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August 7, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»bioshock

A Man Chooses

Note: This post is going to gleefully spoil a crucial scene from Bioshock. It will absolutely ruin the enjoyment of much of the plot if you haven't played. So if that's the case, and you're interested in playing it at some point, delete this from your feedreader and/or scroll past it. I'll try to stay fairly vague, in case your eye wanders, and try not to edit it too much.

I actually thought I had been spoiled for the twist in Bioshock before I played it, because I already knew that Jack (the main character) is actually Andrew Ryan's illegitimate son, suspected that Atlas was not who he seemed to be, and had heard that Jack was being manipulated somehow during the events in Rapture. In other games, these would be the twists.

Which is not to say that they're not in Bioshock, to some degree. The method by which Jack is controlled, along with flashbacks through the game to drive the realization home, is played for natural dramatic effect. Likewise, the game feeds you clues as to Jack's identity gradually enough that--even if you don't realize the full extent of his relationship to Ryan--you feel clever about figuring it out.

But the real killer scene is when, after revealing the method by which Jack has been manipulated throughout the game, Andrew Ryan uses it to take control of him. He delivers a short monologue (in the best tradition of his inspiration, Ayn Rand), repeating again and again that "A man chooses. A slave obeys." He demonstrates his ability to control Jack (at this point, and for the remainder of the scene, Bioshock takes over input and disables the gamepad).

And then, that plot point is still being digested, he hands Jack a club, and commands him to kill. The player is only able to watch helplessly as his alter-ego slowly beats Ryan to death, with Ryan shrieking all the while: "A man chooses! A slave obeys! Obey!" It's a tremendously shocking and disturbing tableau. I would argue that solely as a game, Bioshock doesn't provide much in the way of novelty. As a narrative, however, it is absolutely brilliant, and Ryan's death is the peak of that brilliance.

(If you don't plan on playing the game, or you want a refresher on what I'm talking about, you can watch it here. If you haven't played it, however, I suspect it'll be robbed of most of its context and resonance.)

There are several really thought-provoking things about the scene, the most obvious of which is its decision to make the player powerless. You could write the same scene in a movie, or in a book, with Jack unable to stop himself from murdering Ryan. But it's really only in a game, where the player is used to interaction, that the point can be fully driven home--a tendency Bioshock encourages by only very rarely using traditional cutscenes, generally eschewing them in favor of Half-Life's now-ubiquitous scripted events.

Immediately after Ryan's death, interestingly enough, Jack is given a new mission using the same mental control mechanism--but this time, the player is back behind the wheel. I suppose you could choose not to follow orders at this point, but you'd be forced to sit forever in a small room with no-where else to go and no plot available to you. Which is a neat way of forcing the player to bow to the plot convention, as well as a sly commentary on the nature of videogame storytelling--of course you're going to do what you're told, chump, because you literally have no choice. Interesting, too, that Jack is unknowingly coerced into following the game's missions, instead of allowing for the possibility that the player would have gone along out of altruism or curiosity if given a choice. Not to mention that no-one has to issue any commands before the player kills practically everything in sight (although I doubt this view of Bioshock's violence was intentional).

In his defense of the game against its detractors, Kieron Gillen seems to argue that designer Ken Levine is trying to send two messages in Bioshock: A) don't follow any ideology blindly, and B) killing (the Little Sisters) is morally wrong. The second point is a nice thought, but entirely speculation--Levine has stated bluntly that he never wanted to add the "bad" ending for players who harvested the Little Sisters instead of rescuing them, which would have left the game morally ambiguous if he'd had his way. The first stands on stronger ground, but I wonder if it's not undermined by the circumstances of Ryan's death. After all, if Ryan never forbade contact with the surface (a governmental control of the kind he claimed, as a Libertarian demagogue, to detest), Frank Fontaine might have never risen up to challenge him via a smuggling empire. The game isn't a ringing endorsement of Objectivism, but it's no refutation, either.

Levine himself is on record, I believe, as saying that he wanted the game's narrative to focus on how so-called perfect ideologies are invariably let down by imperfect humans. Again, I'm not sure that the narrative actually backs that up--in no small part because I believe it's a flawed premise from the start. My reading of it, backed up by Ryan's assisted suicide, is more along the lines of "be careful what you wish for." Ryan sets out to create an Objectivist state where laws are ignored and industry rules all, and Fontaine is the embodiment of that state--to Ryan's dismay (particularly since it moves him to betray those ideals in order to combat Fontaine). In the end, it's Ryan's own runaway ideology that threatens him, and rather than change his ways and live, he allows it to kill him.

Regardless of these interpretations, the fact that Bioshock can invite such investigation is a testament to the writing and the depth of characterization throughout. It's on the strength of that writing, and the uniformly excellent voice acting, that Bioshock truly succeeds, above and beyond the bare mechanics of the game itself--killing the same splicers and hacking the same machines over and over again soon becomes tedious. The promise of Rapture's secrets, on the other hand, may carry it past those problems more effectively than any straightforward gameplay could have done.

July 28, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»wii_fit

A Wii Bit More Fit

The greatest advantage of Wii Fit, for me, has been that it kept me going long enough to see some slight amount of progress: I now have an ab. Perhaps one day, I'll be able to pluralize that.

There are many reasons I'm not really into physical fitness programs. I don't like going to gyms. I am not a fan of instructors, choreography, or trainers. I am, I realize now, not really a planner--my style is to lay out a set of bullet-points and then casually work my way toward them.

Wii Fit is not really much of a workout. It rarely causes much cardiovascular stress, and it doesn't force you to do much of anything. But I could get up in the morning, meander through half an hour of exercise, and somehow I'd manage to do 40-50 jackknifes a day, plus motivate myself to lift some weights and occassionally even some push-ups. Again, it's not much of a workout, but it's more than I usually do. Hence the ab, of which I'm very proud, and which turns out to be powerful motivation to do more.

Of course, now the pain really starts. Because Belle has figured out that I haven't given up. And she is a planner. She makes Google calendars to track our progress. She's got three separate programs we're going to do. She's even started a blog for us, Nerds Get Fit, which is exactly what it sounds like. I haven't written there yet, but I'll cross-post this, because she says I get double the crunches if I don't.

If you don't hear from me in the near future, Internet, it is likely because I'm curled up on the Wii Fit board, cradling my sore muscles and remembering the good times we had together.

July 15, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»twewy


Anyone working on an RPG, particularly a portable RPG, needs to take a long, hard look at The World Ends with You, Square's recent DS game. It's filled with interesting ideas, like the slider that lets players trade levels and difficulty for item drops, or the ridiculously complicated cross-screen combat.

Most of these features are interesting, or amusing, or helpful, but they're not revolutionary. No-one's going to imitate the multitasking combat, and its "pin" system is really just a weirdly limited version of the Mega Man Battle Network games. The setting has been lauded by reviewers, but that's only because nerds love to obsess over Tokyo's Shibuya district, and the storyline is the same old adolescent angst that Square's been peddling for years now.

But if designers want to learn from TWEWY, they need to steal its experience system. Because instead of the usual grind, you can also level up in the game by turning it off and doing something else for a while. The next time you turn it on, for up to a week, your character gains experience for the the time elapsed--not enough to incentivize not playing, but it certainly takes the sting out of setting it aside if I get frustrated.

It's an astonishing development, in a way, because it reveals what almost everyone knows but game designers seem reluctant to admit: nobody likes the level grind. No-one wants to sit around playing against the same enemies over and over again in order to proceed--nobody sane, at least. That the entire MMO industry has been built around this process is a tribute to its social appeal and the polish of the surrounding parts, not the value of the grind.

I don't expect all games to implement progress-via-absence in this exact form, but at the very least it would be nice if software were smarter about time. I can't count the number of games that I've wandered away from, tried to return to at a later date, and given up simply due to lack of incentive and loss of familiarity. It would seem like an obvious choice for games (or any interactive software, honestly) to check if I've been away and adjust accordingly, perhaps asking if I need a refresher on the mechanics or a temporary difficulty drop while I get reacquainted with it. Considering that the statistics say most games go unfinished, why not make the return process as painless as possible?

July 7, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»bioshock

Against the Current

Although it took a little while to get to it, and it's also taking me a while to get into its rhythms, I'm now comfortably working my way through Bioshock on the Xbox 360. It's the kind of game I'd prefer to play on my laptop, but 2K's insistence on SecuROM copy protection pretty much nixed that idea--astonishingly, even the Steam Bioshock install includes Sony's SecuROM, despite being already wrapped in a layer of less-offensive DRM. Maybe they just decided it wasn't annoying enough.

Obviously the game is a polished, well-crafted experience. The voice acting is particularly high in quality, while the enemy character designs are relatively lackluster. I'm not convinced that the plot's as brilliant that it's been made out to be, but it's good. Still, I keep finding myself struggling against a general sense of confinement, as if parts of Bioshock were chopped off to make it fit a console mentality. I had thought people were complaining needlessly when they called it "dumbed-down," but now I'm not so sure.

Take, for example, the almost inexplicable lack of an inventory screen. Bioshock, unlike its spiritual inspirations in the System Shock series, doesn't provide any way to manage the various objects that the player picks up in Rapture. Consumable objects are used right away, and there's no real limit on the number of weapons that can be carried. I don't really miss those "features" since cramming sprites into a grid and then rearranging them constantly is not my idea of a good time. What is limited, however, are the active and passive genetic powers accumulated during the game, and these can only be swapped out at specific Gene Bank stations. More importantly, the only place to view any equipped gene tonics is at the Gene Bank.

This is clumsy--noticeably clumsy, given the rest of the game's polish. I could understand gameplay reasons for forcing the player to stick with only a few tonics at a time, but why can't I see what I have installed? My memory only goes so far--what if I want to check what I'm currently using, since it's not always instantly obvious? What if (and this happens often to me) I haven't been playing in a while, and I've simply forgotten where I left off? When I first ran into this problem, I spent several minutes flipping between tabs on the help menu, thinking that I had just missed it. But no: there's no way to see what tonics are currently in use, except by trudging over to a Gene Bank, wherever that might be. It's amazing that a game offering instant reloads, hints, and even a guided arrow for navigation (which I quite like, honestly, in this kind of story-driven affair) doesn't offer a simple status screen.

Speaking of clumsy, how about that hacking mini-game? Somewhere out there, Pipe Dreams enthusiasts weep tears of joy. The rest of us curse at the screen. It's not that it's hard to play. It's that the mechanics of it--moving around a grid, constantly smacking the A button to uncover tiles and then swapping them with tiles in other, non-contiguous positions--are simply not well-suited to a gamepad. With a mouse cursor, the game is tolerable, if only because it's so much faster. Even giving gamers a faux-cursor controlled by the analog stick, a la Chu Chu Rocket would have helped. But as it is, it's a horrible frenzy of d-pad tapping that's out of sync with the rest of the game's navigation.

Which reminds me: the controls. Granted, I am a hostile audience for console shooters. I have joked, in the past, that people who enjoy playing first-person games with a gamepad are heathens who should be sent to live in a godforsaken wasteland like Montana, far from the rest of civilization. Bioshock works hard to keep the process painless--it boasts an auto-aim that will lock on and follow a target for a moment, as well as a turning speed that increases if the right stick is held left or right for a moment.

But these are all just lipstick on the pig. They're patches meant to make up for the fact that it's still tremendously cumbersome to control a first-person viewpoint using a thumbstick, and no amount of tweaking will change that. The gamepad alters the entire feel of things: instead of being able to whip your virtual head around naturally, you're constrained to something more tank-like and plodding. Environmental awareness is lowered, and reaction time increases. It feels like being back in 1998, playing Duke3D with the arrow keys.

(I will say that the one thing I wish PC shooters could steal from consoles is analog movement control. Going from a silent creep to a full-out run on a keyboard has the same jerky rhythm and mechanical feel as shifting gears in a car. Likewise, the ability to vary the strafe-to-run ratio on the fly gives extra fluidity to console movement. I suspect that many console gamers use this extra flexibility in maneuvering to make up for the deficiences of thumbstick aiming, but it's not enough for me.)

Fine! you may say. Take your whining and play it on your PC, if you're so frustrated by it. Hey, I'd like to, obviously. But 2K has decided, by putting SecuROM protection on the disc, that I can't trust their product to behave on my laptop. I'm just not willing to let it install an admin-level service, or to prevent me from using diagnostic tools like the Sysinternals kit. Indeed, I find it both suspicious and depressing that the programs I use to find and fix problems--and thereby keep the computer healthy for active use, including gaming--are systematically undermined by this copy protection.

This is a vicious cycle, as I've noted before. Clearly, between the two platforms, the publisher has decided to make one of them a second-class citizen. Given the choice, of course I'm going to play Bioshock on a console, where I don't have to worry about activations or rootkits, even though I find the gaming experience to be negatively affected. And when the PC version sells relatively little compared to Xbox sales, 2K will claim piracy, and use this justification to continue adding intrusive copy protection to their titles.

Other than that, the game's not bad.

July 2, 2008

Filed under: gaming»design»art


I love this portion from Gamasutra's interview with No More Heroes audio designer Masafumi Takada:

How large is the audio team size?

MT: Right now there are four people.

And do you have a sound studio here? Like a foley room and stuff?

MT: No. I do everything at my desk. Even if you don't go all the way to a studio, if you have a microphone and a tape recorder you can recreate sound effects anywhere, like this [Takada demonstrates at his desk].

So here, in this office?

MT: Here, after everyone leaves and goes home.

No More Heroes had great sound design, although a lot of it was either synthesized or in the music. But it's both amusing and oddly heartening to imagine the head sound guy recording foley effects at his desk in an empty office.

June 13, 2008

Filed under: gaming»perspective

Consolation Prize

Did you hear that PC gaming is dying? You probably have, because nobody seems to be able to shut up about it.

Certainly not the big producers. Crytek blamed poor sales of Crysis on piracy, although the game then apparently sold more than a million copies, beating their expectations. iD's stopped making PC exclusives, as has Epic--they've explicitly blamed piracy and integrated graphics for the problem. And many of the big developers are not making exclusives for PC any more, or they're back-porting their lower-end console versions to the platform, or they're blaming their lower-end console versions for the lack of a PC port (see: Lucasarts and The Force Unleashed). There's a lot of scorn going around for the PC, what with its heterogeneous hardware and its sometimes maddening software stack.

Honestly (and perhaps sadly), I take this a little personally. I grew up with PC gaming--didn't own a console until college. I played Duke3D and Counterstrike in the computer lab during lunch in high school. I remember loading up Strike Commander just to fly around the landscape, and going through a nerve-wracking two weeks as my father and I tried to get the deluxe version of Simcity running in VESA-compatible mode. And writing Joust knockoffs in BASIC was one of the experiences you just can't get anywhere else.

So I've been watching this for a while. And these complaints--it's too unstable! too unpredictable! too expensive!--are kind of funny, because they've been around for years. The PC market has always been dying, it seems. And yet it's still here. It's either dying very slooooooowly... or reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated.

It certainly seems dire when cast in the most extreme terms. You mean some console games won't also come to the PC? Well, that's indeed a shame. But then, you're not seeing much Stalker love on Xbox, are you? Don't Darwinia or Defcon count as exclusives, too? Sam and Max: not available on consoles. And isn't WoW kind of the big elephant in the room here? Even if the other MMO's aren't making quite those kinds of numbers, I don't hear companies like NCSoft complaining, frankly.

But those don't count, because PC gaming is dying. Only generic, big-budget console releases count when we value a platform--because heaven knows that's where the really exciting design takes place. Halo 3, anyone? Another Final Fantasy, maybe?

And then there's one of my favorite new games, Sins of a Solar Empire. Sins is, to put it bluntly, incredibly addictive. There are actually very few games where I lose track of time, but I have had the experience of looking up and realizing that I've spent two hours buried in the Thinkpad. It's a very "PC" type of game--lots of mousing and menus and keyboard shortcuts. It's hard to imagine doing it on a console. The game also scales well--there's no doubt that it looks sharp at full tilt, but you can also run it on a machine that's several years old.

Sins has so far won just about every gaming award available to it, and it's been within the top ten-selling titles on the retail charts for the PC since its release (downloads have also been strong, they say). There's little doubt that it's been extremely profitable for Stardock (a relative upstart in game development), even though it doesn't use any copy protection at all to prevent piracy.

But PC gaming is dying, right? The guy from Epic said so.

Valve, meanwhile, has been making a killing off Steam, apparently. They're big PC guys. My friend Matt sends me an e-mail every now and then to let me know how neglected his Xbox copy of the Orange Box feels after the Steam patches and updates for Team Fortress 2--and I feel for him, but if he played his shooters on a platform with a mouse like a Real American, that wouldn't happen to him. In any case, Valve's support for the PC through Steam is unmistakeable--they make a point of it at product announcements. And here, again, is a company that's not betting the farm on the bleeding edge, and understands their platform. My laptop is pretty top of the line for a business-class notebook, but it's a relatively weak gaming machine. It still runs Half-Life 2 beautifully.

Still, there's no need to pay attention to the claims of one of the world's most consistently high-quality game development houses. They and Blizzard must be crazy to go through all this effort, right? Everyone knows that PC gaming is dying--just look at the NPD numbers (the ones that don't include digital distribution or MMO subscriptions).

It couldn't possibly be the case that Crysis underperformed at first because of release timing issues, not to mention because you need a small render farm to run it properly. It couldn't possibly be true that the PC really does have games that consoles don't have. Digital distribution couldn't really make up that much of the market, and MMOs couldn't really be that successful, right? Because (say it with me now) PC gaming is dying.

Except obviously it's not. What's happening is really pretty simple: consoles finally caught up (mostly) with the average computer for gaming power (also, with its more annoying "features," like having to install the game before you can play it). As such, people have somehow gotten the idea that the platforms are equivalent, and that the PC should be able to substitute for an Xbox or PS3. Unsurprisingly, the strategy of cramming the same expensive, graphic-heavy games that have sold on consoles into the PC has shown a few flaws.

Look, this is not the end of the world. PC gamers (and I count myself as one, even if I spend a lot of time on consoles these days) may not get to play the latest Metal Gear, or whatever it is that apparently sets the standard on any given day. But there are also experiences that are only going to show up on the PC, including the incredibly thriving casual game market (which both hardcore gamers and gaming publications like to pretend doesn't exist). The truth of the matter is that the computer is an odd beast. It costs more than a console, varies wildly in its capabilities, and plays host to a number of genres that practically don't exist anywhere else. To top it all off, it's incredibly widespread. The PC is a market that's simply huge--just not the same market buying GTA IV.

PC gaming isn't dying. You just have the wrong definition of "alive."

June 3, 2008

Filed under: gaming»design»structure

Purple Haze

It's a shame that Haze, the PS3's recent shooter, has gotten such poor reviews for bland design and inconsistent storytelling, because I think the basic concept deserves better. Let me first explain my impressions of that concept, since they apparently might be entirely unrelated to the finished product.

Haze (as I understood it) was supposed to be a meta-game commentary, in many ways. The story's fictional soldiers are dosed up on a drug that leads to some conspicuously game-ish effects--dead bodies simply vanish from the field, enemies are highlighted against the terrain, and their wounds and cries of pain are filtered out.

There's a potential here for what could honestly be a horrifying moment. We're used to games where the enemies just disappear once killed, which tends to nullify the impact of the action. Or where there's no real realistic visuals for the horrible wounds inflicted by weaponry, and the reaction to being shot is as simple as a flinch and a canned sound-bite.

Imagine a scene where the player suddenly stops being dosed, while teammates remain on the drug. They're still cheerily massacreing people left and right--but now you can hear the victims pleading for mercy, see the sickening effects when they're hit, and stumble over the mounds of dead lying around. It would be like watching a DVD of Commando, only to realize too late that you'd accidentally put Saving Private Ryan into the player instead.

Indeed, that scenario isn't just a commentary on video games. It remarks on how we treat violence in a variety of media. And I don't even think it's entirely a negative commentary, but it is thought-provoking and has room for subtlety. In this theoretical situation, fellow soldiers aren't monsters, they're just blissfully unaware of the consequences of their actions. They're gamers, in more ways than one. The point shouldn't be to turn on these former allies and kill them in revenge, but to open their eyes to the truth. Ultimately, the question is: when we discover that our actions might not be harmless, how will we react to that new ethical uncertainty?

Sadly, Haze doesn't seem to have taken that route. Instead it demonizes the drugged soldiers, and turns the game into just another shoot-em-up. Several reviews have commented that once the player character changes sides and can't use the performance-boosting chemical anymore, the game loses what little individuality it had--and what a loaded statement that could have been, when gamers found themselves wishing for the comfort of selective perception. In Wired this week, Chris Kohler has written about how these questions can surface (albeit in a limited and unintentional manner) in Ninja Gaiden 2. But Haze had a chance to address them directly, taking advantage of next-generation console power for a thoughtful and provocative message, and it blew it.

May 28, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»wii_fit

Won't Fit

Nintendo's going to make a killing on Wii Fit. More of a killing, I mean, than the one they're already making on the Wii itself. Last Friday morning, on my way out of Panera, I stopped by Gamestop to see if they had any of the former in stock, only to find that people were lining up to buy up the newly-arrived shipment of the latter. The place sold $1,000 of game consoles in about 10 minutes.

No, Wii Fit wasn't in stock. Nobody has it. Nobody's going to have it for a very long time. Nintendo can't even get the basic machine onto shelves fast enough, much less a crossover product for it. And I suspect Fit is going to be huge, for two reasons: 1) we're an overweight country, and 2) we like sitting in front of the TV.

I'm no stranger to either of these, of course. I've gained weight since college (although I would argue that it's more that I was undernourished in college), I live a pretty sedentary life, and it's no secret that I enjoy both b-movies and buttonmashing. You have a product that will fix one and satisfy the other? Ah ha! I say, along with every other sedentary television-owner in America. Sign me up!

...if I can find one.

Filed under: gaming»software»homebrew

The Homebrew Channel

For my own future reference: Wii hackers have managed to create a Homebrew Channel for the system's main menu, putting non-licensed code on pretty much the same level as virtual console and first-party apps. Very interesting.

May 12, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»stalker

Restraining Order, Part Two

I owe STALKER (the game, not the movie) an apology. Not for calling it ridiculously overpunctuated (although I guess over-abbreviated would be more accurate), but I quit it last time after only a few hours, frustrated at its weapons model and its opaque narrative structure.

After watching the film, I got an itch to give the game another shot. I figured I wouldn't last long, but I was a little curious as to how much of Tarkovsky's visual aesthetic had ended up in the game. I decided to head in, spend a few minutes looking around, and then I'd blow it off again. But it turns out that I'm still playing.

I'm not entirely sure what the difference is, but my suspicions, like Jay Leno's chin, are twofold. First, I started paying more attention to the automap in the corner, using it to find stashes and watch for bodies to loot. Second, at some point I was clued in about the location of one of the mission goals that I never previously had been able to find. Unless the player locates a hidden flash drive in one of the underground tunnels, the game basically halts--my first time through, I had no idea where it was.

Which, I'd like to point out, is an easy situation to end up in: the drive is actually hidden in a pipe behind some very poor level design--the lip of the pipe is just slightly too high for the Stalker to step over it, and in the end I had to resort to the old Half-Life trick of jumping forward while crouching (which, in Stalker requires the use of the forward key, the spacebar to jump, and two separate crouch buttons to reach a "low crawl" state. It's a little awkward).

But once past that point, the game has opened up tremendously (especially since that's the first moment when you get a decent weapon). It is, as I told a friend, like Oblivion with Chernobyl-born mutants and AK-47s instead of elves and swords.

As far as the film's influence, I've seen very little on display so far. Stalker does include a number of wide open fields and ruined buildings, but its color palette is much more gloomy and grim than Tarkovsky's--and of course, the first sight of a uniformed soldier dispels any hope that the game will share the movie's character-driven, dialog-heavy atmosphere. The only real similarity I've seen so far is the glow of high-radiation areas: when you stumble into one of these, the screen begins to oversaturate and acquire a kind of film-grain effect that's very striking.

Stalker definitely has its flaws. The AI can be a little wonky, and I've failed missions for what seem to be no apparent reason. The text is barely localized, and NPC conversations are oil-slick shallow. But the game does have its own distinctive atmosphere--the untranslated Russian voices and signposts, the click of the geiger counter, and howling dogs during the dark nights make sure of that. The combat itself has a very different feel from most shooters, but once you get used to it, it's got its charms. All in all, it's an impressive piece of work, as long as you don't get caught on any of the rough edges. I'm enjoying it quite a bit.

Extra credit: For those who might be curious, you can read the original short story that inspired the movie and game, "Roadside Picnic," here, since it seems to be unfortunately out of print elsewhere.

Future - Present - Past