Halo: Anniversary, Space Marine, Thoughts on Games.

Ok, I have some things to discuss. Been a hard couple of months. Not interested in talking about any o that. 0 interest. So here we go: Games.

Space Marine

For Space Marine, I’d actually like to submit a conversation I had with a good friend of mine (Jerrod) about Space Marine. I think it very nicely sums up my feelings on the game, and presents an alternative point of view as well. So here’s quick conversation between my buddy Jerrod and I, summarizing my views on the game.

Sean: So, let’s talk about THQ and Relic’s Space Marine. Right up front, let’s just say this: it’s a really well put together package. All the report card stuff is there: It gets solid marks for its looks including a strong visual aesthetic that’s been well-executed. It has solid animations that convey the power of the characters and definitely don’t look motion captured, so that’s a huge plus for me. From the replayability standpoint, you’ve got options in the campaign via difficulty modes and collectibles, and the new classic: tiered unlock in multiplayer. The controls and interactions are tight, manageable, and familiar.

That said, I feel like it’s a shining example of how a game can be well and lovingly made and still not very good.

As far as the narrative goes, it has this two-pronged mindset where it’s really heavy handed with the WH40k lore – they don’t explain what “Xenos” are, they don’t bother explaining the Empire, the Imperial Guard, who or what the Space Marines are or that their proper name for whatever reason is the Adeptus Astartes. They don’t explain that the Imperium of Man is an oligarchy of sorts or that Orks just basically want to fight dudes. They assume you know all the necessary bits and pieces to assemble the context for the narrative.

And then, outside those bits and pieces, there’s practically no narrative. The big twist is visible by the close of the first act – there’s an Inquisitor on the planet. If you have none of the context above, that means nothing. If you have all the context above, then you already know he’s a dick and a bad guy. So when it turns out he’s possessed by Chaos, it’s not a surprise. Or, alternatively, you have no idea who the freaky dudes in armor with the self-mutilation fetish are or what’s happening now. A minute ago, you were fighting space orks.

It’s very schizophrenic with regard to its narrative. It’s equal parts heavy-handed, self-referential name-dropping and vaguely outlined characters with no sense of purpose beyond “run forward through hallway.”

Speak of the devil – level design, or lack thereof.

Jerrod: It is an ass-kick fantasy for those nerds who know what a Mecha-gothic cathedral with legs looks like. It is unapologetic in this regard, and the level design is “hallway, arena, hallway, drop off” but the game controls and feels exactly like a Space Marine sim should.

Sean: One easy way to look at it is this: your only shot at really digging it is if you’re into WH40k already, and if you are, you’ll either just love the endless name-dropping and references, or you’ll be disappointed that their execution amounted to little more than that.

Is it satisfying to take down a charge of Ork Boyz with two to three well-placed shooting-melee combos? Yes. Can you do it 30 times and not get bored? That depends on how badly the aforementioned Mecha-gothic cathedral with legs appeals to you. For me, the shallow nature of it was enough to start noticing its other flaws. I mean, “Press B Not To Die” moments notwithstanding

Jerrod: The combat may have been shallow, but it worked. I can’t say I was ever really bored fighting something. One thing is that I played it start to finish on hard. It does make a difference there.

Jerrod: The level design is exactly as I described it though.

Sean: And there’s a lot of wasted space.

Jerrod: Yeah.

Sean: A lot of wasted space.

Jerrod: Lauren noticed that while I was playing. She says, “so basically, you run down a hallway, pick up a skull, listen to a robot lady talk, kill some dudes, repeat.” Suddenly I took note of it.

It’s fair to say that Jerrod falls into the group for whom the ass-kick fantasy is relevant. So, if we want to compare it in kind of simple terms: do you buy Star Wars games just because they’re Star Wars games? I do. I picked up Force Unleashed I and II because they were Star Wars games, and neither is half as well put together as Space Marine. If you’re the kind of dude who will just enjoy hanging out, reveling in a well-made fantasy in one of your favorite universes, Space Marine will satisfy a long-overdue itch, and it will do it with aplomb. It’s tight; it’s focused; it’s brutal; and it’s chock full to the gills of typical Games Workshop fanfare that Relic packed so aggressively into their Dawn of War series. For me, I like my guns and swords games – big fan of Darksiders, and it’s possible that if you liked that game, you’ll appreciate both the art and style of Space Marine – but it lacks even Darksiders’ complexity and puzzling mechanics. To be blunt, it’s execution and production quality fail to make it robust enough besides its fan-atomical (yeah. That happened) appeal to be little more than a button masher with the occasional Quicktime event and rail shooter sequence thrown in to save face while tearing faces off.

Rent It.

Minecraft

Late to the party on this – I’ve been aware of Minecraft for a long time, but I never gave it any kind of real focus. Recently, I decided to open a server up and play it with some friends to see what there was to see. My general reaction:

Not especially a lot.

Now, let me codify this in more detail. Minecraft is incredibly content rich. There are x number of blocks, and you can make y number of things with those blocks. The question is why. This is a problem I have with a ton of sandbox games. It’s the problem I also have with MMOs, which I think exist in a similar space as far as the equation I’m about to propsoe. Minecraft, as a game, can be thought of as a pair of functions where the sum of their results is a value of quantitative fun. Most games can be distilled to this in some way or another, but follow me on this. In Minecraft, ostensibly, the goal is survival. That’s pretty vague and that vagueness is necessary for a sandbox game. You’re trying to survive in Minecraft for as long as possible because shit comes out at night to kill you. And out of the darkness, for that matter. And sometimes comes out during the day. Things want you dead, is the core notion. Your job is not die. To that end, you must acquire z amount of x number of different blocks to make y number of tools that help you not die.

Repeat ad nauseam. Minecraft isn’t a “sandbox game.” It’s just a sandbox. There is no win condition. There is no ending. There is no way to say “this is the goal of the game.” It allows you to create your own short and long term goals. Minecraft mods enhance this by drastically expanding the number of blocks you can get and the number of objects you can make with them and then further expanding the number of systems you can create with those objects that you’ve made. It’s all very clever – don’t get me wrong. It’s really quite brilliant to do this. But the whole thing lacks a point to the proceedings.

And here we have where it begins to resemble an MMO. In an MMO, you kill monsters to level up to get better gear to level up some more, to kill some more different monsters, to level up some more until you’re done. On the surface, now you’ve reached the cap and beaten the game. There are other things to do, but why would you do anything? They’ll release more content for you to master in the next four weeks or so, but once that’s done, again, what is the point? These are essentially Skinner boxes laid bare. We’re doing something for a reward with literally no end in sight – just keep pushing the button and goodies will come out. Minecraft is different in that you can eventually go do something else with all the goodies you’ve made. You can be creative and create vast works of incredible detail and fidelity within that 3D world, and you can do that with your friends. So there’s an element of fun to that as well. But that’s self-appointed purpose. I have plenty of that in my life, in fact, that’s all I have. I come to video games for structure. I’m not saying everybody is me, and thus by extension Minecraft is somehow bad. It’s not. But it’s the thing I do to help me fall asleep. The utter lack of mechanics structure, the lack of goal, has me wanting to be done with it almost as soon as I boot it up. I like things with endings, for better or worse, and this is a game that just doesn’t have that. Again, I don’t think this make Minecraft bad. I think it makes it not for me.

L.A. Noire

Gosh, am I super late to the party on this one. At any time, you can easily write L.A. Noire off as a rip-off of L.A. Confidential, but I see it more as an interactive homage than a straight imitation. The main character, Cole Phelps, is 8 parts Guy Pearce from that other movie and 2 parts Robocop. He’s not bumbling and confused, he’s a crack shot, and he’s about as straight laced as you can possibly get. That said, he is rather naively endearing. I like Cole. I want him to succeed as I’m going through the game, and interestingly, there’s only about 5 minutes of game here. This goes back to Jaime Griesmer’s 30 Seconds of Fun ideology, but, essentially, there’s four  things you can do in L.A. Noire – a modern update on the point and click adventure where you wander around a crime scene, waiting for an eruption of deduction to issue from your controller in the form of a buzz; chase suspects on foot or on car: it doesn’t matter, because both Cole and the cars he drives feel about like 1948 Buicks; brawl with some guys who don’t have guns or blow away dudes who do have guns; and shake down suspects and witnesses in carefully contrived conversation sequences.

The first three are pretty standard stuff. In fact, they feel like GTA missions where you’re not supposed to just run over random pedestrians. I found myself trying to obey the law – as I understood it, anyway – as concerns traffic regulations, even. I stopped at red lights. I went through green lights. I didn’t hit other people’s cars as often as possible, and I tried not to commandeer them unless necessary. That said, apparently left hand turns have the right of way in California, either currently or in 1948, because people cannot FIND a shit to give that I’m going straight with my siren on across Sunset boulevard.

But that last point, the shaking down suspects or witness in the carefully contrived conversation sequences? That’s where L.A. Noire shines and fails horridly, as most games do with their strongest features these days. See, the point-and-click sections feel like a smart update of the old Tim Schaeffer adventure games where you have to figure out how shit works and keep trying to manipulate objects until you’ve done the required number of arcane gestures and prostrated yourself at the altar of absurd logic long enough. I happen to like that stuff, so it works for me. What they didn’t quite manage was to capture how good talking to people felt in the old SCUMM games. When you rolled about in Full Throttle or The Dig or any of the others and talked to other characters, you knew exactly what Ben or Boston Low (that was his name. I’m not kidding.) was going to say because it said so on the screen. Sometimes they mixed it up, but there was never any ambiguity in how you were going to address them. In L.A. Noire, there’s nothing but ambiguity, largely because of how the “Doubt”/”Lie” system works. Most of the time, when you accuse a person with “Lie,” Cole very gently and calmly informs them that they’re misleading him. It’s the opposite reaction when you choose “Doubt.” When you choose doubt, most of the time, Cole flies off the handle and acts with such rage it’s like, no matter what words they used, they just said something deeply unsavory about Cole’s parents’ marital status at the time of his birth and the current nature of his mother’s nocturnal activities.

I mean, the dude loses it, but he loses it all the time. He’s constantly berating his partners, his witnesses, everybody but his bosses. He’s smug and stuck-up and more than a little flawed, and the longer I play as Cole, the less I like him. The less I trust him. The more I just want to punch him in the face. And it’s largely because I’ve watched him endlessly berate people when I’m only trying to suggest “no, that doesn’t sound quite right to me.”

The other thing is that the conversations are 1-way. That never happened in those old SCUMM games. What I mean by this is that you can reach a point where you’ve pressed a button that offends so deeply, there’s no recovery from that moment. You just have to live with the consequences of the discussion. You can never return to a talking point or cross-examine inconsistent responses. Compare this to the SCUMM conversation trees, where there was near endless forgiveness. Or even the conversation trees in Dragon Age (1) or Knights of the Old Republic. These are more designed to not punish you for mistakes, instead allowing you to glean information as you go.

I think a lot of subtlety has been lost in this art, particularly with Bioware abandoning it over time. They seem to be standardizing the Mass Effect Wheel of Discourse across all their games, and I think it’s a real shame. Yes, it allows you to have full voice-over in this dialogue sections, but that increased amount of voice over makes it necessary to shift interactions to more binary affairs, or if not binary, then ternary. Look it up. That subtlety that exists between “Truth,” “Lie,” and “Lie But I can’t Prove it” is utterly lost on L.A. Noire. Perhaps that’s because it’s utterly lost on Cole Phelps, and the gameplay construct exists as an extension of a narrative device? With their emphasis on narrative (which works, by the way. The writing is really solid, overall) , this seems like a logical conclusion to draw, but it also feels a little bit like a copout. I kind of want my Cole Phelps to see subtlety and shades of gray.

Halo Annivesrary

This dropped a week ago yesterday, and I picked it up for my dad. He had just bought an Xbox 360 from the internets at some ludicrously cheap price but sans cables or storage devices, so we had a fun little adventure of me digging up old parts and figuring out how to get him a functioning box. We were successful! But it bordered on tiresome. Then we chucked in Halo Anniversary and I let my dad run through it a bit. I mean, we were playing co-op on normal, but I wasn’t going to make him sit there while I devoured the world. I’ve played that campaign about a billion times, so I know every enemy spawn and instinctively know what enemies are going to do, so, for my dad, having me there is like having Ares, God of War, standing just over your shoulder, ready to decimate the universe at a moment’s notice. Ultimately, there are other, far better Halo players in the world, but not in my dad’s circle of friends, family, and acquaintances. Anyway! I have to say, this feels like an HD remake done right. Everything is very, very pretty, and the updates are all roughly in keeping with what we expect from a Halo game – it still has that Halo aesthetic.

That said, did these dudes cut some corners! And they’re not obvious corners. You have to know a thing or two about Halo to notice them. For example, they yanked the standard human infantry guy model out of Halo Reach and plunked it down for use as the Marines in Anniversary. They may have edited some textures here and there, but overall, it’s basically the exact same model. For most people, that’s no big deal. I acknowledge that, and that’s fine. However! The regulars in Reach were UNSC Army. Not Marines. Bungie didn’t change their entire design and overall feeling on a whim. It was a conscious effort to differentiate them from previous allies. In fact, when Marines do show up in Halo Reach, they look different than the standard GIs. I know why they ripped the models – they had a lot of art to update. More accurately, they asked Certain Affinity to update a rather lot of art, so character models beyond the Chief fell down the list somewhat.

Furthermore, there’s a shot in the life pod between levels 1 and 2 where you see a Navy pilot operating the pod. She is utilizing the pilot model from Halo 3. THAT was the one that got my goat – because it’s so obviously so much lower resolution than any of the other models you see in the game.

What Anniversary does, in many ways, is make Halo show its age. And that’s interesting! Because its intention is to bring the graphics into the modern age. Their absolute adherence to not changing the gameplay is deeply admirable and the correct choice, because I think there’s a lot to appreciate about what has been learned and what has changed in 10 years. While there are a lot of mechanics about the original Halo that remain solid and modern (partly because Halo created the current trend), including the tight-as-hell shooting mechanics, there are other pieces where nostalgia drips away and we can see what’s been learned. The level design is abysmal. Not universally, but the abyss is in strong representation. Halo, as a level, is still a cool level – open, sprawling outdoor environments, branching pathways, neat objectives (including, I’m now realizing, the first ever “Firefight” sequences) that really make you feel like a super soldier trapped on an ancient space station fighting off a horde of crazed, murderous aliens. Silent Cartographer is still way cool, in my opinion, and Assault on the Control Room still holds up, but those truths exist as a facet of their excellent play, not their excellent layouts. Particularly with AotCR, you’re just running through the same 8 hallways for something like 80% of that level. Now, the actual Assault, at the end? Climbing that pyramid and murderizing hundreds of aliens? There’s a reason Bungie used that same set piece to end Halo 3 – it’s awesome. But most of the other levels are just identical corridor after identical corridor, seemingly branching into combat encounter arenas by accident, and it’s easy as hell to get lost. Again, I have this stuff committed to memory at a level so primal you could deprive me of most of the forward quarter of my brain, and, so long as  I retained motor control, my guess is I’d still be able to slam through it.

The cheevos on hand are actually pretty cool, though practically unattainable for someone like my dad. Most of the achievements are relics from the Halo community that was burgeoning even back in 2001. Grabbing a Banshee on Assault on the Control Room was a trick that you could learn to pull off even back then (in a time before the YouTube). Snaking your way through Truth and Reconciliation without resorting to using the Sniper Rifle? That was a challenge we issued each other all the time when my buds and I would gather to commune with the war spirits and honor the ancient ways. That all feels pretty intentional, and, again, since the entire point of this thing is nostalgia, playing off achievements created by the community over the past ten years is the right thing to do. It feels like honoring them, in a way. Also, the price point is right on target. You get a Halo Reach map pack ($10) and an HD remake ($30) for $40. That’s precise. I think they maybe could have afforded to knock it down another $10, but that’s neither here nor there. That feels like expansion pack (oh, those days – those bygone day) pricing, and for this venture it feels appropriate.

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.

Pogo Sketch Impressions

I recently picked up a Pogo Sketch and the Inklet application for my MacBook Pro, and I’m prepared to offer some early thoughts on it. I haven’t used it extensively, but what I have experienced is worth mentioning in my mind, so here its:

The basic premise, if you’re unfamiliar with the website that I just linked you to that you should have clicked on (there will be a quiz as well), is that the little cylinder carries some elctro thermo magickumal signal from my hand down onto my touchpad and makes it think my finger is on there. It also enables pressure sensitivity I’m guessing by measuring the amount of charge being conferred down the device. I don’t know, it happens. Basically, it makes your MacBook’s touchpad, iPad or iPhone touchscreens, or your Magic TrackPad into a pressure sensitive drawing or writing surface. Sort of.

What it does is map an area from the device that’s taking the input (either external touch pad or the integrated touch pad/screen) onto the screen. With an iPad iPhone or iPod Touch this is super easy, because the tracked surface is identical to the screen, so it just maps one to one. With a touchpad on a MacBook, it maps a zone, which is actually a really cool feature. Some simple multitouch gestures allow the resizing, reshaping, and repositioning of the zone, giving you the ability to create a drawing surface as wide or precise as you need.

The idea for me was that it would be a rough equivalent to a Wacom tablet for $30. And it’s not. Not even close. It is touch sensitive, and the sensitivity is configurable, but there’s a lot wrong. First off, go look at the Pogo Sketch pen required to keep it touch sensitive. I’ll wait. Ok, did you see the end of it? that spongy dongle? That is not a drawing surface for any kind of precision drawing. It reminds me of using a grease pencil in figure drawing, and I’ve got that covered with a real pen and paper. I don’t believe in the all-digital surfacing idea either, yet. I really enjoy the feel of paper: there’s so much configuration for so many different tasks! You can choose the tooth, the grain, a million different options on paper purchases. And don’t even get me started on the ease of use with a pencil versus a Photoshop brush. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with all digital. I know it’s the future. I’m just not ready for it yet. I really, really love drawing with my hands and real instruments, feeling the graphite sliding off the pencil and onto the page is very satisfying. I don’t have to have anything  plugged in for any of that, and the freedom to put paper in any position gives me a lot of flexibility to be creative and gestural and just go a little wild.

In short, I dig traditional composition. But when it comes time to present someone,  anyone with completed works, it does result in quite a long process. Because my roughs are…erm… super rough, covered in experimental lines and mistakes and test sketches, often overlapping on the same page just because they all shared the same basic idea, whenever I actually want to “finish” a drawing, I lay a bit of tracing paper over and redraw (note: redraw. Not trace) over top of the composition, trusting my (not always great) artist’s eye to find the right lines on the paper underneath. I think of it much the same as writing good, well-rounded characters: the lines (dialogue or actual lines on a page) are already there in the mess I’ve presented myself. If I’m patient and diligent I’ll be able to find them and show other people. If I try to trace or rush, I’ll force lines onto the page and wind up with something half-formed and poorly wrought.

That cleaned-up, refined tracing paper sketch is then scanned, cropped, and saved so that I can ink it in Photoshop. It takes me about a week of solid work to successful ink a drawing, because I’ve only ever had a mouse at my disposal. Well, I have a Wacom tablet that’s a little busted and not super accurate and doesn’t work with dual monitors anyway, but that’s neither here nor there. The mouse has been my friend and standby forever, and because I’m a huge nerd, I know that a curvilinear line with proper segmentation appears, for all intents and purposes, to be a curved line. When you get right down to it, all pixel-based art is made up of blocks created lines, so no matter how beautiful and perfect your curve is, it’s still made up of a bunch of segmented lines. I just cheat and do it again. When I need to make a curve, I’ll mentally plan out between 16 and 20 breakpoints (sometimes as few as twelve) along a given section of the curve and then shift click my way around it. I’ll do this a couple times to get nice, fat lines. Then I grab my handy dandy eraser tool and rinse and repeat, thinning out the lines in areas where I feel like think sells better, leaving it thick in places were appropriate, and adding even more curvature by not identical matching the established curvilinear segments – basically, I cut off the hard edges, so where I started with maybe 16 segments, I’ll actually wind up with between 32 and 64, depending on how many passes with the eraser I do.

This, as you could imagine, is time consuming, but I always feel super proud of the work. I get nice, clean inking done. The only times it gets really frustrating are when I butt heads with a powerfully detailed, curvy object, like a shoe. I know you don’t think of shoes as powerfully detailed, but they definitely can be. This is where a lot of my time gets sunk, because I spend that much time just trying to get all the curves to play right together.

Once the entire drawing is inked in this way, I normally go back in and tighten things up – thicken lines here, thin them there, make sure it looks more “pen drawn”, which is funny, because if I just drew it with a pen, I could get the same effect. But I like the digital version for its impermanence in that regard – when I make one mistake I haven’t fucked a whole drawing full of good lines. I’m just an Alt/Ctrl Z or Option-Command Z or whatever the hell it is (I changed my keys to match the order of Windows keys: Command on the outside, alt in the middle, extra button on the inside. I’m no convert)

So, all that said, we understand a bit about my process with the mouse, how does PogoSketch come into play? Well, with all that mouse clicking, I’m used to nice, clean lines and a lot of precision when it comes it that. The Pogo Sketch is only as precise as the drawing surface it’s used on, besides being a fat sack of crap at the tip. It’s not pen shaped, so when you hold it too angled, you don’t get the proper contact and don’t get a line. It’s not long enough to be a pen because it was thought of as a portable first, so it’s more the size of an old PocketPC stylus, except a bit thicker.

Worse yet, I’m left handed. Inklet says it can tell the difference between my palm and my sketch, but I’m endlessly getting flickered down to whatever side of touch surface my palm is closely resting to. So, basically, for big, broad strokes, I think it sucks, and I’d rather use a (gasp) mouse.

For fine work, though, it’s a god send. Because you can customize the drawing surface, you can zoom in crazy close on large-resolution images and make your sketch space relatively small – now you’re working with real precision in a pre-defined space. FInish it up, grab two finger scroll and scoot your workspace over.

It’s really just the idea of using it all the time I find a little deplorable. Maybe with more practice, it’ll be second nature, but it seems awfully finicky to be used as a Wacom replacement. And, really, on a touchpad, it’s not.

I am, however, super curious about an iPad and the Pogo as a Cintiq stand in. Now it’s as simple as “put your pen down on the spot you’re looking at.” Particularly, I’d be interested in snagging an iPad as a desktop extension and just using it for its capability as a touchscreen monitor for my MacBook (or, in a world of dreams, for my dedicated working PC. But that world of dreams is distant). With the right time and effort, that could be a real winner, but I suspect I’d have many of the same problems regarding the left-handed palm-pressing. Damn you, sinistral laterality!

Building a Better Deck

Daaah- Blew it! Missed my Wednesday Post time by 4 damn hours.

So, recently, as part of my focused efforts to become a better gamer and by extension a better designer of games, I’ve taken to trying more non-video game and non-PC games. My next step is to putz about with Facebook games some more and explore the social side of all that in addition to tackling the daunting world of mobile game apps, but that’s an ongoing process (save ends).

I got (back) into Dungeons & Dragons about two years ago when Penny-Arcade started doing these Dungeons & Dragons podcasts – basically, Wizards of the Coast paid them and Scott Kurtz some money to come around the office (and later to send their guy over to PA’s office) to play DnD so that they could record them and release it as a podcast. This was a fascinating and it turns out brilliant idea, because it instantly exposed the PA audience – many of whom are curious about non-video games but don’t feel comfortable or familiar with them – to the unique and odd joy of DnD. Particularly through Mike Krahulik’s eyes, as he was super new to the whole concept of “rolling dice.” Basically, this gimmick worked splendidly on me, but I found, as time wound on, it’s really fucking difficult to break in to the tabletop gaming world. All the stores tend toward independent ownership (which is good) and subsequently develop a really exclusive culture (which is bad) that makes getting yourself ingratiated enough to find a group god-damn next to impossible (which is the worst). If your friends exist in diaspora as mine do, it’s really difficult to get schedules to line up and find time to do some DnD via virtual tabletops, MapTools or otherwise. So here I was with a newfound vigor for what we might call ‘classic’ gaming and no way to pursue it.

Fast forward two years – I get laid off, Danielle gets sick, and we decide to take her over to the doctor’s office up the street. The doctor’s office is adjacent (ish?) to a games and hobby store, which it turns out is basically just a front door that leads to a spiraling ramp/staircase into a basement filled with nerdism. We decided to go in because we keep coming back to this conversation that the games I play aren’t games she likes, but she plays and enjoys card games. Well, I’ve played a couple of nerd-friendly card games before, very recently in fact, and I wasn’t sure we had the same idea about “card games.” I also wasn’t sure there were any that were, as every mom from the 80s insisted things be, “two-player.” Particularly, I wasn’t looking for another game that pitted me against her, because I wasn’t sure that was right for us. The guy talked eventually about the idea of “deck-building games,” and included Munchkin in that process, but I wasn’t sure about that statement. Ultimately, this was the path we took, but it put me to thinking about card games in general. I don’t have experience aplenty with this medium, but I have recently expanded my mindset quite a bit. Quick look back at that:

I played Munchkin at PAX East for the first time this year and also a game called Loot and learned a third called Puzzle Strike from some wonderful fellow PAX-goers at the hotel after the show ended. Each of these games was essentially played as a card game (Puzzle Strike forgoes cards in favor of chips that have a similar effect, but have a nice tactile quality that makes you more kinesthetically connected with it. Or, at least, that’s what I took away from it), but they ultimately emulated three different types of games. Munchkin was the card game version of a dungeon-crawling RPG with slight adversarial elements between the Players – i.e. like Gauntlet, the other players were totally content to let me get screwed. Ryan, in particular took joy in it. Loot, similarly, possessed some very real adversarial elements, but Loot’s flow felt more like a Strategy Game. I had a series of resources at the ready that I could deploy and make an effect on the world, which is to say, the other two players. Puzzle Strike was a fighting/tetris game. You had a character and a deck of chips that the character could pull from, each with their own unique extras. Some were combo focused, others were focused on screwing up your opponents deck, others still had various bonuses. Winning involved building up your personal allotment of gem chips so that you could kick them into the opponent to your left. This was called crashing, and is sort of like sending rows you eliminate in tetris to your opponent’s screen. It has the twin effect of potentially giving him the opportunity to score huge points and also sort of screwing him over, because, just like in tetris, in Puzzle Strike, if you go over 10 gems in your personal gem pile (your “stack” as it’s called), you’re out of the game.

So the strategy comes in when you look at the chips that are available. Your guy starts with a couple and you have a handful of money chips in your hand at the beginning of the game. Available for purchase are larger denominations of gems (2s, 3s, and 4s), which give you more money in a single chip pull, special chips that let you do more than one action in a turn, special tips that let you block the attacks of your opponent (you’re only ever playing one guy at at ime), and special chips that let you add dead cards to the other players’ hands, which sucks univserally because your hand only ever has 5 chips in it (I think).

Anyway, that’s what I learned at PAX, and it was an awesome good time. I really enjoyed it. What I wanted to look more into was games that were simpler than that, because I thought that amount of data would overwhelm Danielle. The only reason I learned it at all was because I had a patient and kindly teacher in a fellow Arcadian who was in the hotel lobby. Gamers can speak each others’ languages, so it makes it super simple to pick new stuff up. I wasn’t sure if that would be the case for her, so I went into the store with her on the theory that I’d have to get them to understand that I couldn’t walk out of there with a deck of magic cards – besides being a commercially dangerous, I find the whole idea of customizable, expandable card games a little unnerving. You buy booster packs with the hope and prayer that, hiding within that 5 dollar investment, is a new card that will make your deck just perfect for three or four scenarios, providing you draw the card at the right time. Financial investment wins that game, regardless of what anyone says, which is why you can go on eBay and other sites and purchase individual cards for slightly more than the booster packs but without the hassle of having to wade through the system. Either way, Wizards gets paid, so I don’t think they care.

 

Regardless, I didn’t want Magic. I’m not a big fan of the game. I find it obtuse and convoluted and its system of monetization too aggressive for me. I don’t think it’s an awful game, but I’ve played it before and I don’t need to again. That’s fair to say.

Anyway, I went in there and basically said that and gave my narrow world view of Magic and within seconds I could see that I had walked into a Magic-centric shop, which started red lights and klaxons in my brain, for a number of reasons. I have an unwarranted low opinion of Magic enthusiasts which I struggle to hide from them and from the rest of nerddom. I don’t know what caused it, but it’s there and it is definitive. I manage to steer the convesration in the direction I want it to go – I have a Girlfriend, there she is, and I want a game I can play with her. I was hoping something out there would be cooperative, and it turns out there was, but it was a Lord of the Rings game which they were out of stock of. So they gave me Dominion.

Dominion, is, frankly, fantastic. It may be the mac daddy of all deck-building card games. The formula is essentially the same – the game comes in a big heaping box with a bunch of big heaping decks of identical cards. Your goal in the game is to acquire cards of a specific type which, when the game ends, are converted based on the number displayed on their faces into point values. Highest score wins. Simple stuff, but what makes Dominion so cool is how you go about doing it. The game kicks off with some simple stuff – on the playing surface are treasure cards (worth and costing respectively 1, 2, and 3; and 0, 3, and 6), Victory Cards (aforementioned “points” cards) of values 1, 3, and 6, and Curse cards (negative points).  You start the game out with a deck of 10 cards per player, 7 coppers (1 coin value) and 3 1-point victory cards. Your hand is only 5 cards deep. Each turn has an action phase and a buy phase. In your action phase, you play cards from your hand. In your buy phase, you play treasure from your hand and bonuses granted from your buy phase to add new cards to your deck, but everything from this turn goes into a personal discard pile, and you draw another hand from your deck. Eventually you run out and you shuffle the whole thing and continue.

The brilliance of Dominion is in the other 10 cards on the table. These cards are all action cards, and in their own fascinating way tell a tiny story. The goal of Dominion is to build up a medieval…well…Dominion or Realm over which you, as a monarch, rule. You don’t do this by raiding and pillaging and conquering. You do this by purchasing land. You’re basically an historical real estate mogul. Each of the 10 Action Cards, called Kingdom Cards, in play on the table assist you in some way toward the goal of gaining more Victory cards. You get to customize what actions your capable of by using your treasure cards to purchase new actions. These fill in the story in neat little ways. For example, I have a card called “militia” which is an Attack that causes my opponents’ hands to go down to 3 cards and gives me a +2 bonus to my buy phase. This represents me hiring thugs to go harass the other monarchs, thinning out their available resources temporarily without causing long-term damage. They also loot and pillage along the way and bring back a bit of swag for me. Danielle has a card in her hand currently that’s called the “Moat” and acts as a blocker card – I still get my +2 bonus, but the Militiamen basically got to her part of the realm and went “well, that’s a fair bit of water” and then puttered off somewhere else, able to bring me the spoils of the puttering but not able to cause a significant harm to Danielle’s kingdom/dominion.

That’s the part of it I find so clever – we get to tell a tiny story of the struggle for dominance in this historical-fantasy kingdom while playing a neat game of Sid Meier’s Civ… well, not really, Civ is a tabletop game in and of itself, but something within that “economic strategy” genre. And then even deeper than that, the game comes with 25 different kingdom cards, but only 10 are in play at any time. It means that there’s no surefire win strategy, and there are a number of playstyles that can benefit depending on the mutually-agreed-upon set of Kingdom Cards. The game comes with a couple of presets that it suggests and even an extra representative of each deck, giving the ability to shuffle that bitch up and have fate decide what cards you’re going to play with. It keeps things fresh and interesting.

Yet despite that, I’m pining for the expansion decks. It’s not a matter of having gotten bored with the current set of cards, but more a matter of wondering what else they’ve done. Each expansion focuses in a new direction both thematically and mechanically – Dominion was originally envisioned for 2 – 4 players at a single table, but one of the expansions adds a system for two tables competing against each other – a sort of duel of alliances. Another introduces the 15th-century exploratory focus, where things become about corporations and shipping and trade, still another focuses on making the core game bigger and better while functioning with the original sets – new types of cards you can get in your hand, new ways to win the game, and even new denominations of money and even bigger point values on a new Victory card.

But all of that is just icing – the weird thing about a card game like this, about deck-building games in general, is that, while I’ve been able to distill the “30 seconds of fun” in a video game down really quickly over the past couple of years so that I can play one for probably about an hour and narrow in on their core loop, I still have a hard time accurately communicating all the nuance and subtlety of games like this. It could be the thrill of not knowing what’s coming, even within my own deck, and it could be the nature of planning out such a massive wealth of resources to manage – your deck can get upwards of fifty or sixty individual cards before a game ends, and some turns could see you going through 20 cards in a single hand, sometimes more. The various ways the game gives you of betting your luck, the systems it borrows from classic card games and even clear influences from stuff like the generations of Civilization games – all of these are parts that don’t show you the whole picture. I think deck-building games may be my new favorite thing. They’re definitely a great gateway drug for Danielle, but they have their drawback.

We were at Legions again today and I was trying to sell her on the Wrath of Ashardalon box set because it has a cooperative aspect to it – her response? “You know, now that I’ve gotten away from the board, I don’t know if I really want to go back.”

I’d like to think that’s Dominion’s greatest contribution to our gametime – its micro stories have opened her mind and imagination to a lot more now. And I’m one step closer to getting her to roll one of these:

Arbiter of FortuneAnd then her journey to the Dork Side will be cohm-pleehtuh.

May was Not So Great

Lost my job, forgot to post a bunch, and fell super far behind on my work. Also didn’t get the opportunity to save up enough money to move somewhere that could be classified “new and exciting” at the close of July. Will try to be a little better about posting and blogging moving forward. I still have a couple of stubs and thoughts pertaining to various different concepts – one, namely, is my growing love of “deck-building” games, which don’t always take the shape of cards but generally have that structure.

Another is a continued meditation on an idea I have of examining superheroics in a philosophical light. That one sort of spins around in place and has for years – it’s based on my old Brimstone drafts. Brimstone, for those that don’t know, was a superhero outside of the classic continuum of superheroes whose extraordinary ability was to manifest radical and systemic change to his epidermis and near-dermic tissues as a kind of psychosomatic manifestation of his emotional states. Some things would make his skin cold and harden like concrete, to the point that many liquids and other objects would flash freeze on his skin. Other thoughts and emotions have a “hot” reaction, causing him to gain a molten-rock like quality that incinerated very nearly everything he touched, and if not incinerated, severely warmed. Basically, he allows himself to get arrested and then I do a four-part anthology/philosophic monologue on the nature of heroes, of hero worship, and of why those stories, characters, and archetypes are so valuable to us as human beings when they’re so far from the truth. I do that in the style of The Last Days of Socrates, with four sections – Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo but reflavored to be a fictional hero of our modern (or maybe near-futuristic) world instead of an ancient paragon of critical thinking and modern philosophy. It’s weighty stuff that’s probably super above me, but I’ve always really liked it.

Elsewise we have a few sort of thought-vomits on game design and my experiences trying to “play as a designer.” It’s particularly difficult to do when you’re trying to enjoy a game. I’m also wondering if it’s possible to do with a game you’ve already played. I’m beginning to believe that, no, it’s not, but attempting to do it can lead you to new assumptions or beliefs about the decisions the designers of the game in question made as they were going through their process. It’s a fascinating exercise, one way or the other.

So, schedule? Well, let’s see.

I’m starting Full Sail Online’s Creative Writing Master’s program on Tuesday, May 31st. So probably no post that day.

But we’ll say bi-weekly from now on, shall we? (He said to his imaginary audience)

Wednesdays and Fridays and more frequently as the mood strikes.

Wednesday, June 1st – On Deck-Building Games
Friday, June 3rd – On Euthyphro and why I’m mad I never took more philosophy courses

Wednesday, June 8th – Hopefully some Brimstome-related content to expound on that.
Friday, June 10th – a summary of experiences thus far from Full Sail Online, and some samples of that writing if it’s feasible by then. I have thoughts on this now which I’ve collected into stubs, but I want to actually, you know, do it before I issue judgment.

Wednesday  June 15th – Building Characters for Narrative with D&D. I’ve had this idea that, take away the adventuring aspect of it, we can all sort of think of ourselves as D&D characters in some way or another. I also find that the characters I’m most connected to lately are coming from my own imagination into the D&D Character Builder. I’ve been able to write up their backgrounds, give them faults and frailties, even disorders, largely based off of how I look at them in terms of the race I chose, the stats I chose, and the powers I chose. I can paint a really vivid picture of a character based on this stuff and then I can dive into his background in fun ways to upend this sort of idealized moment, give him some real gravitas and weight to his backstory. See, I’m already yapping about it. But that post will contain some examples of characters I’ve never played as in the game, who I created to balance the twin ideas of mechanically and conceptually interesting in the game. It’s a fun task, particularly if your fictional tastes run more towards fantasy and sci-fi.
Friday June 17th – Second Full Sail Online discourse. Again, going to try to dump anything useful I’ve generated into this space for my own storage and to make it more public as a challenge to myself. It may even be rewrites from previous weeks.

Wednesday June 22nd – Playing like a Designer – A Month-long Challenge discussed. Having tried to “play like a designer” for a month and tackle as many games as possible with this mindset, I’ll try to go back over the notes of the past month’s experiences and discussions with friends also interested in it to see what we came to collectively about the process.
Friday June 24th – Hm. Really thought I could plan this far. Well, mostly  hoped I could. Let’s see how we do and hope there’s something interesting to discuss come this day. Even if it’s new employment or the continued (lack of?) travails of unemployment.

 

The Indomitable Imagination

So, I was watching The Daily Show the other day, and it may have been an old episode, but it was talking about all the stuff found in Osama bin Laden’s complex and all the things we’ve learned about the guy since then… and I don’t know. I’m on the wrong side of this.

Getting to the point where we have to kill one specific person to feel good about ourselves or reconnect with our bygone illusion of global security is a little sad. Rooting through his shit to tear him down even more? That’s borderline bullying. The dude’s dead. We can’t hurt him anymore. Those who believe in him won’t care or believe that he dyed his beard or was porn-crazy (and, really, America? Pot calling the kettle black much?)

When that new first dropped, I felt weird about it. I didn’t feel an upending sense of joy and accomplishment. The President has said some things in the interim that have made me feel better – finally, a President’s gotten hard on Israel, and yes, I think they deserve. Because Israel has a democratically elected government and we opted to side with them 60 years ago, they’ve been able to scoot by on numerous civil liberty injustices and just overall bad behavior. If we’re going to do the 2 people 2 states thing (which we should), we need to make it clear that Israel doesn’t run the show entirely.

All of that information existed in a tertiary way to the fact the the news kicked my imagination into overdrive into a completely unproductive and bona fide useless direction of story crafting. Needless to say, I feel some conflicting emotions about the news. Discomfort is near the top – the idea that we’re celebrating the death of a human being is difficult for me to overcome. It is, in fact, the same behavior we abhor and detest in our primary enemies, warriors of the Radical Islamist movements. I’m not sure that we should be espousing that. Regardless of deeds, he was a man, a human man, not some aberrant demon or monstrosity. We’ll never know the precise circumstances surrounding his death, and I think that’s what causes some trepidation for me. Is it still a victory if the Spec Ops boys win the gunfight, storm the building, find bin Laden, give him a swirly in the nearest unflushed toilet, light a cigarette for him while peeing into his dialysis machine and radio in for “Papa Bear,” so that Dick Cheney can be choppered in to deliver the death blow? Is that a victory? Some would say yes. I don’t know the answer.

Now, don’t let my satire or cynicism disguise the fact that the scenario described above is a wholly and completely ridiculous notion. Our guys tend to be consummate professionals. They lose their cool, now and again, but overall our ruthless, trained, psychopathic killers really do tend to be gentlemen, so I would be powerfully hard-pressed to believe that’s how events played out on the ground (or the air? I dunno), but, again, we’ll never really know for sure, and that gives me pause.

 

Highlight for politics!

To briefly be overly political,  I do wish we’d had a trial, and what an opportunity for an unprecedented Public Referendum, specifically on the nature of the sentence. That, in my view, could reaffirm the power of democracy. We would have chosen this criminal’s fate, and, regardless if we chose, as a voted nation, to end the man’s life or to simply bury him a billion feet underground or treat him to a host of endless re-education sessions, prolonging his life as much as possible until he denounced his former ways and declared that he’d seen the light of reason and civilization and all that , it would have been a choice inflicted democratically and as a unified (or at least majority) voice. That has more staying power than a squeeze of the trigger on a suppressed M4, or whatever it is that our spooky boys are using these days. Some of that’s crueler than a death in an armed, military conflict, maybe, but that would have been my preference (not the re-education, but the vote part).

It doesn’t really matter. That’s not how life works, and not how death worked in this case.

I find the timing exceptionally poor. It’s as if, in the midst of so much political and military unrest in the Arab world, the last thing we needed was to remind all these various powers, “Hey, whenever we need to, we’re still going to kick in your doors and do what we feel is right, regardless of your opinion.” That was essentially said in the President’s speech. I don’t think that aligns with the narrative thus far – we embrace democracy, we embrace both peaceful civilian revolutions and the armed uprising of an oppressed people for real political change. The States stand with you in your struggle for freedom – emotionally and spiritually, if not economically and or militarily.”

That message, as wishy-washy and cornball as it may be, was consistent and potent and, in my humble opinion, incredibly important. We were doing our best to stay out of it as these people sorted out their own lives and countries, at least publicly. Maybe that’s not fair – maybe we’re not doing as good a job of that as I thought we were, but it seemed like an effort to buttoutsky was underway.

The message from Pakistan that night was, “Yes, we’ll mind our own business — but our business can be anywhere, even 38 miles (60km) outside your capital of your sovereign state.”

So, I dunno. That duality makes me a little uncomfortable. That’s a thought that keeps sort of surging up in my brain. Back on track…

What inevitably and indomitably marched forward, however, was my imagination in reference to this event and those surrounding it. On the other side of the pond, just before we celebrated the end of a man’s life, the greater portion of the western world concerned itself with the birth of a new union, that between the (now Duke and Duchess? I don’t know how it works) Prince William and Kate Middleton of Britannia. I kind of couldn’t help it, but I wound up painting this dumb-ass scene in my head:

The President finishes his speech and putters back off to the oval office to think – one of his aides stops him and congratulates him, and the President, being a man of taste and dignity in my mind, sort of shrugs off the comment. His apprehension is clear – congratulations, politically, certainly, but is the death of a human man a just thing to congratulate anyone else on? That’s the sort of question my mental picture of Barack Obama struggles with, and one of the reasons I think he’s a good man.

He retires to the oval office under the watchful eyes of a pair of Secret Service goons stationed just outside the door, as they always are. Reaches into the desk and pulls out a clear, stout bottle with a brownish colored liquid and a clear glass, plunking both onto the desktop without ceremony or grace. It’s obviously been a long night for our dear President – decisions to be made, concern to be had, speeches to be written, morality to be considered, ethics to be measured. These are the heavy concerns of power and office, and none of us should begrudge him this serene moment between him and his glass of colorful nameless adult beverage, particularly considering there’s a worried wife waiting for him at the other end of the building with a pair of lovely young girls and a dog to consider and worry over as well.

So let us allow our Preisdent, in this fantasy, a humbling and human need – inebriation, even just in part, to relieve the stress of command. Particularly since what will come to him next is anything but relaxing. Particularly since, having been raised and weened on a steady diet of causality-bending science fiction, my imagination beseeches me to study these two events and lead our poor, fictional president into the intrepid jaws of a distinct icon of time-travel.

A draft kicks up in the Oval Office, which gets our President’s attention, surely and swiftly. He clears his throat slightly, wondering if perhaps his hooch is more powerful than he could have anticipated, but that doesn’t seem to be it: the draft builds into a breeze and then a howling billow, alarming our President rather significantly. Now he’s out of the chair and staring into the center of the room, where  a brief flicker of light has caught his eye. That flicker erupts outward into a sphere of shimmering energy and lightning, arcs of energy zapping outward and charring the walls, sending books, documents and mementos flying. The Secret Service guys are already in the room, circumnavigating this ridiculous anomaly with the cool, measured calm of men whose higher brain functions and instinctual urge to fear the unknown have been suppressed by a lifetime of training and commitment to one individual’s safety. The lightning ball grows until it occupies a space roughly six feet in diameter, just inches off the ground, the breeze and ambient electrostatic discharges so strong the Secret Service members can’t move their President from harms way for the strength of this meteorological phenomenon.

And then all at once, in a flash it’s gone, and in its place stands a man, six foot tall to the tip of him, thinning hair and awkward smile in place, shirtless but bound in the fine dress livery of the RAF and revealing a rippling musculature born of hard work and hard fighting – his entire left arm, from shoulder down, has been replaced by an unconstrained and unconcealed robotic connection, giving him the look of an incredible cyborg. tattooed starkly on his upper right pectoral is the Union Jack. The medals and markings can leave no doubt to an educated man of the world: this is a leader of men, a man of power and authority. This is the Duke of Cambridge – or was, at one time.

I won’t go too much further for fear of reprisal (She put out an edict, you know – no parodies or satire of the wedding footage), but suffice to say, King William would have come back to our time from a grim, World-War torn future to stop President Obama from ordering the death of Osama bin Laden, pinpointing it as the moment of causality that forces everything to spiral out of control to the point where he’s Lord High General of all the active allied armed forces of the States and Great Britain and has spent his twilight years fighting ruefully against some as yet unknown presence. He came back in the hopes that he could time it right and stop Obama – he had one shot at it, it turns out, and they had miscalculated because they were under fire.

I hadn’t gone much deeper than that in detail, but I had a funny little idea where he manages to get back to that war-torn future (I could never come up with an absurd enough to be funny scenario that would actually cause all that chaos to spring from that one decision), and we would find out that he and Kate had planned it that he would go back just afterwards to warn the President and paint the future as even worse than it was, hoping that, if he followed their instructions to store up secret weapons and oil caches they’d be able to suddenly pop them open and turn the tide of the war. Like something vaguely sinister – they didn’t want to stop the war from happening, because it put the Monarchy back in full power in the Empire, but they also wanted to make sure it was well and truly winnable by ensuring that the President would supply them from the past.

I think I might be a little effed up in the head.

Thoughts Abound! First Rant of New Blog

I have a lot of stuff on my mind, but it’s all amounting to a swirling tornado of pseudo thoughts that are incomplete or malformed or largely predicated on nerd rage. In we go!

I have the firmly held belief that a live-action Star Wars TV series would be fantastic if set between Episodes III and IV following a band of plucky space criminals as they try to integrate the newly formed and expansive empire into their lives and I would totally watch it because oh wait I already did and it was called Firefly.

Which is absolutely true when you think about it. For fuck sake, look at that:

Seriously, look at that

This leads me to a startling conclusion that’s been a long time coming: I might be about done with Star Wars.

Those of you who know me, soak it in. Scoff. Bicker amongst yourselves. But seriously, that’s where I am at this point. I think better stories are out there than the ones the Great Bearded Money Dragon is choosing to tell so he can sell more toys. And I’m not a person who’s against commercialism as a rule. I’m a person who buys dumb shit, ergo I like commercialism. I’m not even saying that I wouldn’t look when new Star Wars stuff comes out – I’ll glance curiously. But I’m really at a point of saturation with it. I like what I have of Star Wars. I can do without the rest whatever it is he does.

Including, but not limited, to the dumbass 3d version. Won’t see it. Refuse. The End.

On 3d:

I hate it. It’s stupid. The end.

3D is to filmic entertainment (I use that to describe all narrative-based visual entertainments that might employ the technology) as motion capture is to real animation. It’s anathema. It’s technology for technology’s sake.

You see, I have a particular hard spot in my heart about Motion Captured animation. It looks bad. The end. Examples:

Toy Story 3 – incredibly well-animated. The pinnacle of computer animation achievement at this point.
Mars Needs Moms – come on. Seriously. The animation is horrendous. Someone take away Robert Zemeckis’ filmmaking privileges and let’s just be done with it.

This isn’t the snobby traditional animator training poking its head through and its not un-research’d bias. This is a real thing that really happen.

The comparison I’m making is that 3D in movies is tawdry and cheap and we’re doing it because we can. We’ve actually been able to for a long time, but now it’s cheap enough with digital filming and editing suites that even bad directors can (and will) do it. I haven’t seen a 3D movie that doesn’t include a ridiculously cheap shot seemingly thrown in to showcase the 3D. And when that’s not there, I forget I’m watching something in 3D because the effect has no significance on the story and movies that are counting on “wow”-some visuals are doing cool shit besides having it in 3D. TRON Legacy is a perfect example. Even though it was subtle and cautiously placed throughout, I frequently found myself wishing I could watch it in 2D for a number of reason, not the least among which is I could take off those retarded glasses and not have a headahce instantaneously when looking at the screen.

I like the film Tangled, but within 40 minutes, she’s twirling in a field, signing (Disney movie, after all), and what has to happen? A flock of song birds whirls around her and out toward the audience! Oooh! Aaaah!

It’s so patently boring, in fact, that, over a decade ago, theme parks began to realize, “You know, unless we’re selling them that shit is truly coming to life with other sensory stimuli, no one’s gonna give a shit,” so they started doing “4D” (I hate that term) interactive attractions with air guns, vibration motors, and water cannons position in and around the seats to make the audience feel things. They wanted to engage other senses because they knew that the base product is actually pretty boring and arbitrary and there’s only so many times even in 40 minutes a giant [INSERT NECESSARY GIMMICKY  THING HERE, I.E. GONZO’S NOSE, SHREK’S BUTT, OR WHATEVER] can fly out of screen at you.

I cannot wait until 3D reaches its saturation point and people become collectively fed up with it. The arc is inevitably that  by the close of 2011, I will have to work my ass off to find a movie screening not presented in 3D (and I will). Then by about midway through 2012, it’ll start to die off. The gimmick will be reserved for where it belongs – crap slasher pictures and substance-less kids movies (and probably, unfortunately, PIXAR films that Disney shareholders mandate have the given gimmick.)

I’ll also believe it’s a failure of the filmmakers in part too. I don’t think they understand something that Werner Herzog has said he realized on a recent “Fresh Air” interview: you can’t edit 3D like you would edit 2D. 3D requires a lot more of our brains. We work to see it. Our sense of vision is being deceived by this trickery, and our brain is endlessly trying to resolve the mystery of why it’s getting partial images from our two eyes. That’s, in fact, why it assembles into a 3D object. That’s a lot of work. And it’s not like your brain can opt  not to – I heard a great quote by Amy Ellis Nutt, where she referred to the idea that, if what Aristotle said in regard to nature abhorring a vacuum is true, then the brain abhors a mystery. A million neuropsychologists would absolutely agree. Our brains are compelled to solve the mystery of the visual paradox 3D films present to us. When they’re working that hard to “solve” each frame, creating a meta-solution each scene in turn is even more difficult. And when editors forget that they’re asking a lot more of us biologically, we wind up with quick, action-heavy editing that isn’t designed or paced at all to allow our brains to really revel in the mystery the film is presenting for them, which can be frustrating and even painful. I think that’s what really gives me the headache.

And I have zero hope that the average 3D filmmaker is gonna figure this out any time soon. None of them are even probably going to hear of Cave of Forgotten dreams, let alone see it and learn from his example, so I’ll just have to deal with the pain for another couple of years. And by deal with it, I mean complain. And by complain, I mean whine – a lot.

By contrast, it’ll take very nearly till 2014 before it’s dead in Televisions, and that’s because there’s some technological advantages of it. A TV can actually give you a 3D experience without requiring you to put on those stupid glasses, just like the Nintendo 3DS can (another thing I make every effort to find a way to give a damn about), so I have suffer through it even more.

I just want that whole phase in film-making to be over.

Equally – enough with the Stoner movies. Pineapple Express is a  rare gem, but Your Highness proves the that it’s the exception to validate the rule. Danny McBride can’t carry a stoner movie on his own, and neither can James Franco or Natalie Portman. Sorry, folks, I hate admitting it as much as you do: Seth Rogen brings something unique to that particular stew of idiocy and his absence is sorely felt throughout that movie.

I have a bunch of other swirly thoughts that I’m having trouble elucidating.

On Entertainment:

I just watched my first episode ever of Veronica Mars, Bones, and Lie To Me. Each one has an actor I like, which is the only reason I opted to watch these (some of them ancient) shows at all. Veronica Mars had a very cool feeling to me. I liked the premise, and it seemed fairly well written in that first episode. Maybe a little too Teen Drama for my tastes, but that’s the show’s job and target audience, so far be it for me to gripe. Bones seems to play up a stereotypical pairing we’re seeing a lot more in the modern day – we have two characters powerfully at odds, often one extremely emotional and the other brazenly logical. The latter has a tendency not to even understand the former’s concept of social norms. Big Bang Theory does this too, where they seem to be drawing on some of the things that make life difficult for people on the Autism spectrum but don’t actually assign any of the harder to cope with symptoms or deficiencies to the characters. And even then it’s a romanticized depiction of it, where the emotionally well-developed, earnest character can get through that layer of hardened understanding the logical one has developed and elicit an emotional response that allows the audience to identify with them. Plenty of kids dealing with being Autistic don’t even get that Eureka moment of understanding, either on their side or the sides of their friends and family, and I sometimes wonder if this depiction is somewhat damaging for America’s understanding of that population. It seems to suggest that with the right love and tenderness, we can undo Autism and unlock the human within!

Which is marginally deplorable as a notion (to suggest that the condition deprives one of humanity) and flat-out dangerous as a suggestion. It’s like that McCarthy woman touting her nonsense as  “cure,” when it’s just the best services and training money can buy coupled with what is, ostensibly, a depth of compassion and love that seems without end. That’s the way the tabloids and magazines prefer it, anyway, and I’m not particularly interested in the truth. It’s hard to give a damn about her life in any way, let alone how she intends to mislead Americans and Westerners with what’s essentially Faith healing where science is desperately needed.

Wow, that got off track. I’m sensitive about that sort of thing, I guess. I have the same worry about The Parenthood, because I’m not sure they’ve come out and identified the conditions they’re asking that young man to portray, but it’s definitely some kind of PDDNOS thing (that was for Danielle) and they seem to be treating it like “well, he’s just weird. Sometimes kids are weird. No reason to see a professional.” And I think that’s crazy dangerous. It could be the drastic rise in kid diagnosed as falling on the Autism spectrum in the past decade or so (it’s up to 1 in 100, which, I mean, that’s a lot) and now our entertainment is trying to find ways of contextualizing it that make it seem “not so bad,” but I do worry if it’s delivering the wrong message.

On Politics:

Broken.

On Lybia:

Same.

On NPR:

Really liking it. You may have noticed a “Fresh Air” reference earlier – RadioLab.org is also very fantastic.

On Video Games:

Portal 2 is in the bag, and I have mixed feelings about it. It could be that once I get through the co-op campaign, I will feel differently, but the single player started to get a bit thin near the end. Wheatley’s inevitable betrayal was easily telegraphed and I didn’t really like that the first 5 minutes of the game involve a lot of standing around and watching stuff. But then I suppose that’s just part of the territory with Valve games. This one is somehow darker and more narratively focused than the first, but the puzzles didn’t seem anywhere near so complicated. It could be that now that I’m used to “Thinking With Portals,” I don’t have the same struggles with it that I once did.

I did a fun exercise, though: I tried to play the first hour like a designer, writing down the parts where I became bored or confused or trying my best to note when I felt particularly engaged, the moments that made me feel connected to Wheatley, the contrivances (both technical and otherwise) that I noticed most readily, the ones I had to search out a bit. I kept writing the word “Linearity” with question marks, and I wasn’t sure why I was writing the question marks or the word. Portal is, by necessity, a linear game, but I think I kept feeling like I was ready to branch off. In an effort to make the facility and the world of Portal grander, I think they made it more apparent to me how limited my track is. As I thought about this, I wondered if that was part of the plan: if showing you this huge world and keeping you confined to this portion of path was a way of reinforcing the overall joke of you being a science lab rat in a maze run by dastardly omnipotent AI beings.

I noticed that I found what I think was a secret room because it hearkened back to the “The Cake Is A Lie” rooms from the first one, but I wasn’t able to narrow in on their primary message. It seemed to be almost religious depictions of the player character in a very shamanic, cave-painting sort of way.

On The Kinect:

I can’t give a shit about the product as it stands. I’ve tried, but I don’t really get it, and I’m not sure anything is going to come along that’s going to make me really figure it out. Now, the stuff that people who have bought Kinects are doing? That stuff’s incredible.

Fun on Paper

So, among my various projects that I currently have going right now, I’m working on some game design. I’m gonna refrain from going into a lot of detail because I have a tendency to oversell both my capabilities and ambitions, so I’m making more of an effort to avoid that. But suffice it to say, my good bud Joe and I are working on an Xbox Live Indie game. And sometimes, it’s rough. Not because it’s hard – hard is actually fun – but because it’s mind- and ego- boggling.

One of the rough things about building an Indie game, whether you’re working with a ton of experience or very little, a vast wealth of resources or a real paucity of supplies, is that you (here meaning the design crew) almost always get to a point where you have a concept that’s “fun on paper.” I’m sure not every team gets to that point, and some talented teams and folks can actually distill core fun into a handful of very direct thoughts that can line a paper. We (Joe and I) have something that we think is Fun On Paper. It feels interesting when we talk about it. We’re excited to discuss it. It makes us pumped to try and make it a reality. But we’re sort of stonewalled by indecision at this point. It’s like we’re at the turning point where we have to decide if what we think if Fun On Paper is worth locking in and moving forward. I think, before we make that decision, we ought to try to encapsulate the feelings we get with the flow of some other games and get them down so that we have idea of what they look like as “Fun On Paper.” Then we can analyze our Fun on Paper in a new light and see if it’s too refined, not refined enough, or what have you. There are a lot of questions that I have about transitioning a game from an idea that excites us to an execution that engages us.

Particularly, I’d like to try to figure out what makes another game Fun On Paper and see if it accurately translates to the gameplay experience itself. The inherent problem is my passion for games and the idea of “fun engineering” causes me to play them incorrectly sometimes (more on that some day), and even worse, I love Behind-The-Scenes stuff. I adore it. It means I’ve played through Valve games with the developer commentary turned on, have watched every bonus DVD with every Halo game, and buy special editions of Bethesda games and everything else to really try to get into the brains of some of these creators. I say creator because I think the knowledge I’m seeking isn’t specific to design, but that’s tangential, as well. So I need to make a more concerted effort to play other games, games I don’t know well and whose developers’ preferences I don’t know intimately. More on that some other time as well. As I do that and catalog my experiences, I should be able to narrow in on the fun loop that the game begins to suck you into. It shouldn’t take long – an hour of play, tops – and in that window, I wonder if I can certifiably talk about what I’ve written down as the games’ Fun On Paper with the same enthusiasm as our ideas. In essence, I’m wondering if the idea itself is fun or if the process of forming ideas collaboratively is fun and distill one from the other. It’s not an easy thing.

Inherently, in this problem of having Fun On Paper, as with many good problems, is another problem. With Indie games, and Xbox Live Indie games in particular, there’s a massive tendency to leap without looking. Developing a video game, like developing any application, is a sort of exercise in logical problem solving. You know, roughly, what you want to happen when the game runs. You want it to draw objects onto the screen and you want to create interactions with those objects in fun ways. You have a handful of problems right there that, I think, every Indie designer/developer jumps up and says “Thou Shalt Be Solv’d First!” and sets about researching exactly how they’re going to do that, without a workable plan for the game in place yet. Sometimes that’s ok – when you’re tremendously talented, tremendously dedicated or have some abominable combination of those two superlative traits, you can sort of afford to wing it as you learn the elements of actualy code to ground yourself in. I’ve definitely done it two or three times, to the massive detriment of the projects that I intended to work on (i.e. they were never finished). So once you start solving these technological hurdles, that has become the fun for you and now the Fun you had On Paper might as well be a distant memory. You’ve worked so hard to learn this stuff and get to this point that you don’t want to sully it by accidentally making a bad game.

On the other hand, I thought it was really quite fantastic to read through how the folks who built Slam Bolt Scrappers didn’t make several of the games they had originally planned out as “Fun on Paper.” In fact, they went ahead and made several things that were Fun On Paper but that none of them felt strongly about and that ultimately weren’t that fun in execution. Which reiterates, in many ways, that it’s super hard to get an idea for this stuff on paper. People with time and money and the luxury/curse of doing it as their job have to bull ahead and do it, and that empowers and frees them of the wishy-washing and hand-wringing that involves committing to an idea which may wind up crap.

So that’s where we are. Joe and I have learned from our misfires in the past. We have a sufficient grasp on the technology that we feel like the elements we’re not wholly committed to will eventually fall in place (or our research will force them in place). We’ve learned to code flexibly and with enough agility to cut whole swaths of the project out and replace it with something simpler and more effective. But we haven’t truly committed to the game that we’ve put down as “Fun On Paper.”

Sometimes I wonder if we shouldn’t prototype it in a different format. In other words, since we’ve built it out on paper could we create s scenario where we played it out like a DnD game or a round of Magic or something similar? If we could, would this show us on any perceptible level of the degree of fun that could be had eventually when we commit to it on the platform of our choice?

Or am I just pussyfooting (yeah, it’s one word. Look it up) about to avoid the potential of the reality that we may have done all this discussion and intellectual development and actual development of a project that proves to be absolute anathema for games: boring?

I’m not sure yet. But once I can make more of a determination about the value of having something that’s “Fun On Paper,” I’ll definitely talk more about it.