Remember when you were a kid, and all you had to do was slap some crayon on construction paper and you were done with your holiday gifting? Well, those days are gone, and if you’re anything like us here at The Escapist, holiday shopping has since become an ordeal on par with killing Algalon the Observer or beating the 257th level of Pac-Man. That’s why we’re here to take the burden off your shoulders with our Holiday Buyer’s Guide, which contains gift ideas guaranteed to please the geek on your shopping list. Why not pick up something for yourself while you’re at it? You haven’t been too naughty this year, right?
Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” is a book about, well, everything. Starting from the Big Bang, he accomplishes the daunting task of summarizing exactly how we, as humans, went from a primordial soup to where we are now. He covers it all: evolution, chemistry, geology. From Newton to Darwin and Einstein, Bryson explains each of the major scientific advances of our short tenure on the planet and does it with style and wit. At no point in the book does a scientific theory become too muddled or wordy to understand – Bryson is able to successfully communicate complex theories and laws, and you don’t need a degree in science to understand the concepts. It’s a quick and painless way to acquaint yourself with every important scientific theory and discovery since the conception of Earth.
I’m obsessed with cephalopods. Show me anything that has a cuttlefish, giant squid, nautilus or octopus on it, and you’ll have a girl squealing with glee like she’s at a Miley Cyrus concert. My favorite ceph is the Architeuthis dux, a species of giant squid that has remained elusive for years. It was only in 2004 that the first photographs of one in the wild were taken, and in 2006, the first live video of an adult was recorded. Amongst all of my cephalopodic paraphernalia, my favorite has to be my giant squid stuffed animal. I purchased mine at the Washington D.C. aquarium, but there’s one available at Amazon, too. Next on my list is a Vampire squid plushie, but I’m afraid that one will probably be harder to track down.
I’ve been swimming nearly all my life. I was on various swim teams and let me tell you – competing to get the best times was a real rush. But, with the complete lack of non-college adult swim teams around, I’m pretty much relegated to swimming back and forth at the local YMCA pool, dodging children who don’t “get” lane ropes and always dreading having to share the lane with one of those “water aerobics” folks. Even though I love it, swimming laps for an hour can get pretty boring. Thankfully, there’s the Finis SwiMP3 underwater MP3 player. These headphones attach directly to your goggles and transmit sound through your cheekbones. Instead of getting the muffled noise that most underwater headphones provide, the SwiMP3 sends the sound vibrations straight through to your inner ear, and I can listen to Bloc Party and Hot Hot Heat as clear as if they had taken a Magic School Bus ride into my brain and were now playing inside it.
The trouble with most gaming merchandise is that it feels so ordinary. If you’ve seen one “Know Your Roots” t-shirt or NES controller belt buckle, you’ve seen them all. The videogame connoisseur wants something truly distinctive, like these pieces of game-flavored artwork by Etsy user fortawesomestudio, which capture the joy of games like Parappa the Rapper, Katamari Damacy and Super Mario Bros. in a completely fresh way. Original illustrations are laid atop vintage book pages that frequently echo the artwork in some way, like “Plants and the Company They Keep” serving as the background for Petey Piranha, or Bomberman over a page entitled “Waging War.” Classy, fun, and suitable for framing; the perfect addition to any gamer’s sanctuary or office space. (This beauty is hanging over my desk.)
Nathan Fillion really only plays one character – the charming but flawed rogue with a quick wit and a heart of gold – but he plays it very, very well. It’s a character he made into the heart and soul of Firefly, and now he’s brought it to Castle, a lighthearted cop show in which he stars as mystery writer Richard Castle. Thanks to a friendship with New York’s mayor, Castle is allowed to follow homicide detective Kate Beckett around – and of course he can’t help but pitch in on the investigations.
A realistic portrayal of policework, Castle is not, but the cast, including the lovely Stana Katic as Beckett and Susan Sullivan as Castle’s mother, has marvelous chemistry and great comic timing. The banter is consistently enjoyable, sure to entice a few chuckles out of you each and every episode. If you miss the easygoing camaraderie of Firefly, and don’t mind a bit of fluff mixed in with your mysteries, you’ll likely enjoy Castle.
It’s a common dilemma: You want to declare your love of Firefly to the world, but you want to do it in an understated way that underscores your outward cool. No problem. This shirt, featuring a conversation between Wash’s toy dinosaurs, communicates your love of Serenity’s crew in a way that only fellow Browncoats are likely to recognize. (Yes, there’s a small Serenity logo on there, too, but if someone is close enough to read that, hopefully they’re already a friend of yours.) “And we will call it…this land.”
Released mere weeks after last year’s holiday season ended, it’s too easy to forget Crayon Physics Deluxe, the first commercial release from indie game designer Petri Purho and one of the most unique games of the last few years. And while hardcore gamers balked at the game’s 70 or so relatively straightforward challenges, the less goal-oriented among us saw it for what it was: a game that allows for (if not rewards) pretty much limitless creativity. Witness some of the ingenious Rube Goldberg solutions to some of Crayon Physics‘ more mundane puzzles, and you realize that getting the ball to the star is only the nominal objective of each level. More important are the goals that players bring to the game, like creating the most complex solutions, or the most artistic. And because it only takes a mouse to play it, the whole family can join in the fun. Just keep the dick drawings to a minimum when Grandma’s around.
I don’t care what you science-y people say: As sure as the box that I’m typing this on is the work of a 21st-century techno-sorcerer, magnets are magic. And Buckyballs might be the most magical magnets of them all. Each box contains 216 powerfully charged spheres of “rare earth” metal, which I assume means they’re sprinkled with an especially scarce variety of pixie dust. Because of this dust, you’re able to assemble Buckyballs into hundreds, if not thousands, of interesting shapes. A coworker has a set of these at his apartment, and every time there’s a lull in whatever piece of electronic entertainment we’re currently consuming, they’re the first thing I reach for. Explain that, 16th-century English physicist and “father of magnetism” William Gilbert!
Mountain Dew and Bawls may have been the caffeinated beverages of choice during your teenage years, but let’s face it: As an adult, you need something a little more sophisticated. Enter the Aeropress, from erstwhile flying disc (?!) maker Aerobie. The AeroPress is one of the gems of the coffee-making world, especially for single folks who don’t really need a full pot of drip coffee in the morning. It allows you to make a cup of near-espresso in less time than it takes to place your order at Starbucks. And you can even indulge your inner chemist by changing pretty much every variable in the coffee-making process, from the water temperature to the steeping time, to craft your perfect cup. Many coffee fanatics have claimed that the $26 AeroPress can produce a better brew than home espresso machines costing hundreds more. On the downside, it vaguely resembles a penis pump, so don’t be surprised if it raises a few eyebrows.
If you’re a gamer – or even if you aren’t – there’s a good chance that you know somebody who plays Blizzard’s mammoth MMOG World of Warcraft. While WoW is certainly the most popular online game, it’s by no means the only one – but despite being played by millions of people worldwide, MMOGs are often impenetrable and difficult to understand for the people who don’t play them. Why do so many people spend so much time in places that don’t actually exist?
Second Skin, a documentary by director Juan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza, attempts to answer that question, exploring MMOGs and those who play them. Alongside the statistics and expert commentary, the film provides an intimate look at three stories – a couple who fell in love in EverQuest II, a quartet of friends and gamers who all play together, and a man whose life was consumed by a WoW addiction – and how these games have changed their lives for better or for worse.
At times it’s intense and uncomfortable, at others it’s touching and heartwarming, but from start to finish it’s an utterly fascinating exploration of society, escapism, and the bonds we build and break in online games. Second Skin can be appreciated by gamers and non-gamers alike, and will give you plenty of stuff to discuss – or just to think about.
At $60 a pop, buying the holiday season’s biggest titles for the special gamer in your life can be kind of expensive – which is why Torchlight is such a rare gem. A hack-and-slash dungeon-crawler in the style of Diablo or Fate, Torchlight tasks players with venturing into the caverns beneath the mining town of Torchlight to unravel the secret behind a mysterious corruption plaguing the lands. But that whole “plot” thing can wait, because what you’re really after is the acquisition of sweet, sweet loot and treasure.
With a charming cartoonish art style and a fluid rapid-click combat system that feels incredibly intuitive and natural – not to mention endless randomized dungeons – Torchlight nails what made Diablo and Diablo II so addictive, and throws in a helpful (and adorable) fuzzy companion to boot. It’s a relentlessly good time, it’s scalable enough to run on the lousiest of computers, and at $20 you can pick it up and order a pizza to eat while adventuring, and still be well short of what a “regular” game would cost you. With Torchlight, your favorite gamer and your wallet will both be thanking you.
If you’re anything like most of the staff here at The Escapist, you probably spend a lot of time sitting in front of a PC monitor, whether you’re chopping up zombies in Left 4 Dead 2, killing dragons in World of Warcraft, or just browsing Wikipedia. If you’re anything like many PC users, you may get headaches or blurred vision from the eyestrain of looking intently at a bright artificial light so close to your face for so long. And if you’re anything like Escapist staffer John Funk, you’re probably scoffing at the idea that a pair of sunglasses could do anything to help the problem. I was incredibly skeptical when I agreed to try the Gunnar Optiks MLG Legend out, but – as strange as it sounds – I found that the sunglasses actually work as advertised.
There’s some scientific mumbo-jumbo about how the shape of the lens helps your eyes relax (though it’s hard to get used to at first) and how the reflective tinting blocks artificial light, but beyond all the science-speak, the glasses made it much easier to spend long stretches of time staring at a PC monitor for work as well as play. I don’t usually suffer from eyestrain, but I did notice a difference – if you do (or someone you know does) end up squinting in discomfort after a hardcore session of PC gaming, you’ll probably get even more out of them.
At last, you don’t have to feel silly about wearing sunglasses inside!
Like a giant panda, able to survive only on just one species of bamboo, my diet in videogames is so rarefied that I can play only the finest immersive world role-playing games. Anything lesser simply gives me indigestion. Fortunately, it has been with gustatory pleasure that I consumed Dragon Age: Origins, and if you are, like me, a gourmand of role-playing games, there is no other choice for the holiday season. Whether you like complex, threaded stories; rich, tactical combat; immersive setting; engaging character development; or even just an epic score and cool helmets, Dragon Age: Origins has it all. It’s almost enough to make me breed in captivity.
Playing Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition feels like an over-the-top anime or manga, with wild martial arts powers and a zany, over-powered sensibility. Labyrinth Lord, a retro-clone of the classic “red box” Dungeons & Dragons rules set, doesn’t feel anything like that. Labyrinth Lord feels like a Vietnam War movie, where the dungeons are dark, wet, and terrifying, goblins murder all your friends with spiked-pit traps and crossbow bolts from the shadows, and you start to develop a thousand yard infravision stare from the spell shock. The horror. The horror. If you like having your experience points handed to you on a silver platter by an orc in a tuxedo, go back to that other edition with the teleporting elves and the singing birds. But if you want to experience a real challenge, play Labyrinth Lord this holiday season (a free PDF of the core rules is available).
There are two types of fantasy writers: Fantasy writers who guarantee a happy ending, and fantasy authors who are happy to gouge out the eyes of your favorite character just to prove a point. If your taste in fantasy runs to the latter – if, for instance, you enjoy the works of George R.R. Martin – then do yourself a favor this Christmas and pick up the works of R. Scott Bakker. The Judging Eye is Book 1 of his new Aspect Emperor trilogy, the sequel to the Prince of Nothing trilogy. Set in a world loosely similar to that of our own during the era of the Crusades, Bakker weaves together a tapestry of magic, religion, humanity, and sociopathy that is by turns inspiring and implacable. Interestingly, Bakker’s work is inspired by early Dungeons & Dragons gaming, and for a gamer, part of the pleasure is in seeing how he takes common tropes – elves, monks, magic-users – and builds them into his world.
Jillian Michaels is like a drill sergeant with a heart of gold. One of the stars of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” the “get fit” reality show featuring a gaggle of morbidly obese contestants all sweating it out for cash, Michaels’ claim to fame is that she was once a fat girl, who turned her life around to become a smoking hot personal trainer. And if you make it on her show, she will beat the living crap out of you until you break down in tears – and then get healthy. How this translates to a Wii game, I have no idea, but I’m willing to bet it’s worth at least a laugh or two. And perhaps some tears.
If you’re like me, you hate extraneous noise, but love to hear what you love to hear. Whether this means listening to music – but not your coworkers debating Microsoft vs. Apple, watching a movie without hearing the drone of an airplane engine or looking for minor flaws in an audio recording while trying to drown out the sound of the recycling truck outside your studio window, the challenge is the same: pair high-quality audio reproduction with efficient noise-reduction. Enter the Extreme Isolation series of headphones.
According to the Direct Sound website, these headphones were created by a professional drummer so he could hear every note of the songs he was percussing, without being bowled over by the beat of his own drum. Unlike “noise canceling” headphones, these headphones don’t use batteries or generate any white noise. They just block sound. And reproduce it. And they’re perfect.
One of our video editors has the high-end version of these and can’t even hear someone standing behind him yelling when he’s wearing them. Which is not always a good thing. I prefer the mid-price version, which offer comparable performance at a much lower cost.
Maybe you camp, and need a rugged, yet light eating utensil to stow in your pack. Maybe you’re a survivalist, and the thought of stocking your bomb shelter with meltable plastic utensils makes you shudder with anxiety. Maybe you’re an efficiency freak, and the idea of two utensils, when one better utensil would do, fries your circuits. Or maybe you just like the idea of whipping something awesome out of your lunch pail that’s sure to get the cafeteria talking. Whatever your dealio, the titanium spork is a gift that will rock your boat. Part spoon, part fork, all badass, this aircraft-grade eating utensil is the katana of flatware.
“Do me a favor and turn down the TV?” your friend asks while doing the dishes. Looking down at the 6 different remotes on his coffee table, you look back at him in panicked confusion. “How?” Universal remotes are not a shiny new idea, but Logitech’s Harmony line feels like a breakthrough. Its illuminated touch screen adapts to whatever you are doing and the power to configure each soft button will fill any geek with glee. But the true power of the Harmony is that your non-techie wife will be able to handle all of your entertainment system’s components with just one tool, instead of yelling for the one she married. The 900 is an upgrade from the award-winning Harmony One, providing RF technology which allows you to control devices through solid matter. Next Step: The Logitech Harmony 9000 Neural Transmitter.
If you love early 90’s Cure songs and pictogram puzzles, this is the must-have shirt for you this holiday season. The best part of owning such a garment is stumping your smugly self-righteous friends. Sure, they may have shaggy black hair and write self-indulgent poetry like Robert Smith, but can they figure out that the 20 blocks of art on your chest correspond to the verses of the only happy song in The Cure’s catalog? No, they can’t, and you get to rub it in their pasty faces.
The Pre is the first smartphone that doesn’t feel too complicated for its own good. It has all of the bells and whistles of the iphone without having to drink the Kool-Aid of the Apple brand. It even excels in places the iphone can’t. The Pre’s webOS makes simple actions like closing an app fun with a flick on the touchscreen and the hardware keyboard is easily accessible only when you need it, like illegally Tweeting while driving. Want an app store with none of the bloat? Palm has one. Want to integrate Google chat, texts and even AIM in the same application? The Pre is bundled with it. Want to be able to take a picture after the sun goes down? The Pre’s got a flash for its camera and the iphone, well…