Why I Don’t Want to Watch Any Star Wars Trailers

Today begins my quest to avoid trailers, promos, and other spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi (I guess we sorta stopped counting episode numbers?) It will be difficult, I expect.

I will see this movie when I comes out.  They’ve already sold me a ticket. I don’t need to ride the hype train to release day.

I’m avoiding all of this for several reasons. Obviously, I don’t want anything to be spoiled. How many times have we all watched a trailer only to come away feeling like we’d already seen the movie?

Continue reading “Why I Don’t Want to Watch Any Star Wars Trailers”

Debug Mode: Top 10 Games of 2016

It’s been a while since I made a Debug Mode video. In fact, I got all the way through 2016 without producing one even though I intended to do so.

I still have a bunch of ideas kicking around for topics. I want to move away from “reviews” like I’ve done in the past and talk more about concepts or specific aspects of games I find interesting.

2016 had so many great games. I wanted to comment on my favorites. So this is still more review-ish than I will probably do in the future, but I’m fairly happy with the way it turned out.

And it’s a list, of course. People like lists. I like lists. Lists are fun. Psychology, eh?

Telltale Games

Telltale Games logoIn the last year, Telltale Games has become one of my favorite game developers. They have, in my mind, supplanted BioWare as the foremost developer of mainstream, story-driven games.

For the uninitiated: Telltale makes episodic adventure games based on existing franchises. They’re shorter chunks of content that come out over a period of time rather than all at once. Usually a single episode about 2 hours long with 5 episodes in a season. They’re heavy on story, dialog, and simple puzzles. They aren’t “difficult” per se. It’s more about experiencing the story and characters rather than developing gameplay skills. It’s kind of like an interactive TV show or a choose-your-own adventure book, but less dumb than that sounds.

The company had limited success until recently. They made a lot of licensed games that were either based on obscure properties (like Homestar Runner or Sam & Max) or more well-known franchises like Back to the Future or Jurassic Park. The obscure ones didn’t sell as well because of their obscurity and the big name franchise games weren’t well received.

The first Telltale Game I played was Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People which, as a big Homestar Runner fan, I thoroughly enjoyed.

Dangeresque 3
I will always love Telltale for finally giving us Dangeresque 3

Last year, Telltale had their breakthrough success: a series based on The Walking Dead. Many, including myself, consider it their 2012 Game of the Year.

WD1

Walking Dead changed things up a little bit. Over the course of the five episodes, puzzles were pretty much abandoned altogether. The main game mechanic became making choices. Who do you save? Who do you share your limited supply of food with? Who’s side do you take in an ugly dispute within your group of survivors? It might sound strange, but this works surprisingly well. It’s far more engaging than yet another zombie shooter would have been (…and was). In fact, it ranks as one of my favorite games ever.

I played the entire saga at once. I was completely enthralled the whole way through. The Walking Dead is perhaps the most gut-wrenching piece of media I’ve ever experienced, but the story blew me away and left me in tears. I love it.

WD 4
Believe it or not some of the best moments of the game look like this

But I’m a little worried about Telltale now. Was Walking Dead just an anomaly or have they really figured out the magical mix of gameplay and game writing technique? We shall see. Season 2 premieres next week. I’m desperately curious how they’re going to pull off what they’re attempting.

Recently, Telltale announced it will be doing two new series in the coming year: a series based on Borderlands and one based on Game of Thrones. With season 2 of the Walking Dead and the currently-running series The Wolf Among Us, it’s entirely possible that Telltale will have four concurrent game series come 2014. For a company that made only one game last year that’s quite a big leap in output.

This is what really has me concerned. Is Telltale biting off more than it can chew? They’ve hired a lot of new employees in the last couple of years. Rapid expansion is risky in any business but in a creative industry it can be especially problematic. They’re not building a bunch of new coffee shops or burger joints. They’re building story-driven franchise. They’re hiring people to make creative decisions and make things no one has ever made before.

Good creative products always require talent – not just money and manpower. That isn’t something you can just buy. You can hire people you believe to be talented, but it’s always a bit of a gamble. Quick growth means you have a lot of new blood that might not understand the culture and ethos of the your company and the products you’re trying to build.

Point is: I like the Telltale that gave us Season 1 of The Walking Dead and I hope their success and growth as a company doesn’t translate into a reduction in quality. I have no reason to think that yet. The Wolf Among Us is supposed to be great. I’ll be giving it shot soon.

As for the new games announced, Game of Thrones makes all the sense in the world. I don’t have any first-hand experience with the franchise myself. Never read it; never watched it, but from all I’ve heard it sounds like a great candidate for a Telltale-style adventure game. Making difficult choices and dealing with fascinating characters in life-and-death situations worked well in the Walking Dead’s universe. I’m sure it’ll work great in Westeros.

Game of Thrones

I am curious what story they’ll tell. By necessity it almost has to be some kind of side story. Obviously you can’t retread the events of the books because that will limit player choice and spoil the mystery of what’s going to happen.

With Walking Dead, there are as many stories as you care to tell: just make up a group of survivors. Maybe it’s the same way in Game of Thrones? I guess it could be similar. Sounds like more characters get killed off than in Walking Dead.

Tales from the Borderlands was the announcement that really surprised me. I guess in one way it makes a lot of sense: it really fits Telltale’s established art style. But when I think of Borderlands story is waaaaay down on the list of reasons to play it. It might not even make the list.

Borderlands 2 executed its story about 1000 times better than the first game, but that was kind of irrelevant. As long as the game had a billion guns and some wacky dialog we would have played it.

Tales from the Borderlands

I just wouldn’t have thought of this as a franchise ripe for storytelling. I’m sure it’s possible to make something enjoyable out of it. The tricky part will be getting players to care about the world and the characters. They’ve all been pretty disposable up to now. Amusing distractions in between shooting stuff, but that’s it. My guess is they’ll go for comedy over drama. That’s probably good route to take because all of their other licenses are likely to play out as tragedies. Not everything has to be as emotionally gripping and meaningful as season 1 of The Walking Dead. According to the trailer, a lot of people are still going to die in this one, but at least Handsome Jack’s laughing it off.

Far Cry 3: where the insanity lies

fc3-1

Far Cry 3 is a disappointment. It is not the game it could have been or should have been nor does it deserve the perfect and near-perfect scores it has gotten from mainstream game review sites.

Let’s talk a little franchise history. I bought Far Cry 2 back in 2008 under the false pretense that it was made by the same folks as Crysis which I had an absolute blast playing. It wasn’t.

The Far Cry series was begun in 2004 by Crytek but Far Cry 2 was an Ubisoft product. Apparently the Crysis series was enough for Crytek so they sold the IP. Consequently I was initially very disappointed with Far Cry 2. It didn’t feature anything like the highly empowering Nanosuit of Crysis. It wasn’t even very much like the original Far Cry. In fact, none of the Far Cry games relate to each other at all. They don’t even seem to be set in the same fictional universe.

Over time, Far Cry 2 grew on me despite some glaring annoyances with the game design like the infamous respawning enemy outposts, guns that would jam on you at exactly the worst moment possible, the very limited fast-travel system, and the bland, repetitive mission design. Far Cry 2 was trying to be something that no other shooter was. Its themes were ambitious. Its immersive design was laudable but problematic. But I kind of like the game. I even surprised myself by playing it twice through.

Far Cry 2 was good and different enough to get me interested in the potential of a sequel. My excitement for Far Cry 3 grew when I heard director Dan Hay talk about the themes and story arc this game would tackle. Even better: they understood many of the complaints about the previous game and were taking steps to rectify them! This was going to be awesome: a beautiful open-world shooter with a dark storyline about the protagonist’s descent into insanity.

I wish they’d made that game. They got halfway there. Some of it works. Far Cry 3 is a good game, but like its predecessor, its design and storytelling flaws keep it from being a very good or great game. And it could have been.

Continue reading “Far Cry 3: where the insanity lies”

The Walking Dead (Seasons 1 & 2)

I hadn’t really watched any of the recent slew of high-quality, critically acclaimed cable shows. Then, Netflix happened. *dun, dun, dun*

What did I choose to check out first? That zombie show, of course!

Well, strictly speaking that isn’t true. I tried to watch Portlandia which was recommended to me, but I really couldn’t stand the sketch comedy format and despite growing up in the nineties, I think I was missing the big joke of that show right from the get go.

So I clicked on Walking Dead out of sheer impulse. I’d also heard good things about it. And it had this awesome promo image attached to it.

NetflixHow could I resist? I don’t love zombies, but I do love post-apocalyptic, survivalist, skin-of-the-teeth dramas. Well, some of them. I generally love the settings if nothing else. There’s just something really interesting to me about poking around in the remnants of civilization all rules and objectives having been removed except survival and whatever else (if anything) is truly important to the characters.

The zombies, I thought, I’ll just put up with. Besides, I’d heard that the show was just as much about the dangers posed by the other survivors as by the zombies and indeed this proved to be true.

“Days Gone Bye” has got to be one of the best pilot episodes of any show I’ve ever seen. There are precious few shows that have engaged me this much from the very first episode. I usually find I have to be more patient with television. I realize it’s a serial medium. They’re taking it slower than cinema and often that’s very rewarding. So unless I am finding no enjoyment at all, I usually give shows until halfway through the first season to grip me. That wasn’t necessary at all with Walking Dead.

It wasn’t until I’d watched a few episodes that I realized the show was produced and adapted for TV by Frank Darabont, the director behind the well-known and regarded Stephen King adaptations Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile (also The Mist, but let’s not talk about that). I’m probably slightly less bullish on Darabont’s films than the next guy (which isn’t to say I dislike them) but I have to admit that his ability to tell compelling and memorable stories-within-stories is a huge strength when it comes to a television series. I sometimes felt like Shawshank and Green Mile were being drug out like a TV series.

Darabont’s cinematic experience shows especially in the first episode and all throughout the first season. The season plays out like a long movie and, with the exception of occasionally dodgy CGI (which is forgivable), the show looks cinema quality as well. That’s pretty cool.

I want to play Left 4 Dead with these characters. Actually they mention Portal at one point which is funny because I’ll bet L4D doesn’t exist in The Walking Dead universe.

The best thing about the first season is its sense of urgency and mystery. There are always a couple of important questions the characters are trying to answer in these kinds of stories like: how widespread is the infection? Are there any safe places left? Is somebody working on a cure? Or even just the basic survival question: will I get eaten today?

And even though the answers to a lot of these questions are vague or standard, that last lingering question of survival is always there. The show builds an environment where you really don’t know who will live and who won’t. For that reason I really recommend you avoid any and all possible spoilers if you want to watch the show.

Something that constantly bothers me in fiction is when the writers let characters off too easily. If you build up a big threat and topple it without the slightest bit of trouble then you’ve pull all the teeth from your story. I will no longer believe anything you say when you tell me something is dangerous or threatening.

The Walking Dead has no such problem. There are consequences for all of the actions of the characters and consequences that are merely inherent in the harsh post-zombie world. In fact, this might be the only show I’ve seen where the writers could stand to be a little nicer to the characters. But, hey, seeing someone go through hell is a lot more interesting than seeing them go through Candyland… unless it’s full of zombies too.

Even if someone doesn’t die, there are nearly always negative consequences to plague the characters. Sometimes dying isn’t the worst fate.

Season one had me absolutely hooked from the get-go. For me it was the television equivalent of a “page-turner.” Do we have a phrase for that? We need one.

Then came season two.

I liked it. I watched it with almost as much enthusiasm as the first, but I also watched it directly after the first season without waiting a year. I imagine if I had been anticipating season two for a whole year I might have been disappointed with what I got.

The more you anticipate something, the more you expect of it and are likely to be disappointed with the actual outcome. It’s an interesting little bit of media psychology. I guess it relates to everything though, but it seems especially true and obvious when it comes to media. I saw the Matrix films years after they had all come out so I wasn’t nearly as disappointed with the sequels as most people.

Season two’s production, from what I understand, was plagued by budget cuts and the ousting of Frank Darabont. It shows. It’s not that the production quality decreases. The focus just narrows. The entire season takes place in more-or-less the same location rather than covering a lot of ground like in season one. So the sense of discovery is lost to a great extent. It is replaced by an increased focus on interpersonal drama and the supporting cast both of which are welcome… for awhile.

Unfortunately, the show also gets a little too bogged down. A little too slow. And characters start making the kinds of stupid decisions common to horror which really flies in the face of the caution exhibited by the survivors in season one (well, generally speaking).

There’s one point where a character who is in no position to leave the group goes off on her own because… I donno. She took stupid pills, maybe? Heck, when I was growing up we weren’t even supposed to go out on our own at scout camp and there were a lot fewer zombies there. Maybe only 50 or 60.

Of course they never call them zombies

Ultimately the story arc of season two proves rewarding although it gets even darker by the end. So, yeah. This isn’t a show for the faint of heart… in case you didn’t summize that from the – y’know – zombies and mass destruction.

It’s quite bloody and gory. I mean really bloody and gory. It’s probably average for zombie stuff, but I don’t watch horror myself so I wouldn’t know. Apparently there’s no such thing as blood borne illness in The Walking Dead or zombie fiction in general because these people are regularly covered in blood and gore but nothing happens to them so long as they aren’t bit.

The show is also quite tense and filled with conflict. So if that kind of thing gets on your nerves then you won’t like that aspect of the show either. I know some people object to such infighting when the characters are faced with overwhelming odds. But it’s pretty hard to argue that people (especially untrained people) don’t tend to act rationally or calmly when they don’t feel safe.

While it is far from unique or groundbreaking to incorporate Nietzsche’s well-known adage “be careful when you fight monsters lest you become one” as a theme, it works really effectively in Walking Dead. As one critic said, the show it at its best when it’s not being subtle.

The surprising theme of the show is family. It’s actually quite sweet and heartfelt many times. There were individual scenes in the show I could picture my mom really connecting with… in between the scenes of zombies eating people’s intestines. Seriously! The themes of sacrifice, family, hope, and faith ring true most of the time they’re explored. Maybe it’s because it’s set in the South, but the show seems to be actually quite steeped in traditional values when it comes to family and the roles of men and women. That’s a refreshing change of pace from some of the more “progressive” shows which are clearly pushing for new paradigms in gender roles and family values (although is it just me or do all the women seem either heartless or abused?)

Family is a surprisingly big theme for a show featuring so many entrails

There’s one really touching scene in the first episode of the second season where a woman begs God for help and you really feel the desperation of not only her situation but of the entire group and humanity as a whole. I at least saw this as symbolic of how truly desperate humanity’s plight is. Our society and our transient accomplishments blind us to the need for reliance on God but stripped of that these characters must put their faith in something or else become suicidally hopeless or inhumanly monstrous. Of course the show is more interested in exploring “faith” in that silly, hollow, trite way television does, but I’ll take what I can get. It’s not like I expected The Walking Dead to be the show that gets theology right.

The show has hooked me. Season three starts in October and I’ll be happy to have a current drama to watch again (my last was Stargate Universe which I’m still mad at SyFy for canceling just when it was getting good). It does feel like it’s going in a bit more comic-bookie direction. Yes, I know it’s based on graphic novels, but I’m worried that they might start doing “cool” stuff for the sake of doing cool stuff. Hopefully instead it will continue to be well-written, unpredictable, and thrilling. For the most part, it has been so far. I finally like zombies for something more than video game target practice.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Candyland zombie movie pitch to work on.

Minecraft? More like Mindcraft!

I’m late to the party on this one. No, I haven’t started playing Minecraft nor will I. The game, if you can call it that, seems like a gigantic time suck. It’s the sort of thing I could get into if I had unlimited time on this earth and didn’t feel guilty about such things.

I found this video while poking around Shamus Young’s website. Shamus is a interesting commentator on gaming, game design, programming, and nerdy stuff like that. His community has their own Minecraft server which is featured in this quite impressive video.

Minecraft, for the uninitiated, is a strange open world game focused on building. The graphics are kept very basic. It looks like it could have come out in the early days of 3D gaming.

See what I mean?

The focus is obviously not photorealism. Rather, the focus is on the core gameplay mechanics. This simple graphical style allows for vast procedurally (automatically) generated worlds to be created which means there’s a vast amount of space for players to build in. There are two main modes: a free build mode focused on creative building and a survival mode featuring enemies, health, and resources more like a traditional game.

The server featured in the video, I believe, is running in the free build mode. And the creations of the players are absolutely stunning. Watching the video (and I watched all 11 minutes which is rare as I tend to get bored of these sorts of videos) I was impressed in the same way I get impressed by large, intricate Lego creations. Man, I love Legos… I could go play with them right now…

Woah. No. Back on subject. The minifigs will have to wait. Like until I have a kid or something.

Here are the points I wanted to make in all this. First, building stuff is awesome. I love it. Legos. K’nex. SimCity. RollerCoaster Tycoon. Minecraft. There are tons of awesome building toys out there and they’re wonderful outlets for creativity and expression. Again, I refer you to the video above. Video games are not all about shooting zombies. Okay, survival mode does feature zombies, but… hey! Look at this picture of Lego Chicago!

Second point: “primitive” graphics are not only perfectly acceptable, they can actually be a benefit. More basic graphics emphasize the player’s imagination. They also allow for system resources to be allocated to generating that huge world map and allowing for vast construction projects which would be impossible in, say, CryEngine 3 or the latest Unreal Engine unless you’ve got one monsterous computer.

I’m not saying anything new here. There have been lots of people arguing this for years. Gaming has, in many ways, lost some of the soul and imagination it used to possess. Partially that’s because the people who say this have gotten older and lost some of the wonder with which children look at the world. Part of this is the natural maturation of the gaming industry. But a lot of it is the relentless pursuit of presentation and the neglect of substance because that’s apparently what sells. Sad, really.

Watching that Minecraft video brought back memories of exploring more primitive, but more imaginative gaming worlds. It also reminded me of my days messing around with RPG Maker 2000 trying to create a game of my own and never really finishing but having a lot of fun in the process anyway.

RPG Maker 2000 – an awesome tool from back in the day for making basic games without knowing any real programming

I don’t want to be unfair. I love me some pretty graphics. But I love this too. We could use more of this kind of thing in gaming. More of this kind of thing in general. People wouldn’t complain about kids playing video games so much if more games inspired this kind of creative interaction. Games need to be about more than “shoot dude, repeat, repeat, repeat.”

While watching I got to wondering if someone could or would make a Bethesda-style open world adventure/RPG game with the Minecraft engine. I would love to explore worlds like that provided there was a story attached. At some point in the future the developer has said he will open-source the engine. Perhaps then?

Anyhow. Now I get the big deal about Minecraft. It’s quite a cool thing. I myself won’t be playing it although I wish I had the time for it or something like it.