Picking at the bloated carcass of geek culture...occasionally!!!

Archive for April, 2010|Monthly archive page

Bad Reputation

In Video Games on April 23, 2010 at 4:26 pm

After downloading a new patch to fix the old patch, I was up and running on Mount & Blade again. After humble beginnings a guy with a sword and a lame horse, my character had become a respected lord with an army of over one hundred veteran soldiers. It was great to be back but I can see myself getting over this game soon. Why, you ask? Well, I have become frustrated with the roleplaying/character development part of the game. In particular, the game concept of renown and reputation.

A lot of games, especially those from companies like Bioware or Besthesda, understand this concept well. Either within your party or in the game world at large, you are able to change the perception of how others view your character. Your actions have consequences in the world at large and this creates a sense of truth in the reality of the game. Like in Fallout 3, where the radio DJ praises you or condemns your work in the destroyed Washington D.C. wasteland. Or in Fable 2, where townspeople will flee from you on sight based on evil acts you have committed. It is a very nice way to increase immersion in video games.

But it can be frustrating, too. See, in Mount & Blade, I am running into a problem of not receiving sufficient appreciation for my good works. My character has single-handedly doubled the size of his sovereign kingdom, fighting armies four times his size as he lays siege to enemy castles and towns. Am I a hero for these efforts? Do I find my wealth and reputation rising with every decisive victory? Well, not really, to be honest. I might go up a point here or there in renown or honor, but nothing significant. Even when I request the right to control a city I personally seized, the king usually gives it to some other schmuck .

What game does this the best? Has anyone ever played a game where the world’s population gives you credit that matches the scope of the heroics your character is achieving. Games, like Fallout 3 and Dragon Age: Origins do a pretty good job, but it never feels quite right. Or am I too desperate for the approval of a collection of 0’s and 1’s?

Bad patch

In Video Games on April 21, 2010 at 9:22 pm

I mentioned the other day that I was playing Mount & Blade: Warband and was kind of getting into it. Now we can call it full blown obsession. Obsession that keeps me up late. Obsession that keeps me from posting on my blog. Sorry about that.

So, wouldn’t it be great to tell you that I decided to exercise some self-control, take a quick break from my game, and write a quick post? Yeah, that would be great. Unfortunately, it’s not true. Mount & Blade released a patch today that was downloaded automatically by my Steam account. This mandatory patch, I can only assume, was released to make my gaming experience better. Yet, that was not the case unless you think an improved game experience involves a fatal game crash every time the enemy retreats from my army on the field of battle. That’s right. Just when at the point of sure victory, when the enemy flees before the thundering charge of my cavalry, the game goes down. This was no problem yesterday, before the patch, but now it happens every time, making the game unplayable.

So, I guess it is a good thing as it forces me to write, but this kind of thing always drives me crazy. I like to think that patches are an attempt by developers to support games after their release as an attempt to aid the gaming community. Too often, this “gift” from game developers is completely unwelcome. You want to say: “Hey, it’s okay. I appreciate it the effort” but all you can really think is “Leave the fucking game alone so I can play it!” This is always a problem in MMORPGs and other online game experiences, but when this shit starts invading my single-player experience, it drives me up the wall. Or maybe I’m just crabby because I can’t get my fix. Who knows.

The Perils of World Creation

In Books, Comics, Roleplaying Games, Science Fiction, Video Games on April 14, 2010 at 11:47 pm

Little know fact. The world is a large, complicated place with a lot going on in it. I contains many different cultures interacting in countless ways over vast amounts of time. Beyond the historical, sociological, or anthropological repercussions, there are tons of scientific and technological matters to think about. To even marginally understand our actual Earth, the one we actually live in, requires an ass-ton of research and years of disciplined learning. Right? So, imagine the problems that one runs into when he (or she…or it, I guess) tries to make up their own world. Whether it’s for a roleplaying game, a video game, a sci-fi story, a comic book, or a fantasy people, people are constantly trying to cobble whole worlds from nothing.

The problem with many creators is they do not understand how crazy hard this is. This is the one extreme. They know they like sword fights or dragons or robots or whatever so they make a simple little setting where these things can take place. The problem, however, is that these worlds feel artificial, so they people living in them also feel phonier than they should. They’re created as cheap backdrops and that is what they feel like.

On the other side, there is what I consider my problem. I become kind of obsessed with the details. Maybe it’s because of my love of history. I love history but I’m hardly an expert…at all. Because history is vast and complicated. But even worse is science. If you don’t understand geography, you can’t make a realistic map. If you don’t know weapons are used or battles are fought, you can’t portray war with any semblance of believability. How can you speculate on future technology if you don’t understand technology today? This is what ties me up. I could be making a simple superhero roleplaying campaign or a lighthearted comic, but I need to understand how the world fits together. So I get lost in tying up the infinite loose ends instead of creating the world I need.

So…is there a happy medium. I know some very creative types read this blog so I’m curious on how you people deal with this. How do you avoid the pitfalls of creating worlds.


In Video Games on April 13, 2010 at 11:26 pm

After the release of a new expansion pack, I have started playing a little game called Mount & Blade. As you can guess, it’s about an alien invasion. Just kidding. It’s a game about riding around on horses and killing guys with sharp things in a quasi-medieval setting. That might seem like nothing original but trust me, it’s a pretty unique game. You level up a low-level character, improving abilities and skills, but it’s not really a roleplaying game. You enter into battle against dozens of enemies, fighting them hand-to-hand, but it’s not really an action game. You can become a lord of towns and castles, making improvements and collecting rent, but it’s not a Sim City type game either. The best way to describe it, I guess, would be a knight simulator.

It’s really rough around the edges, too. The game is unforgiving and random. Defeat comes easy and you often find yourself at an extreme disadvantage when facing opposition. Enemies gang up on you but your allies never seem to come to your aid. A lot of the game involves riding across wide fields, going from one unremarkable town to another, talking to boring non-player characters, and trying to understand where to go next. It’s frustrating, tedious, unpredictable, and unforgiving. So why do I keep coming back to it?

When a battle is joined, you often find yourself riding in a huge field with your army, awaiting the opposing army. You start cantering out, your foot soldiers jogging behind you and your fellow cavalry riding at your side. Then the enemy appears in the distance. They charge with shields held high and spears at the ready. As you approach, you start riding harder, picking up the pace into a full gallop. That’s when the sling bullets, javelins, bolts, and arrows start raining down, zipping by your head and digging into your shield. Then you reach the enemy line and you drive through it, trampling the enemies and hacking into them with sword or axe. For all the tedious nonsense and crappy game design, it’s that moment that makes it all worth while.

For every moment like this, you have hours of riding around going from one town to another.  Yes, it's worth it.

I mean, what other game really allows you to fight from horseback. We hear how powerful cavalry was from ancient times into even the 20th Century, but when have you ever really felt like that in a game? In Mount & Blade, the horseman is all-powerful. When you charge a soldier on foot, it seems completely unfair. There is no where for him to run, no way to hide. It’s exhilarating and one of the best experiences in a game I can remember.

I would love to play the polished and fully-developed version of the game. Unfortunately, that game doesn’t exist. So, I will continue playing this one.

Monday’s “That Guy:” Peter Greene

In Movies, That Guys on April 13, 2010 at 1:20 am

The other day I was watching the new Timothy Olyphant cop show, Justified. In the opening scene, Olyphant’s U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens has a showdown with a Miami crime boss. This scene, which is great, really sets the tone for the whole show. This two actor scene needs someone who can bring the intensity to match Olyphant (whose intensity is already legendary to you Deadwood fans. Anyway, who was the actor but Peter Greene. Greene isn’t maybe the best known, but I always find his performances mesmerizing. He has this sheer natural talent; this completely natural delivery that makes me upset that he isn’t more well known. The man may be a little limited, at least in what I’ve seen, in the roles he can play. He has criminal lowlife down so well, however, he should be in every crime movie. Let’s look at what Peter Greene, my “that guy” for the week, has done. I’m sure you will agree with me soon.

The first time I ever saw Greene was in a small movie called Laws of Gravity about some small time Brooklyn hoods whom get in over their heads. The acting, simply stated, is phenomenal. Greene was one of the leads and, after just a few scenes, I wanted to see more this guy. The movie is so gritty, it almost hurts to watch. It portrays a world I don’t want to live in. Hell, I have a hard time even visiting. I’m not sure if this movie is even available and I’ve only ever met a few lucky people who ever saw it. Anyway, this movie put Peter Greene on my map.

Zed's afternoon takes a turn for the...well...just terrible.

He had a string of very strong roles in the 90’s. To start, he was the immortal Zed in Pulp Fiction. He brings such a creepy, yet believable vibe to that role. Why he has never appeared in another Tarantino film is beyond me. Besides that, he was Redfoot from The Usual Suspects. Again, playing a fence was right in his wheelhouse and when he flicks a real lit cigarette at Stephen Baldwin’s eye…what else can you say? Finally, he was the main villain in Jim Carey’s The Mask, bringing a well-realized reality to a movie that had no need of it. It seemed like Peter Greene’s star was on the rise at the end of the last century.

And then he kind of disappeared. He had some roles, for sure, like in Blue Streak . He showed up briefly in Training Day and had a role on the short-lived Black Donnellys, but his exposure has been very low. I’ve heard rumors of personal problems and maybe that contributed to me not seeing a lot of him. Whatever the reason, I think we all need some more Peter Greene in our lives. I hope his brief but important part in Justifiedmeans I’ll be seeing more of him soon.

The Most Precious Commodity

In Roleplaying Games on April 9, 2010 at 12:17 am

I love playing roleplaying games. It’s easily one of my favorite hobbies. Most games fall somewhere between creating original genre narrative fiction and playing a tactical combat simulation. Some games fall more to the story, others to the combat. I’m having a good time anywhere on that spectrum. Yet, compared to movies, video games, or TV, I don’t play a ton. Usually a night every other week, which compared to many other gamers and ex-gamers, this is pretty good. But I don’t play as much as I’d like and most gamers I know are in a similar situation. Why?

Well, one major reason is that gaming is a collaborative process. You need a group of like-minded individuals to make a good game happen. This means finding a time when a group of adults can find a significant chunk of time to sit down. This was a piece of cake when you’re in middle school. But even by high school, when guys are getting girlfriends or perhaps finding the charms of going out or just outgrowing the activity, it gets trickier. By adulthood, it can be near impossible. Why? Because one needs to find the time.

And this is the problem. A friend…okay it was Noah, said the other day that no one has spare time. No just sits staring at a wall. When not working or sleeping, we have specific things we choose to do with our precious time. And gaming takes time. Not just finding time, but deciding to spend many hours playing. RPG’s, for those whom haven’t played in a while, kill time like nothing else. Several hours can pass in what feels like a moment. Who has the time?

Besides the actual game session, the person running the game has to create a narrative, structure it into a game session, break it down into game statistics, and organize the gaming aids necessary to run it. This is an extra burden and often a thankless job for one player, requiring even more time.

So, while I wish we all had more time to play, I feel thankful that I get to play as much as I do. You need to make time for the good things in life.

Are you proud of this genre?

In Books on April 7, 2010 at 2:14 pm

“I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.” – Kurt Vonnegut

I find it funny how science fiction is treated in American mainstream society. When I say science fiction, I mean not only hard sci-fi, but fantasy, horror, space opera, etc. It is common for people to look down on sci-fi aficionados, yet it is really more popular than ever. People, and not geek people, but actual citizens love their Star Wars, Harry Potter, Twilight, True Blood, Lord of the Rings and Lost. But this love rarely translates into an assessment of the genre’s quality or worth. To many science fiction is entertainment, pure and simple. Many wouldn’t consider Tron high art, but merely a simple and often childish diversion. There are many exceptions, such as the esteem that many hold Tolkien, but stories of robots, aliens, or wizards are not for the upper-crust or the media elite.

This is even more true in the world of literature. Reading books is often considered a higher, cerebral level of media experience, so it is even more cutthroat in terms of creating marginalized genres. You need not read a word to know you are in the horror, romance, or science fiction section of a bookstore. The garish cover designs demonstrate the level of esteem that a publisher holds for it audience. As an audience, however, we must show that cheesy illustration or quasi-futuristic typefaces work, because they keep giving it to us.

On the other hand, I feel like a lot of modern writers or publishers try too hard to be take seriously as literature. How a story about wizards and monstrous orc-like antagonists go out of their way to get Junot Diaz quotes (like Joe Abercrombie) or go for slick, non-traditional sci-fi cover designs (like China Mieville). I instinctively wonder: “Are these guys too good for their genre?” Why are they courting the approval of people whom snub their noses at them? Or do they just want their novels to look like grown-up books.

Does this like a work of steampunk fiction, with steam-powered cyborgs, anthropomorphic bird people, or giant moths that feed on psychic energy? You wouldn't think so.

So I wish science fiction was respected for the important and imaginative genre that it is. How it defines how we, as a society, understand the concept of a hero or how its mythologizes our past or how it defines the direction of our future. Yet sometimes I find its best examples try to say: “No, no. We’re not that crappy science fiction. We’re actually good!” I wonder if it lowers the esteem of genre fiction as a whole. Or does it, with its piles of worthless, derivative trash, deserve to be bashed? And what a surprise, I’m not sure.

Feeling Frisky…Dingo

In Television on April 6, 2010 at 9:56 am

I recently came across Archer, the animated FX series, while looking for something to watch in bed on my laptop. I hadn’t really been very interested in the show but I had heard pretty good things about it on the AV Club, so I thought: “What the hell?”

What I didn’t know, however, was that this show was created by Adam Reed, one of the co-creators of SeaLab 2021. Sealab 2021, for those of you whom do not know, was one of the original Adult Swim shows. It reused characters and animation from a cheesy Hanna Barbara 60’s show called Sealab 2020 to create its own irreverent, insane, and viciously funny stories. It’s a show that mixed the highest wit with the dumbest gags. While shows like Aqua Teen Hunger Force or The Brak Show seemed more popular, Sealab was the one I loved the best. So, when I realized Archer was from the same mind as Sealab 2021, I was sold.

Archer did not disappoint. Like Sealab 2021, it is a collection of horribly funny characters acting terribly to each other. Taking place in a modern-day yet still quasi-60’s universe, the superspy Sterling Archer and the rest of the ISIS intelligence agency get into stupid adventures while also dealing with the most banal mundane situations at the same time. It’s kind of impossible to describe the tone of Reed’s shows. One thing I can say, however, is that they are not for everyone. In fact, I think they are actually made just for me and my warped sense of humor. I can’t universally recommend them to really anyone but myself. But I cannot recommend them to myself highly enough.

Which brings us, finally, to what prompted me to write this show. Before Archer but after Sealab 2021, Adam Reed created a show called Frisky Dingo that I really had no idea existed. It was on a few years ago but I had kinda stopped watching Adult Swim shows and wasn’t paying attention. After enjoying Archer, I decided to go back and watch it on Netflix. I got the first disk yesterday. I finished it last night and eagerly await the next.

How can I describe this show? Words are not enough. It’s kinda about a superhero from the Bruce Wayne/ Tony Stark mold named Xander Crews, aka Awesome X, searching for a new supervillain. It’s also about the supervillain Killface trying to simultaneously raise his son and build a device to destroy the world. It’s also about a team of inept robots, a reporter transformed by radioactive ants, and a love story between an android and an anthropomorphic lobsterman. But this really doesn’t do it in terms of a summary. And that’s fine, because it’s too good for such easy categorization.

So what more can I say? Well, this game plays “in-poor-taste” chicken with me with every episode. I tend to push things, especially humor, to an envelope where it stops being funny and gets kinda sick/gross/vulgar/awful. I am fascinated by that razor’s edge and, to the detriment of many people around me, I go over the line way too much. But Frisky Dingo is right there with me. In fact, in the game of chicken, even I have to veer away occasionally as I sit, shocked and pulverized by the horrible humor have just witnessed. It is…well, just breathtaking.

Yes, that is Killface using a corpse's torso as a ventriloquist's dummy. Yes he is trying to drink while speaking. Yes, he made a termite joke despite his dummy not being made of wood.

So as I said before, I can’t really recommend it. It has things that once seen cannot be unseen or once heard cannot be unheard. But unlike the hand steamer that a eastern European woman tried to sell me at Woodbury Common, it really is perfect for me. So I thought I’d share. I only wish it hadn’t taken so long for me to catch on to this.

A WoW by any other name…

In Video Games on April 5, 2010 at 5:00 pm

As I have written recently, in the last few months I have been very busy with a bunch of different games. I went through a very rich round of rewarding games like Batman: Arkham Asylum, Assassin’s Creed 2, Dragon Age: Origins, and Mass Effect 2. Finishing all those experiences, I was kind of at a loss on what to do next. I went back to Fallout 3, played some multiplayer on Modern Warfare 2, and worked on the brief Mass Effect 2 DLC and even the Dragon Age expansion, which took some time. Yet, the next great, all-consuming game had not appeared on my radar. So, what should I do?

I went back to the old standby when I find myself in these situations. I go back to the MMORPG. I told myself I wasn’t going to dabble in this crack-like hobby until Star Wars: Old Republic comes out, but I also tell myself I’m going to exercise when I get home, that I’m going to eat better, or that I’m going to try to work on my long-abandoned creative projects. I am a compulsive liar to myself, so I decided to play an MMO.
I considered going back to WoW but decided against it. I mean, I know I’m going back to WoW someday. Everyone knows this. All ex-WoW people eventually return and Blizzard, knowing it, waits patiently until all her escaped victims slowly return to the fold. But I knew where that road leads and I wanted a different experience. I wanted to slow progression, fully personal character development, and enormous world that MMO’s provide, but I wanted to go a little out of my usual comfort zone for this time around.

After a brief return to Age of Conan’s free trial, I bought a new MMORPG. It was Champions Online, the new superhero game from Cryptic, the makers of the old superhero game, City of Heroes. It was on sale for $20 and with the first month free, it seemed like a low risk investment. So, I shelled out some cash, installed the game, and away I went.

What can I say? I was able to design pretty much whatever superhero I wanted. Tons of specific costume choices, amazing superpower variety, and the ability to mix-and-match abilities in a cool, non-class-based character system. What’s not to like? I spent hours carefully crafting the appearance and abilities of various first level characters, making sure the costume or the body type of each was just right. It was an incredibly satisfying experience, especially compared to the usual first level MMO experience of bring your burlap sack-clothed, rags for shoes-wearing, broken bottle as a starting weapon having character enter the MMO world. This was a great first impression.

And for a short time, that excitement remained. Here I was, playing in a nice, cell-shaded, four-color, superhero world. I could fly or superjump or teleport at will, picking up cars and fighting crime as an actual superhero. It was exactly what anyone would want. So, what’s the problem?

Could this guy be any grosser?

Maybe. Yes, this is what my superheroes look like.

Well, after a unique start, it quickly falls into the usual MMO pattern. How many gang members do I need to beat up? How many incriminating documents do I need to collect? Why are only 1 out of 25 of these guys wearing the shirt or jackets I need for the quest? How often do you need to find guys with exclamation points over their heads before you feel like you’ve done it all before? Why do I need to worry about loot drops or crafting skills in a superhero game? Why is everything EXACTLY like World of Warcraft?

The one experience I wanted to avoid this time around seems to be the only MMO experience in town. When can the genre branch beyond this? Do I have to play the spreadsheet-requiring, noob-crushing EVE: Online to play something different? Maybe I do. Or maybe I need to wait for Star Wars: Old Republic like I was going to anyway. Or maybe I should go back to WoW again. I mean, I might as well play the original if I’m going to play the game at all. I’ll keep you posted.

The Daily Scott Pilgrim

In Comics on April 2, 2010 at 11:44 am

It’s about time to get this thing rolling again. The routine of having a job and a long commute has made me complacent in my creative output. Somehow the novelty of earning money has created a sense of complacency that has quieted my urges to share my observations with the world. Oh, and when I say world I mean the handful of people whom read this so-called daily blog on a regular basis. But I realized it was unfair to present a nice place for people to exchange ideas and then stop updating. Plus, I missed hearing (er, reading) the eloquent observations of smart people coerced into commenting on subjects of my choice. Considering I have been indulging in tons of games, movies, comics, and other babytown frolics recently, I figured I have plenty of ammo to get back into the blogging games. I will attempt to be more regular, if not daily, from now on. We’ll see.
Where to start? How about Scott Pilgrim? For those whom are not aware, Scott Pilgrim is the titular character from the Scott Pilgrim comic series by Bryan Lee O’Malley. It is hard to describe briefly, but it’s basically one of those series about a twenty-something guy and his group of friends dealing with love, friends, and the frustrations of a directionless life. The twist, however, is that his world seems to follow the rules of various video games, as he needs to defeat his new girlfriend’s “Seven Evil Ex-Boyfriends” to date her. It’s extremely amusing, with defeated enemies turning into piles of coins and occasionally dropping random loot. At the same time, the emotional side of the comic is played pretty straight. One is supposed to feel for Scott’s problems while also enjoying the whimsy of the world. And this brings me to my internal conflict regarding this series.

A unique blend of humor, action, and drama a great story do not make. Or does it? Shit, I'm not sure.

I have a pretty low tolerance for mopey, indy, “oh woe is me,” relationship emo-comics. I’ll just put that out there. I generally find them to be a tad self-indulgent, self-important, or sappy. I’m not that interested in couch-hopping, barista-pining, guitar-playing dudes trying to find themselves in a world that just doesn’t get them. And, unfortunately for my tastes, Scott Pilgrim has a bit of this. Sure, the crazy world of the comic kind of turns this on its ear and mocks some of these sensibilities. I feel, though, that O’Malley wants us to feel for his characters; to like Scott Pilgrim.
And this is maybe the crux of my problem. I don’t like Scott Pilgrim. While I find him amusing goofball without a mean bone in his body, Scott’s an idiot. He’s self-absorbed and the way he interacts with the other characters in this world makes me a little crazy. His fickle infatuations and chronic denseness actually infuriate me. But I am thoroughly entertained by the world, by how the action is doled out, and the general nonchalance in which how everyone reacts to the outrageousness. It’s amazingly imaginative and unique.
So I recommend this book to everyone, especially as it is soon to be released as a feature film, but with reservations. I find myself pretty ambivalent to the actual story or the characters involved, but I do want to see what bit of spectacle is forthcoming. What say you all?