dead, the secrets of graveyards and ghosts, a greater plot of good vs. evil, the metaphorical search for the meaning of life.

All characters are very tangible. You can’t help but feel the fear of Bod, the apprehension of his ghostly mother Mrs. Owens,  the strong conviction of Silas. As the story flows, the reader is constantly invited to be amazed, to fear, to smile and to laugh. The atmosphere of the book is always right and the borderline poetic narrative always keeps the fairy tale feeling alive. The humor is always witty and natural, as are the more scary moments and the epic passages.

Bod said, ‘I want to see life. I want to hold it in my hands. I want to leave a footprint on the sand of a desert island. I want to play football with people. I want,’ he said, and then he paused and he thought. ‘I want everything.’

To me the best way to read Neil Gaiman is to let yourself get completely immersed into the story, but to also see it as a quest for wisdom. Like long parables, all his books hold an invitation for thought and The Graveyard Book is no different.

The only flaw of the book is one that taints all great literary efforts: the book is too short, I wish we could follow Bod for a few more adventures. I was already nostalgic when I finished reading the last sentence. But then again, that’s one of the beauties of it, thinking about what was never written.

If you read this one and like it, try the Gaiman classics: Good Omens (simply hilarious, written together with Terry Pratchett) and American Gods. You won’t regret it.

See you space cowboys…

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It is finally here: FIFA 11 October 1, 2010

Posted by Cesar in gaming me.
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2 comments

The most important game of the year was released this Tuesday: FIFA 11.

Most people I tell this look at me with an offended face (remember I’m in Canada, not Brazil!). But I do not intend to preach, I’m just expressing what the game is to me. And mind you, it is not the best game of the year. But it is definitely the one I will play the most. So, to me, it is also the most important one. FIFA 11 will shape hundreds of hours of gameplay until around September 2011 FIFA 12 comes out.

I’ve been playing the new installment of the EA Football series since its release and I read quite a few reviews. Most of them talk about the same things and I’ll summarize. In FIFA 11:

  • You can play as the goalkeeper;
  • Now there’s an 11 vs. 11 multiplayer option;
  • A new passing system was implemented;
  • An innovative animation system makes players moves more realistic;
  • The player can now record crowd chants and have them played during matches.

However, if you, like me, are a die-hard football game aficionado, who plays since the first Winning Eleven and FIFA 94 (I actually remember playing considerably older football games, but that’s going too far), you know there are only two things that truly matter: gameplay and multiplayer quality. We can ignore most other flaws as long as these two are top notch. And since the multiplayer in FIFA is notoriously great, let’s talk about gameplay.

Even though reviews are unanimous to say FIFA 11 is just a tweaked version of last years innovative game, the game plays quite differently. First of all, the pace went down a notch, mostly due to the new passing system. And this is a very positive change: before, with reasonably good players, all passes were perfect, no matter how difficult they seemed. This is not the case anymore. Now, even playing with the likes of Chelsea, Internazionale or Barcelona, if the body orientation of the footballer is not adequate and his pass skill is not high enough, the pass will not only go in a poor trajectory but it will also be slow and, as a consequence, way easier to intercept. This gives a greater edge to players with really high pass skills (like Frank Lampard or Xavi) and stops some crazy plays from working the way they did before. Gone are the eternal first touch pass chains, with the defending team unable to ever see the color of the ball.

At this point, fans of the PES series will look at this post with an ironic grin and say: “Big deal, that’s how it’s been in Winning Eleven for the past 15 years.” And they will be right! But the fact that EA finally made the change means the game got an important improvement and, considering the fact that for the past few years Seabass Takatsuka’s team has been underdelivering, it is now clear in this blogger’s mind that FIFA is better than its Konami competitor by a considerable margin.

However, not everything is perfect. The AI of the players gets confused with the new system. Passes that are obviously too weak to reach the target player are sometimes ignored by your other teammates, which means even if the ball goes slowly right next to one of them, they don’t do anything to catch it, no matter how desperately you try to make it happen pressing all possible buttons on the controller.

Another down side, this one way harder to fix, is that most of the time it is not possible for the game to distinguish an attempt at a fast pass from an attempt at a pass to a farther away player. So during the past few days I tried many fast passes (remember they are considerably slower now) by holding the button longer and ended up with a pass to the wrong guy (usually being intercepted by the way). Knowing a fast pass would have made the play work and not being able to pull it off is frustrating.

However, there’s an interesting way to make it better: pressing the lobbed pass button with the right bumper also pressed makes what the game calls a bouncing lobbed pass. This is a mid height pass, which can be used to avoid ground interceptions but is also faster than a simple press of the ground pass button. I’ve been learning to use it when I really need the speed and have seen some results already. And of course it is always possible to try the manual controls, but I digress.

Another noticeable change is in the physical interactions between the players. This is a less obvious update, but the impact is significant and I would say it is vastly superior to the old system. Reviewers gave a lot of emphasis to how physical contact looks more realistic, but it plays better as well. While heavy players can defend and dribble using their balance and strength (think Ibrahimovic or Drogba), small and agile players can still go around defenders and resist the occasional bump (think Messi or Robben).

Another interesting effect of the new physical play are the tackles: even though tackling is just as easy, it is now a bit harder for a defender to recover the ball if the other player thinks fast. It is possible for the attacking player to recover from weaker tackling efforts and fight to get the ball back, even if in a worse position. This was a rare event in FIFA 10 and it feels like a very positive change;. Tackles are not so binary anymore: there are bad tackles that let the attacker advance freely, good tackles that steal the ball precisely and not so good tackles in which both attacker and defender need to jostle for the ball.

All in all, I would say this is the best FIFA game so far. I’m still not sure the gameplay is as exciting as it was in the best versions of the Winning Eleven series (or Pro Evolution Soccer if you want to use the new name), the new changes still need some adaptation on my part, but if you take all other factors into consideration (multiplayer options, lack of lag, Be A Pro modes, etc), FIFA 11 is the best football simulation ever.

See you space cowboys…

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