Archive for June, 2011

Happy Hour – June 25th

I’m back in the countryside this weekend, and probably will be for a couple weeks. Rabbit and his family are on vacation once again, and I will never pass up an opportunity to surround myself with green hills and starry night skies. This comes at a good time. I’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do next week, and I’m coming off a grueling week that ended on a disappointing note.

It doesn’t bear getting into, because freelancing is nothing if not high hopes, frustrating disappointments, and quick rebounds. This time I dealt with disappointment by getting a stack of new assignments, then drinking my way into the weekend with some good company. Now MK and I are out in the woods, a chicken is roasting in the oven, and I’m back to being excited about my work. The nice thing about where I am at in my career right now is that each setback occurs against a backdrop of steady work. A year ago, I’d miss out on a good gig and there might not be anything in the pipeline to distract me from that failure.

As for this weekend, it’s going to be full of FEAR 3 and the Age of Empires Online beta, both work-related. I’m also hoping to work in a couple board games with MK, perhaps some Hold the Line with our new house rules, or maybe something from Rabbit’s collection. I’m also reading through V for Vendetta this weekend, as part of my slow-going comics education. However, the Murdochs’ collection raises an important question for me: what are some good Terry Pratchett books to start with?

The Bruins – Canucks Series

It was great watching Boston battle back to win these Stanley Cup Finals after losing close games in Vancouver and enduring a lot of provocation from a Cancuks’ team prone to cheap-shotting and embellishing. But I have to admit, I’m stunned at the result. Watching the first two games, and having seen the Hawks – Canucks series in the first round, it seemed clear as crystal that the Canucks were a better, fitter team. Boston was very good, and goalie Tim Thomas could produce miracles in net, but it was telling to me that when the Canucks got control of the puck, there was almost no stopping them. The Canucks lost this series by abandoning the game that made them the best team in hockey.

Vancouver is a team with a ton offensive weapons, good skaters, and a pair of stingy goalies (although Luongo is prone to astonishing collapses). They racked up 3rd period and overtime wins against Boston because they had more staying power and could continue to play a fast, dynamic game long after Boston had worn themselves out by trying to keep up and pressure Roberto Luongo. When their top-scorers were out of the game, Vancouver’s fourth-line players could frustrated the Bruins by playing keep-away, and disrupting Boston’s attempts at getting an offensive attack set-up. Boston’s top lines would have to rest just as the Canucks sent their best players back out.  That was a winning formula.

Unfortunately, there was another side to the Canucks, what Trib columnist Steve Rosenbloom calls the “cheap and gutless Canucks.” The Canucks could skate around their opposition, but they repeatedly chose to mix it up. Raffi Torres would finish hard checks on near-defenseless players. Alex Burrows taunted and bit Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, and the officials didn’t see it and the league didn’t do anything about it. Aaron Rome crushed Nate Horton with a blind-side, open-ice hit well away from the play.

These were bad, needless provocations. They were opportunistic and retaliation was slow to come, but Vancouver was letting the series descend into a slugging match, and that is the last place they should have wanted to go against the Bruins. And they should have realized that officials tend to let hockey teams play the game of their choosing.

This is one of the things I find truly fascinating about hockey. It is a sport of negotiated violence, perhaps because there are so many gray areas, so much that can be left to interpretation. Some hits are obviously clean or illegal, but a lot of them could go either way. In general, the officials seem to exist to keep the game at a level both teams are comfortably playing at. Some teams get into fistfights and the officials will let them go at it, but other teams avoid brawling and officials generally respect their wishes, penalizing opponents who attempt to start something. Hitting seems to fit this mold as well. Officials seem to give hitting teams less leeway with their checks when they are going after a skating team that’s more interested in playing the puck than the body. Players know that rules enforcement does not exist in a vacuum, and that’s why they put so much effort into persuading officials to make calls. It’s all part of a continuing effort to define the boundaries of the acceptable for a given game. The process is even more elaborate within a series, where each game carries baggage from its predecessors.

So back to the Canucks, then. Torres, Burrows, and finally Rome gave away all the protection and sympathy the officials might have extended them and their teammates. Burrows never got any calls to go his way after biting Bergeron, and he made it worse by blatantly embellishing in an attempt to draw penalties. Rome’s hit basically cemented Vancouver’s reputation as series villains. Together, they had successfully painted a target on the backs of every one of their teammates. Officials, who had missed some important calls early in the series, decided to let Boston balance the accounts. By the start of Game Six, it was open season on the ice.

The Canucks were in a street-fight along the boards when what they really needed was room to skate and the confidence to take passes and play the puck. The Sedins had never had the impact on these playoffs that they were supposed to, but they completely checked-out of the series once it got too brutal. You could see, in game seven, Canucks turning as they approached the puck, expecting to get hit, rather than playing it. Quarter-second hesitations, players stopping short or slowing down… they were not the same team they’d been in Games One and Two. They were not playing their game, the one that left opponents winded and demoralized late in the game.

A few Canucks players changed the tone of the series, but despite Boston’s victory, I’m not sure I’m entirely happy. Game Six was a melee that saw one Canuck, Mason Raymond, taken out of the game fractured vertebrae. I don’t think the hit was dirty, and I certainly don’t think Boychuck added anything extra to his hit in an attempt to hurt Mason. It was an awkward play. But in hockey as in football, the sport will only get safer when players themselves start passing on opportunities to drop the hammer on one another. Officials play a part in that process by demonstrating they will protect players and punish excesses. In this series, the officials seemed to back away slowly and let the enforcers go to work. That’s how escalation happens, and that’s when people start getting carted off the ice. By not taking a firmer hand early in the series, NHL officials left every player more exposed to injury.

Happy Hour – June 10

Since before the Memorial Day Rabbitcon through today, I’ve been working at a fairly brisk pace. It’s gotten to the point that I actually need to go over my books and Friday and make sure I’m remembering all my invoices. It also means, as I have mentioned before, that it is harder to find things to say here. I write 5 columns a month, and most of what I play is either for review or 3MA, so there’s no need to opine here about any of that stuff.

God, what a boring person I seem to be becoming. “Sorry, guys, all I talk about is games, and I do that for other places.” My original frustration with a lot of games writing was that it was so rarely in dialogue with broader culture and history. Now I am gunning out reviews and columns while a stack of unread books and unwatched films piles up behind me.

Still, this is perhaps the wrong week to complain about this. I finished E.L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks and Susanne Collins The Hunger Games this week, and The Waterworks is nothing if not inspiring to a writer. I read the first and last dozen pages aloud, because the prose is so completely perfect and evocative. Not just of the time and place, but of the narrator’s character and the people who surround him.

And then I went out to the indie film multiplex a few blocks from my apartment to see a Woody Allen film in a theater for the first time, Midnight in Paris, and a few nights later had a near-religious experience with Steve Gaynor and Chris Remo when we went to see Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.

Actually, scratch that. I’ve had religious experiences. A few dawn Masses when what the Church had to say and what I needed to hear perfectly aligned, or just those days that make pagans of us all, when the perfection and glory of creation seems sufficient proof of God, and spending a day under the open sky seems like the truest act of worship.

Tree of Life wasn’t near-religious. By design, it is explicitly religious. Through the death of a child and the life of a family, Malick is addressing our relationship with Heavenly and earthly Fathers and Mothers. It was about as powerful a film as I have ever seen, the sort of film that lead to an unself-conscious conversation about what it is we are supposed to be doing with our lives and talents. What will make us proud in the twilight years to come.

I guess I had things to say, after all. Maybe the danger of neglecting this space is not that I abandon my audience or become boring, but that I stop believing my mind is engaged with anything other than the workaday tasks for which I spend my Fridays editing and invoicing. That games become all there is, because that’s all I’m bothering to process.

Anyway, I have hopes of this being a grand weekend. The Bruins play in just a moment. F1 is running at Montreal, one of my favorite tracks because it is so ridiculously fast with some truly devilish chicanes and turns that force drivers to the very edge of recklessness. Then there are the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which I will be trying to watch in between a number of podcast obligations. On top of all that, I will likely be playing The Darkness on my 360 and Pride of Nations on my PC.

Not to mention catching up on my reading. My pal J.P. Grant did a great profile for Kill Screen on Greg Kasavin, who is working on one of the very few upcoming games for which I am genuinely excited: Bastion. The few minutes I spent with it suggested that it might be one of the best-written games of the year, and John does a fine job of showing why Kasavin is just the sort of person to make such a game.

I also finished L.A. Noire and was finally able to start reading over the reviews, including Kirk Hamilton’s justly-praised Kill Screen piece. Kirk has an alternate-take on the game, and badly do I wish the game’s central conceit were as interesting and well-thought out. Team Bondi ultimately seemed to reach the same conclusion about Cole Phelps’ character, but the story is too slowly-developed, too literal to draw out Phelps’ real dilemma.