On Sunday, at the Cards Against Humanity panel at PAX Prime, the hosts brought up a number of guests in order to pay tribute to our friend Ryan Davis. My buddy Eric Pope shared with the audience and the people watching the live stream the above audio, which I now share with you.
Ryan loved Comedy Bang Bang, and particularly loved the character Bob Ducca. I asked Seth Morris to make something as Bob Ducca that I could share with Ryan’s friends and coworkers. Seth didn’t know Ryan, and he didn’t have to do this. But he did, because Seth is awesome.
It’s a small thing, really. I was watching the live stream on Sunday, and got to hear people laugh. And that made me feel good. I’m glad a lot of people will hear this, because I think it’s really funny.
We are deeply saddened to announce that Jason Andrew Molina passed away in his home in Indianapolis this past Saturday, March 16th of natural causes at age 39. Jason was a world class musician, songwriter & recording artist. He was also a beloved friend. He first caught international attention in…
I’ll allow it
Amazing. This is actually me.
The buzz around Salt of the Earth among Pittsburgh foodies has been significant, but the reward for the wait is probably the best dining in the city. Head Chef Kevin Sousa’s reputation of creativity has fueled much of that excitement, crafting a menu that is bold and sophisticated but also accessible.
There is a large main area downstairs with three sections: a counter facing the open kitchen, a bar, and a large common area with three or four communal tables. These areas are all first come, first serve, and the wait can be long on a weekend. There are no printed menus; your options are on a chalkboard that occupies an entire wall of the open space, modified through the night as items become sold out or freshly available. The restaurant’s light wood and stainless steel are modern and clean, but the bustle and sound of people coming and going keep the atmosphere friendly and warm. There is second floor loft space overlooking the common area with private tables meant for reservations. These are the best option for a quiet dinner date and are where my wife and I sat.
We started with two appetizer courses, and the portions were small and focused. We ordered the octopus and beet dishes. Their inventive combinations, per the menu:
Octopus - chorizo, potato, olive, almond
Beets - frisée, truffle-mustard, poached egg
The octopus was a real treat. I’ve had rubbery octopus even at decent restaurants, but this was expertly prepared. The olives were especially interesting, a noted contrast but fitting in nicely with the light saltiness of the dish. The beets were delicious, not mushy or hard, and the poached egg made for a delightful creamy composition. Each individual component of the meal was carefully selected; there were no weak points on our plates. Our entrées came next:
Sturgeon - cauliflower, buckwheat, Swiss chard
Lamb Loin - celeriac, pumpkin, date
Both were fantastic. The sturgeon had a striking preparation. Fish is often prepared so lightly that it feels like you are tiptoeing through it, but this had a lot of flavor. The buckwheat was toasted, a textural joy that we did not expect. The lamb loin was also excellent: the cut was handsome and the preparation a perfect medium rare. Date jelly and pumpkin made the dish very appropriate for the dreary, cool night, and the portions on both dishes were ideal. We ordered two desserts as well, having already fallen into the rabbit hole and wanting to see where we would go next.
Cheese - Midnight Moon goat, Maytag bleu, quince, maple, bacon
Pudding - chocolate, goji berry, coconut, hazelnut
Both had avant-garde surprises that I dare not spoil; the desserts were the coup de grace for a dinner already full of surprises. Kevin Sousa’s reputation for innovation is well earned. We were stuffed by the end of the meal and felt as if we had been on a whirlwind culinary tour.
We created our own adventure through the menu and each item was unique, not found on other local menus. The twist is that, with six items and the corkage fee (modest for champagne served in a chilling tub); the entire bill was just over $100. It is dissonant, thinking to pay so little for an excellent dining experience that could command twice its price without complaint. I cannot recommend it enough.
Salt of the Earth
5523 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15206
This article contains significant plot details for Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption, so if you have not played through those games, I would avoid reading it.
The marriage of a narrative medium to the story being told is a difficult task. When reading The Road, I found Cormac McCarthy’s bland tone disconnected from the larger tale that he wrote. When watching Apocalypse Now, there is a beautiful harmony between the dreamlike descent into hell as conveyed by the film’s structure and the story of madness overtaking a man.
This becomes an even greater challenge when applied to games. Since a game’s pacing can often be controlled by the player, there are limitations on how much you can shape an experience. Film, music, and literature are far more direct, and the tone of the author(s) can be very precise. Even with revered games, there can be a disconnect. Is there anything about the space pirate storyline of the Metroid that games is specifically complementary to the solitary exploration gameplay, other than the fact that it’s set in mysterious deep space? There was some dramatic marketing for Halo 3 that spoke of sacrifice and honor, but that didn’t really have anything to do with the sandbox shooting that the game actually presented to the player. Game designers have to struggle with pacing and visual presentation that a player controls in addition to the layer that interaction provides. Can you make an interaction complement a narrative?
Braid is a recent example of a phenomenal commitment to an interwoven story and gameplay concept. The dreamlike narrative tells of past events and their associated regret, and the gameplay is all about rewinding time to erase mistakes or choose alternate paths. It’s a stroke of genius to combine the two in such a way, and is certainly a reason why the game has become such a critical darling. Rockstar Games, in its sandbox game series starting with Grand Theft Auto III as its first real attempt at cinematic storytelling, has been struggling with free will and how it relates to gameplay. For me, they have finally struck gold with Red Dead Redemption.
The storyline in Grand Theft Auto III was filled with ludicrous characters and plenty of commentary on American society, but it didn’t have much heft. It was a generic revenge storyline punctuated with caricatures. The same can be said for Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which expanded the scope but became more about amassing power and wealth for its own sake. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had something a bit more approaching a complementary story arc, with a character being drawn back to their hometown and being thrown into events out of their control, but was also more satire than actual story, and was just as silly as its predecessors were.
Grand Theft Auto IV attempted to change this by making the plot more realistic and focused, and concentrating on main character Niko Bellic’s strive for revenge to quiet the ghosts of his past. The disconnect came in the way that the character presented himself and the way that the game actually played. Niko is either a liar or unaware of himself, because the actions that he takes in the game contrast directly with someone taking a new, moral approach to life. There are moments of moral choice in the game, and they work well, but in contrast to the other thousand terrible things that he’s done, you simply cannot take Niko’s words at face value.
This problem is addressed in Red Dead Redemption by differences in narrative and gameplay. John Marston is the game’s main character, and comes from a very troubled past of outlaw living, not unlike Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in Unforgiven. Like Munny, Marston is trying to make a new life for himself. Marston was betrayed by his gang and left to die, then picked up by federal agents who kidnap his family and force him to chase and kill his former friends. This fate that resembles that of Robert Ryan’s Deke Thornton in The Wild Bunch, tortured by pressure and caught between two powerful forces preying on his past.
The game does an excellent job of detailing Marston’s intentions and reasons for doing what he does, and gives the player enough space that completely accidental misdeeds are rare. In Grand Theft Auto IV, escaping pursuer or chasing prey through a very crowded city almost always involved collateral damage. You might run over a little old lady, but since you have to track down that stolen car, it was considered an acceptable loss and the character did not seem to care. The space in Red Dead Redemption minimizes this kind of incident. When I accidentally killed a sheriff in Red Dead Redemption, it was because it was dark in the wilderness, I heard gunfire, and thought that the person I was aiming at was an escaping criminal. It was a true accident, but involved a conscious decision rather than just being a fault of not being able to control my path of destruction through a town’s populace. This allows the player to role-play the Marston that the story provides to them, and I found myself able to play through the entire game harming a bare minimum of innocent people, respecting the choices that my Marston told me were his choices. I don’t see a way that a person could play their Marston as a villain without completely ignoring the provided story.
Not only can the gameplay finally complement the narrative to make the message consistently communicated, but the overall story arc also relates to these ideas. In the pursuit of peace and freedom with your family, you must interact with several dozen characters through the course of the game in search of intelligence that will lead you to your former gangmates. As a result, you have to do a lot of their bidding and cater to their agendas. However, Marston gets very tired of this process, and his anger and frustration build through the course of the game. He becomes defiant, tired of doing busy work for others when his goal is to see his family again. Marston’s past has become the noose by which others would hang him, limiting his ability to realize his free will. When he finally manages to break free of those commitments, the game’s tone changes. You are finally given access to your family, to your son in particular, for whom you want a better life. He is rightfully resentful and anxious about your return, and I found myself treating the missions very differently. I was angry that I had to do busy work for powerful locals, but very happy to go on simpler missions with my son, hunting or driving our cattle back to the ranch. I was also more careful, paying close attention to make sure that he didn’t come to harm. This was the reward that I sought; Marston was finally able to live life on his own terms. It wasn’t a Lamborghini and endless riches, but it had far more meaning than those rewards could have.
Like William Munny, Marston is unable to escape his past. Later missions have his former overlords hunting him down for his defiance, and in a shocking twist, John Marston dies near the end of the game. You cannot outgun his fate. The game gives you a shot, but winning is impossible, and the game shows his family mourning his loss. It’s a bold and fantastic choice, and gives real gravity to his sacrifice. In a continuation of that strength, the next part shows you playing as his son, three years later, after his mother has died and he has grown up. He has his father’s clothes and guns, but his fate is yours to decide.
These design choices, at the last moments of the main part of the game’s story, serve as thoughtful ruminations on the nature of free will and the grip of your past. In the same vein that you were able to shape John Marston to fit his words or to contrast with his words, you can shape his son, Jack. Did the violence by which his father met his end haunt him to the point of turning him into a villain, or did he honor his father’s request to be a better man than he was? The adult Jack Marston does not get much dialogue to define him, so it is up to the player, with their sandbox to play in. This is a perfect complement to the open-world gameplay that Rockstar has perfected, and makes Red Dead Redemption not only a cut above its competition, but an example of the evolving art form of gaming, where the way that you interact can be complementary to the story you’re being told, forming a complete experience.