Sunday, June 26, 2011

First morning in Dublin.

I arrived in Dublin at 7:30 a.m. on a Monday morning. I'd just flown overnight from San Francisco to Boston, and then Boston to Dublin. The Boston-Dublin flight was on the Irish airline, Aer Lingus, where the flight attendants wear green and the beer is not Guinness but Coors and Budweiser and Heineken. A sorry disappointment.

The cab ride from the Dublin Airport to the city itself is a relatively short one--about 20 minutes, max--but it was a 20 minutes well spent on my part, as I discovered the general talkativeness and gregariousness of what seemed like every Irish cabbie I had all week. This guy, in particular, was a trial by fire, because his accent was as thick as mud. It was the thickest, in fact, that I heard all week, though I of course didn't know that at the time. All I knew was that I had to strain forward to try to comprehend and keep up. (I also didn't realize, until I was sitting in his cab, that they drive on the left, with the steering wheels on the right, just like in England. Didn't they have a revolution to separate themselves from the Brits?)

This was also the first time I was to hear the same amusing spiel I'd hear in every cab all week. Both Obama and the Queen had recently visited Dublin, and while both were very well received, Obama won the popularity contest by a landslide for one very particular reason: While the Queen had posed for photos in front of a pint of Guinness, she never even took a sip (apparently a standard custom for royalty), while Obama, man's man that he is, downed the whole damn pint.

I probably heard this story a good six or seven times, and, honestly, it never got old. Not because I liked hearing our president getting praised (though after 8 nightmare years of Bush, it was quite a novelty to hear the praise from an EU country), but because of the pride that these gentlemen had in their national drink, and the significance it held to them in having world leaders approach the drink.

My first Guinness in Dublin was to come less than an hour later, though I didn't know it yet. We arrived just before 8 a.m. at the Clarence Hotel, which is located right along the River Liffey at Wellington Quay, pretty much right in the heart of the Temple Bar district, magnet for all drunken, rowdy foreigners, as I would later discover. The Clarence is owned by Mssrs. Bono and The Edge, but you'd never really know it had that kind of rock star cred from the outside, as it has a remarkably unassuming (but nice) exterior, and a rather quaint boutique feel inside. At the reception desk, I was told what I was dreading: That my room wouldn't be ready for hours, given that it was so early. Despite having the adrenaline that comes with being in a foreign city for the first time, the larger truth was that I was tired as shit. Approaching the age of 50, these 15 hour trips just aren't as easy to shake off as they used to be. I needed sleep. It wasn't the hotel's fault, of course, and I was shown into the adjoining "Tea Room," where I crashed into a large armchair, ordered coffee, and waited for the arrival of my co-worker Keith, who I knew was just about 15 minutes behind me.

Once he arrived, looking equally bedraggled, and with about 3-4 hours to kill, we knew the only real solution was to just get out walking. It helped that it was already sunny and beautiful out. We wobbled out of the hotel with no plan. I had a street map, but we didn't use it, instead just going wherever things looked interesting. After a short while, we ended up at about the best place I could imagine: Hodges Figgis, a great Irish bookstore. I beelined to the section dedicated to Irish writers, and found what I was hoping to find--a bunch of books by Irish noir writer Ken Bruen, who I'd been hearing about but had been unable to find in the US (well, Amazon carries him, but I was trying to buy at local bookstores). Not only did Hodges Figgis have some of his novels, but, in a stroke of luck, he had appeared there recently, so the books were autographed. I picked up two--The Guards and The Killing of the Tinkers, though honestly I could have spent a ton more in that store (and did a few days later).

By 10:00 a.m. Keith and I were even more tired and now famished. We needed to eat. We went out searching for food, but were really too tired to make a coherent decision. Some nice person had tweeted to me a recommendation for a place to eat, but I couldn't find it on the map or in our wandering. Ultimately, we just decided to head into the first pub that looked good, figuring we could get some filling Irish food, and, of course, that first drink. But, it was to our sad fate (well, not really) that the pub we landed in served no food at all. That did not deter us from leaving. I don't think I've ever had a drink before noon, but, ya know, we were in Dublin now. And, besides, if we considered that we were still on Pacific Time, it was 2:00 a.m., a totally legitimate time to be drinking. So a pint each it was for us. And then another one after that.

That first Guinness, Monday a.m. in Dublin.

Now, people who know me know what a total lightweight I am even in the best of conditions. Two pints is really about all I can handle even on a full stomach and a good night's sleep. So it is not much of an exaggeration to say that by the time I finished the second one shortly after 11 a.m., I was hammered. Here was the first sign: As I staggered off the bar stool and out the door, the bartender called to me, because I was about to wander off with my passport lying on the floor. I thanked him, and we made our way back to the Clarence. Keith's room was ready by this point, so he went up to settle and crash, while it was back to the Tea Room for me, where I ordered another coffee just to mess with my confused nervous system even more.

Shortly thereafter, my room was ready and I went upstairs. I'm sorry to report, however, that I don't remember much of what happened at this juncture in time. I do know that I somehow managed to land in bed, because I woke up there a few hours later, totally confused as to where I was and what day it was.

I stumbled out of bed, still fully dressed, and made my way to the bathroom.

I looked in the mirror, at my baggy eyes and jowled face and tousled hair.

I made to turn on the water faucet to wash my face off, but as I looked down, saw something that at first totally confused me, then horrified me, and then made me laugh. There, in the sink, floating in water, was my autographed copy of Ken Bruen's The Guards, now about 4 inches thicker than it was when I bought it.

I still have no idea how my book ended up in the sink. Maybe I thought it was a good idea to wash it. Maybe my drunken self thought it needed a bath. It remains a mystery.

From here, a bit bummed and chagrined, I took a long, hot shower, shaved, changed my clothes, and got ready to meet up to go to PopCap's Dublin office. I unpacked my things and got my things together to take with me, only to discover that I had somehow managed to lose my California driver's license. I remembered the bartender handing me back my passport. My shame and chagrin was now doubled.

I'd been in Dublin for all of 3 hours. In that time I'd managed to get drunk, destroy an autographed book, and lose my ID.

I was off to a brilliant start.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

More on The Wise Man's Fear and Other Pop Culture Detritus.

Happy Sunday!

It has been the best kind of Sunday for yours truly--that is, absolutely no plans whatsoever. With all sorts of travel behind me, and another trip out of the country in a week, I seriously needed a day of downtime, and today I got it.

The best part of my day--or maybe the worst--was finally finishing up Patrick Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear. If you read my previous blog entry on this book, and if you cared, you will note that I was supremely disappointed in this followup to one of the great fantasy novels of the best decade or so--The Name of The Wind. I was holding out hope, against all reason, that the last bit of the book would somehow redeem the mess that is the first 2/3. But, nah. No surprise really. This book was just all over the map plotwise, with just atrocious pacing throughout, so even though some individual parts were okay, thanks to Rothfuss' lovely prose and good ear, my overall impression is the same as it was about 800 pages ago: this book needed a serious edit. Ugh.

In happier news today, I plowed through a humongous chunk of Uncharted 2 today on my new PS3. It took me five years to finally get my act together and buy the console, partly because of money (like everyone else), and partly because I felt like my 360 was enough and I don't play that much of that console anyway. What tipped me over the edge was receiving the email from Sony that I was entitled to the two free "welcome back" games on PSN, following their security debacle, thanks to my foresight in registering the one PSP game I've bought in the last five years, Tactics Ogre. Those free games, plus the fact that I knew I had $300 in credit sitting on my card at GameStop, finally pushed me over the edge. And, ya know what? I'm glad. I'm totally digging it.

I have four PS3 games in my possession now: Infamous and Little Big Planet from the "welcome back" deal, Uncharted 2, and Demon's Souls. Uncharted 2 I picked up at the store with the machine, based on remembering everyone and their mom and their mom's mom telling me this was the best game of 2009, back when I didn't give a shit cuz I didn't have the console. And, yeah. It's awesome. What's particularly satisfying to me is the dialog--something I was not prepared for.

Since I'm so utterly LTTP on this, there's no real point in me blabbering on about it, but I'll just say that it's a rare videogame indeed that actually manages to pull of witty, adult banter that isn't just cheesy or groan-inducing or a pale imitation of the sources its mimicking. Clearly we're in Indiana Jones turf here--obviously--but somehow Naughty Dog is able to give Nathan Drake and his pals (and enemies) personalities, and lines to say, that totally hold their own. And if the story isn't particularly original, I still--amazingly--feel emotionally invested in the characters' plight. Gameplay-wise (and I believe I have at most 2 chapters to go), I've loved the variety of the level design (the train was my favorite), and the difficulty (I'm playing on Normal) is just right for me, though I imagine lots of hardcore folks find it too easy. My only complaint? A bit too much shooting, especially near the end here. I'm all for shooters. It's not that. It's just that I like the adventurey/platformy stuff in games like this more. Some of the firefights here just feel a bit too gratuitous, and long. And I seriously could have done without the sniper level (or any sniper level in any game ever again.) Overall, though, I'm loving it. And had I played it at the time, chances are it would have been at the top of my list in 2009 too. Now I just have to go back and play the first one.

More quick pop culture hits:

The Killing on AMC: Still totally hooked on this, as is the wife, but it ain't perfect. For one, there's the issue of the rain. Seriously, it doesn't even rain this much in the fucking rainforest. There isn't this much water in the ocean. We get that it's in Seattle, okay? And we get that you must have read somewhere that it rains in Seattle. But the constant heavy downpour in practically every scene has now moved from distracting to ridiculous. Oh yeah, and, err, it might help to advance the plot a bit now and then, and not devote weeks to plot points that end up being total red herrings. (And also, I can't tell if the Twin Peaks references are deliberate and loving homage, or just straight ripoff. At least they didn't call the casino Two-Eyed Jacks.) But credit the writers, and my love of a good whodunnit, for still tuning in every damn week.

Oz on HBO GO - I've already seen this entire series. And there's other series on HBO that I could/should be watching instead. But there's something about Oz that's compelling me to do a second run-through, and I don't think it's all the male nudity. At least that's what I'll keep telling myself. Mostly I'm loving seeing all the actors who would then go on to The Wire. So many more than I originally thought! Still, I wish I could just get myself to stop watching it already, since I know what happens, and finally get on to Deadwood.

Comic Books: Yeah, I'm back in. Only digitally though. And I'm taking it easy so far. Based on recommendations from Twitterites, I've now gotten myself into Chew, Atomic Robo, Criminal, Invincible, and Morning Glories. All great stuff. I'm totally going to stay away from the Marvel/DC superheroes though, especially with DC's reboot looming. I've lived long enough to see this kind of reboot more than once, and ya thanks. In fact, let's get Hitler to weigh in on this matter, since he says it best:

That's it for today. Not a particularly funny or witty or insightful post, but, hey, maybe none of them are! This was more a Sunday afternoon brain dump, in front of the NBA Finals. And if you made it this far, and have a PS3, and feel like being my pal on PSN, go ahead and add me: JeffAtPopCap. I'm reluctant to send that out to 17,000 people on Twitter, but since only a fraction ever look at this page, and only a fraction of that will make it to this paragraph, why, consider yourself "lucky!"


Sunday, June 5, 2011

On not attending E3 for the first time since 1996

When I attended my first E3 convention, as a writer/editor for Computer Gaming World magazine in 1996, there was no Web yet. No Kotaku, Joystiq, IGN, GameSpot. No fansites. No liveblogging. No Twitter. There wasn't even a TV presence yet, because, at that point, the mainstream media still didn't really give much of a shit about videogaming. So when it came to the press, the print magazines--the "hobbyist" magazines-- were it.

Walking through the LA Convention Center that first year with Editor-in-Chief Johnny Wilson is still one of my most indelible memories of all 15 E3s I have been to (I missed only the very first one, in 1995). That was as close to an "Omar comin!" moment as I've ever witnessed, as the arrival of Johnny to your E3 booth meant that the King had arrived. I'm barely exaggerating. With the press (and gaming in general) being such a relatively small world at the time, Johnny's blessing, in the PC gaming scene, was about as high a stamp of approval as you could get.

In those days, the pressure for the writers and editors at this show was not nearly what it is for the poor saps covering it today, when even a blog post is now "late," what with everyone livetweeting everything. For us, we just had to make sure to take good enough notes to be able to write our articles for the print magazine when we got back to San Francisco. We still had deadlines, of course, and often they were brutal around E3 (we'd have the whole magazine basically ready to go before the show, and then have to come back and hurriedly write the E3 feature in time to make the printer deadline), but still, compared to today, it was luxurious.

My head is entirely full of E3 today, not just because the show starts tomorrow and almost my entire Twitter feed is full of pre-show chatter, but also because this is going to mark the first time in 15 years that I am not attending, and I'm finding myself to be full of conflicting emotions about it. When you attend something so many years in a row, it becomes part of your life. For me (and most of the folks I know who attend), it ends up being less about whatever may be happening at the show than something of a gigantic reunion, a ritual we all go through together. And within that ritual, our group had its own rituals: the Ziff Davis party at the Figueroa, the Morton's steak dinner, cigars by the Figueroa pool, and, for me personally, my annual breakfast with my dad at the Patio restaurant.

I had the option to go this year. So it wasn't a matter of not being able to go. But my reality, this year, is this: I'm on the road all the time now. I just got back from China, then spent a few weeks in my "regular" PopCap routine of back-and forth to Seattle, and in two weeks I'm flying off to Dublin for 6 days. That's a lot of being away from home, and my family. And this week, this E3 week, is my daughter's finals week. And when I arrived back home from Seattle after my last trip up, she said, as clear and direct as she always is, "Dad, please be home for my finals week." So, ya see, right then and there it was decided. Nothing trumps that. Nothing.

I do have a fair bit of jealousy and of feeling "left out," if I'm being honest. But the truth is, too, that since I left the press in 2008, the show itself isn't the same for me anyway. When it comes to actually seeing things at the show, nothing beats a press pass. And the previous two years, when I attended on behalf of EA, while still awesome from a socializing aspect, were brutal in terms of trying to actually see the stuff (like the Nintendo 3DS) that people were raving about. Suddenly I was waiting in all those lines I'd been able to cut in front of for over a decade--and man did that suck. Now that I'm at PopCap, my "need" to be at this show is even less crucial, at least right now, this year, as what we do isn't necessarily the best fit for a show of this scale. (PAX is much more are speed--and yes I'll be there.) And finally, in regards to my PopCap job itself, I love it, and the things I'll be doing during this E3 week, and then in Dublin, are thoroughly satisfying to me, and really just what my life is about right now. So, I'm trying to be philosophical about it, be happy for my very, very lucky place in life, and know that I will be back to E3 again when it makes more sense and the timing works better.

I could probably write a book (or at least an extremely long blog post) on my E3 experiences, but here are a few random memories from year's past, before I get on with my day:

1997 in Atlanta: Absolutely sweltering, unbearable heat that had all of us even sweatier and smellier and grosser than we already normally were. Having one of the CGW editors say he was taking us to the "best wings place in Atlanta," only to realize, as we approached it, that he was talking about Hooters. Seeing the Foo Fighters at the Sony party on an outdoor rooftop.

1998: Seeing Duke Nukem Forever for the first time. LOL.

1999: Seeing Team Fortress 2 and thinking it was going to be the greatest PC game of all time.

The original look of Team Fortress 2, circa E3 1999

2000: Having the CGW editors literally running up to me telling me I had to go see the new, secret, behind-closed-doors PC game that Bungie was working on: Halo.

2001: Seeing how hard Microsoft was pimping the Xbox and realizing, even back then, that they were going to bail on PC gaming (even if they'll never admit it).

2002-2006 (Exact dates lost to the vagaries of time and memory): One of my then brand-new editors ordering a double Porterhouse for $80 at the annual Morton's dinner and eating the whole thing by himself. Smoking cigars with Bioware's Dr Ray and Greg by the Figueroa pool. Trying to get into every "hot" E3 party at night, and, when succeeding, staying for about 20 minutes because the parties were always too crowded and lame, and it was much nicer and fun and relaxing and satisfying by the Figueroa pool. Getting annoyed with the increasingly bigger crowds at the show, and the TV cameras, and the websites and "bloggers" invading "our" space.

2007: Getting what we wished for by having the oversized, overcrowded convention reduced to a tiny "business summit" in Santa Monica, and then instantly realizing it was a huge mistake as it felt too tiny and marginal and depressing, like a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman convention. We "needed" the giant party that was E3 as much as a celebration of self and gorilla chestbeating than for actual, logical work business reasons.

2009: Attending E3 for the first time ever not as part of the media, but as a representative for the Sims team at EA, and discovering that the only thing harder than rushing from one appointment to another as a member of the press and frantically trying to write everything as fast as possible, was standing in one spot all day long demoing the same shitty-ass Wii game that no one gives a crap about over and over and over until I wanted to shoot myself.

So, yeah. There are more of those. I'll get to 'em someday. Meanwhile, I have a lot to do this week in my current job, but I will, of course be monitoring Twitter and the websites and even the TV to see all the fun stuff coming out of the show. I'll miss all my friends and colleagues. I'll miss the general insanity of the whole thing. And I'll miss breakfast with my dad.

But I'll be home, where I'm needed and where I want to be this week. So have a great show everyone. And don't forget, amidst all the "work," how lucky you all are to be there!