Sunday, 1 March 2020

Final Fantasy VIII - Triple Triad Strategies

Whatever you think of Final Fantasy VIII, it's undeniably complicated. From it's complicated Junctioning system, to its complicated game-within-a-game, Triple Triad. While there's plenty of guides on where to find rare cards, or the rules of the game, but I couldn't find a guide anywhere that explains the basic strategies of actually playing (aka "why do I keep losing?!").

So I thought I'd put together a simple guide that might help you understand how to play, and even enjoy, this popular mini-game.

The first thing you need to know is that this is less about strategy, and more about having good cards. When you start the game you do not have good cards, so you are very likely to lose, which is a very frustrating way to start the game.

In short, don't even bother playing until you at least have the Ifrit card (which you get by following the main storyline).

But even once you have good cards, you will still need basic strategy for how to play. So here it is. It's incredibly simple, and once you've got it, you'll wonder why it was so difficult to begin with.

There are three acceptable moves to make, in order of how good they are. At the very least you should always be able to play a #1. If you can't, you're going to lose.



Move #1: Play a card that your opponent cannot flip.
EVERY card you play should adhere to this rule. Never place a card that your opponent can then flip. Using the sides of the play area, or other cards, is essential. There are no cards that are strong in every direction, so the most basic move you should always strive for is playing a card that your opponent cannot flip to their colour.

Remember: Equal numbers do not flip.

Move #2: Play a card that flips your opponent's card(s), but which they can flip back.
This is a slightly better move than the one above. Basically it's a little petty, but you flip a card of theirs with your move (and remember: always checking that the card you play cannot be flipped by your opponent). You will flip their card, but they will then flip is back to their colour on their move. This forces your opponent to focus to play defensively, and often play their cards poorly.

Move #3: (The best move) Play a card that flips your opponent's card(s), so that they cannot flip back.
Just like the above, but done in a way that your opponent is powerless to flip the card back to their colour. (Again, ensuring that the card you play cannot be flipped by them.)

Again, so simple once someone points this out, but when you're starting it can be baffling.

So your first move should nearly always be placing a card in a corner of the play area, in such a way that your opponents cards cannot be used to flip it. Your opponent will do the same. As you get further into the game, you will eventually be forced to clash. Follow the above rules and you will be fine -- provided you have strong enough cards. (It really is about the cards you hold.)

So there! A simple (and probably unnecessary) strategy guide for Triple Triad! :)

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Review: Eyes Wide Open by Frederick Raphael

A book unfairly maligned in these eyes
Having recently attended the amazing Kubrick exhibition at the London Design Museum, I sought out some books on the man to learn a bit more. The first I finished was by his collaborator on the screenplay of Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut.

Kubrick shunned interviews for a very long time, and what has been publicly said about him has leaked out in often contradictory forms. Those closest to him can't speak highly enough, but don't share details, and those on his periphery share contradictory details. The result is a mystery. Who really knew him, and what was he really like?

The endless hagiographies surround the man are tiresome, so I found Raphael's untainted eyes to be a very refreshing change of pace.

After I finished Raphael's book, I was surprised to discover the apparent backlash, prompted by the family and associates of Kubrick, on the book's publication. Kubrick's widow both accused Raphael of betraying her late husband's privacy, as well as painting an image of him that was false.

I don't mean to sound unfeeling toward those who were close to Kubrick, but there is a slight bit of contradiction in that complaint (too revealing and false in its portrayal?).

Another faint whiff of contradiction comes from the fact that Michael Herr, another collaborator of Kubrick's, wrote a series of articles about working and knowing Kubrick for Vanity Fair, which were later collected into a book. His recollections of private conversations and moments received no criticism from friends and associates for not respecting Kubrick's privacy, but they were far more flattering.

I think those close to the real man were blinded by the proximity to someone they loved and/or admired. They saw Raphael's critical observations as cold-hearted and overly critical, frustrated that he could make such comments about someone they felt he didn't know.

The truth is, and I hope those close to Kubrick take some solace in this, that Raphael's book is not about Kubrick the husband, the father, the friend. It's not even really about Kubrick the collaborator (although it's much closer to being this), it's actually about the relationship Raphael had with Kubrick.

Raphael makes no claims to have cleared the mystique surrounding Kubrick; an experienced Hollywood screenwriter, he attempted to peer through the haze, but the mysteries surrounding Kubrick only seem to intensify the closer he got. Raphael shares his particular experiences with him, through their relationship as director and writer. It would be disingenuous (as others have tried) to suggest it is anything but a completely and frank and honest account of Raphael's view of that working relationship.

As someone not close to Kubrick, and so not hurt by unflattering portrayals of a person I miss, I read this book very differently to his bereaved friends and family. Raphael is not an omnipotent or unquestionable narrator, and nor does he present himself as such. His personality bears down into the narrative, and (from a reader's perspective) is open to as much scrutiny as his supposed subject.

Raphael never professes impartiality or objectivity, only the accuracy of his feelings and thoughts. He shares his views, his perceptions, his experiences, and, yes, he comes across as cantankerous, difficult, and cynical about Hollywood (all possibly with good reason), and even seems to acknowledge this about himself.

It's ironic, but despite the book's reputation I found Kubrick to be ultimately humble, patient, honest and understanding. Raphael's worst fears about working with him are never realised, and Kubrick stays true to his word throughout. When Raphael at one point nearly sinks the entire project by one act of accidental impropriety, Kubrick is quick to forgive and move on. Kubrick is never a beast, he's never dishonest, and is always forthright. He may be kooky at times, but there is plenty to admire about him in Raphael's account.

In fact, I found the Kubrick in Raphael's book to be largely the same one revealed in Michael Herr's book (which can also be unflattering at times, calling Kubrick cheap, obsessive and demanding) and perhaps across both books we see a clearer picture of the real man: Demanding, but not with malice. Humble, but also difficult. Distant, but also soft-natured. Confident, but also searching.

We will never know the father, the husband, but across both Raphael's and Herr's lenses, we do get a glimpse of the colleague.

Also, unlike Herr's book, which is frequently embarrassing and sophomoric when it tries to offer insight into Kubrick's work, Raphael has moments of genuine and deep revelation. In fact, I could recommend his book for those rare moments alone. I've never read a better distillation of what made a Kubrick film. (The flipside is that, unlike Herr, Raphael is often embarrassing and pretentious when describing himself, especially at the beginning of his book. Soldier on, dear reader.)

So I'm sorry, friends and family of Kubrick (and by automatic extension, overprotective fans), I don't think this book does anything to damage the lasting image of the man. If anything it makes me wish I knew him better, and actually made me appreciate his work more.

I highly recommend this candid book. The author lays himself bare, and through his honesty, we get a glimpse of a very interesting, unique, and talented man that was taken from the world too soon.

---

If you want to watch Raphael share some anecdotes (aged 83, and especially cantankerous and a little full of himself, but brutally honest and entertaining none-the-less), here's a great series of videos.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

To Live and Lie in LA

When I lived in Los Angeles, back in 2002, I worked at a call centre selling storage. One colleague I became friends with told me he was an actor. Actors frequently work regular jobs to pay the bills between gigs, so it wasn't a strange thing to say.

When I asked about his career, he told me his one big job had been playing a character on the campy soap opera, Sunset Beach.

I'd never seen the show, but as it turned out, it was running in the UK, and my mother was a huge fan. When we next spoke I told her that one of my new LA friends had appeared on her favourite show. Understandably she was excited to know which character he'd played, I told her, and that was that. Or so I thought.

My mother did a bit more research on my friend and didn't recognise him from the show. The IMDb listing showed two actors playing the role he'd claimed to: Him and the one my mother recognised as actually being on the show. I rationalised that he'd probably been replaced, or that he'd replaced someone else. Such things happen all the time on TV shows, but my mother wasn't convinced. Nobody else, she insisted, had ever played that role.

I decided to do some research of my own. I couldn't believe he'd like to me. I mean, why? It's not like I was a movie producer or an agent, but the more I looked, the less his story added up. No Sunset Beach fan sites mentioned him, or his character being replaced by another actor, or anything. Everything pointed to the person my mother knew as being the only person to play that role. I looked into my friend's other credits, and they seemed even more dubious, not appearing anywhere else online.

I was too embarrassed to confront him, but one day I asked him again about his role on the show, just to see his reaction, and if he would add a caveat about being fired. Instead he was just as earnest and sure as he'd ever been. There were no caveats, he'd played that role. I couldn't quite believe it (and still can't), but it appeared my new friend was lying to my face. Why?

I never said anything about it to him about what I'd discovered. He was always extremely nice to me, and was otherwise an incredibly warm and genuine person. I wished I was wrong (and still do). I always felt that he was such a nice guy that he really didn't need to lie about his achievements. I liked him for who he was, not for anything he'd supposedly been in, but it was a lesson learned.

10 Years Later...

Having a continuing interest in the writing process, I decided listen to the TV Writer Podcast. I'm always on the lookout for quality advice from successful writers in the industry, and this looked somewhat promising.

Having listened to countless episodes of the Creative Screenwriting Podcast (now The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith), The Nerdist Writers Panel, and reading Ken Levine and Jane Espenson's amazing blogs, I know what good advice sounds like.

The TV Writer Podcast video blog was an interview with someone I'd never heard of, but the host was extremely enthusiastic about his scriptwriter guest:

"[Name withheld] is back! In an interview that is sure to change the path of your career, [Name withheld] relates in great depth how and why some artists fail, and others succeed."

I'm usually very wary of taking advice from people whose work I'm not a fan of, let alone someone I don't know, and especially of bold claims like the above, but the interviewee was "Emmy nominated" with "20 years of experience", so I decided to give it a whirl. 

As I watched the video podcast, my bullshit-o-meter registered something immediately -- things seemed a little off. This didn't feel like good advice. I made it 15 minutes before I stopped the interview and deleted the episode. I couldn't believe what I'd heard.

The writer had just wandered into "positive affirmation" territory, claiming the "biggest step" in becoming a writer is really believing you're a writer, and not being ashamed of it. The biggest step. OK. There may be some truth in the power of truly committing yourself to something. And there's no reason to feel ashamed of what you're trying to achieve, so if you have issues about that, you should try and get over them if they're hindering you. Maybe that's what he meant, maybe I was being too criticial, but then he came out with this doozy:

"The next step is saying it out loud. Whether you like to believe it or not, things you say, whether good or bad, probably will come true."

Wait, what? As way of proof of this bold claim, he had this sage observation:

"A good example: I would say that 99.99999% of all divorces start with the word 'divorce'. Someone brings it up and, lo and behold, that's what happens."

Hmm. It's pretty difficult to ask someone for a divorce without using the "D word"!

I suddenly felt very dirty. I felt this man was filled with terrible advice, just who was he anyway? I looked him up online and, as it turned out, the interviewee, while having some writing credits on the IMDb, had NOT received an Emmy nomination. In fact, at that time, he hadn't been nominated for anything. And his TV career spanned 8 years, not 20.

To be fair to him, that’s still an accomplishment, certainly more than most, and maybe the podcast host had simply got his facts wrong when introducing him.

I delved a little deeper and discovered that his personal website had a stack of projects which don't appear to exist anywhere else on the internet. Not even on trade magazine sites. And then I came across the following sentence: "[Name Witheld] is an award-winning, Emmy-nominated screenwriter of more than 20 years."

There it was on his personal website. He was definitely making the claim about himself, but nothing backed it up. Not the IMDb or the Emmy website. Uh oh.

I was suddenly reminded of my old friend back in LA. Was this guy cut from the same cloth? Was it just Hollywood? What was scary about this time was that the suspected liar was, actually becoming a recognised scriptwriting guru.

I can't say for sure what's true and what's not about this guru. Maybe he's the innocent victim of some terrible website error. Several terrible website errors, that all conspire to make him look less than honest. Maybe there's some way his claims can be true, but also not appear online. Maybe lots of TV movies are never properly documented. Maybe he was an uncredited writer on an Emmy nominated script and felt justified in making that claim. Either way he appears on TV and radio interviews about his career, has been featured on other sites offering advice to up-and-coming writers, and (if his website is to be believed) "often guest lectures and panels on screenwriting at film schools and festivals across the country."

What's more, he's also written two books on scriptwriting and created his own consulting firm which promises "professional script consultants with real Hollywood film and television credits and experience".

I don't know what to believe. Surely it must be true if he's got this going for him... but, as with my friend, all the available evidence doesn't add up.

Cut to today...

My friend's IMDb credits are today filled with even more dubious claims (including things that surpass his Sunset Beach credit from before I knew him, which he surely would have mentioned at the time I'd known him if they were true) and new credits which (having checked) don't actually exist in the film's credits themselves.

The screenwriting "guru" no longer claims to be Emmy nominated anymore, but instead claims to have three Image Award nominations. (Guess what, I found record of one nomination, but there's no record of two of them.) His website still has lots of credits, and most of them still don't appear on the IMDb.

Are both of these guys the same? Is it the norm in Hollywood to lie? Or am I unfairly maligning an innocent and successful man, just because many of his scriptwriting gigs never went into production, or aren't properly documented?

I still don't know what to make of either of them. I still want to believe my friend was telling the truth (I know, I know), and I also want to believe the scriptwriter isn't carving a career as an "expert" by spinning lies that no-one has bothered to check. But how can it be? Is this the norm in LA?

Thoughts?

Update

My old acting friend is now spiritual guru with his own YouTube channel. The perfect ending. Still, oddly enough, he seems perfectly suited to this new role. I hope it finally gives him whatever peace of mind he's been searching for.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

No Man's Sky: A Review

I tried to post this to Steam, but unfortunately it seems their system can't handle one more negative No Man's Sky review, so I'm posting it here instead.

I've liked the idea of No Man's Sky since I first saw the incredible teaser trailer. Unlike lots of other people though, I didn't get too hyped up after that. I came to the game ready to accept whatever it was, with no preconceptions based on whatever the developer may or may not have promised. I'd been told it was slow, and chilled out, with an emphasis on exploration... and that sounded fine to me. So I finally picked it up.

First impressions: WOW. What a beautiful game! I'm immediately in love. The first two hours I loved exploring the planet I'd been placed on. Yes, the drones that are constantly pestering you seem a bit annoying, and the resource collecting wasn't fun, but I was too enamoured with how cool it looked and felt to care. I felt like I was walking around in my own private Ralph McQuarrie painting.

I was excited to uncover mysterious things around the planet, from base camps to ancient relics that taught me the language of the aliens I encountered. I wanted to explore everything, unlock everything, learn everything.

The next day I eagerly booted up the game to get back to where I was, except now I found the initial sheen had faded. Yes, the game was still beautiful, but I found I needed more for it to be fun. For the next three hours I found myself, not just disliking, but actively hating the game.

I have no idea what people think they were promised in terms of features, and I really don't care about that. This game isn't fun because it's lacking in features, it's no fun because it's completely unbalanced. Imagine playing MineCraft except you're constantly running out of space to store the ore you mine. And there's annoying drones that follow you around everywhere and attack you. And there's randomly generated plants that attack you as you walk past them. And the interface gets in the way of everything you try to do.

None of this is fun, it's all irritating.

What pleasure there is in No Man's Sky comes from doing what it is clearly at its core: Exploring beautiful alien landscapes with progressively more advanced technology. That's it. The rest of the features of the game feels like an attempt at making it more interesting by inserting annoyances.  Yes, annoyances.

Let's talk about each one in turn:

THE DRONES
As you wander about exploring, every planet in the entire universe has these little drones that may attack you and pull in their friends until you're overwhelmed. The good part is that you can usually ignore them, or jetpack away from them, the bad part is that they actively get in the way of what's fun about NMS: Exploring beautiful alien landscapes.

These digital gnats are the present and the same on every planet. Who owns them? What do they do? Why are they present everywhere, even planets you're supposedly discovering for the first time? Aside from being annoying pests that are NO FUN to fight, they actively homogenise the galaxy. The beautiful alien planets are little less special, a little less alien, because wherever you go... there they are. The exact same annoying drones. ON EVERY SINGLE PLANET.

The same can be said for the tentacled plants that attack you as you walk past them. You discover a weird alien planet that, literally, no other player has ever seen before... and there's the same plants that are on every other planet. Why? Because the developers thought the player needed some sort of challenge? They're not challenging, they're annoying, and they damage your immersion in the atmosphere it's trying to create.

THE ALIENS/THE BASE CAMPS
One of the best things about NMS is the beautiful imagery, the fact that each planet is a little bit different. You can wander over a hill and find a genuinely beautiful vista, or into a cave filled with glowing wonders. Make no mistake, this is a game where its beauty is a big selling point. Exploration of beautiful things is basically what this game excels at, and does better than any other game. Unfortunately it seems only half the dev team got this memo. The aliens and base camps that populate every planet are ugly, dull and almost entirely the same!

Again, the atmosphere this game is trying to create; the exploration of infinitely different planets, is damaged by this bland design choice. There's no diversity or anything interesting about what you discover.

On top of this, the camps themselves are ugly. I want to discover encampments that look as different and interesting as the rest of the alien planet. And I don't want to fly into a space station only to discover that internally it looks the same as every base camp on every planet. It's soul crushing, and it makes me hate this game.

If you want me to chill out and enjoy exploring things, dev team, then give me things that are worth exploring. Make me feel there's something new to discover. Not just a single alien sat in a room on their own who will give me an item when I talk to them.

RESOURCE JUGGLING
Imagine a version of MineCraft where you're constantly having to return home to store TINY amount of the resources you need. Only to discover that, even at home, you can barely store enough. In NMS you're constantly having to keep topping up resources instead of being able to stockpile what you've taken the time to plunder.

By limiting the player so severely on what they can carry, the game actively pushes against you exploring. Once again it seem to be unsure of what it wants to be: Everything about the core experience of the game is exploration, and everything that's been tacked on that core is pushes against you being able to enjoy it.

Having the patience and temperament to explore a planet and mine it to oblivion is actually punished. Every trip around a planet consumes so much energy that you're constantly having top up fuel, leaving little time or space in your inventory, to do much else. This means that even taking the time to explore and mine feels unrewarding.

THE INTERFACE
As the game is so heavy on trying to push you towards resource management, you'd think at least that aspect of the game could be enjoyable. Nope, the user interface makes EVERYTHING you have to do a chore. And a confusing and messy one at that.

Why can't the progress through this game be more clearly sign-posted? Why can't it clearly and succinctly explain what everything is? Why can't it make the chore of upgrading and resource management less of a chore? Upgrading technology is confusing and again, there's little sense of reward.

Other sections of the UI are just as bad. It literally gives me a headache just thinking about it. Consider how you earn credits for "uploading" the name of every planet, creature and outpost you discover. Instead of making this a pleasurable experience that feels rewarding for having collected so many items, the game forces you to manually upload each one INDIVIDUALLY.

This tedious task sums up everything that's wrong about the UI perfectly, and maybe even the game itself: Nothing, except the core exploration of planets, is pleasurable to do... and the game does everything it can to even make that unpleasurable.

FINAL THOUGHTS
The game is beautiful to look at... and it should be beautiful to play. Unfortunately it's almost like a bunch of extremely average developers were handed a piece of genius planet-building technology. If only the beauty of its core technology extended to the rest of the game experience.

The developers can add bases, space battles, online play, virtual poker, whatever other features the moany public insists this game is supposed to have, but it's never actually going to be fun to play until they fix the turgid, bland, unrewarding core experience.