Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Real World vs. The Game World

or, How Accurate is that Game Location?
or, I Took Some Cool Pictures in Venice

Earlier this month I took a cruise on the Adriatic Sea with my wife. The cruise started/ended in Venice (Venezia), Italy, so we spent about 2 days there, exploring, taking pictures and doing all the things uncultured American tourists do when they visit Venice.

I had finally platted Assassin's Creed II the month before, so the game version of Renaissance Venice was still fairly fresh in my mind. As we prepared for our trip and I started looking at maps of the real Venice, I was curious as to how it actually compared to that of the in-game Venice. I didn't get a chance to refresh myself on the game version before we left, but I figured I'd compare some pictures when I got back.

Fallout 3 – VA/DC/MD Area
First, a digression. Putting together this editorial made me think of Fallout 3, which takes place in the VA/DC/MD area of the United States. I lived in northern Virginia for 9 years, so was very familiar with that area when I played Fallout 3. It was interesting to see familiar places in the game (particularly DC), but I also quickly realized that everything in the game had been condensed considerably.

For instance, walking across the National Mall (from the Washington Monument to the US Capitol) in the game takes about a minute. This distance in the real world is roughly a mile, which obviously takes a lot longer to traverse on foot. So you can imagine my amusement when in the game you can walk from essentially one corner of the map to the other in roughly 22 minutes, as noted for the below video.

Looking at the in-game map superimposed on the real world (credit to the Fallout Wiki), the same distance in reality is actually around 39 miles. Yeah... not going to walk that in 22 minutes. Not even going to run it in that. Shoot, driving from Tyson's Corner to DC can take you around 20 minutes, and that's on a highway.


I lived in Reston, on the far left of the map, if you were wondering.

Assassin's Creed II – Venice
Which brings me to Venice and Assassin's Creed II. It obviously follows the same principle as Fallout 3 – the map is highly condensed when compared to real life and only really famous structures are done anywhere near scale (though not quite, as you'll see). Below is a picture I took of Venice from the plane as we were landing, and the map of Venice from the game. My picture is taken from the northwest, so to make it easier to line them up I've marked matching locations on each.

Click image to enlarge

Obviously, there are a lot of features now (bridge to the city, cruise terminal) that didn't exist back in 15th century Venice. Also, the island extends out to the east a bit more in reality than in the game. And Giudecca Island (beyond the C in the picture) is not shown on the map, though you can see it in the distance if you go to the southern edge of the city in the game.

Just like in Fallout 3, distances are greatly shortened. It takes a minute or so to get from the top of the map (Cannaregio District) to the Rialto Bridge, when in reality that would take you at least 30 minutes, probably more since you rarely can travel in a straight line and none of us can climb buildings like Ezio.

Another notable thing is that in the game, almost all the streets are quite wide, whereas the majority of those I walked down in reality were very narrow. It's interesting to see how they translated it into the game, after being there... now the game feels like mini-Venice or Venice Jr. to me, since everything is so much smaller than when I was there.

The most prominent features, though – i.e. the ones that everyone expect to be there: the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark's Square – got a lot of attention from the developers.

The Rialto Bridge
The Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto) is the most famous bridge in Venice, and it's also the oldest. Only one of four bridges that currently span the Grand Canal, it was originally built with wood in 1255. They replaced it with a stone version in 1588-1591. Since the game takes place in the late 15th century, they accurately depicted it as wooden.

So, not the same structure that I saw, but interesting to compare, nonetheless. And who knows what information about the wooden version exists... they might have had to make most of it up based on descriptions and the current version. Here are some comparison shots from today and in the game. I apologize for some of the quality of the in-game shots – had to use an external camera.

The northern side of the Rialto Bridge, from a gondola. Don't you just love all the graffiti on the bridge? There was a surprising amount of graffiti in the city.

Click image to enlarge

Myself in front of the southern side of the bridge, west bank of the Grand Canal. I was tempted to jump on one of those poles like Ezio. However, unlike Ezio, I had no desire to get into the clearly dirty and murky canal water.

Click image to enlarge

A shot from the bridge itself, looking south.

Click image to enlarge

The Rialto in Sly 3
This also made me think of Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves, as I've been playing that recently and it also featured Venice. However, the Sly Venice is even more compact and is severely lacking. How's this for the Rialto Bridge?

Well, at least it's the stone version.

There's also a tower further on that looks like the Campanile from St. Mark's Square. But I'm not going to bother with a picture of it. Suffice to say, all Sucker Punch did here was start with a few old buildings, add one Rialto Bridge, mix in a few canals and gondolas, slap in a couple of Italian flags and call it Venice. If Assassin's Creed II is Venice Jr., then Sly 3 is Tadpole Venice.

St. Mark's Square
Back to Ezio and the gang. Arguably the most famous feature of Venice itself, the history of St. Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco) dates back to the early 9th century. None of the original features of the square are still around, and only a few structures from before the time period of the game (Renaissance) actually still exist – the two main ones being St. Mark's Basilica and the Doge's Palace.

The square in the game is pretty accurate, particularly the buildings, but the square itself is kind of smushed into an actual square shape, when in reality it should have been long and rectangular. It's very tiny in the game. Here are some pics of mine compared to the game.

Looking west into St. Mark's Square. Much nicer when it's not packed with tourists.

Click image to enlarge

The western façade of St. Mark's Basilica. Of special note are the mosaics in the arches – they are not the same when they should be. All this attention to detail, yet they miss that?

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Looking south, the Doge's Palace on the left, the base of the Campanile on the right. The two columns at the far end are still there, too (these date from the mid 13th century).

Click image to enlarge

Another object of interest is the Clock Tower in St. Mark's, on the eastern end of the Procuratie Vecchie. It's shown in the game... however, what you see in the pics below was not built until the late 1490s – a few years after the events in the game. So the devs dropped the ball on that one a little bit, but nice job on the clock, it's fairly accurate.

Click image to enlarge

The Bridge of Sighs
The Bridge of Sighs is another popular tourist attraction in Venice and I started looking for this in the game without knowing that it wasn't there; upon researching I discovered it hadn't been built until 1602, over a hundred years after events in the game. Unfortunately this structure isn't all that interesting right now, since it's surrounded by advertisements – Loreal Paris is "sponsoring" the restoration for portions of the Doge's Palace.

Click image to enlarge

So as you can see, it currently looks lame. As for the Renaissance, poor Ezio... he went looking for the bridge, but it wasn't there. Sigh.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bonebearer on Nook

I’ve released Bonebearer in the ePub format, on the Barnes & Noble site, for use with the Nook eReader. You can find it here:

Same price and everything, $0.99. Check it out, it’s only a buck.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Winery Visit – Testarossa Winery

A Little History
My wife and I like to go wine tasting. We do it frequently and in the past have taken trips with friends to taste in a number of places: Finger Lakes (NY), Loudoun County (VA), Napa/Sonoma (CA), Monterey County (CA) and Willamette Valley (OR). Historically, I've been a beer man myself, but after doing so many wine tastings I've developed enough of a palate to tell the different types of wines apart upon taste and can tell when something is swill.

We generally buy a lot of wine on these trips and drink them many months (or even years) later... and it's gotten to the point now that we'll open something from one of our early wine trips and find it's either turned or is just plain bad. We look at each other and think... "we thought this was good back then?"

I don't know how much I'll blog about wine, but I'm bored and figured I might as well, since I do an occasional post about beer. The subject of this first wine blog is Testarossa Winery, in Los Gatos, CA, not too far from where I currently live. Friends of ours visited recently and stopped by there on a weekday when we were working. They recommended it and so one Saturday we took a quick drive over there to see what was up.

The Winery
First of all, the property is quite beautiful. It actually started as the Novitiate Winery in 1888, which was run by the Jesuits and primarily made altar wine for 98 years. Eventually it shut down and in 1997 Testarossa moved onto the property. The building houses the oldest, continuously operating winery in the Bay Area. If you want to read more about the history, check here.

It's up in the hills near downtown Los Gatos, so it's a windy drive to the top. The view isn't the greatest (too many trees and residential houses beyond it), but as I said the property is quite nice. There are large areas where you can relax and share a bottle of wine or some snacks after tasting.

The Tasting
Testarossa produces Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah. When we were there, they were pouring some 2009 vintages, both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as a 2008 Br. Korte Cuvee from their Novitiate label (in the Jesuit tradition, an homage to the original owners of the winery). There were two types of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir each: one from the Santa Lucia Highlands Appellation (here's another map that shows the primary users of each vineyard) and one from the Chalone Appellation (Brosseau Vineyard).

The Brosseau Vineyard ones had a much smaller production, and as such were a bit more expensive. Not surprisingly, my wife and I found them to be much better than the Santa Lucia ones, both the Chardonnay and the Pinot. We ended up buying a bottle of each Brosseau Vineyards.

The Santa Lucia was okay, but it was obviously their cheaper, less-complex wine that they can sell a ton of to easily keep the winery going. These days we aren't usually interested in those. A good bottle of wine is an investment and a treat when opened.

The Tasting Room

Special Tastings
We usually strike up a conversation with the pourer whenever we go to a new winery, and even though Testarossa was quite busy that day (it was a Saturday, and three different pourers served us throughout our time there), we were able to learn some about the history of the winery and eventually were offered to taste the 2003 Brosseau Vineyard Pinot Noir, which was only being served to Club Members (which we are not).

Now, this has happened to us before and I don't know if it's because we seem sincerely interested in the wine and the tasting experience, and are obviously people who will buy something at almost every winery we go to, or if it's because we aren't loud, obnoxious or half-drunk like many large tasting groups tend to be sometimes. Or perhaps they just want to get rid of some of the opened bottles before the end of the day. Or perhaps this way we'll see how well their wines age and be more likely to buy some of the '09.

In any case, we got to taste the 2003 and it was very good, even at 8 years old. We've had so many wines that turn within 3-4 years (our early amateur winebuying skills coming into play there) that we can now tell something good when we see it. That only further solidified our purchase.

We also bought a bottle of the Novitiate they were pouring, mainly because it was decent but surprisingly cheap for its age and limited quantity: $24/bottle, only 122 cases produced.

Testarossa is a great winery, including the location, tasting room and wines themselves. I recommend going early on a weekend or on any weekday, as it will be less crowded. It's $10 to taste, but you get that refunded if you purchase a bottle of wine. For more info check the Testarossa website.

If you're near the San Jose, CA area and like wine, I highly recommend checking out Testarossa. We got some info on their Wine Club and while we haven't joined, it's near the top of the list of those we'd seriously consider joining. We're already members of 3 wine clubs, so for the moment we're set.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Wheel of Time [5] The Fires of Heaven

This is Part 5 of my continuing series of blogs regarding what may possibly be my last re-read of The Wheel of Time, in anticipation of the 14th and final book releasing in 2012. Please see this blog post for an overview of the re-read and why I am blogging about it. Warning: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE SERIES. The best way to approach this retrospective is via your own re-read. If you have not read the entire series yet, you may want to wait on reading this.

Book 5: The Fires of Heaven (1993)
While a good book in its own right, this is where Jordan really starts to get long winded.  Aside from that, this book is notable for several reasons: Perrin is missing entirely, one of the most popular murder mysteries in fantasy is born, one of the central characters is (seemingly) killed (gasp!) and the annoying-ness of the women in this series hits an all-time high.  The "Action Trilogy" continues and there are some quite awesome sequences in the latter half of the novel as Rand continues to take down Forsaken and the nations one-by-one.

It's also notable for me personally because this was the first volume I bought in hardback upon release – I had finally caught up to the most recent entry.  From here on out I had to wait for each new volume to be released.  Little did I imagine that in 2011 I'd still be waiting for the end.  In those days I couldn't think that far ahead.

Thoughts Then
I couldn't wait for this one to be released in paperback, so I used my meager allowance to buy it on hardback.  I carried the massive volume around with me at school, looking like a total dork, I'm sure.  But I didn't care; I was hooked on the series.  I'm pretty sure I read it twice in row.  That, or I re-read the entire series yet again after finishing.

I distinctly remember getting about halfway through the book before realizing that Perrin had not appeared.  I was like... huh?  Where's Perrin?  I looked through the chapter titles, hoping to see something that sounded like Perrin's storyline.  Nothing.  I then paged through the rest of the book, looking at the chapter icons (which were a sort of code to the contents of the chapter by that point) and skimming the text.  No Perrin.

Once I finished the book and verified that Perrin was missing, I felt a bit pissed off.  His storyline from The Shadow Rising was pretty awesome and I wanted to know what happened next.  How could one of the three major characters be entirely ignored for a book?  I was very disappointed that I would have to wait another year to find out what happened next for Perrin.  This is the start of a recurring theme for me... finishing a WoT book, feeling a bit dissatisfied and having to impatiently wait for the next volume.  At least until Book 10.

Thoughts Now
Today, it doesn't really bother me that Perrin is missing.  I already know how annoying he and Faile become later in the series (Books 9-12), so I'm resigned to having to wait until the end of the series before he becomes cool again.  The novel flowed fairly quickly for me this time and I was somewhat surprised to see some reviews on the internet grouping this volume in with the later ones for being "too slow" and "too descriptive"... really, this one isn't half as bad as the later ones.

First, the cover.  This one is okay, though Aviendha's hair is way too long and Mat looks a bit strange.  But at least from here on out, Sweet has kept Mat's look pretty consistent on the covers where he's featured (Crossroads of Twilight, Towers of Midnight).  Not too hard when he's so distinctive with the black hat, ashandarei and foxhead medallion (which is also completely wrong, it's supposed to be a profile of a fox, with the ancient Aes Sedai symbol as the eye).

Oh, and Rand should be taller than Mat... thanks a bunch.

Yes, I know I just sounded like a geek, splitting hairs on the details of a fantasy novel cover.  But this stuff is important, dammit!  The cover was part of the experience at the time.

Back to the story itself.  What really stood out to me during this read was how annoying some of the women get, particularly Nynaeve and Elayne.  Seriously, they are annoying as hell while with the menagerie.  I've always loved the menagerie sequence, it's a chance to see a different side of some of the characters (and it's where Birgitte fully comes into the story), but I don't remember those two women being so "wool headed" and whiny.  It really drove me nuts and I grimaced, remembering that I still have to wade through Crossroads of Twilight at some point.

The second half of the book is great and goes by pretty quickly.  The capture of Moghedien was cleverly done and the death of more Forsaken and taking of nations had come to be expected by that point, as nearly every volume was ending with an epic confrontation.  I reasoned that Rand would kill the Forsaken one by one through each novel, and would take over the world before the Last Battle.

Of course, that aspect of the story pretty much ends after Book 7, as struggles force Rand to change his plans.  But that's where I thought it was heading back in the day.

Who Killed Asmodean?
When I first read about Asmodean's death at the end of the book, I was disappointed (no more Rand learning cool stuff from him), but I didn't really care about who actually killed him.  It was fairly obvious that it was a Forsaken (who else could it have been?), but "the who" of it didn't matter to me.  I was like Jordan and didn't think it that big a deal or terribly important.

It wasn't until years later, after the internet came about, and sites like and the WoT FAQ were born, that I realized a lot of people were stumped by this murder mystery and were analyzing it in ridiculously minute detail.  If the series were more popular (think Harry Potter "popular"), the question of "Who Killed Asmodean" would probably be part of pop culture.  As it is, readers pestered Jordan so much about it that he had to leave a note before his death, stating who actually killed Asmodean so that whoever finished the series (Brandon Sanderson) would know and could add it in somewhere (the killer is finally named in the glossary of Book 13).

Speaking of Asmodean and Brandon Sanderson... when I went to the signing for Book 12, The Gathering Storm, a couple years ago, they were giving out WoT bumper stickers.  They had one that said "I killed Asmodean," which was by far the best one.  I got one and put it on my car.  It's still there:

Yeah, it's a little crooked... it was windy when I was putting it on.

I get asked about it from time to time.  Someone in a parking lot stops me and says, "What's that?  Who is As-mo-deen?"  And I have to explain it as briefly as possible without sounding like a dork.

So.  It took 17 years to find out who killed him.  And no one was really surprised when they found out.  There were only a handful of people it could be anyway, and to be honest, it wasn't important to know.  But I find it somewhat fascinating to look back and see how the whole thing evolved.

Moiraine and No One Ever Dying
I thought she was dead at the end of this book.  Lan not feeling the bond anymore was proof enough to me that she was gone for good.  But, over the years, unlike George R.R. Martin, it seems that Jordan has a tough time killing any major characters in this series.  Virtually everyone who dies comes back later, even the Forsaken (something that has always annoyed me, even though Jordan said that was planned from the beginning).  So I suppose I wasn't surprised that she might come back.

Side note: the eBook cover (by Don Dos Santos) for this book is awesome.  Best picture of Moiraine out there, in my opinion.  How this painting came about is a good read.


It's after this book that past characters start coming back, beginning with the prologue for Lord of Chaos.  Even the sacrifice of Moiraine turns into something less – she was never dead, only trapped by the Aelfinn and Eelfinn.  I don't remember when I came across the theory that she was trapped in Finnland and would be rescued later... sometime in the late 90s, early 2000s.  The letter from Moiraine gets to Thom in the next book, but we don't learn the content until way later in Book 11, Knife of Dreams.  Everyone had figured it out prior to then, but it was excruciating having to wait some 17 years to read the actual sequence!

I'll touch on that in my Book 13 blog.  Suffice to say it was worth the wait and is one of the best sequences in the series.  Sanderson did a great job with it.

The Last Time I Lent Out a Book
Another reason the hardback of this book sticks out in my mind is that I lent it to my high school locker partner at the time, Dave Parker.  He was into fantasy as well, saw that I had the book and asked if he could borrow it.  Sure, why not?  So I gave it to him and when I got it back, the dust jacket was a bit wrinkled and had a few creases, the hardback cover was scuffed and scratched, and the pages themselves looked a shoddy and dirty, as though he had bumped the side of the book into things or read it while eating Cheetos or something.

It's hard to show in a picture... couldn't get the lighting exactly right, but trust me, it looks like crap.

At least the dust jacket manages to hide the wear and tear on this copy.

It really ticked me off, though I didn't say anything at the time.  I like to keep my hardbacks in good condition and for this series I only read them once or twice, doing future re-reads on paperback copies (or on the Kindle like now).  And I always took the dust jacket off when I read a hardback.  Dave probably left it on sometimes.

I lent him another book later on, a paperback copy of The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice... and I never got it back.  I never really stayed in contact with Dave and we didn't hang out much outside of school.  But after that I didn't lend out books unless it was to good friends or family.

So thank you, Dave Parker, for messing up my hardback copy of The Fires of Heaven.  And for never returning my copy of The Vampire Lestat.

Book 6 – Lord of Chaos
Book 4 – The Shadow Rising
Book 3 – The Dragon Reborn
Book 2 – The Great Hunt
Book 1 – The Eye of the World

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

eBook Publication - Bonebearer

I've finally released my first novel, Bonebearer, as a Kindle eBook on Amazon.  It has been released under my pen name, Brad Murgen.

It can be purchased here:

USA ($0.99):

UK (£0.86 - at time of posting):

If you want to check it out prior to purchasing, you can get a free sample sent to your Kindle... the sample is comprised of the first two chapters, along with a portion of the third chapter.

I actually wrote this novel many years ago, all the way back in 2003, and it's been through a few revisions since then.  I sent it to a few major publishers and got rejected (of course) and eventually I got really busy with other things in my life, and the book and my other writings got put on hold.  But now, I figured it was time to start getting my work out there, so I decided to just self-publish it.

Here is the blurb I posted on Amazon:

Kother is a young Yanai boy that lives in the jungles of Kounna. He grows up learning the ways of the jungle and what is expected of a Yanai male, though with his own private doubts about the accepted traditions and rituals of his people.

When he embarks on the male Yanai "coming of age" mission to retrieve his soulstones, he realizes that he is not fit to be a Yanai, and has no true desire to be. This realization leads him on a quest beyond the jungles of his homeland, through deserts and tundra and mountains, encountering strange peoples and customs, searching for the meaning behind his existence.

What he finds is disconcerting... and what he eventually becomes is even more disturbing, for deception lies at the core of all things.
It's kind of a "why do we do things this way?" novel, a topic I've always been fascinated by.  I think about things that we as a human race do or believe in, and wonder where they came from, how they originated, how they possibly got twisted as knowledge was passed down through generations over the centuries.  It's a fantasy, though there's no magic or anything like that.

I am looking into other eBook publishing avenues in order to get the book to as broad an audience as possible, but I haven't decided on any others yet.  Kindle eBooks can be accessed from so many device types now (Kindle, PC, handset, tablet), that I'm not even sure it's worth publishing through other sites.  So we'll see.

Currently working on a simple author website using WordPress ( and some author info (photo, bio), which will be up in the next few days.  I probably won't blog on the author site.  I will move this one over if the need arises.

I have another novel and a collection of short stories about ready to go for the future, so there will be more material from me if you happen to like this novel.  It's only a buck... give it a try!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Game of the Month [Aug 11] EA Sports Active 2 [PS3]

EA Sports Active 2.0

I wouldn't technically call this a game, but it's really the only thing I "played" this past month, as I didn't have a lot of time for gaming overall. I sit at a computer pretty much all day for work and other various activities (like moderating and guide team on, of course), and aside from a regular walk each day, I needed something else to keep me a little active and get me out of my chair. I originally bought this game for my wife last Christmas, when she wanted to do some different types of exercising at home. I didn't even touch it until this past month, though I'd watched her workout a number of times since then.

So I tried the game, and it's not too bad. It's nice to have that variety in my routine and actually do something physical, and the game having trophies is a good incentive for me to keep playing (because deep down I actually hate exercise and if there weren't trophies I'm not sure I'd play it). I stuck to the Cardio Kick Start Program over a span of about 4 weeks and completed it without missing a workout... well, technically I missed one, and had to set the date on my PS3 back to ensure I got the trophy. But still. I did it for the tropheez.

Only later on did I realize how difficult the platinum for the game is... it requires you to do things like travel 1000km in number of different activities (running, mountain biking, etc)... and that is a long distance. There are progress meters in the stats area of the game, and the meters for those aren't even visible yet after a month of playing. There is a 9 week program I have yet to start, so it will be a while before that's complete. And to make things worse, you need two sets of sensors for a trophy, which I personally find somewhat lame.

However, if you need an exercise program and want to earn some tough trophies at the same time, this is the game for you. You will need to play it for months, though, it order to come close to platting it. How far I get remains to be seen. My 38% so far isn't too bad.

A word of advice when playing this game, though... cheat on the jumping activities. I've seen users post about that in the game forum and they are correct. You'll kill your knees if you jump around as much as the game asks you too. Thankfully you can just raise your arms and one leg to trick the sensors into thinking you are jumping - which I don't really feel is cheating, since it still provides movement and adds to the workout. And turn off the narrator's encouragement... it's annoying as hell.