Friday, January 28, 2011

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Game Informer For Free

That we're still more than nine months away from the release of Skyrim is excruciating, but at least the good folks over at Game Informer have dedicated more or less the entire month of January to the cause.  They've posted about a dozen fascinating articles about the game, ranging from insights into its development process to previews of its mechanics--but naturally, with them being a business and all, there's plenty more content in the physical magazine, in its February 2011 issue.

I'm nowhere near as big a video gamer as I was ten years ago, and my days of subscribing to video game magazines are long over... but this is Skyrim we're talking about.  I decided I needed to own a copy of this issue.  There were disappointingly few places I could have bought it on the internet, with the exception of eBay, and after shipping, it would end up costing me more money to buy a used copy than just to find my own.

"Easy," you might say.  "Go to a bookstore."  That would be a fine idea but for living in Berkeley.  There's not exactly a Barnes and Noble down the street, and it's not like the hippies at the local independent bookstore carry a vast selection of video-gaming magazines.  BART is always an option--but then I'd be spending more on my trip than on the magazine--and I have friends with cars, but I like to save my begged-for rides for things that really count, like trips that involve forty pounds of dirt from Home Depot.

But, upon entering my apartment yesterday, I noticed something: the February 2011 issue of Game Informer sitting on the shelf below my building's mailboxes.  That shelf has come to be used for abandoning pieces of mail that belong to people no longer living in your apartment--and living in a student-heavy area, that happens quite a lot.  I checked the name on the label against the name on Apartment 2's mailbox, and it was way off.  Still, there's the vague thought of the phrase "federal crime" when you steal someone else's mail, and maybe there was a perfectly good explanation for why the magazine was outside its mailbox?

I didn't have to debate postal ethics for long, though.  I opened my own mailbox to find the exact same issue of Game Informer had magically shown up in my mailbox.  There is surely no Phillip Van Sant living in Apartment 12, and between shelving the magazine next to its twin or adopting it, the choice became easy.

Here's the thing, though: my apartment has never received an issue of Game Informer prior to January 27, 2011, and I've been leaving there for nearly a year and a half.  I assume Mr. Van Sant is a prior tenant, but I've never gotten any of his mail before now.  It seems downright bizarre that the first and only one that shows up happens to be the exact magazine I'm interested in.

I must have cashed in some seriously good karma for something.  And, to keep the cycle going, Mr. Van Sant, the magazine is yours if you want it.

Currently listening: Tartini, Concerto in D, as performed by Maurice Andre

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Decemberists: The King is Dead

Now that they've been making albums for ten years, it doesn't look like a completely consistent Decemberists album, one that's just plain good from start to finish, is ever going to be in the cards.  Look at literally any of their six full-length albums (and many of their EPs and other assorted releases), and you'll see that half to two thirds of it is amazing, bordering on brilliant, and the remainder is... not.  Sometimes it tries too hard and becomes the indie cliche that the Decemberists are often accused of being.  Sometimes it doesn't try hard enough, and what would otherwise be a halfway decent track is lost to much better material to either side of it.  And sometimes it's just boring.

The weird thing about the Decemberists is that however they dress their music up, it turns out this same way.  Whether they're set in medieval Japan or Arthurian England, every Decemberists album follows the pattern.  So forget the "blah blah blah REM" hype, and lay the "hey look, this album was recorded in a barn, so it is rustic" to rest.  It's still a Decemberists record.  It's still indie pop with strong folk influences and a pinch of hard rock to make it interesting.  It still features Colin Meloy using words that you didn't know existed.  And it still features six or seven outstanding tracks and a handful of entirely forgettable ones.

That's not to say that The King Is Dead is the same album as any of the Decemberists' past releases--least of all The Hazards of Love.  Where Hazards was high-concept rock opera (and really cool, though not everyone's cup of tea), King is toned down a bit.  The only major "theme" on this album, if one exists at all, is the passage of time: seasons turn, calamities happen, we reminisce, we fight in wars... and everything goes on.  But the Decemberists are rarely ones to make a statement ("16 Military Wives" being possibly the sole exception).  They're content to sing songs, and that's what's great about them.

What works on King?  For starters, everything involving that "turn of the seasons" motif: "Don't Carry It All" is an upbeat way to start the album, a sincere paean to lending a helping hand.  "January Hymn" has an austere beauty that executes Fleet Foxes' concept better than Fleet Foxes can, and "June Hymn" is as unpretentious an indie-pop tune you'll ever find, reveling in some simplicity that evokes some almost-real Springville Hill.

My favorite track, strangely, is "Rox in the Box."  It has an irritating title, and the first two lines of it sound like they should be from a Charles Barkley commercial for Taco Bell, but it evolves into a complex tune with layers of bluegrass and old-style American folk that very few bands could pull off.  "All Arise!" is another stylistic experiment, mixing in zydeco harmonica, accordion, and fiddle--and like "Rox," it borrows heavily from the aesthetic of the Decemberists' so-called side project, Black Prairie.  And "Down By the Water" is a fine first single; what it lacks in usual Decemberists flamboyance, it makes up for with Gillian Welch's vocal performance.  (Welch is featured on around half of the album's tracks, but her talents are used most effectively in "Water".)

King's biggest problem is that its pacing is just a bit askew.  It's not a long album, weighing in at under 40 minutes, and every time it finishes, I want there to be more--which speaks highly for the album.  Still, it drags in parts: both "Rise to Me" and "Dear Avery" are nearly five minutes long, and neither is interesting enough to warrant that much length.  "Dear Avery" in particular is a curious, unexpectedly low-key end to the album.  It's not quite as dull as "Of Angels and Angles," the mind-numbingly emo finale to 2005's Picaresque, but it doesn't build to any sort of climax that gets me excited about the last eight minutes of the album.

But it's the Decemberists, after all, and we can't expect every single track to be a winner.  Six or seven brilliant out of ten is nothing to sneeze at.

Currently listening: "Apologies", Christie DuPree

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Case Against a College Football Playoff

It's that time of the college football season again.  Time to watch the best teams play each other, to celebrate the achievements of the student athletes--and to argue about how we could do it all better.  It's awfully trendy these days to argue in favor of a college football playoff, but in reality, a playoff solves few of the problems it's ostensibly designed to fix, and introduces plenty of its own.

1. Someone still gets left out

One circumstance that sparks a particularly impassioned rallying cry among the football playoff's supporters is when a team gets left out.  Maybe there are three undefeated teams, only two of which can play for the national title.  Maybe there is only one undefeated team but three teams with one loss.  Supporters of the playoff argue that a playoff is inherently more fair simply because there are more slots, giving more teams a chance to contend for the title.

Admittedly, even expansion to a modest four-team playoff does allow every undefeated team to contend for the title in most years.  Expansion to a more ambitious eight-team playoff virtually guarantees that all the undefeateds will be in, barring the vanishingly rare case of enormous imparity in every football conference.  However, unless there are exactly four, or exactly eight, undefeated teams, some team with the next-best record is still going to get left out.  I'll use the 2010-2011 season as an example, referencing rankings and records as of the final BCS standings, but you can perform the same analysis on any college football season and come up with pretty much the same conclusions.

This year was an unfortunate example of the "three undefeated teams" version of the "someone gets left out" argument.  Auburn (13-0) and Oregon (12-0) are outstanding football teams and the natural choices to contend for the title.  But in letting them play in the title game, you're keeping out TCU (12-0), who essentially had no chance at ever making it to the title game unless Auburn or Oregon lost, and who showed in the Rose Bowl that they're every bit tough enough to "play with the big boys."

A four-team playoff would have allowed TCU to play for the national title.  It also would have allowed Stanford (11-1) that same chance while denying it to Wisconsin (11-1) and Ohio State (11-1).  While Stanford is also without question very good, you could make the argument that Wisconsin and Ohio State deserve the chance more because Stanford already lost to Oregon.

Want to expand to eight teams?  Okay, but now you're letting in Oklahoma (11-2) but not Michigan State (11-1) or Virginia Tech (11-2).  You're letting in Arkansas (10-2) but not LSU (10-2) or Missouri (10-2).  And you're entirely neglecting Boise State (11-1) and the only team that figured out how to beat them, 12-1 Nevada.

In summary, although a playoff is a step in the right direction toward ensuring that no undefeated team gets left without a shot at the title, it still involves drawing an arbitrary line through a cluster of teams with similar records--and the teams on the wrong side of that line get left out.

2. Bowl coexistence

The bowls are an integral part of college football history, tradition, and culture.  Fortunately, not even the most strident playoff supporters advocate getting rid of the bowls, so it's obvious that a hypothetical playoff would have to coexist with them.  There are a number of ways to do this, but none of them are particularly satisfactory.

The BCS has tried two methods of reconciling itself with the classic "major bowls".  Until 2006, the national championship rotated among the Sugar, Fiesta, Orange, and Rose Bowls.  It's easy to envision a scenario where one year, the Rose Bowl is the national championship game, and the Orange and Sugar are national semifinal games; then the next year, the Orange is the national championship, and the Sugar and Fiesta are national semifinals, etc.

But it didn't really work when the BCS tried it, and there's no reason to think it would work any better under a playoff system.  It's confusing--and it takes power out of the hands of the bowls and gives it to the playoff bracket.  These "major" bowls are classics for a reason.  The Rose Bowl is supposed to feature the best West Coast team against the best Midwest team.  The Sugar Bowl is supposed to give the SEC a chance to defend its reputation on a national stage.  College football is better off if it preserves as many of these traditions as possible.

A second option might be sending all the best teams to bowls at the end of the season... except for the really good teams, who get to enter the championship bracket.  Now, the Fiesta Bowl features the best team in the Big XII... except for those two teams that were better and got to play in the playoff.  You're watering down the bowls--they become the less exciting and less meaningful cousin to the playoff, which is fair neither to the student athletes that play in them nor to the culture of the sport.

Finally, it's conceivable to separate the bowls from the playoffs entirely; to play the bowls as they're traditionally done, then re-rank, then seed the top four or eight teams into a playoff.  That idea has the advantage of preserving the sanctity of the bowl system, but it introduces yet another wrinkle: season creep.

3. Season creep

The college football season is already pushing the limit of how long it can reasonably be.  For a long time, the climactic high point of the season was New Year's Day and the Rose Bowl.  In the BCS era, we've tolerated some early January bowls.  And now that the national championship game is its own entity, we've allowed it to take the place of honor as the very last bowl game--but it's pushing middle January.

Middle January is when virtually every college starts its spring semester--some, including my proud alma mater Georgia Tech, will have already started its semester by the time the national championship game is played.  If a hypothetical playoff added any time at all to the season, then the season will extend at least a week or two into virtually every college's spring semester.  That's okay for us fans, but it's not okay for the student athletes involved.  Commitment over an entire semester is enough; there's no justification for stretching it into another one.

In conclusion, there exists no practical approach to a college football playoff that results in both the bowl season maintaining its tradition and excitement and the playoff not encroaching into middle to late January.  And even if there were, it would rarely if ever solve the "fairness" problem that the current system presents.  We can argue all day long that the BCS is broken, but a tacked-on four- or eight-team playoff is not the way to fix it.

Currently listening: Foo Fighters, self-titled album