Archive for February 2009

Wandering Downtown Montreal

February 19, 2009

Much of my family lives in the city of Montreal, Quebec. And so I’ve visited the place a couple times and figure I’ll do a writeup on it as it’s an interesting city. One of the most interesting in the world actually, if not nearly as historic or dramatic as many of the others I’ve visited.

Hmmm… Montreal is a fun city to wander because once you escape the confines of the local tourist trap area (charming although it may be) you get a nice blend of old meets new with all sorts of quirky results. Sometimes impressive, other times not-so-much, but fun as hell to explore either way! The main shopping street, named Saint Catherine I believe, is a collection of smaller shops spread along a fair distance with a smattering of big businesses and malls along its length. The most popular and widely visited length of the street is mostly a collection of fashionable clothing shops with ye-olden style fronts, quaint stone gargoyles, stone carvings and the like, while in either direction from this main fashionable shopping core the quality of the storefronts begins to slip some and smaller, more unique stores pop up among generally lesser quality and seedier shops. This extends till suburbs on one end and industrial another. It’s also fun to note that ‘adult’ stores are plentiful along this street with all sorts of fun and hilariously out-of-place signs. It’s a bit awkward to see a seedy looking strip bar with pictures of skanky girls all over it among otherwise high-end stores and sporting a nice classical storefront, but hey, can’t deny it adds a bit of flavour to the area.

To the west of this core avenue I believe you’ll find what I interpreted to be the ‘upper class’ shopping area, a series of quaint little shops all in perfect great condition that look extremely pretty, for lack of better words, and are for the most part jewelry stores, high quality restaurants and more clothing stores till it dissolves into mostly office buildings. To the south is housing, I’ve never explored it much, and to the north is industrial. Finally to the west are mostly office buildings leading to tourist trap central and the pier, a fun area to be sure. Keep in mind my north-south-east-west are all based on about ten minutes I spent looking over a map of downtown Montreal once while relaxing in a Chapters bookstore, so I’m probably wrong on my directions here but nevertheless I hope you atleast get the general idea. Probably the main attraction here is Old Montreal, a street nearby the waterfront that’s a depiction of downtown Montreal circa-whenever (Mostly built around the 1700’s I believe.). Most memorable for its twisty narrow brick streets with storefronts left and right all well maintained older buildings with wooden signs out front for that added ‘ye-olden’ look that’s only broken by the fact that most of the stores are souvenir shops, local novelty shops and expensive restaurants. Still, nice street to walk along.

Then there’s the pier area, mostly waterfront shops and boat docking, all closed for the season while I was last there and the ice frozen over (It does tend to get quite icy and cold in Montreal, which makes it perfect for sight-seeing in my opinion since it all but eliminates the usual droves of tourists and can provide a much more relaxed, if chilly, experience. Mind you I’ve always rather liked winter so opinions will vary!). Great view though! Nearby is the Basilique Notre-Dame, an amazing cathedral-style church somewhere between st.catherine street and the pier. The only place in Montreal that I’ve payed money to see, $4 in-fact, and so impressive I spent that extra $1 from my fiver to buy a postcard just in-case my pictures didn’t turn out alright. The architecture is extremely impressive, exterior the usual stone carvings and the like but the interior an amazing display of wooden craftsmanship and design the likes of which I’ve never seen anywhere else. There’s even a modern touch in that the lighting in the Cathedral is set up to enhance certain areas presenting an absolutely glorious display of color and setting an extremely dramatic tone to the entire experience. I’m told there are even full light-shows that take place there complete with music, which I someday hope to see since even the default lighting is extremely impressive. Very interesting place and more than worth the admission price. Go there on a chilly day as I’ve done, and you’re likely to have the place to yourself too which makes the experience all the more moving!

Perhaps my favorite part of Montreal though is the number of quiet corners and forgotten spots where time just seems to have slowed to a crawl or stopped entirely. An abandoned old school-like building, now covered in graffiti and the gate around it breached in so many places, yet stained glass windows still visible from one corner of the building and nice stone architecture untouched. A single small shop, now fallen into disrepair and surrounded by a parking lot, looking lonely and awkward there all by itself like the last man standing after a long conflict. A series of storefronts underneath the train tracks, all boarded up long ago and forgotten. Nothing remarkable in themselves, but the frequency of such little spots adds up until there’s a sort of all-pervading vibe throughout the city. And I’m not talking slummy areas either, those you can find in any city, more… forgotten spots that just seem to have been pushed aside and left while the rest of the city continued to advance and grow.

Wandering downtown Montreal is an entertaining experience both for its diversity and its uniqueness which set it apart from other places in the world. Certainly worth a visit. Me? I recommend during winter as there’s nothing quite as dramatic as walking along the streets with the wind and snow in your face and not a crowd to be seen. But that’s me. Either way; visit, enjoy! It’s a beautiful place.

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What makes a truly great video-game?

February 16, 2009

It was inevitable that I’d start writing about video-games on this little journal of mine eventually. They’re simply too big a part of my life to be pushed aside, forgotten or ignored but for a side comment in my About info. By writing this I’m more or less abandoning the idea of this being a purely travel site, no, I suppose I’m going to grow it into something a bit more personal. More general. And I’m glad of it! I think I’ll be posting here much more often from now on.

But to the topic at hand; what makes a truly great video game?

Now anyone who plays video-games is going to have a different opinion on the matter and almost all gamers will have their own private list of ‘best games of all time’ and a laundry list of reasons why. But my goal here isn’t to list my personal favorite games so much as to simply try and nail down what it is… what it is that really makes a game not simply good or even fun, but legendary in a way few games are. The instant classics and the games released years ago which continue to have a following to this day! The games which define what games do!

So what makes a game not simply good, but great? Ambition for one. Most of the ‘best’ games out there, the most polished and highly rated are in truth re-treads of an established idea. A limited scope that’s been polished to such perfection that the player can find little to no fault and whether the game is good or not becomes less a matter of real debate and more simple taste. You look at the highest rated games and you’ll find sequels and spiritual successors to other games, games which take an established concept and stick to it. Just look at the latest gaming trends! Right now the popular genre is shooters and as such there’s a steady stream of unambitious but excellent shooters on store shelves and in development as I type this. Lots and lots of em! Now to be clear there’s nothing wrong with the games that do this, they’re fantastic, but they’re just not ambitious in any adventurous sense. There’s no risk or drama in the games creation. Oh sure, there may be a neat new ‘innovative’ gameplay idea or one feature which stands out (Our game has destructible environments! Ours has fantastic visuals! Ours has an amazing sidekick character! Ours lets you toss fireballs out yer bum!) but that’s all.

No, the ambitious games are those which try something entirely new or those which wander down a rarely tread path. Those which take an established idea and throw em out the window in favor of something different, does not even need to be a change in gameplay but perhaps a plot or overall concept! This doesn’t always end well, in-fact more often than not these are complete failures (There’s a reason so many games follow the same beaten paths: It’s safe and rewarding!) but for those few that succeed, those very few that manage to accomplish even just a little of what they sought to achieve, the rewards can be great as they truly stand apart from the rest.

What else? Immersion. This can be a tricky subject as what’s immersive can be quite subjective depending on the person so let’s look at the basics for a moment. What is immersion? It’s that draw, the lure and intensity when something becomes more than simply a moving picture on a screen or a scrawl of words across a page. It’s that moment when you realize you’ve become so absorbed into a fiction that you’re leaning forward, muscles strained and brow dotted with sweat, because the real world, even for just a matter of seconds, faded entierly from your mind and for those few moments that fiction was your reality.  It’s something movie directors have learned to use and books strive to create. It’s also something which games above all other mediums have the potential to create, being interactive as they are… And those few, those noble few games that have really mastered the immersive factor are among the most memorable experiences you’ll ever have. Game or not!

Which brings me to another thing I’d say makes a game great, this time a feature specific to games and games alone. Interactivity. Again, a tricky thing to really nail down as games can be interactive in many different ways. But in this case I mean more in an in-game sense. Interactivity in the way that you genuinely ‘feel’ like you have an impact on this virtual setting regardless of whether you truly do or not. Why do I say interactivity is one of the major features? Because this is what sets video-games apart from any other creative entertainment medium out there. This is the video-games defining attribute! You cannot interact with the story in a book nor the actors in a movie. In a game, you can! And *any* great game needs to exploit this in some way. Whether it’s making a virtual world that reacts to your every whim or one which you can control and enjoy in some strange or quirky way, it’s an absolute must.

I will add this however; Many games today and in the past have not been truly interactive in any real way. Look at a typical shooter, what is interactive about it? You control what you shoot, but in order to advance you MUST shoot exactly what the game has given you. There’s no real impact with anything you do nor do you have any real choice. You shoot, something likely dies, you advance. Being able to ‘interact’ with the environment by knocking over objects or even shooting a hole in a wall is little more than a flourish, the equivalent of those cheesy 3D glasses in theaters. A purely cosmetic touch that ultimately changes little beyond perhaps the immediate conflict. There’s no genuine sense that you have an impact, that the world is responding. It’s digital LEGO!

By this point if you’re reading this and you’re familiar with games you might be thinking “But not every game can be role-playing game or the like if that’s what you’re asking!”, and I can understand that, but it isn’t what I’m asking. No. What I ask is the idea that we can have an impact. That we are given at least the illusion of choice, that we’re not simply walking down a pre-ordained path but instead stepping into a world of our choosing. Interacting with a pre-determined fiction rather than simply guided through it. You follow?

So that makes three things: Ambition, Immersion, and Interactivity. It may sound extremely general or vague, but given the parameters I’ve given, what games meet those three requirements? Really think about it, toss favoritism aside and think. I’ll admit right now that the game I’d easily call my all time favorite, well, it doesn’t really pass those. It meets ambition and interactivity, but lacks immersion. So my all time favorite is out. Games that do make those three requirements are surprisingly few in truth, and I’m hard-pressed to come up with more than a handful, which is exactly how it should be.

The reason I write this is because despite the childish themes for many games, the over-the-top violence and the downright stupidity that pervades many aspects of the gaming industry, games as a medium have more potential than any before to not only tell stories but to entertain and expand our horizons and knowledge. You laugh, sure. They’re just games! But think about it; The stereotype that many games are childish is true enough, but at the same time the potential as another story-telling medium is incredible. Not only can you enjoy a story, but you can now interact with it in a way none before have allowed, and that’s amazing! The possibilities are endless.

Which is not to demean those games out there which focus entirely on being fun or entertaining. That’s what the industry is founded on! I just believe that those few games which truly stand out and expand our definitions of what games can do should be appreciated for what they’ve done. I think it’s an absolute shame so many classic gaming experience are simply tossed aside, where under any other medium a project of that sort of ambition would be remembered and held high as deserved.

So to that end I made this article. I’m not going to list any games which I believe meet the requirements because the instant I do this becomes a topic not so much about promoting the genre as praising my own personal favorites. If someone asks I’d be happy to name a few in the comments, I’m not one to deny curiosity, but the article itself shall remain without. Nevertheless I thank you for reading my latest rant and the first in what will undoubtedly be the first in a long chain of video-game related babblings. Thank you!

The Middle Ages unforgotten.

February 2, 2009

There aren’t many left that I know of, but you will find them, these patches of land torn from history and locations where time seems to have stood still before and since the time of knights and chivalry. Remote forests high up in the mountains where the moss grows thick across the ground and mist spreads outward with icy tendrils to ensnare you in this seemingly ancient forest alone and away from the comforts of the outside world. Houses and towns that still boast the strange styles of the past, and people who preserve those proud traditions.

I’m talking Austria in this case. Indeed, traveling into Austria from Switzerland via train you can see the sudden shift in borders as the lands go from the well tailored and gently curved green slopes to more rugged terrain with thick foliage the likes of which bring to mind tales of exploration and adventure.

Unfortunately the only location in Austria which I’ve gotten to wander proper is the city of Innsbruck, which I rather enjoyed. It’s a nice city really with some beautiful mountainous views and many streets boasting an eye catching front that just beg to be photographed. But beyond that nothing in particular stands out, it’s a pleasant city by all first impressions but not the sort of place I’d consider especially noteworthy. So why, you ask, are you writing about it right now and why the ambiguous title ‘middle ages unforgotten’? Easy. The city itself may not have much impressed, but the people certainly did. Allow me to continue.

Outside the train station is a predictably somewhat slummy area, but no worse than most train stations. And wandering aimlessly didn’t bring up anything spectacular that stood out. It was of all places the Hostel I stayed at which offered the first taste of just how memorable of a visit this stop would turn out to be. A nice little operation that was essentially a single large room in the apartment above a ground-level family owned bakery. Entire thing with only six beds, or was it eight? Either way, very small little operation but run with the sort of care that I wish more places would show. Comfortable, well decorated, clean, friendly staff. As good as hostels get! And to make it more intriguing the other people staying there at the time of my visit were an interesting group of fellow travelers from all around the world who my friend and I instantly took a liking to.

It was getting later into the evening when my friend and I returned to the hostel after a good stretch of time spent eating and doing the laundry at a local coin-operated place (What? Not all travel is glorious adventure.) when one of the other people staying at the Hostel suggested heading to one of the local cafe to enjoy a snack and a drink while talking.  Sure. Why not? And so we were enjoying ourselves when much to our surprise as we sat outside talking that a small procession of entertainers walked by, not limited to but including a pair of knights, a jester, band, a juggler and entertainers, and your usual assortment of medieval nobility. Unexpected to say the least. They paused just down the street and set up at a small stage I hadn’t even noticed earlier set beneath one of the cities landmark buildings, and so began the festivities.

The knights did battle, swords clashing one against the other and the crowd ooohing and aaahing at the appropriate moments, not the best choreography I’ve seen but done with an enthusiastic vigor that more than made up for a lack of dramatic skill and entertaining beyond any doubt. Shortly thereafter various speech made in the local tongue which I didn’t understand, music from the era-appropriate band, Jester tomfoolery, juggling, dancing, and even an entertaining session of fire dancing (Juggling and acrobatics done with flaming items, posing, some athletic dancing. All very moody considering it was dark at the time and had been raining earlier, leaving the ground a dramatic reflective black and the crowd thin.). And then, performance done, the group left in a procession just as they’d come, a team of mystical set-people appearing seemingly from thin air to dissamble the stage and clean up any mess as though nothing had happened. Needless to say I returned to my bed for the night extremely satisfied considering what had started a tame slow visit had turned into a meeting with interesting people and a free spectacle to observe, oh, and the cake I had for a snack had also been delicious.

Looking it up now via google it seems the whole affair is a local touristy event done every Thursday during summer. An event the locals tolerate it but little else. Hah! As a tourist, I can verify that it was indeed fun to watch and if more cities did such things in the name of netting a few travelers many places would be a helluva lot more memorable than they were. As it is what you usually get are an assortment of chalk artists (To be fair a few I’ve seen were extremely talented!), living statues (With at least one down-on-his-luck sort sort wearing an ill-sized costume trying to earn a few coins among em!), and maybe a photo-shoot setup with a guy in appropriate costume (Romans outside the colliseum for example.). That’s it! So be proud, that little display Innsbruck, which I keep almost spelling as Innsmouth thankyouverymuchLovecraft, is among the best touristy performance I’ve seen. It also set the mood for what was to follow the next day.

Leaving that Hostel was a bit of a bittersweet thing. Unusual as Hostels are generally not the sort of places you’d want to linger at, but the people who’d also been there had been friendly enough and the room comfortable enough that it was half-tempting to spend another night. But no, onto the train and northbound into Germany was the plan.

That train ride however was one of the more memorable ones. Twisting up and around these jagged slopes, the mornings mist the sort you see in movies and read of it books as it twisted and flowed through mossy forest trees torn themselves from countless images of medieval forests of old. It was impossible to not see that classical image, especially after the events of the night before; the thick pounding of heavy hooves and the glimmering armor of the knight as he emerges from the dense mist, weapons held low as he charges forward to meet fate, cloth banners billowing in his wake. A ‘romantic’ and undoubtedly non-factual image formed from too many movies and books, but one which stayed with me till forest and rugged mountain made way for the hilly green slopes of Southern Germany. The train car deserted but for myself and my friend, so the entire time was spent loudly talking about history and fantasy when I wasn’t staring out the windows and simply enjoying the view.

It’s also worth noting that in Southern Germany during this trip a pair of burly biker-esq men came into the train car holding out police badges and asking to see our passports, which they most certainly got to see considering even if they hadn’t been boasting the badges the two were easily bigger than me, and I’m a decent size, and certainly tougher looking. While trapped in a moving vehicle is not the best time to debate right and wrong with people who look like they could lift you like a twig and likely snap you in half just as easily! Nothing else to tell really, they saw the passports, nodded, and moved on. It’s just remarkable in that it was the only time I’ve been checked while crossing borders in western Europe. Plus the two guys looked like stereotypical German *cough* movie stars of a certain type, complete with handlebar moustache and leather hat. A sight which while intimidating also made for a good laugh later and an odd aside note now.

My experiences in Austria were unfortunately limited, but memorable and pleasant enough that I’m sure to make a more thorough visit in the future when I’m not poor and have monies to spend on travel again. I know little has been said about what exactely I saw and did there, but in the end that’s not really the stuff that stands out to me now, but the vague impressions left upon me by the whole experience, and so that’s what I try to convey through typing. In this case that of the middle ages, unforgotten.