Friday, December 30, 2011

Weird Dream of Weirdness

I had a dream this morning.

I remember nothing from it, except that it involved a dwarf who was the reincarnation of the immortal sentient plant Corcox.

I think there's a short story in there somewhere.

That is all.


Monday, December 19, 2011

The Christmas Beard: A Heartwarming Story of Love and Facial Hair

A long time ago, there was a lonely, homeless beard. To protect his privacy, we'll call him Rupert.

Once, Rupert had been a large, flowing white beard full of life, joy, and little pieces of yesterday's roast beef and potatoes. His master loved him like a son.

Well, not quite. But still, he loved him very much.

Then came the fateful day when, due to harsh economic circumstances, his master had to give up his dream of being a famous novelist and go to work for a local fast food restaurant, McGrubbies.

The Manager of McGrubbies hired him on one condition.

"You've got to get rid of that beard!" said the Manager. "It's better off on its own. If the Health Department sees it, we'll get in trouble, and they're throw it into Beard Jail."

The Master was briefly torn between his need for money and his love for his beard. But money won out in the end, as it so often does.

"I'm sorry," he said, and a tear rolled down his cheek as the scissors went snick! snick! snick! Rupert fell to the floor with a flump, and slowly inched his way out the door.

Now, cut loose from his home chin, Rupert was nothing more than a dirty collection of tangled hairs. He fondly remembered how his master used to stroke him and cuddle with him, and how it used to keep him warm in the winter. If Rupert could have cried hairy tears, he would have.

Rupert crawled miserably along the sidewalk, pausing dramatically now and then to feel sorry for himself. Suddenly, the wind picked up, and a gust lifted the beard into the air. Several strands of hair floated away and were seized by passing birds, who incorporated them into their nests.

Presently, he smacked into something with a thwop! It was a face. Rupert thrrrped with joy. A face! Finally, a new chin on which to rest!

The face said, "Ew, a possum!" and grabbed at the beard. The person to whom the face belonged held Rupert up and examined him.

"Oh," the person said. "It's just a dirty old beard. Yuck!" The person threw Rupert to the ground, leaving him more dejected and morose than ever.

No one will ever love me again... thought Rupert.

It wasn't long before the wind caught him again. He bumbled along like a tumbleweed, wafting through the suburbs and into the city, where he smacked into something else with a thwop! A big black nose sniffed at him. The nose belonged to a big brown dog of indeterminate breed.

The dog said "Arf!" In his depressed state, Rupert assumed this meant that the dog hated him too. Unfortunately for Rupert, this was rather far from the truth. Really, in dog language, this meant, "Ooh! A possum!"

The big brown dog of indeterminate breed picked Rupert up in his mouth and tossed its head back and forth. scattering more hairs to the wind.

Ow! thought Rupert. This dog loves me a little too much...

This went on for quite a while. Eventually the big brown dog of indeterminate breed figured out that Rupert was in fact a beard, not a possum. "Arf!" the dog said.

Rupert was now dirtier and slobberier than ever. The wind picked him up again, dragging him along through the muck. Eventually, the wind dropped him in front of a house in the middle of the city, and there he sat, feeling as though the entire world had unceremoniously taken a poo directly upon him.

The house belonged to Cornelius P. Widdleston, of the Mid-City Santa Brigade. The children called him Mr. Widdles for short, so that's what we'll call him from now on.

Mr. Widdles was a jolly, good little man who, along with other members of the Mid-City Santa Brigade, dressed up as Santa, visited the homes of children who did not have very much money, and gave them Christmas presents.

Mr. Widdles was in a very bad mood.

"Where is my Santa beard?!" he shouted, storming around the house. "I can't be Santa without my beard!"

It wasn't in the bathroom. It wasn't in the fridge. It wasn't in the microwave. It certainly wasn't in the living room.

Mr. Widdles flopped down on the couch in a huff. "This is ridiculous," he said. "I just used it yesterday!"

He looked at his watch and gasped. "It's almost time for me to leave!" He shrugged and sighed. "Oh well. At least I can still give them the presents."

Wearing the rest of his Santa suit, Mr. Widdles stumped out the door.

"What's that, a possum?" said Mr. Widdles.

There was Rupert, lying in a beardy pile on the doorstep.

Mr. Widdles picked him up. "Wait a minute...that's a beard!" he said. "Hmm. It's pretty dirty."

Then, Mr. Widdles had a stupendous idea. Taking Rupert inside, he shampooed him up and put him under some hot, hot water, scrubbing him until all the dirt and grime came out.

Ow ow ow! thought Rupert. He's a maniac! Surely this'll be the end of me.

After carefully wringing Rupert out, Mr. Widdles took a hair dryer and blew hot air on him - vree! vree! - until he was dry and poofy.

"There! Good as new!" said Mr. Widdles. "It's even better than my other beard. Who would give up a beard like this?"

I'm...I'm clean! thought Rupert. And I think he likes me! Maybe things aren't going to be as bad as I thought they were.

Mr. Widdles glued a rubber band to Rupert so he could wear him on his face. Rupert wasn't so sure about this part, but it felt good to be resting on a chin again.

Then, with Rupert on his face and a jaunty Christmas tune stuck in his head, Mr. Widdles stepped out the door to bring joy to all the Mid-City children.

And so, the beard that had been cast off and forgotten found a home, and became The Christmas Beard.

Merry Christmas from the Institute.


Monday, December 12, 2011

The Content Percent

Sometimes I wonder how much of the Occupy movement has to do with simple envy and feelings of entitlement. I may just be projecting, since I recognize those feelings in myself.

Sure, it's good to stand against injustice, but I think most people are just frustrated and looking for someone to blame.

Instead of clamoring for what we think life owes us, why not learn to be content with the things we have?

Instead of blaming others for our problems, why not help one another out of them?

I'm not trying to discredit the Occupy movement. I just think it's healthy for people to question their motives.

Hoping to be part of the content percent,


Friday, December 9, 2011

The Game

So, after reading my good friend Evan's giant comment, and seeing Cameron's interest, here are a few things I've been thinking of.

Making a small blogsite to keep track of the standings is a great idea. I shall do this forthwith.

Graduated XP amounts are also a great idea.

Here is the Graduated XP Scale:

Level 1: 10 XP
Level 2: 15 XP
Level 3: 20 XP

I think you understand the pattern.

Here's how all of this will work. At the beginning of your day, whenever that is, write down a list of things you would like to accomplish during that day. For every thing on that list that you accomplish, you'll earn an XP. If you complete all the things on your list, you'll gain 2 bonus XP.

First person to reach Level 10 gets a $10 gift card for something of his or her choice. Since it's just me and Cam right now, the loser will buy the gift card. If we get more people involved, the losers will each contribute an equal amount of money for the card.

I'm going to call this the Life Game. So far, Cam and I are the only players. If anyone's interested in joining us, hit me up!

Because it would be unfair to Cam and any other players, I'm voiding the XP I gained on my own. The game starts for real on Monday.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Poker Night is for Losers

I make lists of things to do on little desktop sticky notes. It helps my fragile little brain remember that playing Spore for five hours is probably not the best way to get ahead in life.


Anyway, I've decided to tie my experience points to the things on my lists. As in, "Oh joy and gladness! I did something on my list today, which means I get an experience point! Hurrah!

I've decided that 10 XP (experience points, not xylophone points like you were probably thinking) will be equal to 1 Life Point (LP), and that 10 LP will allow me to ascend to the next level of existence and become a Level 2 Human Bean.

Although this ascension would indeed give me great personal satisfaction, I'm beginning to realize that this whole point thing only works if I get new stuff with every level, or if I'm competing with someone.

Interesting. I'll have to think on this a little and get back to you all.

XP Count: 3
1 for doing dishes
1 for finding someone to take my shift on Saturday
1 for working on my RPG

Monday, December 5, 2011


My wife and I recently started using Sparkpeople as a part of our diet plan. It's a site that helps people monitor the amount of calories they consume each day.

The most useful feature of the site is, however, a motivational one. Sparkpeople rewards users with "sparkpoints" when they login to the site, record the food they've eaten, exercise, read health-related articles, and many other things. If you accumulate enough points, you can move to the next level. The levels are mostly symbolic, but reaching the next level is ironically addictive.

I thought the reason was because I'm a gamer. Some part of me hopes that the next level will allow me to use better gear and give me the ability to blow crap up with my mind.

Actually, however, my wife has been more insane about sparkpoints than I have, and though she's been around gamers all her life, she has not yet imbibed the kool-aid.

I think the reason these points work so well is that people are eager to see immediate successful results, even if they're fake. It's one thing to have a far-out goal that you want to reach some day; it's another thing entirely to feel like you're steadily reaching that goal, piece by piece, day by day, point by point.

With this in mind, I'm going to do an experiment. I'm going to apply the Point Principle to every aspect of my life for a week, or as many as I can think of, and see what happens. Come back next Monday to find out how it went.


Monday, November 28, 2011

Blogsurrection: The First Post in Months

After a long hiatus, I hereby announce that The Institute is back in business. My other blogs have been liquidated to accommodate my increasingly busy schedule and waning attention span. To those of you who were fans of "The 24 Tasks of Pete," I apologize. I also apologize to the two people who liked "The Perpetual Bacon Machine."

But please, don't fret, citizens of the internet! You will now be able to find the same content on this blog that you could find on those. There will be plenty of challenges and reviews for everyone, along with a generous helping of The Institute's characteristic humor.

It's been a long time, minions, but it's good to be back. See you next Monday, if not before.


Monday, May 9, 2011

Blocked For: Technological Paranoia

I dread the day that content blockers go haywire and take over the world. Picture Skynet from the Terminator movies, only with no discernible purpose other than to keep mankind from finding anything on the internet. Forever.

My wife and I are living in university housing while she finishes school. University housing means university internet. University internet means university content blocker. University content blocker means pounding head repeatedly against keyboard.

It blocks me a lot, and it seems like the blocked categories get more absurd every time. Recently I've been blocked for "entertainment," and "humor," two of the internet's strongest pillars.

 I keep thinking that it won't be long before I'm getting blocked for things like "clowns" "cheese" and "Rudyard Kipling." After that, it's only a matter of time before we'll only be able to find the nyan cat.

At least the coming takeover will force people to read more books. 

Nyan. Nyan-nyan-nyan.


Tip: The nyan cat is a great deal more fascinating if you open the link in multiple tabs. And by fascinating I mean that it is capable of inducing an altered state of consciousness.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Walnuts, Part II

Author's Note: I intended to post this yesterday, but time got away from me. Brownie points to anyone who can source the blatant references I've used in Part II.

I began to hear shouts echoing through the train, coupled with many sets of footfalls coming my way. One set was particularly heavy, and it belonged to a bald Russian with arms the size of my legs and fists the size of my head. As if that wasn't intimidating enough, the minigun he was carrying looked like it had been forcibly detached from a ship or some sort of aircraft. The multiple barrels started rotating as soon as he saw me.

Getting out of the way of a minigun is difficult in most cases. On a train, it’s impossible. I quickly instructed my suit to divert all of its power to deflection. Each bullet vaporized as it hit the suit, but the force of the attack threw me back into the bulkhead.

We’re losing power, said the suit, sounding almost frantic. At this rate it won’t be long before we won’t have enough power to lock onto the temporal beacon.

In hindsight, I probably should have pulled out my Z-10 Sleep Pistol before then, but now was as good a time as any. Ducking under the bullet rain, I yanked it from its holster and fired it straight into the Russian’s face at nearly point-blank range.

Nothing happened for several seconds, and I feared that the shot had been somehow ineffective, but his eyes rolled slowly up into his head. The minigun fell to the ground with a crash, and he followed soon after.

“Cloak!” I told the suit. My body shimmered and became invisible, allowing me to move freely through the rest of the train.

I saw a group of armed men running in my direction. From their shouts, I could tell they were a mixed group mostly composed of Czechs, Russians, and Lithuanians. I slid against the bulkhead, allowing them to pass.

It was a long way to Timmy’s car from the caboose, but I finally made it. The door was locked.

“Phase!” I whispered. “But keep me cloaked.”

That’s ridiculous! I’m a utility suit, not a magician. Besides, if I tried to do that, we wouldn’t be able to find the beacon!

“Do it. I’ll use the train’s power system to recharge.”

Are you sure? Please say yes to confirm.

“Yes, I’m bloody well sure!”

It doesn’t have to end this way. I could push you off the train…

“Your programming won’t let you. Now, do as I ask.”


I suddenly felt very strange, like my molecules had all become slightly looser than normal. It reminded me of some strange anesthetic, only I was still fully in control of myself.

I stepped forward through the door. I mean, quite literally through the door. The room was opulently decorated in red velvet and solid gold molding.

In the center, on a velvet and gold throne decorated with intricate scrollwork, sat Timmy. Timmy was not at all what I expected. Timmy was…a child. He couldn’t have been more than 12 years old, really. The briefcase man stood in front of him.

“You’re sure everything is as I ordered, yes?” said Timmy in a high, squeaky voice. My suit was translating for me.

The briefcase man nodded. “Yes. Moscow sends its compliments.”

“Good.” The boy pulled out a silenced pistol and shot the briefcase man right between the eyes.

I saw an opportunity and seized it. Grabbing the briefcase, I ran as quickly as I could in the direction of the control car.

“NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” echoed Timmy’s voice behind me. Suddenly, I heard a roar that sounded somewhat out of place.

Apparently, I had forgotten to account for the genetically engineered lion. The beast was racing after me at breakneck speed, smashing through anything in its way. Thankfully, I had some lead-time, so when I reached the control car I piled up anything I could in front of the door. The conductor was looking around frantically trying to find the source of the moving objects, so I conked him on the head, knocking him unconscious.

The lion had reached my barricade, and was pounding itself against the door.

“Suit, activate recharge mode.”

Finally. This will only take a moment.

I opened an access panel and shoved my hand into a mass of wiring, drawing as much power as I could from the train. Meanwhile, the door behind me was starting to look more and more like a smashed tin can. Just as the lion managed to push its way in, my suit chimed.

It’s done! Locking onto the beacon now.

I disappeared as the lion began to close its mouth around my arm, reappearing in the mission room at Central Command. The walnuts were finally where they belonged.

“Well done, old boy!” shouted Commander Tibbs. “We’ll send these on to Great Britain as soon as possible.

And so, the human race was saved once again from Russian hegemony. To this day, I still haven’t figured out where the lion came from.

The End

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Walnuts, Part I

By Peter Semple

2150 was the year the walnut trees died. It wasn’t just the earthbound ones either. All the transplants on Mars and Luna died off too, like someone had flipped some strange, absurdly-labeled switch.
No one knew why.

2175 was the year Russian scientists announced that they had managed to restore an entire grove of walnut trees. Walnut-lovers rejoiced, but there was a catch. Russia wasn’t doing this for charity.

By 2176, Russia held a stranglehold on the world walnut trade. They could charge anything they wanted, because there wasn’t any competition.

I, Philip H. Scrout, intrepid adventurer, bionic man, and world-class time-traveler/problem solver, was about to change all of that. You see, the walnut trees weren’t supposed to die. My superiors suspected that someone sent a genetically attuned supervirus back in time again. Thankfully, the last one only targeted Chihuahuas. Walnuts now…that was too far. In the future, a serum made from walnut tree bark saved mankind from a devastating plague. The death of the walnut trees created a future in which the Russians were the only ones to possess the serum, ensuring a thousand years of Communist Tyranny. Central Command wasn’t about to let that happen. I wasn’t about to let that happen.

I arrived in Prague on the 4th of June. I had it on good authority that a rogue Russian agent was about to hand off a suitcase full of whole walnuts into the hands of a Czech mobster known as Timmy. No one had ever seen his face or heard his voice, but it was rumored that he traveled around in a strange hovertrain and never stayed in the same place for very long. My mission was to intercept the suitcase and deliver it into British hands.

The man with the suitcase was in an aircar, moving quickly toward the outskirts of the city. I was cloaked and clinging to the top of the aircar for dear life. At the speed we were moving, the wind would have inflicted some serious damage, had I not been wearing my skin-suit. The suit made me invisible and protected me from just about anything. It also talked, which is never a desirable function in a suit.

Sir, have you realized that your blood pressure is a little high?

“I hadn’t noticed.”

Well, you may want to do something about that. Things like that can kill you, you know.


You could have a heart attack or something. What would I do without you, sir? A poor empty suit, completely free of a disgusting paras—I mean, devoid of an owner!

I’m sure the thing’s planning my demise. I’ve warned Central Command about it, but they don’t seem to think it’s worth the cost of reprogramming. “Budget cuts” or some such nonsense.
I ignored the suit and focused on the landscape unfolding ahead of me. The city had given way to small towns, farms, and rolling plains. Suddenly, the car stopped, nearly throwing me off.

We waited there for several hours before anything happened. Then I saw the hovertrain. It was a huge, chrome monstrosity, and it was coming this way. My mark grabbed the suitcase, got out of the car, and began walking calmly toward the train. I got down and followed him at a distance.

The train must have been going about 80 kilometers per hour, and it wasn’t slowing down. Just then, the briefcase man did something I did not expect. Slowly, calmly, he walked up to the train and dematerialized. Poof!

That doesn't seem fair said the suit. Maybe you should try! Take me off first, of course.

“Shut up,” I said. “We’re going to do this the hard way.”

I have implants that allow me to do things normally outside the human range of possibility. One of them involves running quite fast.

I started running, and the landscape around me gradually became a blur as I ran faster and faster. I reached the train’s caboose, grabbing onto the railing and heaving myself aboard.

There was no back entrance, so I made one. That was when the alarm sounded.

*  *  *

Find out what happens next week!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Shameless Self Promotion

We interrupt our normal posting schedule to bring you some shameless self-promotion! I'm a guest poster this week at "What's Wrong With...", and I'd love for you all to check it out.

"What's Wrong With..." began with the stated goal of offering "criticism with a purpose." In keeping with that spirit, this week I've set my crosshairs on "Glee." Enjoy!


Thursday, April 21, 2011


I think the reason I hate math so much is that the numbers never feel real to me. I know what they are, but being a person of words, I’m more interested in the situations in which they occur and the things they apply to. That’s why I enjoy story problems, like “A man walked into a southbound train going 50 miles an hour to sell Timmy 3 walnuts at a rate of 100 rubles per walnut. Triangulate the position of Timmy’s pet lion.”

It doesn’t matter if they’re by themselves or in equations. I’m only really interested in what they relate to.

Consider today’s gas prices, for instance. “3.99 per gallon” certainly looks very upsetting on the sign, but only because of the words the numbers are attached to, words like “I wish I could eat this week, but I’ve got to fill up my car,” or other words that are less appropriate for this blog.

Stupid lion.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Jobs, Sharks, and Crisco

These days, looking for work feels more and more like shoving my hand repeatedly into a tank of shortening, instead of a tank of sharks.

I realize that statement deserves some explanation.

Before I had a college degree, every shark in the shark-tank tried to gleefully pull me in. It was simple. All I had to do was paint myself with a little chicken blood, and in I went! I've always had a summer job, even when the economy wasn't doing so well.

Now that I have a degree, no one wants me. I'm still shoving my hand in the tank, but all I do is squish around for a little bit, not realizing that the sharks have been replaced with gobs and gobs of tasteless, greasy Crisco. I pull my hand back out and there it is, like a second skin. WHAT KIND OF AQUARIUM IS THIS?!

Crisco never lets me know that it isn't interested. People used to call me or email me when I was no longer being considered for a position. Now, there's only silence. At least with sharks you can sometimes tell if they're not hungry by the remains in the water. Crisco just sits there.

I hope there's a shark hiding in my Crisco.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Review Blog is Up!

I haven't wasted anytime in expanding my domain :)
A few days ago I launched my new review blog. Stop by and check it out! Granted, there isn't much there in terms of content just yet, but that'll change. Each week (starting with next week) I will write a book, movie, game, or music review for your reading pleasure and spotlight something cool and bacon-related, whether it's a place or website devoted to bacon, a piece of bacon-related trivia, or something else entirely.
Stick with me. This should be fun.


Thursday, April 7, 2011


Ladies and gentlemen, the Institute is branching out. After a lot of thinking, I've come to the conclusion that the Institute's lack of a unifying theme is it's weakness. In short, the awesome contained within is too varied.

From now on, this blog will be almost exclusively devoted to humor. As of today, I have begun the creation of several satellite blogs to handle other types of writing, like reviews and travelogues.

Think of it as the beginning of a new era, one in which I will rule the blogosphere. :)
Don't worry. I'm a benevolent dictator. Mwahaha.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Travelogue: Canada

This travelogue has been a while in coming. It's not that I've been actively putting it off, it's just that time has a tendency to run away from me. I usually think about this blog every couple of days, but those thoughts often get buried by things like Dragon Age II and applying for jobs.

The bright side of all this procrastination is that I've had ample time to collect my thoughts about today's subject, the delightful country of Canada.

I got married several weeks ago, and my wife and I went to Canada for our honeymoon. It's not an obvious honeymoon destination, and that's one of the reasons I picked it. Also, it was a good sight cheaper than Florida or the Bahamas. I found a little cottage online at this website, and it seemed like the perfect fit.

The border crossing was a harrowing experience for my wife, who had never been out of the country before. It was still a little nerve-wracking for me, even though I had been there with my family several times in the past. There's just something about crossing in to another country that provokes all manner of frantic questions like "what if I accidentally do something wrong?" or "what if I accidentally say something stupid?" or "what if they accidentally find a body in my trunk?'

As it turns out, something must have seemed a little suspicious, because the nice border guard sent us to immigration services. We had to present proof that we were actually going where we said we were going, and that we were actually on a completely harmless honeymoon instead of the Bonnie and Clyde crime spree I had originally planned (my wife shut down that idea pretty quickly, despite my protestations that it would be a real bonding experience)

As an aside, Canadian border guards are very intimidating. The men all have what I like to call "power beards," the kind of beard that looms over you even if the person wearing it is less physically impressive than Gandhi. The women are intimidating too, but that's mostly because they're women.

Thankfully, we were able to prove everything sufficiently, so we went on our merry way. We were hungry by this time, and the car needed gas. This is when we discovered a critically important fact about Canada: everything is more expensive there.

Yes, the U.S. dollar is valued slightly higher than the Canadian one, but that ends up meaning very little. You see, while you may get a couple extra Canadian dollars at the currency exchange, everything in Canada costs LOTS of Canadian dollars.

Allow me to illustrate. We went to Burger King to assuage our hunger, and I ended up paying nearly $17 for both of us. We went to get gas, and I ended up paying $75. That is the largest amount of my own money I have ever spent in one go. By the way, Canadian gas prices may look low in comparison to ours, but don't forget that they charge by the liter. There are more liters in your car than there are gallons.

A few hours later, we finally made it to the cottage we'd rented on the Lake Erie shore (after first showing up at the wrong place and thinking we'd been played because it looked like the address we'd been given didn't actually exist). Lake Erie is beautiful, even in winter. I'd never seen such a vast expanse of frozen water before, and it was wonderful to watch the sun (when it decided to come out of hiding) glinting off the ice.

Since we were on our honeymoon, I don't feel the need or desire to tell you about everything we did. However, I will highlight some of the places we visited and the things we ate.

Most of the towns around us were somewhat small. Simcoe was the largest, and the one we visited most often, because it had the most things to do and see. On our first night there we ate out at a wonderful restaurant ironically named "Boston Pizza." Like everything else in Canada, it was a bit on the pricey side, but the food was delicious. I ordered a small "Spicy Perogy" pizza, a delightful creation topped with bacon, potatoes, cheese, and sour cream. We also visited Hagersville, a somewhat smaller town, but no less enjoyable to walk through. There we ate at "Godfather's," a pizza chain that I later found out exists in the U.S. If you have one nearby, I highly suggest you try it sometime. Not only was the pizza great (the crust was the perfect consistency and the toppings were delicious and gooey), it was one of the most affordable places we ate while in Canada.

Now that I've given you an overview of our experience, I'd like to boil it down a bit by listing some specific things you should know if you're going to visit.

-Canadian Walmarts do not sell fresh food, so don't go there expecting to pick up fruit or veggies.
-If you're looking for alcohol, go to LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) or The Beer Store. Generally speaking, you won't be able to find it anywhere else except in certain restaurants and bars, all of which are required to buy their merchandise from LCBO or The Beer Store.
-Don't be afraid to ask questions. Most Canadians will probably answer them politely.
-Don't take citrus fruit from Canada back to the U.S. It's illegal, apparently.
-If you take any food back at all from Canada, be prepared to declare it at customs.
-American debit transactions don't work in Canada. If you use a debit card, slide it as credit.
-Quite a few Canadian businesses don't accept Visa cards. Most of them do take Mastercard.
-Brush up on your knowledge of Canadian currency. Check out this wikipedia article.
-If you visit during late winter/early spring, be prepared for cold weather and/or snow.

Good traveling,


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Fallout 3

Warning, there be spoilers.

Dear Bethesda Softworks,

I think you've got a great heart. You dream big, just like me. It's nice that we have that in common. Unfortunately, we also have in common the fact that our eyes are often bigger than our stomachs, metaphorically speaking. Your worlds are huge, which seems on the surface to be a great thing. It would be, except that these worlds are chock full of the same things, copy and pasted over and over and over again. That's the way I felt with Oblivion, and that's the way I felt with Fallout 3. Yes, I realize that you love sandbox games and the oodles of freedom they provide, but personally I'd rather have a more linear game if it meant having more unique items, locations, and characters.


I don't know what's wrong with me, but apparently something is. Fallout 3 was awarded Game of the Year for 2008, and for the life of me I can't understand why. Don't get me wrong, it was an okay game. There were parts of it I really enjoyed (although most of those were downloadable content). It's just not a spectacular game.

-The world is wide open, with plenty of buildings to explore and sidequests to check off.

-It has an epic, absorbing story.

-The DLC (downloadable content) is superb. Really. I mean, I enjoyed the DLC at least three times better than the rest of the game. Mothership Zeta was without a doubt my favorite, mostly because it presented a really unique setting that gave me a break from all of the dust and rubble.

-The dialogue is okay. Not stellar, just okay. Also, there are some cool voice actors. Well, one cool voice actor. Okay, Liam Neeson.

-There are some really fun weapons, and a weapon constructing system that allows you to create your own if you have the schematics and materials.

-The soundtrack is beautiful, which shouldn't be surprising for anyone who played Dragon Age. Inon Zur was responsible for both soundtracks. Incidentally, he also composed the music for Crysis. Is it bad that I want to play Crysis for that reason alone?

-It has an interesting moral choice system, similar to the "paragon/renegade" system of Mass Effect or the KOTOR II system. If you're good, you'll be hunted by the bad guys. If you're bad, you'll be hunted by the good guys. Also, you get different rewards depending on the choices you make.

-The VATS targeting system allows for an interesting combat dynamic and presents an opportunity for strategy. Basically, it allows you to stop time (figuratively speaking), choose a body part to aim for, and shoot it in slow motion. These attacks are often much more effective than normal attacks, especially at close distances, and can help you take on more powerful enemies. Thankfully, the VATS system offers you a limited number of "action points" with which to take down your enemies, so you can't just keep using it forever, which forces you to use a combination of normal attacks and VATS attacks.

-The ending sucks if you don't have the DLC. I understand that allowing a player to use a radiation resistant companion would make things too easy and detract from the epicness of the ending, but it's also the only ending that makes sense if you happen to have one such companion. Apparently Bethesda realized this, because they made it all better when they released Broken Steel.

-Bugs. Fallout 3 is infested with them, and some of them affect the main quest, as I found out. Scribe Rothchild was supposed to show me something on a map, but he wouldn't move, and the quest couldn't continue if he didn't. Fortunately, I used the cheat console to move him myself (once I found a way to get the console to work, that is...). I ended up having to find workarounds for several quest blockers, which was not fun.

-I disagree with Bethesda's policy of having all of their characters on a dialogue loop. Seriously, you hear the same freaking conversations throughout the entire game. It really detracts from the experience. Why not just remove the loops and plug the resulting hole with some ambient talking-ish noise? I'd rather have a silent character then a character that constantly reminds me that he's only a character.

-The characters are so. freaking. flat. Seriously. There are two basic classes of characters in Fallout 3: generic plot relevant npcs, and generic enemies. The former are boring because Bethesda doesn't take the time to create any emotional attachments with them. They're basically sidequest machines. The only character I really cared about was my father, Liam Neeson, who died not long after I finally found him. Come to think of it, Bethesda has a history of doing that to characters voiced by famous actors. I mean, look what happened to Captain Pic--I mean, Uriel Septim in Oblivion. And then there are the enemies. There should be a rule that generic enemies you don't want to spend a great deal of time designing should all wear masks, so that we can't see enough of their faces to realize that we've been killing the same people fifty thousand times. That's why I was elated to finally be fighting the enclave troops. They're nice and faceless.

-Bugs. They piss me off. I swear, Bethesda should work at removing more of them before releasing their games. Oblivion was like this too, as I recall, though to a lesser degree. Seriously, this is what play-testers are for.

-The landscape is what you would expect after global thermonuclear war, by which I mean it looks like Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay finally joined forces to destroy mankind. This is great and all, but the scenery ends up being rather dull, except for a few select locations. Also, there seem to be a lot of the same random useless items scattered everywhere. I swear, if I never see another pile of empty tin cans I will die a happy man...

-The karma system, while interesting, is deeply flawed. For instance, if you want to be good, you can't take things from evil people without incurring bad karma, sometimes even if they're plot relevant and lead to a good ending. Also, you can fix some of your worst actions (blowing up an entire town, working with slavers, etc.) and redeem yourself in the public eye by donating water to beggars and money to churches. And by churches I mostly mean strange cults who worship radiation or some such thing. Yay for religious tolerance...

-The VATS targeting system that can be so helpful can also be an extreme drag, because it takes entirely too long to pull out of slow motion. I often found myself staring at a dead body for at least a minute after I shot it, waiting for the slow-time bubble to dissipate.

-Bugs. Did I mention that bugs piss me off?

Neutral Points:
-The graphics, while they don't actively bother me, are not spectacular either. I would even go so far as to say that they're a little glitchy.

I encourage you to form your own opinion, if you have the time and money. It's a moderately entertaining game, I just still don't understand why it merited game of the year.


Fallout 3
Graphics: 5/10
Story: 8/10
Characters: 3/10
Dialogue: 6/10
Gameplay: 7/10

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Dragon Age: Origins

I finished Dragon Age: Origins today, finally receiving that false sense of accomplishment I'd been toiling after for the past few weeks.

It was beautiful, and it reinforced my belief in computer games as an art form. Here are some reasons why.

1. The Characters
With supporting characters, you can afford a little cardboard. When you're creating a story, you want main characters that your audience can emotionally engage with. They must engender a sense of love or hate, or at least cause someone to vacillate between the two. I can't think of a main character in Dragon Age that didn't cause some sort of emotional attachment or reaction. Take Morrigan, for instance. Morrigan is a member of your party, the cadre of characters that follows you around and helps you complete your quests. Morrigan is not a nice person, to put it mildly. She's aloof and darkly pragmatic, and she tends to disapprove of all decisions that involve helping people. But when you speak to her, you begin to understand why she is the way she is. She's complex and interesting, and while you want to hate her, you also don't want her to leave. All of the other characters are just as complex and interesting to interact with. They also interact with each other during quests, which can be quite amusing, depending on whom you've brought with you.

2. The Setting
Dragon Age is a typical fantasy, in that it borrows a great deal from everything else in the genre. A lot of the concepts and plot points will register as familiar to any well-read fantasy geek (like me). However, Dragon Age has proven that just because something isn't completely original doesn't mean it's bad. Sure, it's typical fantasy. But it's darn good typical fantasy. You'll be too busy enjoying yourself to notice that most of the game's "darkspawn" remind you of orcs, goblins, and trolls, or that the plot is relatively formulaic, or that two of the world's major races (elves and dwarves) have been done and redone ad nauseam since the days of Tolkien.
Seriously, folks. Going in, I thought I'd be distracted by this stuff, but that wasn't true at all. It's a tribute to Bioware's craft that they've managed to repackage it all so well.

3. The Music.
Inon Zur, the composer of Dragon Age's beautiful soundtrack, is a genius. Some of it gets a little repetitive after a while, but what game music doesn't?
If the game had never been created, but Inon Zur had still put out an album with this music on it, I would buy it. Leliana's Song was particularly captivating, and if you don't know what I'm talking about, play the game (the song's on youtube if you're not interested or don't have the money).

4. The Graphics
Graphically speaking, Dragon Age is magnificent. You'll need a fair amount of processing power and a good graphics card in order to witness that magnificence, but that's beside the point. DA is beautiful! Enough said.

5. The Choices
There are a lot of different ways to play Dragon Age. There are many different dialog options, loads of sidequests, loads of ways to finish those sidequests, and loads of ways to build your character. Choice is a really, really good thing in an RPG, and Bioware is the master of options. The only way to truly enjoy the game is to play it several times, discovering all of its possibilities.

Now that I've finished with the glowing praise, I'd like to offer some withering criticism. There are a few things about Dragon Age that I feel could have been changed or just plain left out.

1. Unbalanced Difficulty
I'm ashamed to admit that I couldn't finish the game on a single difficulty level. Cutting through darkspawn is easy enough even on the hardest difficulty level, except when you're surrounded by a bajillion of them, which happens quite frequently. The bosses are incredibly hard, even on the easiest difficulty. Sometimes, I and my party members were required to face a bajillion darkspawn and a boss. I ended up playing through the game on Normal, and switching to easy when I was overwhelmed by darkspawn or during any encounter with a boss. It was necessary in order to preserve my sanity, which was being slowly chipped away every time I died and had to load a saved game. If things had been toned down just a little, I feel I would have enjoyed the experience a bit more.

2. Sex Scenes/Romance Options
Bioware pandered. The sex scenes served no purpose other than fan service. The camera could have tactfully panned away or faded to black, but nooooooo...
Okay, so maybe there wasn't any nudity, but still! Bad form.
Although I like options in RPGs, as previously stated, I feel like Bioware went overboard on the romance stuff. I remember playing Knights of the Old Republic in the good old days, before gaming companies felt like they needed to represent every possible sexual orientation. Good times.

3. Item Storage
This may be a little picky of me, but I much prefer Oblivion's item storage system to Dragon Age's. Sure, you could get overencumbered, but at least you could carry more things based on your level of strength. In Dragon Age you have seventy item "slots" for your character. Weight is disregarded completely. Also, you can carry as many of the same item per slot as you like, which seems completely unrealistic to me. It's like, although your character has a limited number of pockets, those pockets are infinitely large on the inside.

4. Skills
Skills are little handy abilities your character uses to make his or her way through the world. They're very useful, but there comes a point in the game where upgrading your skills becomes relatively useless. You and your party members each become good at one or two of them, and that setup works really well. The problem is, when you've maxed out those one or two skills, the game keeps offering you more points. You could start learning another skill, like stealing, but another character in your party is already maxed out in that skill, rendering those points completely unnecessary. It's not harmful, certainly, but it's annoying.

To sum up: Dragon Age is an exceptional game, as rich and absorbing as any good book. Its good points far outweigh its bad ones, and I highly recommend it.
Creative Commons License
The Institute for Circular Reasoning by Peter Semple is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.