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News You Can Bruise

Your chicken, your egg, your problem


Direct Observation of the MST3K-IMDB Effect

Fri, 23 Mar 2018 01:09:14 GMT

The MST3K-IMDB effect, first hypothesized in 2011, is the effect on a movie's IMDB rating caused solely by its having appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000. A bad movie isn't made any worse by being on MST3K, but MST3K shows movies in the context of a fiction where they're an instrument of torture. You can model an episode of MST3K as a negative advertisement, designed to make the viewer feel negatively about a movie they'd never heard of before. The MST3K-IMDB effect measures the 'success' of the negative ad. Previously, the MST3K-IMDB effect could only be observed through its gravitational tug on one movie out of a director's oeuvre. But in 2017, Mystery Science Theater: The Return took movies that for years had sat in the dustbin of history and turned them into well-known "MST3K movies". Thanks to my trusty 2015 IMDB data dump, I'm in a position to compare the ratings of all these movies before and after they were on MST3K, providing the first direct images of the MST3K-IMDB effect. First, here's my control group: a comparison of the 2015 and 2018 ratings for some random movies that weren't on MST3K:TR. As you can see, IMDB ratings for old movies are normally very stable, not changing by more than a couple percent over three years. Title 2015 rating 2015 votes 2018 rating 2018 votes Percentage change in rating Night of the Lepus 3.9 2782 4 3484 2% Embryo 4.9 824 5 1052 2% The Ninth Configuration 7.3 3486 7.2 4893 -2% Gorgo 5.5 1846 5.6 2479 1% O Fantasma (2000) 5.9 1859 5.7 2449 -4% They’re A Weird Mob 6.6 550 6.6 686 0% My methodology: the first two movies in that list are the sort of thing you see on MST3K. The Ninth Configuration is a more highbrow obscure film. Gorgo was on MST3K a long time ago, so presumably the MST3K-IMDB effect is already priced in. The last two are movies of MST3K-level obscurity chosen at random. I would love to do this for every single movie in the 2015 data dump and just take an average, but I can't because IMDB doesn't offer data dumps anymore. Now, the moment I've all been waiting for, the experimental group. This table compares the 2015 and 2018 ratings of the movies that appeared in the first season of MST3K:TR. I've also included the rating of the MST3K:TR episode itself, as well as the number of votes IMDB used to calculate each rating. Here, the percentage change in rating is largely due to the MST3K-IMDB effect. This is the percentage of a movie's previous rating that it lost just by being mocked on MST3K. Title 2015 rating 2015 votes 2018 rating 2018 votes Percentage change in rating MST3K:TR episode rating MST3K:TR episode votes Reptilicus 4 1599 3.6 2962 -10% 7.8 498 Cry Wilderness 5.2 37 2 877 -62% 8.3 819 The Time Travelers 6 753 5.1 1682 -15% 7.4 256 Avalanche 4.2 594 3.7 1352 -12% 8 261 The Beast of Hollow Mountain 5 509 4.2 1182 -16% 7.4 230 Starcrash 4 2946 3.9 4699 -3% 7.7 235 The Land Time Forgot 5.7 3085 5.7 4558 0% 7.4 197 The Loves of Hercules 3.2 349 3 787 -7% 7.2 181 Yongary 4.3 592 3.9 1102 -10% 7.8 201 Wizards of the Lost Kingdom 2.6 502 2.6 1037 0% 7.8 187 Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II 1.8 297 1.8 716 0% 7.4 168 Carnival Magic 3.8 120 2.4 463 -37% 7.2 167 The Christmas that Almost Wasn't 5.5 204 3.8 541 -31% 7.1 148 At the Earth's Core 5.2 2276 5.2 3410 0% 7.2 134 The MST3K-IMDB effect is real, but it's not a constant. In the control group we saw movie ratings vary up and down, seemingly at random. With MST3K:TR movies the trend is clearly down. But for five of the fourteen movies we see no effect, or an effect so small that it could have been due to chance. I wasn't expecting this result! I don't see a pattern in the five movies that lack an MST3K-IMDB effect; they aren't the best-rated movies or the worst, they weren't in better- or worse-rated episodes of MST3K, they aren't from a different time period than the others. Sometimes MST3K just doesn't change peoples' opinion about a movie. But sometimes it does. Take a look at Cry Wilderness, which lost over half of its IMDB rating due to being on by far the highest-rated episode of MST[...]

February Film Roundup

Fri, 02 Mar 2018 04:48:30 GMT

  • Newton (2017): This the closest I've seen to an Indian version of a Billy Wilder movie, which (see Fig. 1) means it's my favorite Indian movie. It's made with a mix of cynicism about and sincere belief in democracy. It sets up two characters on a course to romance, but doesn't actually show the romance and there's no guarantee it happens. Shorter than two hours, falls into the same "low violence, high suspense" quadrant as Dog Day Afternoon... just great stuff all around.
  • The Heartbreak Kid (1972): I've now completed the quadfecta of Elaine May films. Sumana and I saw this one on a date; our relationship is at the point where we can have a date where we watch a movie about catastrophically bad relationships. You might not want to see this movie on a third date, or if you got married less than a year ago.

    The film is good, but not a classic like Ishtar or A New Leaf. However, one thing those movies didn't have was Eddie Albert stealing the show as Mr. Corcoran. A funny character and great delivery in every scene. For the final time, I'll use this review as a soapbox to say that Elaine May is a really good director who should not be in movie jail. On a positive note, Ishtar's IMDB rating has gone up from 3.9 to 4.2 in the past five years.

  • The Greatest Showman (2017): Saw with Susanna on a trip to California. I don't know about this one, I just don't know. The opening number is fabulous but then... yeah, I can't recommend it.

    I get that P. T. Barnum inhabits the shadow world of the American tall tale, alongside Paul Bunyan and Hunter S. Thompson, so you can do whatever you want with his story without caring about things like 'accuracy'. But why spend the first act of a movie humanizing a con man, when you could not do that and have an awesome con man musical like The Music Man?

    This movie just made me think about how great The Music Man is. How Harold Hill starts off with no redeeming qualities but is civilized by the decency of the people he interacts with. That's how you humanize a con man in a family-friendly musical. At any rate, I think you could write a screenplay that stuck closer to this classic biography of Barnum but left most of the musical numbers intact.

January Film Roundup

Sun, 18 Feb 2018 23:33:21 GMT

Sorry for the delay! Also sorry that I only saw two movies last month. Here we go!
  • Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015): The poster for this movie looks really cool, in fact the whole thing looks really cool, with its recreation of 1940s Calcutta. However, I thought this film was paced way too slowly. It's got the amount of complexity of an American noir movie, but drawn out to Indian-movie length. So in the end, not a recommendation. I did like the appearance of Chinese and Japanese actors, something I've rarely seen in Indian films.
  • Moments choisis des histoire(s) du cinéma (1994): I pitched this to Sumana as "Godard makes a vid", we saw it together and it turned out to be one of those movies that "I don't regret watching per se", which is kind of weak sauce for a date movie. Really glad we caught the ninety-minute cut instead of the four-hour miniseries.

    A big reason I don't regret watching this movie is it performed a valuable service for me in dispelling some of the mystique around Godard and his peers. I don't make films myself, so sometimes I watch these New Wave movies and it feels like I don't "get it", like these dudes have some unique French insight into the human condition. But when Godard has his chance to soapbox, it turns out he's concerned with the same stuff other twentieth-century creative types are worried about: war, corruption, ephemerality. So even if I don't get it, I feel at least the "it" I don't get is something that I've come to understand through other means.

This (last) month the Television Spotlight turns to "Forged in Fire", the improbable History Channel reality show that is even more relentlessly positive than "The Great British Bake-Off". (Especially as Paul Hollywood has become meaner and meaner, taking on the aspect of an out-of-control death computer from a ST:TOS episode.) "Forged in Fire" is all about creating knives and other instruments of slicy death, but the contestants and judges are all super nice and supportive of each other.

Someone's sword will shatter on a pig carcass and the judge will say "Well, we had a little problem here." We recently saw an episode where a guy sounded like he wanted to start some typical reality-show drama, and either no one took the bait, or they edited it out, or he wasn't able to try anything because the whole time you're on camera you have a physically demanding task to focus on. I don't know how high our tolerance will be for a really formulaic show, but we're not tired of it yet.

Bot Muse

Wed, 17 Jan 2018 13:32:50 GMT

I finished reading through Seeds #2 and the last article was a treat: "Popular Visual Descriptions of Early Generative Systems" by James Ryan, a survey of illustrations used in 1950s and 1960s media to convey the concept of generative art. Lots of botniks taking jobs from beatniks, but the best bit is the wind-up muse of the "computer poet", taken from an old New York Times article:


Dinosaur Space

Thu, 11 Jan 2018 16:59:45 GMT

I've been slowly reading through Issue #2 of Seeds, a zine created for 2017's Procjam, and I just encountered the fabulous page 81, where Elle Sullivan shows off the amazing Dinosaur Generator. It parameterizes dinosaur anatomy to explore the space of plausible dinosaur bodies.

A follow-up project, THE tinySAURUS GENERATOR, brings cute pixel dinosaurs to Twitter. I like the dinos, I like the detailed explanation, and I like the technique of having multiple templates, instead of trying to make one uber-template covering the entire creative space.

The Review of Things: 2017

Wed, 10 Jan 2018 13:38:03 GMT

For many years now I've published a feature titled "The Year in 2017" and come up empty. But I'm happy to report that we've just completed a year that was chock-full of 2017. Enjoy, and here's to a 2017-ful 2018! Film I saw fifty-three films in 2017, and twenty-six of them (plus one short) were good enough to be immortalized in Film Roundup Roundup. Of movies I saw for the first time in 2017, here are my top ten: Get Out (2017) Miracle Mile (1988) The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) Logan Lucky (2017) Hidden Figures (2017) Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017) Coco (2017) Cops and Robbers (1973) The Teacher (2016) Trafic (1971) In particular, Get Out and Miracle Mile are just what we need right now: rom-coms that turn into horror movies. Literature The Book of the Year is Democracy for Realists by Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels, a survey of the political science literature that aims to figure out what is actually going on in peoples' heads when they vote. Other highly recommended books I finished this year: The Broken Road, a posthumously released title by Patrick Leigh Fermor that closes out his incredibly purple walking travelogue. How Not to Network a Nation by Benjamin Peters The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead Sourdough by Robin Sloan SPQR by Mary Beard Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America by Jack Barsky (cf.) Dungeon Hacks by David L. Craddock Games Not a lot of games played this year. I think the only new board game I played in 2017 was season 2 of Pandemic Legacy. We're not even halfway through the year and at the moment I'm really angry at the game, so not the best time to ask me for my opinion. The Game of the Year is "Streets of Rogue", obtained through a Humble Bundle. It combines the combinatoric item explosion of Nethack with the immature mayhem and actual explosions of "Grand Theft Auto". It feels like the best possible VGA DOS game. Also highly recommended: "Flinthook", "Oxygen Not Included", and "XCOM 2" (but only with the War of the Chosen DLC, which makes it an expensive proposition). I played "Frog Fractions 2" for a few hours, loved the creativity and the ZZT framing device, but when I stopped playing it I didn't pick it up again. Bots The 2017 bot situation is complicated. I put all of my bots on, a Mastodon instance devoted to bots. (I also moved my main social media presence to, using Twitter only for announcements.) To help me out with the move I wrote a really neat framework called botfriend, which makes it easy to run some bot code on a schedule and publish the result to Mastodon and/or Twitter. I ported all my bots to this new system and got rid of a ton of duplicate code. I even wrote three new Mastodon-exclusive bots: Mashteroids, a simple port of the Mashteroids feature on The Supreme Bot, which remixes transcripts of Supreme Court oral arguments. Fusion Bot, a Steven Universe fan bot and an extremely rare situation where a Markov chain is thematically appropriate. I think botfriend is really useful if you manage a lot of bots, and pretty easy to get set up if you're familiar with Python, but I haven't polished it or done a big promotional push, because my big initial impetus was to stop the situation where each new bot I create makes Twitter a more interesting deathtrap. Once I got to that point, I decided all of my spare time should be devoted to finishing Mine. So there haven't been any new bots for a while, and doing a proper rollout of botfriend is a project I'm putting off until after this novel is done, just like other fun things like buying a Switch and playing a bunch of Mario. Other accomplishments I gave a couple talks early in the year at Penguicon but I think my best talk of 2017 was Behold, mortal, the origins of robotfindskitten... at Roguelike Celebration. The Library Simpli[...]

Film Roundup Special: Miracle Mile

Wed, 03 Jan 2018 13:01:05 GMT

Way back in June I saw Miracle Mile (1988), and loved it, but didn't really review it because my recommendation is that you go in knowing nothing except that it's a very dark horror movie. Now it's been six months and I'm going to talk about it, so skip this post if you want to try going in cold.

Miracle Mile evokes the fear its protagonist is feeling by making the experience of watching the movie congruent with Harry's plot arc. As he flails around looking for a loophole in the end of the world, you're flailing around trying to figure out what kind of movie this is and how to watch it. The normal plot components from a zombie movie—the vehicles, the weapons, the hyper-competent Denise Crosby—are shown and then taken away. Landa (Crosby) leaves our protagonist in the dust and Harry spends the rest of the movie trying to catch up with her. Of course, it doesn't work, and even if it did, it's far from clear that Landa will live much longer than Harry. This is the nightmare where you try things and none of them work.

It is also my personal nightmare. I grew up in the Los Angeles of this movie and my father's postcards: Wilshire Boulevard, Fairfax, the La Brea Tar Pits. It's a place of bright lights and high contrast: malls frosted in neon, sunsets and fountains. Film noir shows the corruption beneath this bright facade; Miracle Mile allows us to believe the facade, shows the blossoming of love, and then just blows it all up.

This is what to be afraid of in 1988, and now. This thing we've built could just go away, forever, in moments, for no reason at all. The bad things in other movies are just metaphors for this.

The worst part in Miracle Mile isn't even the nuclear explosions; those are the gravestone on a civilization that has already collapsed. It collapses in minutes, like, when Harry's in the bathroom or something. There's a pretty good comic miniseries called "Memetic" which covers the same ground but also introduces a lot of body horror, so YMMV.

In a normal emergency people will band together and help each other, but Miracle Mile says that in the apocalypse all bets are off. This Prisoner's Dilemma will not have any further iterations, so you might as well go out with one last Defect. Despite it all, a few people choose Cooperate. It does no good, but at least they die well. That's what passes for hope in this movie.

December Film Roundup

Mon, 01 Jan 2018 02:52:34 GMT

Happy new year! I feel like my reviews for this month are kind of cranky. Anyway, back to wrestling with this giant whale. From hell's heart I stab at thee!
  • Psych: The Movie (2017): Absolutely no reason you should watch this unless you're a big Psych fan, but it's pretty fun if you are. It was always going to be a big love letter to the TV show, but it could have also been a sharp parody of Hallmark Christmas movies. I feel like that's what they were going for. But after Timothy Omundson had a minor stroke, James Roday had to rewrite the entire screenplay at the last minute, which, good job doing that on such short notice, but it really shows and it threw a wrench into any larger ambitions this movie may have had. Kurt Fuller is funny as always.
  • Timecode (2000): This is a formally impressive work that has some fun Easter eggs and improvised bits but doesn't offer much in the way of plot, or interesting characters. Instead it relies on there being so much information on the screen that you can't process it all. As we as a society get better at dividing our attention (albeit at the expense of other skills), the trick becomes less impressive. It's tough to make something under such an intense constraint and also have it tell a cool story, but that's the difference between an interesting movie and a great one.

    I liked the 'cool' security guard who was also everyone's drug dealer, and Kyle MacLachlan is delightful. Also, I wonder whether this movie came out at a specific time: when the quality you could get from a digital camera was about 25% that of film, such that four tiled digital images would look like a regular film.

  • Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017): Look, nothing will give you back the experience of being a kid and watching Star Wars for the first time. Chasing that feeling is a fool's errand. If you want a new Star Wars movie, one that engages with the material in an interesting way, then this is your film. Giving it to Rian Johnson was the right move.

    If you just don't like Star Wars, this movie won't convince you. The franchise is still really slight, and they're giving it right back to Abrams for Episode IX. But The Last Jedi is the most fun I've had with a Star Wars movie since I was a kid.

  • Coco (2017): Fun enough, but a reversion to the Pixar mean after the really innovative Inside Out. No complaints, though, I liked it the whole way through. Enjoyed all the antique tech.

This will have to suffice for a Television Spotlight: today I went to the museum and watched the solstice episode of "Fraggle Rock". I'd never seen "Fraggle Rock" before and I understand it's kinda didactic but I was not prepared for the sheer heaviness of the humanist message here. They're 'ringing' the Great Bell by using their own little bells to make a resonance chamber out of a bell-shaped empty space. Right? That seems like the correct read here. Unbelievable that they got away with that, but I'm all for it.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

Wed, 27 Dec 2017 12:14:10 GMT

Way back in the nineties, after it was clear that News You Can Bruise was an ongoing concern, I had the idea that on December 20, 2017, twenty years after the first "notebook entry" that could be called a blog post, I would write an entry with a Sgt. Pepper's reference in the title. This idea thrilled me, more for the glimpse it gave me of the future than anything else. But I was never so thrilled that I, say, set a reminder to make this post, or figured out anything to put in here besides the title and "wow, twenty years, huh?"

So, I missed the deadline by a week and I still don't really have anything to put in here apart from that title joke, which I now find corny, but I'm doing this anyway as a promise kept to my earlier self. This is the 7905th post to News You Can Bruise, and it's not even the least interesting one!

Christmas Movie Counterprogramming

Sun, 24 Dec 2017 20:55:20 GMT

There are Christmas movies, movies that aspire to fill viewers with the Christmas spirit. And then there are movies that are set during Christmas but would rather do something else with your time. The canonical example of the first type of movie is It's A Wonderful Life (1946); the canonical example of the second is Die Hard (1988).

If you're sick of watching It's A Wonderful Life every year, then mixing it up with Die Hard might be nice, but once you open that door you've got a lot of additional possibilities, and watching Die Hard every year just to stick it to Capra fans is silly. As a public service, I've used IMDB data to find the top-rated 'Christmas' movies for use in your holiday counterprogramming.

I used an IMDB data dump (see postscript) to find every movie tagged with the christmas keyword, excluding documentaries, movies with 'Christmas' or 'Holiday' in the title, and movies in Wikipedia's "American Christmas Films" category. I went through what remained and picked out films that were set as a whole over the Christmas holidays or otherwise had a pervasive Christmas element—a lot of top movies like Goodfellas and Full Metal Jacket and Citizen Kane seem to only have one memorable Christmas scene. Here are all the matching films with an IMDB rating of 8.0 or higher.

  1. The Godfather (1972)
  2. The Apartment (1960)
  3. Pelísky (1999)
  4. Plácido (1961)
  5. Jagten (2012)
  6. The Thin Man (1934)
  7. The Lion in Winter (1968)
  8. Twelve Monkeys (1995)
  9. The King's Speech (2010)
  10. Ma nuit chez Maud (1969)
  11. In Bruges (2008)
  12. C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005)
  13. Brazil (1985)

I've seen seven of these movies and I'm pretty happy with these results. If I wanted to watch a movie that fits this niche it would definitely be The Apartment, and The Godfather is kind of a marginal case.

Postscript: unfortunately, IMDB changed their data format recently to a format that is a lot easier to parse than what they had before, but which is missing important pieces of information like movie ratings and keywords, which makes a project like this impossible and renders the dataset as a whole nearly devoid of interest. It's been a fun ride, IMDB data dumps. From Ghostbusters Past to Worst Best Picture to The MST3K-IMDB Effect to You Can't Be Serious to I Should Be In That Spoof to Where's that Golden Age? to Worst Episode Ever, the old, hacky, IMDB dumps from an FTP site have provided me with quality data and my readers with much entertainment.

But we all knew it was only a matter of time until someone at Amazon said "Wait a minute..." and had a meeting with someone at IMDB. So from this point on, all of my IMDB projects will use the last full IMDB dump I got, for Ghostbusters Past in early 2015.

November Film Roundup

Fri, 08 Dec 2017 11:06:42 GMT

Howdy, pardner. Time to round up some cinematic cows! Them's good eating.
  • This is Spinal Tap (1984): My third viewing, and possibly the most fun I'll have watching this movie because my second viewing was like ten years ago before I had a lot of practice at watching movies. I remember all the big-ticket set pieces, but I forgot that this thing is full of comedy at all levels, from subtle character conflict to stupid puns to dick jokes, and it's all funny. Like a Monty Python movie, Spinal Tap just tosses out one classic bit after another, not realizing that entire cults are going to grow up around individual gags.
  • Hellzapoppin' (1941): I've been wanting to see this film ever since learning about it in The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide in the nineties, and short story research finally provided the excuse I need. This is... uneven. The first, let's say, nine minutes is some of the funniest footage I've ever seen. Then it turns into a dull slog of a young-lovers weekend-party movie, livened up only by the occasional hilarious joke. It's worse than a Marx Brothers movie in this regard.

    Olsen and Johnson seem to know they're heading in to trouble here. They throw up framing devices and lampshades to make light of the fact that they're squeezing their round Broadway show into a Hollywood square, and that this movie is no good when they're not on screen. But lampshading a fact doesn't make it go away. It's so bad that I questioned whether the Broadway show was also a big bait-and-switch, but no, according to this 2007 attempt to reverse-engineer the show, Hellzapoppin' was basically all like those first nine minutes, and it was the longest-running Broadway show until Oklahoma!. So, I guess I recommend going back in time (if only to 2007) and seeing it live.

Not a lot of films last month, and there wasn't even going to be a Television Spotlight, but it turns out the show we were watching, "The Good Place", doesn't have as many episodes as I'd assumed. We generally only start watching a show once the hype builds to a certain point, which usually gives us two or three seasons to catch up on, but "The Good Place" is so great (and the episodes are only 22 minutes) that the hype started early, we blew through it and we're stuck in the season two mid-season break with everyone else. So now I'm going to use my soapbox to add to the hype. It's really good—the characters change over time, individual episodes burn huge chunks of plot, and every episode ends with a cliffhanger. It's like a Greg Egan novel turned into a sitcom.

For comparison I'm going to bring in a show we watched and loved in the pre-Film Roundup days, "The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin". In a sitcom every episode presents the same basic scenario, but "Perrin", along with "The Good Place" and "Arrested Development", create plot arcs by breaking the sitcom reset button and forcing the characters to deal with the consequences of previous revisions of the same basic joke. This also allows the writers to approach the premise of a given sitcom from all different angles. Sumana sums up these three shows as: "What if your karass were also your crab bucket?", which is the subtext of most sitcoms made explicit.

How Game Titles Work: 2017 Update

Thu, 23 Nov 2017 16:58:44 GMT

In 2009 as I was writing Constellation Games I researched how game titles work on a rhetorical level. I published my results as a six-part series of blog posts: 1 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. This post is a summary of that post and a bringing it up to date for 2017, based on a talk I gave at Penguicon in March. (Slides are here.) In my 2009 research I discovered a basic tension: games are works of art, so there's a tendency to name them like movies, but in our society games are packaged and sold like laundry detergent, so there's a tendency to name games like detergents. Different game-makers resolve this tension differently. In the early days, games were named after real-world activities, or about the very act of playing a game mediated through a computer; otherwise, it was difficult to get people to understand what was going on. You don't see that much anymore; nowadays it's common for games to have names that resemble (in formal terms) the names of 19th-century novels, laundry detergents, episodes of TV shows, or rock albums. But all games have two things in common: the second person and the present tense. A movie can be the story of something that happened to someone else long ago, but a game is always the story of what you are doing right now to complete the feedback loop. So most games are named in the second person present tense, e.g. named after your character within the game. I originally had to figure out How Game Titles Work because for my story "Mallory" I spent a long time making up titles for six fictional classic arcade games, and despite all the work I was unhappy with the results. The final draft of Constellation Games mentions thirty-three fictional human games, plus thirty-five games made by space aliens from various alien cultures. Since cultural artifacts are created and named by people embedded within that culture, I had to figure out the underlying rules for games so I could apply those rules to the various extraterrestrial cultures. I also worked this process in reverse: came up with a weird game and used it to figure out what kind of culture would create that game. I decided to update the series because one of my conclusions in 2009 was that shareware games in the 1990s, and indie games generally, have better titles than contemporaneous big-budget games. Since 2009 the indie scene has exploded, so I decided it was time to take another look and see how naming techniques have evolved. I used the MobyGames API to get the names of all games published since 2009, and went through them looking for interesting names. Although AAA titles still have boring names, indie games have dramatically expanded into more artistic naming spaces. It's now fairly common for a game to have a title that's not in second person ("Papers, Please", "This War of Mine"). More frequent than in 2009, but still not common, is a game whose name is not in the present tense ("Gone Home", "Thomas Was Alone"). The games themselves are still second-person-present-tense, but their titles play with tense and person to zoom in or out emotionally. Even more common, though, are games whose names transcend synecdoche to convey the mood of the game rather than referencing specific elements: "The Flame in the Flood", "No Man's Sky", "Sir, You Are Being Hunted". An older example of this is "Grim Fandango" and I think this quote from a Tim Schafer interview provides some insight into the naming process as well as the function of a game's name: "The original title, when I was pitching it, was Deeds of the Dead.. The Last Siesta was one [working title]. Dirt Nap I think was in there somewhere..." "And then I finally came up with the name and was like, 'I'm so smart! This is the best name ever!' I remember I ran out of my office and I told someone... [a]nd[...]

Behold, mortal, the origins of robotfindskitten...

Mon, 13 Nov 2017 01:49:12 GMT

I wrote a thirty-minute talk for the Roguelike Celebration about good old robotfindskitten. Then I saw that I only had a fifteen-minute timeslot to deliver my talk, and I cut it way, way down. As you might expect, that made the talk a lot better; what had started out as a kinda rambling history was boiled down into an exploration of what it means for a game to be good.

Here's my transcript of the talk as prepared for delivery: Behold, mortal, the origins of robotfindskitten...

I went through a lot of archival material to write this talk and I was planning on putting a bunch of the stuff I cut in this blog post, but... I'm pretty happy with the talk as is and there's only a couple pieces of extra material I feel a strong need to share with you.

First, I put up the original DOS binaries and all the source code I could find for the very first version of robotfindskitten, from 1997. I also included the C++ source code for a student project I did a couple months before rfk, which really looks like a dry run for rfk, both in terms of the subject matter and the code.

Second, I just wanted to highlight the message I wrote in the docs for the 1999 Linux release of rfk: "I like this program a lot. It's fun without being violent."

Third, this sequence of Nethack-related files I had on my BBS (which I ran from 1993 to 1996). This was useful for establishing when I obtained Nethack 3.1.1, a factoid which itself turned out not to be very interesting.

SPOILER.ZIP  Size:    22,125 | A complete walkthrough of Nethack! Very
Date: 01/31/94  DL's:      1 | handy!

HACK311.ZIP  Size:   749,285 | Nethack! The biggest, most feature-packed
Date: 03/01/94  DL's:     14 | Rogue clone ever!

NETSPOIL.ZIP Size:   129,059 | New versions of the Nethack Spoilers!
Date: 10/27/95  DL's:      7 | Everything you need to know.

NHDECODE.ZIP Size:     4,294 | A handy thing that translates the rumor &
Date: 11/09/95  DL's:      1 | oracle files for Nethack.

I called roguelikes "Rogue clones" back then. (A bit later, I uploaded a copy of Angband and described it as a "Nethack clone".)

Bizarrely, the description file inside SPOILER.ZIP says "A complete walkthrough of Netrunner! Very handy!" They are Nethack spoilers, though. Maybe my co-sysop Andy wrote that description and had Cyberpunk 2020 on his mind.

October Film Roundup

Sat, 11 Nov 2017 13:29:20 GMT

Sorry for the delay -- I've got a lot of other stuff to work on and was in fact working on it. Only now finding the time to procrastinate and talk about a couple movies I saw last month.
  • Good Time (2017): Y'know, when I see a movie like Dog Day Afternoon, part of the fun is reveling in the problems of a bygone era and not thinking about the problems of my own. In 40 years, if mankind is still alive, Good Time may be that type of movie but now I feel the despair of someone who watched Dog Day Afternoon in 1975. Everything's falling apart and there's no hope. So... a good modern noir, I guess?
  • Underworld U.S.A. (1961): By contrast, this noir is nothing special. The bold move of putting a chart on the movie poster made me think this film would have the hard-core attitude that there's no moral difference between organized crime and "legitimate" business, but the attitude was more of a scandal that organized crime was ramping up by taking on the management structure of big business.

    You could really sense the boundaries of the Hays code in this film. Having a hoodlum as a "hero" was pushing the envelope, so they spent a lot of time rehabilitating him and farming off unpleasant hoodlum duties to other characters, to the point where I don't think we actually see him take any morally questionable action. Which, y'know, fish or cut bait, noir movie. Also, I don't think I can trust a chart in which "vice" is one of the things being measured. The chart format implies a level of precision which is not present.

  • Portrait of Jennie (1948): Gets credit for being a very early paranormal romance, but the romance starts with an atmosphere of ickiness, and even without the ickiness the IMDB summary of this movie is "A mysterious girl inspires a struggling artist" and who needs another one of those? I would rather just watch the scenes with the supporting cast; they're fun.
  • Love and Taxes (2015): Sumana is a Josh Kornbluth fan so we watched this film adaptation of his monologue, which took an Adaptation-like twist and started becoming about the film adaptation of one of his earlier monologues. It was a pretty fun time. I'd like to call out the character of Bob for being a rare example in narrative drama (not sure if this is "fiction" or what) of a really supportive boss.
  • I saw a series of horror movie trailers at Metrograph, and am excited to some day see The Manitou (1977), Wicked Wicked (1973), and Lady in a Cage (1964). Most of the rest of the trailers were kinda meh, but it was fun to see a big-screen trailer for The Giant Gila Monster (1959). If you think about it, the gila monster really does become giant when footage from the movie is projected onto a screen.

    I never knew that Joan Crawford was in so many genre films. (She's not in any of the ones I just mentioned, that's just a general observation.)

This month's Television Spotlight focuses on Terry Jones' Great Map Mystery (2008), a documentary miniseries that seems to have been funded to provide local content for BBC Wales. It was eager to present Welshness and Welsh things in a way that's familiar to me from Canada. There's a lot of interesting stuff in there, most of it more or less irrelevant to the Big Question of the documentary, which is fine because the Big Question turns out not to be all that big. It's definitely a cut above what we find on most of our lazy "see what's free on Amazon" trawls.

September Film Roundup

Mon, 02 Oct 2017 20:57:43 GMT

Here we go. I'm sick right now so who knows what kind of weird opinions I'm going to have. Blaaah! Roll camera! Baby Driver (2017): This film serves as the counterpoint to Paul (2012): it shows the downsides of letting Edgar Wright direct a film without having Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to weigh it down with likeable characters. It's formally impressive but I didn't care about any of the characters. If you don't like Scott Pilgrim you could say the same thing about that movie, but... I do like Scott Pilgrim. I caught a lot of hype for this movie and I always expect a lot of Wright, so I was psyched up, but it falls into the familiar territory of popcorn noir. It was fun to watch, but its "innocent pulled in life of crime" plot is right out of the black-and-white era and hasn't been spruced up much. The Teacher (2016): A.k.a. Ucitelka. An effective horror movie where nobody dies. By horror movie standards, the things that happen aren't even that bad. But it's creepy as hell. I would compare this to Get Out in the way it exploits an underused fuel source for its horror. IMDB classifies this as "Comedy, Drama" but based on the poster and the final scene I'm comfortable with my opinion that it's intended to read as a horror movie. Run Lola Run (1998): A lot of fun, lots of eyeball kicks. I thought there were going to be four runthroughs, but three works better. I'm always pleasantly surprised when a movie is shorter than I predicted. Has some of the same problems as Baby Driver but I'll cut it more slack because it was made twenty years earlier and it's a half-hour shorter. Come to think of it, my favorite part of Baby Driver was the scene where he had to get out of the car and run. Jaws (1975): I absolutely loved the first two acts of this movie about a society so focused on short-term economic gain that it jumps through hoops to rationalize away an ecological threat. Then act three was a couple guys on a boat and I fell asleep. If I were this film's hotshot young director, I would have spent about ten minutes on that boat and then come back to shore to focus on the mayor's ass-covering, trying to hang the fiasco around the necks of the people who noticed the problem and did something about it. Overall this is a fine film and I recommend it, but with one big asterisk: I believe Jaws is the movie that caused Hollywood execs to say "we found it!" and pull the lever that eventually stopped all that lovely 1970s experimentation. (c.f. my Die Hard review) So watch it with a pretentious tear in your eye. Old-computer watch: includes an outdoor arcade that features the Sega mechanical arcade game "Killer Shark" and, more relevantly, a Computer Space cabinet. You can see the arcade in [...]