I Really Don’t Hate Christmas

I can be a bit of a grump when it comes to Christmas, but I can’t find it in the darkest corners of my cynical heart to resist the joys of the season for long. The hope and beauty of Christmas outweigh the frivolous nonsense of the holiday it has become. Not even Ebenezer Scrooge or the misanthropic Dr. Doofenshmirtz can really hate Christmas.

Yes, the good Doctor—well, the bad Doctor—from Disney’s Phineas and Ferb is back, this time lamenting the fact he can’t seem to work up a nice, healthy hatred for America’s favorite holiday. Doofenshmirtz is one my favorite television characters, and I applaud him for flinging about words like ambivalenceinvective, and animosity in a kid’s cartoon. A large vocabulary is most admirable… even if it’s mostly spent griping about the holidays.

326. TMTF Reviews: Socrates Jones – Pro Philosopher

Philosophy is a daunting subject.

Believe me, I know. One of my uncles is a philosophy professor. He has a tremendous beard, an office full of books, and a tendency to use words like epistemology in everyday conversation. I also have a bunch of cousins who studied philosophy. When my relatives on that side of the family gather for a meal or holiday, their conversations can get really academic.

(These relatives also talk a lot about football—I refer to soccer, by the way, not that violent American sport. Their discussions of sports are even harder for me to understand than their talks about philosophy.)

I’ve studied some philosophy, but I’m no expert. Thus I was intrigued when a reader of this blog graciously recommended a video game titled Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher. As the name suggests, it’s an homage to Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. I love the Ace Attorney games, which bring together clever mysteries and bombastic melodrama, and the idea of a game in the same style about philosophy interested me very much.

That said, I must echo Hamlet and ask a big philosophical question: To play or not to play?

Socrates Jones title

Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher (Available online, 2013)

Bringing out both the best and worst of Ace Attorney games, Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher is a cursory yet clever and entertaining exploration of moral philosophy.

TMTF Reviews - Socrates Jones

Give Me Philosophy or Give Me Death!

Socrates Jones, a simple accountant with an ordinary life, can’t understand his family’s obsession with philosophy. He prefers crunching numbers to arguing about abstract ideas. However, when a car crash lands him and his daughter Ariadne in an afterlife reserved for philosophers, Socrates gets one chance to reclaim their lives. He must debate a series of famous philosophers and resolve one of the Big Questions: What is morality and where does it come from?

I’ll be honest: Socrates Jones is basically a short Ace Attorney game that replaces attorneys with philosophers. Do you know what? That’s a really good thing.

For those unfamiliar with Ace Attorney, I should mention that each game has two main components: crime investigations and legal trials. Socrates Jones borrows the mechanics of the trials and makes a few key changes. Philosophers take the place of attorneys; philosophical theories are submitted instead of witness testimonies; ideas, not physical evidence, are presented as rebuttals. The courtroom structure of Ace Attorney works astonishingly well for philosophy.

Socrates Jones imitates not just the mechanics of Ace Attorney, but also its exaggerated style and sense of humor. Socrates and his opponents are funny, memorable, and well-written. I love how Ace Attorney‘s iconic cries of “OBJECTION!” are replaced in Socrates Jones by indignant exclamations of “NONSENSE!”

Socrates Jones screenshot

The philosophers themselves are a quirky bunch. When Socrates meets Thomas Hobbes, that famous thinker says gruffly, “You should know, Mr. Jones, that my mother gave birth to twins. Myself, and FEAR. By the end of the day, you will be thoroughly acquainted with both of us.” Immanuel Kant introduces himself in a similarly grandiose manner, only to add that he felt boasting was necessary “to fulfill the prerequisite grandstanding.”

For a game developed by philosophy students and Ace Attorney fans, Socrates Jones is remarkably well-crafted. The game even innovates upon its source material by adding a more robust system for questioning statements. In Ace Attorney, the player can question each statement in a testimony. Socrates Jones takes the system several steps farther by allowing players to ask three questions: Would you clarify your statement? Can you back up this statement? How is this statement related to your argument? By asking the right questions, Socrates trims away the flaws and irrelevancies of his opponents’ arguments.

This game is more than just a game—it’s the Sophie’s World of video games, a set of philosophy lessons wrapped in the appealing package of a good story. Socrates Jones does a pretty good job of setting up the arguments of historical philosophers, and then poking holes in them.

Speaking of poking holes in things….

The Value of the Imperfect

Toward the end of the game, Socrates makes a point that even flawed things can be good. “Things do not have to be ‘perfect’ to add value to the world,” he insists, and he’s absolutely right—fortunately for him. Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher has two kind of problems. It’s imperfect as a game, and it’s also incomplete as a philosophy lesson.

The game’s faults aren’t severe—in fact, they’re the exact faults of the Ace Attorney series. Deconstructing a statement can be a matter of trial and error; the “right” questions and “correct” rebuttals, as decided by the game’s developers, may be counterintuitive to the player’s way of thinking.

Socrates Jones is a philosophy lesson, not just a game. The game’s arguments aren’t bad, but they have one unavoidable problem: they are scripted. The player is on rails, able to ask only preselected questions and reach predestined conclusions. Socrates Jones excels as brief exploration of moral philosophy, but it’s no substitute for a real discussion.

Short, Sweet, Funny Philosophy

Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher is a short, fun foray into moral philosophy. It isn’t perfect as either a game or a philosophy lesson, yet succeeds in being both entertaining and educational.

Anyone interested in philosophy, the Ace Attorney series, or an enjoyable exercise in critical thinking should take two or three hours to play through the game. After all, Socrates Jones and his daughter are philosophizing for their lives, and they could use a little help!

Thanks for reading! If you have a moment, please check out TMTF’s charity fundraisers this month and make this Christmas awesome for a person in need!

325. TMTF Reviews: The Book of the Dun Cow

It sure has been a while since TMTF reviewed a book, hasn’t it? I blame Les Misérables. That novel is roughly the size of Alaska.

Some time ago, I set aside Les Misérables in order to read some books on loan from friends and relatives. (I’ll finish and review Les Mis eventually.) One of these borrowed works is The Book of the Dun Cow. This fantasy novel chronicles an ancient war against Wyrm, a colossal beast imprisoned beneath the earth. All that stands in the way of this unspeakable evil is… a pack of farm animals.

Was it worth putting down the story of Jean Valjean for the tale of some barnyard animals, or should I have continued Lez Mizzy and let the creatures of The Book of the Dun Cow fend for themselves?

The Book of the Dun Cow

Despite a slow start, Walter Wangerin, Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow is an engaging, original, and surprisingly thoughtful fantasy.

TMTF Reviews - The Book of the Dun Cow

Ordinary, Extraordinary Heroes

When the world was new, God imprisoned Wyrm, a creature of absolute evil and unimaginable size, deep inside the earth. God’s creatures, oblivious to the peril beneath their feet, live their precious little lives in peace… until Wyrm begins to break free. As his land is threatened by horrors he can’t understand, Chaunticleer the Rooster prepares his fellow animals for battle. There is only one gleam of hope: the mysterious and angelic Dun Cow.

The Book of the Dun Cow is quite an original work, though some of its elements are familiar. I saw a lot of Aesop’s Fables and a bit of The Chronicles of Narnia in this tale of animals struggling against an ancient evil.

One of the most striking things about the book is its avoidance of the sword-and-sorcery clichés common in fantasy. There are no swords, wizards, princesses, prophecies, or any of the other tired trappings of fantasy fiction. Like Watership Down, which spins an epic around ordinary rabbitsThe Book of the Dun Cow tells its story without depending on flashy fantasy tropes. It’s an extraordinary tale of ordinary creatures.

The novel does three things outstandingly well.

First, its characters are simple yet memorable. The author has a Dickensian gift for creating characters that are more like caricatures. Individually, they would quickly become tiresome. All together, alongside a few well-developed protagonists, they make for a colorful cast. The names chosen for characters are inspired—John Wesley Weasel, for example.

The second thing at which The Book of the Dun Cow excels is building up a sense of dread and unrelenting tension. This is not a story in which the heroes are guaranteed to win. Heck, its heroes are farm animals. Their struggle is desperate. Every battle brings tragedy and the risk of failure… and failure means unleashing an unstoppable evil upon the universe.

This brings us to the third thing: the novel has an unexpected theological bent. It doesn’t preach or moralize. It merely depicts the harsh reality of a world in which God seems absent, and the roundabout ways he works his will. (I would add this book to my list of novels that contemplate the silence of God.) This is a book echoing Job and Ecclesiastes, a novel that seems to cry out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Book of the Dun Cow isn’t just a fantasy. In its own understated, roundabout way, it’s a meditation upon the inscrutable workings of God.

Slow and Steady Wins Races, Not Novels

The style of The Book of the Dun Cow is excellent, wasting no words yet conveying vivid impressions. The dialogue is particularly enjoyable. Many of the animals have their unique habits and mannerisms. John Wesley Weasel, bless him, butchers proper grammar. Lord Russel Fox rambles with self-conscious verbosity, the Turkeys gobble with nonsensical extra syllables, and the Dog loses himself in such bitter self-reproach that it’s hard for other characters to get a few plain words out of him.

My chief complaint about the novel is that it takes a long time to get going. As much as I appreciate a slow, steady approach to telling a story, The Book of the Dun Cow hardly begins moving until nearly halfway through. The excitement of the second half is belied by chapters and chapters of meticulous and largely unnecessary buildup in the first. A few early chapters foreshadow the sinister events of later ones, but most of the novel’s first half is forgettable.

The Review of the Done Book

In the end, although it takes a long time to set the stage, The Book of the Dun Cow tells an exciting, original, and oddly contemplative story. After spending so much time in Les Misérables, I felt satisfied to finish a book for a change.

Now that I’ve finished The Book of the Dun Cow, I have just half a dozen or so more books to read before picking up Less Misery where I left off. This is going to take a while.

Thanks for reading! If you have a moment, please check out TMTF’s charity fundraisers this month and make this Christmas awesome for a person in need!

Shotgun Shrimp

I’ve heard of pistol shrimp, but this is ridiculous—and by ridiculous, I mean awesome. What better way is there to prepare fried shrimp than shooting it out of a cannon? That’s right: there is none. The shrimp shotgun wins.

This culinary triumph is part of a Japanese ad for high-speed Internet service or some such, but the specifics hardly matter. What matters is that shrimp is cooked with kitchen artillery, large machinery, and billowing flames.

(Yes, I know the video above was staged. Don’t ruin the moment.)

324. I Want to Hug These Games

I don’t care much for hugs.

Well, I suppose some hugs aren’t so bad. I give my younger brother awkward sibling hugs all the time. For the most part, though, I’m about as easy to hug as a cactus. Hugs are a little too close and personal for me; I much prefer an affable fist bump.

However, I keep bumping into video games that are madly original and gloriously unique, and I want to hug them.

As much as I enjoy video games, I’m disappointed to see so many of them fall into the same clichéd categories. There are Games about Cars, Games with Guns, Games about Sports, Games with Swords and Magic, and games to fit nearly every other exhausted genre. The same problem is found in other media, from books to movies to music. New titles are hardly distinguishable from old ones; there is nothing new under the sun.

It’s important for me to make clear that genres aren’t necessarily bad. In fact, some of the best games I’ve ever played (including most of my favorites) fall into the broad categories mentioned above. All the same, I appreciate game developers who boldly go where no one has gone before, bringing color and creativity to a tired industry.

There are thousands of games about guns, zombies, cars, sports, or princesses in need of rescuing… and then there are a few odd, endearing games like Octodad.

I seldom borrow from other sources when writing for this blog, but nothing does Octodad justice like this understated description from its Wikipedia page: “The game consists of controlling the protagonist Octodad in completing chores typical of the mundane suburban father, but complicated by the fact that he is an octopus in disguise.”

Octodad, wryly subtitled Dadliest Catch, is the whimsical tale of a loving husband and father who happens to be an octopus pretending to be a human being. The fact that “nobody suspects a thing” when Octodad is clearly an octopus only makes the game that much funnier.

Shovel Knight is another title that caught my attention. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a game about a knight with a shovel.

Shovel Knight

I’m really digging this game. (Pun intended. I’m so, so sorry.)

Well, to be more precise, Shovel Knight is a retro-styled adventure game, in the tradition of Mega Man and Metroid, starring a warrior whose weapon of choice is a shovel. The knight valiantly swings, hacks, bounces, and yes, digs his way to victory. Swords? Bah! Who needs swords?

Then there’s Five Nights at Freddy’s and its sequel. These are horror titles, but they lack ghosts, zombies, demons, aliens, or any of the other monsters you’d expect from a scary game. No, these games have those animatronics from arcades and restaurants—you know, the ones designed to entertain defenseless little kids.

In these games, which I’m too nervous to play, the player assumes the role of a night watchman at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza: a restaurant for kids and obvious nod to Chuck E. Cheese’s. The hapless watchman remains in his office, checking security cameras and monitoring the restaurant’s malfunctioning robotic mascots in order to avoid being murdered by them. The game looks terrifying.

I haven’t actually played any of these titles. To tell the truth, I don’t seem to have much time anymore for games what with work, household chores, and sundry commitments. (This blog won’t write itself!) It still delights me to see creative people defying conventions and making awesome, offbeat video games.

In conclusion, the game industry needs fewer guys with cars or guns, and more guys who are secretly octopuses.

Thanks for reading! If you have a moment, please check out TMTF’s charity fundraisers this month and make this Christmas awesome for a person in need!

Three Minutes of Charm

The animation above, produced by Mechanical Apple and presented by Disney, is basically three minutes of heartwarming charm. Like many of my favorite short animations, Motorbike doesn’t need words to tell its story, just soft music and softer colors.

The first time I watched the video, I was struck by its similarity to the delightful Professor Layton games: the music, pastel colors, and especially the comic-strip character designs seem familiar. My impression of the video the second time around was that reminds me strongly of Kiki’s Delivery Service and Studio Ghibli’s other films.

Either way, Motorbike is ridiculously charming.

I encourage you, dear reader, to set aside the woes, worries, trials, troubles, and problems of your life for three minutes, and spend those minutes on a motorbike in the sunshine.

323. TMTF Charity Fundraisers!

It’s official: Typewriter Monkey Task Force is raising money to provide clean water for people in impoverished areas and video games for kids in hospitals!

You probably have some questions. Let’s take them one at a time.

Why is TMTF holding fundraisers?

We’re raising support for two charity projects.

Charity logos

TMTF is supporting Living Water International in its efforts to provide clean water for people everywhere. We have two reasons for choosing a clean water project. First, clean water saves lives. Second, clean water is necessary for preparing coffee. As we enter the Christmas season, we want to make the world a better (and wetter) place by providing clean water (and hot coffee) for people in need!

We’re also raising money for Child’s Play to give video games, toys, and other goodies to kids in hospitals. Staying in a hospital isn’t much fun. We want to help change that.

Wait. Why is TMTF supporting two separate projects?

Living Water International is a Christian organization, and not all of this blog’s readers are Christians. We want to respect our readers by providing more than one opportunity to bless others this Christmas.

If I donate to one of these fundraisers, do I receive any benefits?

You sure do! We’ve created a Kickstarter-style set of rewards for donors. Check it out below!

Give $1 or more: Droplet Tier! / Pixel Tier!

Receive a public thank-you on this blog, and bask in the satisfaction of making the world a better place!

Give $5 or more: Trickle Tier! / 8-bit Tier!

Receive a personalized thank-you message, sent to the email address of your choice! All previous rewards are included.

Give $10 or more: Splash Tier! / Sprite Tier!

Receive a personalized thank-you card, sent to the mailing address of your choice! All previous rewards are included.

Give $20 or more: Wave Tier! / 16-bit Tier!

Receive a brief video in which I thank you personally! The video will be sent as an email attachment to the email address of your choice. All previous rewards are included.

Give $30 or more: Cascade Tier! / Polygon Tier!

Receive an original blog post, or an original poem, on any subject you choose! (Full disclosure: I am a mediocre poet.) You may feature this blog post or poem anywhere (or nowhere) on the Internet. (I retain the right to reject any subjects I deem inappropriate or unsuitable.) All previous rewards are included.

Give $50 or more: Tsunami Tier! / HD Tier!

Receive an original short story written to your personal specifications! You choose anything and everything: characters, setting, theme, plot, etc. You may feature this story anywhere (or nowhere) on the Internet. (I retain the right to reject any subjects I deem inappropriate or unsuitable.) All previous rewards are included.

I can’t guarantee the donation pages will track donor information, so send me a message via this blog’s Contact page after donating to make sure you get your rewards!

I guess that’s not such a bad deal. If I donate, when can I expect to receive my rewards?

You’ll get them as soon as I can get them to you. I’m afraid I can’t give any estimated dates.

Will TMTF somehow get money out of these fundraisers?

Nope, we shan’t receive a penny.

Do your fundraisers have a definitive goal?

Yes. The Living Water International fundraiser has a $300 goal, and the Child’s Play fundraiser has a $100 goal. These goals can absolutely be surpassed, and I hope we can work together to raise far more for these charities!

How long will these fundraisers last?

The Child’s Play fundraiser will be active for one month: December 2014. I had much less flexibility in planning the duration of the Living Water International fundraiser; it will stretch about three months, until the end of February 2015.

Why are you holding a fundraiser in the first place?

It started with the Advent Conspiracy. TMTF has highlighted this awesome initiative every December since the blog began.

Advent ConspiracyWe wanted to do more this year, so we polled readers a few weeks ago about the possibility of a fundraiser. Only a dozen people voted, but the response was positive enough that we decided to give this fundraising thing a try.

How can I support one or both of these fundraisers?

TMTF now has buttons (or widgets if you want to be technical) on the right-hand side of the homepage that will take you to specialized donation pages for these fundraisers. The Living Water International donation page can also be found here, and the Child’s Play page here.

Please consider giving clean water or video games this month, and spread the word! Happy Christmas!

322. Adam Turns into the Hulk and Rants about Black Friday

Caution: This blog post contains furious ranting. Sensitive readers, and readers averse to things being smashed, are advised not to continue.

It’s that time of year again. Today is the day I stay inside, bolt the door, drink tea, and reflect upon the injustices of the world. Of all these, one of the greatest is that Black Friday, America’s annual celebration of consumerism, takes place on the day after Thanksgiving.

Look, Black Friday has every right to exist. I may not like the event, but I don’t think it’s inherently bad. Black Friday is a great opportunity for businesses to make money, and an equally great opportunity for consumers to buy things cheaply. Everybody wins. There are few problems, except for the fact that Black Friday now eclipses the one day we set apart for being thankful.

Black Friday’s timing is the worst kind of irony. It’s infuriating. The whole thing… I mean… it’s so frustrating… it makes my stomach hurt…

BLOG SMASH!

HULK TIME! CAPS LOCK ACTIVATED!

BLACK FRIDAY HAS WORST TIMING OF ANY EVENT IN UNIVERSE. HULK WOULD SMASH BLACK FRIDAY, BUT CRAZED SHOPPERS ALREADY CAUSE ENOUGH DAMAGE.

HULK ADMIT BLACK FRIDAY ITSELF IS NOT BAD. EVEN ITS TIMING AFTER THANKSGIVING MAKE SENSE—PEOPLE HAVE DAYS OFF FOR HOLIDAY AND CAN SHOP FREELY. DAY AFTER THANKSGIVING IS ALSO START OF CHRISTMAS SHOPPING SEASON AND CONVENIENT DAY FOR BUYING THINGS.

DAY AFTER THANKSGIVING IS ALSO STUPID DAY FOR BUYING THINGS.

THANKSGIVING IS ONE DAY OF YEAR WE SET ASIDE TO BE THANKFUL. THANKSGIVING IS NOW OVERSHADOWED BY CRAZY CONSUMERISM. BEAUTIFUL HOLIDAY IS NOW CLUTTERED WITH AGGRESSIVE ADS FROM BUSINESSES TO BUY MORE AND SPEND MONEY AND GET STUFF. MESSAGE OF NOVEMBER MONTH IS NO LONGER “Relax, rejoice, and be thankful” BUT “You can buy a TV for 70% off at Wal-Mart—OMG, guys! Go buy it! Buy it now!”

THANKSGIVING IS NO LONGER QUIET DAY TO EAT AND BE THANKFUL AND SPEND TIME WITH FAMILY. THANKSGIVING IS NOW DAY OF PREPARATION FOR BLACK FRIDAY.

SOME STORES NOW EVEN OPEN ON THANKSGIVING DAY! HULK ASK AMERICA: IS NO THING SACRED?! YOU NOT SATISFIED TO ECLIPSE THANKSGIVING? YOU MUST STIR UP GREED AND FRENZY ON THANKSGIVING DAY ITSELF?!

BLACK FRIDAY IS DAY OF CHAOS AND VIOLENCE. PEOPLE GET ANGRY. PEOPLE GET HURT. PEOPLE HAVE DIED. HULK USUALLY MAKE POINT BY SMASHING THINGS, BUT SHOPPERS TODAY BEAT HULK AT HULK’S OWN GAME.

THIS DAY OF GREED, SELFISHNESS, VIOLENCE, STRESS, AND NOISE CASTS SHADOW OVER THANKSGIVING: DAY OF PEACE, REST, JOY, FEASTING, AND FUN. BLACK FRIDAY COULD BE ANY DAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY.

HULK ASK AMERICA: WHY CHOOSE DAY AFTER THANKSGIVING FOR SHOPPING DAY? WHY DISTRACT FROM PEACE AND THANKFULNESS WITH WORRY AND GREED? WHY? WHY?!

HULK NOT UNDERSTAND. HULK NEVER UNDERSTAND.

HULK BEG PEOPLE EVERYWHERE. PLEASE. HONOR THANKSGIVING. REST. EAT. BE THANKFUL. AND IF YOU SHOP ON BLACK FRIDAY: BE KIND AND RESPONSIBLE.

HULK OUT!

Whoa, that was disorienting. Did I turn into the Hulk again? I blame the mutagenic effects of my wireless Internet connection—it may not be as dangerous as gamma radiation, but it sure does the trick. I suppose violent, unpredictable mutations are a cross we bloggers must bear. Well, I had better go put on a shirt.

The Not-a-Game Argument

I’m no expert on logical fallacies, but that doesn’t stop me from being annoyed by them. The Not-a-Game Argument is one of the worst. (I’m sure it has a proper name, but I haven’t bothered checking.)

Nintendo recently added some indie games to its online store. One of them, Gone Home, is an interactive story in which the player pieces together a narrative by wandering around a mansion and examining things. There are no bad guys to fight and no obstacles to overcome. It’s not a particularly video game-y video game.

The gaming community is not the friendliest, and some gamers have apparently been outraged by Gone Home. How dare its developers call it a game! It’s just a simulation, a story told passively, an affront to the artistic integrity of video games—including, I suppose, all the sophisticated and highly artistic games dedicated to shooting stuff.

Is Gone Home a video game? I’m not sure it matters. The problem with the Not-a-Game Argument is that it sidesteps the real questions. Is Gone Home good or bad? Is it art? Does it tell a good story? The Not-a-Game Argument refuses to ask these questions. It says, “I don’t like Gone Home, therefore it’s not a game and doesn’t have to be taken seriously. All arguments in its favor are invalidated, and can be ignored, because it doesn’t fit my personal specifications for a video game.”

The Not-a-Game Argument can be applied to anything. I can tell a Twilight fan, “I think the Twilight books are rubbish. Because you like them, your literary opinions must all be wrong.” I can tell an atheist, “I believe your worldview is incorrect, therefore I can ignore all of your views.” The Not-a-Game Argument is just a flimsy excuse for dismissing opinions we dislike.

Whether or not Gone Home is really a game, it’s worth taking seriously. Atheism, the Twilight books, and nearly everything else deserve consideration regardless of whether we end up agreeing with them. Not every conclusion is right, but every argument deserves to be heard.

In other news, Leo in the video above has perhaps the most soothing voice I’ve ever heard. It’s the polar opposite to Gilbert Gottfried’s harsh, grating tone. Gilbert and Leo should get together sometime and read poetry aloud.