Thursday, July 21, 2011

On the Morality of Being Nice

Debatably, this post has [Mass Effect 2 Spoilers].  I trust you guys to know where you stand on my definition of spoilers at this point.

So, I recently ran into, I think, an effective handling of a moral quandary in an RPG.  Dr. Mordin Solus is easily the most frustratingly morally ambiguous character I've encountered in a long time.  And, I kind of want to call him out on what he's done.  But he's party of my loyal BROhort, and what's more, he's a very loyal and *likeable* member of the Shepherd BROgade.  He made choices of terrible weight, and he definitely feels them.  I don't want to hurt the guy emotionally any more than I have to, but he has done some really bad things, and I don't want to condone those, either.  Do I comfort him, by telling him it's in the past?  Do I tell him it was wrong and demand some kind of enthronement?  Is it better to be nice to Mordin, a friend, or to be honest with him, as a person who has made some despicable, if debatably necessary, choices?  These options are both good and bad in their own ways, morally.  I was honestly conflicted about the whole matter.  What really made this work was that, quite frankly, I was more concerned with finding the option that satisfied me most, and not ferreting out the one that nets more Paragon or Renegade points.  That's the sign that a morality system is working, I'd say.

Now, there's a slight caveat to all of this.  It's worth mentioning that Paragon and Renegade are really more about "how nice are you" versus "how much of a jerk you are" than strictly "good vs evil."  In ME 2, with the introduction of "Paragon Action" and "Renegade Action" quicktime event options into many cutscenes, Renegade is as much about being a dirty-fighting, sneaky SOB as it is about being a baby-kicking jerk.  For instance, you get the opportunity to taze a guy repairing a gunship that you know you're going to have to fight (this isn't a spoiler, because it's obviously Checkov's gunship).  Given the context, this seems to fall within "reasonable video game warzone immorality" - it's a little lenient, if anything, since unless I seriously misunderstood it, he wouldn't have died from the tazing.  Hell, it might have saved his life (I don't *think* he was aboard the gunship later, though).  It's the sort of move Han Solo would pull -  opportunistic and kind of dickish, and also for the greater good.  With the system they have in place, the two aren't mutually exclusive.

Where the system breaks down is in that I metagame too much.  I can't help but optimize my playstyle to either Paragon or Renegade, since there are tangible rewards for doing so (more conversation options, easier resolutions of many conflicts between pairs of characters I like, etc).  So, even though a particularly grandiose Krogan mercenary is blathering on about how he's going to kill and eat me, and clearly I'm going to be shooting him sooner or later regardless of what I do, I feel compelled to sit there and listen instead of shooting the fuel tank he's standing on, because I don't want it to come back and bite me in the ass when I need to tell two bickering teammates to leave each other the f*ck alone.  And you still DO have to kick a lot of babies to amass enough Renegade points for it to be worthwhile (admittedly, when I say "kick babies," I really mean "say unnecessarily mean things to people who look up to you").  So, in Mordin's case, because I really feel conflicted about the whole mess, and because it can't be worth THAT many Paragon or Renegade points to say any particular thing so long as that thing isn't "Eat babies, regret nothing," I don't feel constrained by the mechanics of the system.  I care about making the choice I find to be most morally acceptable (which was, incidentally, just keeping my mouth shut - I wasn't happy with this, but I couldn't come up with anything better than what the game offered anyway), and I'm willing to let the chips fall afterward.  But I'll fruitlessly negotiate with people who clearly are just going to use that time to take aim because, later, I want to be able to tell other people to shut the f*ck up (very charismatically) and stop shooting each other.

Mind you, I'm not claiming that Mass Effect 2 has a truly functioning morality system.  I still think morality systems are mostly a doomed effort.  But, for me at least, it has instances where the system really does work, and I find that very interesting.

An addendum on the matter: maybe a two-part system, where you can set both an action and a demeanor?  So, you could be surly but moral or charming but evil?  Of course, I suppose this has the potential that leads to "shoot him in the dick [nicely]."


Monday, July 18, 2011

On Mass Effect Gameplay

So, I recently shredded through Mass Effect because I didn't have my copy of A Dance with Dragons yet and the lack of it made me want to kill some video game enemies in droves.  However, as my copy was coming via snail-mail, I still didn't have it when I finished Mass Effect.  As such, I needed more things to kill, and so I loaded up Mass Effect 2 to continue to bide my time by dismembering virtual aliens, robots, terrorists, and alien robot terrorists until my six-years-in-the-making Martin fix arrived.

I had heard that Mass Effect 2's gameplay was rather different, but I was still really struck by a few things.

1.  Ammo.  There was no ammunition collection in ME 1, due to some applied phlebotinum and handwaving whilst saying the words "Mass Fields."  I was totally fine with this - in fact, I hardly noticed.  What the inclusion of traditional ammunition in Mass Effect 2 made me realize was that I didn't really miss it in ME 1.  In certain games, yes, scraping for ammunition is part of the fun.  Making that last sniper rifle shot really count is critical.  Running out of ammo is scary.  But Mass Effect had offered a reasonable-enough explanation of why you had infinite ammo, put a different limiting resource on your weapons (overheating), and it worked fine.  Fight dynamics were more like an RPG than an FPS, in that they weren't about limited, unrenewable resources, but instead focused around cyclically available resources.  You could play the long game in any fight, because you could wait for your heat to drop, and once it did, the gun would work again.  I'd be annoyed if a hard-boiled FPS like Gears of War or Call of Duty removed ammunition, but Mass Effect, like World of Warcraft, really didn't need it, and it's kind of a hassle.  Let Hunters make their own magic arrows - it isn't going to unbalance the game, anyway.  In works of High Fantasy (and ME, like Star Wars, is basically High Fantasy IN SPESS), such abstractions are totally reasonable.  In ME 2, at least so far, however, your two resources (powers, which are cyclically available, and ammo, which runs out) work differently - which kind of makes powers better for my more conservative, calculating playstyle.  The other irritating thing is that I end up using guns I don't really like, since ammo is universal but apparently not transferrable.  This is a minor gripe - there is tons of ammo, and it is universal.  Thank god.

2.  Visible HP.  I'm not sure why, but ME 2 decided to go to the Gears of War-style "red marks appear on your screen" hit-points for your own HP instead of the previous Halo-style visible Shields and HP.  This particular change makes the game feel MUCH more FPSish, since it's harder to keep track of how you're holding out in a fight, or how much damage specific enemy attacks are doing.  This also slightly changes the strategic aspects of the game - you have to ballpark things, which is much more of an FPS trait than an RPG one.  Enemies still have HP bars, so that part remains largely unchanged.

It's interesting how, despite the mechanical gameplay being very similar, these two minor changes really shift it from feeling like an RPG-FPS hybrid to an FPS.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

On Executions, Delayed

The Valkyrie gunship was over-crowded.  The squad of Inquisition Stormtroopers carrying out Inquisitor Lord Glaub’s will would have fit comfortably, but with the four-and-a-half Acolytes who had been herded (and wheeled) aboard, it was quite cozy.  Or might have been, but the medical table on which #4 was being held took up more than his share of the space, thus Daret’s disabled medical Mechadendrite was poking into Cantor Remski’s shoulder, and the Stormtroopers were squished in to give Callidon a wide berth.  Also, the Acolytes were on their way to a swift execution of convenience.

“Gentlemen, our straights may seem dire, but I assure you, resolving this situation without bloodshed is well within my capabilities,” Callidon whispered with his usual subtlety to his compatriots.

“Guardsmen, friends, fellow Servants of the Emperor!  I am well acquainted with the Imperial Guard, and I know that your distinguished veteran squad must be busy with your Imperial Guard duties.  Surely, you can see fit to overlook this tiny misunderstanding on our great journey to serve the Emperor!  After all, you must all have tanks to drive, do you no-”

The blow caught Callidon across the jaw, and he fell silent for a moment before turning to Remski, blood running down his face.  Again, in a ‘whisper,’ he said indignantly, “Well!  I see that diplomacy is not an option.  I think our best plan is to mu-”  Remski’s sharp elbow cut the psyker off.  Remski was working on a plan, but for better or for worse, all plans required that Callidon to be in one piece.  More or less, anyway.

Daret seemed to be lost in thought, looking at #4.  He had managed to stop the blood loss, and, Omnissiah be praised, the delusional young man might live.  Long enough to be shot and have his body dumped somewhere, anyway.  Well, this was how Groxboys always ended it, wasn’t it?  Caught on the wrong side of the law because of a promise, or their outdated but endearing sense of honor?  It was either this or being shot by outlaws, masked alien bandits trying to steal a herd of Grox or a posse of Heretics sacrifice a farmer’s wife to their dark gods, and then carrying on just long enough to finish the job before passing the gun to the next generation.  Daret supposed he preferred the traditional hanging to being shot to death with the hot-shot lasguns carried by the Troopers.  After all, he had a 12.3% chance of surviving being hung by the neck due to the internal reinforcement of his spine granted by his cybermantle.  The shooting treatment was almost assuredly fatal, if applied liberally enough.

The Linear coldly considered his options.  He had been stripped of his Bolter, and about this, he was not pleased.  One of the Stormtroopers was holding it, but had not figured out how to make it work.  The Linear smiled inwardly.  His justice was his alone.  If he could wrest it from the man, he was sure he could fire it, even cuffed… but to do that without being shot full of holes would be more difficult.

Suddenly, in the distance, Daret noticed something flying towards the Valkyrie.  It was a hovercar – a very fast one, at that.  And it seemed to be on a course perpendicular with the gunship.  A few mental calculations confirmed this.  The two would be occupying the same space in roughly half a minute, assuming neither turned.  As it drew closer, he noticed another oddity – the lights were flashing.  His pattern-seeking brain homed in on it quickly.  On for .542 seconds.  On for 1.22 seconds.  On for .541 seconds.  On for .542 seconds.  It went on.  Callidon, sitting just past Remski, also seemed to notice it.  Actually, he seemed to be staring at it intently, without seeing, whispering something.

Suddenly, it clicked.  How obvious!  Morys Cypher, a simple strain of numeric cant!  Daret turned to the Cantor, asking without tact: “What do you suppose it means, ‘Down Get Down Get Down Get Down Get’…?”

Eyes suddenly wide, Remski grabbed the Tech Priest and the Psyker and pulled both of them under the table containing #4.  The Linear, acting on instinct, mirrored the move.  Even as the nearest Stormtrooper turned, shaking himself from an apparent stupor, and shouted “No touching!”, the world exploded around the Acolytes.
The hovercar had gone straight into the left engine, ripping through the wing and denting the passenger bay.  The pilot, going into emergency response mode, fought to control the damaged gunship and bring it down before its condition worsened.  Inside the cabin, there was a sudden crack of air being forcibly pushed aside by a Displacer Field, followed by a quiet thump. The Stormtroopers had been tossed about the cockpit by the impact, and were disoriented, but not too much so to fail to notice the new occupant of the cabin.  Crouched over #4’s broken body was Inquisitor Schuld.  With a fluid motion, he drew a needle-gun from his coat and emptied the clip in a blinding burst.  Five of the ten Stormtroopers were caught by the piercing rounds, and four immediately began spasming and collapsed.  In the cramped cockpit, it was difficult for any of the men to draw a bead on the Inquisitor, who had already dropped the pistol and moved into the fray with his shock maul, incapacitating two more men before they could react.  One of the standing Troopers moved towards the intruder only to find Remski crouching before him.  Before he could push the priest aside, the intractable Cantor had delivered a brutal headbutt to the underside of his jaw, and he slumped.  The Linear was already wrapped around another Stormtrooper, choking him out with his cuffed arms and shouting something partially incoherent about taking “Sense and Sensibility.”

The two remain Stormtroopers fell back upon their deadly professionalism, regrouping away from the mess of combatants tangled with foes and taking aim with the Inquisitor.  Even as they did, something exploded forth from Daret’s cloak, and a pair of grapnels shot towards the one of the two men, one sticking shallowly in his carapace armor and harrying his aim.  Before Daret could put his convoluted “hook-pull-electrify” plan into action, the Stormtrooper sergeant’s power sword flicked to life and cut his compatriot free.  Daret’s impromptu lasso returned empty, but by this time, the Inquisitor was barreling into melee range, electro-flail and shock maul screaming. 
Apparently, Daret thought, he was unnecessary for the “electrify” part of the plan.

With the last two men dispatched, the Inquisitor turned to the weary, wounded Acolytes.  “Well, that was exciting, don’t you think?  Hurry, we must leave this place before more of Inquisitor Glaub’s men show themselves to make sure that the job is finished.”

Remski turned to Callidon, and grudgingly offered him a bit of unexpected praise: “That was good work, hiding the car from the Stormtroopers’ sight.  Did you know that it was the Inquisitor?”

“Of course, Cantor!  I most definitely was not doing it merely because I wished to see if my powers could be extended that far, nor out of a desire to get some petty revenge on the gentleman who introduced me to the back of his fist.  No, I had a plan, you see-“

“Acolytes, we have no time!” Schuld shouted even as one of the pilots pushed his way into the cabin and the Inquisitor casually shot him with his now reloaded Needle Pistol.  “My cleanup team is on the way, but neither you nor I must be here when they arrive!”

With that, the motley crew who had nearly doomed the Imperium, and then saved it by accident rushed off of the gunship to nearby, where an Aquilla transport was waiting, engine already warmed.  They ran up the landing ramp, Inquisitor Strom following closely behind, carrying the wounded #4.  As he reached the bottom of the ramp, he stopped, and a hovercar slid up next to him, door opening.

“Wait, aren’t you coming with us?”

“I’m afraid I cannot.  I must stay here to resolve the situation according to our interest – and this one would not survive the trip you will be undertaking.  And you must all be gone.  I will not let you be killed for the convenience of the High Lords, but I cannot offer much protection once we part ways, either.  Lie low for some time.  I have given you over to the service of another Inquisitor – you will assume new identities.  Officially, you will all be dead, though I suspect the execution order will never be known to any but Inquisitor Lord Glaub, and a few others of the powers that be - all of the Stormtroopers will attest to your deaths, a routine execution, when my Psyker finishes with them.  You have served the Emperor well - continue to serve Him as you have until we meet again!  Do nothing to draw attention to yourselves,” he finished pointedly.  With that, the Inquisitor slipped into the new hovercar, which quickly pulled away.  Through the back window, despite the tint, Daret thought he saw #4’s stumped arm waving, and could almost hear a drug-addled voice saying “goodbye, robot-guy!”

“Do nothing to draw attention to yourselves?  Why, we are the very model of subtlety!” Callidon exclaimed indignantly, and Remski glared at the psyker.  The Linear was already stripping his bolter, defiled by the touch of hands not his own.
“Cantor,” Daret said in a low voice, just audible above the lander’s surging engines, “perhaps you might play an end to this adventure?  I am, for no quantifiable reason I can determine, experiencing a melancholy as we brush off the trail dust and end our journey.”

And so the good Cantor launched into the soulful “Emprah Train ‘A Comin’.”



Thursday, July 14, 2011

On the Anatomy of a Great Fight

What do I say when I mean a "Great Fight?"  Here, I really do mean something beyond the literal definition of the phrase.  I'm not just talking about a good fight (that I might, colloquially, call a "great fight,") I'm talking about a once-or-twice in a series, book, or film (usually - some series really do produce many such "Great Fights")  fight.  A fight that makes you think about what it is that makes it so good.  Or makes me think about that, anyway.

As a caveat, I should add: not all fights need to be or even should be "Great Fights," necessarily.  But I do think most fights in fictional media are improved by inclusion/exclusion of most of the elements I discuss here.

Mild spoilers for Broken Blade and Star Wars IV: A New Hope.  Seriously, though, if anything about A New Hope can be spoiled for you and you're reading this blog, you should go watch it instead.

1.    It should be pretty.

This is both highly obvious and highly subjective, so I’m not going to delve into it at great length.  For me, “pretty” in animation means fluidity, relatively high detail, and high motion.  In written works, it means that the prose (or poetry) should be pleasant to read in addition to conveying on its content clearly.  In film, it means that I should be able to see what the f*ck is going on (no Bourne-style combat shaky-cam, no unlit night-fights).

This is probably also the category people are going to differ over most often.  That's fine, since it's an entirely personal, subjective artistic experience.  This fact does mean, though, that what constitutes a "Great Fight" is necessarily going to differ person to person, to some extent.  I would be surprised to find, however, that most people do not determine great fight scenes based on this personal, subjective experience (if anyone does disagree, I'd be very curious to hear about it).

2.     It should be technical.

This is the portion in which I get to be a bit of a fight-snob, but it makes me very happy when strikes are well executed and have actual, clear targets, and blocks are used at all (and, again, make sense given the strike thrown).  Spells and energy attacks should be used in a ways that make sense, but should not be constricted to a single, obvious use – after all, strikes can be used in a myriad of ways (as blocks, as feints, against terrain).  In gun fights, people should use cover, take advantage of unexpected angles, and generally abuse terrain to the fullest.  Creativity and the ability to do unexpected things should be an asset, and not an afterthought.  Neither the enemy nor the viewer should see all tricks coming.

Combat should not be static, and creativity should be rewarded (or, at least, have the possibility of paying out).  Perhaps my least favorite combat trope is the Beam O War.  In anime, this is a production company’s way of saying “we want to show that they’re struggling, but we don’t actually want to animate people DOING things, because that’s expensive.”  The Beam O War reduces combat to a single element, and a literal standstill.  It’s like a static grapple, except that a static grapple almost inevitably ends with one person doing something clever to change the situation – whereas the Beam O War is simply won by whoever has a bigger stick.  If it has to happen, it should be resolved quickly.  But what the Beam O War illuminates for me is that I really hate static combat.  In a fight, people (or mechs, or whatever) should be moving, because when they aren’t moving and being creative, they aren’t doing anything interesting.

Technical also includes the realm of visible damage.  Damage should not only be shown in some way (clothing damage, bullet-holes or burns on giant robot armor, actual injuries), but it should be cumulative and consistent.  Yu Yu Hakusho is, by all accounts, a pretty darned good series, but I found myself seriously peeved when the main character had his arm broken during a fight, and then proceeded to use that arm for the rest of the battle.  Was the arm really broken?  Was the breaking sound and x-ray shot of the bone snapping just for dramatic effect? 

People and objects should show damage, and damage that has been shown should have some sort of impact on the fight.  One of my favorite elements of Broken Blade, simple as it is, is that Delphine, despite its impressive toughness and heavy armor, almost always shows damage where it has been shot, even by the mooks who it tends to plow through in droves.  It’s a little thing, but it goes a long way.  No matter how tough your armor is, it should show at least a scratch from a bullet or a plasma rifle, and though these scratches may be trivial, they show something important – it is not that the attack was useless, but that it did not happen to penetrate.  If someone is completely unscathed after being hit with an attack, even aesthetically, you know the attack had no impact at all.  Whoever made the attack essentially wasted his or her time.  But if there are burn marks, bullet-scratches, or other small cracks, then you know that the target is just well-armored, not some deity, immune to explosions and the sullying effects of soot alike.  Unless the target of the attack really IS a deity, or has some other sort of unnatural protection, it shouldn’t appear that they’re merely protected from aesthetic damage by cheap attempts to drum up tension or a lack of budget.

It's another minor issue within technicality, but if one participant is screwing around, being excessively conservative, or otherwise holding back far more than is reasonable during a fight, it should either be a key personality point for that character or else it should be happening for a reason.  Unless the character is the sort who gets extreme pleasure out of saying “I am not left handed!”, he or she should start out using the right hand.

As an addendum to that, people should learn from fights, current and past.  If a character regularly faces the same sort of enemy, he or she shouldn’t use attacks or weapons that haven’t worked in the past if other options are available.  Basically, this could be called the “don’t be Power Rangers” rule.  At least once, a supposedly intelligent character should bust out the Megazord early, just to save time for when the monster inevitably grows to kaiju size.  It did it the last fifteen times, it’s probably going to do it again.  Similarly, characters should be REWARDED for such intelligent behavior.  I hate perhaps nothing more in combat scenes than the same tactic failing time and time again, only to succeed when tried for the eighteenth time instead of the seventeenth for an inadequately explored reason like "really wanting it to work."

3.    Something meaningful should be at stake for both parties.

I initially wanted to say “the outcome of the fight should be in question,” but I realized that this is slightly misleading.  With even the tiniest bit of narrative “metagaming,” the outcomes of many fights become obvious.  Obi-Wan can’t vanquish Darth Vader in A New Hope.  They face one another too early in the film, and their character archetypes dictate certain rules about their interactions.  A total victory for Old Ben Kenobi simply isn’t in the cards, and the audience knows it.  But the fight can still be meaningful, because Obi-Wan doesn’t need to win the actual combat to fulfill his objective.  He is, essentially, stalling for time – and he succeeds.  Thus, the dramatic tension is shifted from “will Obi-Wan defeat Vader” to “will Obi-Wan distract Vader for long enough for the rest of the cast to escape.”  Vader, in turn, does not merely have to kill Obi-Wan to win, he has to do it quickly, and what’s more, he has to realize that he is under a time limit.  Because of these conditions, the old Jedi’s failure ceases to be a forgone conclusion*, and the tension is preserved. 

This is really key for a great fight.  That may seem to be obvious, but obviously, it isn’t, because it so often is a neglected element.  When Broken Blade 5 was adapted from the corresponding manga material, I enjoyed it, but was left feeling somewhat disappointed at the end.  After reading the manga, which handled things quite differently, I realized that it was because almost none of the fights should actually have happened at all in the anime version.  Rygart should have just run away from Borcuse, since there were no villagers left to save by the time he arrived.  Rygart should have just retreated from his fight with Girghe, because his squad couldn’t afford to lose TWO members at that critical juncture.  In the manga, he had compelling motives not to retreat from both fights, but because these elements were cut for time, the whole affair became a shaggy dog story.  A shaggy dog story with beautiful and dynamic fights, admittedly, but they still felt frustratingly shallow compared to their manga counterparts, where Rygart had something at stake.

At some point, I will probably revisit this topic, since there's more depth to it than I dealt with here, of course.  A case study of fights I really like (or even a single fight) might be a good post for the future.


*I'm going to nip any arguments about Star Wars specifics in the bud and once again clarify that while the exact outcome was not necessarily obvious, my point is that it was clear that the old mentor was not going to get to kill the main (so far) villain all on his lonesome half way through the movie.

Monday, July 11, 2011

On Why I Cannot Sympathize with The Protagonist of Linebarrels of Iron

[First-Episode spoilers for a show that I cannot recommend to even the most die-hard Mecha fans]

My potential enjoyment of Linebarrels of Iron was kind of doomed from the start.  It filled a checklist of things I didn't like (super robot, bad CG, a ridiculously unlikeable main character, shitty Gundam Seed-style character designs, cliche'd Eva ripoff plot).  

But I was starved for Mecha during one of the Broken Blade/Gundam UC lulls, and the mechanical designs are really nice...



So, despite my trepidation, I decided to take an ill-advised crack at the show.

However, no matter how doomed it was from the start, I pretty much dropped it because, at this moment, I knew that I'd never be able to relate to the main character.  When faced with the following situation after having a giant robot and a magic nudist land on him:

He took home the naked chick AND LEFT BEHIND THE ROBOT!  Who does that!?!

Also, the show is poorly animated.


Saturday, July 2, 2011

(Meanwhile) On French Children's TV [Mild Wakfu Spoilers]...

None of these images were capped or captioned by me, but this meme needs more love, and this only scratches the surface of the available fodder in this show.

Theoretically, they'd all have the same caption, but I'm lazy.

Ankama has almost as much fun with the censors as Arrested Development or Avatar's writers, I think.


Friday, July 1, 2011

On the End of the Road

Which, admittedly, happened ages ago, but I've been lazy busy.

 Day 13 (Dallas, Little Rock, Memphis (technically Southaven, MS)):

We got up around 11:00, drove to Little Rock, Arkansas, where we some more of my traveling companion's relatives.

Afterward, we pushed on to Memphis, then dipped a bit into Mississippi to South Haven, where we promptly checked into our hotel and did nothing else of interest except catch up on Game of Thrones and Wakfu.  Now we get to wait for new episodes.  Hooray?
Day 14 (Memphis):   

We visited the Stax Museum in Memphis, the old home of Stax Records and a huge landmark in the history of American music.  However, as we hit the museum, I got an important email, and raced through the museum to deal with it.  For about two hours, I made frantic calls, sent emails, and generally creeped around in the lobby of the Stax Museum while my comrade in road-tripping perused the collection.

At 4:00pm, my traveling companion walked out of the museum I had finished in 10 minutes.  I was playing Angry Birds, having exhausted all productive things to do.

Went back to the hotel, rested for a bit.

We visited a friend of my traveling companion, with whom we talked shop (40k, WoW, D&D, etc) and visited a BBQ place where they served Barbecue Chicken Nachos (which are about as delicious as they sound).

We left his house for the famous Beale St around 9:30, hoping to see some live music.  There was some kind of motorcycle convention going on, and Beale St was hopping.  We saw some great live music, including a bit by “The Plantation All-Stars.”  We also saw a guy playing electric guitar with his tongue.  That was pretty impressive.
Day 15 (Memphis, St. Louis, Joliet):   

It's pretty obvious given the scale of the map, but this was a BIG driving day for us (and not much else).  We got up around 10:00, out of the room and on the road to St Louis by 11(ish).  Okay, probably more like 12:00ish.

We stopped in St. Louis around 4 to see the Gateway Arch, which is one of the more interesting features of the city.  It was rather huge, even by the standards of things we’ve seen on this trip.

We checked out the (free) museum underneath, but decided not to ride to the top, since it would take too long to get up and back.

We then departed for Chicago, stopping in Joliet (about an hour outside of the city) because we figured that it would be cheaper.  After being recommended a local motel by a Best Western attendant (to her credit, she was happy to suggest places that actually fell within our traveling budget).

Day 16 (Chicago):  

Woke up early-ish, but kept hitting snooze.

We got to the Chicago Art Institute at around 12:00pm, and then accidentally and promptly split up.
I lingered for ages in the Ancient Art wing, which had a lot of amazing stuff from European and Asian countries.

Items of interest:

Some badass Katars.

One of many awesome Tomb Guardian statues:

An awesome lock.

An interesting exhibit on cross-cultural comparisons of Woodblock printing (Japanese and European religious works).

[Picture Not Found]

The massive Impressionist wing, mostly (for me) to see that one Seurat painting.  You know the one.  With the dots.  And the people.
(It's this one)

 A “Medieval Art/Arms and Armor” exhibit, which was good, but I was a bit let down by the size of the exhibit, especially as compared to the rooms upon rooms upon rooms of French Impressionism.

Some interesting modern and less interesting post-modern stuff.

[Picture Not Found*]

Headed over to the giant bean, also called the Cloud Gate, in Millenium Park.  During our failed efforts to find the giant, reflective metal bean, we found a giant fountain,

Some cool gardens, and some other cool crap, before finally Googling the massive chrome legume:

It made for some weird photos.

We also discovered that there is a thriving beach in Chicago, at least when the weather is nice, which we got a great view of while plowing through traffic to visit Wrigley Field for exactly long enough to snap this photo from the road.

After the long day of sightseeing, we stopped by our hotel to check in and relax a bit, then headed in to Second City, an improve club.

The show was quite good.  They did an excellent job getting some seeds from the audience at the beginning (faking technical difficulties to converse with a few audience members, planting a cast member in the audience at the start, googling people mid-show), and then did perhaps an even better job working those tidbits in later.  Running themes in the show included fate, Barack Obama, and bestiality.

We got back to the hotel around 2:00pm, went to sleep.

Day 17 (Chicago, Cleveland):

I got up “early” (9:00am) to do a load of laundry, because I was about out of socks.

We left the hotel around noon to visit Oak Park, which contains Frank Lloyd Wright’s house and studio. This was also of particular interest to me, because my dad grew up in this area, and so I was able to see the street he lived on as a kid, as well as his high school. The local wrestling team was doing a shirtless car wash.  Good thinking, actually.  I’m surprised you don’t see more of those.  We didn't get any pictures, though.

Afterwards, we left Chicago for Cleveland (not Cleaveland, apparently, which is what happens when you let fighters with greataxes take greatcleave).

Also, a sign.

We decided not to f*ck with the "fines and penalties orc."  At least not without a bigger party.

We found a Motel 6 about an hour outside of the city, and that's where we stayed.  That strategy worked pretty well for us in general, actually, come to think.
Day 18 (Cleveland, Scenic Lakeside Driving, Niagra Falls):

We woke up a bit later than planned (10:00ish), cleaned up, and headed to the only particularly interesting thing in Cleveland: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Fame is broken down into three sections.  The first a museum, containing innumerable historical artifacts from the roots of rock and roll to modern pieces, including a metric asston of guitars and (most interesting to me, at least) a lot of original manuscripts of song lyrics, often with edits left in.  It’s really cool to see the writer’s thought processes, and while the costumes and such are neat, these tiny little scraps of what was going on in the writer’s head as it went on are fascinating to the English major in me.

The museum is immense.  We were in there from 12:00pm (right after scarfing down some hotdogs from a street vendor) until about 4:30pm.

In contrast, the Hall of Fame itself is actually quite small.  A theatre looping a montage of performances, plus a small hallway with the names engraved in glass and backlit.  Eric Clapton is in there three times, and interestingly, they do not use the same signature for each separate entry.  Then they have a small exhibit on all of the inductees from the most recent year (including Alice Cooper, Neil Diamond, and some other people with whom I was vaguely familiar and a few I wasn’t).

The last part is a rotating exhibit, currently on the Women of Rock, which goes from Aretha Franklin to Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga.  So yes, I got to see Swift’s first guitar and Gaga’s outfit from Poker Face (or one of them, anyway).  I guess my sisters will be jealous or something.

After finishing up the museum (and another hotdog – absorbing culture makes me hungry, I guess), we hit the road, hopping on good old I-90, but then cutting over to Ohio 5 to drive alongside Lake Eyrie(sp) for a while. 

Eventually, we got sick of looking at lakeside houses (there were a few nice views, too) cut back to 90 to complete the drive to Niagra (passing through Buffalo on the way).

We got in to Niagra Falls around 10, just in time to see the Falls (which are lit up at night) and a Fireworks show they have every Sunday and Tuesday.

After the fireworks, we grabbed some cheap and slightly overcooked Chinese food from the “Gateway to the Falls” food court, and then went motel-shopping (read: driving around lost until we found a cheap place to stay).

We lucked out, though, and found a place pretty quickly.

Day 19 (Niagra Falls, Boston):   
We started our day fairly early (for us), and drove down to a casino with free parking before heading on to see to the falls, first looking from the American side, then the Canadian side, then the under-side (the tour beneath the falls).  We passed on the boat tour, Maid of the Mists – the view from right next to the falls on the ground was good enough.

The falls are really pretty spectacular.  For me, at least, they're not as awe-inspiring as the Grand Canyon or as disorientingly beautiful as Monument Valley, but they're still very impressive.  Especially the view from below, which is hard to capture on film without a waterproof camera (and even then, much of the experience is lost because it is wrapped up in the sound and touch).

When we finished up at the falls, we got on the road back to Boston.  

A few hours and some caffeine later, after almost three weeks on the road, we finally got home!


*Sensing a pattern?

P.S.: Non-"Boring Real Life" posts coming at some point in the future.  Probably.