Manhunter 2: San Francisco

I need to type this out to get it out of my system. Distracting myself from my life at the moment, which I don't want to discuss. I decided to try re-playing an old point-and-click adventure game, Sierra's 1989 "Manhunter 2: San Francisco". No one cares about this game, for valid reasons, so consider this a post of pure blather.

I never played the first Manhunter, which was set in New York. And after watching videos of people playing it, I'm glad I didn't. Manhunter 2 is... easier, but still terrible. My motivation to play it... when I last played it, I was in my late teens. The game confused me a lot. I didn't understand what was happening. I was hoping that by re-playing it, it would now make sense. It doesn't.

Manhunter is an unfinished series that takes place on a dystopian Earth, our cities decimated after being invaded by the Orbs, giant flying eyeballs from another star system. Without arms, I'm not sure how they can manipulate objects, but they've got spaceships and robots and lasers and whatever.

Humans aren't allowed to talk to each other and must all wear plain brown robes, which means the developers didn't have to write dialogue, and it made the art easier to do. Even for Sierra, the pixel art is... pretty bad. And yet, even in its extremely low resolution, it's surprisingly effective. Though still terrible. They liked gory deaths here. The game uses a clunky old game engine that Sierra was abandoning; it doesn't have mouse control, which would have been immensely helpful.

The Orbs make some humans work as "Manhunters", tracking down criminals. You're given a special laptop, and each day you receive orders to go investigate something. Using the laptop, you can re-play a map of the city to see where suspects have been. It's unclear if all humans have been embedded with tracking chips, or how this works? Actually the tracking info doesn't always work, like if the subject goes underground. Also, they don't seem to retain the data for more than 24 hours.

So in the first game, in New York, you're investigating a series of serial killings by a guy named Phil. Along the way, you discover the human resistance (who get killed), and also find out the Orbs are harvesting humans to eat them. Phil eventually escapes in an Orb spaceship, and you chase him to San Francisco. You crash your ship on a street, and Phil lands at the Orbs' headquarters. Oh yeah, Phil works for the Orbs. So it makes no sense that the Orbs send you to investigate Phil's victims, since the Orbs seem to be ok with whatever Phil is doing.

Conveniently, when you crashed your ship, you landed on another Manhunter and killed him, so you assume his identity. The fact that none of the Orbs are suspicious of you suggests that either they don't care, or they can't tell humans apart. Additionally, I think the game wanted to generate drama by showing San Francisco in ruins, but because I'm Canadian and knew nothing about the city, it completely failed to have any real emotional impact.

The game plays out over a series of three or four days. Absolutely nothing is explained. You get glimpses of people and story threads, but you have no understanding of what's actually going on, or why people are doing things. Re-playing this game, I find this lack of explanation infuriating. Here's what I was able to figure out.

The Orbs have lost a device called the "Viewer". Who stole it? Why? What does it do? I have no idea. San Francisco is comprised of humans in brown robes, slave humans in grey robes, dog-rat mutants (who have a king and mostly live in the sewers), and mis-shapen green mutants (who are locked up in Alcatraz for unknown reasons). All the mutants were once human, victims of experiments.

The Orbs' first mission for you is to investigate a crime in Chinatown. (The Chinese characters are given yellow skin, which is f***ing racist.) Two dog-rat mutants break into a bank, kill a guy, and steal something. The mutants leave, then get into a fight. One of them has betrayed the other, and goes to the Orbs' HQ, then returns to his den and drinks a "remedy" which kills him. What was stolen from the bank? The Viewer? Who knows. The remaining mutant leaves a note to another mutant named Zac, confirming that something has been acquired.

The next day, the mutant thief who left the note is killed by some humans. On a boat. Why is he there? How did the humans know he was there? Who knows. The bank guy was part of a group in Chinatown who call themselves the Dragons, and I assume they've avenged themselves by killing the mutant. One member of the Dragons returns to their temple. Another member goes shopping, meets up with a friend, then disappears.

Along the way they go to an Orb place and kidnap a human slave, and deliver him to a doctor they collaborate with. Why? Never explained. The third Dragon (the friend) then goes elsewhere to talk to another slave, and is killed by Phil and a dog-rat mutant. (Why did Phil show up in the first place?) Phil and the mutant back-track to the doctor's, kill the doctor, and take the (now dead) slave's arm, which they cut off. Later that day, Phil enters the sewers, kills the king of the dog-rat mutants (who had the Viewer), and takes over as their new king. Why? Who knows.

You also discover there was a scientist named Noah Goring, the guy responsible for creating mutants in the first place, who was recruited by the Orbs to help create more mutants for their mining operations under the city. Noah was perfectly fine with this for a couple of years, then suddenly realized he was a bad guy, and wants to thwart the Orbs' plans. He writes a note to the doctor, hoping the doctor's Dragon friends can help out. Noah was also supposed to deliver a special key-card, but hasn't.

The next day, Noah and a friend attempt to enter the sewers. Why? Unknown. The dog-rat mutants chase them out and kill them. One of the killer mutants is Zac. By this point of the game, you've discovered that Zac is important... somehow? The dog-rat mutants seem to be the enemies of the Dragons, and yet, when you become a member of the Dragons, you get a scroll saying that Zac is their only hope. Why? To do what?!

I should also mention that the Manhunter you killed had a strange note in his apartment with a weird clue to the Dragon temple. It's not clear why the Manhunter had this, but it allows you to have a hallucinogenic vision with some random guy who lives next door to the temple.

Anyway, you manage to find Noah's corpse and get his special key-card. You can also visit a laundromat - no logical reason to, except you found a claim ticket belonging to a bystander from one of the earlier murders. At the laundromat, with no explanation, you're knocked unconscious and locked in a room, which you escape.

You also enter the sewers. Briefly, you get to see Phil using the Viewer; it's monitoring the mining operation under the city. Then you crash into the throne room and it's revealed that Phil is actually... an advanced, psychotic robot. And if he's still working for the Orbs, why is he hanging around being the king of some dog-rat mutants? Who knows!

Anyway, next you sneak into Alcatraz. With no reason to do so. Seriously, nothing in the game tells you to go there, it's just that you have no other options left at this point. That's where you discover the mis-shapen green mutants all locked up. Apparently they were created by Noah, and the key-card allows you to open their jail cells. Except there's a camera that checks to see if you're an Orb first. You're not, but if you hold up a miniature Orb-on-a-stick, that's apparently good enough to trick the system.

I'll just say at this point that the Orbs' have crap security. Even the Manhunter stuff is stupid. At the end of each day your laptop beeps dangerously and they demand you type in the names that your investigations have turned up. You can type in anything! It doesn't manner! This is terrible game design!

After freeing the green mutants of Alcatraz, they start a revolution, killing all the Orbs in the city they can reach. If you befriended one of them (thanks to the hallucinogenic vision), they dump you into a hot-air balloon. Why was this on Alcatraz? Who knows. Where are you going?? Who knows!

Ok, you have exactly one hint. A cryptic clue from the Dragon temple says that "The castle is the gateway to hell". Other clues from earlier are "Must reach hell to stop them", and "Stop them! They have almost reached life. Bring us to hell and we will show you freedom." The castle thing turns out to be a place called "Julius Castle", which you can only see at one other point in the game, if you happen to look out of a specific window.

Part of the reason this failed so much was that, again, as a non-resident of San Francisco, I had no idea of this place. Turns out the game had left out an apostrophe (Julius' Castle), and neglected to mention it wasn't a real castle, it just happened to look like one, and used to be some kind of restaurant. Seriously, how the heck is a Canadian teenager in the late 1980s with no Internet and no knowledge of San Francisco supposed to make sense of any of this?

Anyway, if you manage to land your balloon at the Castle (which you're unlikely to do, since the travel screen doesn't make it at all obvious, and is even deceptive), you tumble down into the Orbs' underground mining operation.

All the major locations inside the mine have inexplicable code-names, which you had no way of knowing about in advance. "Hell" is the central command room. "Slavery" is for... slaves? "Freedom" is... an important room? But you don't know why. And "Life" is the molten lava under the Earth's crust that the Orbs are trying to drill to. Maybe for terraforming? Who knows.

You rearrange slaves and robots into different rooms while opening and closing gates to control where lava goes. If you do it right, you roast all the robots, free all the slaves, and leave a path open to reach Freedom. Oh, and lava spills out onto the streets around the famous places in the city.

In Freedom, you take control of a giant drilling machine. The code to turn it on... was written on that slave's arm that got chopped off. Why did he have the code? Was his kidnapping just a coincidence? Who knows! The game ends with the most frustrating mini-game of all, trying to navigate your drill through a maze of tight caverns. The controls are completely janky, you have to constantly save-scum. So much hatred for the game at this point.

Returning to the surface, you catch Phil as he (again) takes to a spaceship to escape the city, and you hang on to its edge, your fingers losing circulation and your body probably losing oxygen as well. The third game in the series was never made.

Meanwhile, all the mutants in the city magically revert to human form. Maybe because you stopped the weird smoke the Orbs were spewing into the atmosphere? Except the cure is instant. Which means that anyone in a well-ventilated room would have been cured earlier. Anyway, now all the ex-mutants are wandering the streets naked. The horrible low resolution of the graphics is kind of a blessing here.

So... this was a dumb, terrible game. There are about ten mini-games, eight of them horrible. Seriously, use save-states, and make sure you can turn down the speed of your DOS emulator. Oh, and it's possible to make your game unwinnable. You play the game out of being stubborn, only to finish with a lack of closure. There's intriguing world-building, but nothing makes sense. The positive feelings from solving a few of the puzzles are destroyed by the many, many frustrations.

Never play Manhunter.

Upon trying to re-watch "The Trial of a Time-Lord" Doctor Who season

Upon trying to re-watch "The Trial of a Time-Lord" Doctor Who season, well, it was too painful. My patience ran out. I think the whole season can be skipped, except that the following spoilers might someday be useful:

- The Doctor meets the thief known as Sabalom Glitz.
- Companion Peri leaves under unclear circumstances.
- Companion Mel appears with no given backstory.
- There is a future evil version of the Doctor (or some other Time Lord?) running around, calling himself "the Valeyard", who would gladly kill the Doctor in order to get more regenerations.
- The Matrix, the big important Time Lord computer database, has really crappy security. The Master and other Time Lords have broken into it, as well as some aliens from Andromeda.
- The High Council of Time Lords is so corrupt that, rather than admit they need to fix the Matrix's security system, they would much rather spend the effort to manufacture fake evidence against the Doctor, put him on trial by pitting him against the Valeyard, hoping to kill the Doctor. I don't know why they think his continued existence is a risk to them. Oh, and the Council also went through the trouble of moving Earth and "its constellation" a couple of light years away, renaming it to "Ravalox". Because using Time Lord technology to move whole star systems is easier than fixing Time Lord technology.

No, I don't want anything explained. (For example, "Peri didn't die" vs. "Peri married an alien warrior king" vs. "Peri's actress denied marrying the alien warrior king".)

Cooking, and Doctor Who audio

An unexpected gift that my parents brought back from Mexico for me was a glass jar of mole sauce, which orleans had introduced me to. After translating the cooking instructions, I understood that its uncooked storage life would be very short after opening the container, so I'd have to use it all in one go. So I mixed up a large casserole/stew with it. Chicken, chicken broth, Spanish rice (store-bought), red peppers, jalapeno peppers, carrots, zucchini, garlic, kidney beans, black beans, refried pinto bean paste, and a generous dose of chili powder. Result: dense, mole-ish, quite nice, and certainly enough for dinner over the next week and a bit. Interestingly, the mole sauce container (after you remove the lid and label) is a basic drinking glass.

In using so much chili powder, I emptied out the container and went to re-fill it from my back-stock of spices. It's now filled with something called "achiote chili" - according to the spice store I bought it from in Toronto - although when I look it up, there's nothing chili-ish about achiote. It smells sweet, a bit like paprika. I'm wondering if the spice store mixed in other things with it. Hopefully chili, because otherwise it might only be a powdery red food colouring, more than I know what to do with.

Meanwhile - For five months of the year when it's too cold to bicycle, or when it's raining, I take the bus to work. Last winter I escaped the mind-numbing drudgery of having to look at the WalMart shoppers by starting to listen to audiobooks on my mp3 player. Unfortunately I go through these rather fast. I started with Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels - 30 of them. (I know there are more than that, but I never liked the character of Rincewind, so I skipped those.) As a new winter looms ahead, I'm wondering what the heck to tackle next? Answer: the Big Finish Doctor who audio plays! Most of them being in m4b format, so I had to replace my mp3's OS with Rockbox in order to play them.

Alas, the plays last much shorter than audiobooks. And due to rainy days, I've already worked my way through the first six. I thought I'd start using Livejournal as a way to post short impressions. As a general note, the plays were not designed to be listened to on a bus. The soundscapes include very subtle noises, and occasionally soft-spoken speech - it's definitely more for home listening with a good set of headphones.

1. The Sirens of Time.
Big Finish obviously wanted to make a big splash with the fans, so their first play (in 1999) had the 5th, 6th and 7th doctors together, without any of the companions. Gallifrey ends up almost being conquered - Seriously? That easily? I would've saved that for a special occasion, but like I said, it was about making a big splash. Also throw in a monster or two from the dawn of time. Overall enjoyable; 6th Doctor quite likeble.

2. Phantasmagoria. (5th Doctor with Turlough)
Felt sadly short. Turlough and the Doctor largely separated for most of it. Bad guy alien didn't feel especially noteworthy. Neither bad nor fantastic story overall; bit of a let-down after the scope of the previous play.

3. Whispers of Terror. (6th Doctor with Peri)
The 6th Doctor and Peri are back to their annoying TV selves; not what I wanted to listen to. Sad, because the antagonist is one of those abstract, less corporeal forms that are more challenging to deal with.

4. The Land of the Dead. (5th Doctor with Nyssa)
Mildly dark, tense atmosphere throughout. Much of it spent on the run, hiding or barricading from the monster. Only one interesting secondary caracter, the rest were pretty one-dimensional and difficult to sympathize with. Possible explanation for the Permian extinction thrown in.

5. The Fearmonger. (7th Doctor with Ace)
Awkwardly drops the listener into the adventure mid-way; it feels like an opening episode or two were left out, so it takes some concentration to work out exactly what's happening. Wonderful chemistry between the Doctor and Ace. Ace felt more likeable than in the TV episodes. Another abstract monster.

6. The Marian Conspiracy. (6th Doctor with Evelyn)
Evelyn is introduced as a new companion, a 50-year old British historian and teacher, prim and with a stubborn streak. Very little science-fiction in this adventure, it's mainly the two of them caught up in history. Actually I think whoever wrote this wanted an excuse to educate the audience about Tudor England. The 6th Doctor is back to being sympathetic again, including some very personal dialogue. As I'm watching the first TV season with Peter Capaldi, there's a recurring question of the Doctor wondering if he's a good man. This audio play with Colin Baker does the same thing, but in a much more heartfelt, succinct manner, in my opinion.

Bengali Butternut BBQ Sauce recipe - with volume amounts

After Watson played Jeopardy, the developpers at IBM decided to turn their computer protégé's attention to... cooking! It recently came up with a concoction they called Bengali Butternut BBQ Sauce, but all the ingredients were listed by weight. I tried making it the other day, and so I present my modified version with approximate volumes for the ingredients. Anything marked with an asterisk means I changed the suggested amount.

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Android app suggestions for a complete and utter noob?

It looks like I'm going to be getting a Moto E phone, which I'll use maybe three times a year when I go on trips, then leave in a drawer for months on end. I've never used Android before - this comes with 4.4.2 - and I'm looking for app recommendations. I don't need many, but I don't know what the OS comes with, and here's the basic list of things I'll use the phone for, and not much else:

- Most of all, for SMS texting. (And occasionally Twitter, but pretty infrequently.) In my ancient phone, I activated this from my address book. When there were people I was unlikely to need to contact, I'd add a "z" to the start of their name so they'd get bounced to the bottom of the list. So if there's a way of organizing contacts by assigning them into multiple groups or categories or something, that would be great!

- An easy way to make quick notes to myself. Related to this, any recommendations for a good keyboard app? I've heard mention of something called "SwiftKey". I am a klutzy finger-typist and it'd be really convenient to have basic punctuation on the same screen as the lowercase letters.

- Making phone calls, occasionally. I might also want to install some other ringtones, but I don't know what's involved.

- E-mail. I probably won't be using GMail; instead it would be nice to make a POP connection to my home ISP and download new messages, but without deleting the originals from my ISP's mail server.

- GPS, map viewing, optionally with something that gives driving directions (but that last one would be used very rarely).

- Any app that can shut down other apps to prevent unwanted roaming charges, or stop background programs that use up the battery life.

- Web browser preference? Ways to minimize downloading extra unwanted data?

That's about it! Halp! Or if not, can anyone point me to useful resources? :-)

Phone suggestions?

Any suggestions for an unlocked, GSM Android phone that's fully compliant with Google Play, does GPS and has a removable battery? This is a phone I'm going to turn on maybe 2 or 3 times a year while I'm on trips to cons or to visit family. It's going to sit unused in a drawer for long stretches. Cutting-edge specs and doodads are meaningless to me, as long as the phone's speedy enough, has good touch sensitivity, doesn't need to be looked at from a very specific angle, etc. :)

Heroine's Quest

I've spent a good chunk of this weekend playing Heroine's Quest: The Herald of Ragnarok, a free(!) indie adventure-RPG lovingly modelled after Sierra's Quest for Glory series, except with a strong female protagonist, and set in the context of Norse mythology. Excellent graphics, pretty good voice-acting and music, and they did a good chunk of research - including appearances by Ratatoskr, the SQUIRREL OF DOOM.

I admit to cheating, however. I gave myself ridiculously high stats and money so I could avoid grinding. This means I don't know how to describe the pace of the game, since I ignored it entirely - although there are four major chapters, each triggered by in-game events. I think you can take as much game time as you like, despite things like a guy lying injured in the forest, surviving for days. Several puzzles were a bit difficult with not enough hints to suggest solutions; but at least online searches provided the answers. Normally breaking the game immersion like that bothers me, but it didn't here, which I think is due to just how nicely put together the whole thing is, so eager was I to see what came next.

There are some neat little touches here and there. Lots of random shout-outs to other games (sprites that occasionally wander across the screen); I recognized about half of them. There's a real sense of culture, although the Norse names take a while for the brain to acclimatize to and memorize. The NPCs (and their pets) wander around their towns by a loose schedule, and if two are in the same room together when you're having a conversation, it's not unusual for one of them to interject, or for the NPC you're talking with to alter their dialogue slightly.

Like Quest for Glory, you can play as a fighter class, a magic-user or a thief, or multiclass yourself slightly; some quests are class-specific while others have different solutions depending on your skills. There's a hidden "honor" stat where you have to be all goody-goody but you'll get a cool sword if you pull it off. Me, I played a thief. Had a bit of a problem getting into the thieves guild (in the end, I used magic) - and at night I went around stealing stuff. Sometimes I felt bad about this because it turned out the people lived in fairly squalid conditions.

Actually one funny thing that happened - I stole a shovel from a storekeeper instead of paying for it. She left her shop unlocked during the day! But it came back to haunt me. Unlike other items, you can't exactly hide a shovel on your person, so if I ever entered a room where the shopkeeper happened to be - and remember, the NPCs wander around - she'd say something like, "Hey, that's my shovel!" Suddenly you'd be surrounded by the other townspeople - really nice people - who'd disparage you at how their hero had betrayed their friendship and trust. Then they'd lock you up in a pillory and the town librarian would throw a tomato at your head. The End. All because of a shovel. And when I say the town librarian, specifically, it's this librarian - I was not expecting a shout-out to The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, which came out over 40 years before this game did!

Anyway, I defeated the big bad guy at the end using a walkthrough 'cause I'm laaaazy and impatient. I've saved the world! And I'm waiting to see the praise and feast and final points tally when suddenly... "Hey, that's my shovel!" and I'm disparaged again, but this time, forget the pillory, now the dark elves lock me in their prison in one of the other nine realms. Luckily I had savegames from earlier, and you can hide your shovel in one of three storage chests scattered around the game for later retreival, but still. Harsh. And delightfully unexpected.

So if you liked Sierra's Quest for Glory games, this one is definitely a worthy addition to the genre, if you don't mind grinding and occasionally needing to look up a puzzle solution. I recommend it!

News of an old friend

I just stumbled across an online article that interviews an old friend of mine, related to tabletop gaming. We originally got to know each other through doing improv in high school (he was better than me), and later on we were roommates for a couple of months. That nearly killed our friendship; we were both bad roommates, but after a few years of avoiding each other, we grew up and all was good again! Although our social circles had largely moved apart by then. Anyway, it's great seeing that he's able to work and do something he loves at the same time. :-)

Advance notice

So I'm going to be having a movie night at my place, and suddenly I get an e-mail from one of the guests who'll be coming. She asks if I'd mind if one of the guests can use my place to give another one of the guests a haircut, because university students in Winnipeg will do all sorts of things to save twenty bucks.

So I said sure, use the laundry room, it's ugly and the floor is cement, but it's easy to clean up in there.

The next day, I had an idea. Aah, the joys of advance preparation!

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