Ethereality News & Weblog

September 15, 2012

Black Mesa finally released (after seven years)

Filed under: News,Video Games — Rob Chang @ 3:04 pm

Some of you might know that years ago, I was briefly part of the MOD team that worked on the just released Black Mesa MOD. For those of you who don’t know what it is, it’s essentially a remake of the original Half-Life, but completely updated with Source Engine quality visuals, new music, new dialogues, updated graphics and designs for everything (characters, levels, enemies, etc).

Originally, I wanted to compose the score for Black Mesa, but that position was already filled (by the very capable Joel Nielsen). They needed concept art, and although I was already trying to transition into doing music and wasn’t particularly interested in doing concept art anymore, I agreed to help out with concept art because Half-Life was the game that turned me into a hardcore gamer, and as a fan I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

I was only on the Black Mesa team briefly as concept artist. At the time, I was working full-time as the studio art director at iWin, and I was also composing the score for Galactic Melee in my free time. Later I moved from California to China and had to focus on designing and constructing our new home, as well as my new music production studio. I just couldn’t devote any time to Black Mesa, so I had to quit.

Anyway, it was just released today, and I immediately downloaded it as soon as I woke up, and I’ve now played up to the point where one of the scientists told Gordon the soldiers are coming to rescue them (those of you who understand what that means, are snickering right now). So far, it’s been an interesting mix of nostalgia and new discoveries. I can’t really think of an apt analogy, because this isn’t like watching the remake of a movie, a screen adaptation of a book, listening to a cover song, or reading a book based on a movie or game franchise. I’m really enjoying all the additional dialogues and the updated levels, as well as the drastically improved visuals. I currently busy as hell (teaching the current run of Becoming A Better Artist workshop, as well as dealing with our upcoming move back to California, not to mention a bunch of backed up blog posts, photography to edit, and the novels I’m writing), but I’ll try to make time to finish Black Mesa.

I doubt anyone besides fans of the original Half-Life really cares, which is fine, because the reason Black Mesa was created in the first place was to pay tribute to the original game, while contributing something new to it by upgrading it to the standard that the Source engine is capable of. I do hope some of the younger/newer gamers who’s never played the original Half-Life will try it though; after all, it is one of the best games ever created, and Black Mesa improves upon it in every way, except for the voice acting. The soldiers are especially bad; they sound like silly cartoon versions of what uninformed people think special forces operators sound like, and the dialogues for the soldiers are some of the worst I’ve ever heard in gaming in a long time. But to be fair, so many big commercial releases get this wrong too–the NPC enemies say some of the dumbest things to you when you fight them in battles. What is it with bad writing and fight scenes?

Originally, Black Mesa started because people were disappointed by Valve’s release of Half-Life Source, which was nothing like what the name suggests (it used the Source engine, but almost everything about it was pretty much identical to the original–nothing was really updated except for some physics that Source allowed). That was how the seed was planted, and now, seven years later, Black Mesa fulfills the promise of what Half-Life Source should have been.

September 2, 2012

Home shopping adventures

Filed under: Film/TV/Animation,My Life/Musings,News — Rob Chang @ 5:40 pm

Elena and I recently bought a house in Lincoln, California (Placer County). We also looked at homes in the Sacramento County and El Dorado County, but we keep going back to Lincoln because the homes there are newer, bigger, the neighborhoods safer, and prices cheaper.

Here are some photos of the house:

It’s 2 stories, 2,436 square feet, has 3 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, and the house was built in 2005, so it’s fairly new.

The house was a model home originally, so it’s a bit fancier than other houses with similar layouts. Unfortunately, Elena and I don’t agree with the original designer’s taste, so we’ll have to do some remodeling. We’d have to do some remodeling regardless, since there are no rooms that are big enough for my studio space, and the only way is to seal off the living room/dining room area, which happens to be similar in dimension and size to my current studio space, and turn it into my studio.

Lincoln is an odd city. Most of it looks very new, and there are barely any people on the streets. Even the parking lots are mostly empty. Elena and I nicknamed it “Prop City,” as in, it looks like a fake city built on the shooting lot of a film production studio. Lincoln used to be the fastest growing city in the United States, but when the economy took a dive, all development stopped.

Our new home is in the Lincoln Crossing area, and it’s a pretty standard looking suburb. There aren’t any really big trees due to how new the houses are. We have big shopping centers within a mile of us (Home Depot, Lowe’s, Target, Safeway, Raley’s, Staples, etc), so it’s very convenient, and whatever we can’t find in Lincoln, it’s only ten minutes away from Roseville and Rocklin, and about thirty minutes away from Sacramento.

The hardest thing to get used to is the weather. The Sacramento area is on average about twenty degrees hotter than the Bay Area during the summer, and having been spoiled by growing up in Foster City, Lincoln feels like an oven during the summer. Elena thinks it’s far better than Fuzhou, since Fuzhou is very humid. So basically, it’s the choice between a sauna or an oven. Personally, I think both are bad. Dry heat scorches, while humid heat suffocates–neither are comfortable. But that’s the compromise you make if you want affordable homes. The same house in the Bay Area would easily cost a million dollars, and that’s a bit too much to pay for the mild summer weather.

It’s kind of crazy how fast the real estate market has started to heat up again after the crash not that long ago. Around January this year is when things started to heat up, and at this point, people are trying to outbid each other with all-cash offers, often adding anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $20K on top of the listing price.

In a buyer’s market, competing with other buyers’ offers is a real pain in the ass, because it’s no longer a straightforward process. Now you have to play the guessing game of how much the other offers are, and how much you should add to the listing price to ensure your offer gets accepted, while trying not to pay out stupid amount of money. You also have to use other tactics like waiving appraisal contingencies, pushing for a faster inspection, and so on.

I’ve never been the business type–legalese makes my head hurt, and I suck at math (flunked it twice in school–probably the only Asian kid to ever have done that. I was always the kid that drew pictures and wrote screenplays in class instead of paying attention). But the older you get, the more you are forced to grow up and think/act like an adult. I’m almost forty and I still feel like a teenager most of the time, so me staring at a thick stack of contracts and signing a bunch of paperwork just feels so surreal–and it always had, for as long as I’ve been an adult.

We looked at a bunch of houses and made offers. We lost the first one to an all-cash offer, and we changed our mind on our second offer since we realized there was a big noise problem with the house (there’s fire station nearby, and the bedroom faces a main street). We eventually found a house in Lincoln that we really liked. It was an REO (Federal Bank-owned), and our agent used a strategy where we bid as high as we can stomach, and then negotiate later by getting a lower appraisal price. It’s not a strategy you can use in most situations, and it’s more specific to bank-owned properties. We ended up getting the house for $255K, which was $3K over the listing price.

Our agent, Dave Silva, was awesome (if any of you are thinking of buying a home in the Sacramento and Placer counties, I highly recommend Dave). He’s got lots of experience, pleasant to be around, energetic, polite, respectful, proactive, creative, and attentive. He made a great first impression by recording a personalize video introducing himself to us, and addressing some of our questions, when we were still just shopping for agents online while we were still in China. There are lots of agents out there, but how many of them do that?

We used another agent before Dave, and that guys was nowhere near as good. While both were very nice, there were huge differences in experience, communication, attitude, confidence, tech savvy, creativity, and negotiation strategy. In comparison, the first guy seemed really green, lacked creative thinking, clueless about technology and how to do everything on the computer and internet (he didn’t even know how to do digital document signing, and made us print out stuff to sign, and then rescan the signed documents) and had no effective game-plans when dealing with the seller. He also got indignant and defensive whenever we asked questions he didn’t like–which was quite unprofessional. Elena and I actually felt bad for him, and I wanted to call him up after we had bought the house, to give him some friendly advice on how he could do better. But then I changed my mind, because chances are, he’ll probably just get defensive and claim we didn’t give him another chance to prove himself.

Anyway, Dave got us the house we wanted, and we highly recommend him.

Now, we’re just wrapping up loose ends in China, and then I’ll need to swing by Taiwan for a week or two for my big 40 physical (yep, middle-age, here I come). After that, we’ll be packing up everything and shipping them to our new home in Lincoln.

I’ll be tearing out all the acoustic treatments in my music studio and try to cannibalize as much of it as I can for the new studio in the new home. One up side is that the new studio will be roughly the same size as the current one, so I can just keep the layout the same in general.

I hate moving with a passion, and I just want to get it over with. I hope everything will go smoothly–no broken furniture or appliances, no trouble with customs, and no stolen items (last time we did an international move from China to California, the moving/shipping company in China stole my Takamine acoustic guitar and my Xbox). Whenever we have to deal with a big move, I just wish time would fast-forward to when we’ve already finished unpacking and settling in. Same with long international flights. Some things in life just aren’t worth savoring the experience.

Quickie movie/TV reviews:

Mad Men (season five) – Maybe the best season yet. Every time I sit down to watch an episode, I’m overwhelmed by how
good the writing is, and how masterfully it is directed, acted, art directed, and edited. It is the best show on television, and I think even the people who work on other excellent shows would agree. Mad Men is just that much more sophisticated and intelligent, striking the perfect note between art and commerce, while achieving the kind of profound impact that was previously only attained by the Great American Novels and cinematic masterpieces.

The theme in season five, and perhaps of the entire series, is the search for fulfillment and the failure to achieve it. These characters trip and fall and make mistake after mistake, all for the sake of finding the intangible something that will make them feel whole and content. But they can never achieve it, even though at times, it seemed like they had what they longed for right there in the grasp of their hands, only to have it slip away, turn sour, or crumble under the weight of their own personality defects.

Many in the media have commented on the fact that today’s best television shows are better written and directed than most movies, and Mad Men is one of the shiny stars among the slew of excellent TV shows produced today.

The Vampire Diaries (season three) – I watch shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, and Game of Thrones to be awed by masterful storytelling, acting, directing, and production, and in comparison, shows like The Vampire Diaries or True Blood are merely guilty pleasures. Shows like these can’t hold a candle to truly masterful storytelling, but they provide ephemeral, cheap thrills. Truth is, if it wasn’t for the lovely Nina Dobrev, I probably wouldn’t bother with this show. It wishes it had the emotional poignancy of Joss Whedon’s revered Buffy series, but no amount of referencing Buffy in the show by Damian will make that happen. Kevin Williamson is not, and never will be Joss Whedon.

The Secret Circle (season one) – I was curious about this show because I created a graphic novel series about young mages back in the 90’s called Enchanted, and I’ve always felt that most fiction about magic and witchcraft are woefully lacking in inventiveness and a sense of dramatic gravity. I had low expectations going in, knowing that it’ll be a typical CW styled production, with a bunch of good-looking teenagers wallowing in their irrelevant love triangles and immature spats. I had hoped that there will at least be some excitement with the supernatural elements.

I was wrong. The show dragged on, retreading the same cliches that we all already know from other movies, TV shows, and books. I just couldn’t force myself to watch the whole season (I got to around episode eleven, I think). I had to stop before I wasted any more time on it, especially there are so many critically acclaimed shows out there I have yet to try. This is perhaps the worst show Kevin Williamson has ever created.

And hilariously, it even referenced The Craft in an episode–a far more entertaining take on a similar premise. This must be a Kevin Williamson thing, because I remember way back when he was doing Dawson’s Creek, he referenced The Breakfast Club in an episode when a character derided it as a movie that “stunk.”

So let’s see here:

-Dawson’s Creek referenced The Breakfast Club
-The Vampire Diaries referenced Buffy
-The Secret Circle referenced The Craft

All three referenced other people’s creations that are superior in every way. I don’t know what to think of this. Was Kevin Williamson just wearing his influences on his sleeves, or was he simply trying to make his characters seem like they are media savvy? It’s a little embarrassing that whatever the characters referenced is always superior to your own work in the same genre though.

This Film Has Not Been Rated – It boggles the mind that we give so much power to an institution that actually has no power at all by definition of the law. I’m actually shocked that the most powerful people in Hollywood haven’t done something about it by now.

The Avengers – As a Joss Whedon fanboy, there was no way in hell I’d miss this. While I enjoyed it, I was disappointed that it didn’t have the same kind of character chemistry as in his own creations. I guess there’s only so much you can do with other people’s source material. I’m very happy for his success with this movie though, because he really needed a hit, after getting Firefly and Dollhouse cancelled and losing money on Serenity. I’m hoping that with this latest success, he’ll have more freedom to do his own thing (bring Firefly back, perhaps?).

It’s a Wonderful Life – I’ve never sat down to watch this entire movie from beginning to end. Now that I have, I can see why it’s always listed as one of the most inspirational movies of all time, and always shown during the holiday season.

The Hunger Games – I read the books first, so I already knew the story. I think the fact Suzanne Collins worked on the screenplay herself helped a lot, as she’s not just the one who wrote the books, but also a seasoned writer for the screen.

The movie is pretty good adaptation of the book, and there were no rude surprises such as deviations from the book. All the critical scenes were included, and the gist of the story was well covered. I liked the casting, and I thought the direction was fitting. Overall, it was a good movie, but probably not something I’d watch again.

When I read the book, I just couldn’t picture the cornucopia the way it was described, so I really wanted to see how it was designed in the movie. It looked totally different from what I imagined (I imagined a much larger, looming structure).

I actually really dislike watching movies after having read the books, because it’s much harder to enjoy the movie when you know far more details from the books that will never make it into the movies. It’s a lot better the other way around, because the books always contain a lot more details that wasn’t included in the movies, and you can still have a somewhat new experience.

Casualties of War – I saw this movie on HBO with my brother Michael when it first came out, and we both thought it was trying to hard with the over-acting, and Michael J. Fox was just a terrible choice for the role. I recently decided to give it another chance, and I liked it a lot more this time around, although the over-acting was still a bit grating, and Michael J. Fox still looked like he should be on the set of Back to the Future instead of doing any kind of serious dramatic role.

As a whole, I’m not really a fan of De Palma. I think he’s made a few good movies, but his sensibility is in general a bit too melodramatic for my taste.

Battleship – Watched this on the plane. Let’s just say there shouldn’t be any surprise at all why this movie failed critically. It just couldn’t possibly be more cliched and mainstream, regurgitating all the same tired crap we’ve seen countless times before, including the young and rebellious hothead who started out being self-centered and undisciplined, but then learns responsibility and to work well with others. The only reason Peter Berg did this movie is because of the money–there is no other explanation.

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