Thursday, December 18, 2014

Good Media Manners - Using speakerphone in public


Dear Good Media Manners,

I am hoping that you can settle a debate for me.  I believe that a phone call is a phone call is a phone call.  My boyfriend sees things differently.  He doesn't understand why, when I'm in a noisy place, I use the speakerphone (it's because I can't hear the call).  He also thinks it's wrong of me to use FaceTime  when I'm out and someone who I haven't seen in a long time who I desperately miss calls.  Can you take a moment and explain it all to him?

Sincerely,

Sheryl C.


Dear Sheryl,

This is going to be one of those awkward moments.  The kind of moment that happens when the whole world hears something that you wish they hadn't and they only hear it because you have your phone on speaker.

Sadly, and I apologize for this, I cannot side with you, neither on the use of speakerphone nor on the use of FaceTime.  If it softens the blow, I only can't do the latter because it tends to use the former.

Now I have never tried this, but if you can wear earbuds and have FaceTime not utilize the speakerphone function, I think you're fine there, but if you have speakerphone on—and I again, I'm going to apologize for this—you're in the wrong.  That may be blunt, but I simply have no other way to put it.

You see, having a phone call is not the same as having a regular conversation.  You are, presumably, aware of how loudly you are speaking when in public and attempt to speak at a volume appropriate to holding your conversation without interrupting the conversations of those around you.   If everyone around you stops when you are speaking, you may be too late (I readily admit to having this problem).

This attempt at modulation and adaptation to your surrounds (at which we all sometimes fail) doesn't happen when a conversation is done via speakerphone.  Instead, you subject everyone around you to this weird, disembodied voice, one which tends to be overly loud and horribly disruptive to everyone else in the vicinity. 

Let me provide an example. 

Recently, I was on line at a pharmacy (I'm from New York and so one is on line, not in line) and a man went from a regular voice call to the speakerphone and for the next 10 minutes everyone around was subjected to this horrible story about how the guy at the other end wasn't feeling well and had this stomach bug and… you get the point (clearly the guy at the other end of the line was the one who needed the pharmacy but I don't believe the man present was buying something for his friend).

One of the things that we tend to forget in this world where we have our devices with us all the time (I myself am certainly guilty of this, too) is that there are other human beings around us and that they deserve some care and respect.  It is okay for you or me or any single person to be made slightly uncomfortable in these situations—not hearing a call as clearly as you might like—so that many more are not distressed.

We really are only talking about slight discomfort here as well.  Look at it from the point of view of the person to whom you're speaking.  You're in a crowded location and can't hear them, would they hate you if you said, "Hang on a minute, let me call you right back, it's really loud here and I can't hear you?"  Odds are they would be okay with that, and you wouldn't upset everyone around you.

You can also examine this from the position of that person in another way – when you put them on speaker, you're putting yourself on speaker as well.  Now, while you may be better able to hear them, you're also subjecting them to all that extra noise where you are.  They really may just want you call them back.

Plus, I don't think this guy on the other end of the line when I was at the pharmacy wanted the workings of his stomach known to the general public.  Does the person at the other end of the phone know that the conversation is being made public? 

So, Sheryl, once more I find myself having to apologize, but in the Good Media Manners world, this one is pretty clear cut – outside of an emergency, you don't use your speakerphone in public.

Wishing you the happiest, and quietest, of holiday seasons,


Good Media Manners


Have a question on appropriate media etiquette in today's ever-changing world?  Email us at good.media.manners@gmail.com


Monday, December 15, 2014

Good Media Manners - Using a tablet in a restaurant

Dear GMM,

Recently we were away, and at one of the restaurants at the hotel—upscale but not five-star—was a family of four including two pre-teen boys.  The boys were sitting there watching a football game on a tablet, with the sound on.  At what age is using a tablet like that at a restaurant not acceptable?

George H.


Dear George,

The short and easy answer is never. 

It is never okay to have any sort of sound playing from a tablet (or a phone) at a restaurant.  And, yes, this includes having it play out of headphones that are being worn and thus being mostly silent to the rest of the patrons.  I would go so far as to say that if you're at one of those restaurants that actually hands tablets to the kids for them to use, it's still probably not a good idea to have the sound on.

The longer answer involves the difficult navigation of whether the tablet (or smartphone) is ever okay at a restaurant table… or perhaps any table.

Parents, understandably, would like to have the ability to get just a few moments peace and quiet on a daily basis, to be able to converse with one another as they used to prior to their children coming along.  Lord knows I'd like it quiet for just a few minutes.  Dinner seems like a potentially likely time for that nice chat, and while in your home it may be, it isn't when you're outside the house.

This advice column isn't about parenting and offering parenting advice to anyone – people have to operate in the way they feel is the best for their situation… to a point.  That is to say, what you do in your house is something very much tends to be your business.  What you do in public, however, is everyone's business. 

So, I may personally believe that children shouldn't have tablets at the table ever because it doesn't help them learn how to behave appropriately, but that is not why I argue that it's a bad thing at a restaurant.  My belief about the inside the house portion of the issue is not germane. Actually, there are wholly different issues at work.

You see, when you sit your child in front of a tablet at a restaurant, you're being rude not just to the other patrons, but—more importantly—to the waiters and busboys and manager(s) and host/hostess and everyone in the kitchen.  What you're saying is that the food is unimportant, that the décor is unimportant, that the people serving you are unimportant.  The important thing is that your child shuts up and shovels the food in. 
That may not be what you mean to say, but it is exactly what you're saying.

That is why the tablet and the phone are not acceptable pacifiers at a restaurant – it has nothing to do with your desire for a quiet and peaceful meal.  Your rights end where someone else's begins, and with that tablet out for your children, you're trampling all over the people who are serving you. 

So, there you have it – never should the sound be on because you're actively disturbing every single person within earshot, and the tablet is inappropriate anyway. 

Huh, I guess I could have just left it at the short answer.


Hoping the meal was delicious,



Good Media Manners


Have a question you need answered?  Email us at good.media.manners@gmail.com

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Good Media Manners - Buying the seat next to you at the movies


Recently, The New York Times published an Ethicist article wherein someone asked if it was okay at a movie theater that sells reserved seats to buy the spot next to you so that no one sits in it. While the answer offered is soundly reasoned, it is also astoundingly wrong for today's world. So, for the first entry in Good Media Manners, I've offered up the correct answer.

Read it and share -- people honestly may not realize that infants shouldn't be at the theater.   And remember, if you have questions, email them to good.media.manners@gmail.com



Dear Will,

Is it unethical to by the seat next to you at the movies?  Certainly not.  Are you depriving someone else of watching the movie?  Yes, but that is wholly beside the point.  The point is that the person you're allowing to sit next to you might deprive everyone else of watching the movie.  

Movie theaters, like airplanes, have for the most part decided to not take a stand when it comes to misbehavior.  Sure, you have your Alamo-like chains that will boot people out for doing the wrong thing, but the process at a place like the Alamo is cumbersome and better behavior exists there more due to everyone understanding the rules/consequences and going there for that quiet experience rather and than actual implementation of those consequences.  

If I am at a movie that isn't at one of those chains, forget buying the seat next to me, I would (if I had the money) buy the entire showing out.  There was a baby crying behind me during "Big Hero 6," and that sort of behavior is not acceptable.  

Why was there a baby at the theater?  The baby was going to garner no enjoyment from Baymax.  The baby was there so that the rest of the family could go.  

Having kids, I understand that babysitting is expensive, but ruining the movie for the hundreds of other people in the auditorium should be more expensive – that family should have had to give everyone back the cost of their ticket (and the theater chain should never have allowed the infant to attend in the first place). 

I considered offering the family money to leave and never come back.  I wanted to make the same offer to the people who kept coming and going out using the flash on their phone as a light.   

I would, if I could, set up a little table at the entrance to a movie theater and ask everyone if they thought, just maybe, they could turn their phone off and refrain from chit-chatting with their neighbor for two hours.  

No, you can't?  Here's $15, catch the next show, this one's mine.

Will, forget buying the seat next to you so that you have a place to put your down parka (winter is coming), buy the one next to that one as well, and the one in front of it and the one behind it and the one behind that.  Everyone in the theater will thank you.  Sure, that'll be all of one person, but trust me, you're gonna love it.  One of the best movie going experiences I had was seeing "Capote" on a massive screen all by myself.  A great movie that wasn't ruined by the presence of other humans. 

If you have a baby and want to attend a film, I would happily point out to you that some theater chains do showings expressly for people with infants.  They leave the lights on low, they turn down the volume a little, and everyone there is expected to have a child with them (I took my son as an infant to see "Hanna" in just this way, he loved it).  Crying is the norm. You are not being excluded from the movie-going experience due to your child, you're having one tailored to your needs and avoiding ruining the film for someone—everyone—else.

With admiration at your attempts to improve movie-going,

Good Media Manners
good.media.manners@gmail.com

Welcome to Good Media Manners

The world keeps changing, growing, altering. Things that were appropriate yesterday may not be appropriate today, and many are left with big questions about how they should act. Well, today I start a new column that aims to sort all of that out for you -- Good Media Manners. Is it okay for kids to wear headphones in the car? Are iPads acceptable at a restaurant? Just how old should a child be before going to see an R-rated movie? Good Media Manners is here to offer up advice on all those questions and so much more. Have a question you need answered? Email me at good.media.manners@gmail.com

We're Back

The time has come to start updating The TV and Film Guy's Reviews on a more regular basis. Look for this space to contain my thoughts on all things media related -- no holds barred, no punches pulled, no something something else (because these things should always come in threes).

Friday, May 13, 2011

Virtua Tennis 4 - Bomb Tennis, Anyone?

Although I don't play tennis, it has always appeared to be one of those games which is easy games to play horribly and horrendously difficult to play well. If you can't manage to hit the ball in tennis, it's not like golf where you have to keep trying, you'll just lose the point. It might not be much fun that way, but you can definitely complete a match.

Of course, in the videogame world, things are far more simple than that. Anyone can hit a golf ball in Tiger Woods, and anyone can hit a tennis ball in Virtua Tennis 4. That's probably a pretty good thing, because no one would want to play if a sports title was remotely as difficult in the videogame world as it is in the real world.

To get this next bit out of the way upfront, while there is network play available in Virtua Tennis 4, it is not going to be covered in this review. As the world knows, the PlayStation Network is notVirtua Tennis 4 currently working and therefore that portion of the game is not currently available (although presumably when the PSN comes back, the online multiplayer will become available).

Multiplayer is just a small portion of the game though, the real meat and potatoes of it all is within the World Tour, where you are tasked with creating a player and bringing him or her up through the tennis ranks. World Tour has been revamped for this new version of Virtua Tennis and features you traversing four different areas of the world one at a time as you prepare for the Grand Slam event in that area… not that they're called Grand Slams tournaments, while the title has some licensed players, it does not have those four tournaments (but there are tournaments in those locations).

On your way to the tournaments your goal is build up your star rating, which is essentially your world ranking, and to improve your skills. This is done through a series of ridiculous (and often fun) minigames. You'll be doing things like hitting a bomb back and forth with a competitor until the timer runs to zero and one of you ends up getting caught in the blast, breaking clay pigeons, trying to make good poker hands by hitting bad cards, and bringing baby chicks to their mommies.

In other words, the minigames have absolutely nothing to do with real tennis. There are some moments on your trip to the major events that are real tennis related, including minor tournaments and practice rounds, but while most of the minigames have you on some sort of tennis court and with a racquet, they're not traditional tennis.

It is all perfectly fun (if only sort of tennis related), but the way you get to these events isn't nearly as enjoyable. The map is organized with a trail on it, one which takes you from event to event, but you only get to move on the map with "tickets" which number one through four and thereby denote how many spaces each one will take you. If you play too many events (minigames) at the spots you land on, you'll become rundown and potentially injured, but you may not have any choice about what you do due to the ticket availability (you must participate on the event on any space on which you land). There are special spots where you can purchase more tickets (one each time), but this all makes too much of the focus of a tennis game non-tennis related things. Imagine if you could only play tournaments in Tiger Woods by landing on the right square or could only play a baseball game in MLB 2K11 the same way. You don't need to land a ticket for the exact right number of spaces to play in a major, but for other tournaments you do and that's hugely frustrating for anyone who wants to build their tennis player by playing tennis.

Once you do get to play tennis, the actual mechanics of it are good, if a little dumbed-down. There are several basic types of shots you're allowed to hit (lob, top spin, regular), but anything more specific is game controlled depending on your position on the court. It makes you look like a much better player than you might be at first, but as you progress, you'll find that it really hampers you in trying to accomplish what it is that you want to accomplish on the court.

There is no claim that this is an EA Sports-esque title, one that would do its best to imitate the actual real-world sport, but Virtua Tennis 4's desire to do so sometimes and even then in only halfway fashion makes it something of a disappointment – if you're not able to/don't wish to license all four Grand Slam tournaments in tennis, don't build a game mode which revolves around you going to knockoff versions of those tournaments, particularly when the path to get there involves things like having to serve soccer balls into goals on a tennis court while being blocked by plastic defenders.

Honestly, when the game embraces this sort of minigame goofiness it can be a whole lot of fun. However, I can think of several other ways to make the minigames a part of the title without diminishing the actual quantity of tennis played.

There are other modes available as well l (like the aforementioned not reviewed online section) allowing for one off matches and small tournaments, and you can play as a licensed player in them as well. But, if you're offline and one player, you won't be spending that much time there because it doesn't allow for the same depth of play.

Graphically speaking, the game isn't quite realistic in its animation style, but it does look good. The cutscenes upon winning points or matches become repetitive all too quickly though, and they don't match up with what's just taken place on court (if you're at the net for a point and you win it, in the cutscene you may find yourself running in from the baseline). Sweat does pour down your skin as well as the match progresses. Characters don't necessarily look true to life, but they do make for pretty good facsimiles.

We have not tested the Move or 3D capabilities of the final version of the game, but we did get to experience them at Sega's Spring Showcase back in February. Our assessment at the time was that while the Move was fun, it didn't provide quite as much control as the traditional method of play. The 3D at that point too looked good.

Let the Virtua part of the Virtua Tennis 4 title be your guide here – it's virtually tennis, not an all out pure sim. It is fun, but don't expect it to be more than what it is.


Virtua Tennis 4 is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Comic Mischief. This game can also be found on: Wii and Xbox 360.



Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Virtua Tennis 4 on Blogcritics.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Hector: Badge of Carnage and the Case of the Horrific Bug

It may be an old cliché, but the truth of the matter is that first impressions do count. The way something or someone catches your eye that first time around does make a difference. This is unquestionably true for videogames – that opening sequence has to draw you in, make you want to play, and when you finally do get to start actually playing, the first thing you do in the game sets the stage for everything that is to come after. Blow the opening and you may lose your audience very quickly.

The folks at Straandlooper clearly know this. It is because first impressions are important that opening puzzle in episode one of Hector: Bade of Carnage involves you, as Detective Inspector Hector, in your underwear fishing something out of a dirty toilet using a used condom. Yes, Hector is meant solely for adults and it revels in that fact.

Hector has had something of a long trip to its current Mac/PC release. Initially, the game came out on the iPhone in June of last year (with a promised second and third episode down the line) before Telltale Games stepped in this year and announced that they would help bring all three games to PC, Mac, and iPad. Said second and third episodes are now due this fall.

The game is a perfect fit with Telltale's style of point-and-click puzzle titles, requiring you to formulate odd solutions to weird problems. In episode one of Hector (entitled "We Negotiate with Terrorists"), Hector is called in to help fix the city of Clapper's Wreake at the behest of a terrorist. The city is something of a cesspool which the terrorist would like to see cleaned up. Hector is himself a cesspool as well, so his fixing the place does seem rather odd, but the foul-mouthed Detective Inspector still goes about his job.

Although exceedingly short, the first episode of Hector: Badge of Carnage is also exceptionally fun. It is the same sort of crude humor which is the hallmark of South Park and definitely not for the faint of heart. There are disgusting moments, lots of foul language (more if you understand the British slang employed), and general foulness (a significant portion of episode one takes place in a porn shop).

The graphics are cartoon-like in nature and the style is great to look at. The mouth movements don't line up with the dialogue being spoken, but that fits the entire crude sense of it all. As for the dialogue, outside of being foul, the performances are truly enjoyable.

One place where Hector does somewhat differ from many other point-and-click adventure puzzles is with the dialogue trees. It isn't simply a matter of exhausting all your choices in order to get someone to give you the information you need, rather there are several times when you need to progress logically (or semi-logically) down a path, choosing the right responses to get what you need to know and advance.

The game also features an in-game hint system which is just as lewd as the game itself. Ask how you should proceed, and you'll be berated rather regularly for daring to not go out on your own to figure it out. The hint system really is a perfect extension of the title and helps give the game a more finished feel.

Sadly, that finished feel is rather destroyed by the current Mac port of the title. Going back to that first impression of the game, while that first puzzles is brilliant, utterly disgusting, and a great hook into the game, one of the first things you'll actually notice in the game is a horrendous flicker. The port to the Mac does have a significant bug (perhaps only with certain video cards, perhaps not, and other PC bugs have been reported as well) which causes different parts of the game to flicker on screen. One moment you will be able to see everything perfectly, the next certain items on the screen will disappear, then other items, then the whole thing. Telltale is aware of the issue, but that doesn't stop the title from being an incredibly frustrating experience at times – it seems inconceivable that the default hardware configuration for many current generation MacBooks (and who knows how many other Apple computers) have a video card that is potentially not supported.

There are some odd other oversights as well, including Hector misreading a sign at one point, and due to his misreading it, giving you the answer to a puzzle that you may not have yet figured out. But, that is more of a minor issue.

As Telltale is aware of the flicker situation, they will hopefully arrive at a solution soon. Until that time it is exceptionally difficult to give the game a rating. As it stands, it something of a two-star title, but with the bugs fixed it would be four-stars. The flicker actually manages to ruin some puzzles as important pieces of the game flicker at different times from unimportant pieces.

It is because the frustration level becomes so great and the fact that puzzles get ruined due to the flicker that we recommend waiting for a patch for buying the game.


Hector: Badge of Carnage - Episode One is not rated by the ESRB, however, Telltale's website does recommend the game only for those 17 years of age and older and the game does feature many adult themes and language. The game is also available on iPhone and iPad.
The initial release:

With a promised fix for the bugs:




Article first published as PC/Mac Game Review: Hector: Badge of Carnage - Episode One on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Back to the Future - The Game: Episode Four -- Time to go Back to the Drawing Board

As I stated in my review of the last episode of Back to the Future: The Game, by this point in time, if you haven't already purchased the game you're either not going to or waiting until you see whether the whole package is worth it (or maybe hoping for a sale). While episode three in the series did, unquestionably, have many an amusing moment and add to the overall fun of the title, episode four fails to do so.

"Double Visions," as the episode is entitled, features Marty escaping from the alternate Hill Valley of 1986 and heading back in time to good old 1931 in order to stop Edna and Emmett Brown from falling in love. That's all fine, the plot is not the problem. It may be somewhat goofy, but it fits in perfectly with what's come before.

No, while the problem with the game is two (or maybe three) fold, the plot isn't one of them. It is, however, related to one of them.

The first problem with the episode is that said plot is often delivered in speeches that are far too long. There are moments during "Double Visions" when you will unquestionably want to get up, take a nice stroll around the room, and then return to see if you'll now be allowed to play. These moments are not Metal Gear Solid long, but are still far too long and occur far too often. Each episode of the game doesn't take all that much time, and it almost feels as though Telltale has tried to lengthen this one with unnecessary dialogue in which you do not participate.

Then there's problem two, and it is far worse than problem one – the puzzles simply aren't that much fun to solve. Perhaps the best way to describe them is "cumbersome," the puzzles are cumbersome. On a fairly regular basis puzzles titles have issues like the ones I mentioned in episode three, where you have a perfectly valid way to solve the problem, but the game would like it solved differently. Here, while that occurs, it isn't as upsetting what the obvious and correct solutions sometimes require.

As an example, one puzzle forces you to go back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and—you get the picture—in a single room, altering the same two things over and over again until you've done it enough times to complete the already pretty silly task. There needs to be some sort of shorthand employed, because as it stands, it's just kind of annoying and takes far too long.

That potential third issue, isn't quite speechifying nor is it cumbersome puzzles, but it's cumbersome game development during plot advancing chats. In episode four, you will find yourself talking to someone and once the conversation finishes, magically, things around you will have changed subtly – areas that were previously unavailable are now available… for no good reason. Your conversation in no affected the changed areas, no one in what was visible in the background was seen working near or around the changed areas, no one has announced that the area has changed – it just has. And, if you're not paying terribly close attention, you will have no idea what to do next because there is absolutely no reason to think that anything has altered around you during your brief chat.

In short, from start to finish, Back to the Future: The Game – Episode Four is a frustrating gaming experience. If you already have a season pass, it's worth playing the episode for completion's sake, and if you intend on getting a season pass later I wouldn't skip the episode, but if you're on the fence, this one just may find you opting to not purchase the game.


Back to the Future: The Game - Episode Four is rated RP (Rating Pending) by the ESRB but previous entries have been rated T (Teen). This game can also be found on: PS3.




Article first published as PC/Mac Game Review: Back to the Future - The Game: Episode 4 on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

We Could be Siege Heroes if Just for one day

Angry Birds, didn't exactly create a genre of games, but it certainly did popularize one. In fact, in a press release for their newest title, Siege Hero, Armor Games is quick to point out that the game's predecessor, Crush the Castle, is kind of like Angry Birds but was released before the avian tossing title. The statement was in no way intended to knock down someone else's castle, more to point out that they weren't pilfering anything with this release.

In truth, there have been any number of spins on the genre, outside of the above, there have things like Tiki Totems which follows the formula as well, just with tapping to remove sections as opposed to launching something. And, with the way mobile apps are growing, it seems like there may be room for all of them. Plus, when they're done well, they're fun.

Let us turn our thoughts specifically to Siege Hero, a game which contains 63 levels and the promise of more down the line. Where it differs slightly from its predecessor and Angry Birds is that rather than launching your missile of choice from the side towards the structure, Siege Hero operates on a first-person perspective – the missile comes from where you are and heads straight towards the castle.

Other than that, the basic principles all remain the same – there is a structure made out of various objects (wood, stone, ice, etc.), and you need to destroy it, killing all the bad guys but leaving any bystanders alive. You get bonus points for not harming the innocent and lose points should you kill them. You also get bonus points for not utilizing you're full complement of missiles. Hit a predetermined score level and you obtain mastery of the level rather than just completion. Siege Hero also offers several types of missiles, from single rocks to multiples, vats of fire and tar, and even bombs.

The game really is a trial and error experience, one which asks you to examine the structure you need to destroy, pinpoint the weak spots, and predict the resultant carnage of firing a rock at them. You will, of course, be wrong though – the result of your missile hitting the structure will never be exactly what you think it is, and while the missile may work in demolishing the structure, it won't work as you intended. But, that's okay, just as it's okay that trying to repeat the exact same moves in second playthrough of any level tends to result in something slightly different occurring.

The biggest problem with the game is the scant number of levels – 63 may sound like a lot, but with a few hours work you should be able to master nearly all of them. For us, there is one pesky level which we simply cannot get a high enough score on and it is driving us slightly insane (this review could have been done several days ago if not for our obsessive need to master level 15). Inevitably, people playing this game will find one or two levels where they run into the exact same difficulty only to have a brilliant epiphany on where the first missile must be launched. We're still waiting for that epiphany.

We're also waiting for more levels to be released. Sure the game just launched, but we're vaguely obsessed with it and think that anyone who spends the 99 cents on it will be as well. And, if anyone knows how to take master level 15, do give a holler.


Siege Hero is not rated by the ESRB.



Article first published as iPhone Game Review: Siege Hero on Blogcritics.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Upstairs, Downstairs, or Maybe a Little of Each - The Complete Series 40th Anniversary Edition

Sometimes I am faced with a review so monumental I don't quite know how to begin. Normally this occurs with some sort of overwhelmingly massive release, a classic television or film series which is so monolithic that it becomes somewhat hard to dissect it and examine the component elements.

Enter today's review, Upstairs, Downstairs: The Complete Series – 40th Anniversary Edition.

Originally broadcast beginning in 1971 and running through 1975, Upstairs, Downstairs helped spark a whole genre of show (or, at the very least, is credited with it). The idea is actually a terribly simple one – set in the early 20th Century (the series spans the years 1903 to 1930), the show follows the life of those residing at 165 Eaton Place in London, be they servants or the family being served.

And it is at this point where I start to run into trouble with the actual review. How much should I divulge about what happens on the show? How much should I go into the various cast changes? How much should I talk about the new Upstairs, Downstairs series which picks up six years after the original ends?

On the one hand it could be suggested that the entire plot of the original tale is fair game, that as the series began 40 years ago and finished 36 years ago, anyone who is truly curious about the show has either already seen it or expects the possibility of finding out what occurs in it. But, I disagree. Even 40 years down the line, Upstairs, Downstairs remains a fantastic drama series, one well worth watching, and one which I wouldn't spoil for anyone.

There is a certain challenge present in the creation of such a series with two very distinct groups of people whose stories must both intersect and remain separate. It's a balance that Upstairs, Downstairs, more often than not, strikes beautifully. You do hear in the show that what's taking place simply with the staff and family would never have happened years ago, and whether that's true or not, the various scandals that rock the house do make the show enjoyable.

As the series' 68 episodes span several decades of life, the cast does change and their roles do alter as well. There are many individuals who appear and disappear, but there is certainly a solid core of both staff and owners. On the downstairs side these include (but aren't necessarily limited to) Hudson, the butler (Gordon Jackson); Rose, the head house parlour maid (Jean Marsh who also co-created the series with Eileen Atkins), Mrs. Bridges, the cook (Angela Baddeley); Ruby, the kitchen maid (Jenny Tomasin); Edward, the footman (Christopher Beeny); and Daisy, under house parlor maid (Jacqueline Tong). On the upstairs side is Richard Bellamy, the head of the house (David Langton); Lady Marjorie, his wife (Rachel Gurney); James, their son (Simon Williams); Georgina Worsley, the step-daughter of Lady Marjorie's brother (Lesley-Anne Down), and Hazel, who first appears as Richard's secretary (Meg Wynn Owen). Again, there are more, and some of those listed here aren't perhaps on the show as long as one might like but they do comprise a good starting point.

Perhaps one of the reasons Upstairs, Downstairs still works so well today is that it is a period piece and as the daily life of that already set time period can't change between the early 1970s and today. Between that, the truly interesting tales, and the amazingly nonstop problems that cover the Bellamy household, the show holds up exceptionally well.

Upstairs, Downstairs is a well-scripted, well-plotted show. It is an example of great, classic, television making. What it really does is provide its audience—both the original one and anyone watching the series today—with a look at how society changed over the course of a nearly 30 year period in England. While the major events of the day are highlighted, and those unquestionably make for memorable and wonderful episodes, the show delves into any number of trends, fads, and thoughts that were espoused during the same time frame. It is brilliantly made classic television about a moment (or set of moments) in history.

The 40th anniversary release of the series is nearly as monolithic as the series itself and includes more than 25 hours of new bonus material including a truly excellent and in-depth five-part making-of documentary (one part appears on a bonus disc included with every season's box). There are also interviews, episode commentaries, and an alternate version of the pilot episode, moments from the Russell Harty Plus talk show where Harty sits down with various cast members on the series, and another documentary on the show called Upstairs, Downstairs Remembered.

The weather seems, perhaps, to finally be getting nicer for the summer, but it's entirely possible that it will turn gloomy and cool again in the not too distant future. Anyone who has never experienced Upstairs, Downstairs before, or who wants a great look at what happened behind the scenes on the series, would do very well to squirrel this away for that moment. I'm not sure that one can be a student of television without a knowledge of Upstairs, Downstairs, but the show will be of interest to those beyond that narrow cross-section as well. It's Upstairs, Downstairs, and while I can't say that it's every bit as good now as it was when it originally aired (I'm not old enough to know that), I can tell you that while the set will suck hours and days of your time, it's well worth it and a truly great television experience.



Article first published as DVD Review: Upstairs, Downstairs: The Complete Series - 40th Anniversary Edition on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

ZombieSmash! - Another way to Prepare for the Coming Zombie Apocalypse

I've told you this before, but I remain ever more convinced of this fact, the zombie apocalypse (or zombiepocalypse if you will) is coming. I don't know when it's going to start, but I do know that television shows and videogames have me totally and completely ready for it. I have learned at least a half-dozen rules to fend off zombies and will feel absolutely no guilt about kicking out of my panic room anyone who may have gotten bitten.

On a fairly regular basis, in order to keep up with my zombie-wasting skills, I search out ZombieSmash!(or have delivered to me) a new zombie game or television show. These items are highly useful in terms of learning about the different types of zombies that I will face when the undead begin to walk the Earth once more, and the best ways for eliminating them. I promise you, if you want to survive the end of the world, you're going to need to learn all you can about our zombie enemies.

I'm not entirely sure that the methods by which one eliminates the undead in ZombieSmash! on the iPhone will truly help me once day of judgment arrives, but it does keep me thinking about our future nemeses, and that is important. If we are to remain alive in the post-apocalyptic world, we need to consider how to do that in the pre-apocalyptic one – zombies must remain a concern at all times.

ZombieSmash!, published and developed by Gamedoctors, currently sports two different campaigns (the second, "Camp Nowhere" was recently added and is a free update), both of which essentially function in the same way – zombies appear, and using a combination of finger-flicking and weapons, you eliminate them. It is both a clever and a frustrating title. The campaigns take place over the course of a calendar month, with each level representing a different day. Your mission, in tower defense-style, is to eliminate the oncoming zombie horde, with new levels introducing new weapons and/or zombies to constantly tweak gameplay.

Initially within ZombieSmash! all you have to do is grab a zombie with a finger and flick it around the screen – you, in this mode, are essentially a god-like creature. You get to watch as the zombie flies in rag doll fashion around the screen until bits of it come off and it eventually disappears leaving a star for your to grab (these stars can later be used to upgrade your weapons and defenses). As stated, the further you get into the game, the more weapons you have at your disposal including rocks, grenades, guns, pianos, mines, etc., etc. And, while the base zombie simply trudges towards your safe house, later ones run at it, fire guns, wear helmets, or cannot be flicked with your finger.

It is this last thing which presents something of a problem and makes the game at times frustrating. ZombieSmash! is fun when it abides by ZombieSmash!its own rules – despite being corporeal and in the house you still have the ability to act like a god and flick zombies. Once the game breaks those rules, not allowing you to flick zombies of certain types or any zombie on certain levels, it becomes less enjoyable. Either you're a god-like being or your not, there seems to be no spinach-in-a-can reason for your ability to flick at times and not flick at others, just a desire on the part of Gamedoctors to artificially make some levels more difficult.

Another issue with ZombieSmash! arises in the number of zombies the game throws at you. Part of the point of the game is to watch the pretty zombies fly around the screen as you flick them, but so many zombies appear that you don't get the chance to do that. Instead, you'll spend most of your time on every level with your thumbs constantly flicking without ever stopping to see the result of your flicks – if you do stop, you're going to give the undead an unwelcome opportunity to advance. Essentially you have two choices – watch the excellent graphics or perform your task well, and anyone who is serious about surviving the coming disaster will choose the latter. You can hear the soundtrack, which is also wonderful, no matter what you choose, but having to decide between the pretty and the winning isn't satisfying.

The levels in ZombieSmash! are relatively quick and the game saves automatically, so it is a good pick-up-and-play-for-a-couple-of-minutes title. And, if you're only playing a level or two at a time the frustrations are kept to a minimum.

As we inexorably head towards the zombiepocalypse, we're going to need to become more comfortable detaching body parts from the undead and watching the resultant splatter without a sense of squeamishness. ZombieSmash!ZombieSmash! will only help people do this, and the ability to freeze frame, save, and upload to social networking sites the final zombie death on each level, can be most amusing as well.

If you're just starting out your own preparations for the end of days and looking for a low-key way to desensitize yourself to zombie death, ZombieSmash! is a great place to start. More experienced zombie killers will also find new thoughts on how to eliminate an oncoming zombie multitude. The game may not go as in depth as some of its console relatives, but it is a satisfying on-the-go study aid.


ZombieSmash! is not rated by the ESRB but features cartoon violence.




Article first published as iPhone Game Review: ZombieSmash! on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Legitimizing Videogames: All Your Base are Belong to us by Harold Goldberg

Videogames have, slowly but surely, crept into our daily lives. Even excluding the recent woeful news about Sony's issues with the PlayStation Network, television shows, movies, and other forms of media have made fairly regular mention of videogames. Games have crept in at the edges and slowly become a regular part of pop culture. Home consoles are in an incredible number of American homes, the Nintendo Wii sits in rehab facilities around the country, and virtually every blockbuster film seems to be accompanied by at least one videogame.

In his new book All Your Base are Belong to us: How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture, Harold Goldberg traces a history of exactly how we got from a few folks making a dot travel from one side of a monitor to the other and back again to a moment when a large videogame release can earn more than a major motion picture. Each chapter within Goldberg's book tells of a gaming company or genre and propels the tale ever forward towards the present day in fascinating fashion.

I am, perhaps, slightly biased in my view on videogames and therefore potentially Goldberg's book as well, since I derive a portion of my income from the world of videogames. It would, quite obviously, benefit me to have videogames be seen as culturally significant, but the argument that they are isn't the main thrust of the book, but rather a foregone conclusion.

In his introduction, Goldberg states that "the videogame industry in the United States is now a $20-billion-a-year juggernaut, surpassing movie, music, and DVD sales—combined." You don't get those kinds of numbers solely from people playing in their parents' basements. He goes on to talk about other ways they appear in pop culture as well, from 30 Rock and South Park to car commercials, from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade to Mark Ecko clothes.

It truly is impossible to seriously suggest that videogames do not inform a significant portion of our popular culture. That is why that portion of the discussion is in the introduction and not the book proper. Goldberg makes a case for how significant games are, but one merely need look at the facts to know the truth.

No, where All Your Base proves most interesting is not in the creation of an argument surrounding the importance of games, but in telling how exactly the history of videogames progressed and how they became so important. Often, although not always, chapters within the book tend to be loosely tied together, with one moment in gaming history leading inexorably to the next.

Much of the book is written in a fly-on-the-wall manner, with Goldberg's clearly meticulous research showing as he documents specific moments in the development of titles and the formation (and deformation) of companies. Everyone reading will have their own personal favorite story, but perhaps the one most people will be instantly interested in is that of Electronic Arts. EA is behemoth in today's videogame world, and you would be hard-pressed to find someone who has not at least heard of the Madden NFL franchise. Of course, the story of Shigeru Miyamoto and the mustachioed plumber he created is another good choice for those only tangentially interested in the subject.

Fans of videogames will certainly be enchanted by the book and have an inordinate amount of fun playing "guess that game." Going through the book, one reads the ideas that developers had for titles and can instantly try to figure out what game the idea would turn into. For instance, the opening of chapter eight has a discussion about two guys driving a car, but thinking about "Sonic's Ass." Astute gamers will instantly recognize that there is but one character in videogame history which could possibly have come out of the idea of a game about Sonic's hindquarters.

Reading through the work, and despite my longtime love of the medium, I found myself shocked by both how many of the influential games I played without realizing what they were and also at how many I missed.

To be fair, a decent amount of the book repeats a sort of Horatio Alger-type myth, as young (or middle-aged) imaginative folks with little more than an idea and the clothes on their back (or a steady grind of a job) come up with the next big thing and make millions off of it (or should have made millions off of it). There also seems to be a horrible tendency for those same people and companies to lose all their money again as well. But, what Goldberg is doing is tracing a history of games and the rise (and fall) of genres that helped make games the force they are today – if the folks involved through the years were often of the same type, it isn't Goldberg's doing. On the other hand, what it does mean is that as compelling as the tales are—and they are all very compelling—if you read too much of the book in a single session the people in the chapters may have a tendency to bleed together.

Tracing the history of videogames isn't an original idea to All Your Base are Belong to us, but Harold Goldberg does create a narrative which is both compelling overall and which works beautiful as individual chapters. For anyone who wants to read about how Mario made his way into our culture, or how the idea behind The Sims' was developed, or how consoles ended up in our living rooms, All Your Base will not only provide you with the information you're looking for, but will do so in a very readable, enjoyable way.


Article first published as Book Review: All Your Base are Belong to us: How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture by Harold Goldberg on Blogcritics.