Sunday, May 20, 2012

. . . How Dragon's Lair arrived on XBLA

On a Tuesday morning in a time-place-coordinate in which there was no such thing as a Tuesday or a morning, the sun slowly climbed above the horizon and cast its light upon a wide and very deep glacial structure through a thick almost impenetrable haze in the thin atmosphere that was composed of a mixture of water vapor and very fine ash powder ejected from the earth into the sky by the massive volcanic eruptions that plagued the area.

This blanket of thick and amazingly hard glacial ice that covered the world for as far as the nonexistent eye could see had yet to exchange the energy that was stored within it for the inevitable alterations to the landscape that would create that naturally deep-water bay and the rivers that were destined to connect it to the interior of a land mass that would one day be called Australia, thus transforming this particular spot on the third rock from the sun into a highly desirable location for the establishment of a settlement called Byron Bay, situated along the shoreline of a Bay called Byron Bay, that would eventually consist of a political creation called Byron Shire.

Before all of this takes place this location and its massive glacial cap would very soon -- soon being a relative term -- present an almost ideal set of circumstances to attract the attention of a group of naturalists and scientists intent upon the study and classification of the flora and fauna of the area -- but we really are getting ahead of ourselves here.

The well-known writer and sometimes philosopher Susan Sontag may or may not have observed that “Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once…and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you,” while drinking a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice in the breakfast nook in her home; miles and years away in a different time and place a very smart bloke named Albert Einstein may or may not have observed that "The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once," while drinking a hot cup of tea in his garden in New Jersey.

What we do know is that regardless of the many other reasons that are certain to exist for its creation, we owe an awesome debt to time because if it did not exist everything would happen at once and it would be impossible to discuss it in logical terms because we already didn't do that...

 It's About Time

At some point in that time-space-coordinate a significant amount of radiant energy was transferred through the hazy soup of atmosphere to the glacial structure from the sun, which if you are not aware happens to be an almost perfectly spherical ball of hot plasma that is interwoven with magnetic fields and sports a diameter of approximately 1,392,000 km -- or about 109 times the diameter of the Earth -- though in the interest of complete transparency I should probably inform you that I am pretty much guessing about those measurements, since I did not get out of the van and personally measure them with the measuring tape I bought at Home Depot last month... But if I had I assure you that the figures above are pretty much spot-on, give or take a thousand kilometers either way.

The point to all this is that over the course of a few million years sufficient energy was transferred and stored within the glacial body to cause it to begin to shift and recede, and when that happened its motions --which are estimated to be something like a few centimeters a year at first but quickly grew to a wicked fast three to four inches a year -- presents an almost perfect example of how to express the incredible forces of mass and pressure and... 

Well, nobody was actually there to witness it, but all of the computer simulations agree that it was impressive so you will just have to take my word for it -- and besides the point to this is that as the glacial mass moved away from the land toward the poles (in this case the south pole because the north pole would have been one hell of a long trip and the equator would have insisted upon offering its opinion about the wisdom of taking that route, as I am sure you are aware) -- the point being stuff happened.

Among the stuff that happened was the formation of a large and naturally deep bay as well as a number of rivers and smaller threads of moving water of varying levels of salinity formed thanks to the glacial construct leaving its mark upon the area, and figuratively becoming the first tagger to hit the vicinity in a major way.

The Establishment of Byron Bay

Fast forward (really fast) around twenty-million-years or so, give or take a few thousand, and the aforementioned Bunjalong people arrived on the scene and named the naturally deep-water bay Cavvanba, while shortly before that or maybe after -- nobody is actually sure on that account -- the Minjangbal people settled in the Tweed Valley -- which was a green paradise resting in the shadow of the majestic Wollumbin though at the time it wasn't actually called the Tweed Valley -- and around that same time the Arakwal Bumberlin people settled in the area that would one day be known as Byron Shire after a bunch of white men turned up in wooden boats and decided that they did not like the names that were being used by the indigenous people for the area (but that is a completely different story)...

Now fast-forward really-really-fast another ten-thousand-years  or so (give or take a few hundred years either way) and pop over to the other side of the world, on the other end of the world (seriously if you look at a globe you will find that England is on the other side, and in the upper half not the lower half which is where Oz is, but I digress) and you will notice a great deal of furious action as a young and ambitious Royal Navy Lieutenant named James Cook got ready for a big journey.

You knew that he was a Lieutenant and not a Captain because of the number and size of the buttons on his blue frock coat (it wasn't until around 1795 that the Royal Navy adopted the standardized symbols of rank that included epaulettes, so the layman might easily be forgiven for not being able to tell the difference between, say, a Lieutenant and a Commander let alone a Captain, though even without the standardized rank symbols you couldn't mistake an Admiral for anything other than an Admiral).

Lieutenant Cook was frantically working with the officers under him -- who addressed him as Captain even though he was not actually a Captain by rank, because it was the invariable custom of the service to address the officer in command of a vessel as Captain no matter what their actual rank was...  So though he was a Lieutenant he also happened to be the ranking officer and in command of the ship, thus the courtesy title of Captain was pretty much a given -- to get his new ship ready for an epic journey, adventure, and expedition.

The vessel in this instance was the former civilian merchant collier Earl of Pembroke, and was originally launched in June of 1764 from the coal and whaling port of Whitby, in North Yorkshire. Having recently been bought into the service expressly to serve as the vessel for this joint expedition being undertaken by the Royal Navy and the Royal Society (whose proper and actual name was "The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge," but was more commonly known as "The Royal Society" because let's face it, that other name was a mouthful) to seek evidence of the postulated Terra Australis Incognita or "unknown southern land" as well as to observe the 1769 transit of Venus across the Sun, which was set to take place between the 3rd and the 4th of June of that year.

Renamed HMS Endeavour, she was ship-rigged and sturdily built with a broad, flat bow, a square stern and a long box-like body with a deep hold well-suited for sailing in shallow waters and able to be safely and conveniently beached for loading and unloading of cargo and for basic repairs without requiring a dry dock, which later turned out to be a good thing, but again that is another story...

With a length of just 106 feet (32 m), and a beam (width) of only 29 feet 3 inches (8.92 m), you have to admit that this was not a lot of room for the 94-people who made up her compliment -- a count that breaks down to 71 official ship's company, 12 Royal Marines, and 11 civilians (the latter being the scientists who were absolutely necessary to the expedition) both the crew, the Marines, and the civilian scientists seemed to get along OK...  That was not always the case mind you, but it seems that they were very fortunate in that there were no significant personality conflicts to be found on board.

A Little Naval Wisdom

At that time in the history of the Royal Navy ships were still powered by sail, and armed with cannons, and carried compliments of Royal Marines to serve as security officers whenever the vessel was in port, doubling as fighting troops when it was under attack or going about the process of attacking another ship or shore installation.  

While combat with another vessel is generally thought to represent the greatest danger to the crew by most readers today, the reality was that illnesses -- and in particular a combination of "The Pox" and the scourge of the well-feared illness called scurvy (it was not known then that scurvy was caused by a lack of Vitamin C in the diet of sailors, but most progressive officers and ship's surgeons of the era recognized that there was some relationship between the diet of the crew and the appearance of that illness... 

By all accounts Lieutenant James Cook was a very progressive and intelligent officer with his own notions of how to best combat both The Pox and scurvy -- what was called The Pox at the time was really a collection of venereal diseases, most of which were not treatable, and Cook's solution to limiting the risks associated with them on that voyage -- since there was no entirely reliable prophylactic available -- was to limit as much as possible the crew's access to the shore, and thus to houses of ill-repute and the more common variety of prostitute  by restricting the men to the ship and allowing visitation by what were called "bum boats" ordering the ship's surgeon and his mates to

His Majesty's Bark the Endeavour departed Plymouth Roads in August of 1768, rounded Cape Horn and made Tahiti in time to observe the 1769 transit of Venus across the Sun and take on fresh water and supplies prior to continuing on to Australia, arriving in April of 1770, where Cook first went ashore at what is now known as Botany Bay and the fellows of The Royal Society began their incredibly successful efforts at documenting the natural sciences there as well as carefully charting out the shore and waters in that general vicinity -- though not so well that they could prevent the barky from running onto one of the previously uncharted fingers of the Great Barrier Reef (though one may safely assume that AFTER they ran into the reef it got charted).

Remember when I mentioned that it was a good thing that the ship could be beached for repairs? Yeah, well, it was a good thing indeed, because after "charting" that particular reef it was necessary to beach the Endeavour on the mainland for seven weeks to permit rudimentary repairs to her hull. But that was OK because lots of science stuff got done by TRS fellows Joseph Banks, Herman Spöring and Daniel Solander, who made their first major collections of Australian flora in the interim, and then Lieutenant Cook sighted and named Cape Byron (named for Vice Admiral The Hon. John Byron, RN and not the poet like a lot of tourists assume) as the easternmost point of land on the continent of Australia (which it is).

Cook named Cape Byron on the 15th of May, the same day that he named the Solitary Isles -- which could have been named Booby Island but he saved that honor for one of the last islands that they discovered later in the voyage, I am just saying...

Video Game Dragon's Lair?

You are probably confused by the heading above, but seriously, Cook's discovery and naming of Cape Byron indirectly lead to the discovery of the video game Dragon's Lair! Well, to MY discovery of it -- bear with me a little while longer and this will all make sense... Sort of.

After Cook nearly ran into Cape Byron and gave it its name, the Royal Society blokes charted what was thereafter named Byron Bay, along with some rivers, and noted that this would be a very nice place to put a settlement if the natives could be persuaded that doing so was a good idea... As it turned out if you point guns at natives they can be persuaded of practically anything, and Cook saw that it was good!

And so Byron Shire and the town of Byron Bay were declared, named as mentioned above, after Admiral John Byron, who was in fact the grandfather of Lord Byron -- yes, THAT Lord Byron -- and because Byron Bay was both a safe harbor (safe in the sense that the vessels of the era could safely enter and anchor inside of its protection without the risk of striking the bottom) although later when they discovered that every now and then the wind cutting across the bay could (and often did) flow in a very unsafe direction, making it a mostly-but-not-quite-always-safe-harbor, they ended up finding some other harbors up and down the coast that were a bit safer... But that did not prevent them from continuing to use Byron Bay, or in its Shire and town becoming important places for the area, as it being situated 780 miles north of Sydney, and instantly determined by The Royal Society to be a most excellent place to establish a beach resort, tourist attractions, light industry, farming, and a great place for actor and all-around dinkum Aussie Paul Hogan to settle down at, history, as they say, was made.

To make it easier to locate the nude beaches from the ocean, the town fathers of Byron Bay built a lighthouse in 1901, and shortly thereafter the first commercial brewery was established (but that is another story), I merely point that out because everyone knows about the close association between lighthouses and breweries since you cannot really have a thriving surfing or skydiving venue without them, and besides some of the best hang gliding to be found anywhere includes lighthouses and breweries, which is a proven fact considering that there is a lighthouse and brewery there and you always find half a dozen hang gliders in the vicinity.

The Discovery of Dragon's Lair

Thanks to Lieutenant Cook, fellow Joesph Banks, and HMS Endeavour Cape Byron was discovered and named, Byron Shire was established, then the village of Byron Bay became the town of Byron Bay and the very wise residents and town leaders quickly established the meat, dairy, farming, and light manufacturing industries there, as well as a number of different tourist industries and attractions...

The abundance of the bountiful crops and wondrous cheeses forced the government to establish over sixty different wine regions in Australia so that Aussies would have wine to drink while eating their Byron Bay cheese and crackers made from the most excellent wheat grown in Byron Shire, and soon the overabundance of cheese, crackers, hang gliders, parachutes, and bicycles forced the government to develop a ready market where Byron Shire and Byron Bay could sell its goods, so an area roughly 165 kilometres (103 mi) to the north of Byron Bay (because Sydney was too far away) that they ended up calling "Brisbane" as the result of a contest that was held in one of the Byron Shire pubs that involved a cow, three Irish milking maids, and a bet on how much beer you could pour into a wellie (there was more to it but I cannot remember all the details just now) but the point is that is how Brisbane got founded.

Fortunately for everyone concerned, in the 1960's a young lad was born in Byron Bay who would later go on to discover, in 1983, the video game Dragon's Lair, which was created by the famous artist Don Bluth and game designer Rick Dyer, with that now-classic arcade game Dragon's Lair being born and, if not for all of that history, you would not be reading this now! God you are so lucky I was born!

Anyway, the title of that most cheesy of epic games -- Dragon's Lair -- follows the exploits of bumbling would-be hero Dirk the Daring, who is on a quest to rescue Daphne the Princess, who is being held prisoner by the evil Dragon Singe... By the standards of the time it really wasn't so much a videogame as it was a an interactive cartoon, but there you have it!

Dragon's Lair 25th Anniversary

Now fast-forward to June 6, 2008 and we find that Dirk the Daring, hero to an entire generation of gamers, has turned 25 and should seriously consider moving out of his parents basement... Sadly the celebration of the 25th birthday of Dragon's Lair went largely unnoticed outside of gamer circles, until last month, when someone found the memo that had fallen between the desk and the wall in the game studio back in 2008 and remembered that they had actually made a new celebratory version of Dragon's Lair for the Xbox 360 via XBLA, and not only that but it somehow had Kinect support built into it before the Kinect was invented, and how cool is that?!

According to Microsoft's Play XBLA blog, the new Dragon's Lair will also be the first game on the XBLA platform to support both Kinect and controller-based inputs, a concept we here have thought should have been a given all along...

And so we come full-circle, and thanks to Lieutenant James Cook of the Royal Navy, an expedition by the Royal Society, and significant efforts on the part of Lieutenant Cook to ensure that his crew ate a diet that included a wide variety of greens and other food stuff, nobody got scurvy, everyone gets Dragon's Lair, so hey, win-win!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

. . . Personal Heroes

One of the more common questions you will hear asked among writers when they get together informally is a simple and yet very revealing one: who are your personal heroes?

At most of the major events in the business and tech arena there is an unofficial gathering -- usually a dinner -- for newspaper journalists and columnists that takes place following the first official day of the event, at which writers who work for newspapers gather together to break bread, meet new faces, and basically socialize as they relax following what is invariably a very tense and busy day. Just such a gathering took place after the show at the 2011 CES in Las Vegas.

In terms of painting a mental image of the environment, it was a typical Thursday evening in Las Vegas, which translates to a briskly chilly and wet wind-filled night of the sort that adds exponentially to the attractiveness of a warm and well-lighted restaurant dining room, so the simple act of taking a seat at the large table and wrapping both hands around the hot cup of tea that was placed before us was a very physical as well as emotional act and, as the heat was transferred from the outside of the thick porcelain cup to mildly numb fingers the pleasure of greeting and being greeted by the collection of old friends and strangers who were soon to be new friends was intensified.

As is often the case when I cover events far away from home, I was accompanied by a companion -- and for CES 2011 that companion was one of my oldest and best mates, Geofry Glenn, who I love more than like a brother but as a brother. In simply defined terms our relationship is the sort in which we can say anything to each other and it will be accepted, because we know each other very well and because we care about each other...

So as I took my seat and my first sip of tea on my right was an old friend and on my left an old acquaintance who I first met as a fellow freelance writer in Boston in the early 90's, Gabrial "Gabe" Paxton, who now makes his living writing for a company that provides directed content for company newsletters and the sort of faux-newspapers that are published weekly by major corporations for their employees, and that largely serve as a mixture of internal news relating to the happenings of their companies, as well as related industry or tech news intended to inform about either their own products or the products of other companies with which they have a relationship.

As we settled in Gabe related how his current employer - a well-known consumer electronics manufacturer that, in addition to making television sets and other media tech, was branching out into the world of view-on-demand handheld consumer devices (in this case specifically smart phones) so he was very excited about the different products that were on display at the show from his own and related industry.

Of the two-dozen other faces at this unofficial dinner party there were a handful that I had met before, and sort of knew, but for the most part the rest of the bodies at the table were strangers to me, and naturally as conversations began and moved along we got to know each other. Directly across from me and obviously together as more than simply colleagues from the same newspaper was a man and a woman from Detroit, Michigan whose animated conversation and constant hand-holding at the table made me miss my wife intensely, but that is a different story...

It was the female half of the couple -- who everyone was calling "Gin" but whose name was actually Virginia -- who voiced the familiar question used to facilitate the rituals of getting to know each other: "So, who are your heroes?" Gabe groaned and Geof laughed.

You see I have a long list of personal heroes -- most of whom are writers -- and anyone who regularly reads my newspaper column in the Cape Cod Times is well aware of some of them: Samuel Clemens (more commonly known as Mark Twain) is one, and then Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, L. Frank Baum, and Walt Whitman round out the list of the older ones, who I usually think of as representing the formative deans of American wordsmithing.

Going farther back there is Benjamin Franklin, the poems of the celebrated Samuel "Dictionary" Johnson, and Sir Joseph Banks. Under the heading of relatively more contemporary is historical novelist Patrick O'Brian, who I find to be an incredibly fascinating writer and person both for his body of work but also as a result of his flawed but exceptional character. The name that popped into my mind and so out of my mouth in answer to her question that evening was the French novelist and playwright Françoise Sagan, which I could instantly tell was a surprise to Gin, and also to my friends based upon their reactions...

Geof raised an eyebrow, and it occurred to me that we had never discussed her or her books with each other, but as it turned out he was very well aware of Sagan and, like me, had read her more profoundly revealing works but not her more commercial ones.

"Really?" Gin replied, and it was also evident that she was searching her own mind to try to place that name. The fact that she did not recognize it is not really all that surprising -- as popular as Sagan was on the continent, her popularity here in America was based on a number of more personal events rather than literary ones, so I was prepared to excuse that lack of familiarity, but then her partner instantly leaps in to save the day for her, observing: "Isn't that the French novelist who wrote Bonjour Tristesse when she was little more than a child herself?" he asked...

"That would be her," I agreed, and Geof -- bless him -- chuckled and said "Mauriac called her a charming little monster."

Françoise Quoirez

We rarely have the luxury of influencing the formative events in our lives -- we do not get to pick our parents, or where we are born, and under what circumstances, and even after we begin to live we do not really alter the course of our own lives until we reach the point in our personal destiny at which we begin to question the authority that limits us... Sagan -- whose real name was Françoise Quoirez -- was born in Cajarc and her formative years as the youngest child of what she considered to be bourgeois parents -- her father was a company director (what we call an executive today), and her mother the daughter of landowners -- and in 1954 when she was just 19 years old her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness), was published.

The insight and the craft that she demonstrated in Bonjour Tristesse hinted at the very deep well of emotion and talent that existed within her, and it was no surprise to those that knew her well that she was destined to have a long and richly rewarding career as a writer. It was also no surprise to those that knew her that she was destined to live that life as something of an impulsive and indulgent soul -- often referred to as a "loose cannon" or, as François Mauriac did indeed call her on the front page of the French national newspaper Le Figaro, "a charming little monster," and by all accounts she was precisely that.

Sagan's nickname was 'Kiki' and her literary works, crafted with strong but romantic themes that involved wealthy and disillusioned bourgeois characters, tended to focus upon issues like the sexuality of the young during an era in which no matter how progressive it really was, certainly was not ready for dealing openly with that subject.

Bonjour Tristesse was a story about the life of a pleasure-driven 17-year-old named Cécile, and in particular her relationships with her boyfriend and her adulterous, playboy father, and the fact that I read it when I was 17 and during a period of several years in which I was trying very hard to define the purpose of my life (I was such a precocious teenager) and define for myself the boundaries of not just my own life and relations, but for the manner in which it would intersect with the world itself -- I was also in the process of determining what coursework would occupy my first year of university at the time, a fact that should help you in understanding where my head was at through all of this...

At the time that it was published Sagan's character became something of an icon for disillusioned teenagers, a fact that I was aware of thanks to the footnotes in the translation that I was reading and the commentary that one of the previous owners of the book had so helpfully written in the margins, and I was captivated by the emotional turmoil that she laid out on those pages, and her honesty in dealing with subjects that had grown no easier to accept in the thirty years that had passed since she originally wrote about them and when I was reading them, that it instantly stands out in my mind when I read it even today. Of course the association of the book and the period in time when I was reading it for the first time drags out those old memories, but that's OK...

Some of the questions that the book asked were also asked in different ways by other writers -- and in particular the questions it asked silently -- were the sort that were also asked in different ways by Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs...

Kerouac's On the Road portrays the story of a fierce personal quest for meaning and belonging, and the rapid-fire observations of life that are the very foundation of the story makes it easy to forget that it was an autobiographical tale -- and that behind the code names for the characters in the book were the real people who in addition to being the sometimes traveling companions of Kerouac helped shape the literary history of the era. The point I suppose is that it was real, and so too were the situations that Sagan wrote about, though perhaps less real in the abstract...

On my home page I have a quote from Sagan -- really a sort of observation that she made about life and writing -- that reads "Writing is a question of finding a certain rhythm. I compare it to the rhythms of jazz. Much of the time life is a sort of rhythmic progression of three characters. If one tells oneself that life is like that, one feels it less arbitrary."

A lot of thought went into that observation, and if you spend any time at all reading the autobiographical writings of Sagan you will realize that she wrestled with the issues of not simply the meaning of life, but the process of it; how the more productive humans (you can substitute "writers" for the word "humans" pretty much throughout) tend to set small and attainable goals for themselves, and how as humans we naturally stop ourselves from examining too deeply the purpose of our own life.

When you examine this too closely you invite the demons in, and leave yourself exposed to the hurtful truth that much of what passes for meaning in life is little more than make-work and fabrications that are designed to conceal the fact that, save for a set of keys that open the door to your home or can be used to start your car, the rest of the everything that we are is little more than a basis for distinguishing between ourselves and the animals in the woods.

The reason that Françoise Sagan numbers among my list of personal heroes has to do with the fact that she viewed life on more honest terms than most people are capable of, and left judgment to others. There is much to be said for that sort of honesty.

E3 is just around the corner and I am in the midst of setting my schedule for it while I work on updating a handful of game guides as I rotate between that and working on my more recent assignment, which is one of The Sims games. As I write this visions of the counter at Mr. Churro at Olvera Street is dancing in my head, and I must confess I am very much looking forward to visiting there and indulging in that oh-so-gooey-goodness.

So how is your day shaping up?