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Sunday
Feb192017

Gone, but not Forgotten

Last night we said goodbye to our cat Storm, and it was one of the hardest events of my adult life. Since most who will read this never got to meet him, let me introduce you to his memory.

When my wife and I first got married, she was working part-time and I was working full-time. She lobbied me hard to get a cat to keep her company while I was off at work. I was originally very resistant to the idea. I had grown up with dogs, and I always thought of cats as kind of aloof, cranky little creatures that didn't really like the people they shared the homes of.

She and Storm kind of picked each other out. She went to visit him a couple of times at the animal shelter that had him, and he would hang onto the screen and look pensively after her as she left. When she came back, all she had to do was call his name and he came running, which is why we never changed his name when we got him.

At first, he and I didn't really know what to make of each other, and he even hissed at me a few times in those first few months. Then I took a week of stay-cation and at some point, he seemed to decide that if we were going to live together, we should probably be friends. He climbed into my lap, snuggled up against me and went to sleep. From that point forward, he was my cat, too.

And what a beautiful cat he was. Covered in thick, soft, fine gray fur, he was gorgeous to look at and luxurious to pet. (And he loved being petted. You could reach down and pet his little head and he'd close his eyes and push his head into your palm.) His big, oversized paws and fluffy, squirrel-like tail that he'd wrap around you when you petted him completed the effect. When he'd nap, he'd cross his front feet over each other and wrap that big fluffy tail around himself. He was very cute when he was sleeping.

I've seen and heard things that indicate that cats don't bond with people in the same way other animals do, but even if that's the case, Storm was clearly the exception. He wanted nothing so much as to be by one of us. You could reach down to pick him up and before you even had his feet off the floor, he'd be purring. When we had to do things to him that he didn't like (such as forcing pills down his throat toward the end of his life) he never held it against us. I felt like he really trusted us and even if he didn't like something, he knew we were doing what we felt was best for him. Two minutes after you'd had to fight with him to get some medicine down his throat, he was squeaking at us for attention.

That was one of the other things that was especially cute about the little guy, by the way - instead of the usual yowly cat meow, he had a cute little high-pitched squeak of a voice, which combined with his appearance for a rather comical effect. Here's this big, powerful-looking, fluffy cat, and when he'd look at you and meow, it was this cute little "mew!" noise.

And we heard that voice a lot. He was an especially vocal kitty; he would squeak at us for attention, he'd purr whenever he got it, and he'd communicate in other ways. He had a cute little "squick" noise he'd made occasionally when he was content and you'd pet him, and if you did something that made him really happy, he'd trill in addition to purring. That voice also would come into play on weekend mornings a lot of the time. I'm usually up before my wife is, and she had a morning ritual of "coffee and snuggles" with him where she'd sit with him on her lap and coffee in her hand and go over email, newsfeed, and social media in the morning before getting to work on her craft business. He liked this time as much as she did, and sometimes on a Saturday when she felt like sleeping in and I was up, he'd get impatient and squeak indignantly at me to go get her up, even going to the extent of walking down the hallway where our bedroom door is and squeaking loudly there before coming back and pestering me more. He couldn't speak, but the message was clear: "GO GET NICKI!" When she did finally get up, he was underfoot the entire time she made coffee, and as soon as she settled into her chair, he'd hop into her lap with a happy little squeak and settle down to start purring.

He did plenty of cute things to get my attention, too. Because of the layout of our apartment, my computer desk is right by the end of the sofa, so he'd hop up on the arm of the sofa and gently tap me on the shoulder with one of his soft, oversized paws as if to say "Excuse me, human. I would like some snuggles, please." All I had to do was swivel my chair a little to face him and he'd either do a cute little nose bump with me like the picture below or climb right into my lap.

His life was one of following us around, giving and receiving affection. As I type this, there's some little part of me that expects to be able to reach down and find his soft, furry little head down there, scratch behind his velvety ears and maybe pick him up for some lap time. He was always underfoot and in the way because he wanted to be right there with us. I used to joke that we should have named him Gandalf, because he was gray and he wouldn't let me pass.

They say that cats don't usually like getting picked up, but he sure did. My wife or I could reach down, scoop the little guy up and put his front paws on our shoulder and his back half in our arms and walk around with him purring and snuggling his little head against us. We referred to him as a "living stuffed animal" sometimes. If we left for any significant amount of time, he was very needy and demanding of affection when we got back, but even when I went off to work every day, he was there to greet me when I came home. Usually, I'd see his little face peek out from the top of the stairs when I came in the front door, but occasionally, he'd actually come down the steps and greet us before we even got all the way in. We'd often see his little head in the upstairs window when we pulled up in the car.

All of this affection earned him a bunch of nicknames. His actual name was Storm, but we usually referred to him as "kitty," "kitteh," "fuzzy buddy," "mister snuggles," or "snugglefuzz." We also used to call him The Beast that Squeaks; the Squeakybeast. You could call to him and he'd usually come trotting up with an expectant look on his face as if to say "snuggles?"

He was a spectacularly, almost absurdly well-behaved cat. He didn't claw the furniture. He'd get down from places he wasn't supposed to be if you told him to. If he was on your lap and you needed to get up, you usually just had to tap him on the butt gently and he'd hop down (occasionally with a "but why?" look from the floor). If he was snuggling in bed with us and it was time to go to sleep, you could pat his butt the same way and he'd hop down and trot off to the kitchen for a late night snack. (Although sometimes with some reluctance.) Though in fairness, that required some conditioning. When we first got him, when we'd put him outside the door to sleep, he'd cry outside the bedroom door, reach up and rattle the doorknob, and even reach under with his little feet. We had to chuck rolled-up socks at the door to train him to knock it off. A few times, he even hid under the bed and then ambushed at at 3am by jumping onto us for snuggles in the night, which scared us about half to death. Once we had him acclimated to the routine, though, he went along with it well and happily greeted us in the morning. Even when he puked like cats are wont to do, he'd find an empty section of floor and yak there rather than on or in something. The worst thing he consistently did was to nap on piles of my wife's crafting fabric he wasn't supposed to be on and root in a small trash can full of fabric scraps she kept by one of the sewing machines. He even, heart-wrenchingly, had the courtesy to reach the end of his life on a Saturday, which is giving us some time to process the loss of him before we have to go back to our regular lives.

In his younger days, he was a playful, goofy little guy. Every once in a while, some wacky kitty impulse would trigger in his brain, and he'd run around the apartment at top speed, then come to a screeching halt by one of us with a playful little squeak and when we'd look down at him, he'd do the "what? you saw nothing." thing that cats do and start cleaning one of his shoulders. He'd play this game with us where he'd go around a corner and we'd take turns peeking at the other until he decided to run around the corner and go up on his hind legs with his front paws outstretched to startle us. We'd walk past him, and he'd bat at our legs with his paws and then affectionately head butt us when whe reached down to pet him. He'd circle around directly behind my desk chair and squeak at me for attention, and he'd pounce on and savagely attack his favorite toy, a stuffed frog.

Because of all of this personality, my wife and I developed a very specific funny voice that was his, and we'd fill in dialog for him, complete with meme-esque verbiage. Phrases like "what you does?" when he would come to investigate what we were doing became a mainstay in our household, and Storm was the source of a great many inside jokes for us.

For most of his life, he was extremely shy around strangers. His reaction to any living thing that wasn't us seemed to be "Aaaaah! It might eat me!" and he'd run away and hide from visitors, re-emerging when they'd left. In his old age, he got bolder and actually had to be moved to another room because in his curiosity he was getting underfoot when an HVAC guy came to install a new thermostat in our apartment.

The end of his life came from congestive heart failure. We got the diagnosis about 5 weeks back, when my wife took him in to the vet, concerned at his manic back-licking and weight loss. We spent a fortune on cat food trying to get him to gain some of that weight back, setting out multiple kinds of wet food to see what he'd eat. For a while, he'd be really enthusiastic about duck, and then he'd change his mind and want chicken or tuna instead. He lost about a third of his body weight, but even as a stringy old sick cat, he still wanted lots of love and affection. We both got a good amount of snuggles out of him Friday night, but it was obvious as soon as we got up on Saturday morning that something was very wrong. We took him into the vet, who suggested upping the dosages on his meds to try to counteract his symptoms, but after watching him stare at the wall, breathing heavily for most of the day, it became apparent he wasn't going to get any better. We tearfully made an appointment to say goodbye to him. He didn't even need the second shot. The sweet little guy passed away gently from the anesthetic.

The worst thing about his memory, I think, is what we in my family call the "Nestlie Effect." My parents had a Border Collie/Belgian Galgoenel mix named Nestlie that was also a singularly awesome pet, and it's hard not to compare other dogs they've had to him. Storm will be like that for us. He was such an awesome kitty and has set the bar so high that it will be hard to not compare other animals we have to his memory.

I have my share of regrets in life, but mercifully, none of them revolve around Storm. We gave him a good life, we took good care of him, and our lives were richly blessed for his presence in them. I will grieve the little fuzzball for a long while, I suspect, but that grief comes from a deep and lasting gratitude that we got twelve years of love, joy, and amusement from him. Rest in peace, Storm.

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Sunday
Mar272016

Cleared: The Beginner's Guide

I just played through The Beginner's Guide, and I'm having a difficult time trying to come up with what to say about it. Certainly, smarter people than me have written a lot more about it than I'm going to be able to manage here. What I will say is that: 1. It's an experience well worth having, and it's also brief - it will take only about 90 minutes of your time, and 2. it's not a traditional game AT ALL. Instead, it's a semi-interactive treatise on creativity, criticism, project, compassion, social anxiety, and probably a huge number of things I missed.

There's a decent amount said about authorial intent versus critical analysis, external perception versus internal life, and there's some amazing symbolism in there along the way (the classroom level in particular is probably going to stick in my mind forever).

It's very interesting and well worth the time and money you'll spend on it, but it isn't a traditional game experience in any way.

Verdict: I feel like a score isn't applicable to this one, but I do feel comfortable saying you should check it out.

Sunday
Mar062016

Cleared: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

I've had this game since shortly after it released, but it took the sequel to get me to play it.

A short spoiler of my review for The Witcher 3, whenever I manage to finish it: it's an AMAZING game. The writing in particular is spectacular. So good, in fact, that after 30 hours of playing it, I deleted my save game and went back to the first two in the series to play them so I'd know the lore and so I'd have a save game I was happy with to import.

The first game has aged poorly. It's a janky mess with a number of problematic elements that nevertheless was still a groundbreaking game for its time. After having played through that one, I can say this with confidence: just YouTube it if you want to know the story.

This isn't a post about the first or third games, though, it's about the second one, which, while not quite the transcendant masterpiece the third one has turned out to be is still a very worthwhile and enjoyable game.

In The Witcher 2, you play Geralt of Rivia, a witcher. Witchers are alchemically-mutated humans that earn their living as freelance monster hunters, and while not invincible, are extremely formidable people. Geralt is a first-rate swordsman and has training in alchemy and a small number of very basic magic effects called signs that he mostly uses in combat (though one of them, the Axii sign, works a bit like the Jedi Mind Trick). In addition Geralt is a pretty competent investigator and is a decent judge of character. He immediately outclasses most people he meets and a fair number of monsters, too. However, while Geralt can be assured of winning easily most of the time when he draws his sword, a lot of the problems he encounters can't be solved entirely at swordpoint.

The series takes place in a very morally-gray fantasy setting, full of racism and corruption. However, unlike some other fairly dark fantasy settings, this doesn't just mean that everybody is a selfish jerk. The writing and characters have a very human feel to them - people are good and bad in believable ways, want the kind of things you would expect them to want, fall victim to their weaknesses of character, and try to live their lives the best they can. Lives are intercnnected, and solving the problem of one person often involves making life worse (or even shorter) for someone else who may not even fully deserve it. In addition, there is no mechanical morality system, just choices and consequences. Apparently the entire last 2/3rds of the game can go in two wildly different directions, too, which means that despite having beaten the game, I've only seen about half of its content. A word of warning, though: this is a very "adult" game. The full spectrum of human failings are on display here, often in fairly graphic fashion.

The game systems are competent - crafting, inventory management, and combat all work well and the game is still beautiful, even almost 5 years after its release. None of this matters nearly as much as the story and characters, though - at the best of times, they're icing on the cake. At the worst, they're merely there.

Verdict: 9/10. There's not much fault to be found here. Good story, beautiful art, and solid gameplay. If you can take the content, it's very worth playing.

Saturday
Mar052016

Cleared: XCOM 2

Every once in a while, something doesn't get the chance to sit on the backlog for very long at all before I finish it. Truth be told, it's probably kind of cheating to say that XCOM was ever on the backlog in the first place; I prepurchased it and was so excited to play the game that I put off my usual beginning-of-year week of vacation until I could get it to coincide with the lanch date for the game. The term for my emotional state at the time is "pumped" or perhaps "stoked" - I was really excited for the game.

I've since put roughly 90 hours into it, about half of the number of hours I put into its predecessor. It's no secret that the game has had some technical problems. Slow load times, chugging framerates, odd animation bugs, and peaked hardware utilization have all plagued the game's early days, and I have experienced most of those problems to one extent or another.

Some folks may find that pair of facts hard to reconcile - why keep playing a buggy game? In this case, simply because I was having enough fun that the bugs were worth it. All of the bugs were technical issues - things that affected how well the game worked as a piece of software, but not how well it played as a game. A good analogy for how I feel about the bugs is to compare the experience to watching an amazing movie on a worn-out VHS tape. The experience is affected somewhat by the quality of the playback, but the underlying content is unaffected.

That underlying content, by the way, is exceptionally good. I've played a lot of squad tactics games in my day, going all the way back to Laser Squad in the 80s. It is, in fact, my favorite genre of video game. So when I say that despite the bugs, this remains one of the 2 or 3 best examples I've ever played of the genre, I'm praising it very highly indeed. The new classes are more versatile and interesting than the old ones, I love the new tech tree and the random "experimental" things that come out of the Proving Ground, the strategic layer is better in virtually every measurable way and the new enemies are a real pain in the best possible sense.

And then of course it released with mod support on day 1, and even 3 very professional mods from the folks at Long War Studios, also on day 1.

Once they get it patched a few times and the DLC comes out, I can't imagine how good it'll be.

Verdict: 9.5/10. I'd have loved to have given this one a perfect score, but the bugs were just a bit too much. Still highly, highly recommended, though.

Thursday
Mar032016

Cleared: Diablo III (with Reaper of Souls)

I finally got around to playing Diablo III when my wife decided that what she wanted for her birthday was to get both of us licenses and stay home playing it and eating pizza from a local place that is very good at pizza. Who was I to deny her? Ah, the wild craziness of a two-introvert household.

In any case, I got to Diablo III something in the neighborhood of three years late, which means I missed a lot of controversy about the former auction house and so forth (or, more accurately, heard it all on podcasts and such but never had a stake in it). The version of Diablo III that I played was in a typical post-release state for a Blizzard game, which is to say it ran like butter and everything was polished to the nth degree.

I played through as a Crusader (which I realized later was actually a class added in the expansion pack) and enjoyed myself quite a bit, including in a wholly unexpected way: the game presented such an interesting contrast between the members of two orders of religious warriors that I got a blog post out of it over on the Saving the Game website.

I also found that I enjoyed some of the other changes they made between the last game in the series and this one, particularly the ability to "respec" whenever you're not actively in combat. The increased freedom to experiement with new builds without making a whole new character was welcome.

Verdict: It's not terribly surprising that a well-patched Blizzard game was good, but the commentary on holy warriors was a nice (and unexpected) bonus. 9/10