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

Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

Trailer trash

In Comics, Movies on March 25, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Two days ago, I watched the Captain America trailer a few times and have gotten myself pretty excited about it. Despite earlier concerns about the execution of the costume design, I really enjoy Cap as a character and I really want this to be good. And the trailer does an impressive job of reassuring me that this beloved character may have a chance of being portrayed reverently. As a good trailer, it has me excited about the prospect of watching the movie it is promoting. So what’s the problem?
The problem is the relationship that fans now have with trailers, in general. We (because I am as guilty of this as anyone) treat the trailer as a gift from the moviemakers to the fans. Since the Phantom Menace, at least, we treat the release of new trailers or featurettes or even TV spots as a warm-up to the movie; a way to slip into the right frame of mind before the main event.

And guess what? Trailers are commercials. They are marketing ploys to convince pay money to ingest a product. And while we all may crave to see some clips released at Comic-Con or “leaked” footage because we’re so excited, trailers exist to take money out of your pocket and put it in someone else’s.
So, if your movie has some cool visuals, an invested fan-base, and strong original material, it is not a great feat to make an effective trailer. Iron Man 2 is an excellent example. Great cast, cool visuals, and some sweet briefcase armor and I was excited. Yet, the movie, while adequate, in no way lived up to the excitement of the trailer. Good job marketing team.

Trying to sell me with this awesome shot? Nice try, trailer!

So, while I cannot go more than 5 minutes without thinking about a ricocheting thrown shield or Dum Dum Dugan with a shotgun, I am trying to train myself to treat a good trailer like what it is; an enjoyable piece of advertising. I am having mixed results.

Kleptomania

In Video Games on March 21, 2011 at 10:03 pm

I just finished Dragon Age II last night and it was a pretty satisfying experience. It had plenty of interesting, well developed characters. It had a dark, complex setting with which I felt strongly invested. It had some unforeseen twists and turns that compelled me to keep playing to see what happened. Unfortunately, it suffers from a common characteristic found in a great many role-playing games. That characteristic is player character kleptomania. And as gamers, you and I contribute to this problem.

What do I mean? Okay, picture this. Your character is some kind of moral paragon. You always make the most noble, self-sacrificing choice is presented. You give your money to the poor and do good deeds while rejecting the reward. You are a model for selfless behavior from top to bottom. But what happens when your character is even in the same room as a random chest, crate, or barrel. That’s right, you loot it quickly and thoroughly. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the same room as the Grand Emperor or your newly reunited long-lost sibling. In a video game RPG, if there is an interactable container of any kind, the game expects you to take whatever is inside.

Talk about an break in storytelling immersion. What kind of noble knight goes rifling through someone else’s belongings right in front of them? And better yet, what kind of backwards artificial intelligence lets me get away with it. For instance, in Dragon Age II, my party found a locked chest sitting next to a handful of guards in the fucking Guard Tower. So what do I do? I sent my rogue character, Verric, to pick the lock and take what’s inside. Does anyone in my party, who, by the way, includes the captain of the guard, say anything about this? Do the guards sitting two feet away? Nope.

Most role-playing games employ this concept of giving items to the the watchful players. Any random container is a source of income waiting for the vigilant. Unfortunately, this rarely makes any sense in the course of the narrative. Even worse, the containers often contain nothing my character would be interested in, but I end up taking it because it’s there. For instance, my character will notice a barrel in an alley. What’s inside? Broken tools and some torn pants. So, despite wearing a city treasury’s worth of gold in enchanted armors and magical rings, my character steals this trash because the game put it there. And what do I do with this trash? I sell it to literally any vendor, who is always more than happy to give me hard currency in exchange for a bag of shit or whatever.

Oh, don't mind me, officers. I'm just going to have my friend steal your belonging. Please continue standing in a circle.

Why can’t games get past this trope. I mean, it was a running joke in the last Bard’s Tale game, yet companies like Bioware continue to use it in their high-end, mature games. It’s to fantasy role-playing games what red, exploding barrels are to first-person shooters. A cliche from a bygone age that needs to be left behind.

Why We Play The Game

In Roleplaying Games on March 16, 2011 at 1:03 am

I’ve been playing a lot of Dragon Age II recently. In fact after some 20 hours of playing and not finishing it, I went back and restarted it with a new character. This is something I tend to do when playing computer roleplaying games. It should be clear that the choice to waste moments of my finite life pursuing virtual wealth, fame, and accolades with a computer generated avatar is a labor of love for me. There are experiences that a computer cannot replicate.

And no, I am not talking about true love, the feeling of building something with your hands, or helping someone in need. Yes, yes, that’s all great shit. But what I am talking about is the live, unpredictable, often ridiculous, potentially tedious, but occasionally transcendent pen-and-paper, tabletop roleplaying experience.

I play in bi-weekly Pathfinder (basically a new iteration of 3rd Edition D&D that stuck around when 4th Edition came out) game set in the basic, every fantasy trope in the kitchen sink setting of Forgotten Realms. Last week, while I was running a game something remarkable happened.

In a standard, no-big-deal scenario, the players disturbed a standing suit of exotic armor. Of course, out poured a swarm of flesh-eating cockroaches, intent on devouring the flesh of the living. The experienced dwarf Kasmar, knowing that these creatures could not be killed by mere squashing, threw a flask of oil at the insect pile and hoped to ignite them subsequently.

He missed…and hit Dibbit, the player character kobold, soaking him and oil. Dibbit, being right in front of the insect swarm, tried to drop a smokestick to pacify the roaches. As they started crawling up his extremities and feasting on his blood, he realized this ploy was unsuccessful.

Kasmar, still realizing that fire was a smart means of dealing with this adversary, threw another oil flask at the swarm.

He missed again…and hit Dibbit with even more highly flammable liquid.

At this point Dibbit decided, wisely, to run away from the slow moving roaches. What he could not count on were three things:

A) Botch, the gnome tinkerer, was about to cast Create Flame.
B) Botch was going to live up to his name by critically missing with the spell.
C) The fumble was going to cause Botch to hit his nearest ally with the spell.

So, of course, we now have a flaming Dibbit collapsing. And did I mention Dibbit was an alchemist.

An alchemist carrying several bombs, grenades, and a gunpowder-filled rocket.

This situation was completely unscripted and unplanned for. It unfolded based on a pair of rolled natural 3’s on attack rolls, a pair of 5’s rolled on the direction of a missed thrown weapon, a terrible natural 1, and some poor item saving throws. Only the combination of on-the-fly creativity coupled with the cruel bitch-goddess know as lady luck can create this type of scenario. That is why I never plan to stop playing old-school RPG’s. It’s the only way to experience this kind of absurdity.

Poor Dibbit. We hardly knew you.

Dragon Age II: My Second Job

In Video Games on March 11, 2011 at 2:16 am

Nothing like finishing a long day of work, commuting a couple of hours home, grabbing a quick bite to eat, and barely having a moment to say hello to my wife before punching into my second job. That job, of course, is the new Bioware epic game Dragon Age II. And while the long hours I pour into the game might seem excessive to the average person, it is a necessary labor for a certain breed of bad-ass for whom I can muster only one label. Hero.

Okay, so Dragon Age II has consumed my life in a way that Bioware always seems able to do. But as I stumble to bed, as I have in the last few days, wiped out by a day of labor and a night of obsession, the incoherent semblance of thought runs through my addled brain. Why does this activity, more than any other, compel me to keep going? Why do the hours slip away into days or weeks? How does Bioware, the studio behind some of the best games I have ever played, do this to me in a way no other form of media can? To start, let’s look at other forms of entertainment.

Modern video game narratives are often compared to movies. Often, in action games especially, the plot is a scripted, fixed entity that requires the players play through to reveal the narrative. The use of cinematic storytelling, whether in directed cut-scenes or professionally voiced performances, is employed to communicate to the audience in a way familiar to it. Despite my love of movies, certain video games will hold my attention far longer and with greater intensity than a movie. Even a mediocre story in game form can engage me in a way that the greatest cinematic narrative seems unable to do.

The difference, I imagine, is the work being done. Films are a passive medium. Even the greatest, most thought-provoking, and most challenging film is something you just need to watch. Games, on the other hand, have to be worked through. If I am going to see the next scene, the next story development, or the next conversation, I have to make it happen. And that investment of energy and effort creates a sense ownership impossible to experience in other mediums.

Sleep is for cowards! Or...um...people who have a healthy relationship with video gaming.

Or maybe Bioware is a company of evil fucking bastards who hate my spare time and love depriving me of sleep.

Robocop: The Worst Cop Ever?

In Movies, Science Fiction on March 4, 2011 at 2:36 am

There is a lot of love for the late Officer Murphy, these days. Whether it’s an upcoming statue the Motor City, talk of a still-not-dead remake, or me watching Robocop (as well as…sigh…Robocop 2 and …ugh…Robocop…godammit…3), I’ve been thinking non-stop about a certain cyborg police officer. But I ask anyone, especially those with extremely fond memories of this franchise, to consider that maybe, just maybe, Robocop is pretty terrible at law enforcement.

Consider this:

1) Robocop cannot run. He walks leisurely after criminals, engaging in wildly dangerous gunfights with everyone dumb enough to engage him. I mean, a light jog and jumping over a foot-tall hedge will make it nigh impossible for Robocop to catch you unless he decides to shoot you, which brings me to my next point.

2) Robocop’s chief method of protecting and serving is firing exploding three-round bursts into the soon-to-be-corpses of everyone. Non-lethal force consists of him occasionally manhandling muggers and stickup-men by throwing them through walls and breaking as much personal property as cyborgly possible. And this only works if the criminals get close enough to Robocop for him to grab them. Let’s go back to Point #1 to see how unnecessary that is.

3) Robocop drives a Ford Taurus.

4) Robocop keeps his admittedly sweet handgun in a hidden holster in his leg. Robocop’s leg pops open and then he draws his gun, kills everyone, then holsters his weapon with incredible panache. The question is: “Wouldn’t that shit-ton of leg real estate be better served for something like, I don’t know, being able to run…or walk fast. Back to Point #1.

So why is Robocop so well-loved? Robocop has a great supporting cast, a pretty badass costume design, and Paul Verhoeven calling his shots. He is, however, a terrible, terrible cop. But the worst ever?

At least he can handle stairs.