Monday, October 8, 2012

Pulling the Plug on Revolution

J. J. Abrams, consider this an intervention.  I've been a fan of yours for many years now, but something needs to be said, and if no one else is going to say it, then who better than the writer of a blog which gets updated once a quarter with content not directly related to its theme?

As to what I suspect will be the complaints from our three readers that this is a blog about video games and not TV shows, I will simply say that a video game for this show should be made.  In fact, only in a video game would any of this make any sense, or rather, if it were a video game, the supreme badness that is the story could be overlooked if the game itself was fun to play.  It would probably find itself right at home with games like BioShock and Fallout for its post-apocalyptic feel.  Even for a video game, the setup for the world is kind of lame.  Electricity stops working.  I don't know what that means for lightning, but none of our efforts to generate a current are working.  In a game, there wouldn't need to be an explanation, you'd just find a crossbow and start looking for McGuffins.  It might even be fun, learning to fight with swords, saving your bullets for a special occasion, compromising with bad guys to ally against bigger bad guys.  This would make a great game.  However, since Revolution is not a game, it sucks.  Big time.

Let's start with the main character:

Seen here without a weapon, for once.

Charlotte (or Charlie, as she insists on calling herself), is a 19-year-old girl who insists on doing dangerous things and being rewarded for it.  In the first episode, she is busy reminiscing over some old photos of her dead (but we find out not really) mother, and the local Militia rolls into town to take her father to their leader.  He agrees to go, but his son (Charlie's younger brother) decides that this is a good time to bring a crossbow to a gunfight.  He gets several people killed (including his father) and the militia ends up taking him since their original target is now dead.  Kind of a funny thing, since we were led to believe that Monroe, the General in charge of the Militia, wanted the dad because he believed that he could turn the power back on.  Turns out, he's interested in Charlie's Uncle Miles, who was a Founding Father of the Monroe Republic.

Charlie as a character is pretty vapid.  She is somehow very naive about the world around her and about what she's getting herself mixed up in.  Any given story will probably work like this: 1) something needs to happen, 2) Charlie doesn't want to do it because it seems wrong to her, or for some other random reason, 3) Charlie sees the consequences of her inaction, either through actual consequences or by thinking about it, 4) Charlie decides to do it after all.

See, here's my problem: as a TV Show, this should work.  Plenty of opportunity for character drama, lots of morally ambiguous situations, and even some sci-fi elements to help shift the balance of power.  However, Revolution is long on promise and short on execution.

Let's look at this show through the lens of LOST.  Yeah, I know, LOST really lost its appeal the last few seasons and took the crazy train to stupid town, but those first few seasons really had some kick.  Crashed on an island, there's a monster, trying to survive and find a way off, other people live here, there's supernatural stuff going on, shifts in power via personal rivalry and of course, a love triangle.  However, the best thing about LOST was its characters.  They were fighting each other as often as they were fighting the island or the others or their 'rescuers' or anyone else that wanted to come up against them.  And while, yes, the conspiracies and sub-plots did eventually get far too big for LOST's britches, as my grandfather would have said, it was still, in the end, character-based and fairly well written.

Revolution, on the other hand, is full of tired archetypes like the nerdy Google engineer, the plucky young heroine, the manipulative villain, the veteran with a past, and of course, the mysterious stranger who has yet to truly pick a side.  But they never move beyond these archetypes to anything interesting. Combine this with the fact that the writers clearly never consulted with anyone who's actually been in a battle, and you get some of the worst fight scenes film was ever wasted upon.

Episode 3, "No Quarter" is where this show finally lost me for good.  Toward the middle of the episode, the Monroe Militia comes upon the building where the rebels were hiding.  (Sidenote: it makes no sense that Militias formed in America would have such a hatred for the U. S. Flag.  They should be using it, or some variation of it, to claim legitimacy as the heirs to the United States, rather than pledging their loyalty to some logo that their leader has tattooed on his arm.)  Now, I'm not a veteran, I've never fought in a war, and I don't even own a gun.  But my voracious appetite for history has taught me a lot about strategy, so here's a few of the many things that made no sense.

  1. To take a building, the attacking force should have employed grenades or some kind of explosives.  Firing several volleys of their antique muzzle-loading rifles blindly into the building makes no sense.  Napoleon himself would have executed any squad leader who wasted ammunition in such a way.  And the thing is, this Militia was trained by guys who were officers in the military and would know this!
  2. Snipers are deadly, and can be difficult to defend against.  However, since they knew there was only one guy on the roof, they could have split into several smaller squads and approached from different directions.  Or they could have used smoke to cover their advance.  There are probably other options I don't know about, but seriously anything would be better than the Cap Brannigan strategy!  This was literally a strategy promoted by a moron on Futurama, and the fact that the writers couldn't think of anything better says that they are either phoning it in or just not doing their homework (possibly both).  It also makes the bad guys into a bunch of mustache-twirling, Hitler-admiring theater-talkers for whom we need never feel any pity or remorse when they are killed.  This is the opposite of good writing.  It is childish, safe, and lazy.
  3. Has no one seen Seven Samurai?  If they had, they'd know that one option available is to set the building on fire, set a perimeter, and shoot anyone who runs out.  Does fire also not work?
  4. Just to be even-handed, let's give some critique to the defenders.  Have people forgotten the ancient and time-honored job of Lookout?  In the first episode, they find out the Militia has arrived when the soldiers arrive in the middle of their village.  In this episode, they figure out that they're being attacked when bullets start flying into the building.  Seriously, some scouts, some lookouts, they are worth their salaries.  The Militia already makes zero attempt to conceal themselves, it would be an easy job to spot them.
Okay, my final beef with this series is the evilness of the Militia.  As I've mentioned, they're evil.  It's as if they wake up in the morning thinking of new ways to be totally evil because they hate freedom and all that.  I'm not disputing that human evil exists, it obviously does.  However, I tend to think that even the grossest of atrocities happened for a reason; that it is not merely to be evil that people commit evil, it is because their minds have been twisted into believing that they are acting for the common good.  And that is the really dangerous kind of evil because any number of people could find themselves caught up because no one thinks they're doing anything wrong.

Ultimately, Revolution is a cartoon with live actors and some adult content.  The characters are empty, the stories would be predictable if they weren't so stupid, and a bunch of actors who would otherwise have promising careers (because none of this is their fault - the acting is actually really good!) will find themselves unable to wash the stink off of this terrible show.  Hopefully it will wash off soon because some of these newcomers know their trade!

Bottom line, don't waste your time as I have wasted mine.  Revolution is a spark without fuel or oxygen, a lot of high-minded concepts without the humanity to make any of it matter.

                                                *                                   *                                   *
Okay, review segment over.  As I said in the opening, this is meant as an intervention for J. J. Abrams, and that's what I intend it to be.  Mr. Abrams, I've been following your work since Alias, and it all follows a similar pattern which seems to be getting worse.  I think it's time you came face to face with the truth: you're addicted to sci-fi elements.  And it's starting to affect your work.

Alias was brilliant because of the way you blended the sci-fi into a spy show, effectively creating an entire new genre of "Spy-fi" which no one else has come close to replicating.  Your work has a refreshing originality to it, which we also saw in LOST.  However, both shows lasted too long.  As I would tell you if you were a high school student writing these stories for an English class I'm subbing, you need to begin with the end in mind.

I know as an amateur never-been-published writer that sometimes a story can start to take on a different shape than you intended in the beginning, and that's okay.  Stories can change, especially stories that take 5-6 years to tell.  However, by the time both of those venerated series reached their end, there were  enough loose ends in either one to make a whole new sweater.  There's a film director who has a similar addiction, and it has brought him to near-ruin in his career.  His name is M. Night Shyamalan.

I was a big Shyamalan fan as well, even after the Village and Lady in the Water, but I had to draw the line somewhere.  Twists are fun, but eventually I want to hear and see a story, not just a series of wacky coincidences.  In your case, it's not twists that drag your work down, but the fixation on the strange at the expense of good storytelling.  And, yes, it is getting worse because I could only get through three episodes of Revolution before I decided that the whole thing made no sense.

Here's this amateur writer's advice: start over from scratch.  Take a month (or longer!) and just write out some stories (full stories - not concepts!) that include absolutely zero sci-fi elements!  Get clean, sober up, just say no, do whatever you've got to do to reawaken the amazing creator I know is trapped in your soul.  And in the future, make sure that the sci-fi elements in your stories are working for the characters, not the other way around.  While people going about and doing things is fine for video games (which can get by on gameplay even if their story was written by M. Night Shyamalan), you can't get away with just "Person A goes to Place A and has a random argument with Person B about Situation Q.  Then they do something else."  What you've essentially created with Revolution is the dramatic equivalent of a sitcom.  It's really just a few steps above a soap opera.

You're better than this and we know it.  Take a break.  Go to coffee shops, bookstores, movie theaters.  Meet new people, expand your horizons.  Remind yourself of what really matters in life, of what you would fight to save if the world really went through a cataclysmic event like that in Revolution.  Most importantly, forget about the situations in your stories and focus on building the compelling characters we know you're capable of.  Give us more Sydneys and Hurleys and fewer Charlies and Miles-es (Miles'?  See, this is why I'm still an amateur.  Tense/possessive confusion.).  Give us stories that we can see ourselves in, and not packaged sci-fi elements that feel like they've been randomly drawn from a hat.

(P. S.  I happen to have a few ideas in the works if you're interested.  Have your people call my people.  Fun fact: I am my people, so just have your people call me.)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Deus Ex Awesome-us, or something

Hey folks!
Zombie_slag here, dropping in for a minute!

Not sure if J-dawg is gunna be using this blog anymore, but he made me a guest admin so I figured I'd drop in and write a post! This would be my own personal take on what would be a follow up to Mr. A-Bear's previous post Deus Ex Nervosa.

I don't go to Japan, or anything cool and crazy like that, though I do watch a lot of Anime, read Manga, eat Ramen, and destroy cities in Mecha suits, so I've got that going for me right?

This is the Theory of Game, and I'm not nearly as intelligent or creative as Justin. What I am, though, is a huge fan of games and gaming. I readily admit that I suck at RTS, and yet I've got 3 currently installed in case the mood strikes. I hate ripoff games, but when I beat LIMBO I'll surely be playing Acorn Story because I miss the original.

Today's post is simply about the Deus Ex series and how much I like it, and why. If you are looking at this for a walkthrough, tips, in-depth analysis, min-max guide, etc, SORRY! Full disclosure: I've played all 3 games in the series, so yes, I am a fan, but I'm not a fanboy. I appreciate that there are flaws in all 3 games, but I think the experience and the gameplay manages to overcome those flaws, making for a truly great game.

ON TO THE MEAT! Deus Ex: Human Revolution! Coming into this game I was expecting a similar experience to the other two in the series, and I wasn't disappointed in that aspect. I did find that the storyline, while very similar, seemed better thought out and deeper than the previous two. While it doesn't have the breadth of sidequests that Invisible War had, or the stunning originality of the original game (which Justin may debate me on), what it does have, is relatability (just found out "relatability" isn't a real word. Screw you Miriam-Webster, it is now!). From the nonchalant-yet-structured relationship between the main character Adam Jensen and his pilot Malik, to Jensens backstory of a scapegoat gone Merc, to the city\state\national\global\shadow politics which are the main plotline of the game. If you've read George Orwell's 1984 and liked it, you'll enjoy the plot of HR.

Also, aside from the protagonist whom you may or may not identify with depending on your style of play, the characters are very human. I find myself loving Malik for her attitude and sometime vulnerability, rooting for her and reacting very strongly to her plight and events that occur involving her. The boss, David Sarif, I find myself both respecting and suspecting concurrently, still not sure if he is in it for the good of mankind, or the good of himself and his company Sarif Industries. I find myself hating William Taggart, head of the anti-augmentation organization The Humanity Front, and drawing obvious similarities between him and Senator Kelly from the X-Men comics. Most of all, I find myself caring, CARING, about what happens to each character good or bad, and it affects the way I play. That's just about the biggest compliment I could ever hand to a team of writers on a game.

I can't comment on how the game looks, because its spectacular just like every current generation game out there. I can't fully appreciate it because I'm about $150 short of a GPU that would enable me to play at full specs. I play at medium specs in 1024X768 SD on a 20" CRT monitor. Yeah I know, I should upgrade, and if anyone wants to donate to my paypal at Zombie_slag@bassplayer.cc I'll do just that. Short of that, I'm going to enjoy what I have lol.

Gameplay. Even the greatest storyline, the strongest connection to the characters, the best graphics of all time, will not save a game with bad gameplay. Now I've heard tell of people who have faulted HR for its FPS elements, and I've seen the blogs of those who dislike the limited RPG functionality, and there was one who said it was just a stupid premise. That last one was just an idiot. I can see the faults in the FPS play, its not a twitch shooter for sure, but for a game built on freedom of play it nails the FPS portions better than many  MMOFPS that people rave about, and holds its own against most single-player FPS I've played. The RPG elements, in my opinion, are almost perfect. Depending on how you spend your Praxis points (the upgrade currency in HR), you can customize Jensen to be a smooth talker, Shadowrun-esque Uber-Hacker, brute force Tank, or any combination thereof. The only thing I can see lacking in the RPG elements are more sidequests, but don't all of us RP'ers constantly complain about fetch-quests? Liar, yes you do and you know it.

The controls are as intuitive as any other fps or rpg: hotkey bar for items and weapons, mouse scroll to switch weapons if you dont use the hotkeys, WASD movement setup (all customizable of course). The inventory is as annoying as it always has been in any game that doesn't use hammer space, I found myself searching for a stun gun, right after I had ditched one, for a side mission that required I left the baddies alive. The augmentations work well with the controls, whether they be context-sensitive actions or manually activated abilities. I never had trouble getting done what I was attempting to do, be it jumping from rooftop to rooftop, or sniping a perp followed by turning invisible and sneaking past a combat robot only to hack it and make it work for me.

So lets see, I've covered Storyline\writing, Gameplay, Graphics, what else is there in a game? EASTER EGGS!! From the first boss battle to the random lines in emails of hacked computer terminals, you can tell the writers of this game are gamers, geeks, nerds, and fans of everything awesome. I won't give too much away here, I try my hardest to be spoiler-free even for easter eggs, so I'll give you one small one. The fact that this is in there, and that I'm guessing not many people will get it, shows me how awesome the writers that did this game must be. In a conversation between two guards, the vending machine scene from The Darwin Awards is referenced as you pass by. If you don't know what that is, you need to watch the movie.

Well folks, I (obviously) highly recommend Deus Ex: Human Revolution if you're on the fence about buying it. That's all I've got to say for today, so I hope it does ya well! Find me over on my Zombie_slag's happyfuntimegeekblog, follow me on Twitter, I quit facebook so you can't find me there, and most of all since this is Theory of Game find me on Steam under my username Zombie_slag! Peace Out Homies!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Arkham (diver)City

I know I haven't posted in a while, I've been super busy.  But what I experienced this morning needs a public outlet.

Dear Rocksteady/DC,

The word "payaso" is pronounced "Pie-YA-so," not "Pay-YA-so."  The fact that you hired a voice actor who can sound vaguely Hispanic but didn't have time in his busy schedule to go on Google Translate for five seconds says a lot more about your organizations than it does about the actor himself.

Also, the word "payaso" means clown.  True, its meaning is a bit more intense in Spanish than English, but there are worse words that you could have gotten away with that would have given Bane a bit more Spanish-speaking cred than mispronouncing something that kids don't even get in trouble for saying in school.  Please stop tacking culture on to characters where it doesn't belong.  Bane's identity is more about being a big, roided-up Luchador who wants to kill Batman than being apart of any particular culture.  Rather than trying to score diversity points by giving Batman, a rich, white American, some poor ethnic minorities to beat up on, try working on making the existing characters more compelling.  Because any diversity points you're trying to score by giving the bad guys funny accents is lost when they mispronounce words from their Mother Tongue.  Just sayin'.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Feast For Crows and Pizza

Here's something different: a book review on a video game blog!  I've become a huge fan of the Game of Thrones book series (yeah, I know it's really called A Song of Ice and Fire, but GoT makes more sense), and I consumed the first three books like a starving man at a buffet.  George R. R. Martin displays a profound understanding of Medieval culture, customs, and behavior, and his fantasy novels have a sharp edge of realism that allows them to truly stand out in an industry that so often just recycles Tolkein.  After the shocking events in the third book (spoilers below: ye be warned), I couldn't wait to see the skulduggery and action that would come next.  However, as I write this review, I'm reminded of the episode of The Office in which Michael orders pizza from the 'bad' pizza place.  He asks his employees, "What would you rather have: a medium amount of really good pizza or a large amount of pretty good pizza?"  They answer as we all probably would, saying that they would rather have a medium amount of really good pizza.  The first three books in this series were nothing short of amazing.  Martin wasted no time in establishing the characters, showing just enough of their motivations and personalities to tell a story that was full of tension, action, betrayal, malice, injustice, revenge, and, most importantly, humanity.  The fourth book, however, is like watching all the slow parts of The Empire Strikes Back, or the parts of the Bourne movies when the characters are sitting around talking about what they're going to do.  Those scenes exist for a reason, and Empire is actually my favorite of the Star Wars movies.  However, it's a proven fact that writing a book where things are constantly about to happen is stupid, and people won't like it.  Unfortunately, A Feast for Crows is, to use The Office terminology, a large amount of pretty good pizza.

SPOILERS BELOW

Let's start with Jaime.  Far and away, after the third book, this man was my second favorite character in the series, right after Tyrion.  Not that I approve of their behavior, but it's hard not to like the dwarf who rules justly and gets no credit and the misunderstood swordsman who chose family over oath and likewise gets no credit.  What can I say?  I'm a sucker for people who work hard and don't get recognized.  If not for Jaime's storyline in this book, it would have been unsalvageable.  The death of his father at the hands of his brother (whom he sprung from his cell) continues his long, sad story of dealing with the consequences of his actions.  He also has to deal with his oath to Lady Catelyn, which he is determined to keep, that he never again take up arms against House Stark or House Tully.  However, with Riverrun under siege and Edmure Tully himself taken hostage, Jaime has to find a way to negotiate that oath with his his need to solidify his nephew/son's kingdom.  Duty versus family versus conscience.  This is the stuff that makes these books so great.  The way that Jaime eventually resolves the siege without taking up arms against Tully was both brilliant and in keeping with his character, and his release of Brienne of Tarth to find Sansa and keep her safe was wildly out of his character to the others in the books, but in perfect step with the secret Jaime, the one that only the readers know.  Martin's ability to make the reader feel like a confidant continues to drive readers to his books, and the way he handles Jaime Lannister continues to amaze me and humble me as a wannabe writer.  Jaime dealing with the guilt of his role in his father's demise is also a high point, and his separation with Cersei leads him to begin confiding in the tongueless Ilyn Payne as they practice every morning.  The loss of his right hand is yet another thing that continues to transform him from brutal, spoiled soldier to a rather gifted statesman.

And speaking of the late Lord Tywin, Cersei Lannister has taken over his role of Lord Protector and has a huge feminist chip on her shoulder and the mothering instincts of a bear caring for a field mouse. She babies Tommin like he's . . . well, a baby, and seems to have attended the Lysa Aryn School of Parenting.  Though, I guess since Cersei's kids are older that Lysa, perhaps it was always Cersei's school, but whatever.  Cersei spends the entire book believing herself to be Lord Tywin with breasts, only to find herself sadly outmatched by her own incompetence.  Like the Baratheon brothers, the Lannister kids seem to come in different varieties of rigidity, and Cersei is the most rigid of all.  She appoints lackeys and lickspittles who do her bidding implicitly, following the Andrew Jackson-esque theory that a strong leader should appoint cabinet members who are easily dominated.  However, this theory only works if the leader is both strong and competent, and Cersei is frankly neither.

I sympathize with her to a point, and I do think that she gets a bit of a raw deal for being a woman.  However, she exacerbates that inherent perceived weakness by failing to understand the nature of power, particularly the power of religion.  Her decision to let the Faith arm itself is only outmatched by her propensity toward assassination, and it is both of these things that lead to her downfall.  While I was annoyed at some of her more foolish decisions and plots, it all still makes sense, and Martin did an excellent job getting us into her head.  Since I've never really liked her character, it was also nothing short of satisfying to see her ministers and even her own son abandon her to the church dungeon once her crimes had been revealed.  The irony was delicious.

Brienne of Tarth.  Here is where things started to go south.  I loved Brienne in the third book, and her commitment to the ideals of chivalry and honor were inspirational.  However, by the end of the book, I was well past caring about her quest.  I wanted to enjoy it, but there were too many of her chapters where nothing happened.  I'd read for fifteen pages only to have someone say something important at the end.  This is not good writing, nor is it a sufficient way to build tension.  Brienne's story doesn't take that long to tell.  She went looking for Sansa, she found the remnants of the Hundred Companions and gave them what for, and then she ended up hanged by the resurrected Lady Catelyn, who couldn't abide that she had  borrowed a sword from Jaime Lannister.  There, how hard was that?  Her story was stretched like taffy and served only to bulk up the book and extend the read.  We could have done just as well reading almost the entirety of the tale as the epilogue itself and left Podrick Payne out of it entirely.  It felt like filler.  Ultimately, it was nothing but character development for a character who's only going to be unceremoniously executed once the development is done.

The amount of filler in this book is inexcusable.  In the previous books, we followed a few characters who gave us a well-rounded impression of what was happening.  I always liked getting to see through Ned Stark's and Tyrion Lannister's eyes, especially when they were looking at the same thing.  However, in this book, he introduces a new mechanism that I freely confess I like not at all.  It's even more annoying than the wording of the previous sentence.

In what appears to be a desire to give us an even fuller picture of the goings on of Westeros, the reader periodically follows a minor character whose chapter is introduced by their title or moniker rather than their actual name.  I think this is as ill-advised as it is ill-conceived.  Using the names at the beginning of a chapter was a great way of not only telling us who we were going to be following, but lent us a feeling of intimacy with the characters.  To everyone else, he was Lord Stark, but we knew him as just Ned.  Men named him Kingslayer, but we knew him as Jaime.  This also helped the invisible supporting narrative that men are more than their titles and nick-names.  However, by referring to Asha Greyjoy as The Kraken's Daughter and her uncle as The Prophet, as well as the Dornish guard captain as The Captain of the Guards, Martin is adding a title where previously we saw only a first name.  And worse, most of these chapters add nothing to the story except for a few intrigues that we already knew were happening!  In a story, tangents and non sequiturs are anathema, and with this book, Martin makes himself a heretic.

Asha Greyjoy as well as Victarion are interesting characters in their own right.  They should have been followed like a main character, rather than shoved aside as minor characters that get one or two token chapters along with the ten or so others that we're expected to suddenly care about.  I remember, while reading Game of Thrones itself, observing that we were following the powerful, and had no point of view of the "lesser" people to balance anything out.  I also remember realizing that it didn't matter.  The characters he presented were strong enough and interesting enough on their own.

And speaking of strong characters, I saved the best for last: Sansa.  Watching her transform from a sweet, innocent, naive young girl into an observant, invisible servant of Littlefinger has been an amazing, harrowing experience.  I find Littlefinger to be the most interesting character in the whole series, so I was excited to finally have a character get close enough to learn more about his motivations and even the depths of his deviousness thrilled me to no end.  And the first few chapters that followed Sansa were fantastic, especially watching Littlefinger work the Lords of the Eyrie.  And then we have chapter upon chapter of Robin having fits and wetting the bed, Littlefinger growing impatient with him, and the wacky antics that ensue.  Seriously, it was like watching a bad sitcom that could afford neither a studio audience, nor a laugh-track.  So much unnecessary talking and going about, sound and fury signifying nothing.  The reveals weren't even that exciting or even difficult to figure out.  By far, the biggest disappointment of the book, and that says a lot for a book that also follows Arya Stark as she trains to become some kind of assassin by waiting tables and answering riddles, while rarely doing anything noteworthy or exciting.

My disappointment was exponentially magnified when I learned while reading the afterward that this is really only part of the story: the events in Book 5 are running parallel to the events in Book 4, meaning more pointless jerking around as Dany learns to administrate (yawn) and presumably the Onion Knight does some stuff too.  Somewhere buried in this mess is the book series that I love, but it's buried deep, and under several five-page stretches of description, pointless backstory, and equally pointless character death.  It's still a good series, and one softy in the bunch doesn't ruin all the bananas, but it saddens me that the punch, skill, and utter ruthless minimalism that so perfectly encapsulated the story so far and made it stand out in the usual fantasy crowd of quests, archetypes, and Orcs has been abandoned in favor of something that I'm sure was meant to feel more epic.

On a separate and more ominous note, this inevitably reminds me of The Wheel of Time, which I read in High School in College, only to stop after book 9 because the series wasn't going anywhere.  Really, though, when I look back on those works, I can see that the books started to go wrong around number four as well.  What's the deal with book 4, fantasy writers?  Too much trouble to stick with what works, too much temptation to get bogged down?  Stick to trilogies, if that's the case.  Better a small amount of good writing than a massive quantity of okay writing.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

DRM must die

Please forgive the confrontational and angry tone of this post, if either of those things offend you, and hear me out.  I have just spent close to half an hour trying to play Assassin's Creed II on my PC only to get repeatedly locked out of Ubisoft's Uplay DRM garbage.  I cannot recall feeling more indignant than this in my life.  I paid for this game, I own it.  If my system crashes, fine.  Hardware malfunctions every day, and that would only make me angry with my choice in hardware.  Even a bug or glitch in the game is acceptable, we all make mistakes and as long as software publishers make good on their promises to fix the games, it doesn't bother me (as much).  This, however, is not due to a glitch or a mistake on my end.  This is 100% part of this game's design, and it is high time that we stop accepting this from companies who clearly neither trust nor respect us.

I understand and agree that piracy is bad for the industry, and we should all do whatever we can to minimize its effects.  Notice I say "minimize," rather than "eliminate."  Every business in the world has to deal with counterfeiters and scam artists who chip away at their bottom line.  Banks get robbed, knock-off toys get made, albums get illegally copied and distributed, comic books get photocopied, works of art get stolen, computers are given name brands without being affiliated with the proper company, the list goes on and on as you can see.  There are various forms of recourse for a company that is being cheated out of its rightful income.  Laws are put in place that favor the companies who own the copyrights, laws which are intended to root out those who cheat the system.  But only in the digital world is a company allowed to sell a product to consumers that is fundamentally designed to stop working.

Sure, manufacturers will build car parts and give them warranties, based on their estimate of the least amount of time that the product should work, but can you imagine the outrage if your new tires came with a mileage system, that punctured them once they reached a pre-set mileage?  Or a book that is designed to ignite itself after the third time you get to the last page?  Or if they hired mercenaries to invade the factories in the Third World where their knock-offs were made?  There would be lawsuits, criminal charges, and possibly even war. There is a reason that industries are regulated, and PC gamers stare straight at that reason nearly every time they purchase a game from Ubisoft, EA, Activision, or any other number of publishers who include Digital Rights Management software with their games.  Unregulated industries tend to stop serving their customers and start using abusive practices that do nothing but cheat the customer in the end.

So, I'm calling it.  Today is the day I turn it all around, at least for myself.  I hereby pledge to purposefully not purchase any game that contains a form of DRM.  I will henceforth only give my business to companies that respect me enough to ensure that I get at least as good an experience as someone breaking the law and pirating the game.  If Ubisoft, EA, Activision and all the other companies that I, frankly, don't have time to Google will publish games that are completely 100% DRM-free, they will find me a willing and happy customer.  Until that time, they can kiss my cash good-bye.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Importance of Ending Well

I've been away for much longer than can be excused, so I won't bother to make excuses.  Here I am, if you're reading, then I commend you.

Recently, I finally played to the end of Assassin's Creed II, a game which I started playing around the time my daughter was born, which was about a year and three months ago.  I want to move on to Brotherhood, so I made it a point to finish this game so that I'd know what's going on in the next.  I have to say, they almost got it right.

There are far too many games that slack off on giving a satisfactory ending, and unfortunately, ACII was no exception.  Let's start with what went well (spoilers ahead):

  • The final scene as Ezio in the Vatican was awesome.  One of the things that kills the replayability of AC1 for me was the final battle turning into an all-out counterattack fest with about a hundred guards without being able to hide from them.  You're supposed to be an Assassin, not a Mameluke (look it up!).  Anyway, this game got it right- the sneaking, the fistfight, the mano a mano against Cesar Borgia himself; all very satisfying.
  • The revelation of the ancient gods being aliens was unoriginal, but really the only thing that made sense with the video that Desmond decoded through the glyphs.  The fact that they tied it together somewhat to make sense, and imply that humanity is screwing with alien artifacts to jockey for power and world control was something that I liked.
    • However, as a side note, if anyone really believes that George Washington had some mystical power that helped him to win battles, they are obviously not very well acquainted with U. S. History.  Washington lost most of the battles he fought, and many of those he lost very badly.
  • The glyph-hunting and minigames involved made for a welcome diversion during the gameplay.  Usually, I take it as a bad sign when a game has little games inside of it which seem to distract you from the main game, but these little puzzle quests served to add to the game's overall narrative.  Plus, since Steam calculated my time in-game to around 65 hours, I certainly never felt like the game was padding itself with minigames to cut corners from the meat of the game.
  • The gradual revealing of the side missions is far superior to AC1's showing all of them at once.  It enabled me to do them at a slower pace, and I never felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of sidequests.
There are a lot of other pluses, but let's get to the big negative; the cloud that hangs over this game like a million unsuccessful novelists shouting, "Oh, come ON!!!"  Templar weaponry.  No, I'm not talking about Ezio's Templars, who finally got some variation to their design and fighting styles.  I'm talking about the modern Templars, that is, the employees of Abstergo who come after Desmond and his allies at the very end of the game.  Desmond has always been the least interesting character in the whole game (I mean, come on, he spends his days accessing the memories of his ancestors who clearly lived more colorful, albeit slightly more murderous, lives), but what always saved him from dragging the game down was that the Abstergo soldiers were ever lurking on the horizon.  We heard in AC1 how they took down a base of Assassin's and killed everyone inside.  Then, when they finally show up as Lucy and the gang are heading out the door, what are they armed with?  Batons.

"But that's how they were armed at the beginning of the game!" someone will inevitably argue.  Well, yeah, when they were acting as Abstergo's security guards, it made sense for them not to carry guns on company premises.  The idea driving the game is that Abstergo operates well under the radar, and having lethally armed security detail inside your building is a good way to get noticed by nosy people like reporters, auditors, and private investigators.  The fact that not a single one of Abstergo's goons showed up at the warehouse with at least one of those sweet shooting tasers tells me one thing: the ending of this game, the real ending with Desmond, was put on the back burner until it had to be rushed through at the end of production.  If this isn't the case, then someone (or several someones) were woefully asleep at the switch at Ubisoft HQ.  Kind of a big, unexpected disappointment from a game that really got almost everything right.

A similar critique was expressed in the movie, The Untouchables, and I'll end with it now: "Never bring a knife to a gunfight."

Friday, March 4, 2011

How Sony Can Get Its Portable-Game Groove Back

If there's one game system that's super-easy to beat up on, it's the Sony PSP.  Having just received a massive tax return, I was even considering getting one, but after reading user reviews, browsing the available titles, and doing a cost-benefit analysis, I decided that the platform was not for me.  Who it is meant for is kind of anyone's guess, though the closest demographic seems to be the JRPG-loving crowd, who usually just buy a PS3 to begin with.

There has been a lot of talk these days about how Sony should just cut its losses and get out of the portable gaming market.  After all, now that smart-phones are dominating that particular market, it does seem like a system solely designed for playing games and media would be a clearly worse investment than a system that plays fun, casual games, music, and movies and also makes calls!

All is not lost for Sony's upcoming PSP2, however.  I believe that, if they follow some of these following suggestions, their precious portable system can be saved along with their diminished brand.  I base this prediction on my years as a gamer, and not as any sort of paid analyst.

1.  Know the difference between "gimmick" and "niche."
The distinction between these two terms is very narrow, but I'll do my best to differentiate.  The Wii controller/Move/Kinect?  Gimmicks, clearly.  They add nothing to the gameplay but exhaustion and carpal-tunnel syndrome.  The casual games they offer?  Niches.  The difference is in the game itself.  People may mock the Wii for its low-level graphics capabilities, but gaming stopped revolving around eye-popping graphics some time ago.  People buying a Wii are looking to have a good time playing games with their family and friends, and that means casual games.  This is why most attempts to make a "hardcore" game for the Wii just end up losing money and being laughed at: you may as well load birdshot into a sniper rifle.  The PSP suffers a lot from not knowing its place in the world.  It fell into the trap of 'general gaming,' where it is trying to offer a wide variety of games hoping to get a little piece of every gamer demographic.  This fails because those members of the gaming community would often be just as happy playing on a console or getting an iPhone or Android.

2.  Once you find your "niche," niche the crap out of it!
If the PSP2 focuses on hardcore games, it should court every hardcore developer in existence into offering a title on its new platform.  I wouldn't recommend going after the casual market - Nintendo and Apple have that locked up tight.  What you might want to do, which as far as I know hasn't been done yet, is introduce a 'sync' function for the games that are offered on the PSP2 and the regular PS3.  Hardcore gamers like to progress through a game, and the really good games are the ones that make you wish you were playing it while you are in the line at the DMV or trying to kill the last half hour of lunch.  Finding your niche is all about rethinking the way games are played, and there's no reason why casual games should have all the innovation!

3.  Make the handheld platform durable.
When you're out in the wide world, gaming away and loving it,  the last thing you want is for your system to lock up and/or break when you accidentally bump into a wall or when you drop it.  I'm not saying they need to stand up to every form of abuse, but they need to withstand every day wear and tear, and they definitely need to survive shipment.  I can't count how many user reviews I read of the PSP that indicated their unit was shipped already bricked.  I know that it's tempting to lower costs by cutting corners in the durability department, but all it will earn you is lost customers over time.

4.  Utilize New Media.
Reward those customers who invest in your new portable system by making them part of a group.  Contests, giveaways, facebook and twitter integration can all help your platform to turn the kind of profit you need it to in order to justify its existence.  I really can't emphasize the utilization of Facebook.  I have read more articles, watched more videos, and been exposed to more content thanks to Facebook than any other networking site.  In particular, you should allow your users to share their latest stats and adventures via networking sites similar to the way that Kindle and all those Facebook games do.  Give this device video-recording capability, and allow them to easily share videos of their favorite pwns.

5.  Rename your stupid platform.
Giving your platform an acronym for a name is way cool . . . in 2001.  If you want parents to remember the name of your system so that they can buy it for their children or nephews and nieces or whomever for Christmas/Birthday/Graduation/Etc., give it a name that they'll be able to remember.  Some might say that the DS is an acronym and it's doing fine.  I would counter by saying that its full name is the "Nintendo DS."  Nintendo is one of the most well-established brands of our time, while Playstation is still only really recognized by the gaming community and a small portion of the business community who follow Sony's stock.  All a non-gaming adult has to do is tell the clerk at Gamestop that they're looking for that hand-held Nintendo thing and they get a DS handed to them faster than a broken PSP gets chucked out of a school bus window in frustration.  Find a catchy name, one that rings cool to the teens and memorable to the adults, and plaster it everywhere, and for your bottom line's sake: don't make it an unpronouncable acronym.  (All of this is assuming, of course, that you'll still be marketing to the teen crowd)

Like I said, I'm just a gamer.  Following these rules might save the PSP2 and they might not.  However, if Sony releases the PSP2 and follows the same business plan that they had for the PSP1, they can look forward to losing any foothold they've maintained over the handheld market entirely.