Going Box by Box in 2016

Regular updates are coming back to Going Box by Box in 2016!

I’ll be posting my book posts on Wednesdays (starting January 6, 2016) and my video game posts on alternate Wednesdays (so the first will be up on January 13, 2016). Right now, with the rest of my schedule I’m looking at posting two book posts and two video game posts per month.

What I’m aiming for with these posts is to write up reviews. My hope is that each of these reviews will just be one entry. But, more realistically, as the length of the books I’ll be reading and video games I’ll be playing varies quite a bit (along with the time I can dedicate to either of them), most books and games will get two entries. When my reviews span two posts, the first will be about my impressions after the first 1/4 of the game or the book and whether or not I’ll continue with it, and the second entry will be my final thoughts on the thing.

Now, to make this blog a little more interesting, I’m planning to get through all of the books and all of the games currently in my video game and book lists within the same time it’ll take me to complete my translation of Beowulf over on A Blogger’s Beowulf.

I’m expecting to finish that translation in three years, so I’m giving myself three years to get through all of my listed books and video games. I don’t expect to get through all of them, but I do expect to build up a solid pair of lists of the best books and video games I’ve experienced.

That’s it for now, so happy New Year! See you in 2016!

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Blog news: a more defined new direction

Okay. It’s been a little while since I’ve written anything in here, and I still plan to get back to the books and the video games that this blog is supposed to be all about. But I’m going to start taking a more relaxed approach to my collection.

Well. Maybe my “accumulation” is more accurate.

After all, every time I go to a used bookstore I usually come out with at least one new title (not so much with the bigger bookstores, since those are far less interesting to me unless I already have a very particular title in mind), and more often than not when I step into a video game store of any description I’ll pick up something that I’ve at least been “vaguely” looking for.

I point out my buying patterns just to make it clear that while I’ve been playing and reading through the books I’ve already collected, I’ve been going and bringing more in. And that’s not likely to stop any time soon.

So what I’ll be doing going forward is basically choosing what I read or play on a whim. I’ll still be writing about books and games in two parts, as mentioned here.

To sum up that post: I’ll engage with each book or game for about 1/4 of it, decide whether or not I want to go on and finish it and then either do so and write about it again once I’ve finished it, or I’ll choose not to continue with it. At that point, I’ll be putting the book or game up for sale (maybe not the best move after potentially harshly criticizing it, but maybe I’ve got some contrarians following this blog – here’s hoping :/ ).

The books and games I finish might also wind up getting sold off, though.

After all, on an episode of the podcast I do with two dear friends I mentioned that I want to curate my collection of games and books into more of a proper collection. And I wasn’t just running my mouth. I want to make my collection of books and games into something that has more meaning than just being a sign of how frequently I buy books and games. Though I’ll be holding on to books and games I receive as gifts.

To help with this, I’m going to be working within some limits.

I want to take my accumulation of books and take it down to 100 titles (out of about 300 books, all told) and I want to take my game collection down to 50. Those numbers might change, but if there’s an ultimate end to this blog it’s to create a list of my top 100 books and my top 50 games from before 2015 (though not going past the Wii or the Nintendo DS on the video game side of things).

So there it is.

A blog update for Going Box by Box.

And an open invitation to join me as I take a journey through the books and video games I have and continue to accumulate. No RSVP required (but do feel free to let me know what you think in the comments).

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Top 5 Writing Mistakes to Avoid this NaNoWriMo (sponsored by Grammarly)

Full disclosure: This is a post that I’m writing to share an infographic that Grammarly shared with me for that exact purpose. However, I’m also posting here in Going Box by Box because I’m planning to start posting here on a regular basis again.

Here’s the post:

To everyone who’s doing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year, I tip my hat to you.

Writing a novel can be tricky, and even more so when you put a time limit on it. Though that time limit can also help keep you focused. I hope that you’ve been keeping up with the word count so far – but if not, don’t sweat it, since this is just week 3 and you still have half the month!

Personally, I’ve managed to complete the challenge twice, a few years back, and took up the challenge a few other years in which I wasn’t so successful.

But, whether I finished it or not, I would always end up with a finished (or semi-finished) novel that needed some editing.

The need to edit the novel you press out during NaNoWriMo is something you’ve just got to face. Writing fast means that you’re going to miss some detail, or spell something wrong, or skip over some point of grammar. After all, you’re cramming 50,000 words into one month and basically speed-writing a first draft – likely on top of a job and a personal life.

Besides, first drafts always need polishing. Always.

But you could maybe cut down on the time you need to sit down and edit your novel in December if you consider the common errors outlined on this infographic from Grammarly:

Infographic about the top five writing mistakes people make during NaNoWriMo

Each of these is important when it comes to keeping on top of your writing. Most of all though, I think you really should read your writing out loud as a major part of editing. Your readers won’t necessarily read your story out loud, but you reading your own writing is a pretty good simulation of readers’ reading your work to themselves.

So if you only follow one of those five tips, make it number one.

Good luck with the last half of NaNoWriMo 2015!

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The end of Contact

The European box art for the Nintendo DS RPG Contact

The European box art for Contact. Image found at http://spong.com/game/covers-box-art/11040692/Contact-DS-DSi/216275.

Introduction

Finally, after quite the wait, I write about the final parts of the Nintendo DS RPG Contact.

The Final Boss

Contact‘s final dungeon is long, but as with most of the game there are bed and bathtub rooms at regular intervals. Also, the final boss battle with the dragon that is the “Mu Control System” is truly epic.

There’s no timing puzzle, the dragon’s not impossibly tough, nor is there obtuse “why-didn’t-that-attack-land?” combat. Instead, the final boss is like a super improved version of first major boss: multiple attacks, both screens are used, and it’s necessary to switch between combat mode and wandering mode to dodge attacks.

Plus, in true action RPG fashion, the boss’ isn’t constantly vulnerable. You can only land attacks when its preparing to attack or in the middle of one. Thankfully, though, waiting for openings isn’t dull since the boss’ attacks are telegraphed but have no set pattern.

What Happens in the End (Spoiler-Rich!)

After the final boss, it’s revealed that The Professor really just used Terry to get back thee cells of element 117. Though, aside from keeping it out of the CosmoNOTs hands, it’s still unclear what The Professor needs it for. I’m also still pretty uncertain as to who’s good and who’s evil.

As if ambiguous motives weren’t enough, the problem of free will is mixed into the ending, too.

After The Professor has scooped the cells Terry ends up back on the beach where the game began. While there Terry admits that he’s not only realized that The Professor used him, he also realizes that you, the player, have been controlling him the whole time. At this point in the end sequence Terry starts attacking the screen, which blurs and pixelates the image until it’s almost unintelligible.

What makes this fight with your avatar worse is that the only way to get through to the credits is to tap Terry until you knock him out, at which point he says that he knew he was always weak, that everything he did was just you, the player, working through him. Kind of a downer ending.

Though the CosmoNOTs’ engineer Mint swoops in to bring Terry back home after you lay him out. And, if you stick around after the credits, the Professor breaks down the fourth wall and admits to realizing that he’s just data in a game. So it’s a strange ending that’s quite worthy of Grasshopper Manufacture and Suda51.

Conclusion: A Quick Review

So is Contact worth hunting down or ordering from someone online?

Contact is a fun RPG. Though the stat-specific grinding both makes grinding easier and more difficult. It’s easier because you can home in on one stat, but harder because building that stat can be more time consuming than just blasting through an army of enemies. And the combat can get pretty dull since you attack at regular intervals (determined by your stats) instead of at the press of a button.

As per the story, I appreciate the ambiguity, but at the same time feel like Terry and the Professor’s realizing that they’re just in a game winks at the fact that the only real motivation for the story and its progression is that such is necessary for a video game. Which Contact definitely is.

So, if you’re looking for a relatively short RPG with a unique levelling and battle system, I’d say Contact is worth it. But, if you’re looking for a game with a neat, deep story, look elsewhere.

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The end of Hemingway’s Toronto years

Ernest Hemingway, William Burrill, Hemingway: The Toronto Years

The cover of William Burrill’s Hemingway: The Toronto Years. Image from: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51V7kMR20dL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg.

Introduction

The final chapters of William Burrill’s Hemingway: The Toronto Years are a fitting conclusion to the story of his sojourn in Ontario’s capital.

Summary

In Hemingway: The Toronto Years‘ final chapters Burrill gives us the details of the end of Hemingway’s association with Toronto. We’re told of Hemingway’s misery due to not being able to write fiction because of Hindmarsh’s working him constantly at the Star. We’re told how he did some moonlightimg for The Globe and The Mail and Empire to thumb his nose at Hindmarsh and the Star. And we’re told how Hemingway finds a writing friend in cub reporter Morley Callaghan. And, most importantly, we learn that just as life at the Star frustrated Hemingway, the seeds of his literary career which he’d sewn in Paris we’re starting to sprout.

Ultimately, Burrill’s coverage of Hemingway in Toronto ends by going full circle with a farewell party at the Connable mansion in January of 1924. Burrill notes this symmetry, and, like a door that he’d opened on this little covered part of Hemingway’s life, he closes it without a squeak from the hinges.

Hemingway: The Toronto Years is definitely a book to check out if you’re interested in Hemingway, his Toronto connection or he history of The Toronto Star. Burrill writes consistently smoothly throughout. But, along with the narrative of Hemingway’s Toronto years, Burrill returns to a mood that suggests that this biography is more of an expanded footnote than something really accessible or recommendable as a first read on Hemingway.

Hemingway on Writing, Briefly

The single thing that Burrill highlighted in this part of the book is Hemingway’s attitude to writing. He quotes the man as basically saying that stories are always coming to him but need to be finished on  paper, otherwise they just rot in his head (204). Burrill also notes the sort of religious perception of writing that Hemingway had.

Now, I don’t know if it speaks to a lack of originality on my part or indicates that I’m some sort if hack writer, but I agree with Hemingway’s assessment of writing. It’s hard to write fiction as a mechanical kind of act without reverence or care. Plus, I too find that stories and poems not written are washed away in the stream of consciousness. Though, and maybe this just indicates my own narrative back log, but I also find that writing the shortest sentence of a story down or a single line of a poem often gets me going. The really hard part us just convincing myself that the ritual preparations to do so (which are still mysteries to me) are finished beforehand.

Questions

If you do any kind of writing, do you find that thinking about stories, poems, articles, etc. at length makes you more eager to write them or less? Does this sort of thinking make it harder or easier to sit down and write?

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The run up to Contact‘s finale a wasted opportunity

Contact, Grasshopper Manufacture, Atlus

Boxart for the game Contact. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Contact_boxart.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Contact_boxart.jpg.

Introduction

I solve the issue of the storm sonata and manage to continue on in Grasshopper Manufacture’s Contact. But for a price.

Summary of the Session

In tonight’s session with Contact, I got through what I hope is the game’s last obscure moment.

After trying to go to Akumojo Castle for the first time, you’re shown that there’s a storm swirling around it that makes getting to the castle impossible. The Professor’s able to figure out that the CosmoNOTs have the pop idol Nadia working for them, and apparently she’s playing a song that holds the storms in place. He also tracks the source of Nadia’s playing to Riko Island. On the island you definitely do find Nadia. But when you try to take the sheet music when she’s not looking you just wind up with an icon of a piece of sheet music and a red check mark at the top of your screen. And really, I’m not sure if this is supposed to be helpful or if it’s some kind of glitch since the icon and the check stay at the top of your lower screen until you reset the game.

Anyway, luckily I’d remembered vaguely that someone in Habara mentioned something about sheet music. So I went forth.

And I found it out – I happened to be exactly right. On the floor before the one that’s dead silent (third, if memory serves), there’s a clerk selling the Blue Sky March for 10,000 gold.

At first I thought that I could probably kill him and he might drop it, but deciding against that, I instead sold what I could and got up to 5000 gold. About 40 minutes of grinding, and a few more sales, later, I had enough for the music, paid for it and warped back to the Professor’s ship. Then I went to Riko Island where I swapped the Storm Sonata Nadia had been playing for the Blue Sky March I just picked up. As you might’ve guessed this cleared up the storms around Akumojo Castle and now I can start the game’s final area.

Feeling satisfied, albeit a little unready because of all the potions I used during my gold farming, I saved and I quit.

Misuse of Mechanics

I remember reading that part of what Suda51 was going for with Contact was the feel of old 16-bit RPGs. In particular, he wanted to make a game that was as obscure as some of those older gems are, almost to the point where playing without some sort of walkthrough was nearly impossible. Thankfully Contact doesn’t go to that extreme often, but you really do have to talk to every NPC and keep tabs on just about everything they say to keep away from GameFAQs while playing this one. This business with the sheet music is definitely an example of where paying so much attention helps, but it could’ve been carried off better.

As it is, you’ve got to just farm gold or take a chance on the clerk’s dropping the sheet music when you kill him. Admittedly, at this part of the game, I don’t think you’d need to worry too much about your karma score (unless it ties into the game’s ending), so killing him until he drops the sheet music isn’t a terrible idea. But, if, like me, you don’t want to shed innocent blood even in a video game, then your only option is to get farming.

The thing is, I see this as Suda51 having picked the more boring of two evils.

There’s no denying that this sort of thing – the super expensive or rare item that just so happens to be needed to move the story forward – is a common way to extend a game a bit at worst and to generate a sense of value at best. But, because this is an RPG, and one of the things that makes RPGs special is that they’ve got a lot of world and character to explore, just having to farm gold until you can afford the Blue Sky March is missing the point of these game extending sections. Instead of farming gold, you should’ve had to trade for the sheet music.

Now, I’m assuming that Akumojo Castle is the last area of the game here, and I could be wrong. But if it is, the run up to it should involve revisiting everything you’ve done before so you get a sense of what’s brought you to this point in the story and in your understanding of the game’s world. Trading quests can be tedious, but since Contact already trains you to pay attention to the details, running around to all the major islands again before facing the game’s last dungeon would’ve been a great way to tie the experience together.

Though, that Suda51 went with the gold farming route instead makes sense to me, since I’ve never really had a strong sense of what’s going on in Contact.

Terry, the player character, basically ends up caught between the Professor, a lone wolf whom we can only assume has the universes’ best interests in mind, and the CosmoNOTs, a group of people who are opposed to the Professor for…reasons. It’s very much established that these two parties are rivals, enemies even, but we’re never really told why.

More importantly, we’re never really told why these two groups’ motivations have them at loggerheads. Is it simply because the CosmoNOTs want to destroy the universe or planets or something with the crystals’ power while the Professor needs to crystals to preserve life in some sort of new experiment? Or is it the other way around and is the Professor really the bad guy? This sort of misdirection is, admittedly, played out in a lot of these fish out of water adventure stories, but it’d still be neat for there to be more going on than “Oh no! Those guys are about to get the next crystal! Go get it first!”

So, I’m not sure which comes first when Suda51’s designing games – the mechanics or the story, but I get the sense that his choosing to make the final key item something exorbitantly priced rather than an item tied to characters and settings reflects a certain lack of faith in the game’s story and characters. Which is weird, since so much attention has to be paid to play this game without a walkthrough.

Questions

How much attention do you think should be paid to things like NPCs in video games? Should game designers put important story progression-related information in NPC dialogue boxes? Or should NPC chatter be limited to things like sidequests?

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Hemingway turns away from his Toronto Years

Ernest Hemingway, William Burrill, Hemingway: The Toronto Years

The cover of William Burrill’s Hemingway: The Toronto Years. Image from: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51V7kMR20dL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg.

Introduction

In this part of William Burrill’s Hemingway: The Toronto Years Hemingway and Hadley start to sour on Toronto and the Star. And the couple wishes and plans to return to Paris.

Synopsis

As per Hadley’s request, she Hemingway go back to Toronto, where Hemingway is turned into a staff reporter for the Star Daily. There he comes under the rule of the editor Hindmarsh, who is sadistic and driving. This editor of the Star Daily tries to humble Hemingway by giving him cub reporter assignments, using him as a gopher, and working him to the bone. He often sent Hemingway off to other cities to cover stories and would reject things that were perfectly informative and incisive – possibly because they were too good. Hemingway’s not really writing fiction at this point as he feels too harried to do so.

Meanwhile, on the personal front, Hadley goes through her pregnancy and winds up giving birth to a son as Hemingway’s on his way back from covering David Lloyd George’s visit to New York City.

After the birth of their son, he and Hadley both want to go back to Paris. Hemingway gets back to the Star Weekly after he interviews a Hungarian count about a huge League of Nations loan for restructuring, takes the paperwork for the story and then that paperwork winds up destroyed by Hindmarsh. This besmirches Hemingway’s word (he’d promised the Hungarian diplomat he’d get the papers back to him) and it seems like something done out of malice. This was the end of the line for Hemingway, who after blowing up at Hindmarsh for his boorishness, went back to writing for the Star Weekly. Hemingway made a deal with its then editor, J.H. Cranston, too. This deal saw the Star Weekly cover his and Hadley’s expenses for getting to Paris in exchange for writing up articles and dispatches along the way.

All of that said, by this point in time Hemingway is disgusted at Canada and Toronto. Both seem too puritanical and backwater-ish, since at this point in his life he’s a young man comparing everything he experiences to Europe and especially Paris.

A New Character, Briefly

The biggest change in this stretch of Burrill’s biography of Hemingway is that it becomes a story of two characters. Though it does this only briefly.

Since Hemingway and Hadley spend so much time apart during their time in Toronto, we start to see her as more of an actor in all of this. It seems she’s not employed, but that makes me all the more curious about her. Is she doing much with her days? Does she interact much with people aside from her friends the Connables? Since she is Hemingway’s wife at this point, I feel like Hadley’s a major character in his life, despite her absence. And yet we get so little information about her. Except that in her letters to friends she says that staying in Toronto is hell.

A Relatable Life?

Aside from that bit of nuance, Burrill’s writing continues to shape the events of Hemingway’s life during the early 1920s into a roaring story full of characters cruel and benevolent. So no complaints on that front. Though reading this biography is making me wonder if my life should be more hectic or busied. Of course, pulling back from that and looking at the life of an indie writer trying to shoulder-check his way through the gorilla glass window looking onto the successful indie scene, this is definitely no life of laziness either.

Questions

Biographers do it by profession, but have you ever caught yourself trying to organize the events in your life into a coherent story? Why do you think you tried to do so?

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