Comics Online and Interactive Music (Not particularly interesting as a title)

My brother sent me this link, largely as a way of bragging about IE9 and HTML5 because he drank the Kool-Aid some time ago, but then we got into a conversation, which I wanted to share because it lead to a short but interesting discourse.

Basically, I thought the site was pretty cool. I wouldn’t want to read comic books that way. I actually haven’t found an online format that “works” so to speak for the traditional graphic novel approach. Being able to embed supplemental information is neat though. I rather particularly didn’t like the custom cursor, but I forgot it was there relatively quickly.

Interesting idea from a music/programming standpoint would be trying to cue the music to match roughly where the “camera” is along the path of the comic, but with a smooth transition. The programming side of it isn’t complicated if you write the music well-enough to do the transition smoothly at basically any point, but it would be a really neat script if it could use essentially “blocks” of music to create an interesting transition based on the speed of the reader.

To which Harris responded.

Perhaps I’m over simplifying it but it sounds like what you’re referring to is pre-canned loops of music, similar to what’s used in a video game…For reference – the only concrete one I have – take Halo: Combat Evolved and my favorite level Assault on the Control Room (thank you Halopedia ;).  Essentially, you’re loops would be queued up at various points in the story as the reader progresses through the plot.  Having the various cue points embedded in the story to trigger the music wouldn’t be that difficult…

Perhaps I’m making it more simplistic than it needs to be…

Which prompted the following thoughts:

The problem is how long you make the loops. Halo is actually an extra crazy cool example because Marty and Jay and the gang came up with ways of phasing music in and out for specific sections. Halo 3: ODST is a great example of this (and totally worth picking up for $15 or whatever it is now), partially because the storyline is so compelling, but, in general, Halo pays attention to the number of enemies that are active and the amount of approximate damage flying around. So if you just sit in a corner shooting somewhere, it doesn’t care. But if there are 40 to 50 enemies in an area and they become aware of you, a general “battle motif” starts playing, and then at a specific triggered time, the main melody kicks in and can progress for quite awhile before it runs out, but in general, the battle motif sticks around until you move on to the next section, or, alternatively, will swell and then die once you kill all the bad guys. If you take way too long, it will eventually kill itself off.

The problem in the story version is how long you make the loops – in order to do it your way, they have to be super short so that you can account for any reader’s reading pace and jump to the next piece at the appropriate moment. Too short, as you know from listening to looped music, and it’s super bland and boring. Too long, and you’ll miss a cue, and then possibly another one as the reader zips through a page that should have taken longer to read (possibly because they’re not doing it particularly well).

Then what if they go backwards? That’s a problem games don’t face. In games, there is always the linear, forward progression of time. It’s not uncommon for me to flip back sometimes and check out a panel again, re-read some dialogue, or even observe the layout and try to infer the timing from it and the different ways they could have laid out the panels. That’s part of what reading comics is all about – accepting this visual presentation in just about any order you want to. Games, TV, and Movies don’t have this problem. They control the flow of time through their story, and should exert that control in interesting ways.

This isn’t always true of games, of course. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (I am officially adopting the grammatical quality of italicization to denote names of specific games. I have decided it is appropriate, and thus it is!) literally lets you rewind time, but they just play a cute sound effect and spool the music backwards. With a comic, particularly the Tron: Legacy comic you presented there, the user/reader/interactive participant has explicit control of “time” in the context of the story. If I want the stadium where Sam and Rinzler fight to rise slowly to the teeming, cheering hordes, I can do that! But the music has to know (or somehow be able to sense) that I’m performing a more dramatic pan through this panel.

Now, what I really liked about that panel is that it’s impossible in a traditional comic. What I didn’t like about it was that it was impossible in a traditional comic. It’s weird, but it was very much a motion-comics thing that works really well as a single panel within a bunch of other simple, non-moving panels.

I got a little carried away with this stuff.

Movies! Huzzah

La cinema!

Films recently seen:

Super 8
Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon

Last first!

DotM, in many ways, feels like an overwrought apology for the last Trasnformers flick. That said, I didn’t like it as much. It’s a little bit of a crazy notion to try and wrap your head around, but if you exclude all the annoying robots, John Turturro and the hispanic dude, you’re basically left with a movie that’s filled with awesome robot fights. In particular, there’s a sequence in the woods where Prime just goes apeshit on a whole pack of Decepticons, pull Blackout’s face apart, blowing off Starscream’s arm, laying into Megatron pretty hard, and just doing all around incredible things. So there’s a lot of good stuff there. And then the fight at the end is just intense as all get out – killing the big bad for Prime basically involves:

A. Stabbing him through his face with his own spear.
B. Tearing that face off with said spear.
C. Pinning him between a pair of ancient pillars, punching him through the chest, and crushing his spark.

The last part is particularly gruesome, because they found a way to give Transformers blood in the form of a kind of molten, orange-hot glowing stream of what I assume is melted metal of some kind, and it drains and drips out of the Fallen’s mouth as he…erm… falls.

So that, that’s pretty friggen’ cool. Most of TF3’s best moments occur in significantly different ways. The opening 5 minutes or so sets up the entire premise for the story – an Autobot ship crashed on the moon 50 years ago and the space race kicked off to try and get up there and find out what happened. So Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin hopping around the moon’s surface, investigating a Transformer ship called the Ark was actually pretty dang nifty.

Shortly thereafter, Prime travels to Chernobyl with the Human anti-Decepticon SpecOps team (I forget their name) and we get a cool reveal – Prime has his trailer. This is neat only because then Laserbeak shows up and assassinates some dude. Where there’s Laserbeak, there’s Soundwave, so that was exciting.

Then there’s a lot of boring shit that happens. Ken Jeong shows up to be, well, Ken Jeong and ruins the proceedings further. Turturro reappears with a kitschy Alan Tudyk sporting a german accent. It’s all very weak sauce. There’s a fairly disturbing Laserbeak assassination in there as well, but it’s not really intimidating because I don’t know or care about the guy he’s killing. Then Leonard Nimoy’s character, Sentinel Prime, is revived by the Matrix and we got a lot of introspection and dialogue and no plot really happening. There’s basically 45 minutes of slow in the middle of the movie where it’s just humans talking.

When will they figure out that we would come to watch the Robots just beat the shit out of each other in real-world settings. That’s what everyone wants to see. No one cares about Shia Lebouf or his feelings of inadequacy because he can’t find a job where he matters or is important. Us in the audience – we get that.  We’re in that generation. We don’t need to be reminded of it again. We don’t need constant references to the Megan Fox character to accept that he found some new British hottie. It’s fine. Move on. When they finally do, it’s pretty cool – the first pack of disposable Decepticons that Ironhide and co. take down are fun, and then there’s the big twist, and then there’s another 45 god damn minutes setting up the twist. It happens. Get going. The Prime dialogue here is pretty good, he’s interesting in this role. Then there’s (FINALLY) an evil human, but he doesn’t show up until like an hour and a half into the thing. Good lord, can we move it along?

And then, after reiterating a hundred times that we can’t make it to the end battle because the city is so dangerous, we make it to the end battle, and it goes on FOREVER. There was a totally unnecessary involvement of a building-collapsing sequence that remains conspicuously unexplained and underwhelming the  whole time. That drags on for a good twenty minutes, then we get 5 minutes of fighting robots, then we’re back to SpecOps guys grabbing wingsuits and gliding into the battle out of crashing V-22 Ospreys. It’s all very fine, but it goes on FOREVER, and we still don’t get to the final fight. We have to watch Sam fight Starscream. He’s not in an exosuit, which would actually be cool, but we have to deal with that nonetheless. Bumblebee still can’t talk, and the new robots who are introduced aren’t interesting looking and do nothing interesting, so it’s all just filler until we finally get to Prime’s fight against the big bad and Sam’s fight against the human big bad. Then that happens (and it’s pretty decent) and the movie’s over.

There are huge plot and continuity questions. All of a sudden, Megatron’s had this dastardly plan set up since the Transformer civil war. Ignoring, of course, that he came to Earth 100 years ago looking for the Allspark. Ignoring, of course, that when that failed, out of nowhere, an ancient Transformer who presumably is the godfather of all Decepticons, turns out to be his master, so it was never his plan to begin with. Spoiler, a little bit, but Megs’ plan is to use a giant teleportation thing to warp Cybertron into Earth’s orbit (or vice versa?) to unknowable ends. The tidal forces Cybertron would cause would probably very nearly destroy the whole planet. So who knows what they were thinking there. But wait, wasn’t his plan to use the Allspark to convert Earth’s machinery into an army of pimp-ass Decepticons to finally end the war and wipe out the remaining Autobot Rebels? But, wait, wasn’t the Fallen’s plan to find the Matrix of leadership and use its power to activate the super weapon, destroy the sun, and harvest all the energy to create, basically, a new Allspark and do the same thing? And if that was the case, where did Megs’ deal with the devil [spoiler: Sentinel Prime] come in? Was that just a back-up? At the behest of the Fallen – who is just chillin on the Nemesis on Mars?

None of it really makes any sense, whatsoever, so I’d recommend not trying to make sense of it. That said, while there was less overt racism and fewer shticks in TF3 (thought still plenty, most would argue, too many), I would actually trade a lot of that for the brevity and simplicity of the second movie, which got down to brass-robot-ass-kickin’-tacks much faster and with way less convolution.

Super 8, on the other hand, was a crap ton of fun, the acting was incredibly solid, and it was just a really well-put-together movie. The monster is interesting and ambiguous enough that you don’t get bored with its shenanigans halfway through, with lots of really neat period elements that help it feel strange and mysterious (even if it telegraphs a little bit what it’s doing). I may have mentioned – a recent read in my Syd Field’s Screenwriting indicated that most great scripts are about the unfolding of a single event, and that’s evident here in Super 8. The whole movie, ultimately, is about this one poignant thing that happens off-camera before the movie even begins. Inception is the same way – the whole plot and concept of the movie revolves around one incident that didn’t even occur within the timeline of the film. If you want to get right down to it, Juno is the same damn thing, too.*

Oh, trailers: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol has, seemingly as its defining feature, many forms of punctuation. But more than that, it’s another God damn Mission Impossible movie, which I’m sure everyone and their brother is about done with by now (or at least, I hope so). The thing that gives me hope? Check out the director.

Yeah, that guy. I’ll probably see it now. Way to go, dude. Way to ruin my life.



*You could make the case for Star Wars all being about the moment Luke lost his father. He mentions his mother a grand total of 1 time in 6-ish hours of film, so that’s pretty significant. Now, how his father was “lost” is a matter of some debate, but it’s all very much an Oedipal heroic thing. Then the Great Bearded Money Dragon up and fuck’d it all up and showed us. What event were those three movies unfolding around? One in the future, which meant the whole time we a.) knew that there were no true stakes or risks because conditions had to remain the same for the inciting incident to occur in the future and b.) we’re bored out of our mind whenever we see anything that doesn’t seem to be advancing us directly toward that important incident.

The Force Unleashed II? More like the Short Unleashed II, amirite?

I just finished this game yesterday. Literally. I got it Wednesday, finished Thursday. It’s super short.

That said, it has a lot of weird appeal to me. One, it feels more like a Star Wars story than anything else bearing that name in close to 15 years or so. Yeah, I said it. Starkiller, or whatever his real name is, actually is a fairly compelling protagonist, and what they’ve done here is even better story wise (despite its abysmally short nature). So, all complaints about the game aside, I admire the writers for crafting what has been, ultimately, an interesting Star Wars story with neat twists and interesting characters. Juno, Kota, the whole supporting cast is really solid. Vader doesn’t play particularly well here, but I couldn’t tell you why. It just doesn’t seem like him. It’s like the writers weren’t paying enough attention to the best Vader stories ever told, which are 2 in number: the original trilogy, and this. That feels like Vader in that story, and rightfully so – he says very little, what he does say is important, and he struts about like a badass who’s imminently confident that he can kill whatever decides to agitate him that day.

Ok, but TFUII – complaints: it’s short. I can’t help but mention this because it’s SO short. It’s way too short. Just as things get interesting, just as our hero has a fascinating revelation, shit ends. The combat is still super repetitive, and it’s made worse this time, strangely, by being more fair and interesting.

In the first game, you leveled up just about every force power eventually, though you never needed to touch anything other than Lightning and Saber stuff. Whatever the case, you got all your powers to level 3 by the close of the game whether your wanted to or not. This game is considerably less finnicky about how you level up – you earn XP for every kill and every object you destroy, and that XP is spent purchasing upgrades. Powers still unlock at linear moments throughout the campaign, and it is annoying to have to watch the cutscene about the power unlocking every time (I always died right after something like that). The health system takes the Ninja Gaiden II approach of having damage hurt your overall health and then some vague bit of regenerating health. Avoid getting hit enough and your health pops back up. Your health can never go below a certain point without being able to regen, which is kind of a nice change because it means there’s less contrived cheapness. In TFU the first time ’round, the scariest thing in the world were Purge Troopers, dudes who literally kick your shit in by chaining together attacks that made you prone and helpless and unable to fight back. Every attack they had made you prone, and the only way to get health back was to go eliminate some helpless Stormtroopers. Well, they got rid of that. Which I thought was good.

But now, their combat methodology is to force you to “vary” your attacks based on what resistances an enemy has. Troopers are still fodder – you can take out twelve with one or two combos. Jet Troopers are lightning bait, but at least I have to specifically use that power. There are now riot troopers who are only vulnerable to force powers and Sith Acolytes who are immune to force powers and so you have to saber them. Then there are weird like, saber troopers? I don’t know. They have lightsabers, they can deflect your force attacks and block most of your saber stuff. What’s a guy to do?

Use the new grapple system, that’s what. Actually, that’s what a guy is to do the whole game, for a number of reasons. One, it’s super satisfying – you get a nice up-close cinematic takedown complete with a lightsaber impalement and a throw (alternatively, you can toss an enemy into the air Devil May Cry style and wail on them as they’re up there and defenseless), but the thing is that you can’t take damage while in the grapple animation. In fact, other characters don’t shoot at you. So I would essentially wail on whatever big dudes were present – AT-STs, combat droids, that sort of thing – and then, when my health got a bit low, just dash around grappling little dudes for insta kills (or near insta kills) and getting health back from my life-drain saber crystal and regeneration saber crystal.

The animations for Starkiller’s kills are still spectacular. Let me rephrase – the animation is still spectacular. He still walks a bit like he’s got something shoved up his butt, but from the looks of him, there’s been trauma in his life. The cinematic animation is vastly improved this time around. I really believed a lot of the emotions they were showing me, and I didn’t feel like the characters were quite as dead-faced. I don’t know what they did to fix it, but it worked. Again, Vader still looked and sounded bad. Visually correct, but his motions were very un-Vader-like.

I did my first “hour as the designer” thing and found several things I didn’t like –

They very quickly introduce you to first-order optimal strategies, i.e. the grapple, that last you the entire game.
They establish an enemy as scary, let you beat, and then immediately reuse it. Broke my flow entirely.
They reminded me about Quicktime events, or “how to make a game boring.”

There weren’t any technical breaks in the first hour or so, but I came across some later on – disappearing geometry, geometry that would only appear form certain camera angles, characters that warped about as I abused the grapple mechanics, so on and so forth – but I traced most of those bugs back to the simple reality of all the different pieces interplaying. Sometimes the euphoria engine would just very occasionally not know what the hell to do with a character’s limbs, and rather than break, the character disappeared. Geometry that I wasn’t supposed to get on top of would simply disappear, or if I was manipulating stuff with the Force grip ability and got it out of my line of sight, it would typically disappear moments later, not matter how cautious I was with the move.

I think it’s a solid game that intelligently gave the leeway in the right areas – projectile deflection was said to work at the exact moment the projectile would hit, but it actually worked a little before that. Often times, because of milliseconds of input or animation lag, a deflection would turn into a near miss, but I was rarely punished really badly for it. Projectiles most often didn’t do that much damage, they just had a knockback effect that would screw your combo chain – that is, if you weren’t just abusing the hell out of the grapple mechanic. Did I mention that?

That was the biggest game breaker for me. That, and, as a sequel, it let me down in a lot of key ways. Hands-down the best parts of the first game were the small, intimate boss fights against other super powered Jedi. These were moments where I had to really keep my skills sharp and be aware of the environment and the moves I had at my disposal, or at least know how to use them properly to beat the pattern. There were some that were worse than others. But there’s basically just 2 boss fights in TFU2. Maybe three, but one of them is basically just a timing puzzle and the other is just sort of run-of-the-mill “avoid the damage and wait for the guy to get tired” mode. I didn’t die on a single boss fight, which is kind of a bad thing, I think. The reason being it gave me no sense of accomplishment to have beaten the bosses. They were cinematically interesting, but I don’t really want that as a reward – I want to feel like I achieved something. Achievement and satisfaction from it – fiero, in many ways – is an emotion that games are uniquely positioned to achieve. Boss fights should give you a rush of fiero because they should challenge you to overcome a significant obstacle to achieve progress. They don’t do that in TFU2. I basically just wailed on dudes and their health bars went down.

And then there’s the on-rails sections. I hate on-rails sections, almost universally. It was actually kind of fun in Darksiders, but that was the last time I truly enjoyed it. Basically, every hour of gameplay or so, Starkiller jumps out a window/off a cliff/out of a crashing starship and hurtles through space trying to either catch up to something or land without dying. This means dodging obstacles as they come your way or blasting them with Force powers. It’s very, very redundant after you do it once, but TFUII has you doing it I think 4 times. Maybe it’s only 3. But there’s only 3 levels, so it’s hard to say.

Oh, yeah, there’s only 3 levels. Kamino, Cato Neimoidia, a Nebulon-B Frigate (which amused me), and then Kamino again. You explore a 50 foot by 50 foot section of Dagobah as well, but it’s hardly worth calling a “level” because you don’t do a single puzzle or fight on the planet.

As a Star Wars nerd, it had some interesting moments – it was Canonically fairly to very accurate. It’s the early days of the Rebellion, so they only have a rag-tag fleet of Nebulon-B Frigates and some light cruisers – Corellion corvettes and gunships, a handful of Gallofree light freighters. What was way more amusing was seeing LucasArts tapping its own history with the starfighter selection – Z-95 Headhunters and R-41 Starchasers were on display more than once, with an extremely healthy smattering of Y-wings as well. Oh, yes, I’m going to show you pictures:

No really.
First showed up in TIE fighter.

This made me smile because I’m a big enough nerd to know that all of that information is canonically accurate, and it’s super nice to see someone, anyone, within Lucas Licensing that seems to give a shit about that sort of thing. The research is admirable, if nothing else, but the problem was that it made me want to go back to those hey days of yore – when Star Wars games were the best games I played. Dark Forces, TIE Fighter – they were all incredibly solid entries in what used to be a very narrow market. And because they were Star Wars games, they had enough branding that they could be bold and different. TIE Fighter and the other X-wing games were essentially WWII-era dogfighting simulators without any ground to catch into. They replaced all the annoying fuel and oil management, flaps and all that nonsense with combat-focused stuff that let you really enjoy some wiggle room, develop a playstyle, and actually feel like a Rebel/Imperial pilot.

It was good times, and I appreciate their nods to nostalgia, but that won’t make TFU a good series. The grapple animations were fun, but got quickly repetitive. I would’ve stopped doing them if I had known there were only 3 (all the characters got the same melee [A+X] grapple except the riot troopers. For them, you stole their force pike thingy and smacked them in the face with it. But all the characters had the exact same Force-power grapple, which was basically a juggle-set-up). and they weren’t so ridiculously effective. The era of quicktime events is also done.

But the worst thing was when they showed me what TFU could really be in the hands of some innovators – at one point, Kota has to pop over to use the Force and move a bridge so that you can cross it. (Now, how Starkiller, who can crash a Star Destroyer with the Force from miles away, couldn’t reach an extra 200 feet to tilt a bridge, I will never know) In that moment, I realized that TFU needs to go co-op – solving force-push and pull puzzles with a friend would be fantastic (as evidenced by Portal 2), and the potential for team-up takedowns would actually re-enliven Quicktime events, because your friends’ failures and successes would affect you (sort of like co-op mode on Guitar Hero and Rock Band games). Not to mention how cool two-man takedowns of giant droids would be, or paired-up grappling maneuvers to really screw up a boss’s day.

So, overall:

Dear LucasArts,

I can fix TFU’s gameplay. You got everything else right. I can make it an amazing game with two words and a handful of ideas, a couple of useful cuts, and better encounter design.

I am available to start immediately.